The U.N. suspends Syrian peace talks until late this month. The U.S. plans to quadruple military spending in Europe as a signal to Russia. And American officials express concern about ISIS in Libya. A panel of journalists joins guest host Tom Gjelten for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Political leaders are jockeying to replace Iraq’s prime minister while Sunni militants expand their control of territory in Iraq. The Obama administration says it will send up to three hundred military advisers to Iraq, but will not send troops. The U.S. interrogates the suspected mastermind of the Benghazi attack. A leading Afghan presidential candidate rejects the results of the run-off election. And fighting continues in eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian militants refuse to lay down arms. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Indira Lakshmanan diplomatic correspondent, Bloomberg News.
- Michael Hirsh national editor, Politico; author of "At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World."
- Matthew Lee diplomatic writer, Associated Press.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us, I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. President Obama announces, the US will send American military advisors but not combat troops to Iraq to help quail a growing insurgency. As Iraqi militants gain more territory, calls mount for Prime Minister Maliki to step down.
MS. SUSAN PAGEAnd results of a runoff election for Afghanistan's president are delayed over allegations of fraud. Joining me for this week's top international stories on our Friday News Roundup, Michael Hirsh of Politico, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg and Matthew Lee of the Associated Press. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANHi.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHThanks.
MR. MATTHEW LEENice to be here.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. Later in this hour, we'll take calls from our toll-free line, 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. So, Michael, what's the latest, in terms of what's happening on the ground, in Iraq?
HIRSHWell, it's the fog of war, right now. We do know that, as of recent days, militants from the group ISIS, were prepared to be descending on Baghdad, had launched a siege at a large oil refinery in the north. And that there had been a, sort of, call to arms of Shiite's, Shiite militia's, initially led by Ayatollah Sistani, the often reclusive Cleric who's, you know, considered to be, perhaps, the most honored Shiite Cleric in the country.
HIRSHAnd then, of course, we've had a lot of pressure here, in Washington, on President Obama to do something, to intervene. And so, the most recent development is that he has just announced, he will be sending 300 advisors, so-called, mainly special operations troops to assess the situation, perhaps lay the groundwork for a drone or other types of air strikes.
PAGEIndira, how much of the Iraqi territory do the -- does the insurgency now control? And I saw a report that they had taken control of a chemical weapons production facility, that Saddam Hussein had built, that still has a stockpile of old weapons.
LAKSHMANANWell, you're right about the latter part, although the state department has assured us that it's actually disused and that they don't have concerns about the rebels getting their hands on chemical weapons, you know, precursors. What we, what we know about ISIS or ISIL, they're called both things, that the group that used to be al-Qaida, in Iraq, is they have 10,000 to 15,000 fighters. That's between both Syria and Iraq.
LAKSHMANANAnd they control, what is fascinating to me, is two billion dollars in assets. So they're the richest terrorist group that we know of, out there. And supposedly, they're now in control of 35,000 square miles, in Iraq, which is the size of Maine.
PAGESo what portion of Iraq would that be?
LAKSHMANANIt's basically the north and the west and in terms of the famous cities that people would've heard of, Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit.
PAGESo a significant amount of territory? Now in their hands.
LAKSHMANANYes. I mean, not the majority, certainly not the majority but a large portion. And, in Syria, of course, large portions of Eastern Syria, as well. So...
LAKSHMANAN...disturbing to, to say the least.
PAGE...now, Matt, you look at the picture of President Obama, on the front page of The New York Times, you could not see an unhappier looking man, as he makes the announcement that he's sending up to 300 advisors, military advisors.
LEEYeah, right. I mean, I don't think this is -- I mean, this is the last thing in the world that the president wanted, wanted to have to do, is to send troops back to a country that he took great pride in, you know, ending, ending a war. Or a, as it looks like now, allegedly ending a war because it appears that, you know, it's come back.
PAGEAnd in the years, participation in a war.
PAGEThe war is going on, apparently.
LAKSHMANANAlthough he's made it quite clear that, that U.S. troops are not gonna, going to return to combat. These are just advisors, trainers, of course there's always the slippery slope and we've heard about mission creep, but at this point they're only talking about gathering intelligence, surveillance, and as you say, planning for drone or air strikes.
HIRSHRight but, but you have to remember and people have brought this up, this is the way U.S. involvement in Vietnam began...
HIRSH...back in the, back in the '60s with 400...
LAKSHMANANMission creep, yeah.
HIRSH...400 advisors going in.
LEEIt should be pointed out, however, that these are special operations troops under Admiral McRaven. And, of course, this is a joint special operations responsible, most recently, for the seizure of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the Benghazi terror suspect. The successful raid to take down Osama bin-Laden. These guys are specialists in avoiding mission creep.
LEEAnd I think that, it's interesting that Obama has come to rely, increasingly, for a good part of his foreign policy, at least the harder part of it, not only on drones but on these guys, on these special operations troops. It's interesting that they, they're the ones he's, he's relying on now to, to save the situation.
PAGEThere is really no discussion, in the United States, about sending combat troops. But there is a discussion about whether to have air strikes. Pluses and minuses for going down that path, Indira.
LAKSHMANANLook, I mean, what, what President Obama said yesterday and I think it's quite clear, I think everyone agrees on this, in fact for, former General Petraeus echoed this, we can't be used as an Air Force for the Shiite side. And, you know, the stress has been on trying to have a unified government, a government that's more inclusive than Nouri al-Maliki has been, whose really been a, sort of, Shiite transcendentalists or a triumphalist, whatever we want to call him, has not encouraged, you know, unity with Kurds and Sunni's.
LAKSHMANANI think that, in terms of air strikes, if the United States were to see particular targets, if it were able to decide, yes, this is ISIL and we can attack these places, that you know, potentially could be useful, as long as it weren't seen as -- it wasn't seen as siding with one ethnic group over another.
PAGEHillary Clinton, this week, said it was time for Maliki to go. President Obama didn't say that with his words but if you looked at his body language, it seemed to be, Matt, that -- what he was trying to translate.
LEERight. I mean, and that's exactly what they're wanting to ease him out, push him out but they have to do it gently because there is a risk that if you push too hard, that it just, in bolded terms, that he gets more entrenched and would look more, even more so, to Iran, for support, which is another thing that the administration is very worried about. And that is, even more greater -- even more Iranian intervention in the situation on the ground.
LEEBut one of the minuses, to air strikes, I think, in your question to Indira is, targeting. It is very difficult to come up with targets, people have told me, that you know, these guys, these ISIL, ISIS guys are hiding in and among civilian populations. And a, and an air strike that has that kind of collateral damage, is gonna have the opposite effect.
PAGEAren't there alternatives to Maliki, Michael, who would be up to the job, in a way he hasn't been?
HIRSHYes, I mean, this is already being discussed right now, some of them -- some of the alternatives are probably not preferable, and of course, the name that comes most to mind is Ahmed Chalabi who is a Shiite politician, who we now, you know, we know famously helped provoke the Bush administration into war, in Iraq. But who led the, sort of, Sunni -- the purge of the Sunni's in the immediate aftermath of the invasion and occupation.
HIRSHAnd so, it's a potentially figure, perhaps even more so than Maliki in that what we have here is a potential Civil War, deep Sunni mistrust, a sense among the Sunni's and one of the reasons that ISIS, this terrorist group, has done so well crossing the boarders from Syria, is there's been a, kind of, informal alliance with, you know, former, sort of, Saddam regime elements of the Sunni population, that have been, I think, in a, in a kind of quiet alliance with them.
HIRSHWhich is exactly the thing that Maliki, as Prime Minister, needed to prevent, he was warned, warned to prevent a year or so ago, almost a year ago or so ago and just didn't, didn't do so because he, he really has been seen as a partisan for the Shiite's. So it's a very dangerous situation for the U.S. to be seen as picking and choosing anyone. But I do think that they would probably want to avoid Chalabi.
LAKSHMANANYeah, I mean, it's, it's -- I think that's right, that you know, what the United States is trying to do, at this point, is urge a coalition, urge a new government, you know, that once the parliament is formed and a president is chosen, they'll have 30 days to pick a new prime minister. And the U.S. is using all of its good offices to try to promote a coalition among the three major ethnic groups and some sort of a Sunni uprising that would, sort of, recreate the, the on bar awakening of 2006-2007.
LAKSHMANANAs Michael said, we haven't seen that yet because there's so much discontent and anger against Maliki. But the mention of Chalabi just reminds me of the larger point that this is kind of like "Back to the Future," you know. It's not just Chalabi whose popped up, it's Dick Chaney with his daughter co-writing that op-ed in the, in the Wall Street Journal, this week.
LAKSHMANANAnd it's Richard Pearl and it's Paul Wolfowitz and it's every person who was an architect of the original Iraq invasion, popping up again and pointing the finger at President Obama and saying, this is your fault because you didn't negotiate an agreement to allow troops to stay, when in fact, it was President Bush who signed an agreement that said that, yes, all U.S. troops would be out by this certain date.
LAKSHMANANAnd when Obama tried to get a deal for troops to stay with, you know, no prosecution within the borders of Iraq, he couldn't get it and he decided to pull out. So I find this all fascinating because it's all within the context of, if we look at the 2003 invasion as the original sin. And the idea of a fantastic democratic Iraq with everyone living in harmony was a pipe dream to begin with.
PAGESo the president met on Wednesday with Congressional leaders to talk about this issue. How much -- what's the attitude on Capitol Hill, Matthew, Toward this?
LEEWell, I mean, it seems very -- there's seem to be a lot of, a lot of calls to do something. What that something is, there's a, there's a big split. I mean, on one hand you have, you know, hawks like Senator McCain, Senator Graham, both saying that, you know, something has to be done, air strikes, that kind of thing. But then you have a split between the two of them over whether the U.S. should be engaging Iran at all in this because there is, at least, in the short-term, a common objective for a common interest between the United States and Iran, in stopping this Sunni insurgency from, from spreading.
PAGEIt's, it's head spinning, isn't it?
PAGEThat we might be in an alliance with Iran.
PAGETo protect Iraq.
HIRSHWell, of course, because at the same time, you know, Iran, which has been designated, you know, a leading sponsor of terrorism in which we are now engaged in very intense negotiations over its potential or its actual nuclear program, it's a little bit harrowing that we would be suddenly, you know, in bed and of course, there you have again, the perception of the U.S. backing up the Shiite's which would lead to the last thing in the world the United States wants after more than a decade of war against, you know, Sunni terrorists groups, which is the perception that we're, you know, on the Shiite's side.
PAGEWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about the situation in Ukraine, developments there and elsewhere in the world. We'll take your calls and questions, our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back, I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, for the international hour of our Friday News Roundup, Matthew Lee, diplomatic writer for the Associated Press. Indira Lakshmanan, a diplomatic correspondent for Bloomberg News. And Michael Hirsh, national editor for Politico.
PAGEWe were talking before the break about the situation in Iraq. Here are a couple emails. John writes us from Washington, "The only person who got this right was Vice President Biden when he suggested partitioning the country fairly between the three factions. But at this point I don't see what this is America's responsibility." Here's another email from Matthew who writes us from Nashville, Tenn. He writes, "Why didn't we see this coming 11 years ago? After all, we all lived through the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the 1990s." Let me ask you, did we see this? I mean, does the fact that this seems to be deteriorating so quickly, is that something that we understood was going to happen?
LEEWell, some people did. There was an entire study done before the -- after the first Gulf War and before the 2003, the future of Iraq -- sorry, the 2003 invasion, the future of Iraq problem foresaw -- I mean, sorry, the future of Iraq study foresaw very significant problems very similar to this. But it was basically ignored or pushed aside by the architects of the 2003 invasion.
PAGEAnd is this administration surprised by how quickly things have seemed to turn there?
HIRSHWell, I do think that they were somewhat surprised, although there were intelligence reports on movements of ISIS. So remember, this has been a strategic plan by this group. They've actually retreated from some of the places they were in in Syria in order to make this move across the border. The whole raison d'etre of this group actually is to eliminate the border between Iraq and Syria and create, you know, a Sunni Islamist state.
HIRSHSo -- but I think that the rapidity with which they took Mosul and took some of these other areas, and especially the collapse of the Iraqi army that the U.S. spent so much time and money building, was the biggest surprise of all. And that's of course the main thing that Obama is trying to stanch right now with these 300 advisors.
LAKSHMANANAnd, well, I mean, digging back just a century in history, let's not forget it was the British who after World War I essentially drew these artificial borders of what is today's Iraq. And nobody wants to see Iraq split up. That said, you know, there are some ways in which it's an artificial border. I mean, I think the other problem is that, you know, we have invested in this $3 trillion, 4,000 lives of U.S. soldiers. And, you know, for this to be coming back, as your listener said, 11 years later to bite us is extremely painful on so many levels.
LAKSHMANANAnd the notion that new safe havens for terrorists could be set up when in the first place it wasn't Iraq that was the terror hot bed that caused 9/11. And for it now to be a possibility is extremely disheartening.
PAGEWell, I think some Americans look at this and say, we're in the process now of pulling our troops out of Afghanistan. Are we -- which was, of course, the place where the Taliban launched the -- you know, where the Taliban provided a safe haven for the terrorists behind 9/11. Could we see the same thing happen in Afghanistan in a year or two that we're seeing happening in Iraq today?
LEEWell, I think it's possible clearly and it may even be more than possible. But I think that given the experience of what we're seeing now, I think that the administration is going to -- you know, they're thinking twice about how to bring an end to the U.S. involvement in that war. And they've also said, we will get a status of forces agreement in Afghanistan if the election ever gets resolved, and as long as the two candidates don't renege on their promise to sign the agreement to allow residual force to stay.
PAGESo some big ifs there because the election, which seemed to be going pretty well, we were in a runoff between two candidates. Both of them had promised to sign the status of forces agreement with the United States, it is suddenly all stalled.
HIRSHYeah, this is a very dangerous turn in what had been a pretty hopeful outcome to this election. Because the two leading vote getters are both very impressive guys who've been working with the international community for more than a decade, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. The latter a former World Bank technocrat, the former a key advisor to Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance, but who's worked to build bridges across the Tashi Pashtun divide in Afghanistan which is the critical sectarian divide there, one of them anyway.
HIRSHAnd now what we have is Abdullah Abdullah, after there's been a runoff, in which I don't know exactly how factual this is, but there were at least rumors that Ghani might have been gaining and perhaps even ahead in this runoff, even though Abdullah Abdullah took the vote in the original election. He has said he doesn't want to cooperate with the recount. Now Abdullah Abdullah of course was the guy who came out on the short end in 2009 in accusations of fraud by Karzai, the president. And I think he doesn't want to see that happen again. So there's some question about whether he will even recognize the outcome of this recount, which could be a very, very big problem.
PAGENow of course, Afghanistan has no history of successful democratic elections so what happens now in this situation, do you think, Indira?
LAKSHMANANWell, I mean, okay, although there were definitely lots of concerns -- legitimate concerns about fraud in the last election, it did have a democratic process. So let's not completely cast that aside. I mean, I think Michael has pointed out that there are a lot of problems here. And while many people assume that Karzai was capable of and was behind massive fraud that kept Abdullah Abdullah, you know, a lot further behind than he would have been, the counting that we know of and the independent studies that I've seen show that Karzai probably would've won anyway, not by as much of a margin.
LAKSHMANANAnd I had not heard anyone saying that Ashraf Ghani and his supporters are that capable of launching a major fraud. I did see polls immediately before the second round election last week that showed Ashraf Ghani gaining considerably. But I think from a U.S. perspective, whatever the ultimate outcome is, the larger question we're looking at is the one you raised of how can Afghanistan not be the next Iraq.
LAKSHMANANAnd, you know, I was covering a hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, and that was the number one thing on people's minds. You know, you had both the Republican and the Democratic Senators pressing and pressing the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan about how are you going to guarantee us? And even Chuck Hagel, the Defense Secretary, said earlier this week, we can't guarantee that it's not going to be another Iraq. That's going to be up to the Afghan people, although the Afghan people do want U.S. forces to stay. That's one difference.
PAGEBefore we leave the issue of Iraq, we were talking earlier about possible cooperation with Iran. What would that look like, Matthew? What could we do with Iran to help the situation in Iraq?
LEEWell, I think it's less of what it's going to end up being, is less of a working with Iran rather than impressing on the Iranians the fact that ISIS is a threat to them, they're aware of that, but that the way to combat that threat is not by sending in thousands of revolutionary guards but to push Maliki and other Shiite leaders to have a more inclusive government.
LEESo, you know, there's been a lot of...
PAGEIt's more being on the same side than doing anything together.
LEERight. I mean, there's been a lot of pushback. The several times -- the couple times that Secretary Kerry has maybe strayed beyond the talking points and said something about more active, a more active working -- or cooperation with Iranians, there's been major pushback. And so I don't think that's what we're going to see.
HIRSHYeah, I mean, I agree with that and I think that we might spend most of these discussions trying to hold the Iranians back from where they're already going. I mean, you've already had the general in charge of the Quds force flying to Tal Afar, you know, a town near the Syrian border to assess this military situation. There are a lot of stories about Iranian troops already being involved in some of these military actions and in terms of deploying and organizing the Shiites.
HIRSHI mean, it comes amid a political atmosphere where for better part of the last decade Maliki, Dawa Party, a substantial portion of the Iraqi government has already fallen under the sway of Iran. So Iran's in there. The question is whether the United States, in these discussions, can keep them -- you know, can moderate the actions they're already taking.
PAGEUsually when we talk about Iran it's a discussion of the nuclear program. We had meetings in Vienna this week on Iran's nuclear program. Does one affect the other? Does -- if we're on the same side on the question of Iraq, Indira, does it help us get to a better place on the nuclear talks?
LAKSHMANANOkay, look, officially the nuclear talks, every round that we've had since the beginning of last year is officially just about the nuclear issue. And ever since President Rouhani was elected last summer, his government has also said, yes we want to keep it just to the nuclear issue, whereas his predecessors had wanted to broaden it out to talk about regional issues, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, etcetera.
LAKSHMANANI think that what's happening here, the negotiations are still going on in Vienna. And we know that there's going to be another round of talks in early July, and another round in middle July before the deadline for getting a nuclear deal on July 20. I think that certainly if we get progress towards a nuclear agreement, that creates a better atmosphere and a better environment for talking about other things. But it's not officially part of the program.
LAKSHMANANAnd our Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns earlier this week in Vienna, talked on the sidelines briefly with an Iranian about this issue. But I think it's more about the question of the Iranians have sent 500 revolutionary guard forces to Iraq. And as Matt said, our concern is that they not escalate it and they not just go on the side of Maliki and make it more of a Shia, you know, Sunni conflict, which would just make the situation worse.
LAKSHMANANI don't think anybody is talking about U.S. and Iranians going side by side. And the state department even said yesterday, cautioned to say, look when Secretary Kerry goes on this trip to the Middle East and Europe this coming week, he does not have any plans to meet with Iranian officials to talk about Iraq.
PAGELet's let our listeners join our conversation. We'll go to Fort Wayne, Ind. first and talk to Mark. Mark, thank you for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARKWhat an honor to be on this show. I've been listening for years and years. I love the show. I think the entire conversation about terrorism and the war on terror needs to be restarted. The conversation needs to be restarted and focus on the reality of the history of falsified terrorist attacks. Operation Northwoods was a plan put out by the Pentagon where they planned to carry out terrorist attacks on Miami and Washington, D.C. to be blamed on the Cubans. They were going to kill actual Americans and blame it on the Cubans. Now this is documented. You can look this up, Operation Northwoods.
PAGEOkay. Mark, you know, that's interesting. I don't know about that. Anybody on the panel familiar with that?
HIRSHNo, no. But I don't think it's related to, you know, what we've been dealing with since 9/11, which is radical Islamist terrorism which, you know, is of a different order. I mean, it's important not to sort of lump one terrorist group with another.
PAGEHere's an email from Sam who writes, I read that ISIS has about $2 billion including $450 million stolen from a bank in Mosul. This is a lot of money that has to be invested or deposited in a financial institution. Can you comment on how this and other terrorist groups deposit and invest their funds?"That does seem like quite a bit of money.
LEEYes. I mean, it's a huge amount of money. It doesn't necessarily have to be deposited or in a bank someplace though. I mean, it is an unwieldy amount of money if it's all in cash, that's for sure. But, you know, it is not beyond anyone to, you know, stuff a couple hundred thousand dollars in their mattress and then, you know, use it -- dispense it out at will.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We had a big arrest this week, the alleged mastermind of the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, quite the dramatic arrest, Michael. Tell us how it got carried out.
HIRSHWell, once again, Admiral Bill McRaven, Special Operations Forces, apparently, you know, they had had their sites on him a year ago and had to abort the mission at the last minute. This time he was located more or less alone. He was seized at night by a small group of Navy SEALs accompanied by some -- a couple of FBI agents on the Libyan -- near the Libyan coast where he was hiding out. And then -- and taken away to a Navy ship. I mean, it was a classic, you know, snatch operation.
PAGEYou say he was hiding out but in fact he had done some interviews with U.S. reporters. And some of them described like sitting at a café and having a cup of coffee with him.
LAKSHMANAN...drinking -- yeah, well, strawberry frappe, a milkshake with him. Yeah, I mean, that's true. He had not made himself hard to find in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack. I mean, I think it's important to keep in perspective who this guy is. Before the Benghazi attack he was not well known. And I think he was considered fairly much a small fry in the Ansar al-Sharia group. He was neither a leading cleric nor a military leader of the group. So in some ways he may have accidentally happened into this role.
LAKSHMANANI think at this point the U.S. has him in custody. He's on the U.S.S. New York, a slow, slow boat making its way to our shores while they get as much opportunity as possible to debrief him, interrogate him. And I think their number one priority at this point, from the U.S. point of view, is gathering intelligence. Was he -- supposedly the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power wrote a letter to the UN informing them that we had nabbed him and said that he was involved in current operations and other plots against the U.S. So they're going to want to find out what were those plots, who else commanded control, communications, try to nab other people.
LAKSHMANANThen there's this, you know, collaborators, pick up as collaborators. And then there's the question of punishment. And what I find fascinating about all of this is that, you know, the Obama Administration has decided he's going to be prosecuted through U.S. federal courts.
LAKSHMANANAnd while that has caused, you know, a Cri de Coeur for many people in the GOP who think he should go to Guantanamo, and the Obama Administration has stood firm on this and said, no we're not taking new people to Guantanamo. Let's watch the fact that there's been like a hundred high value terrorists of various varieties who have been actually prosecuted successfully through the U.S. federal system, whereas only a couple of people have been successfully prosecuted through the Guantanamo system.
LAKSHMANANSo the underwear bomber, the attempted Time Square bomber a lot of these people who we've all heard about have gotten serious sentences out of the U.S. federal system. And this guy could even face the death penalty.
HIRSHYeah, and this comes under the larger umbrella of the Obama Administration's efforts to sort of shift this away from being a war -- so-called war on terrorists. It was known so often during the Bush Administration into more of a civilian law enforcement type of approach and to treat individual suspects like this. You know, hence the reason the FBI was involved in this investigation of the Benghazi attacks from the very start, to turn it into that.
HIRSHBut of course there is this continuing tension between the need to gather intelligence and to provide, you know, legitimate due process, Miranda rights, all the things that a suspect who is going to appear in our courts would get. And of course that's one of the things, no doubt, his lawyers are going to argue that while he's being, you know, so-called debriefed on this ship on his way here, his rights have been abused. There's this question of whether because he's taking this route to the United States, has been unnecessary delay in due process. We're going to hear all this coming out in the court.
PAGEYou know, Benghazi has been a big political issue here in this country involving, among others, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Does this affect that political debate, Matthew? Does it answer any questions that have been raised about it?
LEENo, it doesn't. And the critics of the administration, particularly the critics of Former Secretary Clinton, say that the arrest actually raises more questions than answers, or at least the timing of the arrest. You know...
PAGEWhy, because they're saying it was a convenient timing or...
LEEWell, right. I mean, there is a suspicion that, you know, the timing of this is related to Secretary Clinton's book tour and potential candidacy. You know, so she is -- I'm not suggesting that I agree with it but there is that undercurrent of accusation out there that this is artfully timed so that when -- as she goes around and promotes her book she's able to say, we got someone.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones, we'll read your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Michael Hirsh of Politico, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News, and Michael -- and Matthew Lee of the Associated Press. Well, Matthew, on Wednesday the president of Ukraine announced a unilateral ceasefire. Did it work?
LEEWell, it hasn't actually -- he said he's going to do it. He actually hasn't ordered it to happen yet. Just earlier today in a call with reporters, a senior administration official was telling people that they still expect President Poroshenko to announce, or to order this ceasefire within the coming hours or day or so. It's not clear at all whether it's going to have any effect, because at the same time as this official was saying the ceasefire would happen, at least from the Ukrainian side, the official was also saying that the Russians are continuing to supply the separatists in the east with weapons and heavy armor, including tanks.
LEEThere was already the allegation that the Russians had sent three tanks across the border into Ukraine for the separatists to use. And what this official is saying is that there is -- that the U.S. has information -- evidence that more tanks are being prepared to be sent across the border. And in fact some tanks have left a base or a depot in southwest Russia headed for the border. They haven't crossed yet. So it does not look like a ceasefire, if and when it is called, is going to have any immediate impact.
LAKSHMANANAnd I think this is not unconnected with the fact that, you know, every day we've had the State Department spokesperson, Jen Psaki, coming out and saying that there is daily cross-border traffic between Russian individuals and arms, even if it's not always been tanks all the time. And what I was saying is I think that's not unconnected with the announcement of new sanctions this morning by the Treasury Department. So the U.S. has gone ahead and added -- has listed additional Ukrainian individuals who are considered to be collaborating with the Russians and trying to, you know, detach bits of Ukraine from the country and join with Russia.
LAKSHMANANSo, you know, although the European Union hasn't taken any steps yet -- and we don't know if they will, they're going to be meeting next week to talk about this among other things -- the U.S. has gone ahead with some sanctions, adding new people to the list. And I think this is, you know, the larger issue is even though President Poroshenko of Ukraine and President Putin of Russia have spoken to each other on the phone this week.
LAKSHMANANAt this point, Angela Merkel of Germany has said, hey, the ball's in Russia's court. We're doing everything we can here. The Ukrainians are prepared to have a ceasefire. So it's now Russia's turn to really put its money where its mouth is if it thinks it wants to, you know, promote peace.
HIRSHI think there's some question also whether President Putin is using the crisis in Iraq, which Hamas has been a huge distraction to Obama and the U.S. government, to make further moves, including military pressure. One of the more ominous developments, the NATO Secretary General took note of this yesterday, was that Putin has apparently redeployed troops along the border that he had previously pulled back. So, you know, you have a sense that this is a guy who's not going to give up. And, you know, Poroshenko's concept of a unilateral ceasefire just may not be sustainable.
PAGELet's go to the phones and invite our listeners to have their questions or their comments. Let's go to Zack. He's calling us from Ann Arbor, Mich. Zack, thanks for holding on.
ZACKThanks, Susan. I have a lot of respect for your work, so I appreciate you taking my call. My question kind of has to deal with the perception of our foreign policy and the importance that flies on the perception. We've seen kind of recently the breakdown of respect, I would say, for our foreign policy. At least I've seen that here at home. And so my question for the panel is, is how important, or is it even possible, to have kind of a perception reset? You know, we've seen things like the way Benghazi, what's happened in the Ukraine. You know, our red line's not really meaning much anymore .
ZACKYou know, this notion that we might negotiate with terrorists, we might not. You know, I'm not blaming this on the President. You know, he has a Congress that doesn't want to work with him. And I'm not blaming it on Congress. They have someone -- a president they don't trust. And so, I guess my question is, how do we create a perception again where, you know, people are afraid to cross our red lines and, you know, and our word means something again?
PAGEAll right. Zack, thanks so much for your call.
LAKSHMANANYeah, I have some thoughts on this because, you know, American public opinion about foreign policy and how the president should execute that foreign policy goes in waves. And if you look over the last decade and a half, you know, the polling shows that it's sort of been like sign and co-sign waves overlapping -- whether the American public puts their trust in Republicans or whether they put it in Democrats. And let's not forget that at the time that President Obama was elected, it was at a time when the American public wanted the United States to pull back from military engagements because of everything that happened under eight years of George W. Bush.
LAKSHMANANAnd so, you know, I think President Obama is still working on that model. Now, that said, I think the caller is not wrong. That when a president sets a red line and the perception is that he allows that red line to be crossed -- and we're talking about Syria and the chemical weapons of course -- then that does create waves, not only within the American public but the whole world. And, you know, I've heard foreign ministers and, you know, diplomats from around the world telling me that that was a really seminal moment for them, when Obama did not do airstrikes after the chemical weapons, because they felt like, well is he going to come defend us in the South China Sea?
LAKSHMANANIs he going to come defend us, you know, when name, fill in the blank, any other place.
HIRSHLet's step back for a moment and look at reasons why Obama has been reluctant to use force. And this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, which is the absurdity of people like Dick Cheney and other advocates of the Iraq War, to be out there criticizing the President or any U.S. policy right now. They're the ones who created this sense of vulnerability that undercut the image of American power. Remember, in 2002, no one had even heard of what an insurgency was. We didn't have a situation where our troops were on the ground occupying Iraq and being exposed to IEDs.
HIRSHI mean, this was all because of the decision to launch an Iraq War, in fact, the last time that U.S. power was seen as utterly dominant. And it's important to remember back to the first Gulf War to Kosovo, when the U.S. power from the air was seen as, you know, virtually invulnerable -- a reputation that continued up through the defeat of the Taliban in late 2001, early 2002. It was the decision to go into Iraq that created this whole wave of insurgency and exposed the vulnerability of American troops on the ground.
HIRSHSo getting back to the caller's question, I mean, that's one reason why we're looking so snake bit now. So to have the Dick Cheneys of the world coming out and talking about the mistakes of Obama is really sort of laughable.
LEEI think there's also one -- another thing to remember. And that is, this president, although he has been criticized for not doing the airstrikes in Syria after the red line -- his own red line was crossed, he has actually ordered military action. Look at Libya and look at the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. It's not as if he hasn't done anything involving U.S. military. I mean, we could look to the bin Laden raid as well. It's more -- it's this wider-scale ramping up that I think the people are upset that he's not doing.
LEEAnd I think that that has created the perception within the United States -- also, indeed, outside the United States among countries that feel threatened by larger neighbors, the Baltics, the newer members of NATO, and then with China, with the Southeast Asia nation countries who look to the United States as their protector. But I think you do have to remember that these small, kind of pin-prick operations, or pin-point operations, like the drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, that have resumed now, as well as the bin Laden raid, show that he is willing to act -- but not necessarily in the grand fashion that Americans might have come to expect.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. And, you know, there's no question that President Obama has increased the use of drone strikes geometrically from what it was even under George W. Bush. But that's kind of a form of remote-control war. I mean that's, you know, obviously, as he says, trying to pick particular targets and hit those targets. Now I want to amend what I said at -- I'm not saying that it would have necessarily right to do airstrikes on Syria.
LAKSHMANANBut I think the criticism that we hear from -- as Matt said, Eastern European allies, Southeast Asian allies, who are sort of menaced by their larger neighbors, is that don't set a red line if you're not actually going to act on it. So that might have been the mistake, to say I will act if blank-blank happens, if maybe that's not the course that you actually want to take.
PAGELet's go to Elizabeth. She's calling us from Manassas, Va. Elizabeth, you're on the air.
ELIZABETHThank you very much for letting me make a comment. I don't need a lot of response. I'm nearly 70 years old and have spent over 60 of it just outside or inside the Washington Beltway. And I think this discussion by your wonderful journalists is a good example of how, once you're within a 50-mile radius of Washington, as a media person, as a congressperson, as an analyst, you talk a lot of philosophy and analysis, but it doesn't necessarily represent what the American people feel we should do. And, you know, I was alive during Korea, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Cambodia, the invasion of Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.
ELIZABETHAnd every president since Eisenhower has taken us into something with some boots on the ground that has inevitably grown. I don't think -- I think if you had a valid poll of the American citizens in this country, virtually none of us want boots on the ground in Iraq at this point.
PAGEElizabeth, I think you're -- thanks so much for your call -- I think you're exactly right. There are polls that show there is no appetite by the American public. People, I think, look at the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and worry about whether it was worth it.
HIRSHYeah. And I think that in fact President Obama, say what you will about his foreign policy, has sought to reflect those very real feelings, which are seen in the polls. You know, some people have called it a neo-isolationism. I don't think it goes quite that far. But there is a sense of retrenchment. And this president, you know, this intense debate going on over the last couple of years over Syria alone reflects that. He has stood against his -- almost his entire national security team in resisting U.S. military assistance to the rebels there. So I think, you know, he's very much reflecting this sense of fatigue among Americans. We don't want to get too involved.
LEERight. But I think the -- isn't the criticism, or wouldn't you agree that the criticism of him is that you can't do absolutely everything guided by a political mentality. At some point there is right and there, you know, there is doing what is right and then there's doing what is popular in the polls. And I think a lot of the criticism about the not -- the inaction or the decision not to do airstrikes in Syria is because it was such an overtly political decision, taken after this kind of walk in the rose garden with his chief of staff.
PAGEAnd you did see, for instance, President H.W. Bush, in the lead up to the first Gulf War, spend an enormous amount of time making his case to Americans. That this was something in American interests that ought to be done.
LAKSHMANANNow, I think it's true that, you know, sending American troops back to Iraq would -- in no way would poll well. But that doesn't mean that it's not going to leave the door open for Republicans to attack Obama on that point and, you know, try to get whatever political points they can for their foreign-policy point of view.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Pittsburg, Pa., and talk to Bob. Bob, hi.
BOBAn excellent show, as usual. My question, I joined in time to hear the panel describe ISIS as the richest, wealthiest terrorist group. My question is what's make them terrorists? When I think of terrorists, I think of suicide bombers, airline hijackers. This sounds like well-organized groups of soldiers and a more conventional enemy. Why do we call them terrorists?
PAGEAll right, Bob. Thanks for your call.
LAKSHMANANI think they use those tactics. They certainly have used suicide bombing, IEDs. But they're a militia. I think generally they're referred to as a militant jihad fighting force. We also consider them terrorists because they engage in, you know, in all of these activities as well.
HIRSHThey apparently lined up and shot and killed some 1,700 Shias, many of them members of the Iraqi army.
LAKSHMANANAnd they tweeted pictures of it.
HIRSHThey tweeted pictures and videos of it. So clearly these are not regular militia that observe the Geneva Conventions.
LAKSHMANANI mean that would be war crimes.
PAGEThose were terrible pictures.
HIRSHAnd they were terrible acts of terror -- associated with them in Syria, to the point where almost comically, al-Qaida -- central core al-Qaida disowned ISIS, saying that they were too brutal.
LAKSHMANANRight. Too radical. But they also have a very fascinating social-media profile on the idea of them tweeting out pictures of this supposed massacre. They also tweeted out this Photoshopped picture of Michelle Obama yesterday, with a grim look on her face, standing in the White House with a sign up -- do you remember the bringbackourgirls hashtag from Boko Haram -- and they Photoshopped it to say, bringbackourhumvees. Trying to make fun of the United States for supposedly getting reinvolved in Iraq. So these are also sophisticated, you know, putting out their message as well.
LEEThere is an element of social-media sophistication here. But their tactics are brutal and they are those of terrorists.
PAGEHere's an email. This emailer writes, "Which side, if any, might the Kurds help by sending men into combat? And would that number be sufficient to make any difference in the outcome?"
LEEWell, just to say more broadly, I think the point came up earlier, that no one's interested in seeing Iraq -- the current geography of Iraq or the current boundaries of Iraq split up. Well, there's one exception to that and that is the Kurds. They would love to have their own state and be out of it. But that said, the Peshmerga, they can certainly help defend what the Kurds believe should be Kurdistan, their part of the country. But I don't know if their numbers are big enough to make a difference outside.
HIRSHYeah, I mean in some ways the Kurds are really the wildcard here that could determine Iraq's future either as, you know, continuing as a unified state or not. It's not just the Kurdish desire for independence, which goes back, you know, more than a century. It's the Peshmerga, in whatever numbers, are considered the most effective fighting force in Iraq. And if they want to sort of stand with the Shiites that make up what's left of the Iraqi army, then they could make the difference. So in some ways, they're going to be the determinant.
PAGEHere's an email from Carlos. He writes, "What if Baghdad falls?" What if Baghdad falls, Indira. What happens then?
LAKSHMANANWell, I don't see that happening. Let me just preface it by saying that. I mean, even though the Iraqi security forces have, you know, cut and run and fled in some of these other places, like Mosul. I think that certainly in the stronghold of Baghdad, I don't think that's going to happen. I mean, I also don't think the U.S. will let that happen, now that we're sending advisers and helping with intelligence.
PAGEBut when you say we wouldn't let that happen, how could -- if the insurgency is approaching Baghdad, what would we do to prevent that from happening?
LAKSHMANANWell, I mean, this is the question where, if we decide it's in the U.S. national interests, remember President Obama has held out the possibility of unilateral airstrikes or unilateral action if he feels it's in our interests. And don't forget oil. Big interest, oil. And, you know, when you have ISIS, ISIL taking over the biggest refinery in Iraq that processes 300,000 barrels of oil a day, that's a threat not just to the U.S. -- to the global economy.
PAGEMy thanks to Indira Lakshmanan, Michael Hirsh and Matthew Lee for joining us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for being here.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening. Have a great weekend.
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