For this month's Readers' Review: "Drown" -- the debut collection of short stories by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz. Twenty years ago, Diaz published ten heart-breaking tales about a fragmented family from the Dominican Republic finding their way in 1980s America.
Syrian forces took control of a rebel stronghold in the city of Homs. The government said it would allow relief workers into Homs today following a weeks-long siege. In Afghanistan two more American soldiers were killed over the Koran-burning incident that sparked outrage at the U.S. North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for food aid. European leaders signed a new debt treaty. Voters in Iran headed to the polls today for parliamentary elections. And Russians go to the polls on Sunday to elect a president. Vladimir Putin is expected to win despite widespread protests against his rule. Shashank Bengali of McClatchy Newspapers, Elise Labott of CNN and Michael Hirsh of National Journal join Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Shashank Bengali national security editor, McClatchy Newspapers.
- Michael Hirsh chief correspondent, National Journal magazine; author of "Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Men Turned America's Future Over to Wall Street."
- Elise Labott CNN foreign affairs reporter.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Aid reached Homs the day after the Syrian army overwhelmed the rebel stronghold. North Korea agreed to stop its nuclear work in exchange for food aid and 25 EU countries signed a treaty to prevent member states from running up huge debts. Joining me for the international hour of the "Friday News Roundup," Michael of Hirsh of National Journal Magazine, Elise Labott of CNN and Shashank Bengali of McClatchy newspapers. You're welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And good morning to all of you.
MS. ELISE LABOTTGood morning, Diane.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHGood morning, Diane.
REHMElise, I'll start with you on the events in the Syrian city of Homs. What's happening?
LABOTTWell, in the last few days, Syrian tanks and artillery have been hitting the city of Homs and in particular the neighborhood of Baba Amr, which is an opposition stronghold. The opposition, the free Syrian armies, the main military opposition fell. They said it was a strategic withdraw just to help these besieged people in the neighborhood because basically it's just wanton killing of women, children, anybody who the artillery and tanks can get to.
LABOTTBut it does seem as if the army fell and now the Red Cross has finally, finally been able to get some access into Baba Amr to evacuate the wounded, the most wounded and also get some food and supplies. But it is very dire situation, Diane, and there are reports of summary execution killing of more than a dozen men in the area. It's just really getting worse by the day.
REHMYou had an interview with Secretary of State Clinton that aired last Sunday. I wonder what she is currently saying about Syria.
LABOTTWell, obviously you want to get the humanitarian aid in as much possible and trying to pressure on the Syrian government to do that. I think the secretary and the U.S. government as a whole is very wary about arming the opposition. This is the big subject that's going on right now, what do you do with the opposition? You've heard from the Saudis, the Qataris at this conference in Tunis, this Friends of Syria Conference, saying, listen, it's not enough to feed the people if Bashar al-Assad is going to kill them. We need to start arming the opposition, letting them defend themselves.
REHMBut who are the opposition? That's part of the problem, Michael.
HIRSHVery much so. The opposition is divided is coming in a context of a country where you have a much more complex network of tribal and ethnic sectarian divides. This I guess the last sort of minority-ruled regime in the Arab world now, ruled by the Alawite sect. You have a very pervasive and powerful apparatus put in place by the Assad family, first Hafez and then Bashar in terms of seating all of the key ministries and key positions with Alawite allies and relatives.
HIRSHAnd so you have a huge disparity of power and there's no indication that there's going to be a UN Security Council vote because Russia, which is a firm ally of Assad's has been blocking and shows every sign of continuing to do so. So all that can happen at this point is the kind of, you know, behind the screen door, if you will, arming of the rebels who have only light arms and rocket propelled grenades at best, across some of the Arab countries borders.
REHMBashar al-Assad has finally allowed the Red Cross workers into Homs. I wonder, Shashank Bengali, why now?
MR. SHASHANK BENGALIWell, Bashar al-Assad, we know, has committed the bulk of his ground troops to this campaign. He's got, by one estimate, 80 percent of his ground forces trying to crush this uprising. He's gambling that they can do so in a relatively short period of time before the pressure increases for some sort of international intervention. So this could be an effort to sort of lower the temperature a little bit. Meanwhile, you know, of course, they are pressing the offensive in Homs in Baba Amr. They push that offensive up into Idlib and Hama and other areas where the opposition, you know, has a stronghold. So it does seem like he's trying to lower the temperature a bit while at the same time, you know, trying to attack in other areas.
REHMIs there any indication that there will be international intervention of any kind?
BENGALIIt doesn't seem like, you know, the UN Security Council has blocked -- the UN Human Rights Council has issued strong condemnations, you know, possible war crimes, but there just isn't, you know, any appetite in Western countries for a Libya-style intervention. You know, there's limited, you know, impact, I think, that an air campaign could have because Assad is tanks and heavy artillery. But I do think that as we've been talking about arming, you know, the rebels through the back door would also be difficult because the Syrian army has increased their presence on the border of Syria and Lebanon as well.
LABOTTDiane, I think you saw something very interesting yesterday. As Michael was saying, yes, the UN Security Council has been unable to act. Yesterday, the Security Council passed a presidential statement, which you really need all 15 members, including the Russians, to sign onto. And it was very limited in terms of that the Assad regime did not let the UN coordinator Valerie Amos in to the country and also deploring the humanitarian situation on the ground, calling for more humanitarian access.
LABOTTAnd this, I think, is the strategy now of the U.S. and the Western countries to try and get the Russians to deal very narrowly on the humanitarian issue. And if I understand, the Russians were very upset with the Syrians yesterday for not letting Valerie Amos into the country. And I think if you can try and peel them away on that particular issue, as we've seen with Iran when Russia gets embarrassed for their support of the Iranian regime, I think that this could be the way to draw in Russian support against al-Assad.
REHMWhat about the hope that there will be some mediation efforts by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan?
HIRSHWell, he is certainly the point man representing the Arab League under UN hospices and if there is any hope of a sort of cover of legitimacy for any kind of a foreign intervention, it probably will come through the Arab League in view of the paralysis of the UN Security Council because of Russia and China. So I think Kofi Annan, you know, who is obviously a major international figure in his own right, could play a key role.
HIRSHBut I think what's happening here also is that both the Russians and Bashar Assad are now gaming what's happening. I think there's a sign of increasing confidence on the part of Assad, that he's allowed the Red Cross in. He knows he needs to sort of pull back from the abyss, as it were. He doesn't want to become the next Slobodan Milosevic. He doesn't want to be cast outside of the pale. He wants to, you know, come back into the international system at some point. And I think what you're seeing is an indication that he thinks that he's winning and so he can afford to relax a little bit and cast a few bones.
REHMIs there evidence that there are drones going into Syria, Shashank?
BENGALIYou know, I haven't seen any of that kind of reporting on drones. We have a limited sense of what's actually happening on the ground. You know, the activists are putting out very dire reports every day. We've got U.S. intelligence officials who believe that there is some level of al-Qaida in Iraq infiltration into this area. So it's a very fluid situation but you heard yesterday Ambassador Robert Ford in his testimony and Deputy Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman talking about the fluidity of the situation and the lack of transparency into actually who the rebels. That's really the biggest question the Americans have with arming the opposition.
LABOTTAnd this was something that Secretary Clinton said in our interview in terms of who do you arm? Are you going to, you're going to arm the opposition? First of all, as we've discussed you're going to give them some weapons. They're not going to be any match for these tanks and artillery and also they don't know who this opposition is. You know, they know the Syrian National Council because that's really all they're dealing with. They don't know the Free Syrian Army.
LABOTTThere could be ties to al-Qaida, a lot of them are in the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is -- Hamas is a splinter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Does that mean that the U.S. supports Hamas? Not only if they were to arm the opposition would that possibly have implications for a civil war, but it's also kind of calls into question allegiances in the region, counter-terrorism aspects and I think it's a big mess for the U.S. that, right now, it's only starting to sort through.
BENGALIJust to back up Elise's point. One of the examples of the divisions within the rebels, yesterday the Syrian National Council, the umbrella organization that's largely based abroad that's opposing Assad, they announced the creation of a military council saying that it would begin to coordinate military activities by the rebels and by the opposition. Well, the first response to this from the Syrian Free Army, the guys on the ground, was we're not going to take orders from the S.N. See, we don't know who these guys are so.
HIRSHAnd at the same time, President Obama in his presidential election year is coming under increasing pressure to intervene. Steven Hadley, George W. Bush's National Security Advisor, just published a Washington post-op saying, you know, we need to help. You have and will continue to have these terrible images. And I was told by a Pentagon official in this past week that even though the U.S. has, as Elise said, is not going to become an official agency arming this very, you know, this little known opposition, they're also not going to discourage the arming of the rebels through some of the Arab countries, which is already occurring to a degree.
LABOTTAnd they're also going to be assisting. I think the U.S. is already -- they're to some extent allowing commercial licenses to send them the communications equipment, secure radio, satellite phones. The type of thing the U.S. has said their main problem with the opposition is they're not organized because they're not able to communicate with each other inside the country. So SAT phones, satellite, Internet, night vision goggles to be able to see the snipers on the ground. These are the kind of things that are nonlethal assistance. The U.S. might feel a little bit more comfortable to and will certainly -- you know, Secretary Clinton has said and others have said, look, this opposition is going to get the arms somewhere, which indicates that the United States is okay with other countries arming them.
REHMElise Labott, CNN Foreign Affairs reporter. Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent in "Foreign National Journal Magazine." Shashank Bengali, National Security editor for McClatchy newspapers. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMCourse, there's so much more to say on Syria it could take up the entire hour. However, we're going to move to Afghanistan, the continuing fallout over the burning of the Koran in Afghanistan. What's the latest there, Shashank?
BENGALIWell, today, Diane, a group of senior clerics in Afghanistan, they called the burning of Korans at the NATO base several weeks ago an evil act. They said it must be punished. The anger still hasn't dissipated. We've seen thankfully a diminution of violence, at least the large riots and deadly riots we saw in the first couple of days afterward. But we had another attempted attack on a U.S. NATO installation today. We had, of course, the killing of two American soldiers at the base in Kandahar yesterday.
BENGALII was struck by the violence in Kandahar yesterday. That was a spot where U.S. officials have felt -- after the surge that Obama announced back in 2009, U.S. officials felt pretty good that they had tamed violence in Kandahar. What that showed, yesterday's attack inside a joint U.S. Afghan base, it reminds just the terrible risk that American and NATO troops are running just because of the escalating attacks by Afghan forces against their international trainers.
REHMI understand there are three investigations underway, Michael.
HIRSHRight, two U.S. NATO investigations and one Afghan investigation, as I understand it. And this is going to really determine, you know, exactly what happened, to what extent, as the U.S. says, this was simply an inadvertent disposal of Korans that may have been used by prisoners to communicate with each other. In other words, they were actually desecrated 'cause you're not supposed to write in the Koran. And, you know, we'll see if it helps to abate the violence at all.
HIRSHBut if the violence continues, I mean, this is going to raise fundamental questions about even what has now become a telescope to U.S. withdrawal plans. They were aiming for mid 2013 to do what? To pass over control of security to many of these same Afghan army units that are now in doubt. I mean, NATO advisors have been pulled out because of fears for their lives. And if you don't have that, you don't have a strategy.
LABOTTThe whole strategy, Diane -- I mean, you've had sick servicemen killed in the last eight days and, as Michael said, people being pulled out of the ministries. This whole strategy right now, this last strategy is about this hand in glove working together between the ISAF forces and the Afghans to train them up, to train the military, to train the police, to train all the civilians. And if this lack of trust means that they can't work together to get the work they have to do done, it does call into question whether the U.S. is going to be pulling out.
REHMWell, wouldn't it, on the other hand, be an indication that they ought to get out, Shashank?
BENGALIIt's interesting. In the entire time we were in Iraq, eight years, and a larger true presence than we've ever had in Afghanistan at the height of our time in Iraq, a grand total of about six American soldiers were killed by the Afghans that were training there. We've had just that number in the last two weeks in Afghanistan. And since the beginning of the year, one in four, I believe, American fatalities has come from Afghan soldiers. That includes fatalities from roadside bombs, IED attacks.
BENGALIYou know, what we're seeing is a country where, I think, we just still, after 11 years, don't really understand the situation. It's really violence against American troops by Afghans has rationed up since we increased our presence. It's a sign that we just don't really get this country, and maybe they don't get us.
LABOTTWell, and you also have the Taliban, which bombed that NATO base and the airport. And the Taliban is claiming responsibility and also urging other Muslims in Afghanistan to attack U.S. forces. And this comes at a time when the U.S. is trying to talk with the Taliban. We heard about all these talks in Qatar and setting up an office. And the U.S. is going to be talking to the Taliban, even as they're calling for the killing of U.S. Americans. I mean, the whole strategy right now is really in chaos.
HIRSHAnd as if that weren't difficult enough, another problem that has been kind of set aside, but is probably just as significant is our relations with Pakistan. One of the things that this Koran incident did was hold up a planned apology that I believe I was told was going to be made by Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both on the military and civilian side, over the NATO strikes in late November that killed 24 Pakistani troops.
HIRSHThat has really continued to sour U.S. Pakistan relations. And of course, the problem there is that the Pakistani government continues to see the Taliban as a strategic asset that they continue to support. And, you know, there was a cable sent by the ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker that was reported by the Washington Post that he said our strategy's not going to work if we don't get some more Pakistani help. So it's a mess across the board here.
REHMAnd now, you've got Iran planning to hold parliamentary elections today and its relationship with Pakistan has become even more complicated, Michael.
HIRSHRight, right. Well, we have an Iranian parliamentary election that is almost certain not to change very much in terms of Iran's relations with the outside world or to affect the chief worry that's on the table right now. Particularly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coming to visit the U.S. and meeting with Obama Monday, which is, you know, the nuclear program. But it does seem to reflect this intense power struggle that's been going on between Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President, that we've seen this played out. We expect to see, as a result of these parliamentary elections, a weaker Ahmadinejad.
HIRSHBut, as you suggest, Iran strategically is going to be continuing its policy of trying to undermine U.S. policy, U.S. strategy in the region. And I don't see that being affected by the parliamentary election.
BENGALIThe visit by Netanyahu is at a very interesting time, isn't it? You know, he's coming as the election campaign heats up here in the U.S. It's going to be very interesting to watch and see what does President Obama say to kind of counter the criticism he's going to get from the right and from Bibi Netanyahu about action against Iran. Obama's line has been for months now that the sanctions that the U.S. has applied, these are the stiffest sanctions ever applied on Iran.
BENGALIThey've attacked the Central Bank, which is the main way that Iran's able to get foreign currency from its oil sales. They have now really targeted the SWIFT system of international bank transfers. They are really trying to siphon away every last bit of money that Iran can get from selling its oil on the international market. And Obama's going to argue that let's give these sanctions time to work. And I think, from what I understand from, you know, U.S. officials, they really don't know and they don't believe that an attack could really curtail the Iranian program altogether.
BENGALISo they're not really certain that -- I mean, they believe the sanctions have to be given a lot more time.
LABOTTThey also don't know whether if Israel feels that it is going to have to attack Iran because it considers a nuclear weapon by Iran an existential threat. Whether the Israelis are going to tell them in enough time for them to talk them out of it or do anything to fend it off.
REHMBut could the Israelis do it completely on their own and be anywhere near successful?
HIRSHWell, that's the central question. And I think the central tension you're going to see play out between Netanyahu and Obama is the Israelis feel that they could do it before the new facility at Fordow, near the city of Qom, which is a very hardened facility inside a mountain, is completed. But they don't have the firepower to do it once it is completed, whereas the United States does. The United States apparently has the sufficient bunker busters and other ordinance to do serious damage to this site.
HIRSHBut if the Israelis don't attack, then they basically entrust their strategy to the U.S. And that's the problem here because Obama and Netanyahu don't really trust each other. You've had three years now of really a lot of disagreements between the two of them every time they've met. And I think that's what you're going to see play out.
REHMBut is the U.S. prepared to become involved in yet another foreign (word?) ?
LABOTTI think about a month ago Secretary of Defense Panetta laid out a very clear line that if they see the Iranians moving to have the nuclear weapon -- right now they say that they don't know if Iran has made the strategic choice to build the nuclear weapon or is making the plans to actually weaponize a weapon -- that that would be the red line for the United States. I think that they think that there is some time on that. I think the Obama Administration is hoping that they don't have to make this gut-wrenching choice before the election.
LABOTTBecause if the Israelis have to go do anything before the election, this is going to raise oil prices around the world, this could hurt the economy and this would be a disaster for President Obama and an election.
BENGALIWe're already seen, you know, this oil spike in prices threaten the economic recovery. It's the last thing they want to see. You know, one thing I think that's unclear is, you know, what internal talks are happening between the Israelis and the U.S. There was a trip by senior U.S. officials including, I believe, David Petraeus to Israel a few months back, where the perception was he was going to try to lower the temperature and try to really feel out what is Israel planning on doing.
BENGALII don't think the U.S. believes they can do it on their own and they're just hoping they can put it off as long as possible.
LABOTTAnd where's the airspace? I mean, I've been trying to look at a map of Israel and Iran and the surrounding airspace. I don't see where Israel can actually go and secure airspace without the help of the United States. It's not in Iraq anymore. They're not getting along with Turkey. I don't really know how the scenarios would play out.
REHMAnd interesting while all this talk is focused on whether or when Iran might develop a nuclear weapon, you have North Korea announcing it's going to suspend its nuclear work, Shashank.
BENGALIThat's right. There was a deal reached -- and it's interesting that the talks on this began before the transition of power with the late Kim Jong Il still in power. These talks began between the U.S. and North Korea over trying to restart the six-party framework of talks that has been the principle mechanism for trying to denuclearize North Korea. So we reached this deal this week. The U.S. and North Korea announced that North Korea is going to suspend its nuclear program. It's going to stop long range missile tests. It's going to stop nuclear -- sorry, uranium enrichment.
REHMBecause it needs food.
BENGALIBecause it needs food. The levels of starvation are believed to be very high in North Korea. They're getting 200,000 plus metric tons of food aid from the U.S. The U.S. is trying to, I believe, you know, get North Korea back into the six-party talks. And North Korea, I think, also is trying to show -- with the new leader in power, Kim Jong Un, I believe trying to show that they want to play ball. Perhaps they have to play ball because of the internal nutrition situation.
LABOTTAnd U.S. officials see a certain amount of positive -- that there's consistency, that the young leader -- things are going to continue -- this deal was really supposed to be announced the day after Kim Jong Il died. I mean, if he didn't die, this kind of threw it all into flux. And they had to give the North Koreans time to come back to the table.
LABOTTSo the consistency is one thing, but, you know, there's another part of consistency here. North Korea has a pattern of reneging on deals, of agreeing to everything, extracting concessions for things that they agreed to in the last deal and you have about a 20-year period of doing this. At least you're going to get some people fed and at least you're going to get an eye back on the nuclear program. I think that's what U.S. officials...
REHMElise Labott, foreign affairs reporter for CNN and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Russia is going to hold its presidential elections on Sunday. How do you expect things to go there, Michael Hirsh?
HIRSHWe're going to be seeing a lot more of Vladimir Putin over the next possibly couple decades. He is switching places with the current Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev as part of an agreement between them, despite what we've seen as a little bit of a Russian Spring, if you will. Massive protests over vote rigging. It's virtually certain that Putin is going to take the vote.
HIRSHThe Kremlin has rigged it so that the only opponents running against him were sort of officially approved ones and very familiar in the sense that one of them is the communist party chairman, Gennady Zyuganov. Another is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an extreme far right candidate. It's almost as if in the U.S. presidential election, they didn't allow anyone but, say, Ron Paul and Ralph Nader to run. I mean, that's kind of what's going on there now.
HIRSHSo Putin is going to be in power. He's authorized in the constitution now to run yet a couple more presidential terms. So we'll be seeing a lot of him.
REHMAnd by the way, we'll be discussing the outcome and implications of the Russian election on our program on Monday morning. Let's talk about the EU Summit. All but two of EU's twenty-seven leaders have signed a new treaty to enforce budget discipline within the block. What's that going to mean, Elise?
LABOTTWell, basically they're going to have deficit reduction targets and they're going to have to meet them. Already Spain and the Netherlands have said that they're not going to meet this initial target. And you also have Ireland, which said it, you know, signed on to the deal, but said, listen, we have to have a referendum other countries' parliaments are expected to go around. But the Irish people who have had, you know, a lot of bailouts in the past, they're going to have to sign on to a referendum. Anybody that doesn't sign on to this deal is not going to get a bailout in the future.
LABOTTBut the main thing right now -- and this is, I think, what the British are saying, David Cameron and the prime minister are saying, listen, we don't only have a debt problem. We have a growth problem. And so the European Union really has to have policies that will help growth, help investment, those type of things. So it's not only about reaching certain deficit targets. It's about how are we going to move the EU block forward as a strong power in the world economically?
HIRSHYeah, I mean, on one hand, Diane, this represents a huge stride forward for the Eurozone and the euro as a monetary currency. Which you may remember, just a few months ago people were wondering whether it was going to disappear altogether. This German-led effort to put in a fiscal pact that with certain power of sanctions as penalty is going to require these countries to keep their deficits at a certain level is a good thing in terms of that in a sense that it does return some stability to the Eurozone and the European Union.
HIRSHOn the other hand, the nature of the pact requires austerity of these various countries that is tamping down growth. You have Europe in recession. You have better than 10 percent unemployment across the Eurozone. And many economists say that this is exactly what none of us need right now, the world economy that is. We don't need austerity at a time when you need to promote growth.
REHMAnd what about Ireland's call for a referendum on this latest EU treaty, Shashank?
BENGALIWell, Ireland, in the past with two previous referendums, has blocked closer cooperation so they are sort of seen as a potential thorn in the side of this agreement. However, as I understand it, this new system they've agreed to can't be blocked by a veto. Just the majority vote is enough to pass the closer cooperation here. So the sole veto that Ireland has had before won't really have an effect. And Ireland's calculations this time could be different, as Michael pointed out. They've had bailouts before. And if they were to not sign on to this pact, they wouldn't be able to seek bailouts in the future.
BENGALISo I think it is a step forward for closer cooperation and we won't see the same stalling that Ireland's been able to achieve before.
REHMShashank Bengali, national security editor for McClatchy Newspapers. We'll take a short break here and at the end of the program, a tribute to trumpeter Maurice Andre.
REHMWelcome back. It's time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First, to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Hi there, John. You're on the air.
JOHNYes. Good morning, Miss Rehms (sic). Thank you for taking my call.
JOHNI have three very brief, uncomplicated questions for your panelists.
REHMHow about one, sir? I think that would be fairer.
JOHNOkay. Then I'll pick the one that's most important.
REHMSure. Go ahead.
JOHNAmerican refining companies are exporting gasoline to China and other overseas countries, that is, in part, largely responsible for the price of gasoline here.
REHMOkay. We did talk about the price of gasoline in our first hour. And the extent to which it might or might not become an issue in the campaign, but in fact, what refining companies are exporting is oil and not gasoline. The question becomes whether the continued exportation of oil from the U.S. is contributing to the rising cost of gasoline in this country.
HIRSHI think it has to be considered a very minor factor. There are a lot of other bigger global factors playing into the rise at the pump, prices at the pump, having to do with the problem with refining capacity around the world, obviously, the tensions over Iran, the market, you know, a lot of this has been market sentiment and Wall Street driving prices up. So I really do not see that as a major factor.
REHMLet's go to Loudon, N.H. Good morning, Reid.
REIDHi, good morning. My comments were based upon subjects that you've done earlier on -- and I don't know exactly what you consider, but they're on Syria and Afghanistan.
REHMSure. Go right ahead.
REIDOkay. And before I get there, I just wanna thank you immensely for the shows that you did on focal dystonia with Leon Fleischer.
REHMYou're most welcome. Let's move on, sir.
REIDOkay. The Afghanistan situation, I think, is just ridiculous. We should be out of there now. That you have the kind of reaction against us for burning the Koran, what does that actually mean? Does it mean that all of the philosophy, all of the dignity, all of the whatever you wanna call it of the book is diminished because a copy is lost? It can be reprinted. And I feel that so much of the reaction against us is more based upon a lack of, what do I wanna say, awareness that we are in the 21st century now. Religion is religion is religion.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. Elise?
LABOTTWell, I think that that's why this whole issue of President Obama's apology to Afghanistan was so controversial. And Newt Gingrich made such a big thing of it saying, listen, the Taliban is using their book, it's defacing their book to find parcels in it that say it's okay to attack non-Muslims or Americans. And so that's why I think the apology and that's why the whole issue of the Koran was so unpopular.
REHMTo Broadview Heights, Ohio. Hi there, John.
JOHN 2Hi. Thank you very much for taking this call.
2I find it a privilege to be able to talk here.
2Let me ask you this, does anybody remember what the dollar value was coming to this point in time with our Afghan and Iraq and our -- anybody know that dollar value? I believe it approaches one trillion dollars now. And I believe that 10,000 of our boys and girls have been lost. And I believe that 30,000 or 40,000 of our boys and girls have been maimed in the name of trying to help out this group that has fought back and forth for the last 2,000 years on whatever they felt like. Why are we spending our resources and our value and our treasure on anything to do with that over there?
HIRSHWell, this was the good war, right, John? This was supposed to be the war that was -- when it was launched in 2001, it was the war that was going to go after the folks that attacked us on 9/11 and create democracy in this very difficult part of the world. Of course, that's gone by the wayside long ago. What we've got is a very limited attempt here to try to stand up a security force and a government that will prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for al-Qaida again in the future.
HIRSHWhat we're finding is as that mission, even that limited mission, winds down we're nowhere closer I think than we were when we started. And to your point about costs, our budget this year alone for training Afghan security forces is $11 billion. Next year, it's gonna be half of that. And the year after that and thereafter, they estimate four billion a year to pay for Afghan security forces. And I don't know who's gonna pay for that.
REHMAll right. To Baltimore, Md. Good morning, Josh.
JOSHGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
JOSHWith all the discussion of potential war in the media and within the government of the United States and Israel and abroad, I was wondering if anyone on the panel knows of any, you know, (word?) and think tanks or policy (word?) inside the beltway on some unifying theory to the Middle East. You know, combining elements in the Arab Spring, the conflict in Syria, Iran, our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and our alliance with Israel and the larger world stage over there. If, you know, it's all connected or just jointed? And I'll take my answer off the air.
HIRSHNo. I don't think there is any kind of unifying theory nor really could there be. You know, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, spread to Egypt, came to be seen as a broad movement, but it's played out very differently in different places, in Libya, as we saw, in Yemen, now, in Syria. And there's no -- each of these countries is going to be grasping its own destiny probably in a very different way.
HIRSHAnd the response has been different as we've seen most dramatically perhaps with the difference between what we did in Libya and what we're not doing in Syria, meaning the West. And I mean, there are obviously common themes here. Iran is trying to be a big player in the region. That's why it's pushing forward with this nuclear program. The Arab countries are fearful of that. One of the reasons that this is in the U.S. national interest, as Obama says, to stop is because we fear a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which could be very dangerous.
HIRSHBut I don't think that there's any sort of over-arching theory that describes it all.
REHMHere's an email from Michael, who says, "Israel will not care whose air space they violate if they perceive the Iranian nuclear threat is existential one. They are likely to be some Arab regimes that would cooperate and let them through."
LABOTTWell, we were talking about this during the break. I think that there are Arab nations. You've heard the Saudi kind call on these WikiLeak cables for cutting the head off the snake. I'm sure a lot of Arab countries would celebrate and maybe even look the other way if Israel would do that. And in fact, maybe hoping they would. I was telling a story I heard about an Arab minister that was asked, what would you do if Israel bombed Iran?
LABOTTAnd the minister said, well, first, I would go to the U.N. Security Council and condemn them vociferously. And then I would go home and have a scotch. Because I think that even though their streets would erupt and there would be a lot of chaos in the region, and obviously an Israeli attack against Iran would be unpopular on the Arab street, I think that there are a lot of leaders who are concerned about Iran's influence in the region, concerned about a nuclear Iran, aren't really prepared to do anything about it, but wouldn't mind if Israel did.
BENGALIWell, I think Elise is exactly right. We're seeing a power struggle play out right now in Syria, between Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. Iran is a country that a lot of Arab nations view with a great deal of skepticism and concern. So, you know, Israel will face an issue, I think, with the logistics, in terms of how are they gonna fly these long-range bombing runs if they're gonna go after Iranian targets? How are they gonna refuel in midair if the U.S. isn't gonna provide that kind of logistical support? But as far as air space, I think, they won't have a problem.
REHMTo McLean, Va. Good morning, Suzanne.
SUZANNEYes. Good morning and thank you. I wonder since Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama don't get along very well if there's any concern that Prime Minister, if he does plan action against Iran, might try to time it so as to influence our election.
LABOTTI don't think so. If they felt that they had to do it I would hope that if Israel had to do it that they wouldn't try to use the election season. And I think that the relationship, as both countries have said, between Israel and the United States, is so much more important than any two administrations. It's a long enduring relationship.
REHMBut at the same time, there has been talk that if there is going to be a bombing, it was going to be done in the next three months.
REHMSurely that would have some kind of impact.
HIRSHYeah. No, it would have. I don't think that would be the intention. The one factor that may come into play for Netanyahu is, I think he realizes that if he does launch an attack before the election, Obama will be under political pressure here to support that. Whereas, if Obama were reelected and the Israelis waited until then, the President of the United States might have more of a free hand to decide what to do, rather than, you know. I mean, here this has been the chief point that the Republican presidential candidates have been making against Obama, that he's been weak on Iran.
REHMAll right. To Grand Rapids, Mich. Good morning, Adam.
ADAMHi. Good morning, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call.
ADAMI would just make a point on a story I heard, backing up one of your guests, about the kind of disconnect between the American and Afghan forces, how last week after the two service members were killed inside a ministry building, President Karzai had a public appearance, I believe, today and more or less had to be goaded into expressing condolences for those service members. I'm an Army veteran and I served two tours in Afghanistan and I had a difficult time connecting with local populations outside of possibly (word?) that were perhaps Americanized. And I think that's a great challenge going forward.
REHMGood point, Adam. Shashank?
BENGALII think Adam's raising an issue here about mutual understanding. You know, we've been there for a very long time now in Afghanistan. President Karzai is an American ally. He's been in power, roughly, since we came to power, but he's under domestic pressure, as well, to not be seen as being the puppet of the Americans. So I think you're seeing some of that domestic pressure. His government's very unpopular. They're drowning in corruption. He's playing to a local audience to some degree in that.
BENGALIConversations I had with U.S. officials that work in Afghanistan indicate to me that they don't question Karzai's loyalty, but what you're seeing here expressed is a broader feeling among the Afghan people, that what have we gotten out of this long occupation by U.S. forces? And in America you're seeing the reverse. You're seeing, why are we still having our boys and girls get attacked for all that we're trying to do to build this country up.
LABOTTI think that President Karzai has been unpredictable ally. I think that there is some times when he needs something from the United States that he speaks in very glowing terms, but most of the time you never know what's gonna come out of President Karzai's mouth. And U.S. officials were very upset that he didn't try and help the Afghan people understand that this was inadvertent.
REHMElise Labott of CNN. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Good morning, Andrew.
ANDREWThank you so much for taking my call. I'll try to make this brief.
ADAMI was just saying that someone was commenting earlier about how Obama shouldn't, I guess, kowtow to Afghanis and whatnot regarding burning the Koran. And I think they just function on a theological level that's very different from what Americans are used to and that maybe, you know, the idea that America doesn't always have to act like we're number one and the best. And maybe just trying to find the most diplomatic solution to having less people die isn't such a bad thing. I think it's actually a very admirable move.
HIRSHYeah, I mean, this shows how tough things are for President Obama right now. He has to make some move, both with the Afghans and the Pakistanis, in terms of making them feel better. In the case of Afghanistan, out of what has been, you know, an eight-year occupation. And Americans tend not to understand the impact this has on local populations when you have foreign troops there. I mean, this is the same thing with Iraq, you know. There was a huge resentment as U.S. forces left Iraq because of the long-term occupation. And that's not gonna be solved anytime soon.
HIRSHWe don't understand the impact of that.
REHM...final caller, from Michael in San Antonio. You're on the air.
MICHAELHi, this is Mike. Hey, actually I wanna actually make a comment on what you just said there, was that when President Obama, quote, apologized, if you remember when Bush said, bring it on? Well, later on, a few years later Bush actually on, you know, on film, he said that was one of his biggest mistakes that he thought he made and that when you're the President and if you can just apologize and save a few more human lives, especially American lives over in Afghanistan, then, yeah, you should apologize, if you think that'll help. And so I think he did the right thing.
REHMI think that Michael makes a good point.
HIRSHWell, you know, Obama apologized, but of course, the violence continued. Again, it speaks to the...
HIRSH...it speaks to the lack of understanding on both sides, I think. But the fact is that President Bush apologized when there was a similar incident of desecration of religious materials back in 2008 in Afghanistan. So it's not an old strategy to try to lower the temperature on these kinds of things and it makes sense.
REHMAnd on yet another point, many of you have sent me emails, you've called to point out that the French trumpeter, Maurice Andre, who is heard in the theme music you hear on "The Diane Rehm Show," died last Sunday. That his music, of course, Claude Bolling's, "Toot Suite." French President Nicolas Sarkozy praised him saying, Maurice Andre managed to combine in an incomparable manner, the highest artistic standards, with a fierce desire to popularize the instrument.
REHMI was lucky enough to work with Tom Cole at NPR to choose the music for this program. I'm very proud we've used it since 1984 because Tom felt it would be just right for this program and I agreed with him. Maurice Andre was 78. He died on Sunday. We appreciate his genius and his brilliant high notes. Thank you all for listening. Have a great weekend. I'm Diane Rehm.
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