Historian Matthew Dallek looks at the history behind the Office of Civilian Defense, the country's first agency for homeland security, and the competing visions of those tasked with spearheading the department: New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
A potential Western military strike on Syria has been put on hold, temporarily. Yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron postponed a vote on proposed military action. He wants to give U.N. weapons inspectors time to complete their investigation into the mass chemical weapons attack in Damascus, Syria, last week, which killed hundreds. President Barack Obama said he has not yet decided on his military options, but vows that any strike will be tailored, limited and decisive.
- Doyle McManus columnist at Los Angeles Times.
- Aaron David Miller vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and former U.S. Middle East adviser in Republican and Democratic administrations.
- Robin Wright analyst and joint fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation and will be back in this chair in the middle of September. Britain temporarily postponed a vote on a possible Western-led strike against Syria, but here in Washington, President Obama talks about a limited but a decisive attack while Congress demands more consultation and accountability before this country enters another war in the Middle East.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me to talk about the crisis in Syria, the debate over how to respond, Doyle McManus, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, Robin Wright, formerly of the L.A. Times and now at the U.S. Institute of Peace and from a studio at Maine Public Radio in Portland, Maine, Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Welcome to you all. Thanks for joining us.
MR. DOYLE MCMANUSThank you.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGood morning.
MR. AARON DAVID MILLERGreat to be here.
ROBERTSYou can join us as well, 1-800-433-8850, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We're on Facebook, Twitter, and we're open to your calls and comments. But, Robin, in an interview with friends at PBS, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, last night, President Obama said he hadn't made a decision yet on whether to launch a military strike, but that it does seem to be evidence that they're moving in that direction. Your best read of the situation.
WRIGHTWell, I think Secretary of State Kerry's briefing on Monday really started the ball rolling, and the administration is clearly trying to bring along the public, talking about what happened in Syria, how unacceptable it is to use weapons of mass destruction. That was followed by Vice President Biden on Tuesday. There's a sense that all the steps that need to be taken before a strike are now in motion whether it's getting allies on board in Britain and France, whether it's thinking about a U.N. resolution that we're likely to see over the next few days I think some major decisions and possibly some movement.
ROBERTSNow, Doyle, the president in that interview said any strike would be tailored, limited but decisive. Is it possible to do all three of those things at the same time?
MCMANUSThat's really the riddle here, and there's interesting history on this. It's tempting sometimes to say that, you know, punitive strikes or deterrent strikes, tailored strikes can never have an effect. It's not true that they never have an effect. There are cases in which strikes that are limited have an effect on the behavior of a regime.
MCMANUSBut they have to be big enough. They have to be decisive enough to cause enough pain to do that. And finding exactly that sweet spot is the wrong term here. That pain spot without wreaking a strike that in effect opens a new Middle East war. That is really the problem of the planning here.
ROBERTSNow, Aaron David Miller, what's the real aim here? I mean the president in this interview says this is a shot across the bow, a warning signal. What is he warning about? What's the shot designed to accomplish you think?
MILLERWell, I think the context here is critically important. The president has been the avoider in chief on this for the last two years. He's willfully and wisely stayed of an internal Syrian civil war, brutal, cruel and likely to go on for some time because in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, he does not understand and no one has demonstrated for him the relationship between the application of American military power and the end state.
MILLERIt isn't boots on the ground that's the cautionary tale from Iraq and Afghanistan. It's the relationship between our capacity that to project our power militarily and what it is we want to achieve in Syria. And nobody has made the case outside the government or frankly inside that without a systematic, sustained, comprehensive military strategy to take down the Assads, to embolden the opposition and to assume responsibility for the affairs in this country much else we're going to do is going to be affected.
MILLERSo he's choosing between three really bad options. Do nothing, which in my judgment is virtually impossible. It will an invasion from outer space to distract and derail this.
MILLERDo everything which more along the lines of John McCain is arguing or find a middle ground. And the middle ground is to deter and to degrade. Those are the two basic objectives. I'm not sure it's going to work, but I'm not sure at this point the president has any choice.
ROBERTSNow, Robin, in this interview, the president also talked about his fear. When you talk about America's larger national interest, he talked about the fact that Syria does have a lot of chemical weapons, and it's an extremely chaotic situation there. And he raised the possibility that if this capability was not degraded in Aaron's point that these weapons could fall into the hands into the hands of the bad guys and eventually be used against the United States.
ROBERTSIs that part of the thinking here? Is that just for show? Is that real? Do you think the administration is really worried that America's own security could be in danger here?
WRIGHTWell, at a time that the world is often engaged in asymmetric wars, the threat of weapons of mass destruction giving a much lesser power and edge has to be front and center in a lot of the military calculations. And so I think the concern is quite genuine. The problem is will this actually deter President Assad from either using chemical weapons or doing something even more draconian against his own people, will it prevent Syria from becoming an even bigger proxy war.
WRIGHTYou already have an Iran supporting Assad, the Russians arming Assad, Hezbollah sending troops to Syria, but does this make this an even larger war that because the U.S. is involved it legitimizes other countries playing a bigger role as well, whether publicly or behind the scenes and arming and aiding the regime to survive. There are a lot of principles at stake, not just chemical weapons.
WRIGHTThere's a whole issue on the table of at what point can the international community say a regime is doing really awful things against its own people and that the international community can then get involved. And that's the principle that was used in Libya. And the Russians are really concerned and are reacting against this in large part because they are afraid that this principle will be established and whether it's the Russians or their allies will face the same challenge down the road.
ROBERTSHowever evil the Assad regime is and however vicious it's been to its own people, Doyle, no one is talking about regime change here as the goal of this military. It's much more limited than that. And one of the words you hear repeatedly in Washington is credibility, that the administration itself said, there's a redline that he shouldn't cross. The use of chemical weapons, he crossed that redline. To what extent is -- is this a self-created dynamic by the original setting down of a redline?
MCMANUSThat is an enormous factor here, and it's striking to me that that is the justification that the president didn't mention in his interview with PBS. It was sort of the big gaping hole there. Look, this has been described as an operation aimed at deterring Syria from further use of chemical weapons. But the core U.S. interest here to the degree, there is one, is deterring other countries especially Iran and Israel from deciding, from concluding that when Barack Obama says he has a redline, he doesn't mean it.
MCMANUSAnd the problem President Obama did set up for himself was at least five times over the past year or so, he has said that extensive use of chemical weapons would be a redline. It would be unacceptable. It would draw a robust response from the United States. And now his bluff has been called.
ROBERTSNow, Aaron David Miller, I wanna broaden this discussion to the political context. In Britain, one of the important developments in the last day or two, David Cameron, the prime minister, has been quite supportive of the president, quite supportive of the notion of military action. But he's running into domestic political problems and put off a vote in parliament and says he wants to hear more from the U.N. weapons inspectors who were on the ground. What's your read about what's happened in Britain in significance?
MILLERWell, I think it suggests a growing uncertainty in the international community. It seems to me that to a certain degree, the argument has kind of peaked. A week ago, you heard the French and the British very certain, very determined, very focused. Now, you have an Arab League reluctance. You have open Russia and Chinese doubts and uncertainties and opposition to this. And you have growing voices in Congress on both the left and the right about the wisdom of this action.
MILLERAnd I think it reflects the larger and broader uncertainty and murkiness of what our American interests in Syria, how can they best be achieved. And you have a president who frankly is more worried with respect to his own legacy, you know, one of the 17 two-term -- elect -- 17 presidents elected two terms. Your clock's ticking down on the Obama presidency, and he's far more focused frankly on the middle class than he is on the Middle East. I don't think the president frankly -- at best, he's a reluctant worrier on this.
MILLERI just do not see barring some 11th hour rescue from this conundrum. How the president, in view of what he said, and Robin's point is 100 percent right in terms of what -- Kerry made the most principled, forceful, determined argument to back away from that now in the wake of a kind of domestic political constraint. The country will follow the president, so will Congress, as long as he doesn't get himself into trouble. And here again, Robin's point is well worth considering about the danger of breaking the glass ceiling on military action and opening this up to a proxy war.
ROBERTSNow, Robin, on the point that the British situation here, Cameron and others have said, well, there are U.N. inspectors on the ground, and Assad, the government, has denied responsibility, said, in fact, raised the possibility it was the rebels who used chemical weapons. Is there more to be learned from the U.N. inspectors? Is there a doubt about who is responsible? Because everything the Obama administration have been saying the last few days is they're pretty convinced that they have compelling evidence.
WRIGHTThe U.N. inspectors report actually is the real pivot, I think, that will either give the president his case to go public, to make that decisive action, to see if the allies are willing to go along. So a lot will depend on what they say. They're expected to be there through Saturday. The administration has actually said it doesn't support them staying any longer because it's too late. There's not enough extra to learn by staying any longer and procrastinating about the response.
WRIGHTSo that is the key question now: What will they come back with? How decisive will it be? I think there will be some questions, and I think that will make it, you know, this last moment rather dramatic.
ROBERTSThat's Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Also with me, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. Join our conversation. We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. The subject this hour: the escalating crisis in Syria and the possibilities growing as we speak of Western airstrikes against the Syrian regime. And I have three experts with me: Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Aaron David Miller of Woodrow Wilson International Center.
ROBERTSAnd, Doyle, we were talking about the political context in Britain where Prime Minister Cameron is facing questions and growing opposition. Same thing is true on Capitol Hill although it was kind of a mixed pattern in the sense that you have some voices -- Sen. McCain chief among them -- arguing for a much more robust response, and yet a lot of Democrats and Republicans both saying go slow. What's your read of this situation on Capitol Hill?
MCMANUSWell, it's an interesting issue, Steve, precisely because of the phenomenon you mentioned. This is not a simple partisan Republican-versus-Democratic issue. This is an issue that divides both parties. And so what, you know, what we have seen -- you've got John McCain, for example, to take Republicans on the hawkish side with other allies, and then on the -- you've got Rand Paul and Republicans saying, we have no national interest here at all. Or there's no significant national interest. Let's stay out entirely.
MCMANUSThe easy place for members of Congress to go, and there are two efforts along this line, one Republican and one Democratic, is to say, what about the rights of Congress? Congress is the one that ought to declare war or authorize military intervention. This is not a case of an immediate threat to the United States. It's not a case of an unprovoked attack on the United States. The president has a constitutional responsibility to go to the Hill and ask for authorization.
MCMANUSIn effect, those members of Congress, and there's a Republican letter to this effect and a Democratic letter to this effect, are doing exactly what the British parliament is doing and saying, wait a minute, you need our authorization.
ROBERTSAnd, Aaron David Miller, in both London and Washington, it seems that one of the important dimensions here that's operating in both places is the shadow of Iraq. There was -- within memory. That war has just round down -- wound down recently. Everybody remembers Colin Powell going to the United Nations and making a case which proved to be faulty. Is this part of what needs to be understood, that this reluctance that both governments are running into is at least, in part, a result of the experience in Iraq?
MILLERWell, there's no question about it. I mean, we're operating against the two arguably longest wars in American history, Iraq and Afghanistan, where the standard for victory was never could we win. Never could we win in the conventional sense. But when could we leave? That was the issue. And I think there is a growing sense that moves by an American president to intervene militarily in a Syrian civil war raise the real question of extrication, of once you get in, how do you get out honorably effectively and leave behind a situation better than when you found it?
MILLERAnd the curious thing to me is this very strange coalition between liberal interventionists on one hand and neoconservatives on the other, who for the last two years have been hammering this administration about a Syria that is in danger of fragmenting, a Syria that is in danger of using chemical weapons -- we've now seen it -- hemorrhaging refugees, and why doesn't the president of the United States understand how -- it's almost as if Syria has emerged as the -- literally the fulcrum of Western civilization.
MILLERAnd now, now that the president is on the verge of acting militarily, there are growing uncertainties in doubts -- and doubts. It's an extraordinary example of arguing in theory and then having to face the music and understanding exactly what it is you have to do.
ROBERTSAnd, Robin Wright, you wrote about exactly this point this morning in the Los Angeles Times, and the first line of your piece was, OK, then what? It's easy to say do something, but then what? And you detail a long list of unintended consequences that have happened in situations like this before.
WRIGHTWell, just to pick up on what Aaron said, look at Iraq. How did we initially get involved? In 1998, the United States hit military targets in Iraq because Saddam Hussein failed to comply with U.N. resolutions on weapons of mass destruction. And there was the hope that this would degrade his capabilities and send a strong signal about what was unacceptable, that he had to comply with international law. It not only didn't work, he was around for another five years.
WRIGHTThe United States ended up involved in a ground invasion, eight years of a military commitment, 4,500 American lives and hundreds of billion dollars in national treasure. So we have to be careful that we don't do something that looks like a quit hit -- quick hit and then think that we can walk away from it. Once you cross that threshold of intervention, even if it's meant to be targeted and limited, the fact is you are vulnerable to blame afterwards for any action or inaction.
WRIGHTAnd it also can produce unintended consequences. I lived in Beirut in 1983 when the U.S., you know, opened fire against a Muslim militia, and it ended up costing, you know, a retaliatory response that cost 241 Marine lives. And it was the deadly -- largest loss of military life in a single incident since World War II. There are these sequence of things that we have tried over and over again, and each one of them has led to a kind of backlash, unintended consequences and cost that outweigh the benefits.
ROBERTSAnd, Doyle, one of the other dimensions to this is that folks who argue and say it's in America's interest and obligation, even, to intervene for humanitarian reasons, the devastation of the chemical weapons attacks, the enormous problem with the refugees. Another possible problem here is the principle of intervention, if it's used by the West, can also be used by other actors, in that part of the world, right?
MCMANUSThat's right. And that's one reason that the doctrine of a -- of humanitarian intervention or a responsibility to protect still isn't settled international law. There are still -- it's still a long step to take. Look, it's very striking, actually, that President Obama, in that PBS interview, did not make that argument. He did not say this is a humanitarian intervention. He said this is -- this has to do with chemical weapons and, you know, and the control -- the international norm against the use of chemical weapons.
MCMANUSAnd there -- there's actually some distance between the rationale the president laid out and the earlier rationale that Secretary Kerry laid out because Secretary Kerry was talking -- he didn't say humanitarian intervention, but he was saying the humanitarian consequences are what must spur us to act here.
ROBERTSNow, Aaron Miller, the -- one of the dimensions here, as Doyle points out, is the legality and the role of international law. And most experts seem to agree that this is a situation where in an ideal world, Western allies would go to the United Nations and get the imprimatur of the United Nations to act in that -- but that seems to be totally off the table, given the attitude of Russia and China. Do you see any possibility of U.N. action, or is that really not possible?
MILLERI think it's almost impossible, and it was the same in Kosovo in 1999 where the Russians blocked U.N. Security Council validation. You know, the lawyers say when the law isn't on your side, you marshal the facts, which is exactly what the president is trying to do with respect to the use of chemical weapons. But even there, it seems to me the facts are somewhat questionable.
MILLERI think you will never get in the next 10 days the kind of compelling courtroom validation, legal or even from an intelligence perspective, that is gonna answer all the questions and iron out all the uncertainties, which is gonna make this even more problematic for the president. But we're beyond, I think, this shoulda-woulda-coulda issue here.
MILLERIf the president does not act even without a basis in international law to act, I think -- and with all the difficulties -- and I am not -- he's reluctant warrior on this. There's no question. I don't see -- talk about credibility. I'm not sure his capacity to operate in this region over the next 2 1/2 years such as it is, I think is gonna be completely undermined. And you do have the Iranian story which informs the background, I suspect, about all of this.
MILLERThe real challenge the administration is gonna face in the next year and a half or two is what to do about Iran's putative quest for a nuclear weapons capacity. And that is certainly gonna be informed by what he does or does not do on Syria.
ROBERTSNow, I'm gonna get to our callers in just a minute. Doyle, I wanna ask you one more question 'cause you also spend a lot of your time analyzing domestic opinion and politics, and this is one of the dimensions. Now, the last poll I saw, and that was before of the photos of the devastation of the chemical weapons, but Quinnipiac poll showed 60 percent of Americans decisively against intervening in Syria.
ROBERTSAnd some of those doubts, as we talked earlier, are being reflected by comments of members of Congress in the same way that Cameron and Britain is facing this. The role of politics and public opinion here.
MCMANUSAmerican public opinion is always opposed or almost always opposed to military intervention before it happens. The American public is especially weary and wary of war now after more than 10 years at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. So those numbers aren't surprising at all. Here's what I would expect to happen: If the president, as we expect, decides to undertake a limited military intervention, he will go on television. He will explain it to Congress. He will explain to the public.
MCMANUSThere will be an immediate reflex of support, not universal support. And then the key question will be, as Robin has raised, what next? What happens then? If it is a limited intervention, if it is a 48-hour punitive strike and nothing much happens after that, Barack Obama may gain from it. But we have to remember, as they say in the military, the enemy has a vote.
MCMANUSSyria will have absorbed what is an act of war from the United States. Let's not forget that. They will have a right under international law to retaliate, and the form of their retaliation is, in a sense, the next important political question.
ROBERTSLet me read an email from Christopher, who writes to us, Robin Wright, "My question is regarding the overwhelming evidence claim. I have to believe that the United States has satellite imagery data that independently confirms evidence of a chemical attack. If so, then why don't they share it?" You were talking about the importance of the case, the brief that will be forthcoming before any military action. Answer the caller, please.
WRIGHTWell, it's a key question particularly because there was a lot of momentum at the beginning of the week that we would all see this intelligence and that it would be quite convincing. And the fact is that they've slowed the process of sharing it and that there are some questions being asked about is it definitive, indicates that it maybe, you know, not quite as black and white as most people would like. And that, you know, could complicate the ability to settle the process.
WRIGHTThe tougher question, frankly, is what other steps the administration then takes when it rolls out what it plans to do militarily. Will there be part two that says we are going to simultaneously make an increased effort to deal with this political issue, try to get President Assad and the Syrian opposition together along with our Russian allies and potentially even the Iranians since Iran now has a new president who looks like he's trying to settle issues rather than exacerbate them.
WRIGHTAnd I would be very disappointed and surprised if the administration didn't have part two. Now, that doesn't mean part two is gonna work because the Syrian opposition is hopelessly divided. And it's one of the reasons the United States hasn't intervened before because we don't have an interlocutor like we did in Libya.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Aaron Miller, that brings up several other players here. You mentioned Iran. But -- and we've talked about Britain. We've talked -- which is generally supportive. We've talked about Russia, which is very much against. What about Israel and some of the Arab states like Saudi Arabia? What's their attitude, as far as you know, toward the possibility...
MILLERYou know, I think the Israelis -- well, the public opinion polls in Israel clearly show a determined reluctance to get involved in Syria. They've had -- the Israelis have had their own miserable experience in Lebanon, and I think they get this. But the Israelis have equities: keeping Hezbollah from acquiring sophisticated weapons, preventing the dispersal of chemicals and, of course, what informs all Israeli thinking, strategic planners, what to do about Iran and whether or not the United States can be counted on, whether it's reliable, whether it means what it says and it says what it means.
MILLERThose are the equities there. I think the Israelis will keep their head down -- heads down. I don't think that they anticipate any sort of retaliation either from Hezbollah or from the Syrians directly, although that may come over time. The Saudis, I think, have a difficult proposition here...
ROBERTSLet me just ask you to refine a point you made, which I think is an important -- that -- you say that one of the key concerns Israel would have, maybe not publicly, but privately, is they have a vested interest in American credibility and that, therefore, that would weigh in favor of doing something because they are attached and, in some ways, protected by American credibility. Is that what you're saying?
MILLERI think that's right, and I think everybody these days says no to the United States without cost or consequence, which is another reason, it seems to me, that the president is gonna be compelled, having dug himself into a hole, not the president so much as everyone else in Washington. This is the most telegraphed military, anticipated military move in human history. More people have talked about this with a degree of specificity, which I suspect upsets the intelligence community and the Pentagon as well.
MILLERWe have talked about this. We have -- I mean, I've never -- the media is seized with it. Everyone is anticipating an attack. If we do not strike, it seems to me we've doubly undermined our own -- credibility is believability...
MILLERThat's what it means to be credible. Are we believable? And that is a core question in this part of the world, as Doyle and Robin know.
ROBERTSNow, Doyle, let me ask you a broader question here before we get to the callers. It's been mentioned that the rebels are divided, and one of the contexts here is who the rebels are and also what the military situation is on the ground. If regime change is not one of the goals of this military intervention, what do we know about the larger military picture on the ground in Syria today?
MCMANUSWell, and let's remember that regime change, while it's not one of the goals of this military intervention, is one of the goals of United States foreign policy.
MCMANUSAnd that's part of the confusion here. Look, the basic problem on the ground in Syria is that the regime has become, if anything, militarily stronger. It has imported weaponry and training from Iran and weaponry from Russia. It has organized a new largely Alawite militia force. The Alawites, of course, are the religious sect that most of the -- that the Assad family and most of the regime belong to, that is fighting, by all accounts, quite effectively and quite fiercely.
MCMANUSOn the other side, the opposition is divided into something of the order of a thousand different individual militias and factions, among which the moderate pro-Western factions that the CIA and other Western intelligence services have been working with are not the strongest and not the most effective. The most -- the strongest and most effective at the moment are the Jabhat al-Nusra, the -- and other radical Islamist fronts that are allied with al-Qaida. So this is more than a three-way war and will take a very, very long time to sort out, but time is not on our side at the moment.
ROBERTSDoyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and, on the phone, Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. We'll be right back with your phone calls, so stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. The subject this hour: the crisis in Syria. Experts with me: Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times, Robin Wright, the U.S. Institute of Peace and from Maine Public Radio, Aaron David Miller, who works at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
ROBERTSWe've got a lot of emails, a lot of calls. Let me read a couple quickly. Luke from Louisville, Ky., "I've heard on NPR, countless other places that the president can engage in any military action for up to 60 days without congressional approval. This is totally in contradiction with the plain language of the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution. That 60-day period is only allowed for defensive action where an attack is imminent. There is no imminent attack on the United States from Syria, and everyone knows it."
ROBERTSHe goes on to argue that, "I called my congressman today to urge him to sign a letter from Congressman Rigell. One hundred and fifty members have already signed it, talking about the separation of powers." We were talking about this, Doyle. How significant is this growing feeling that the caller reflects in that we're also seeing on Capitol Hill?
MCMANUSI think it is significant. And Aaron David Miller made an interesting point that the fervor for war may have peeped in. And if there is a further delay, if there's a delay because of the British Parliament, if there a delay because President Obama is on his way to a set of international meetings, if there's a delay because of...
MILLEROn Tuesday, he goes to the G-20, yeah.
MCMANUSExactly, because there's a delay -- we're waiting for reports from the U.N. inspectors. Well, then this backlash in a sense, this is preemptive backlash among members of Congress and their constituents may grow and make this a more difficult row to hoe, but I don't think -- in the end, I don't think that will deter President Obama from going ahead because of all the reasons that Aaron laid out, the consequences. We've been talking here about all of the terrible consequences of action, but there are negative consequences of inaction as well.
ROBERTSDeanne (sp?) from Durham, N.C., Robin Wright, writes, "The British House of Parliament is currently debating a proposal put forth by the prime minister. We've been talking about that. One member asked the following question about 10 minutes ago, and it's my question to all leaders everywhere. The combatants in Syria have tolerated 100,000 dead, 1.2 million refuges and at least 15 chemical weapons attacks. Given that, what evidence is there that anything an outside force could or would do would make any difference to the situation in Syria?"
WRIGHTOh, boy. That is the central question that everyone is debating. And the danger is that down the road, it actually increases the dangers, widens the conflict, rather than sends the kind of message that a limited strike intends.
ROBERTSLet's talk to some of our callers, and let's start with Samuel in Washington, D.C. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Samuel.
SAMUELHey, good morning. How are you guys doing?
ROBERTSThanks for being with us.
SAMUELFirst of all, I wanted to say that I don't think we should go to Syria. I don't think my tax money or -- I support the president in everything he has done. I don't think he should be going to Syria. But second, I'm kinda disappointed in the media, especially NPR. Every time you guys report about Syria, it seems like Assad and the army on one side and the Syrian people on the other side. I watched CNN last night. I saw Damascus. I saw the areas where -- Assad-controlled areas. There's university students going on there.
SAMUELI'm trying to find out, if we help bring al-Qaida in power -- because that's what we're gonna do, bring these crazy people in power -- what is the guarantee that they're not gonna slaughter all these people that probably educated and wants Syria to be something? What is our guarantee that we could not stop them from getting killed? That's my question.
ROBERTSThank you very much. We appreciate it. You were talking about this point, Doyle, that the opposition is very fragmented and often the conflict there is oversimplified in terms of the play.
MCMANUSRight. And one of the most striking statements about this came actually from Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a few weeks ago in which he said, look, the problem now is if you want to support the opposition in Syria, the people who we would find congenial, the people who agree with the kind of Syria we would like to see are, at this point, not effective enough to carry that out. So one of the sort of terrible dilemmas of American policy in Syria right now is there's no strategy here for winning because that's not available.
MCMANUSThe strategy is aimed at, if anything, preventing bad outcomes like an al-Qaida takeover on one hand or the, you know, the perpetuation of an even more brutal Assad regime on the other.
WRIGHTOver 50 percent of the rebel forces today are believed to be affiliated with extremists groups, whether it's al-Qaida -- there are a couple of different groups -- as well as some of the other extremist cells. And that, you know, if the other side wins, there is a danger of terrible revenge that this has become, not just a war against an autocratic regime, but it now has a very deeply entrenched sectarian dimension to it.
WRIGHTAnd the danger that, in the aftermath, there would be revenge, slaughter of the, you know, the old regime are quite real. And there are actually questions today about whether Syria can even hold together in the aftermath of this deeply traumatic conflict.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Steve in Columbia, Mo. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Steve.
STEVEHi. Thanks for taking my call. I should identify myself as one of the majority of the American public who's not at all happy about the idea of getting into another war in the Middle East or any place. But I wanna say that, you know, we've had a history. We had -- when we went into Iraq, we had very firm evidence of weapons of mass destruction which we -- based on our intelligence, and we presented to the world, and guess what, there weren't any there.
STEVESo right now, there's weapons inspectors on the ground in Syria from the U.N. professionals. Why is it too late to wait for them to, you know, to do their inspections to present the evidence instead of just initiating a humanitarian missile strike just based on the idea? We have to have a credible response.
ROBERTSSteve, thanks for your call. Aaron Miller.
MILLERIt may not be too late. But remember, the inspectors aren't gonna grapple with the questions of culpability. They're gonna grapple with the issue of whether chemical weapons were actually used. And this raises the other point about a unilateral American determination or the publication of a white paper which purports to show a clear trail that the Assad regime used these weapons.
MILLERI think, increasingly in this environment, no American intelligence assessment is gonna be universally praised as a kind of -- and I hate to use this term, "slam dunk assessment," on the basis -- or to provide enough of a basis to go to war. So I think -- or at least to undertake military action. So I think this is just another example of the case for Obama acting coming under much greater stress and pressure. Who knows where we'll be a week from now in this issue?
ROBERTSDavid in Port Richey, Fla. You have a similar comment. Welcome. We're happy to have you on "The Diane Rehm Show" this morning.
DAVIDThank you, Steve. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanna make four quick points if I can. First of all, it has not been proven that Assad, the regime, is responsible for this. It has not been proven. Two, for Kerry to lecture other countries about the use of violence as his country and his government bombs Yemen, bombs Pakistan, bombs Iraq, bombs Afghanistan, bombs Sudan and threatens Syria with bombing and threatens Iran with bombing, there aren't any principles involved there unless it's the principle of hypocrisy.
DAVIDAnd in the context that Mr. Aaron has been talking about, about the context of uncertainty or the context of believability, the context is one -- a context of lies. The presentation by Colin Powell before the U.N. wasn't faulty. It was false. It was lies, as were the claims of yellowcake, et cetera. And I think claim -- hello?
ROBERTSThanks very much for your call. We appreciate it very much. Doyle, what's your response to that caller?
MCMANUSThat, again, is an illustration of how the shadow of Iraq falls over any intervention that the United States may want to undertake, especially one that has anything to do with weapons of mass destruction. Now, you know, we could have a long debate over the principles involved and as to the use of violence.
MCMANUSLook, the argument here is that the use of chemical weapons by a government against its own people is different from, say, American drone strikes in Yemen. But that's a tough debate to have to carry out. But it's a reason, for example, that -- look, one of the ironies here is that President Obama is a great devotee of the norms of international law, but he's not gonna get a U.N. Security Council resolution which, under the strict norms of international law, is exactly what he needs, and these are some of the reasons.
MILLERSteve, can I jump in just for a second on this one...
MILLER...since he invoked my name?
MILLERI mean, the reality -- the reality -- look, we are not perfect. We have made terrible mistakes. Anomalies, hypocrisy is in the job description, frankly, of most great powers. But I have to be clear. In no way, shape or form is our behavior, and context is really -- is important here, analogous to the behavior of regime, both in terms of the father and the son that willfully, without any sense of conscience, kills thousands of its own citizens, willingness to use Scud missiles and chemical weapons against its own citizen. So I think there is some balance that needs to be interjected into the caller's whole premise.
ROBERTSThanks for that comment. There's a tweet from Rick, Robin Wright, who says, "More people have died of starvation in North Korea than have been killed by Assad in Syria. We're not humanitarians. It's about oil." What do you think?
WRIGHTWell, Syria actually doesn't have all that much oil, and it's been declining. It developed oil for export not until the mid-1980s. It's been in decline for some time. They made a terrible calculation in not using the limited oil revenues actually to invest in industry, and so the sanctions that have been posed by the outside world have actually had a far more devastating effect than, for example, international sanctions on Iran. So oil is not really an issue. And the United States actually has provided humanitarian aid to North Korea in the way of food in the past. So I'm not sure...
WRIGHT...how valid his point is.
ROBERTSYamin (sp?) in Houston, Texas. Have I have your name correct? Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show." Hello. Yamin, you're on the air.
YAMINYes. I wanted to make two points. It's all about perceptions. You can tell everything aside, but the perception is this will be the fourth -- possibly the fourth Muslim country the U.S. will be intervening in militarily. That's number one. Regardless of the factors or reasons behind this, that's how the rest of the world, particularly the Muslim world, will perceive it. Secondly, the selective enforcement of U.N. sanctions or resolutions or laws. I mean, we talk about the need for action to the U.N.
YAMINBut enforcement is very selective, let's face it. You know, we influence, we ignore certain regulations or resolutions, and we choose to implement what is our own strategic interest. So that make us look obviously very selective in our enforcement, and it's a no-win situation for the U.S. So my suggestion, I mean, as far as it would go, is why not we use the political club in the background, why not influence factors by staying in the background, holding the military back and influence through our friends and stay in the background of this whole affair.
ROBERTSThank you very much for your call. We appreciate it. I'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Doyle, pick up on Yamin's point about the perception in the Muslim world. And he makes the point that there are -- this is not the -- not the only case of American military action in a Muslim country.
MCMANUSIt's not -- Yamin said this would be the fourth Muslim country the United States has intervened in militarily. Actually, the number is much greater than four, if you include the drone strikes in countries like Pakistan...
MCMANUS...and Yemen. We could spend a lot of time counting up the number of Muslim countries in the Middle East. But Syria may be a different case in that this is at least a two- or three-way civil war against factions that are almost all Muslim. And there are Muslim counties, like Saudi Arabia, that are as committed or more committed to the downfall of the Assad regime than the United States is. So that is a perception in the Muslim world that President Obama will undoubtedly try to shape.
MCMANUSAlthough we should note, his attempts to shape perceptions in the Muslim world, which began at the very beginning of his presidency, haven't gone terribly well.
ROBERTSYou know, Robin, I pick up on that point because this has been in a strong theme, as Doyle says, of the Obama presidency. He went to Cairo very early in his presidency, made a great effort to reach out to the Muslim world, talked about his own boyhood in a Muslim country in Indonesia, spoken from a mosque in Istanbul. Well, there are many occasions where he's trying to say United States is not the enemy of the Muslim world. And here, Yamin makes the point that there are these contradictory or contrasting bits of evidence in terms of military policy.
WRIGHTAnd this, in fact, is one of the unintended consequences or potential dangers of intervening in Syria. That it cost the United States even more in its image, its standing. And Muslims account for 1.5 billion people. One out of every five persons on Earth is a Muslim. And that's not a community you want to have aligned against you. I think there -- even though there is hatred, a suspicion, anger at the Assad regime, the idea of the U.S. being the one that tries to decide what happens in the Syrian conflict is going to alienate even those who don't like Bashar Assad.
ROBERTSWe only have a minute or two left, and I wanna give each of you a chance to sum up here. Starting with you, Aaron Miller. What do you expect to happen in the next week? What can we expect?
MILLERI think that the administration, despite all the doubts and imperfections of a military strike, will probably conduct one, unless there is some extraordinary development that helps the president off of this hook. I also think it's gonna be far more comprehensive and far more devastating than any of us here seem to think in terms of...
ROBERTSYou mean the nature of the military strikes.
MILLERExactly. Let me make one additional point. Look, it informs the broader context of almost everything, I think. We are stuck in an angry, broken and dysfunctional region. And it is our fate to be stuck in this region, a region we cannot fix and a region we cannot extricate ourselves from. And that is gonna continue to be the case, not just for this president but for his successor as well. Think about outcomes, not about solutions.
WRIGHTYeah. I agree that -- I suspect we'll see some kind of military action. I think the United States faces some real quandaries across the Middle East, when you look at not just yria, but also what you do in Egypt in the aftermath of a military coup. When a lot of our -- well, it's hard to find good guys in the region today, hard to figure out who our allies are.
WRIGHTAll the hope we all felt after the Arab Spring seems to have dissipated that we feel -- face even more challenges, even autocratic rule, even more military conundrums. And I think we need a big kind of rethink generally about what it is we wanna see in the Middle East and do something about it, come up with a plan and not be so piecemeal in terms of just little bitty action here and there that may not have much broad impact.
ROBERTSFinal quick word, Doyle McManus.
MCMANUSBut to go back to the distinction we were trying to draw at the beginning of this conversation, what President Obama wants to do is something that is both decisive but also limited. And it's gonna be very, very difficult, probably impossible to do both.
ROBERTSDoyle McMannus of the Los Angeles Times, Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Thank you so much, all of you, for being with us this morning on "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. She's on vacation and will be back in this chair in September. Thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.
Most Recent Shows
Opening night at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. How speakers including Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and First Lady Michelle Obama seek to bridge party divides and build the case for presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton.
Forty-five years ago, the band “Earth, Wind and Fire” introduced audiences to a new kind of funk--one that fused soul, jazz, Latin and pop. Bassist Verdine White talks to guest host Derek McGinty about breaking racial boundaries in music and how the band is still evolving.
The Democratic National Convention gets underway in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton will accept the presidential nomination.