Nine years ago, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a mission for the CIA. The story of his secret journey to Iran, the CIA cover-up that followed and efforts to rescue the longest-held U.S. hostage.
After mounting protests, Ukraine’s president says he intends to sign a trade agreement with the E.U. World leaders. Thousands of South African citizens pay respects to the late Nelson Mandela. And Time magazine names Pope Francis its “Man of the Year.” A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Paul Danahar Washington bureau chief, BBC; author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring."
- Yochi Dreazen senior writer, Foreign Policy; author of the upcoming book, "Invisible Front."
- Elise Labott foreign affairs reporter, CNN.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's visiting WUNC in North Carolina and will be back on Monday. Protestors in Ukraine say they're skeptical of reassurances the nation's president will sign a trade pact with the EU. The Obama administration blacklists more than a dozen companies and individuals it accuses of violating sanctions against Iran. And world leaders pay their respects to the late Nelson Mandela.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me for this week's top international stories on our Friday News Roundup, Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, Elise Labbott of CNN and Paul Danahar of the BBC. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThank you.
MR. PAUL DANAHARThank you, Susan.
MS. ELISE LABOTTThank you.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. We'll go to the calls on our toll free number later in this hour. It's 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Paul, you were in North Korea in 2010. Amazing announcement from there last night.
DANAHARYeah, they really do good press releases, don't they? The one that came out yesterday talked about despicable human scum regarding Jang Song Thaek, who was the uncle of the present leader, who is being executed, pretty quickly actually. They don't normally do things that fast in North Korea. They normally leave you to languish for a couple of years. So this really does show that this is a young man that wants to take control of the country. And the uncle was seen as being the power behind the throne.
DANAHARIt's a crazy place, North Korea. When you go there, it's like walking into a James Bond movie, sort of Sean Connery era. Everywhere you go, there's these big signs of The Peoples' Power and the big kind of fist raise and all the rest of it. And they act like they are from that era. It's like the Soviet Union 30, 40 years ago.
PAGESo, Elise, what do you read between the lines of the press release announcing this unexpected execution?
LABOTTWell, first of all, I should say that it's always kind of a danger to interpret what the North Koreans mean, and when you talk to experts or officials in the United States, they say, you have no idea what's going on in the North Koreans' heads. But it was very tellingly that the accusations speak of a kind of group of, Jong's group, like suggesting that the purge may not be over as this young leader tries to consolidate his power. But also to demonstrate that he is firmly in power, even if he may not feel that way.
LABOTTBecause, you know, some experts and officials say it was very reckless move, something done by someone who is insecure, to kind of say, don't mess with me or you're gonna face a similar fate.
PAGEWe know that North Korea is difficult for us to read, and sometimes acts in ways that seem bizarre. This can't be reassuring, Yochi.
DREAZENNo, I mean, it's sort of a lose-lose, either way. I mean, on the one hand, if he's consolidating power, it means a family that's led this totalitarian slave state stays in power. On the other hand, if doesn't probably have power, there's some -- if there is actually some sort of coup, you have the possibility of a nuclear armed nation going to chaos. I was struck, in a weird way, by the similarity between this and Syria. In both cases, you have young leaders take power. The West says, well, maybe they'll be better than their fathers.
DREAZENIn both cases, that's massive, tragic horrifically deadly misjudgment. The statistic, the single thing I saw with North Korea that was most jarring to me, five of the seven people who carried his father's casket, after Kim Jong Il's death, have now either been executed or shoved out of power, which is really a sort of vivid sign of a young person taking control from his father's era and his father's aides.
PAGEAnother similarity, they're both still in power.
PAGEDespite the efforts in Syria.
DANAHARBut the interesting thing is that a lot of the people that have been kicked out were close to China, or seem to be close to China. So that suggests that the young man is trying to also set his own path and not be seen to be too much in China's pocket. Because China pretty much controls everything to do with the North Korean economy. So, there's been a lot of sense over recent years that China has slowly began to lose some of the control it used to have over North Korea and over the North Korean pentacle establishment.
DANAHARAnd that's kind of worrying too, because if you can't even get the Chinese to change how the North Koreans are going to act, you really are in trouble.
PAGEWell, does this give the Chinese second thoughts about their alliance with North Korea.
DANAHARWell, the Chinese really wish that North Korea would just kind of disappear. Unfortunately, it won't, and there's lots of problems for the Chinese over security, over refugees if it collapses, over having the South Koreans on their border, and that means having the Americans on their border. So the Chinese are gonna be really nervous about these changes.
LABOTTWell, this guy was also known as somewhat of a reformer. I think you have to take it into context into North Korea and who's really a reformer. But he did support market reform, he did oppose the nuclear test by North Korea since Kim Jong Un took over. And so that might suggest a clash with the military, and as Yochi said, that's even more alarming, and the idea that he's making these purges. He did some purges in the military, and now he's doing high level purges in the party.
LABOTTAnd if he's trying to consolidate his power, no one knows who the people are that he's consolidating power with. Who are his new advisors? Are they people that have any experience? Are they just telling him what he wants to hear and giving him any guidance whatsoever? These unknowns are what are really concerning.
PAGEYou know, the idea of being a reformer in North Korea. That's gotta be a low bar. Yochi, the Obama administration announced it blacklisted a number of companies and a couple individuals for allegedly violating the trade sanctions in Iran. How does this timing fit with the administration's efforts to keep -- convince Congress not to impose new sanctions? Is that what's behind it?
DREAZENI think you've nailed that 100 percent exactly. I was watching the Kerry hearing this week, when John Kerry appeared on the House Floor. Sorry, in the House Community on Foreign Affairs. Excuse me. He was battered by pretty much everyone, Republican and Democrat. The sanctions pushed to push new sanctions on, has sort of petered out, so a lot of this was just people wanted to get points. They wanted to just look tough. They're not gonna actually do anything. But the question he was getting again and again, as he was getting, as was other negotiators before the deal, was why have you stopped sanctioning companies?
DREAZENWhy have you stopped? Why have you stopped designating companies for sanctions? So, the timing of this coming a day or two after the hearing is, no matter what Treasury says, it's comical to think that they weren't linked.
PAGEThese companies that got sanctions were not companies I'd ever heard of. What can you tell us about them, Paul?
DANAHARWell, I think the reality is that everyone has been trying to do quiet deals with the Iranians for a while. Because the bottom line is, there's a lot of money to be made there. The difficulty for all of these companies is this. Some banks, for example, even though they can legitimately trade with Iran, like for buying medical stuff and doing transitions like that, they don't want to do it, because they're worried about falling foul of some of the loopholes. Other companies really do want to keep going on, and many of them are European countries that have been trying to kind of get around these opportunities.
DANAHARAnd American companies are saying, well look, they're doing it. Why can't we? So, the big problem is, how do you tie up all these loopholes and make sure they're effective? But at the same time, not let the business industry in America say, well look, everybody else is managing to do this. We're losing out. That's the kind of difficult kind of balance that's got to be found here.
PAGEElise, the clock is ticking for -- on the six month deadline to reach a more permanent agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. Do we have any sense of how that's going?
LABOTTWell, there were talks in Vienna going on right now about how to implement the deal. And actually, there's the six months, but then there's another six months that they allow them to extend it, because once you make the broad framework of a deal, as you know, the dotting Is and crossing the Ts, is really what takes the longest time. These technical details. So, that's gonna put even more of a pressure on Congress to want to impose these sanctions. If it doesn't happen in these six months, the Iranian Foreign Minister continues to say that new sanctions would torpedo the deal entirely.
LABOTTBut it's really interesting that the administration is making these distinction between these -- you know, why does these new designations, these new groups, that's OK. It's kind of a nod-nod, wink-wink to the Iranians. We'll designate a few companies, show that Iran isn't technically open for business while we help Iran get open for business.
PAGEExtraordinary stories in the paper this morning. I read it in the Washington Post about an ex-FBI agent who disappeared in Iran. The administration had insisted he was not working for the CIA. Now we find out he was.
DREAZENIt is truly an amazing story. I mean, friends of mine emailed that he was either Argot or Homeland, or the two together. I mean, it's hard to believe this was true. And kudos to the AP reporters who have worked on this for several years before they nailed it down. So, you have this case of a former FBI agent, who is basically retired, pulled into the CIA by a group of analysts. Typically, if you're an operative, you're controlled by the part of the CIA that does only operations. That wasn't what happened here.
DREAZENYou basically had a rogue team of analysts running this retired FBI agent as a contractor, sending him to one of the most dangerous countries on the planet with no support. It was known that he was a spy for years. Congress knew about him and was furious about it for years. These three people and their boss were basically fired. But there have been no other repercussions. So, you have a case where the White House, the State Department, etc. lied to the American public publicly for years.
PAGEAnd to Congress privately.
DREAZENAnd to Congress privately. There were no repercussions for the agents who possibly sent a man to his death. And you have this tragedy of an American, a patriot, for lack of a better word, who thought he was helping the country, and was, based on what we know of the work product he sent back and is very likely died alone, starving in an Iranian prison.
PAGEDo you believe he is dead? Do we know, for sure, whether he is, Robert Levinson?
DREAZENWe don't know for sure. My gut, unfortunately, tells me he is. I think something happened here in the timing of publishing the story, after holding it for so many years, that they had reason to think that he is actually dead.
DANAHARBut you do have to wonder. I mean, if you go to Iran, as a foreigner, you can't move anywhere without being followed around. You can't do anything. You can't talk to anyone without officials turning out, after you've left, to talk to the person that you've spoken to. So, the idea that you can wander around Iran and try and do something covert is kind of crazy.
LABOTTWell, he wasn't wandering around the country proper. I mean, this Kish island, although it is part of Iran, is kind of seen as having a lot more lax rules and regulations, and a place to do...
DANAHARNo, but there's security there. That's the problem.
LABOTTWell, the place to do business. The overt security is a lot less transparent, but certainly the intelligence apparatus, and you know, the kind of things that he was looking around with in the beginning. You know, when the story first started, there was this ideas that he was looking into counterfeit, that he was looking into smuggling. Those type of things. And so, you know, he was caught -- picked up pretty quickly. I mean, I don't think they knew, from the very beginning, as you said. I mean, there was no question. But, why they didn't prepare him for that kind of eventuality is really curious.
PAGEWhat is the obligation now of the US government toward Robert Levinson and toward his family, now that it's -- we're aware that he was operating for the government? Even if they were rogue agents in the CIA.
DREAZENI mean, it's interesting that they appear to have given the family quite a bit of money preemptively. And the family, the only voices that were in this story, this blockbuster story that weren't really -- the loud voices were his wife Christine, their seven children, their grandchildren. Part of it may that the CIA gave them 120,000 dollars, which had been his contract. 2.5 million dollars, basically as a preemptive don't sue us move. But the family, it's not clear to me how much they knew, and how did they stay silent?
PAGEI'd like to know what happened to him. I'd like the government to try to find out where he is and make sure what his whereabouts are, or his situation. Well, we're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll take your calls and questions. And we'll talk about the memorial services in South Africa this week. Stay with us.
PAGELast week on the News Roundup, Diane and her guests talked about Nelson Mandela's life and his legacy. And that was certainly a very powerful one. We had the memorial service this week with President Obama and dozens of other heads of state. Emotional, powerful and some controversies. Let's talk about the first one, the handshake, the handshake between President Obama and President Castro of Cuba. The pictures of that everywhere. Lots of commentary, pro and against.
PAGEHere's my question. Paul, was this likely preplanned? Did President Obama likely go into that situation thinking, I'm going to go over and shake his hand?
DANAHARWell, he must've known he was going to be there. I can't imagine he wasn't briefed he was going to be standing around him. It's a gesture that can be made -- that can be misinterpreted if people want to. And it's kind of deniable if you want to. So I think it's probably the best way to do it. You say, well yeah, it kind of happened by accident and there he was and we shook hands. But obviously there was some planning going into this. You don't just wander up to Castro and shake his hand if you're the American President.
DANAHARSo, yes, there was -- it was kind of a very sophisticated way of opening a door quietly without -- and having a little bit of deniability about it being a planned event.
PAGEWell, the United -- the Obama Administration has talked, Elise, about the desire to have some kind of thaw between the United States and Cuba.
LABOTTThat's right. And over the last couple of years through the Obama Administration both the U.S. and the Cubans have said -- I mean, President Obama has said, we need more creativity in the relationship with Cuba. The two sides have increased talks on issues like direct mail, migration, immigration. You know, there are some small tentative steps to closer relations.
LABOTTSo while I don't think this was more than a diplomatic nicety, you know, if you take it into a larger context, there has been this warming between the U.S. and Cuba, very tentative, very slow. But I think the main thing that's holding up the two countries having better ties is the detention of Alan Gross, this USA AID contractor who's been detained in Cuba for several years as well. And, you know, there are some quiet talks going on between the U.S. and Cuba and some intermediaries for his release. But I think while both sides would like to take even greater steps towards some kind of rapprochement and improved relation, this case of Alan Gross is really holding it up.
PAGEWhy is he being held?
LABOTTWell, he was a USAID contractor that was on the ground trying to help with democracy programs and giving cell phones to democracy activists. And he broke the -- you know, according to Cuban law he broke the law. And so, you know, it's unclear what the Cubans ultimate -- their ultimate plan is. Some people think it's a bargaining chip. You know, some people think maybe once Fidel Castro dies, Raul Castro will want to take greater steps towards the United States and he'll release them.
LABOTTBut while there are talks going on, you know, Alan Gross is in jail. He's also believed to be in poor health. And so this is really the biggest irritant between the two countries. Because if you saw the handshake, Raul Castro seemed pretty much in awe of it. And he did try, at least a little bit, to linger and have a little bit of his moment with President Obama. And President Obama was polite but, you know, moved on and kissed President Rousseff, Dilma of another country that he's been kind of having some negative relations with The relationship with Brazil has been not so great in the recent years.
PAGEShe cancelled her state visit here.
LABOTTCancelled her state visit. And so I think this larger idea that this was a moment for President Obama to be true to the spirit of Nelson Mandela in reconciliation, whether that could really lead to greater relations with Cuba, I think, will have to be seen in the context of these other issues.
PAGEI would just say that American leaders have been waiting for decades for Fidel Castro to die so there could be some new heir. But here's the second thing that really struck me about the memorial service. When President Obama appeared, cheers through this huge audience. South African President Zuma appeared, boos. What was that all about, Yochi?
DREAZENYeah, part of it is just no matter how good a president he had been, by comparison to Mandela he would look terrible. But this also not a great president. He's been dogged by corruption, by multiple wives, by denying that HIV causes AIDS. He is not a popular man in and of himself. I think what's sort of tragic about all this, I mean, Obama and the flap about Castro is silly. Cuba's has been openly trying to have better relationships with us for years. The boycott has done nothing, the embargo has done nothing. We're in negotiations with Iran which is an actual threat to us in the way that Cuba isn't.
DREAZENBut you have the funeral of this beloved, beloved statesman and instead you have coverage not about the obituary, it's not about the speeches, but about Obama taking a selfie photograph with other leaders, shaking hands with Castro, this insanity with the interpreter making stuff up.
PAGEWe have to talk about that because that is one of the oddest stories I have ever heard. Tell us about this sign language interpreter who was not.
DREAZENAgain, you know, this whole week has been a week of surreal news stories. But you have a sign language interpreter and anybody who knows sign language is thinking, this guy is just gesturing randomly, touching his head, touching his heart. No one knows who he is. He says he was schizophrenic, hearing voices. The government says his company has vanished, was the word they used. But all of this stuff sort of mars what should have been a very solemn, very serious event. And it's something that's funny but something that is really tragic.
PAGEWell, I would say that the meaning of this event wasn't really overshadowed. I mean, I think the main thing we took away from it was the incredible influence that Nelson Mandela had. On the other hand, the idea that a guy who's schizophrenic is up there gesturing randomly right next to any number of world leaders, including our own president, is kind of alarming.
LABOTTIt just shows that the South African government, although there was a long plan in place I'm sure for the funeral, didn't organize the details very carefully. We had on CNN a former director of secret service talking about this and saying, you know, down to -- when there was for instance the funeral of Ronald Reagan -- down to the very last detail, everything was carefully vetted, carefully planned. And so while there was probably a grander plan in place, you see that, you know, the company at the last minute, they were trying to get someone on the cheap to do the translation.
LABOTTAnd the company now that this guys worked for kind of dried up and you can't find them. And, you know, this guy did have a security clearance from some, you know, school for the deft but he wasn't obviously carefully vetted. And this just showed that the government really had a major task in putting this event together.
DANAHARI also think it tells you a lot about South Africa post-apartheid. I spent two years living there earlier in my career. And it's -- there is real apartheid still in South Africa. It's an economic apartheid. You know, you go from one area to another and one is almost entirely white and one is almost entirely black. And there's an awful lot of people in the country that still feel that they've been cheated out of what they believed would be the legacy of Mandela. There would be more equality, they would get proper homes, they would get running water in their homes, they would get a toilet in their homes. That's still missing from many, many places in South Africa.
DANAHARAnd what this funeral showed was the ANC has not really transformed well into governing the country. It led the government -- it led the country to freedom but it's still a really bureaucratic, arcane, and in many levels corrupt organization at the lower level. And things have just not been done very well in South Africa. And I think the kind of incompetence at the funeral is an illustration of a wider problem across the country.
PAGESo before we leave the topic of the memorial service, let's talk just a moment about any thoughts about Nelson Mandela. Paul, you lived there for two years.
DANAHARHe was a figure that you -- I only was in the room with him once. And it was like children being around Santa Clause. I mean, it really was, no matter where you were from, no matter how cynical a journalist you might be, if you were in the room with him. I mean, I asked him a completely gratuitous question, just so I could tell my wife I spoke to Nelson Mandela. I mean, it's kind of sad, you know, but he was that kind of man. And he really did manage to make people think that he cared what they had to say, whether they were Africans or whether they were white -- they were English-speaking white South Africans to use another, whether they were -- no matter -- whether they were Zulus, no matter where they were from.
DANAHARAnd he was the only figure that really did manage to hold that country together. And as many people now in South Africa, particularly the white community, that are saying he was what stopped us coming in real trouble in South Africa. I mean, many South Africans, particularly white South Africans, are paranoid anyway about their future in the country. But they -- this is a watershed moment for them and they're very nervous.
PAGEI was next to Nelson Mandela once, although I didn't ask him a question. It was during the 1992 inauguration of Bill Clinton. He had been out -- released from prison for two years. He came over -- it would be two years before he was elected president of South Africa. He came to Bill Clinton's inauguration. He was seated up in the area where there were some press and some VIPs, sitting there by himself, wearing a hat and a coat, looking really happy.
DREAZENHe is -- it's so rare for us -- and as Paul said, in a cynical age, this is a beloved, revered figure of a sort that doesn't really exist anywhere in the world. And it's -- all of us who live in Washington, it's hard to look at leaders here and the level of leadership integrity, honesty and look at the sort of almost other worldly presence and life of Mandela. I just re-watched "Invictus" the movie about the work he did with the rugby team of South Africa, an all-white team as a reconciliatory measure. And even the quotes he said then in a movie about rugby, all of which were things he actually said, they're mind-blowing.
DREAZENIt's like hearing Lincoln. I mean, this is a historical figure of a like we may never see again in our lifetime.
LABOTTAnd the idea that after everything he went through that he still thought that the idea of forgiveness and the idea of not moving forward with hatred but with love in trying to appreciate your enemy, I think was one of his lasting legacies. And the question is, is there another figure in this world like Mandela? This last week I think that's been one of the main questions. And if you look around the world right now, I think that this world is short of people like Nelson Mandela.
DANAHARIt's kind of interesting too. South Africa actually managed to produce some pretty incredible people. I mean, if you look at the neighboring countries like Zimbabwe for example, right next door, and kind of catastrophic when it comes to the leadership that it got after the independence. And then again Morgan Tsvangirai now who's been lousy as an opposition leader. But you had Steve Biko, you had Desmond Tutu, you had Oliver Tambo, you had Nelson Mandela. A remarkable group of people coming out of this liberation movement. And it's not really been reproduced anywhere else in the world. It's kind of amazing really.
LABOTTAnd I thought it was really interesting when Desmond Tutu heard the booing of Zuma that he admonished the crowd and said, you're here to celebrate Nelson Mandela and this is what you do? This is the total antipathy of how Nelson Mandela would want you to behave today. I thought that was really interesting.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to St. Louis and talk to Jeff. Jeff, thanks so much for calling us.
JEFFHi, thank you. I'm curious to know -- and I don't know if anybody has any clues about this, but is it possible that Kim's uncle intervened to help get the American Korean War veteran released, and if that angered Kim and then on top of other things was sort of a last straw? Just a hunch. I was just wondering.
PAGEJeff, thanks so much for your call. Any theories here?
LABOTTI don't think so. I think those are decisions that are made at the very top. He might've suggested this but if Kim Jong Un and the military didn't necessarily want him to be released, they probably saw that there was no benefit to this. They didn't give an explanation why the North Koreans -- why they released Merrill Newman. They just called up the United States and said, you can have him. No explanation why.
LABOTTAnd again, this is -- you really can't read what's going on in the North Korean, and particularly Kim Jong Un's mindset.
PAGELet's go to Indianapolis and talk to Pierre. Pierre, thanks for holding on.
PAGEYes, Pierre, hi. You're on the air.
PIERREOkay. I'm going to get to these two points real quick, and I don't want you guys to run away from the second one. The first one I wanted to bring up was Eric Snowden in Russia. And they say that he has more information. Now I was kind of torn between what he did but when I come to find out the information he released and how it relates to me, you know, the guy has the...
PAGEOkay, Pierre, you're going to need to get to your point. What is your question?
PIERREOkay. Here's the point, here's the point. What do you think about him holding on and using that maybe as a bargaining chip? And then the other thing is, all of the major tech companies came out and issued a piece in the New York Times asking the government to crack down on this NSA plan. But I noticed that Amazon and Mr. Jeff Bezos wasn't a part of that. And knowing that he's doing cloud computing for the government and the interview with Charlie Rose and all of that and not much media -- I mean, not much criticism on that, what do you guys think about that? And I want to thank you...
PAGEPierre, thanks so much for your call. You know, I actually took your call because, you know, I get this little brief description of what it is you want to talk about. And here's what I thought you wanted to talk about is how are any of these stories, specifically the spy, kept out of the media in the first place? I thought that was such an interesting point. How could, for instance, Robert Levinson be working for the CIA, imprisoned for all these years and it's years later that we find out what really happened?
DREAZENYeah, I went to a lunch yesterday -- it was very interesting -- with an official historian at the CIA who was talking about the great counter intelligence spying efforts against the U.S., Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanson. And he made the point that Edward Snowden, who as far as we know, was not a spy although there is still some uncertainty as to whether he might've been, but that what he did, the damage he did was exponentially worse than what we had thought previously to be the worst actual spying cases in the history of the United States.
DREAZENWhat amazes me as a journalist is, typically you have a whistleblower, the story calms, maybe it lasts a few weeks. Even the Bush Administration, the warrantless wiretapping, that was one whistleblower that became a story. The story lasted a bit. Here we are months later and every day, every couple of days there's still major scoops that come out. Lord knows, he says he still has 99 percent of what he took still to go. And you just have day after day after day the churn of stuff that's happening.
DREAZENThis week was an interesting week though. You had an intelligence committee that had been looking specifically at the NSA. And the recommendations that they're going to do are privacy protections that directly derive from what Snowden leaked. So what everyone thinks of him, what he says he wanted to do was just to cause a debate about privacy. Change policy about privacy protections in the U.S. and elsewhere may actually happen.
PAGEDo you -- you know, you said there was some suspicion he might've been a spy. I haven't even heard that. Who thinks he might've been a spy?
DREAZENIf you talk to ambassadors of foreign countries, particularly those who have been spied upon, they look at -- some of it is conspiracy theory, but they look at it as, how do you have a man who flees to China and then moves to Russia without the intelligence services having some connection to him and what he does? It's in the realm of conspiracy theory to a degree. But there's still so much about this that's weird and so much that's strange and unexplained that conspiracy theories, even if they're very, very, very likely wrong, there may be a small kernel of truth to them.
LABOTTAnd that's why it was kind of fascinating that this week Time Magazine, that you talked about in the first hour, named Pope Francis their man of the year. Edward Snowden was in the top five. And that's this kind of contradiction between the idea that he -- his leaks and his revelations had, as government said, so much threat to the U.S. national security. At the same time these revelations have really shook the nation. There hasn't been that much outrage to be sure, the kind you would think, but has really changed the way we think about our government and how they're spying on us. And that's why he is seen as such a consequential figure now.
DANAHARI wonder whether -- I think most people don't trust their governments. I mean, I think the thing about the Snowden story is that people kind of go, you know, I knew they were doing it. I just needed proof and there it is. I mean, I think the reality is that I actually found coming here that people were much more relaxed.
PAGEHere to the United States.
DANAHARYeah, much more relaxed about the fact that all this was going on than I expected them to be, because in like -- for example in Europe, because of the history of the Stasi in Germany, because of the history of -- in much of eastern Europe about this whole kind of ethos. It -- I mean, the Germans were furious about it because it kind of hit home for them. But I was surprised here. There was a lack of real upset. It almost made me think people thought it was going on anyway so they were like, okay, fine, fair enough.
PAGEBut some upset.
PAGEI mean, there are people who are alarmed about...
DANAHARBut I'm comparing it to Europe and here. There was much more anger, it seemed to me, in Europe than there was in America.
LABOTTI was in Israel over the summer when this question first leaked. And they were like, big deal. We get much more than that.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about new developments in Ukraine today and we'll go back to the phones and take your calls. 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: Yochi Dreazen. He's a senior writer at Foreign Policy. He's the author of an upcoming book, "Invisible Front." And Elise Labott, foreign affairs reporter for CNN. And Paul Danahar, Washington bureau chief for the BBC. He is the author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring." Let's talk about developments in the -- in Ukraine. Those protests continue to go on. Paul, what is happening today?
DANAHARWell, they've had nine people who were arrested in part of the protest have been freed by the court in Ukraine. This is an interesting story because it really gets to the heart of the future of Europe. Europe really wants Ukraine to be part of it. It's got a lot of people. It's got a lot of potential. It's got quite a big economy potentially. And the Russians don't want to lose influence there. So it's a real tussle over what happens in Europe. And with the kind of resurgent power play, if you like, in Russia under Putin, it's something that's going to go on for quite a long time.
DANAHARThis is all about basically whether or not the Ukrainians would sign a closer deal with Europe. And that's really angered the Russians. And Ukraine is kind of in the middle and they have been for quite a while.
PAGEIs it clear, the path out of this clash between the protesters and the government?
LABOTTWell, the U.S. and the European Union are really trying to get the government to at least back off and let the protesters have their say. Have talks between the government and the opposition. There's no clear way of ending this any time soon. But, I think to Paul's point, what's interesting is this country is bitterly divided between the kind of pro-European west and the pro-Russia east. I was in Europe with Secretary Kerry over last week, and he made an interesting stop.
LABOTTHe made a -- he was going to go to Ukraine, but instead he canceled his trip and made a stop to Moldova, which did sign this European agreement for better trade and better relations. And he said something like: This is not, we don't want to engage in a bidding war with Russia over a country like Ukraine over -- or Europe. But, in fact, that's exactly what the United States was doing, was kind of negotiating and bargaining for Ukraine, for Moldova, these countries to move these former Soviet Republics to move closer to Europe and not to Russia.
PAGEYou know, Yochi, we -- the first hour of the Diane Rehm show yesterday, which I was guest hosting, was on the issue of Ukraine. And we had a caller, Jonathan, who I kept trying to get to his phone call and things kept happening and I couldn't get there. I hope he's listening today, because what he wanted to ask about was whether what was happening in Kiev could be kind of like what happened in Cairo. Could it be the beginning of a sort of Arab Spring type movement in that part of the world?
DREAZENI mean, I think the commonality is economics. You know, in both cases, not only what set off the Arab Spring wasn't purely pro-democracy, it was economic. It was people in their teens, twenties, thirties, seeing no path to a job, no path to a better life. Some of that element is present in Eastern Europe. But that's where things stop. I mean, the Ukraine, this is not a repressive government that's remotely on par with many of the oppressive governments that exist in the Arab world.
DREAZENThere are repressive governments, Belarus and others, that do exist in that region, but the Ukraine is not one of them.
PAGEAnd the -- one of the interesting things has been the very public role that foreign diplomats from the EU and from the United States have taken in reaching out to these protesters. We saw the U.S. ambassador out there at the protest with the assistant secretary of state passing out bread to protesters.
LABOTTAnd this is all about, you know, the U.S. showing it's solidarity not just with the people of Ukraine and exercising their democratic rights, but their decision, their desire for a pro-European future. And I think that's what this is all about. Yes, it's about democracy. But I think it's also about siding with the people that are ready to move more towards the West.
DANAHARYeah, this is basic, kind of the unfinished business of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, you know, there was a long period where Russia was weak and the Europeans thought it was all going their way. And Putin is really changed the game. He's really tried to kind of hold back the drift towards Europe. And this is -- and Ukraine is kind of the red line for him. He's not going to just give up on Ukraine. It's too important for him. The other countries that are involved in this pact are kind of tiny. They're not very important. Ukraine is important.
PAGEIs it important to the United States, what happens there?
DANAHARIt's important to the United States in the sense that, if the Russians get Ukraine, then everything around it is kind of up for grabs in terms of the power play. So I think it's about the Europeans and the Americans saying: We're just not going to sit back and let you run wild over there. I mean, we had that kind of in the war in Georgia, which was seen as a way -- seen as a kind of problem, because the Europeans and the Americans kind of just didn't bother doing anything. And it all went very badly wrong.
LABOTTAnd that's why Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary that you mentioned who was on the kind of picket line with these protesters, handing out bread, also went to Russia and kind of sent this message as: You get the Ukrainians to kind of back down. Make sure that there's no violence. And this is really the last battleground, as Paul said, for these former Soviet republics.
PAGEThe ambassador was there. He took a picture of her passing out this bread and tweeted it, which was a sign, definitely, of our new age. Here's an email from Jeffrey. He writes: On the suspension of non-lethal aid to Syria, I'm somewhat confused about the terminology being used. Does this mean that we are suspending food and medical aid, yet we are going to send weapons and ammunition that could potentially fall into the hands of Islamists? Yochi, how would you answer Jeffrey?
DREAZENI mean, in some ways, it's the reverse, that we would, in theory -- the already small amounts of ammunition, flak jackets, some of that, would be curtailed. The food aid, that is the bulk of what we've provided -- food, medicine, radios -- that would continue. What's weird about this, again, is the amount of uncertainty as to what actually happened. General Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army, the initial reports were that he fled, that he was in Turkey, he was in Doha, he was in Qatar. Now the Free Syrian Army is saying: No, no, no. He never left. He's still out there fighting.
DREAZENThere's still uncertainty as to exactly what happened, exactly what happened to him. What we unfortunately know, what is definitely not uncertain, is that the balance of power has shifted both in the macro sense that arguably Assad is now winning; but also that we didn't really know who the insurgents were. We didn't really want to support them in the first place. The balance there has shifted very much away from something that was nominally secular -- very much something that is somewhat frighteningly Islamist.
DANAHARBut we just have to stop talking about the FSA as if it exists, because it doesn’t. I mean, it never really has. It was a grouping -- it was kind of a political idea that you could pull all these groups together. And it never actually worked on the ground. I mean, I've spent time -- a lot of time in Lebanon and Syria, and these people were completely disorganized. And the disorganization on political level was represented on the ground. But the political level and the people on the ground weren't even talking to each other. So you have this completely disconnected group of people.
DANAHARAnd Idris, you know, really hasn't been commanding anyone. I mean, it's been, again, a kind of a symbolic role. He's been going around world capitals and chatting about how he's the head of the FSA. I mean, if he wanted to take anything, he'd have a tough time getting people to do it. The fighters don't listen to him. They never really have. And increasingly they're not going to. And I think what this -- the event this week is basically an illustration of a massive foreign policy failure, I think, in Syria, with regard to how America's tried to manage...
PAGEA foreign policy failure by the United States?
DANAHARYeah, absolutely. Because the fact is you now have Al-Qaeda on Israel's border. Now that's a fundamental foreign policy failure, because that really changes the game. And for that to have happened is, you know, is illustrative of the fact that, during the reelection of President Obama, America completely took their eye off the ball when it comes to Syria, in my view.
LABOTTThese are not some guys in a cave in Afghanistan. These are Al-Qaeda related extremists on the ground, acting with impunity. Some of them are controlling part of the border crossings with Turkey right now. And the U.S. now is forced to acknowledge this growing influence of Islamists on the ground. There is this sliding scale of, they feel now, good ones, bad ones. And they're -- none of these are the American friends. But now they're thinking: We need to regroup. We need to start working with them.
LABOTTU.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has met with some of these Islamic groups. He's out again in Turkey this week meeting with some of them -- ones that are not affiliated with Al-Qaeda, to see, acknowledging, as Paul said, the weakness of the FSA and how they may need a new military structure, which includes some of these Islamic fighters, which actually are getting a lot more done on the ground.
PAGEMeanwhile, the human cost to Syrians, it just breaks your heart what's happening there.
DREAZENYeah, and not to put a plug in for my company, but foreign policy had an event this week, in which some of the people who spoke -- Antony Blinken, who's the main national security adviser to Vice President Biden, and now to the president, talked about how this was the biggest man-made humanitarian catastrophe since Rwanda. You know, millions of people fleeing, hundreds of thousands who've been in some way directly affected by the fighting, hundreds of thousands who are probably dead.
DREAZENThe other elements of this, which I think is interesting, is that the chemical weapons deal that is now being ballyhooed by the administration as this massive foreign policy success that shows forethought and great strategic thinking. It makes us dependent on Assad. In a very weird way, we don't want to topple him. This deal only works if Assad is in power to say: Here are the weapon sites. My government will cooperate. The road is protected. We will help ensure that they get from the sites to where they can be shipped away from the Port of Latakia.
DREAZENSo we have now, in a weird way, done something that empowers him. By not supporting the rebels, we helped empower him on the battlefield. By having a chemical deal, we've empowered him on the world stage to a degree that he hadn't been in years.
PAGEWas it a calculated tradeoff by the United States? Elise said it -- getting control of the chemical weapons is so important that it's worth trading, giving Assad a way to stay in power.
LABOTTI may be a bit cynical, but at the beginning of this conflict, the chemical weapons was really not the most important thing to begin with. So, yes, after the use of chemical weapons, I think this deal was really an opportunity for President Obama to stave off military action. Then, obviously, that became the most important thing. But I do think, now, it's true that this has emboldened Assad. He has pretty much laid down a marker and said: I'm not leaving. All of this is happening a month before the U.S. is scheduled with Russia to host this peace conference.
LABOTTI'm getting the...
DANAHARLong delayed peace conference.
LABOTT...long delayed peace conference on getting the opposition and the regime to talk and try and forge out a political future -- a transitional government. Well, the opposition has never been weaker. And you've got to wonder why the United States would be desperate to hold talks like this, when their bargaining power at the table is slim to none.
DANAHARAnd the other thing is that the opposition that would be turning up don't control the fighters. So, I mean, you can have it -- even if they had a deal, they wouldn't be able to implement it on the ground. The reality of Syria is that no one knows how to deal with it now. And so they've defaulted back to the devil that they know. And that is Assad. And, if you think of where we were a couple of years ago, and Assad was on his way out as far as all the western capitals were concerned, it's a massive turnaround.
PAGELet's go to Louisville, Kentucky, and talk to Jason. Jason, hi. Welcome to the Diane Rehm show.
JASONHi. Thank you for taking my call.
PAGEYes, go ahead.
JASONI wanted to comment on a couple comments that your guests made about the interpreter situation at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. I, myself, am a judiciary interpreter here, in the United States. Spanish and English are my working languages. And I think that, you know, for many people in my professions, while this is saddening, it's unfortunately not very surprising.
JASONAnd I think, if anything, rather than writing it off as something that overshadows the memorial or something that we shouldn't be talking about, it really highlights the importance of hiring credentialed or licensed, where possible, interpreters, because it is a skilled profession. And to not do so, excuse me, to not do so on the part of the client, I think, can show a real contempt for the consumer of interpreting services; that is, the limited English speaker or the deaf or hard-of-hearing person. And I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.
PAGEJason, thanks so much for your call. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Yes, Paul.
DANAHARIt was interesting, actually. Your caller was talking about the cost of these things. In South Africa, it costs 1,500 rand an hour for a proper translator. And this chap was being paid 800 a day. So it does rather give you an illustration of how they tried to cut corners on the cost there.
PAGEHere's an email we've gotten from Harjant in Washington D.C. He writes, "The Indian Supreme Court overturned the Delhi High Court ruling on Wednesday, making homosexuality illegal again in India. Can you and your guests please discuss what this means for India and issues related to human rights in India?" I mean at a time when we see a lot of expansion of rights for gay men and lesbians in the United States and elsewhere, this was a surprise, I think, that the Indian Supreme Court restored this colonial-era law banning gay sex. Why did that happen?
DANAHARMy wife is Indian and we've spent nine years living in India together. And she was furious about this, because it was a law that was going back to the British times. It's so old fashioned, it's ridiculous. Now, the court is basically saying: Look we have to get rid of this because it has to go through Parliament. The politicians should actually create a law to do this. It shouldn't be down to the courts. But it was seen in India, at the time, as being a real step forward for human rights, not just for gay rights, because there are so many old, arcane laws that are hanging around in India.
DANAHARPeople talk about -- we've seen that with the rape laws recently. People are still accused of Eve teasing. Eve-teasing is the word that's used in courts in India for rape and sexual harassment. So this was seen as a step of finally undoing some of that old-fashioned way of looking at these issues. It's a big step backwards.
LABOTTI think it also shows how, even though India is such a growing economy and developing nation, how conservative the society really still is, because the law did have a lot of support among conservative Muslims, Hindus and Christians in the country.
DREAZENYou also have this interesting thing where India has been held up for so long as this shiny example of the world's biggest democracy -- kind of the anti-China, when it comes to political rights. But, you know, as Paul mentioned, in terms of rape and sexual harassment and assault, I think most people -- who knew about India as sort of the high-tech sector, you know, which was kind of the default that we knew about it to the degree that Americans knew about it at all -- were stunned that you could have women gang-raped to death in the heart of a major city, and no one stop it.
DREAZENSo I think that, you know, to the point that both Paul and Elise have made, is a reminder both it is a more conservative, in some ways, not as developed country, but also a country that it isn't simply the shiny democracy, the shiny example of western values. It's still has a very, very, very long way to go.
DANAHARBut I think there is a big difference between the political establishment in India and the people of India. The political establishment in India doesn't work. It's never really worked. The economy that's booming in India is not because of the politicians, it's because of the businessmen and the people. And I think that's what we've seen come into play. The politicians don't want to do anything that might get them some controversy, might affect the people that support and fund them. But the Indian people, particularly in the urban areas, are a completely different kettle of fish, I think.
PAGEThere was a U.N. Security Council vote this week to send more troops to the Central African Republic. And we saw the Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, order the U.S. military to airlift troops in, although African troops, not U.S. troops. What is happening there?
DREAZENThis, by the way, I spent some time in Mali earlier in the year, where there was a sort of similar dynamic. You had the French. You had African Union troops. In this case, they're from Burundi, being flown in. The U.S. trying to help because the French don't have the same kind of airlift capacity -- they can't fly troops as well as the U.S. can.
DREAZENThis is something where you have a fairly brutal war now between Christian militias, Muslin militias -- a country that is sort of potentially going off the rails of both France, which has interests in -- all across Africa; the African Union, which is becoming -- trying to become a stabilizing force, but they don't have the capacity -- they don't have the capability. What you have with the U.S. is the U.S. trying to do basically the bare minimum. The U.S. does not want troops on the ground. The U.S. does not want to be bombing or involved.
DREAZENSo, as with Mali, this is a way you could help without really doing a whole lot.
PAGEIs what's going on there a genocide, Elise?
LABOTTWell, U.S., U.N. and other officials and experts have warned that this is -- these are the seeds of a genocide. And I think that, at a week that everybody was getting together to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela and this type of peace and reconciliation message that he had, you're still struggling in the international community to deal with some of the most depraved acts: rape, torture, killing, acts of -- crimes against humanity. Last week, about 500 people were killed.
LABOTTAnd so there is a concern that, you know, while there's not a lot of talk, you know, daily in the news and everything about the Central African Republic, there is in some organizations, is this the foreshadowing of another Darfur? And I think that's what the international community is, particularly France, wants to prevent.
PAGEElise Labott, she's foreign affairs reporter with CNN. And we've also been joined this hour by Paul Danahar, Washington Bureau Chief for the BBC and Yochi Dreazen, Senior Writer at Foreign Policy. Thanks so much for being with us this hour. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back on Monday. Thanks for listening.
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