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Al-Qaida takes control of two cities in Iraq. The first shipment of chemical weapons leaves Syria. And former NBA players make a controversial trip to North Korea. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Anne Gearan diplomatic correspondent, The Washington Post.
- Yochi Dreazen senior writer, Foreign Policy; author of the upcoming book, "Invisible Front."
- David Sanger chief Washington correspondent, The New York Times; author of "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Al-Qaida takes control of two cities in Iraq. The first shipment of chemical weapons leaves Syria. And former NBA players make a controversial trip to North Korea. You're with me for the international hour, The Friday News Roundup. David Sanger of The New York Times, Anne Gearan with The Washington Post and Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy. Do join us. 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And happy Friday to all of you.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENHappy Friday to you.
MS. ANNE GEARANHello.
MR. DAVID SANGERHappy Friday. Happy New Year.
REHMHappy New Year. Let me turn to you, Yochi Dreazen on Al-|Qaida. What's happening in Iraq and whether this is going to turn into a civil war?
DREAZENI mean, clearly, their attempt is to reignite the civil war. Before this conquest of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, (unintelligible) Shiite civilian targets, particularly in and around Baghdad. It's hard to know whether there'll be enough of them to reignite the horrors of the civil war. I was in Iraq for most of it, and the carnage from it and just the sheer of brutality of people who had grill bits put into their arms, cigarette burns. The brutality and the carnage was staggering. It's not clear to me that this will get Iraq back to that point, but that's clearly the attempt.
DREAZENWhat I think is more interesting is this even more obvious Al-Qaeda attempt to collapse the borders between Iraq and Syria. To take what have been distinct countries and basically carve out a sort of separate Al-Qaidastan that would cross Iraq, cross Syria. Their goals are to cross it further, but that seems to be their main goal and they seem to be having some measure of success.
REHMAnne, I know Secretary Kerry has offered to help, but will not send forces.
GEARANRight. Secretary Kerry said the obvious in a press conference a few days ago, where he said the US wants to help, but will not send forces. And he said several times, we won't -- it's Iraq's fight to fight. And it's a really stunning reversal to see a movement that had been declared all but extinct in Iraq come back to such a degree. And it's taken the administration a bit by surprise. Not that they didn't see that there was a resurgence at all, but it was sort of a slow motion resurgence, and it took place at the same time as there were a lot of other political developments in Iraq that actually concerned the Obama administration more.
GEARANAnd certainly the war next door in Syria. But it all sort of exploded over the last couple of months. And it has not produced the required, well, what the administration hopes would be the required alarm in Congress that would allow them to send weapons that they've been holding up for months.
REHMSo, David Sanger, how much territory do these militants control?
SANGERWell, the question of control is a hard one to define, because they may hold an area for a while, and that's the big concern about places like Fallujah, where more than a thousand Americans died. And we have a story on the front page of the Times today about the shock of those veterans who had fought so hard to take Fallujah, and now see it go away. I think the concern here gets back much closer to what Yochi was referring to before when he said that they're trying to erase the border, basically, between Iraq and Syria, and create a safe haven. Which reminds you a lot of what went on between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
SANGERAnd when you think about the kind of strategic surprise we've been going through, as Anne was referring to before, it reminds you of nothing more than those declarations from the Bush Administration that the Taliban were gone after the American led operation in Afghanistan in 2001, only to discover, a few years later, they weren't gone at all. They had walked 50 miles into the mountains, regrouped, and come back. So, I think the big question -- there are sort of two big questions facing President Obama.
SANGEROne is, can he continue to rely on his light footprint strategy, which has been a combination of drones, cyber, special forces, to push back on various threats to the United States? And I think what we're discovering is that in the second term, the light footprint strategy is kind of running out of gas. And I think the second big question he's gotta decide is since he is -- his concept for the second term was to be able to declare, we are out of Iraq and now we are out of Afghanistan. Can he safely make that declaration if it looks like both countries are slipping back into the past by the end of this year as the US really winds down and maybe completely leaves Afghanistan.
SANGERAnd while Iraq is exploding like this.
GEARANWell, another question facing them is do they want to turn Iraq into the next Pakistan or Yemen, where the counterterrorism strategy is essentially drone based? And it would serve a function, right? As it does in those other countries, but it would just add to the list of countries where there's grievance against the United States and where, as David said, the sum of U.S. policy can be criticized as remote control.
REHMBut Yochi, at this point, how much can the U.S. do?
DREAZENIn Iraq, it's very limited. In Afghanistan, politically, it's getting increasingly limited as well. I mean, in Iraq, I was there when they were making the final decision to not sign the deal. We were toxic. It wasn't simply that Maliki felt he couldn't sign it. The Sunnis, the Kurds, the Shia, nobody felt like they were politically able to say they wanted the US to stay, even if, privately, some of them did. So, the notion of us being able to reinsert U.S. forces, unless Maliki makes an explicit request, and even then the notion that the White House might want to, is very thin.
DREAZENAnd then you look at Afghanistan. Karzai has continued to delay signing a pact that would allow us to stay. His newest thing, which he reiterated, is not until after the Afghan election. The last Afghan election was contested for months after the vote because there was so much fraud. So now, potentially, he's saying, minimum, April, post election. Who knows when the election will be sorted out, so theoretically, it pushes it even further. And the fury, and I'm not using that word lightly, but the fury within the military towards him, personally, is through the roof.
DREAZENTheir feeling is, we've lost more than a thousand people. We've had tens of thousands maimed to keep, basically, to keep Karzai in power. And his basic response, now, is the back of his hand. So, politically, it's very difficult. Militarily, it's very difficult. I don't envy the White House, but I think David's point is spot on. Their central foreign policy argument has been, we decimated Al-Qaida. Arguably, Al-Qaida is back. You know, Al-Qaida affiliates is more accurate, but they are now throughout Africa. They're in Iraq. They're in Syria. Israel is terrified they're gonna cross the border into Israel.
DREAZENSo, the kind of central claim that Al-Qaida has been decimated is increasingly hard to justify.
REHMAnd all of us takes us to the revelations in Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense, his new book. David Sanger, he certainly had a fair number of critiques and criticism about President Obama and, indeed, Vice President Biden, in regard to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
SANGERWell, first of all, anybody who thought that Bob Gates was going to write a mild mannered, you know, written from the official notes memoir about Washington, A, has never met him. And B, never read his previous memoir about the CIA, called "Out of the Shadows," which I thought was the best Washington memoir I've read in 20 years. He is very straight forward and very up front about what he thinks. You may agree with him. You may disagree with him. But he doesn't hide his views, as you saw in his comments about Vice President Biden, which you described in the first hour.
SANGERAnd in his comments about President Obama. Now that said, what's sort of missing from the Gates book is the sense that President Obama came in with a very distinct and very clear understanding that he was no longer going to use the Bush line that I just do what my generals tell me to go do. And that line, during the Bush administration, struck many of us as an abrogation of the role of civilian control. And President Obama did agree to the surge in Afghanistan, and Gates runs through that at great length, but then, he turned right around and regretted it almost as soon as he did it.
SANGERAnd as I reported in a book that came out about a year and a half ago, he then created a committee called the Afghan Good Enough Committee. And that committee's name told you everything you needed to know about what President Obama thought about this mission. Which was they had to get out doing the minimum amount possible. And it's that that Gates really has objected to. I think there's lots in the book, as well, that's fascinating on Iran's strategy. He ended up confirming what we had all published in the early 2010, that he had written a memo to the White House that basically said, you don't have a strategy if Israel attacks Iran, if Iran strikes out and either gets a nuclear weapon or reaches out.
SANGERAnd there's this great scene where the President refuses to sort of make some of those decisions, and then looks around and says, for any of you who are writing your memoirs, Gates quotes him as saying, I have made no decision here on Iran or Israel. And I thought that was, perhaps, the funniest line in the book.
REHMRobert Gates is due on this program next Thursday. He'll be here in the second hour. What was your reaction to the book, Yochi?
DREAZENI thought that some of the initial coverage was a little bit overblown. When you read the whole thing, it isn't as harsh on Obama as the initial coverage would suggest. It's harsh on Biden, and throughout the book, there are little asides about Biden that have not been in excerpts. So, near the end, when he's talking about budget stuff, he'll say, comma, so much for his supposed expertise on the budget. So there, there are these little petty jabs throughout. But on Obama, it's more measured. I agree with David completely, that the idea that the White House, at every level, shouldn't question the military, whether it's Iraq, whether it's Haiti, whether it's Afghanistan, is ludicrous on its face.
DREAZENOne of the things that's buried in the book, that I found fascinating, is he writes about a attempted -- he uses the word push, but an attempt by Karzai to be pushed out of power to make sure he lost an election in 2009, which is fascinating.
REHMYochi Dreazen. He is Senior Writer at Foreign Policy. When we come back, more talk on Syria. I'm sure on Gates, as well. And your questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd just before the break we were talking about Robert Gates memoir. Anne Gearan, I wanted to give you a chance to offer your thoughts.
GEARANWell, I think it's really just remarkable to people to have two things happening at once here, right. I mean, the typical Washington memoir is, first of all, written long after the events have actually taken place and usually long after the...
REHMFor example, McNamara's.
GEARANRight. So that's point one. And point two is, they're usually boring, right. And so Gates is doing neither of those. And he's angering a lot of people. He's riling a lot of people up. He's also garnering a good bit of admiration for his willingness to not be boring and to criticize a sitting president. He's going to continue to take a lot of criticism on that latter point though. It's an unusual thing to do and he clearly knew going in that he was going to be -- he would take a lot of heat for bringing this book out now.
REHMYou know, I remember having General Colin Powell on the program and asking him whether he had ever considered resigning before going into Iraq. And he said, no. And I asked him whether when he took his oath he took it to the President of the United States or did he take it to the American people? And he said, to the President of the United States. Now, it's a military man. It's different when you've got a civilian in charge of the Department of Defense, Anne.
GEARANIt is but it's not that different. I mean, Gates' answer to a version of that question is similar, right. He says, you know, I had to sign the letters every night to the families of the fallen soldiers. And I owed it to them. Well, he also took an oath, right? I mean, he owed it to more than the soldiers. And he doesn't discount that but it is another way of saying I wasn't signing up directly, you know, to this president for full loyalty, right. I mean, that's -- he couldn't be writing this book the way he's writing it if he did.
REHMWell, I often wondered whether-- had General Powell resigned whether we would have gone into Iraq.
SANGERThat question's been asked many times and I suspect the answer is yes because General Powell, you know, by his own admission was not in many of the meetings where the real decisions were made, which were frequently with Rumsfeld and with Chaney and with Bush. But just back on this other issue, there's a fascinating tension -- I wouldn't necessarily say a contradiction but a tension in the Gates book that I'd love to hear him talk about next week when he's out on his book tour -- and I'm sure at some point he will -- which is on the one hand he's very critical of President Obama for not believing in the Afghan war.
SANGERAnd on the other hand, he's very complimentary of President Obama for narrowing the objectives, which was a recognition that during the Bush era all that talk about creating a democracy in a country that never had had one, one that would be a model for the region was basically just way too far. And I guess the question I was left with -- and I haven't read all of the book but I've read big chunks of it -- is, is it possible to be very loyal to your troops but also think to yourself, the objectives we have for this war that we're asking them to do are unrealistic and we have to back off from those. And I think if Obama really could go answer the Gates book, that's what he'd say.
REHMWhat do you think, Yochi?
DREAZENThere is a lot in the book to that point but I think very elliptically. And that is a great question so I think, you know, now you've teed up one for Thursday when he's on the show. He doesn't address it in a way that's satisfactory. He talks very movingly about visiting wounded troops in hospitals. He talks a lot about sobbing basically at some of the letters. He also talks repeatedly about how close he came to resigning. It wasn't once. It was at least two, three, four times.
DREAZENSo, you know, he came in seeing himself correctly as unfireable. It was the last job he wanted in Washington and he felt like he was doing a service to the military basically and to the country. He did not feel like he had loyalty to the Obama White House in particular except that he'd given them his word to do the best job he could. But he talks openly that he didn't know the campaign staff. He thought that they were young, in some cases disrespectful to him. Someone counted the number of times he uses F bombs. There are a lot of them.
DREAZENThey're almost always directed at this particular White House, particularly the junior staff where at times they would say, you know, someone would call him and say, we want you to go on the Sunday Show and he would say, I don't answer to you. If the president wants me to go, bleep, have him tell me to go. And so he talks a lot about seeing his job in a weird way where he did not see it as answerable specifically to this White House. And I think that caused the tension David raised.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about Syria and the rebels there expelling al-Qaida militants in the north. Is this a signal of a shift for these moderate rebels?
SANGERWell, we don't know yet. I mean, almost everything that we thought we understood about how the Syrian war was going to proceed has proven to be wrong or at least not terribly lasting. We didn't think that Assad would give up his chemical weapons. This week the first chemical weapon shipment left. At the same time, another chemical weapons stockpile, if you believe the Syrian government, was attacked by a group of the rebels. So, you know, one on each side.
SANGERYou have a U.S. government that has said Assad has to leave but isn't acting like he's leaving any time soon. In fact, they seem to take it as almost defacto that he'll be around for some period of time. And now we've got the president having to make a decision, probably in the next week or so, about whether to resume shipments to the rebels, even if he knows that many of those arms will go into the hands of fairly radicalized Jihadists.
GEARANThis is all taking place against the backdrop of the other part of the administration's stated policy on Syria, which is that it -- the war should come to a negotiated conclusion. There is a scheduled peace conference in Switzerland in a little more than a week's time. And to David's point, the -- you can't have a peace conference if you don't have somebody to negotiate the peace with. And that's going to be the Assad government. They've said they'll show up.
GEARANThe big question is who will show up on the rebel side and will that be a coalition that the United States and western partners can support in the negotiation? Will they -- again to David's point, will they try to bolster that support with additional arms? Possibly. It's going to also be a real test of the question of whether negotiation is even possible in the midst of an active civil war.
REHMHow optimistic are you that all parties are going to show up in Geneva, Yochi?
DREAZENVery, very pessimistic that all will come. I mean, you know, to David's point about assumptions that prove false, the biggest one was that he'd be out of power by now. Two years ago there was a scent he was on the ropes. He'd be out within six months, a year, 18 months and that's proven false. If anything, his position has solidified. Militarily he's gained back territory. The rebels, at best it's sort of a stalemate in parts of the country. And more than likely they're losing ground.
DREAZENThere's also this weird dependents we now have on Assad. Signing the chemical weapons deal means that we need him to cooperate with identifying the sites, ensuring they can be safely protected, ensuring the weapons could be safely brought to the boats that will leave. So in a weird way we have restored him as a leader. And we have a dependence on him to make this whole weapons plan work. If he falls, Lord knows what happens to the weapons. So you have a situation where our assumption that he'd be gone are wrong, and in a way, our hopes that he'd be gone are also wrong. And it's mystifying to me how we find ourselves two years in without a clear strategy to get out of this.
SANGERI mean, when we go back and the histories of the Obama Administration are written, I think Syria is going to be the greatest example of sort of strategic confusion about what they wanted to go do. At least in Libya, while you may or may not have liked what the final result was, there was a decision made to go in and help oust Gadhafi. But Egypt and Syria have been cases where the administration has not seemed to have a clear set of objectives.
REHMAnd here's an email from John in Washington, D.C. He says, "Syrians are flocking across into Iraq, which indicates how awful things are in Syria. But will Syria's exodus of refugees flooding into Iraq further destabilize that area," Anne?
GEARANWell, it certainly is not welcomed in Iraq, nor at this point are the huge tides of Syrian refugees coming to Jordan and Turkey and to Lebanon, which is even more on the edge than Iraq probably. Now welcome to almost three years on, the refugee populations have taken on an air of permanence in those countries that really alarms the host governments, Jordan in particular. And the lack of a clear strategy to end the war and send those people home is something that the Obama Administration has been hearing very loudly.
GEARANAnd, you know, along with gratitude, gee thanks for the millions, we'll take them, it helps feed these people but where is the strategy to figure out how they can go home. How we can clear out the camps. And that's really something I think that's going to be at the forefront of this discussion in Geneva as well.
REHMAnd, Anne, I know you traveled with Secretary of State Kerry on his tenth round of shuttled diplomacy in the Middle East. How much progress is there really being made? The two sides haven't even met.
GEARANAt the leader level, you're quite correct. And that will be a big mark of progress if Kerry can make it happen. The main sign of progress to date is that the talks haven't broken down so it's sort of proving a negative.
GEARANBut they haven't broken down, right. Previous rounds have. And you see some posturing in public by the leaders, by their negotiators that suggests that they've got a reason to posture because they might be giving something up or thinking about giving something up. So there are some external signs that all is not lost here, but it is a long shot gambled by anyone's estimation. Kerry likes to say he's not naïve and he knows it's a long shot, but he's really invested in this. He is really working it.
REHMYochi, how much support was he able to get from his visits with Jordan's King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah?
DREAZENThe problem is that all of this is knit together. Particularly on Iran, the Saudis, the Emirates, they don't trust this administration. And when you talk to diplomats from both countries, they're upset about the deal with Iran, but they're also upset about the secret talks. I mean, their feeling is for a year you were talking to the Iranians. We had no idea. More than one -- from more than one country as described it to me is finding out your wife was cheating for a year before you found out that you were actually getting divorced.
DREAZENAnd so they don't trust the administration on Iran. They don't trust it on Syria. If you remember, the Saudis had this unprecedented step of turning down a seat on the UN Security Council explicitly in protest of the west and the U.S., it's handling of Syria. So they don't trust the administration on big issues that they see in some ways as existential. The idea that they're going to trust them or invest in this process, which they see as much less important, it doesn't fly.
REHMYochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Do you want to weigh in on that, David?
SANGERYou know, I think one of the questions that at some point the administration is bound to ask about Secretary Kerry's initiatives is, is he putting his time into the places that they most need to have that time put into. So if you think back to the first term, the big drive was going to be the pivot to Asia. He spent very little time in Asia. Within the Middle East you'd have to say that if you had to rank the administration's priorities, getting a deal with Iran and getting rid of the nuclear threat would probably be number one. Syria and Egypt would probably be number two.
SANGERAnd Israeli Palestinian peace deal, something that many administrations for many, many decades have tried, is an extremely important one. But I don't think would rank in the top level issues, particularly in a moment that we've seen the al-Qaida affiliate's resurgence that we just discussed. And so I think one of the questions is going to be, is the priority that they put on putting Secretary Kerry so deeply invested in the Israeli Palestinian effort really where you want him spending the preponderance of his time.
REHMAnd let's talk for a moment about Dennis Rodman's trip to North Korea. Where does that fit, Yochi, into the realm of sports diplomacy?
DREAZENI think if you're being hyper optimistic you say this is ping-pong diplomacy except without a ping-pong ball and with somebody who dresses in wedding dresses and is tattooed and pierced in places that probably many of us didn't realize you could be tattooed or pierced. I was living in Chicago when he was on the Chicago Bulls. He was a fantastic basketball player. Not much different. His hair was always died different colors. He always wore piercings.
DREAZENBut this is a bizarre trip. You know, he had a meltdown on CNN that has gone viral where he lost it at Chris Cuomo. He later gave the obvious apology of, hey I was drunk, you know, sort of the Rob Ford apology. But best case scenario is that this becomes some variant of a very early stage of ping-pong diplomacy.
DREAZENMore likely is that what Chris Cuomo asked was a very legitimate question. There's an American being held in North Korea. He's been held there for some time. He's largely incommunicado. Did you bring it up? Will you try to use what Rodman says is his friendship with Kim Jung Un? Will you try to look at the freedom of this American? And Rodman thought that was an insulting question. So clearly...
REHMHe shook his finger at Chris, yeah.
DREAZENShook his finger, swore. I mean, so clearly if he hasn't...
DREAZEN...if that's his reaction to the press, that's not the -- something he's focused on.
REHMYou know, you can talk about his being drunk. You can talk about his piercings and his tattoos. How did he get all these other people to go with him, these basketball players?
GEARANWell, I mean, he remains an extraordinarily popular former NBA star.
REHMBut there had to be some money changing hands.
GEARANOh sure, sure.
REHMLike how much?
GEARANI don't think we know. I mean, I don't think we know whether the North Koreans are -- what -- how much, if at all, they're bankrolling this. I think that the -- his popularity and his ability to marshal this kind of a trip and have this game there is something that you see a great deal of ambivalence about within the administration. And I find it really interesting to watch their reaction. They don't want to say it's bad for him to go. They don't want to say there should be absolutely no contact. You know, you famous person, you should not go because you will become a propagandist and this is a bad idea.
GEARANThey don't want to be quite that direct. There's strong sentiment that -- toward that point of view, but they don’t' want to say it quite that strongly. And yet he really, on this trip, did turn a corner into potentially becoming a propagandist.
REHMTurned a corner?
SANGERWell, yeah, because, you know, one of the key videos that we saw was basically singing a happy birthday song...
GEARANAll on Marilyn Monroe.
SANGER...and -- yes, the difference between Marilyn Monroe, it strikes me, and a basketball player in this case would be significant. But what I thought was interesting about the Rodman Case was that he didn't seem tuned into the fact that he was singing this to somebody who is accused of just last month having used antiaircraft guns to wipe out some of his enemies and execute them.
REHMDavid Sanger. He's national security correspondent for the New York Times. Short break here, your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd, welcome back. Time to go to the phones. 800-433-8850. First to Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Hi there, Samuel.
SAMUELHi, Miss Diane. How are you doing today?
REHMI'm good, thanks.
SAMUELI just want to make a comment about the former -- Mr. Gates. He needs to understand that the president is a civilian. We have a military that basically is a civilian military. And a majority of the people at the time did not support just sending troops and just to staying in these wars. So, you know, the president made a decision that's based on the people that elected him telling him basically, pulling him, letting him know that we don't want to stay there no more. So he cannot blame the president for making decisions based on people that elected him in. They listen to the generals and just keep fighting.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call, Samuel. Yochi.
DREAZENYeah, there was a joke last night on the Colbert Show about how -- how dare Obama take this position without the support of the American people? And then they showed the poll that 82 percent of the American people opposed the war. Support is down to 17 percent, the lowest level recorded for either war. The question, I think, you'd have to raise is, if Afghanistan were an existential threat, would you -- would you go even if there was no support? In World War II there was very little support for going into the war against especially Japan and at one point Germany.
DREAZENBut Roosevelt saw it as an existential threat and went to war anyway. So, if Afghanistan were that kind of war, then you'd say the president should go, politics be damned. Afghanistan is not that kind of war. It is not an existential threat.
REHMHere is a follow-up to that. "Seems to me," this is Dan in Sacramento saying, "we're missing a very important point about the Gates memoir. What does he say about the Bush administration? To criticize the current administration is a given, since he only recently retired. However, he did serve under George W. Bush, and we all know the disastrous foreign policy decisions that administration made."
SANGERIt's a very good question. He's much more forgiving of President Bush, at least in the portions of the book that I have written -- I have read. And what he writes in this is that President Obama was much better at asking deep questions about why it is we're in places we are and with the forces that we're in. But he's critical of Obama for having campaigned on the thought that Iraq was the dumb war and Afghanistan was the war of necessity, and then changing his mind on Afghanistan.
SANGERThe point he makes about President Bush is that Bush was consistent and never seemed to doubt either his generals or never seemed to back away from his troops. So that's the distinction he makes. I was actually somewhat surprised because, when you read the way he's written this, he describes Rumsfeld's time as his predecessor as defense secretary as a disaster that he was called in to basically fix up. And yet he gives President Bush a pass on that. And Rumsfeld was, of course, doing President Bush's work.
REHMAnd what we have here at the end of Dan's email is, "I find it impossible to believe he had nothing critical to say of Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz or Rumsfeld. For him to focus solely on the Obama administration would be at best disingenuous, at worst deceptive.
GEARANWell, he does -- I mean the first part of the book is about the Bush administration. And he's a self-described Republican. And he does give Bush better marks or maybe, as David said, a pass on some of the initial decisions involving both wars. And he's less personally critical, as Dan's email points out, he's less personally critical of those Iraq War era figures -- I mean also the beginning of the Afghanistan War, but more probably in people's minds now associated with the decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq and the way that that war started and played out initially.
REHMAll right. To Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Hi, David.
DAVIDHold on just a second.
REHMDavid? Are you there?
DAVIDI'm sorry. I wasn't quite ready for you. Yes, ma'am. Good morning.
REHMHi. Go right ahead, sir.
DAVIDYes, ma'am. My concern is that if the -- if Al-Qaida is fairly successful in what their ambition -- what their goals are, which is to set up this state, sort of, within Syria and Iraq, will they not slaughter, particularly, the Christians that live there? And would it not be, overall, in the best interest of people of Iraq and Syria for the United States to not participate in seeing that Assad be driven from power? It just seems like, to me, the best thing is for him to stay in power.
REHMYochi, how do you see it?
DREAZENI mean, if I could take those points in order. It doesn't get the attention here that it deserves -- the treatment of Christians both in Iraq and Syria. For awhile, that's because it was politicized, that was used by Republicans to attack the president. But by any objective measure, the treatment of Christians is abhorrent. You've had churches burned consistently in both countries. You've had bombs go off in church services. You've had priests assassinated and tortured. So this was once a political issue, and it's not. The treatment of Christians is completely, staggeringly abhorrent.
DREAZENTo his point about Assad, you could make a very strong case that, yes, it would be better for the U.S. if Assad stayed in power. The Israelis feel that and fairly openly. Their feeling is Assad is terrible, but he's somewhat trustworthy. His father kept the peace in the north for decades. And, if he falls, who knows what happens next? If you do have an Al-Qaida stand, they would turn their -- at some point, they would turn their focus to Israel. I think the question that the country has to answer and the president has to answer is -- is this Al-Qaida focused on hitting the United States?
DREAZENThe Al-Qaida that was in Afghanistan was. That's why we went to war is that they succeeded. If this Al-Qaida is focused internally on conquering terrain and on opposing Sharia, this may be stuff that we don't want, obviously. But is that enough of a threat to warrant any kind of military intervention?
REHMDavid Sanger, let's talk for a moment about Egypt and the trial of ousted Egyptian President Morsi. Why was that postponed?
SANGERWell, the politics of the Morsi trial are enormously complex out here. You have a military government that has basically declared that not only Morsi, but the entire Muslim Brotherhood is now a terror group. This puts the United States in an awful position, because it means that the U.S. has to choose between backing a military that it views as the most stabilizing force within the country, but also one that is now openly persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood both on its political side and its nonpolitical side.
SANGERIf the trial goes ahead and Morsi is convicted, jailed or worse, they're going to be in the position -- the U.S. is going to have to be in the position of making some very hard decisions about cutting off completely its relationship with the Egyptian military. It's exactly where President Obama did not want to be. It's also, interestingly, if you go back to the debate when you saw Mubarak being ousted, that Hilary Clinton warned President Obama they could end up in. And that's why she said you don't want to throw Mubarak under the bus until you figure out who's going to follow.
GEARANYes. I mean the Egypt situation just gets worse and worse for the administration. Just about each time it appears that the military-backed placeholder government might do something that Washington wants, they don't. And the long-wanted U.S. relationship -- military relationship with the Egyptian military seems to be counting for less and less. The main interlocutor for the U.S. at this point -- to this point has been the Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, with some -- with a lot of Whitehouse direction. But he's the guy who gets the relevant general on the phone in Egypt.
GEARANAnd he seems to be getting less and less for it as time goes on.
REHMWhat do we know about the conditions under which Morsi is being held?
DREAZENVery little. I mean we do know that there have been thousands of other Muslim Brotherhood members across the country have been imprisoned. Some of them have alleged that they have been tortured.
DREAZENVery few of them have been released, but the few that have, have said that they were tortured. It's unlikely that Morsi was tortured. But it's also unlikely that he was given any kind of comfortable housing in as many months as he was deposed.
REHMIs there a hunger strike underway?
DREAZENThere have been rumors of one. And some of it again is that this has been kept so much under wraps. And one of the few people to have seen him is Lady Catherine Ashton, who had also been the lead negotiator with the Iranians. But this is not something where the U.S. or the international community has access to him to see how he's being treated, to see if he's been being fed well. And it's sort of an amazing thing. This is an elected president of the country who's disappeared, functionally. We don't know when the trial will be. We don't know how he's being treated.
DREAZENWe don't know what kind of prison conditions he's being kept under. And, when you think about it, almost every country in which there was hope during the Arab Spring, has collapsed to some degree. There was hope about Algeria, hope about Libya, hope about Tunisia, hope about Syria. Look two years on. In what country can we say the Arab Spring brought about even a fraction of the hope that had once been invested in...
REHMSo where does that leave the U.S. in terms of trying to manage any kind of foreign policy in relation to these countries? Or does the U.S. simply back out in the face of that kind of chaos?
SANGERWell, it is a big reminder that a lot of this is not about us. At the same time, if you pull out in a very large way and say, look, there's nothing we can do to manage it, you create the kind of vacuum that we were discussing at the beginning of the show, that Al-Qaida affiliates are filling. So, on the one hand, we don't have very much leverage or control. Egypt was the case where we had probably the most leverage of almost -- in almost any place in the region. And you can see what that has bought us. Exactly what Anne said, almost nothing.
SANGERAnd yet, if the entire region turns into this kind of Sunni/Shia conflict, you are creating an opening for all kinds of forces that sooner or later can begin to launch attacks on the U.S. As you saw from the front-page story in the Times today about the concern about Americans and others who are joining the Syrian rebels.
REHMHere is a tweet from James, who says, "Dennis Rodman may not make much sense, but how is he different from car and computer companies who sell to North Korea? Yochi.
DREAZENThere are very few that do. I mean the North Korean economy is in shambles. The North Koreans who have money try to get that money out so they could buy stuff in South Korea or Japan or ideally move to South Korea or Japan. There's not a rush of, like, Ford, Chevy, GM to get into North Korea; nor can they. So, to be honest, I don't understand questions.
SANGERIt's the most sanctioned country on earth.
REHMAnd do we know about the poverty or, indeed, starvation level within North Korea? Anne.
GEARANWe know, actually, a fair amount about it. And it is a dire situation, far from Pyongyang. In the capital, Pyongyang, there is generally judged to be enough food. It's not great, but there is enough food and enough housing. Again, not great, but enough. And that -- the mostly South Korean and some international aid agencies that have either come in or snuck in or debriefed refugees who have escaped, say that those conditions are far, far worse in the countryside.
REHMAnne Gearan of The Washington Post. And you're listening to the Diane Rehm show. Let's go now to Lambertville, Michigan. Hi there, Tim. You're on the air.
TIMHi, Diane, and guests.
TIMRegarding the Gates memoir and his treatment of the Bush administration, why do you think Gates pays no attention to Robert Jackson, the American jurist at the Nuremburg trials of 1946 and his statement that aggressive war is the supreme crime against humanity?
DREAZENIt's a hard one. I mean, he does not really address whether what the CIA did was torture. He talks to a large degree about Guantanamo and how he felt it should be closed and how he felt it was a failure of the United States to close it. He doesn't come anywhere near making a moral judgment about either administration.
DREAZENOne thing he does say that goes back to a point David made earlier, he writes in the book that in all of his years in Washington, his decades in Washington -- this is the eighth president he's served under -- the three most politically courageous decisions he saw in all of them, number three was the surge. He says that President Bush went against his own party; he went against Congress; the will of the American people; many in the military including then commander in Iraq, George Casey; and he says that that was in the top three courageous things he saw in all of his career in Washington.
DREAZENHe does not say anything remotely like that with President Obama for the Afghan surge.
REHMExcept -- except he does regard the capture of Osama Bin Laden as, what Gates says, the most courageous decision he's ever seen a president...
GEARANYeah, I mean it was clearly taking a gigantic political risk, which is where Obama comes in for the most criticism in the rest of Gates' assessment, is that his Whitehouse is too political. They make too many decisions based on their own political considerations and how it will play in Congress and so forth. I mean, if the Osama Bin Laden raid had gone badly; if he hadn't been there; if that helicopter that crashed had actually killed people; if they hadn't been able to get the seals out; I mean any number of bad hypotheticals...
REHMThat could have gone wrong.
GEARAN...that could so easily have happened.
SANGERThat's right. Although Gates is somewhat self critical, because he had opposed the Bin Laden raid, and he compliments President Obama for basically ignoring his advice.
REHMSo, from your point of view, what impact, short or long-term, do you think the Gates bio is going to have?
SANGERWell, you know, I don't think that you can write a history of the Obama administration from this point going forward, without going back to this as sort of original source material. And, you know, one of the things that I think journalists have always liked about Robert Gates, and one of the reasons it was fun to travel with him and all that, is he thinks in story lines. He's got a perspective of history. He has very strong view about the way things should be done.
SANGERHe makes the point in the book that back when he was on the national security staff 25, 30 years ago, if anybody from that staff called a line officer in the U.S. military directly, they probably would have been fired. He said it happened all the time in the Obama administration. So you'll -- I think this book is going to stand up as one that's very important for understanding how decisions were made in the Obama Whitehouse.
REHMWell, I certainly look forward to speaking with him next week. David Sanger, a national security correspondent at The New York Times. Anne Gearan is diplomatic correspondent with The Washington Post. Yochi Dreazen is senior writer at Foreign Policy. Thank you all so much. Happy New Year.
GEARANHappy New Year.
SANGERHappy New Year, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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