From day one, it was clear that Donald Trump was like no president this country had ever seen. Eight months into his term, we talk to Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith about the lasting impact Trump may have on the presidency, itself. Then, historian Dan Jones on the Knights Templar, the Medieval secret society that inspired "The Da Vinci Code".
Guest Host: Susan Page
Debate over Syria dominates the G-20 summit in Russia. Egypt’s interior minister survives a car bombing. And Brazil and Mexico demand an explanation of alleged U.S. spying. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- David Ignatius Columnist, The Washington Post, and contributor, “Post Partisan” blog on washingtonpost.com; author of "Bloodmoney: A Novel of Espionage."
- Courtney Kube National security producer, NBC News.
- 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. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Debate over Syria dominates the G20 Summit in Russia. Iran assigns a US educated foreign minister to lead negotiations over its disputed nuclear program. And Brazil and Mexico demand an explanation of alleged US spying. Joining me for the international hour of our Friday news roundup, David Ignatius with the Washington Post, Courtney Kube at NBC News, and David Sanger with the New York Times. Welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.
MR. DAVID IGNATIUSGood morning.
MR. DAVID SANGERGood morning.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation with your questions or your comments later in our hour. You can call our toll free number 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Now, the G20 Summits are supposed to be about the economy, David Ignatius, yet this one, like many before, have been dominated by some other topic in the news. This time, it's Syria.
IGNATIUSIt happened that immediately after President Obama had announced that he was taking the issue of whether to attack Syria in response to its, I want to say use of chemical weapons, not alleged use because the evidence is pretty strong. This summit came along and it gave the President an international forum in which to make his case for an international response to events in Syria. Also, it provided a last opportunity, before Obama pushes for military action, to try to work out with Russian President Vladimir Putin some diplomatic solution, some return to the kind of joint diplomacy that the two sides have been discussing for more than a year.
IGNATIUSReconvening some kind of conference in Geneva that would bring elements to the regime and the opposition together. We now know that Putin and Obama met together today briefly.
PAGEAnd that was a surprise.
IGNATIUSIt was a surprise except there were little signals from the White House, as the President was leaving, that such a meeting might happen on the sidelines and it did. It's hard to know, but not much seems to have come from it. It was a short meeting. The rhetoric between the two is less nasty than it had been in the months preceding this. We remember that Obama cancelled his planned summit meeting with Putin in Moscow in anger over a number of Russian policies, but in particular, harboring Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker.
PAGEBut Putin had previously, I guess, was in yesterday, said that Secretary of State John Kerry is a liar, which is not the language that you often hear from the leader of a foreign nation, Courtney.
MS. COURTNEY KUBEThat's right. He was referring specifically to Secretary Kerry's testimony. Secretary Kerry, Hagel, and General Dempsey all testified this week about Syria before the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee. And on Wednesday, I think it was, before the House, Secretary Kerry was asked specifically about the opposition, the composition of the opposition in Syria. And he made a comment, something to the effect of 15 to 20 per cent of the opposition are Al-Qaida or other enemies of the US. Something to that effect.
PAGEBad guys, he called them.
KUBEBad guys. That was the very technical term. But then, President Putin, when he was giving the interview to Russia state run TV, he was asked about that and he specifically said oh no, I mean, there's Al Nusra are part of this opposition and they are bad guys. And Secretary Kerry's a liar and it's very sad. It's sad that he would say this. I mean, the language out of Putin was actually funny if it wasn’t so rude, frankly. But, it actually, I mean, Vladimir Putin has a little bit of a point to question Secretary Kerry's rhetoric on this.
KUBEYou know, intelligence officials that we've been speaking to, for weeks now, have been saying that the opposition, the quote unquote opposition in Syria, is 50 per cent or more Al Nusra, Al-Qaida, and other extremist elements. So, where is Secretary Kerry getting these numbers and they're not showing us the intelligence.
SANGERWell, Secretary Kerry was sort of laughing off the Putin line about liar yesterday, and he clearly did not want to make a significant issue of it. But Courtney's right. They were low balling the numbers a bit, at least versus the US intelligence. That wasn't the only number that was low balled in the course of testimony. There was discussion about the very low cost of what an attack on Syria would be and it was in the tens of millions of dollars. It sort of reminded you of those early estimates that got people fired before the Iraq War, not that these two conflicts are in any way comparable.
SANGERBut, what you're seeing right now is this tension between a President who needs to convince his own base that this is not really a war. It would be a brief strike. 24 to 48 hours. We're over with it quickly. And then, at the same time, convince everybody else that there's a broader strategy here that will actually do some significant harm to Assad. And he's having a hard time keeping both those narratives going at one time.
PAGEI am fascinated by the use of Twitter by world leaders, and this morning we had the Italian Prime Minister, who was at the dinner at the G20, sent out a tweet. The tweet said, "The G20 has just now finished the dinner session, at which the divisions about Syria were confirmed." So, David Ignatius, you just said that this was an opportunity for the President to kind of make his case to other world leaders. Did he have any success?
IGNATIUSWell, there's a list of countries that, at least nominally, support some kind of action in Syria. Although, these countries, for the most part, will not provide military force. But it's a substantial list. It's principally US allies. France, Japan, in the region Saudi Arabia, Turkey. I think the support for this action is tepid at best, in part because the US, starting with the President, has not made a clear strategic case for what lies ahead. I mean, everybody understands that the situation in Syria is enormously dangerous.
IGNATIUSHere's Al-Qaida taking a foothold on the boarders of Europe. Here's a regime using chemical weapons against its own citizens. And yet, US policy has been, you'd have to say, episodic. And so I think the world is looking for clearer, stronger US positions. If Obama made the case last night at the dinner, we haven't heard about it yet.
SANGERThe difficulty, which David has pointed out, I think you're resound in the debate on the Hill, just as you're seeing it with the foreign leaders. The President decided to stay largely out of Syria, with the exception of some modest arms to the rebels, during a period of time that 100,000 people were killed by conventional means. And then steps in when chemical weapons are used that may have killed, if you believe the American numbers, 1400. The British are still at, and the French are still at somewhat lower numbers. But whatever it was, on the basis that there's a line that the President himself drew last year, a red line about the use of chemical weapons.
SANGERThe difficulty is that this creates a disconnect between the American motives for going in, which is, as the President used that phrase that he probably now regrets, a shot across the bow, about the use of chemical weapons. And what David was referring to, which is a broader strategy to stop the killing. And the Obama administration has said, this isn't about a broader strategy. This is just about making a point on WMD. Which is fine, but first of all, much of the world isn't with him on making that point, and secondly, it doesn't tell you what happens the day after the strike.
PAGEBut, we do have a cultural norm, I guess is what the President's been calling it, that says use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. The world will respond if you use chemical weapons. Does that change if there is not response? If, say, for instance, Congress declines to authorize military action and the President then decides not to go ahead with it.
KUBEI mean, we don't really know. I spoke to someone about this yesterday who is someone at the Pentagon, who is of a firm belief that if the Senate approves this but the House does not, the President will still go forward. He was asked specifically about this the morning in St. Petersburg and he wouldn't say what he's gonna do. So, we don't really know, but, I mean, you know, to David's larger point, what happens the day after a strike? Where are these strikes gonna be?
KUBEWe're starting -- there's this remarkable Mission creep, and I cringe to even use those words, but there's this remarkable Mission creep that's already beginning about Syria in the last week. Initially, it was, these are very tailored, these are very targeted strikes. Then, in the last 24 hours, we started to hear words like, B2 Bombers, B52, airstrikes. We're starting to hear about additional assets that may be called into this. And, I mean, that just introduces this entire new element. I mean, it's almost like going to war in Syria when you're talking about that.
KUBEYou're talking about combat search and rescue, emergency basing in the area. I mean, you're talking about a whole other element to this strike, that the White House is starting to put out these additional strikes.
IGNATIUSLet me share with listeners what I heard from the commander of the Syrian opposition forces in southern Syria in a telephone interview on Wednesday. He was very specific in saying, if the US is going to strike, strike hard at targets that make a difference. He listed six airfields and three missile batteries around Damascus, which he said, if those are destroyed, Assad's ability to wage this war against his own people will essentially be so severely degraded, he'll have to come to the negotiating table.
IGNATIUSAnd he said the opposition, the 30,000 forces that he commands, are prepared to move after a US strike. The problem is that when you push him about how the opposition will maintain order, how it will prevent a kind of Iraq like chaos, lawlessness, the same thing we saw in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, you don't get good answers, and I think that should worry people.
PAGEAnd you do have great questions about the nature of the Syrian opposition. A very powerful and disturbing photo on the front page of the New York Times yesterday that showed some Syrian soldiers being executed by...
SANGERThat's right, and the photo, Susan, was actually just an outtake from a video, and the video was one of the most chilling things I think I've ever seen. It dates back to March or April, and it is a reminder that the rebel groups here are going to be, are hardly ideal American allies.
PAGEWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk, among other subjects, about what's going on with Iran. We'll take your calls and your questions, read your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio for the second hour of our Friday News Roundup, David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. He's author of "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." And Courtney Kube, she's national security producer for NBC News. And David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post and contributor to the Post Partisan blog on WashingtonPost.com.
PAGENow Courtney, you had mentioned just before the break about the reported expansion of targets, the idea perhaps of mission (word?) in terms of the U.S. plans for Syria. The president was asked about that this morning in St. Petersburg. What did he say?
KUBEHe was -- NBC's Chuck Todd asked him specifically about that and he declined to talk -- I mean, frankly he outright said that it's just not true, that there's this increase -- expansion of any kind of mission there. But that being said, you know, one of the things that General Dempsey keeps getting quoted on, and he's sort of pushing back on very lightly, is this notion that if the U.S. strikes Syria today or tomorrow or next month, it will look exactly the same, that the military can continue to strike whenever they need to.
KUBEThe problem is, the military can have an effective strike today or tomorrow or next month but the targets will be different. Assad has been moving around people and weapons and assets. There were some reports he was hiding scud missiles and moving them along roads outside of Damascus to -- you know, so that they can't be hit by U.S. strikes. So, I mean, it sort of stands to reason that there may be an expanded mission but then the question just becomes, all right, so if the mission is already being expanded to, you know, have to hit these new targets, these expanded new targets, what's next?
KUBEYou know, what happens if accidentally they hit a chemical stockpile or they expose some sort of chemical weapons area? And then are we talking, God forbid, U.S. boots on the ground in Syria to secure a chemical weapon site? It's just one of those things that you can watch this sort of slowly changing and expanding mission over the last week.
SANGERWell, we reported on this this morning. Eric Spint (sp?) and I got the story about the changing nature of the target list. And I think you can change the target list without changing the mission. But the targets have to change because, as Courtney suggested, the chemical weapons, the delivery vehicles for them, they are all on the move while congress conducts its debate. So this is not a static situation. And I think the president's comments today were pretty carefully crafted to make them sound like they're not changing the mission, which I think is a defensible position. They clearly are changing some of the targets.
SANGERAnd then they've got a second issue, which is they don't know entirely how Mr. Assad is going to respond if this happens. So when they go in and they do their first strike, they want to do it in a way that prepares them to be able to do a second one if Assad strikes back. And that may well mean taking out air defenses and so forth.
PAGELet's go to Portland, Maine and talk to Wes. Wes, hi. Thanks for calling us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
WESHi, how are you doing? Hey, I was wondering, like, how does the UN get enough power so that they can intervene in these conflicts without having to rely on, like, public support from, you know, every single country and every single leader and they have to go through union -- or go through congress? I'll take my comments off the air.
PAGEOkay, Wes. Thanks for your call. David Ignatius.
IGNATIUSWell, the simple answer is that the United Nations is structured so that the UN Security Council can authorize the use of military force by member states in the case of aggression, international crises of one sort or another. The U.S. famously tried to get that UN Security Council support for its invasion of Iraq in 2003, alleging Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction, what turned out to be flawed intelligence. They didn't get the UN vote in any event.
IGNATIUSIn the case of military intervention in Libya, the security council essentially ducked it. The Russians and Chinese cast no vote in effect and allowed the action to go forward. So there is a mechanism for the UN to allow member states to intervene. There are also UN forces -- blue-helmeted forces but they're typically not peacemaking. In other words, they don't go in and make peace when people are at war. But they keep peace once there's been a settlement.
PAGELet's talk to Steve. He's calling us from Ocean City, N.J. Steve, you're on the air.
STEVEI'm very troubled because there's an AP journalist named Dale Gavlak who Syrian rebels in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta have admitted to AP correspondent Dale Gavlak that they were responsible for last week's chemical weapons incident. Which Western powers have blamed on Assad's forces, revealing that the casualties were the result of an accident caused by rebels mishandling chemical weapons provided to them by Saudi Arabia.
STEVEFrom numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence Chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan and were responsible for carrying out the deadly gas attacks, writes Gavlak. I mean, the -- what is going on that the truth of this matter's not being truly analyzed as to what the reality is?
PAGESteve, thanks so much for your call. Now let me ask our panel who follows this closely, is there any question about whether this was the Syrian government using chemical weapons or whether it was rebels in some king of horrible accident?
SANGERI can only tell you -- well, we spent a considerable amount of time on this. I would say the evidence that we've seen so far, and we've learned enough from the Iraq situation and other situations, to know that the initial reports that you get are not always the final reports. There are intercepts of Syrian commanders making preparations before these attacks and discussing the attacks afterward, including with some surprise about their size.
SANGERThere is some video of rocket launches from bridges near these areas. That doesn't tell you necessarily who launched it but the more studies that have been done of the actual rockets themselves, including a very interesting one that came out of MIT this week, indicates that this was a fairly sophisticated warhead that was put on a fairly small rocket. And so far we have found no particular evidence that chemical weapons have left the control of government stockpiles.
SANGERNow, that doesn't mean that something else couldn't have happened but this is a fairly large attack. And remember, sarin gas is not easy to handle. You need stabilizers. It's fairly tricks. You need some training.
PAGECourtney, do you agree with that, that the evidence seems pretty clear?
KUBEYeah, I haven't seen the report that Steve is referring to but, you know, he's sort of -- it speaks to sort of a larger problem with covering Syria, which is there's just so much confusion on the ground. But, you know, as David said, we haven't seen any evidence that the rebels, the opposition have the capability of carrying out an attack like this or of even handling sarin gas and other chemical weapons like that to even have any kind of an accident.
IGNATIUSI have the same sense from my own reporting. A lot of that is talking to Syrian opposition sources who do have an interest in pushing this line, I should stress. But I've read extensive doctors' reports, looked at the videos that were taken. The area that was principally targeted, that Steve referred to, East Ghouta, is a key strategic area. It rings Damascus to the east and really controls eastern access to the city. And it's why the regime so much wants to push the rebels out of there.
IGNATIUSThe major loss of life was in East Ghouta in these rebel-controlled civilian neighborhoods. It's hard to imagine a rebel operation that would've led to that kind of loss of life in their own area.
PAGEYou know, watching Twitter this week, we had a Tweet that seemed to come -- apparently came from Iran's new president and here's what it said, "As the sun is about to set here in Tehran, I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah." I mean, my jaw dropped, David.
PAGEWhat do you make of this?
SANGERThis came from the newly elected President Rouhani. It looks like, you know -- I'm sure it was highly calculated. I'm not sure that he sits there and types in his own Twitter feed but it is part of a string of statements that we have seen from him and from some around him. And then we've seen the appointments he's made. He appointed the former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations who was educated in the United States, speaks English quite fluently, knows everybody at this table and many other journalists around Washington and New York. Not exactly the sort of fire-breathing type, somebody who's been looking for a way out.
SANGERSo the oddity is that just as the United States is considering this strike on Syria with all of its implications for Iran, it looks like the Iranians are making some motions. Now there are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of this, including the fact that President Rouhani himself, who was a nuclear negotiator in past times, wrote in his memoirs that the negotiations at times served to allow Iran to continue key elements of its program -- a peaceful program he has insisted. But it does raise the question of whether there's finally an opening.
PAGEIs there? Courtney, do you think that this signals a real change in Iran's approach?
KUBEI think there's some cautious optimism, you know, It's -- I mean, let's be honest. Rouhani is still -- he's still close to the Ayatollah. It's not like this move is going to in any way cut the Ayatollah out of any kind of decisions about nuclear negotiations. But it does put someone who's Western educated, who has a history of diplomatic, you know, background at the table for the nuclear negotiations.
KUBEAnd also, just back to Twitter, you know, that wasn't the only unusual Tweet out of Iran, which doesn't even allow. It blocks Twitter in Iran, of all places anyway. But the foreign minister had a back and forth Tweet with Nancy Pelosi's daughter this week, which I found fascinating. And it was -- Nancy Pelosi's daughter said to him something like, you know, you should really not -- if you're going to wish everyone a happy Rosh Hashanah, you should go so far as to say and not deny the Holocaust. And he said, well I'm not the one who denied the Holocaust, and the person who did is gone. So have a blessed New Year, or something to that effect.
KUBEIt was just remarkable to see Nancy Pelosi's daughter and the foreign minister of Iran engaging about Rosh Hashanah on Twitter, of all places.
PAGEWe'll have another chance to take a closer look at Iran's new president when he's in the United States just later this month, David Ignatius, to address the UN.
IGNATIUSHe's coming to the UN. The charm offensive that's already beginning will go into high speed when he's here. He's planning to meet with some members of the media. As David...
PAGEWill he meet with you?
IGNATIUSWell, you know, my welcome mat is out. My notebook is in hand.
PAGEI think all of us would be glad to meet with him if he's listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
IGNATIUSAs David said, the appointment of Javad Zarif, the former UN ambassador as foreign minister and the decision to give him the nuclear portfolio is interesting and important. I would just make one observation, which is that if you're both Iran and Israel watching events in Washington over the last several weeks, you would say that the likelihood that President Obama will take military action against the Iranian nuclear program is less than it was a month ago. Both because it's clear how much the president doesn't want to go to war again in the Middle East and because it's clear how opposed the country as a whole and its selected representatives are.
IGNATIUSSo I think if you're Israel, you have to say, if we're going to take -- if military action is going to be taken to stop this program we really are going to have to think about doing it on our own. And if you're Iran you have to factor that in and then you have to make a decision, is this the time to come -- to make our vest deal when our adversaries are weak or should we roll the dice in the future?
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. And we're going to read your emails. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Well, let's go to the phones and talk to Mohammad. He's calling us from Indianapolis. Hi.
MOHAMMADHi. I'm a little confused. We have some of the most intelligent human beings on the planet earth, Harvard, Yale, MIT. And they are now telling us they're going to go kill some innocent men, women and children who live on one side of town because some other thought someone who they're not sure of killed some innocent people on the other side of town. Now meanwhile, my little grandson is being expelled from school because he hit a little boy on the playground who he thinks hit him. But he's being expelled. And he's only doing what our president is doing. Someone please help me understand this. I'll take my answer off the air.
PAGEMohammad, thanks very much for your call. Okay, David Sanger?
SANGERWell, I'm not sure I can speak to the specifics of the school issue. But the caller raises a very good point about the paradox that you get into when you use force to stop force. And in this case, the president has tried to make an argument that he can tailor this strike to go after the forces that are most directly responsible for chemical weapons attacks, and thus deter but not prevent Assad and his forces from using chemical weapons again.
SANGERNow, there's always -- when you do an attack like this there are always going to be civilian casualties or very likely are going to be civilian casualties. And so you have to ask yourself, at what point does the broader issue of trying to prevent future chemical weapons attacks override the huge risks of doing any kind of military operation in the sovereign space of another country?
PAGEHere's a question that came up during the first hour of our News Roundup and that was, is there not some diplomatic option still available? Is there not some other course than between doing nothing and military strikes? Courtney, is that -- has that been -- have those options now been exhausted?
KUBEWell, David actually wrote about one option on the Hill this morning from Senator Manchin about asking Syria if they would sign the chemical weapons convention. They would have 45 days to do it before any kind of military action is taken. So, I mean, that is one option on the table. I think that a lot of people in the White House in the administration had hoped there might be a more concrete statement that was a little bit more forceful, maybe some more allies coming forward out of the G20. That obviously didn't happen.
KUBEThe UN unfortunately seems like it's all but a dead end for this. So unfortunately the diplomatic options are not, you know, wide ranging at this point.
PAGEDoes this situation we have, the president isolated, now going to congress for authorization before undertaking action, the world community kind of not stepping up, is this the -- setting precedence for the way the world's going to work going forward, David Ignatius?
IGNATIUSWell, it is worrisome to see the President of the United States as weak as he appears to be internationally right now. He is -- Assad appears to have gone ahead and used chemical weapons in the face of a very specific warning from the president not to do it. That this was a redline, which means there will be consequences. He appears to have done it anyway. President Putin in Russia doesn't see, it seems, any reason to accommodate -- president -- very, very strong requests on a range of issues.
IGNATIUSSaudi Arabia increasingly thinks it should be responsible for its own security because it can't depend on the U.S. Egyptian generals decide that they're going to run Egypt the way they want. And, you know, I think, as I said a moment ago, Israel increasingly will decide it has to take responsibility for its own security. So when the credibility of an American president declines to the point that seems to have happened here, I think there are real consequences that people should worry about.
PAGEDavid Ignatius with the Washington Post, and we're also joined this hour by Courtney Kube from NBC News and David Sanger from the New York Times. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk about a car bombing in Egypt and we'll take your calls and question. Stay with us.
PAGEThe Associated Press moved a story from St. Petersburg just about a half an hour ago reporting that President Obama at his news conference in St. Petersburg said his administration will work with the governments of Brazil and Mexico to resolve tensions over allegations that the U.S. monitored their communications.
PAGEThe president met separately on the sidelines with the president of Mexico and the president of Brazil at that summit in St. Petersburg. What's the issue here David Sanger?
SANGERWell, no great surprise, the United States conducts regular espionage on foreign leaders including some friendly ones just as foreign states, China, Russia, many American allies, Israel, conducts espionage here in the United States. But what's happened out of the Edward Snowden disclosures is that these have become public and once they become public they come into an area where foreign governments cannot ignore them.
SANGERThere are sort of three categories of the Snowden revelations. There's the category of how we're spying on friends and adversaries which is not a great surprise. There's the category of what the NSA may be doing in the United States and what kind of American communications they may be collecting either incidentally or not incidentally many of which are a surprise.
SANGERAnd then there's the stories like the one The Times had this morning about what kind of technological progress they've made in breaking the kind of encryption on our everyday internet communications which of course is what the NSA was created to go and do.
SANGERThey will maintain that they are breaking that encryption to be able to make their way into foreign computers not American ones.
PAGEYou know, no surprise that we spy on foreign countries, including our friends, right? That's like the scene from "Casablanca" about what, gambling going on in this facility? But do you think there's been surprise, Courtney, at the extent to which it works, the material to which the United States' spy agencies apparently have been privy even when it comes to say the president of Brazil or Mexico?
KUBEAbsolutely, and the president of Brazil and her administration are particularly upset because this is nothing to do, this is not spying with anything to do with terrorism, to thwart potential terrorist attacks. It's really to give the United States a leg-up in commercial and industrial negotiations. So they find that particularly offensive.
KUBEThey've, you know, recalled their ambassadors and President Dilma Rousseff was supposed to come to the U.S. next month. I think it was the only state dinner this all, this entire year which in and of itself just proves how important the United States government is looking at Brazil as this growing nation in South America with this friendly leader. She's really improved relations since she came in a year or so ago, two years ago. So, you know...
PAGEAnd now she's saying she might cancel?
KUBEYes, her advance team that was supposed to come in and lay the groundwork for her visit next month was held back in Brazil. They weren't allowed to come forward. The reality though, I mean I was just saying during the break is, I saw President Obama walking up for the family photo for the G20 this morning and he literally walked straight up to President Rousseff, hugged her, kissed her on the cheek.
KUBEThey didn't look like they were in a big fight. I mean they looked to be perfectly friendly. They had a meeting on, you know, the sidelines of the G20 where this came up and, now the Brazilian government has asked for a written apology and an explanation for why they did this. I don't see any indication the United States will do that. But it seems as if realistically her visit will probably go forward next month.
KUBEThey'll have the state dinner but this will come up and she will probably take the opportunity to bring it up in front of the media next month.
PAGEDavid Ignatius, how much effect has Snowden had in terms of U.S. relations around the world? I mean these series of stories including the one on the front page of The New York Times today have been just stunning.
IGNATIUSWell, they certainly have added to this sense in the world that America is an overwhelmingly powerful, intrusive and I would add, as seen from abroad, arrogant superpower. I've had German friends take me aside, you know genuine angst, talking about the way they feel about the revelations of American surveillance in Germany.
IGNATIUSAs David said earlier this is what intelligence agencies do, ours and everybody else's. They exist to break the laws of foreign countries, to steal the secrets that their governments decide matter. Whenever these things come out there are what spy agencies call flaps, meaning everybody gets furious that there's a diplomatic incident and then people keep spying on each other.
IGNATIUSOne interesting question is whether the revelations of NSA capabilities have been so extensive that they really will compromise the NSA's ability to collect the intelligence that most American citizens would say matters, which is not about what the Brazilian president is thinking in trade negotiations but about terrorist threats to the United States and to Brazil for that matter.
PAGEWhy would it limit it? Because there will be a political backlash?
IGNATIUSOne thing that you saw looking at the correspondence and other records that were taken from Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad after he was killed which I had a chance to read along with other journalists is how extensively he and other top al-Qaida leaders went to school on our surveillance capabilities.
IGNATIUSI mean they really were smart. They would, you know, meet in tunnels. They were elaborately secure in their telephone communications. That's how bin Laden stayed hidden for five years in this town, sort of a Pakistani West Point. He just didn't communicate electronically.
IGNATIUSSo there's undoubtedly, as people see these capabilities, they're going to be more careful about email, every kind of, and every kind of electronic communication.
PAGELet's talk to Albert. He's calling us from Rosenberg, Tx. Albert, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ALBERTAh, good morning, thank so much, it's a pleasure being here. I know, I'm short on time but I want to talk to both of your guests and you, Ms. Rehm. The question is in regard to what the president and about Syria. Okay, as a former United States Marine, the president has not committed any. First of all let me say he done a wonderful job by coming out and stating what he wants to do with Syria, not going to be paralyzed by the Syrian thing, you know, dealing with Libya, Egypt and so on.
ALBERTAnd also, in the same breath saying that I cannot do this alone. I am coming back to the American people and I'm going to ask them to support me in this cause. Now, real fast, this is where I stand particularly on that issue.
ALBERTI couldn't care a less if Assad used chemical weapons. I couldn't care a less if the rebels used chemical weapons, but what I do care about as a Marine, I do care that chemical weapons are being used. So if Assad wants to say, hey, it's not me doing it, it's the rebels. It's al-Qaida doing it. So, well, al-Assad, if the rebels are saying, hey, it's the Assad regime, so, well rebels, the thing is chemical weapons are being used regardless of how they're being used and you don't want that to over-spill anywhere.
ALBERTSo I do support the president about just striking these facilities, or striking these areas because Pandora's Box is open. It doesn't take a country to launch a nuclear weapon.
ALBERTI'm sorry ma'am, forgive me.
PAGENo, Albert, thank you so much for your call and let me thank you for your service to our country in the Marines. But now David if the strikes that we're talking about, would they be directed at chemical weapons stores?
SANGERThat's the one thing they won't be directed at. And they won't be directed at the chemical weapons stores for the obvious reason that you don't want to cause exactly the kind of environmental and health disaster that everyone is out trying to prevent.
SANGERAnd you know this is the oddity of chemical weapons because chemical weapons pose a local threat but they don't pose an existential threat the way nuclear weapons do. But they're much harder to move, clean up, and take care of than even nuclear weapons and to some degree, biological weapons.
SANGERYou know when Libya decided they'd give up its nuclear weapons program, they hadn't yet developed any (technical) we sent one or two air force cargo planes that loaded all the equipment on. They flew it to the United States. They put it in a weapons lab and it was done.
SANGERIt's taken the U.S. 14 years to try to destroy its own stockpiles of chemical weapons and we're not done yet so you can imagine what a mess it would be trying to clean up those that are in Syria.
PAGESo that would make the question of who used these weapons, the critical one because you're not going after the weapons store you're going after whoever deployed these weapons.
SANGEROr you're going after the delivery systems so that they can't be used by anybody. The fact of the matter is though in some of the earlier chemical attacks they were just dropped from helicopters. I mean you don't need anything terribly sophisticated.
PAGEDavid Ignatius, we saw a car bombing in Egypt directed at the interior minister. He did survive although others were wounded. Who is responsible for this?
IGNATIUSWell, no one officially claimed responsibility. The assumption because the Muslim Brotherhood has been so sharply repressed since the generals moved in is that it's them or their friends and allies. The interior minister had been a particular target of their anger because he and his forces had led some of the attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood.
IGNATIUSThis is sign that Egypt is in for a period of instability that's going to last a long while. Unfortunately the Muslim Brotherhood which, you know, had become an above-ground political movement battling for power through elections, some elements of it, people who study this think, are now moving underground thinking they have no alternative but violence. Now what that means is that Egypt is in for a very, very difficult transition.
PAGEWhat are the implications for the United States, Courtney?
KUBEWell, you know as David said, I think that this is the very beginning. In fact Mohammed Ibrahim, the interior minister who was targeted in this alleged assassination attempt, that hasn't been proven, but it looks like an assassination attempt, he himself said that this is just the beginning.
KUBESo it looks like this is the beginning of maybe a low-grade insurgency and potentially even more seriously of a civil war. And the U.S. you know, it's the same thing that we've been talking about, about Egypt for months now is that the U.S. looks at Egypt as an ally. We provide them with millions of dollars in military assistance and funding and it continues to destabilize.
PAGEHere's an email from Mary. She writes us from Farmington Hills, Mich. She writes. "Could someone please tell me what is the purpose of the UN if it won't enforce a chemical weapons ban? It is just taking up a lot of prime real estate in New York City. I don't mind the U.S. military being an arm of the UN but I don't want the U.S. to be the UN" David Sanger?
SANGERAh, good point and many New Yorkers make the real estate point as well. They also make several points about traffic particularly during the September meeting that's coming up. The issue here is that while the United Nations was created as an instrument to set global rules it has never been given a real enforcement mechanism.
SANGERAnd the enforcement mechanisms as David said earlier, fall completely on the Security Council and then on the contribution of foreign forces who sometimes are put in what's called blue hats, the United Nations' peacekeepers.
SANGERBut as an enforcer in this kind of case where there is no peacekeeping mission to happen the UN has struggled for five decades, longer, to figure out exactly how to go and make this work and if you don't get unanimity on the Security Council, at least among the five members, you've got a paralyzed situation.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David Ignatius, here's another email we've gotten. This person asks. "How much of the Pacific Ocean is contaminated with radioactive material from Fukushima? Can we trust the Japanese Electric Company or the Japanese government to handle the problem?" Now this is a reference of course to the disclosure this week that the things there are, at the Fukushima plant are worse than we had been reporting.
IGNATIUSThe terrible reality is that it's impossible to answer that question and the more time passes the more clear it is, that statements by both the Japanese utility and the regulators who are supposed to oversee this and contain it have not been reliable.
IGNATIUSWe have this enormous spike this week in radioactivity from the plant. This plant, it sounds like something out of "Buck Rogers", to have a freeze wall around, underground to contain this. But I think for the future that the most worrisome issue is the unreliability of government information from Japan about the crisis from the moment it happened.
PAGEAnd has that, what effect does that have on the Japanese government, Courtney?
KUBEWell, they've actually just now, this week, announced that they're going to provide, I think it's half a billion dollars to help with the cleanup. But the perception right now is that it's just too little, too late. You know, where were they two and half years ago?
KUBEAnd then the larger problem is just with this, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, you know, they look as if they weren't ready for a disaster like this in the first place, that three nuclear reactors melted down. And then there's been this string of lies frankly coming out of them about what the impact has been.
PAGEWe started with the G20 Summit in this hour David Sanger. Let's close with it too. The G20 Summit is really supposed to be about the economy. This had less of a crisis air about the world economy than the last several such summits. What was the discussion like?
SANGERWell, it seemed like less of a crisis there because there's much less crisis. I mean when you think about what that first G20 that President Obama went to and it was his first global summit, it was in London in 2009. The real question was, was the whole world on the brink?
SANGERI mean, right now the question is, you know is China going to keep up its growth? But many of the worst issues, the most immediate issues about Europe have been a little bit alleviated. The unemployment rate remains remarkably high. But global growth is slowly coming back and I think that that has been the good news.
SANGERThe bad news about this is that while the G20 has proven that it can act on short-term issues such as the crisis in 2009 its ability to have a sustained long-term agreement on global growth strategies is pretty poor and so to some degree they operate much better in a crisis than they do day to day.
SANGERIt's the opposite of Japan where I lived for six years and what we've seen happen in the Fukushima crisis we were just describing was I think entirely predictable which is that Japan operates much better in the day to day, staying organized but when a crisis comes their ability to do crisis response is pretty poor.
PAGEWe're just about out of time. Here's an email from Jim who writes us from McLean, Va. He writes: "How would a strike in Syria comport with Obama's 2008 campaign resolutions, one, the U.S. must act multilaterally and two, the U.S. must improve its posture among the world public." What would you say to Jim, David Ignatius?
IGNATIUSWell, I think that President Obama has a terrible problem here in that it's poignant. The president came to office wanting to end these foreign interventions. The president who had opposed U.S. military involvement in Iraq ends up making a case, a very lonely one, for intervention in Syria.
IGNATIUSThe problem is that he's right in saying that if the international norm against the use of chemical weapons should become dissolved so that people feel they can do that with impunity we're living in a different world and a scarier world. And I think that's the point the president keeps making.
IGNATIUSIdeally to come back to an earlier question, if the UN inspectors should issue a report stating clearly they were used and used by Assad I think the pressure even on Russia to take action would be enormous.
PAGECourtney, do you agree?
KUBEYeah, absolutely and Vladimir Putin has even said that he's not ruling out that Russia will in some way act. And also Jim may get his wish because the president announced this morning in Russia that he will address America. He'll address the public on Tuesday night.
PAGECourtney Kube, David Ignatius, David Sanger, thank you all for being with us this hour. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Thanks for listening.
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