War in Ukraine: airstrikes, drones and a looming counteroffensive
This week saw heightened tensions in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. A wave of drone strikes hit the Russian capital Tuesday morning, bringing the war to Moscow for the first…
World leaders condemn North Korea’s nuclear test. The U.S. and European Union pursue a new trade pact. And Pope Benedict XVI announces his retirement. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. North Korea detonated its third nuclear device and confirmed its intentions to build ballistic missiles. President Obama announced another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan over the next year. And Pope Benedict announced his resignation. Joining me in the studio for the International hour of our Friday News Roundup, Michael Hirsch of National Journal magazine, Kim Ghattas of the BBC and Matt Frei of the U.K.'s Channel 4 news.
MS. DIANE REHMDo join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. So good morning to all of you and a belated Happy Valentine's Day.
MS. KIM GHATTASThank you.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHGood morning.
MR. MATT FREIThank you.
REHMYou have red on this morning, Kim. Let's start with North Korea, Matt Frei, and the fallout from North Korea's nuclear test.
FREIIndeed. I mean this is pretty serious. It's the third test that they have conducted. The first one was in 2006. There was a second one in 2009. And this one has people really worried for several reasons. One is that there's a fear that this might have been conducted with enriched uranium, rather than plutonium. It is much easier to enrich uranium and to do it in an undetected way because you don't need a large military reactor to do so. You can do it in military-style tunnels of which North Korea has 8,000 of them.
FREIAt the same time, if they're using enriched uranium, it's possible that they're going to do this on an industrial scale. And perhaps more important than that, they're trying to create small bombs that they can strap to ballistic missiles. Now, we know that they've made an 800-mile range missile, which was relatively accurate, unlike some previous ones. So the combination of missile technology, which is getting better, nuclear technology, which is getting more efficient and a huge market for this stuff out there--it's one of the few exports that in the past that North Koreans have had.
FREIIt has some people here in the State Department, in the Pentagon and, of course, elsewhere pretty alarmed because the last thing you want is some sort of nuclear arms race in the region, in a neighborhood which is already, as we know, from the Diaoyutai Islands, an extremely volatile one at the moment.
GHATTASAbsolutely. I think that it isn't just here in the U.S. that people are worried, but also in the region. And the Chinese are particular, I think, are really trying to figure out how to handle this because this isn't just a test for the United States. This isn't just North Korea trying to desperately get America's attention and get them to the table for negotiations. It is also in a way a test of China's new leader, Xi Jinping. How is he going to handle this?
GHATTASIs he going to continue to protect, if you will, the poorer cousin or brother down the road, or is he going to be increasingly worried about the way North Korea behaves and the consequences this is going to have in the region? You know, is the region going to face an accelerated U.S. ballistic program? And that would really worry the Chinese. So they've got a fine line to walk here.
HIRSHYeah, that's very true. And the White House, this week in conversations with me and other reporters, did attempt to lay a lot of this on the Chinese and what they would do to intervene because this was an act of defiance to them. But this is also really an illustration of the failure of the Obama administration's first term policies toward North Korea. They adopted this policy they call strategic patience, which was basically, we're not going to negotiate with you until you sort of unilaterally agree to suspend your program and that didn't work. And now, four years later, you know, we have this.
HIRSHAnd as dire as the impact is of what Matt and Kim were referring to, it's also a very serious matter in terms of the demonstration effect several thousand miles to the east because an enriched uranium bomb is what Iran trying to build. And even the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon just this week said this shows, you know, we have to take the confrontation with Iran seriously because of the effect that this could have on Tehran's own decision to proliferate.
GHATTASJohn Kerry, the new secretary of state, this week, if I'm not mistaken--the days seem to blend into one when there are so many events. But John Kerry, this week at the State Department, said precisely that, that they were watching North Korea very carefully, that it was important to send a message that the international community would not allow non-proliferation because they wouldn't allow it on any level, including Iran. And that was very much a message directed at Iran.
GHATTASYou've got talks coming up with Iran to try to impose limits on its nuclear program a bit later this month in Almaty in Kazakhstan. So as Michael was saying, this is also a test of the way the Obama administration implements its policy towards these countries that are proliferating. And adding to the concern is that North Korea, we hear this morning, have told the Chinese that they're getting ready to conduct another one or two tests down the road. So how much can you keep going down that road with, you know, the Americans and the North Koreans trying to figure out how to talk to each other and the North Koreans, using these tests to try to get attention from the U.S.
FREII think someone once said that North Korea is a country that only a mother can love. And if one assumes for a minute that China is some sort of mother or perhaps stepmother, it is divided in itself how to deal with this errant child because there is a faction in China that was deeply upset by the fact that the North Koreans essentially kind of thumbed their nose at Beijing and said, we're going to do this test. And whether you like it or not we're going to do it. And the Chinese said beforehand, we'd rather you didn't do this and they did it anyway.
FREIBut there's another faction that says we quite like North Korea being troublesome, but not out of hand. What you don't want is for them to fuel some sort of regional arms race, which then makes the Japanese tool up and suddenly the Chinese get wide and we talked about these islands before, this is a real--these islands, by the way, which get ignored by everyone because they're called lots of unpronounceable, unspellable names by different people, Diaoyutai or Senkaku, I think, by one side and the other, are really important.
FREIWatch those islands because this could become what the Crown Prince Franz was in 1914 in Sarajevo in a very volatile neighborhood, with regional coalitions and sort of tectonic plates, you know, converging, it's very, very dangerous.
REHMExactly in the earthquakes that resulted after the bombing took place?
GHATTASI mean that's a sign that a test took place. That's how you detect whether there is nuclear activity. And the seismic magnitude of that quake was estimated at the scale of five. It takes a few days before you can detect the radioactive cloud, if you will, and the nature of that cloud. So it hasn't been confirmed 100 percent yet, if you will, by the scientists, that this test was conducted, but most people say, you know, the North Koreans, when they say they've conducted a test they usually don't lie. They've conducted that test.
REHMIt's interesting because you had a Japanese official saying a natural earthquake normally starts with a small tremor, followed by a larger one. This quake's strength was the same throughout.
FREIBut, you know, the mouthpiece of the North Korean regime--and I guess there are kind of no other kind of newspapers in North Korea--said quite openly before the test, if the imperialists--and by the way that's you and me--have intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, we deserve to have them as well. They stated this very clearly indeed. But just to get back to what Kim was saying, there's a kind of very, nerdy, anarchy point that's worth making, that it's very hard to detect whether a bomb or a nuclear test has been conducted with enriched uranium or plutonium.
FREIAnd they only way to do that is to test what are called the xenon gasses that come out of this explosion in 10 or 20 hours after the explosion has actually taken place, but in order to do that you've got to be fairly close to the site of the explosion. And that's the reason why they do these tests in tunnels, because it's not that you can't see them because the seismic activity can always be registered. It's that you don't get hold of the gasses so you don't find out whether it's uranium or plutonium.
HIRSHBut we should have some perspective about this. I mean, this has been going on for about a generation.
HIRSHSince the early '90s, the Clinton era agreed framework. It has been a game of nuclear blackmail by which this long-isolated country, perhaps the only truly Stalinist country left on Earth, which is truly unique, desperately impoverished economy in need of fuel and food aid, has used its nuclear program and of course it's absurd that a country as poor as North Korea has one. It can only have one because of the totalitarian nature of the regime--has basically said to the west, you know, we're going to continue with this program unless you give us aid.
HIRSHAnd we saw various iterations of this, you know, all the way through the 2000s and up until the beginning of the Obama term. And in the last couple of years, realizing that its policy of strategic patience, that is not talking to North Koreans, wasn't working. The Obama team had begun to try to bring the North Koreans back to negotiation. And now it's clear they need to do a complete reset and find a new way to get back to the talks.
REHMWasn't there some indication early on that the North Koreans were prepared to behave somewhat differently, Kim?
GHATTASWell, I just want to point out first that what was interesting to me about this event is that the State Department was actually informed beforehand by the North Koreans through diplomatic channels that they were going to conduct this test. I'm going back to what Michael was saying and what Matt was saying, it is a cyclical, you know, development that we see in this region again and again with the North Koreans constantly trying to get America's attention. They want these bilateral talks with the U.S.
GHATTASI think that what they want is the U.S. as their mother and not the Chinese, but they're just not getting there. And the thing is, for the Obama administration it becomes very tricky. Well, are you suddenly now going to agree to talks with them, now that they have conducted a nuclear test? It would be giving in to the blackmail, but if you don't talk to them, you know, how do you resolve this? I have yet to see any creative new ideas out of the box to address this. And we also have to remember North Korea has a new young leader…
GHATTAS…trying to prove himself.
HIRSHWho is no different in any respect whatsoever from his father Kim Jong-il. That's what the other thing is that is demonstrated by these tests. The regime continues as it was and so, again, it's another cycle of the same challenge.
GHATTASAnd just to say, I mean, sons of dictators, I think, have proven often around the world, whether it's in North Korea or in the Arab world, that they are like their fathers.
REHMKim Ghattas, she's State Department correspondent for the BBC, author of a forthcoming book on Hilary Clinton during her years as Secretary of State. Short break here, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Three journalists are here with me for the International Hour of the Friday News Roundup. Matt Frei, Washington correspondent of the UK's Channel 4 News, Kim Ghattas. She's with the BBC. Michael Hirsh at National Journal. Do join us, 800-433-8850. A couple of emails on North Korea. One from Heather in Ann Arbor who says, "My sister, brother-in-law and nephew live in Seoul. Is this nuclear situation something about which South Koreans need to be worried? I read that both South Korea and Japan are making their military ready." Matt Frei.
FREIWell, the South Koreans, as we speak, are organizing massive military exercises, live fire exercises off the coast of North Korea to send a signal. And again, this is as Kim said earlier, some of the stuff is cyclical and indeed this is a cyclical response to it. But you don't need nuclear weapons from North Korea to obliterate Seoul, a city of, what is it, 10 million, 12 million people? There's enough artillery pointing at Seoul from North Korea and quite a lot of artillery pointing the other way too, that can create a serious problem.
REHMBut how likely is it that North Korea would begin an attack on South Korea?
FREII don't think -- I don't think it's that likely because there are also 37,000 American troops based in -- close to Seoul. So if Seoul is hit some of them will be hit and they can expect a very robust response...
FREI...from the United States.
REHM...one final email, "Why is North Korea preoccupied with worries that the U.S. would attack it, Michael?
HIRSHWell, because partly this is over the fact that there's been no formal end to the Korean War. The North and South remain in a state of, you know, formal hostility at least, which is why you have all these troops lined up. And that's been part of the ideology, the liturgy that you've heard from this regime, you know, since that time, for the past 60 years.
HIRSHSo officially they are concerned but I think it's important to bear in mind that this test is really not about South Korea, I think, or even the threat from the region as it were. It is really more a signal to the world, to the West, do not ignore us. You do so at your peril and, you know, an attempt to again gain an opening to new talks.
REHMAll right. And while I was going to go to some other topics, we've already had a couple of emails regarding Pope Benedict's resignation. One from Mark in Easton, Md. who says, "Please comment on the motivations of Pope Benedict. I've heard some reporters say he may be attempting to have a more conservative successor by having a conclave conducted while he's still alive." It's my understanding he won't have any place in the selection of the new pope.
FREINo. The Vatican spokesman Francesco (sic) Lombardi has already said, this pope -- outgoing pope will not take part in the conclave. He will be still on the premises as it were.
FREIAnd he's going to retire to a convent inside the Vatican walls. I mean, you can see someone in Hollywood is already coming up with a plot here. You know, it's got lots of intrigue and all them you know, the mystery that you usually have. But of course he's also, you know, I wouldn’t say packed, but he has helped appoint cardinals, you know, in his conservative frame of mind that will be sitting on this conclave.
FREIBut then so did the previous pope. I mean, John Paul II wasn't exactly a liberal. So the college of cardinals is packed with conservatives. One of the key questions will be is whether they'll go outside Europe, whether we might have the first African pope or indeed a Canadian pope. I mean, I think (word?) already taking bets on pope -- papal candidates in London as they do, and they see Africans are winning at the moment.
REHMAnd here's the other email, "Did the pope attempt to cover up some of the sex abuse scandal in the early '80s? Did this revelation have anything to do with his resignation?" Kim.
GHATTASI mean, there is a very distressing record there but I think that the decision that he made was probably very much linked with developments today with his health. I mean, he is 85. He is -- he has a pacemaker that we've about for the first time this week. He had surgery to replace the battery three months ago. He was -- apparently the decision that he took to resign was made last year when he was on a trip to Mexico and Cuba.
FREIHe bumped his head.
GHATTASHe bumped his head. He had some blood on his face and he stained his clothes. And I think that just brought forward his sense of mortality. And he decided to abdicate. Now, you know, you have people who are quite divided about that decisions because it is the first time that a pope decides to abdicate since 1415. And some people are saying, you know, is he just abandoning the boat? Is he quitting on a job that God gave him? How do you quite when your employer is God?
GHATTASAnd then there are people who say, well actually, you know, this is really about trying to give a leader to the Vatican -- to the Catholics around the world that is strong and healthy. And the age will play a big part when the decision is made.
REHMAnd what will his legacy be, Michael?
HIRSHIt's a good question. The caretaker pope coming after a pope, you know, he once served, John Paul II, who may well, you know, become a saint, who was deemed a great figure in history because of the part he played as a Polish pope and the ending of the Cold War. The man, you know, who began as Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany was never seen as anyone who was going to leave much of a mark, and he hasn't.
HIRSHCall me a conspiracy theorist, I don't like to come across as one, but I do find it rather ironic that a pope like this who was seen and saw himself as such an up keeper of tradition would become the first pope in 600 years to resign despite his age and ill health. I mean, we all remember how, you know, the end of the tenure of John Paul II, the man that he -- Benedict served. And he went down to the bitter end like many popes before him.
HIRSHIt's -- I just find it a bit odd that he would decide to do this simply because he wasn't feeling well.
FREIYou know, or the bump on the head. But also to just -- I think that's absolutely right, but he was very open about some of the reasons for his resignation in several statements that he made in the Vatican this week. And he talked an incredibly lowered language about the divisions in the church. He said the church had been defaced, that there were factions within the church that were trying to destroy the church. I mean, this is not the kind of language you normally expect from a pope, especially one who's just resigned because he might've had a bump on the head in Mexico.
FREISo there's something going on there. He didn't refer to the sex abuse scandal, and he may not even have been intending to refer to it in elliptical ways by using those terms. But I think, you know, if you take it all, you know, together and we might find out more stuff in the next few weeks, it's possible that here's a man who is just too old and too frail to deal with all the stuff that was coming down the pipe. And so the combination of the stuff and his own physical health makes a very -- you know, quite a compelling argument to stand down.
HIRSHThere's more to the story, I think.
REHMMore to the story to come.
GHATTASLots of intrigue.
REHMAnd certainly lots more to the story to come on Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry says he plans to bring a new approach to the difficulties going on. He's estimated some 90,000 people have been killed there. What new ideas are being floated, Kim?
GHATTASI'm not sure there are new ideas but they are new approaches. And I know they sound like the same but a lot of these ideas have been on the table for quite some time now. And it's just about whether you can revive them and whether you can go about this a different way because this conflict has been going on now for 24 months.
GHATTASThere is one thing that John Kerry said this week that intrigued me. He was at the State Department and he said, what you have to do is try to change -- and I'm not quoting verbatim -- but you have to change President Assad's calculation. Not about the fact that you want to try to convince him to abandon violence, but that you want to convince him that it's really time to start walking towards the exit and agree to a negotiated solution to this conflict.
GHATTASNow how do you do that? Well, you go back in time when he was still a Senator, John Kerry last year said that it was time to arm the rebels or create a safe zone because unless the rebels had the upper hand militarily, President Assad would not feel the need to enter into any negotiation. Now of course we've heard recently about the divisions within the administration, about whether to arm the rebels directly or not...
GHATTAS...because they are already being armed by some of America's allies. But it's about whether the United States wants to get more involved. I think that debate was painted in slightly too black-and-white tones. I don't think there was, you know, everybody...
REHMOr on them or not on them.
GHATTASWell, I don't think that Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta and David Petraeus all went to President Obama, banged their hands on the table and said, you have to arms them, and President Obama said no. I think it was one of the many options that were on the table and it was just the assessment was that it could work or maybe it wouldn't work. Otherwise people like Clinton and Panetta would have pushed harder.
HIRSHWhat the president was presented with were classically from the CIA, a set of different options and different levels of arming and arms. And he was told basically at the level at which the Americans would feel safe, in other words where you wouldn't have highly sophisticated arms, like (word?) that could be used against the Israelis or even commercial aircraft, if they fell into the wrong hands. And unless you went to that level and you were only supplying lower, you know, more -- less sophisticated arms you wouldn’t be able to tip the balance in this fight.
HIRSHAnd that was the debate going on inside the administration, which is one reason why even though there was a divide, I don't think it was that heated as Kim as saying. I just wanted to add though, I think that we have a very, very different situation now because we have a different Secretary of State. I mean, John Kerry is not only someone who has met with Bashar al--Assad some six times I believe, you know, while he was Senator, he is someone who is quite eager to engage in the sort of direct mediation that frankly his predecessor Hillary Clinton was not. And so I think you're going to see something different.
REHMWhat about the status of a proposed meeting between Moscow and Syria? What do we know?
FREIWell, there was supposed to be a meeting, wasn't there? There was supposed to be a meeting -- there was a lot of optimism at the beginning of the week and at the end of last week about a possible meeting between high level Syrian government officials and the opposition. And I think the chap was called -- is called Moaz al-Khatib who's one of the opposition. He's recognized by the United States and apparently -- and Kim probably knows more about this than I do -- this meeting was lined up and suddenly it didn't happen.
FREIAnd I think Kerry's been trying to get a hold of his counterpart Sergei Lavrov for the last three days and Lavrov has not been returning the calls. So something has gone wrong. There's something inside Moscow that, you know, smells trouble basically, in terms of lining up these talks.
REHMMaybe it's this meteor that has fallen in Russia.
HIRSHWell, I would also add that there's very different politics and much more tense politics going on between Moscow and Washington right now, having a lot to do with, you know, returned President Vladimir Putin's sounding a tougher line, accusing the U.S. of internal interference in human rights. They had a big tussle over whether, you know, Americans could adopt Russian kids, which they decided to ban.
HIRSHAnd so I think that is all playing into the new difficulty that the U.S. and Russia are having over, you know, how to deal with what has been nominally a Russian ally, which is Assad-led Syria.
REHMYeah, just on that adoption thing, didn't Putin allow those already in progress to go forward?
HIRSHYeah, a measured response but nonetheless, just part of this very tough line that Putin and Russia have been taking.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's move on to Afghanistan. President Obama announced another 34,000 American troops will come home over the next year. And by the end of next year our war there will be over. What about America's commitment to Afghanistan through 2014, Michael?
HIRSHWell, there's been foreign pledges strategic partnership, which was announced right after the NATO summit last May, that U.S. will remain committed in terms of aid and support through 2024, which is absolutely essential actually. I mean, the key point here, which many Afghans will tell you, is not to have the same sense of abandonment that they had after 1989 when, you know, the U.S. left having supplied the (word?) there.
HIRSHThat's very critical to standing off the Taliban. Many experts say it's critical almost as having the troops. But what we have now is a situation where the president has said, we're going to reduce, by this time next year, the troops we have there by about 34,000, which will mean we have about 32 to 34,000 left. And it's up to the generals on the ground to decide how to pace that. and then by the end of 2014 the U.S. will be down to a very small residual force that has not been determined yet, but it's almost certain to be less than 9,000 troops whose entire duty will be, at that time going forward to 2024, to continue to help in the training of the Afghan army and to do, you know, special operations, counter terror.
GHATTASIt's always such a difficult balancing act to, you know, satisfy the political domestic agenda, balancing what you need for the military to do its job in a foreign country. Balancing what the people expect from the president here in the U.S., but also meeting the expectations and the hopes that you have raised in a country like Afghanistan. And it is always -- as Michael said, there is a sense of abandonment when the U.S. suddenly ups and goes and heads towards the exit.
GHATTASAnd there is concern here that if the negotiations are not handled properly, we could see a repeat of what happened in Iraq where there was an expectation that there would be a residual force. And by the end of that negotiation everybody -- you know, all the troops left. So there is that concern and what that would mean also for a long term commitment towards Afghanistan, which the Afghans are expecting of course. They feel ambivalent about the U.S. presence, but the minute you say you're leaving then they're worried about what that means for their future.
REHMNow before we go to the break, let's talk a little bit about the EU and U.S. plan to create an economic NATO of sort, Matt.
FREIThe sexiest topic of the week, no doubt. The EU, U.S. Transatlantic Trade Agreement. Now this is not a new idea, although many European diplomats listening to the State of the Union Address, especially German ones, would've been tickled pink by the president bringing it up. It actually originally was muted by President Clinton back in the '90s when he was talking about the NAFTA, people were talking about TAFTA, which would be, you know, the kind of -- the equivalent of that, but across the pond.
FREIAnd, I mean, you know, it's essentially a reaction to what Asia's doing. It's the Americans and some Europeans -- not all of them, and we'll talk about Britain's role in all this, which is slightly uncomfortable, piggy in the middle, basically trying to respond to, you know, the massive sort of uber market of China and what Asia represents. So if you have the U.S. and the EU acting together without trade barriers on strategically important products like brie and Parma ham, this would be -- you know, this would be fantastic.
FREI...however, it's a really tough one to bring about because it's about -- it's not just about luring terrorists. It's also about harmonization of all sorts of things from -- I don't know, I'm guessing at the size of apples to the kind of things that the European's are really keen on. And this is one of the reasons why Britain's cold on the European Union is because of this stuff.
REHMNow what about the timing, Matt, the timing?
GHATTASWell, I mean, it's all about the timing actually because, I mean, Matt has a point. It is about trying to counter the rising giants in Asia, but it is also about trying to stimulate the European economy. This is the untapped stimulus.
REHMKim Ghattas of the BBC. We'll take a short break. Your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd it's time to go to the phones. First to Lambertville, Mich. Good morning, Tim.
TIMHello. I was wondering if your guests believed that Korea and Iran felt that they have to have a deterrent ready before the Republicans retake the presidency perhaps in 2016 or 2020?
REHMAny thoughts on Republicans taking the White House and...
FREIWell, I mean, that's an open question. I think the lesson of the Iraq war against Saddam Hussein surely was that if you don't have your own deterrent you're going -- or even Serbia for that matter -- if you're not strong enough yourself you're going to be more vulnerable. And I think that's the lesson that a lot of these countries took away from that.
GHATTASBut I'm not sure it really matters always in the eyes of people abroad, whether the President of the United States is a Republican or a Democrat. I mean, in the end America's a super power and it will be loved and resented in equal measures. And Iran and North Korea have their own motivations and their own, you know, agenda, with Iran wanting, for example, to have more influence in the Middle East.
REHMAll right. One more call on that point to Ira in Fort Lauderdale. Good morning.
IRAHi. Back in the '90s when Pakistan acquired a nuclear weapon, India made it very clear publicly. I think their exact quote is, if Pakistan launches a nuclear attack on India, Pakistan will seize to exist as a viable nation. Now why can't the United States just say publicly, if we can prove that any nation used an atomic weapon against any other nation in the world, that nation will seize to exist? Now of course Russia and China will object because when we say white they say black, but then, no, we're not talking about them. And let any nation use an atomic bomb at their own peril -- their guaranteed peril.
HIRSHWell, I mean, that certainly is already implied U.S. policy when it comes to Israel, for example. You know, we don't say we're going to make you seize to exist but that's the implication given the giant size of our nuclear arsenal, particularly compared to these, you know, relatively tin pot countries that are trying to create one bomb. I mean, it's also the message behind the missile defense system that is being currently negotiated.
HIRSHBut I don't think there's anything quite as toxic and frankly dangerous because it's nuclearized than the tensions between India and Pakistan.
REHMHere's an email from Alan in Lauderhill, Fla. who says, "As far as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea are concerned, please don't blame Obama. As we've seen with North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan and Israel the failings are in the impossible ideal of nonproliferation. If a country really wants to get nuclear weapons, they're going to get them."
FREIWell, that's precisely what people like John Kerry have been preaching against for years. I mean, this is something that, you know, if you think this is inevitable, if you take the fallible view, you know, the fatalistic view of this process than you will get into trouble. And, you know, if anything, you know, this latest test should concentrate minds, the minds of those who are serious about nonproliferation.
FREIBut I think, you know, if -- and if you talk to people in this city or indeed elsewhere in Europe, the big worry is not so much that the North Koreans will use this as a threat against someone. It's that there will be a mistake, that there'll be -- that something in the chain of command will break. And, you know, North Korean commanders, military commanders -- and this is after all a garrison state -- are taught, you know, by their equivalent of the West Point Academy, whatever it's called, to think independently for themselves.
FREINow if you're a North Korean commander, once you have access to these sort of weapons, who's not going to do something about a perceived threat -- and it could be that meteorite coming out of the sky, and you think it's a ballistic missile -- you just don't know. This is very dangerous. And that's -- and add to that the fact that if these weapons are smaller and more efficient and produced amass, it would be easier to sell them to other people and to proliferate.
GHATTASAnd there's always the fear of the instability that it provokes in the region. When you look at Iran, for example, I've spoken to many people, experts including in this city who say, you know, the fear with Iran acquiring or developing a nuclear weapon isn't so much that we're afraid they're going to use it against Israel. A lot of people say this is just not going to happen, although it is something that you have to keep in mind because it remains a concern. The concern -- the real concern is proliferation in the region.
GHATTASIf the Iranians have a nuclear bomb and they're a Shiite country, all the Sunni countries are going to want a nuclear bomb because they're going to want to create a power of balance in the region. So that's what all this engenders.
HIRSHI think you need to have some perspective here also. And I think actually the caller is mostly wrong. And the whole nonproliferation has worked quite well. There are only nine nuclear countries in the world today, and with the exception of Iran and North Korea, there are no other countries that are threatening to go nuclear. Even though if Iran does, and Iran has hesitated simply -- you know, largely because of this intense sanction regime upon it, then possibly you could have Saudi Arabia and other countries going down that road. But they're not yet.
HIRSHI think actually the intense focus on this nuclear nonproliferation treaty have been on the whole far more successful than many skeptics thought they would be. And, in fact, during the past four years of the Obama Administration there have been some successful efforts that have not been noted to reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons material in a number of other countries as well.
REHMAll right. To a caller here in D.C. Good morning, Melinda.
MELINDAHello. Thank you for having me.
MELINDAI wanted to ask a question about the U.S. Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement they were talking about and TAFTA. I was just wondering if the panelists had read the higher level report about this TAFTA proposal. Because we looked at it and it's not about trade at all. There are high -- there really aren't high tariffs between the U.S. and Europe. And so instead it's about what's euphemistically called regulatory convergence, which is eliminating the strongest consumer and environmental policies on either side of the Atlantic.
MELINDAOr concern because it's really been a pet project for a long time of the transatlantic business dialogue, which is financial business, pharmaceutical, chemical corporations. And they really see this negotiation as a way to eliminate what they call trade irritants. But the rest of us know that this is really the best food safety environmental and health safeguards on either side of the Atlantic. So I was wondering if they could comment on that.
GHATTASI mean, it isn't about tariff barriers per say as Melinda mentions, because tariff barriers are already quite low. If I'm not mistaken, they're about 3 percent. And trade is already very, very high between the EU and the U.S., $2.7 billion every day. What this is going to do mostly is reduce tariffs maybe a little bit more. And even though they're already quite low, any further reduction will increase the trade even further. They're expecting it to reach perhaps $120 billion a day.
GHATTASBut it is really about the nontariff barriers, all those regulations that mean that -- for example, car manufacturers in the EU have to abide by regulations not only in the EU but also in the U.S., which makes it more expensive for them and more difficult to sell in the U.S. It's also about labels like, you know, Matt was pointing out, you know, parmesan. Can you sell cheese that is called parmesan in the U.S.? Can you sell it in Europe? Well, actually you can't at the moment because it is a label that is very much regulated.
REHMSo how good or how not good would this kind of free trade agreement be?
GHATTASThere doesn't seem to be much opposition. I mean, others may disagree...
FREINo, no, no.
GHATTAS...there doesn't seem to be much opposition because, as you have been mentioning, the economy in the EU isn't recovering as fast as people would have wanted. And as I mentioned, this is seen as a potential untapped stimulus, not just for Europe, but if Europe's economy recovers and it has a positive impact on this side of the Atlantic too.
FREIIn the past things like GM foods, which is huge in the U.S. but people in Europe are very weary of, genetically kind of engineered food stuffs, have been one of those sticking points. And, you know, if anyone out there listening has covered the EU agricultural policy they'll know that this is almost more difficult than dealing with the Taliban. So, you know, you are -- there are some very tricky regulatory issues here from manufacturing to agriculture to fisheries, whatever. These things need to be sorted out.
FREIAnd that's why I gather in the 1990s when they were trying to make headway with this, even though the political will was there and the stimulus was there, the thing just sort of founded in a morass of detail.
HIRSHYeah, I think all that is true what both Matt and Kim have been saying. But nonetheless, I think the political environment is more favorable now, not just because you have a European recession with two successful quarters of negative growth and really looking for, as Kim said, an untapped stimulus because of the official austerity policies they're forced to follow over the euro zone crisis, but you also have here in the U.S. a lot of support for this idea.
HIRSHI mean, Mitt Romney, who people don't remember very much anymore, this was a keystone part of his plan to revive the American economy and create jobs, was to actually create what he called a Reagan economic zone, which was primarily to be with the countries of Europe. So I think you have now -- and of course there's also the fear of China -- you do have a different political environment, very much from what it was in the '90s.
REHMAll right. Let's follow up on that to North Hampton, Mass. Hi, Jack.
JACKHi. How are you, Diane? Thank you.
JACKThe reason I called is I was just listening to the comments about the tariffs going over to Europe. I'm a manufacturer of a small medical device and I ship to the UK, Ireland, England, all through areas like that and I ship into the continent as well. But going into England specifically because I got feedback on it from some of my clients, they were getting hit for tariffs as much as 7, 8 percent of the cost of my product. And that turns into big money when they're paying $100 U.S. plus shipping. So, you know, I've had people say they were getting bills for 50 and $60.
JACKAnd I think if we do make a zone -- you know, a trade zone, you know, that could be part of it. I realize possibly the other stuff too but it's very difficult to be able to figure out the wording and how you send stuff. Massachusetts has an export council under the Department of Transportation. And they were able to give me the most applicable medical device (unintelligible) code number. And that seems to have been working for the last six months or so.
REHMAll right, Jack. Thanks for calling. Any comments?
FREIWell, I think he just proved a point, didn't he, that there are going to be a lot of EU and American bureaucrats dealing with tariffs that are going to be very, very busy indeed. But then it is certainly a stimulus package.
REHMAnother email question, "Would a free trade agreement with the EU require the U.S. to finally, finally, finally" this email says, "move to the metric system?"
GHATTASI would certainly like that because for five years...
REHMYou would like that.
GHATTAS...five years after moving to the U.S. I'm still very confused by your pounds and your miles, but I'm getting there.
REHMYeah. What -- you know, as we talk about Afghanistan, as we talk about Syria, as we talk about Iran, what is the holdup in the decision to confirm a Secretary of Defense going to mean for all of that, Michael?
REHMWell, it's very troublesome. I mean, there's a NATO meeting of defense ministers next week that we will not have a defense secretary at.
REHMWho will go?
HIRSHIt will be a deputy -- you know, Leon Panetta's deputy. Leon Panetta who had hoped to be back in California attending his plants by now...
REHMPoor fellow, yeah.
HIRSH...you know, has been forced to stay on. And we're not going to know until at the earliest ten days from now whether Chuck Hagel can be confirmed as defense secretary.
REHMDo you think he will be?
HIRSHI think he will be but the longer this drags on the longer it takes to get a couple of Republicans to break the filibuster. And they have indicated they would. And once the filibuster is ended, than there's no question about confirmation but the longer it drags on, the more of a political liability it becomes for the president.
REHMHere's the question I have in this ten-day interim. Will Republicans actually get the information they're asking for?
GHATTASIt's a tough question to answer. I think a lot of the debates surrounding the confirmation of Chuck Hagel, which is tied in with the debate about the Benghazi attack, a lot of it has become very partisan. And I think it blurs the picture of what questions remain unanswered. I think a lot of them do remain unanswered. And I think that when it comes to Chuck Hagel's confirmation, but also John Brennan's confirmation, there are unanswered questions out there about, for example, why the president only spoke once with Leon Panetta during the time that the attack was unfolding in Benghazi.
GHATTASSo they can put a lot of questions on the table that make sense, and they can put questions on the table that don't make sense. And then if they don't get the answers -- all the answers that they want then they'll say, well we haven't gotten the answers. But it really depends -- it depends what the question is. Some of them are fair.
HIRSHAnd -- but this has nothing to do with Chuck Hagel, who was a professor at Georgetown University when all this was happening.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Good morning, Marie.
MARIEYes, thank you for taking my call. Getting back to the nuclear weapon, you now, if Iran was to have it, you know, Pakistan has it, India has it, Israel has it, then if every one of those countries had it wouldn't it be a deterrent?
FREIWell, I think that, you know, there is a rule I think in this game, and probably an unwritten rule, but certainly a rule that you cannot attempt to have a nuclear weapon and make threatening noises about Israel's right to exist. You can't do both at the same time, and that was Iran's big mistake. I mean, I don't think the West would look kindly upon any nuclear ambitions coming out of Tehran, even if Ahmadinejad had not said these things. But if you say that as clearly as they did you're going to be in trouble when it comes to the proliferation front.
FREIIn terms of a deterrent, well, you know, as Michael said earlier, there is a formal deterrence. It's not perfect but it's sort of happening. What you don't want to do is proliferate the deterrent landscape by allowing more and more people to have these things, because then it gets messy.
GHATTASWhat I find interesting when you look at Iran and North Korea is that the Iranians of course maintain that their program -- their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, even though they also make noises about -- threatening noises about Israel. When you look at North Korea they certainly make no secret of the fact that they want a nuclear weapon, that they're going forward with these nuclear tests. They make it all very public. And so it's interesting to look at the difference in the behavior between those two countries, particularly at the moment ahead of the talks -- the nuclear talks in Almaty in a few days.
GHATTASIran is walking this interesting line where they're trying not to be too provocative because they are cooperating to some extent with inspectors, et cetera. And then we're hearing about them, you know, buying new goods...
GHATTAS...magnets that won't pop off...
REHMBut if North Korea continues on its current path, what's to stop Iran? I mean, negotiations be darned.
HIRSHWell, a very severe sanctions regime that has gotten much more severe in the last couple of years, now including a U.S./Europe oil embargo. There's no question the Iranian economy is hard up. There's some -- you know, its currency has been collapsing. And the hope is that that drives them to the negotiating table. But you're right to raise the question because just last week the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei effectively rejected a proposal by Vice-President Joe Biden for one-to-one negotiations with the U.S.
FREIThere's also a very kind of nitty-gritty point here is that the Israelis have basically backed off a little bit from earlier lines where they said, we may have to use military intervention, et cetera. But they have a very clear redline, and that is if the Iranians manage to enrich, I think it's 530 pounds of uranium, which is enough to build a bomb, they will then intervene. And if they manage to or they bought these new magnets and centrifuges that we read about, then they're getting that much closer to that redline.
REHMMatt Frei of the UK's Channel 4 News. Kim Ghattas, State Department correspondent for the BBC. Michael Hirsh at National Journal magazine. Thank you all. Have a great weekend. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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