Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's moral principles and political leadership -- and what the era of Lincoln can teach us about the state of our democracy today.
Guest Host: Susan Page
North Korean threats prompt the U.S. to boost missile defenses in the Pacific. Syria’s civil war claims a record 6,000 lives in March. And the U.N. adopts a global arms trade treaty. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- James Kitfield Senior correspondent for National Journal.
- Courtney Kube National security producer for NBC News.
- David Sanger Chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and 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 visiting station WCBU in Peoria, Ill. North Korean threats prompt the United States to boost missile defenses in the Pacific. Syria's civil war claims a record 6000 lives in March, while the United States and Jordan step up their training of the Syrian opposition. And the U.N. adopts a global arms trade treaty. Joining me for this week's top international stories on our Friday News Roundup, James Kitfield of National Journal, Courtney Kube of NBC and David Sanger of The New York Times. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. COURTNEY KUBEThank you.
MR. DAVID SANGERGreat to be here.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood morning.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. You can call our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email at email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, David, we've heard a lot of bellicose language from North Korea in the past, but I think some Americans are wondering is this a time when we should be more concerned about what's afoot there?
SANGERWell, there's a lot that's the same here, Susan, and there's a good deal that's different. So what's the same? The North Koreans manufacturing a crisis, presumably in hopes that they'll go through the usual stages, which is they threaten, the world wants to see it diffused, people come back to negotiations. They offer the North Koreans something they've gotten before, say food aid or electricity or outright cash, in return for going back to the status quo. That could be what's going on here, but we don't know because there are a couple of new factors.
SANGERThe first is we don't know very much about Kim Jung Un, the North Korean leader. He's never been through one of these before, maybe he's using the playbook for his father, Kim Jung Il or his grandfather, to whom he bears a remarkable and well-cared for resemblance, Kim Il Sung, but maybe he's throwing that playbook out. The second thing is that needs to appeal to the North Korean military, which views him as a 28- or 29-year-old untested kid who has never been through the hardest things that North Koreans have gone through. And they're right. That's exactly what he is.
SANGERThe third unknown factor here, we have a new president in South Korea, the daughter of one of South Korea's best known dictators, from the '60s. She came in talking about warming up to the North Koreans, now she's facing this crisis, her first one in her presidency. And so if there is an incident stage, she may have to react and some Americans fear she may have to overreact.
PAGEAnd, of course, we worry about not just the calculations, but the miscalculations that could be involved that could lead us down a dangerous path, James.
KITFIELDNo, that's exactly right. And we've been down this road before, as David has said, and sometimes it's ended in violence. I mean the North Koreans sank a South Korean warship a couple of years ago, killed a lot of people. They had an artillery barrage on a South Korean island near the border that killed people. The concern now, if something like that happens it could escalate very quickly and this has always been a conflict, whose escalation has concerned us greatly because Seoul, the capital of South Korea, lies within artillery range of some 1200-plus tubes of artillery hidden in the mountainsides on the North Korean side of the DMZ.
KITFIELDSo they could, you know, quickly, if it came to all out war, they could at least, very quickly, level Seoul. And so it's a very, very dangerous situation.
PAGESo, Courtney, what is the United States done this week in response?
KUBEThere's sort of been a tit-for-tat kind of response from both sides. One escalates a little bit, the next escalates a little. The U.S. sent a couple of ballistic missile capable destroyers, which, in the interest of full disclosure, they frequently and often have several of them in that region, in the western Pacific. But they have a few there now that are on heightened alert in case North Korea decides to launch off some sort of a missile or a rocket. They could shoot it down if it threatens any kind of a U.S. asset or South Korea.
KUBEThey also have announced that they are sending a THAAD, a high altitude radar defense system, that would essentially protect Guam. Guam, right now, the U.S. installation on Guam has U.S. ships in the Pacific that would already protect it if North Korea, in the off chance, they would be able to actually reach Guam with a missile. But, I mean, it's been interesting. You know, this whole week we've really seen this uptick in rhetoric from both sides. I felt a very real scaling back yesterday for the first time. And I think there was...
PAGEOn the part of them or us?
KUBEOn the part of the United States, absolutely. No. In fact, today, I mean North Korea's escalated again. They informed some of the embassies in Pyongyang, the British embassy, I think the Chinese, the Russians, that the needed to have some sort of an escape plan for all of their employees there because after April 10 they may not be able to protect them. So the North Koreans are not backing down yet. But the U.S. side has sort of started to drawback a little bit. I think they realize that at a certain point Kim Jung Un may feel like he's being painted into a corner.
KUBEAnd he may, just to save face, he may feel like he needs to react with some sort of a provocative action.
SANGERCourtney's identified just the problem that faces American policymakers right now. On the one hand, you want to put enough forces out there to say to Kim Jung Un, don't even think about it. On the other hand, if his audience here is an internal one, and he's got to make the case that the Americans are preparing to invade North Korea, ridiculous as that may sound -- there's not a whole lot in North Korea I can think of that the United States is eager to have -- then these actions may require him to take an action.
SANGERNow, what would be the easiest action for him to take that would get the least response? It would be shooting off one of these missiles that we've seen move out on mobile launchers on the eastern coast of North Korea. Until now, the administration has never responded to a missile launch, other than going to the U.N. after it and trying to get the same old sanctions through. If you go back to the Bush administration, when the North was threatening to do this, there were many Democrats, including the current Deputy Secretary of State Ash Carter, who were writing op-eds saying, you know, we should blow this missile up on the pad to demonstrate to the North Koreans we're not going to let them get more accurate with a missile that ultimately could deliver a nuclear weapon.
PAGEWell, do you think that's under consideration by the administration?
SANGERIt couldn't not be under consideration, but we haven't heard any threat from the administration to go do that. The other thing that they could consider is whether they want to intercept one of these once it's launched. Don Rumsfeld wanted to do that in the 2006 launch. It turned out the North Korean missile blew itself up about 46 seconds into the launch.
PAGECould we do that if we wanted to?
SANGERWe could, the question is, would that seem as such an aggressive step that it would trigger a reaction from the North Koreans that we then couldn't stop.
KITFIELDYou know, we don't want it to go there, obviously. And clearly if we blew a missile up on the launch pad, it's an act of war. Again, what would they respond to an act of war like? Would they unleash their artillery on Seoul, for instance, perhaps killing tens of thousands of South Koreans. So we don't want it to go there. I think David has it right. We're trying to sort of have a deterrent, you know, posture there that says, if you even think about it, you know, this is what will happen to you. But I also agree with Courtney, you know, in the last 24 hours there's been talk from U.S. officials that they are concerned that this tit-for-tat is going too far.
KITFIELDAnd, you know, they've withdrawn from the armistice. They've threatened war. They've threatened to nuke American cities. They have closed their industrial park with South Korea, which actually hurts them by not having the hard currency that that brings in. They've threatened embassies. So this is really getting kind of out of control, and I think the American officials would like to simmer down for a second and say, you know, let's be very careful we don't escalate this any further.
PAGEMeanwhile, April 15 looms as a potentially important date for North Korea. Why, Courtney?
KUBEIt's the anniversary of Kim Il Sung's...
PAGEThe birth of the founder.
KUBEYeah, birth, yeah.
KUBEBut, yeah, as James was just saying, too, I mean, I think it's very easy to look at this and say, oh, well, if the North were to, you know, have some provocative action here, then they would be annihilated. And I think that's probably a realistic scenario. They would be annihilated, but what would happen then in initial salvo, in that first hour? I mean, we've seen estimates that the North Koreans could fire 500,000 artillery rounds into Seoul in the first hour. I mean, think about that. Tens of thousands of people could be killed before the U.S. and the South Koreans even have a real opportunity to react.
SANGERThis is a fear, but remember the North Koreans are many things, but suicidal is not one of them. And so when they've done provocations in recent times, they've usually been careful to do ones that are hard to attribute to them. The sinking of the Cheonan, which Jim mentioned before, which killed 46 sailors. But it took months to figure out that that was a North Korean submarine. There was a cyber attack on South Korean banks two weeks ago. We still haven't quite figured out whether it came from North Korea. So they don't want to do something, it seems, that would provoke an immediate reaction, the way shelling Seoul would.
PAGEWe talked about reactions of Americans. What about South Koreans, how are they feeling about this latest tit-for-tat? More concerned than usual or taking it in stride, James?
KITFIELDWell, I think they are more concerned than usual because this is very unusual to the level it's gone to. I mean, they have been through this many cycles before, but this has gone, you know, quite a bit beyond the usual, sort of red-hot rhetoric you get from both sides. So I think they're a big jittery, especially if you're in Seoul you're a bit jittery.
PAGEHas North Korea now displaced Iran as our biggest nuclear weapons threat?
SANGERWell, it's certainly the more urgent threat, in that they've done three nuclear tests, they've got delivery capability, not as far as the United States. They're not going to hit Austin, Texas, despite what you may have heard from Rick Perry earlier in the week, but they do have nuclear capability. Iran, to the best of our knowledge, has never tested a weapon, probably doesn't even have a weapon right now. So Iran is a bigger long-term threat because of the neighborhood it's in, North Korea is a more urgent threat.
KITFIELDAnd there's two quick points. Iran, they're unsubstantiated so far, that I've been able to see, reports that Iran was present at the last nuclear test. There's a real concern that Iran is using...
SANGERThe last North Korean test, yeah.
KITFIELDNorth Korean test, right. So there's a real concern they're using North Korea as sort of a test bed to get to the nuclear weapon.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about that report of great concern about the death toll in Syria last month. And we'll take your calls and questions, 1-800-433-8850. Our phone lines are open now, give us a call. And stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, James Kitfield. He's senior correspondent for National Journal, Courtney Kube. She's national security producer for NBC News. And David Sanger. He's chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. He's the author of "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and the Surprising Use of American Power." Well, a Syrian activist group says that 6,000 people were killed in March in Syria. Courtney, the most deadly month so far in that two-year-old civil war.
KUBEYeah, this is like Ground Hog Day. You know, every time we talk about this war it says -- there's some new milestone, some grim new milestone. It seems like the death toll in March may have been so high because of just an increase in use of regime artillery, air strikes. And also the conflict has spread into some larger areas down in the south a bit. There's been some rebel gains -- some significant rebel gains down in the south along the border with Jordan, which has the U.S. in Jordan pretty concerned about which revel element may take over that area bordering Jordan.
KUBEAnd of course, you know, the concern is that there'd be some sort of an Islamist extremist element down there like al-Nusra. And then they would also be right next door to Israel and the Golden Heights -- or near the Golden Heights. So this week has been pretty significant. The rebels have taken over a significant border crossing with Jordan as well. We've seen an uptick in the training -- Jordanian training of Syrian rebels, the free Syrian army.
KUBEAnd I think -- you know, I've started hearing again -- yesterday was a big day for national security -- I started hearing a bit more chatter about the notion of this -- of sort of a humanitarian zone in south Syria along the border with Jordan. It looks like they are trying to set up something with former Syrian police -- Syrian elements -- Syrian police and army defectors who would in some way patrol the area and provide like a safe zone for all the refugees who have been streaming across the border into Jordan. While that was just an idea several weeks ago, it looks like it might be literally within weeks of being put into play.
PAGEYou know, there's been a fair amount of criticism of the Obama Administration for not doing more for the Syrian insurgency. So what, James, is the United States doing now in this conflict? Well, Jordan has stepped up training of these revel forces that they want to take over this sort of southern buffer zone so it can relieve some of the pressure of the refugee flow into Jordan.
KITFIELDThey've also -- have been giving -- for quite some time CIA has been helping train other elements of the rebel opposition. We've been giving them nonlethal aid, communications equipment, body armor, things like this. I think we have been sort of in the background winking and nodding as our allies have given them weapons. The oppositions are touring Middle East capitals this week asking for even heavier weapons and some ground-to-air weapons to take away Assad's air power.
KITFIELDWhether they'll get that I don't know. There's major concerns that some of the Islamic portions of the opposition would get their hands on these weapons and could threaten civilian airliners, etcetera. So this thing -- you know, I've been saying for months and months and months, on this show included, that at some point Syria -- the risk of doing nothing overweigh the risk of doing something. We're obviously past that tipping point. We're doing lots.
KITFIELDI think we're going to have to do lots more because as we've seen from the very beginning, this has almost a uniquely dangerous capability to spill over its borders and destabilize the entire region along the Sunni Shiite divide that runs right through the middle of the Middle East. And if that happens a lot of our close allies are going to be very, very worried. And they are already very, very worried.
PAGEWell, David, what else could the United States do?
SANGERWell, even before we reach that tipping point or when it was beginning to tip you heard both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when she was still in, and the former CIA director at the time make the argument that the U.S. could do more with the kind of heavy weapons that James is describing. It's not particularly I think surprising that the CIA director then, General Petraeus was accustomed to dealing with this in military terms from his days running among other things central command. So he had looked at Syria a lot. And Secretary Clinton's instincts tended usually to be a bit more hawkish than those of many others within the administration.
SANGERPresident Obama has resisted and he's resisted on the argument that this isn't Libya. Now what's he mean by that? First of all, in Libya you could help the rebels because they were largely in one or two places. Here they're spread out in pockets. So helping them in one pocket does not necessarily mean you're helping them in others.
SANGERSecondly, you could help them with air power in which you could go in and bomb the approaching Libyan troops in 2011 as they were getting near Benghazi. In this case, the fighting's going on largely in the cities. Now, supposing for a moment that they go ahead and do this safe zone that Courtney was describing. Even that, to be truly safe, you would need to provide air cover. And to provide significant air cover would mean you'll either have to get the United States, NATO or the Arab League to come in and do it.
SANGERThat means you're going to have to suppress Syria's own air defenses. And it means that if Syrian airplanes take off in this direction you're going to have to take them out. So nobody should live in the dream that just by creating a safe zone and inviting in some former Syrian policemen will come over to the other side you've got a neat solution.
PAGEAnd there's been no enthusiasm by the United States or NATO for doing that, imposing that kind of zone.
KUBEExactly. I think if we were to see that -- and David's absolutely right -- there needs to be some sort of a no-fly zone over that area. I think if we -- we would see the U.S. component would be more of an intelligence ISR kind of -- the over flights would be surveillance versus the more aggressive, like we saw in Libya. You know, the French were flying a lot of the more offensive strikes initially.
KUBEI also think that -- you know, the United States has another option. They sent patriot batteries to turkey. They could send patriots to Jordan to provide some sort of a border protection. You know, Syria came out pretty strongly against Jordan this week saying that they were going to burn up into fire. They were playing with fire or something, for even agreeing to train some of these opposition fighters. So, I mean, the U.S., there are...
SANGERIt sounds like they've been reading Kim Jong-Un's press release.
KUBEYeah, exactly. There's fire everywhere. So the U.S. does have other options out there too but I -- personally at this point I still don't see any options that would involve any kind of U.S. ground troops in any capacity moving into Syria.
PAGEIs there concern, James, that some of the moderate revel forces could be overtaken by more extremist Islamic fighters?
KITFIELDIt's not just a concern. It's a reality in large swaths of Syria. I mean, it's not -- it shouldn't really surprise us that the most effective fighting force amongst the opposition are this group that was very closely tied to al-Qaida in Iraq that's gone to school on IEDs and ambushes for ten years. So they have come -- very quickly risen to the top.
KITFIELDI heard Secretary -- I mean, General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs talk recently. And he said, we know less about the Syrian opposition now than we did six months ago. Well, the reason is these guys have come to the fore and the people that we might have, you know, supported to come to the fore, the more moderate elements have fallen to the rear in many cases. And that's not everywhere. You know, there are certain battalions that we consider moderate that are around Aleppo and other places that are in charge there. But clearly we are very, very concerned.
KITFIELDAnd, you know, the point that I find very compelling is, if you sit by and do nothing, the day after Assad falls is the day you've got to start worrying because all these chemical weapons are going to be in the hands of these Islamist groups who have come to the fore in the most powerfully parts of the rebellion. And at that point you cannot sit by and let that happen. Israel cannot sit by and let that happen.
KITFIELDSo better -- and my argument would be, better to do something now to make sure those moderate elements are armed and able to tow their own against these Islamic groups. Otherwise you're going to have a situation that's going to look very much like Afghanistan where the worst group, you know, rises to the top in these civil wars, which is -- frequently happens.
SANGERBut it's Afghanistan with chemical weapons.
KITFIELDExactly. Even worse.
SANGERIt's interesting that President Obama has said that is the one thing that would bring him into this. Now, going in to secure those chemical weapons is in an odd way a lot harder than going in to secure say nuclear weapons, which you can then, you know, disarm and load onto an airplane and get them out of there. Chemical weapons are a very messy thing to go deal with. It's taken us years, decade really to burn off our own stocks. You can imagine what it would take to get rid of Syria's.
PAGEWhile we're talking about nuclear weapons, we know that a new round of talks over Iran's nuclear program started today, I think, in Kazakhstan. Any optimism, Courtney -- it seems like we've talked about Iranian nuclear talks starting, over a period of years and years on the News Roundup. Any optimism that this is going to be different?
KUBEThere was a slight glimmer of optimism in February after the first talks in Kazakhstan. After the ones in March in Istanbul it seemed a little bit less positive. And after today's first day they'll continue into tomorrow likely. But after today's first day, it doesn't look like these two sides are close to any kind of an agreement. The U.S. really -- or the P5 plus 1, the U.S. plus the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, they came together really looking for some sort of a concrete answer from Iran to what they proposed back in February, the first round of talks.
KUBEWhich was Iran would have to decrease their uranium stockpile to 5 percent, get rid of some of their 20 percent enriched, essentially shut down Fordow or render it inoperable. And then surrender to some IEA -- very strict IEA inspections of Fordow. And in response of course the International Community would release some of the sanctions on gold and precious metals.
KUBEBut, you know, the Iranians came back and it seems like it's just more stall tactics. Which is what we see from them over and over, where they come back and say, oh no, we need more information from you or, you need to acknowledge that we have the right to enrich uranium. But there doesn't seem to be any -- they don't seem to be any closer to an agreement than they were two months ago or five years ago.
PAGEIran has presidential elections coming up this spring in June. Is that a factor, James?
KITFIELDI think that's a big factor. I think it's impossible right now -- I think the supreme leader wants to see how those things shake out. You know, his own views on this are opaque but he's considered by most to be a hardliner on the nuclear issue. Ahmadinejad who's on his way out for all his other bellicose rhetoric was seen as someone who might be willing to cut a deal. So I think it's a nonstarter for Iran to actually make something that he can commit to until these elections are held and see how it shakes out.
KITFIELDThere are reports that it has pulled back a little bit from the highly 20 percent enriched uranium production, which is Israel's redline. So it might be trying to buy himself some time again, as we've seen time and time again.
PAGEIsrael's talked a lot about the redline. Are -- what reaction do they -- does Israel have to the slow progress, if any, that we're seeing on these talks?
SANGERThe general line that you get from Prime Minister Netanyahu and those around him is that the centrifuges are spinning a lot faster than the diplomacy is. And the result of that is that they believe that this is all stalling tactic all designed to get Iran to a position by middle of the year, end of the year, where the facts on the ground of how much they produced become the factor that gets them close to a nuclear capability.
SANGERNow as James has pointed out, one of the things that's been fascinating, if you read through the fine print of the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspection reports is that they are diverting just enough of the fuel we're most worried about, the fuel that's closest to bomb grade, so that they don't go up over that Israeli redline and don't create pressure for a military solution.
SANGERBut I get the overall sense from both Americans and Israelis that the deadlines here are a little bit closer than you might have believed six months ago. That President Obama has sort of committed himself. When you think about what he said in Israel where he said Iran is not getting a nuclear weapon on my watch. And then he backed that up by saying, and you can't let them get all that close. That takes him a little closer to the Israeli position about stopping them from a capability.
PAGEDoes that mean this year?
SANGERIt could well. It could be early next year. You know, there are a couple factors we don't know, and one of them is how much damage the economic sanctions are doing and what other covert activity like the cyber attacks on Iran might be underway.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones, 1-800-433-8850. We'll first go to Pete. He's calling us from Springhill, Fla. Pete, thanks for calling.
PETEWell, thank you for taking my call. How are you?
PETEI've got a two-part question for the gentlemen and yourself and then I'll let you guys answer. I have six children and I'm in this country for over 35 years, Greek-American. And my concern is this. How do we know if the nuclear weapon was tested by North Korea was not from Iran's bomb, let's say. And also since the Korean -- the new Korean leader is a psychopath and makes all these threats, how do we know if he -- maybe they have -- everybody's concentrated on their range of their missiles. How do we know if they maybe have sleeper cells with nuclear weapons in the country and this guy's, you know, making all these threats?
PAGEAll right, Pete. Thanks so much for your question. So the first question was, could North Korea in fact be testing Iranian missiles? Is that possible?
SANGERPossible but there's an awful lot we don't know. Okay. So they just conducted their third nuclear test about a month ago. And as soon as they conducted it the United States and its allies sent up these sniffer planes that are supposed to be able to detect the gases that get released when a weapon has exploded. What did they come up with? Absolutely nothing. And so we don't know whether this was another test of a plutonium weapons or North Korea's first test of a uranium weapon.
SANGERWhy does it make a difference? Well, first a uranium weapon would give them a better supply. They could build up their stockpile faster. But secondly it's uranium that the Iranians are working on. So if it wasn't a uranium weapon it wasn't a test for Iran. If it was a uranium weapon, it's conceivable that they're sharing data, but nothing we've been able to prove.
PAGEWhat about the rest of Pete's question, James? He asked about -- he described the North Korean leader as a psychopath. Do we know that he is a psychopath?
KITFIELDPsychopath isn't the word I would use but he -- but what we do know is that these -- this is a very cultish-like Stalinish state. And this is the great ruler and they are very unpredictable. But a sociopath, I don't know. I don't think that they have the capability for a suitcase bomb. They haven't been able yet to show any indication they've been able to miniaturize their nuclear devices.
KITFIELDBut I will say this. You know, we're on a trajectory now. They had a pretty successful missile -- multi-stage missile launch and they're on their third nuclear test. And apparently these are successful now. The first one was kind of a fizzle. So we can see a point coming down the road in five years what this guy could potentially put a missile in a suitcase -- I mean, a nuclear device in a suitcase or in the tip of a missile. And at that point you are presented with a really bad conundrum of how serious to take this guy's threats.
PAGELet's talk to Jeff. He's calling us from Columbia, Md. Jeff, you're on the air.
JEFFHi. Thanks for taking my call. I just have a quick question about the Chinese attitude towards North Korea. Why have their attitudes been so slow to change in the postwar period? Is it just this sort of bureaucratic inertia or is there some kind of calculus that says that they're still well served by having an unstable neighbor right to their southern border? It seems almost like they're interests would be better served if they had a unified South -- or a unified Korea with a demilitarized zone that went all the way from the South Korean border all the way up to their border. But I'll listen to your comments on that.
PAGEJeff, thanks for your call. Courtney.
KUBEWell, actually, you know Jeff, China actually voted in favor of the sanctions against North Korea back in February -- the UN sanctions. So that was sort of a change. They have shown a slight shift in their attitude towards North Korea. And I think that's actually something that could be causing more of the provocative language and rhetoric from the North Korean side because they may feel even more isolated than before. They may feel like they have one less strong ally on their side.
KUBESo I would actually argue the opposite. I don't know that -- now if there was some sort of a large scale war which, you know, let me preface that by saying I don't believe is going to happen, but if there was China would likely have to come to the defense of North Korea. But, again, I just don't see that happening.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll talk about the United Nations approving a new arms treaty on conventional weapons. We'll talk about what it'll do and we'll go back to the phones and read some of your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back, I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with us in the studio for the second hour of our news roundup, David Sanger of The New York Times, Courtney Kube of NBC News and James Kitfield of National Journal.
PAGEWell, on Tuesday, the United Nations approved a new conventional arms treaty. James, what does it do?
KITFIELDWell, it basically -- that is a very good question, what it does. It establishes a norm that says that if you're going to sell weapons to another country, you have to consider that country's humanitarian record, whether those weapons might be turned on that country's own citizens, so to try and have moral questions answered before these, you know, huge weapons sales go through.
KITFIELDThe example cited is, you know, Russia under this new treaty would have to look, ask and say, I'm selling weapons to Syria knowing that they're being used against the Syrian people. But it has no real enforcement mechanism. It's going to be years before it can be implemented so it's unclear -- I think that what it really does -- and certainly a lot of human rights groups have applauded this. You know, it's been in talks for many years.
KITFIELDIt sets sort of a norm, you know. It sets a norm so violators can be called out and shamed, basically. But, so I think -- and that can be useful, but I don't expect it to be sort of the decisive -- to stop the flow of weapons to bad regimes.
PAGEThe vote was pretty overwhelming 154 to 3, but some of the big countries that would be affected by this potentially abstained, Russia and China, for instance, David.
SANGERThat's right. Russia and China are, after the United States, among the biggest providers of weapons, but they are, more importantly, the big providers of light arms. And as James points out, Syria would be a good example here. You know, the enforcement mechanism question, when you think about it, is the thing that's haunting every one of the topics we have discussed so far today.
SANGERI mean, the North Koreans have been prohibited by,-- I've lost count of the number of resolutions from doing missile tests and nuclear tests. And every time that they do it, again the administration comes out and says, they're isolating themselves some more and you know, you can just sort of hear this tape-recording go on.
SANGERThe Iranians have been prohibited from doing the enrichment that we're busy negotiating about with them this week in Kazakhstan. They've also been prohibited from a range of other activities. Again, there's no enforcement mechanism. And the reason countries don't want to have the enforcement mechanism put in is that they fear that they can be used the way George W. Bush used the Iraq resolution ten years ago.
SANGERAnd although there was no specific enforcement resolution, he didn't go back for a resolution authorizing the use of military force. He just took the military force. And so the question, the fundamental question we're raising here is, do these arms treaties -- do any of these other kinds of controlled treaties do anything other than make us feel good and establish some moral basis?
PAGEAnd you might argue that's worthwhile to establish a moral basis...
PAGE...but do they seem pretty toothless, Courtney? And I wonder, I suppose you could argue that that weakens the United Nations by showing, not that they're establishing moral basis, but they can't enforce any of the stuff that they pass.
KUBEI mean, it's certainly going to be toothless for the next several years because number one, it has an uphill battle here in the United States alone. It needs two-thirds ratification by the Senate and it does not have it at this point. So, you know, now that being said, if the United States is not one of the nations that ratifies it in the United Nations, they only need 50 and 154 voted for it, so it's possible that it could be enforced even without the U.S. participation in it, the ratification of it.
PAGEWhy wouldn't the U.S. Senate ratify a treaty that says you have to consider the consequences of your arms sales?
KITFIELDLook to our own gun control debate and you'll see that there are a lot of people, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, who don't like gun control. Well, this is a gun control measure we're talking about, light weapons and machine guns et cetera. So they don't like anything that suggests that our own sales of these kinds of weapons would be restricted. That's one point.
KITFIELDThe other point is, I think that you know, there are, if you look at the International Criminal Court, I think it is kind of interesting. We oppose that. We never ratified it. We don't consider ourselves a party to it yet. It created a norm that we find quite useful.
KITFIELDWhenever we, you know, if we get hold of Kony, where is he going? He's going to the International Criminal Court. So some of these things actually, even if we don't ratify the treaty, we might find useful in shaming someone who we think is sending arms, for instance, like Russia to Syria.
PAGEYou mentioned Kony. That's, of course, the war crimes suspect, Joseph Kony from Uganda, developments on this this week, David, in that the United States and Uganda stopped their long search for him. Why did they stop searching for him?
SANGERWell, he hadn't been seen in a long time. They don't have any particular intelligence about where he may be. This has been a very big issue, particularly for a lot of human rights groups and I think that the idea of stopping the search is likely to prompt a fair bit of criticism.
SANGERAnd of course, you know, the concern about him has been his use of child warriors and so forth. He's done some pretty horrific things over many years. But there's sort of a question of how much effort you want to put into somebody who, you know, there are some rumors he's dead. There are others who simply say he's in hiding.
PAGEThere's still some U.S. Special Forces in the Central African Republic, part of the effort to look for him, Courtney. Will they stay there?
KUBEThey are, yeah. Right now, they're sort of in a suspension position or they're in a holding position. So a couple of weeks ago, the Central African Republic government was overthrown and in the ensuing political instability, the new president, self-appointed president, is not supporting these foreign troops there.
KUBEThere's Ugandan -- there's some South African, there's a small element, about 40 U.S. Special Forces there helping training, advisors, you know, intelligence whatnot. But this new president is not accepting them. He doesn't want to cooperate with them.
KUBEThat being said, the new president is also not being recognized by the African Union and there are some people who think that he might be using this as sort of a bargaining chip to say, well, if I allow these international or these foreign forces into the country to continue the search for Joseph Kony and some of his top lieutenants then, okay, then you have to accept me as the legitimate government and we'll schedule elections for 18 months from now and whatnot.
KUBESo it may just right now sort of be a, who blinks first. But I spoke to a U.S. intelligence official and I spoke to several defense officials yesterday about this and right now, there's no talk of withdrawing those U.S. Special Forces from the DRC, Central African Republic and South Sudan.
KUBEThe biggest concern, frankly, is that if this continues on and they're sitting down there and not continuing the search for Joseph Kony, that sequestration may be what pulls them out of there. That when they're looking to where to cut the money that they may say, well, these guys are down there and they're not doing anything. Let's pull them out.
KITFIELDIt's interesting, you know. We are not able to actually help this new government there because it was basically -- it came to power with a coup. We have been against this rebel force making the gains that it made even before the government fell.
KITFIELDWe had been talking to Rwanda, which is the chief supporter of these rebels so this is sort of a cessation till we figure out how this sort of politics in the Central African Republic plays out. I was recently in that region with a combined joint taskforce, Horn of Africa and I can tell you, Kony and his guys have quit using cell phones.
KITFIELDThey use no electronic devices because they know that we have drones up there searching for them. And as David said, he's not been seen for quite a while and he's not really had these horrific raids on villages where he steals their children and turns them either into soldiers or sex slaves for quite a while.
KITFIELDSo it's kind of a problem we think we kind of have under control. but we would sure like to have his head on a stick.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join this conversation. Let's go to Brian. He's calling us from Akron, Ohio. Brian, thank you for holding on. Brian, are you there?
BRIANHi, thank you. How are you doing today?
BRIANYou know what, we were talking about Syria when I first got on, but I mean, still with this Kony guy as well and my point is, when do we stop meddling? How far do we go? I mean, we have this sequestration where people can't even go to the White House and yet we're sending millions and millions of dollars overseas and I just don't get it.
BRIANCan't we let these people handle some of this themselves and let it play out instead of us meddling?
PAGEAll right, Brian, thanks so much for your call. Courtney.
KUBEWell, I like a good White House tour as much as the next guy, but down in the Central African Republic, there are the Ugandan military, you know, there's 100 U.S. Special Forces down there helping them. It's not millions and multi-millions of dollars that they're sending down there.
KUBEThey're training these guys in the fight for someone who has literally terrorized that area for 25 years. Tens of thousands of people raped, murdered. He's wanted by the International Criminal Court. It's not -- I don't mean to demean your question because there are a lot of difficult budget choices that we're all watching right now and some of them do have us scratching our heads.
KUBEBut I think that the hunt for Joseph Kony and the LRA and all of his lieutenants is a legitimate one that the U.S. should think -- we should be proud that they're trying to help with.
KITFIELDI would just point out that there are, you know, and I take his point this country is very war-weary. It's very wary of bearing the burden of being the policeman around the world. However, I mean, just as an example because I was recently in that region.
KITFIELDYou know, we turned our back on Somalia in 1993 after the Blackhawk down and we did nothing. We turned our back, spent not a single cent. So what happened in Somalia? Piracy, you know, went rampant and attacked international shipping that hurt our interests.
KITFIELDThe al-Shabaab terrorist group linked as an affiliate to al-Qaida, took power in that country and used it to train bases and kept, you know, protected those terrorists who attacked our embassies in the late 90s. So my only point is right now because we helped an African Union force go back into Somalia it has a functioning government. It has a president. It has a constitution. It's kind of a success story so my only point is I get we can't do all the heavy lifting around the world but there are costs to doing nothing too.
SANGERThe question is where do you find the right balancing point? So I think that there are a lot of Americans who believe we are now over-committed around the world and that the opportunity that is created by getting out of Iraq and rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan gives that chance.
SANGERAnd you heard the new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talk about that this week when he discussed future defense cuts and let's face it the defense for the total national security budget of the United States has doubled since 9/11. That is not a pace that is something that I think most Americans think can be sustained.
SANGERNor is it possible to withdraw from the world. Not only for the reasons that James just mentioned but because in the end there are things the United States can accomplish in the world that no one else can. Reference our previous discussion about why the United Nations has been ineffective in enforcing its own resolutions.
SANGERAnd so the question is, is President Obama's strategy which has been to use a light footprint abroad, use special forces, use drones, use cyber and so forth, is that a sustainable alternative course to the one we were on for the past decade when we would send 100,000 troops to a country, keep them there for six or seven years and then wake up one morning and say gee, they resent us for being here.
PAGELet's go to Jacksonville, Fla. and talk to Douglas. Douglas, hi, you're on the air.
DOUGLASHi, thank you for taking my call.
PAGEYes, go ahead.
DOUGLASThis regards North Korea as well. I was born in the 50s and grew up with Faraday cages and all the rest of that and I've heard a lot of talk about the North Koreans not being accurate enough to target bases successfully and not having the range to hit the continental U.S. but I haven't heard any talk about the risk of an air detonation and the subsequent EMP, the electronic magnetic pulse and if that could threaten our power grid or communications for either Japan and Guam or even the West Coast of the U.S.
PAGEDouglas, thanks so much for your call.
SANGERWell, there is EMP risk as you say. It would be more for Japan and the rest because we just don't think they've got the delivery capability to get, might ensure that the missiles that they've rolled out could reach as far as Guam where we're putting the anti-missile defenses.
SANGERTo do an effective EMP, you need to be pretty good at this and that means you need to be able to detonate the weapon high in the air, that means you need to drop it probably from a bomber or have it released at just the right moment from a warhead. We're not sure the North Koreans are anywhere to that technical capability.
KITFIELDAnd just one point, I'm much more worried about them actually having, acquiring the capability to drop a nuclear bomb on a city. If they, once they launch a nuclear weapon we're going to know where it came from and if it's an EMP weapon it's still going to require. It's still going to provoke a nuclear response from us and that would be the end of that regime.
PAGEDouglas, thanks for your call. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Mary calling us from Bristol, Ind. Mary, you're on the air.
MARYYes, thank you for taking my call. I'm responding to the comments about countries that thumb their nose at the United Nations' resolutions and I'm -- in the interests of being fair, I think, well, one has to call out Israel for example that does repeatedly goes right ahead and does as it pleases without regard for United Nations' resolutions.
MARYAnd just because they're an ally doesn't mean we need to approve their doing as they please any more than any other country. And I think that's what makes for so many enemies when we start being unfair with each other, trying to manage some people but letting others do as they please. And we're going to get a lot of feeling about that, there's no way around it.
PAGEMary, thanks so much for your call.
KITFIELDShe raises a couple of good points. I mean, Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so it is not actually in, which Iran and at one point North Korea were signatories. So they broke the resolution that they signed. Israel never signed it.
SANGERIran still is a signatory.
KITFIELDIran still is a signatory right and, you know, but Israel does have an undeclared nuclear arsenal. It is, you know, it causes concern among its Arab neighbors. They don't like it and they find it kind of a dual standard when we press Iran to get rid of its program when we say nothing about Israel. So it's a fair point.
KITFIELDAnd there are things that Israel does that we do say are against U.N. resolutions and they shouldn't do like the occupied territory in the West Bank. The president himself has said that is illegitimate. It hasn't, you know, reached a peace deal, but we do call them out on some things that they do. But the nuclear program is one we just kind of have a, you know, don't ask, don't tell kind of policy with.
PAGEHere's an email from Sam. He writes: "This morning NPR had a news item on the fact that the administration has not decided on troop levels in Afghanistan after 2014. Why is the U.S. unable to define the required troop levels after 12 years of war? I've read their proposals to keep 10,000 troops. This number sounds low to me and may actually endanger our troops. Perhaps 20,000 troops may be more realistic?" Courtney, what would you say to Sam?
KUBEThere's no -- they still don't have an agreed-upon status of forces agreement. That's the main problem. The U.S. doesn’t yet know what President Karzai at this point wants a continuing presence after 2014 to do. Now keep in mind Karzai will be out by then because there are elections about a year from now in Afghanistan but they don't. The U.S. doesn't have a NATO larger. NATO doesn’t have a defined mission for any post-2014 presence.
KUBEWould it just be training? Would there be some sort of a counter-terror? Would there be any kind of offensive action? Not likely, intelligence gathering, whatever. So without that it's difficult to even start to define how much of a presence, what they would look like, you know, conventional infantry, probably not.
KUBEProbably likely we'll see more, you know, larger Special Forces and some training, advising, maybe even logistics forces and Air Force of course.
SANGERAlso remember that the force the administration wants to keep in Afghanistan isn't really about Afghanistan. It's about Pakistan. And Pakistan is right over the border, 180 million people, more than 100 nuclear weapons, strategically more important to the United States and the idea of an enduring force is in part to keep an eye there.
PAGEDavid Sanger of The New York Times, Courtney Kube of NBC News and James Kitfield of National Journal, thanks so much for joining us this hour.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm, thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
What troubles at Twitter say about the state of social media -- and why one tech watcher argues this could transform the industry in positive ways.
Political analyst Norman Ornstein on control of Congress, the red wave that wasn't, and other lessons from the midterm elections.
At the end of the year Dr. Anthony Fauci will step down from his post as the nation's top infectious disease doctor. He talks to Diane about his 38 years on the job -- and what's next.