America’s Collision Course With The Debt Ceiling
As the nation counts down to default, Diane talks to longtime Congress watcher Norm Ornstein about the debt limit negotiations, what's at stake and whether he sees a way forward.
A U.S. drone kills Pakistan’s number two Taliban leader. Syria says it has received the first shipment of Russian missiles. And a Chinese firm agrees to buy the world’s largest pork producer. 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. Syria's President Bashar al Assad says he has an extensive arsenal from Russia and could permit attacks on Israel. Pakistan's Taliban pledges revenge after its number two leader was killed by a drone attack and a Chinese firm agrees to buy the largest pork producer in the U.S.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for the international hour of the Friday News Roundup, Mark Landler of The New York Times, Nadia Bilbassy of the Middle East Broadcast Center and Nathan Guttman of Channel 1 Israeli News. Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning, Diane.
MR. MARK LANDLERGood morning, Diane.
MR. NATHAN GUTTMANGood morning.
REHMMark Landler, Syria claims it has a stockpile of Russian arms but it's still unclear whether it's actually received these anti-aircraft missiles. What's going on?
LANDLERWell, Bashar al Assad, as you said, has made the claim that he has these armaments. Although interestingly he was much vaguer in his actual comments in this radio interview than the excerpts of the interview that were put out beforehand and that, I think, suggests to the Israelis and others that he may be talking about commitments for weapons from the Russians but the weapons haven't necessarily arrived.
LANDLERAnd as various intelligence experts point out, even when they do arrive there'll be a several month period when the Syrians will have to be trained to use them. so the period of time between when these, between now and when these may be operational is probably at least six months to a year.
REHMAnd yet, Nathan Guttman, Assad also warned Israel that he might attack the Golan Heights?
GUTTMANYes, he was talking about pressure that he feels from his people to attack Israel on the Golan front which is basically a message to the Israelis. First of all, saying it's time to stop with the air raids. Israel did attack a couple of times arm stockpiles near Damascus. But also a way to divert attention towards the Israeli front which could help him in the international scene facing the increasing pressure from all around.
REHMSo he is not making a real threat?
GUTTMANI think Israelis see it right now as an empty threat. He doesn't have the S300's yet, that could change the balance of power in terms of air force. He doesn't seem to be interested in that, it wouldn't be wise in military terms. But he still wants to draw attention to that end of the border.
REHMBut, Nadia, couldn't that change what Secretary of State Kerry has been trying to do, which is to get these peace talks started again?
BILBASSYWhat's called Geneva II, Diane, and everybody thinks actually all these arm deals that we're talking about, whether the Russians giving the S300 to the Syrian regime or the EU lifting the embargo of giving arms to the rebels, all are political tools trying to maximize the pressure on both sides before they have Geneva II.
BILBASSYNow, the expectation is not very high because as we've seen yesterday in Istanbul the opposition is still divided and they kept on expanding this collation to include now another 40 members from inside Syria. And it seems like, of course the American administration wanted this kind of transitional government to go through, but the opposition is saying, we cannot go if Assad is part of this deal.
BILBASSYHe has no future in any politics in the country. He's saying in the same interview that was Mark was referring that, I'm staying there until 2014. if the people after that want me to leave, I will leave, but meanwhile I'm staying here.
REHMAnd what does the EU lifting its ban on weapons to the rebels really mean, Mark?
LANDLERWell, maybe less than meets the eye because there's a growing feeling that it's not going to be that easy to alter the balance on the ground between Assad and various rebel militias. There are a category of weapons that the rebels desperately want and which would potentially make a difference.
LANDLERThese would shoulder-fire anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missiles, armor-piercing weaponry and that's the equipment precisely that even Britain and France, who are in favor of lifting the embargo, have some reluctance to get drawn into.
LANDLERIn part, because these anti-aircraft missiles could be against civilian aircraft. The scenario people always talk about is the OH-ALL flight that gets shot out of the sky. This is the same reason that President Obama has been so reluctant to talk about arming the rebels. So there could be, you know, small scale ammunition, small arms that could be part of this but the larger stuff that might make a difference on the ground I think the Europeans are still going to be pretty hesitant.
GUTTMANWhen you talk to the opposition people over here in Washington are trying to lobby the government to actually send U.S. arms to the rebels. They argue that even lighter arms, even just plain ammunition, 120 millimeter mortars can actually tip the balance in Syria.
GUTTMANBecause they have this, when they talk to people on the Hill they keep on saying, we're just running out of bullets when we fight. And if there would be a steady flow of ammunition and even light arms in the sense that won't endanger neighboring countries and won't change the balance, it can still help in fighting Assad forces.
REHMWhat about John McCain slipping into Syria?
BILBASSYWell, that was an interesting trip. He will be the second most senior U.S. official to enter after Ambassador Robert Ford.
REHMAnd the rebels were delighted?
BILBASSYAbsolutely. They will welcome it, we've seen pictures of him and a few rebels. He was, held meetings with the Supreme Council with General Idris in the city of Gaziantep in Turkey and then he crossed, he was a few kilometers inside Syria itself. Many rebels, many activists came from everywhere, from Hama, from Homs, even the city of Cocert (sp?) to meet with him.
BILBASSYHis visit will be a little bit more of symbolic I think. It gives a boost morally but I don't think it will go farther than that, although he's been a very strong advocate of supporting the rebels militarily. He's had, he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which has voted recently to allow to arm rebels. He has been advocating so long including this very interesting article he wrote in Times magazine saying like our option in Syria is not nothing or everything. It's not boots on the ground.
REHMHow much influence will his visit have, Mark?
LANDLERI think it'll be limited frankly. I think John McCain has been a very local voice but a lonely one. I mean, the basic political reality here is that there's no huge constituency for increased military action in Syria.
LANDLERBecause the country's weary of war, we've been involved in the Middle East in conflict now for over 10 years. There's no appetite among the American public for this. There's a new Gallup poll out today that says 66 percent of Americans oppose greater American intervention. There was a "New York Times-CBS News" poll that found the same number.
LANDLERSo while John McCain, because he's such a recognizable name and he's on the Sunday shows every week, you know, makes a strong case, he frankly speaks for a relatively small group of Republicans on the Hill. And I don't think you're going to see his visit really change that dynamic.
REHMAnd what about Israel, does Israel want to see those rebels armed, Nathan?
GUTTMANWell, it's interesting because Israel is kind of staying outside of this discussion about arming the rebels because on the one hand it doesn't want to encourage more weapons going into that region. On the other hand, it would like to see one side become stronger than the other in a disproportionate way. So Israelis are staying outside.
GUTTMANThe only message there trying to convey to Americans and to Europeans for that matter, is that in any kind of arming of the rebels should be kept to light arms, nothing that can actually put in danger assets across the border, namely Israeli people or airplanes.
REHMAnd a related question in regard to Israel's announcement that it will build a 1,000 settlements in the Golan Heights?
GUTTMANWell, the way, a lot of talks about settlements all over and settlements in the Golan Heights actually are kind of tricky Israel and that's the Golan Heights many years ago so the legal procedure there is different. It seems right now that any discussion about finding some kind of a peaceful solution regarding the Golan Heights is off the table in general because there is no one to negotiate on the other side.
GUTTMANSomething that would've been possible probably 10 years ago is pretty much off the table right now. So it doesn't seem to be relevant to any kind of current affair.
BILBASSYWell, I mean, I think from the Arab world perspective that they think that President Assad has skipped the peace on the Golan Heights for a long time. He has not been seriously trying to reclaim the land, peace negotiation fell in the '90s, but now the rebels accusing him of he's the one who's (unintelligible) Israel. So any talk of him retaliating against Israel has already hit inside Syria twice and he didn't do anything.
BILBASSYIn this interview he gave to Al-Manar, which is Hezbollah TV station, they asked him, why don't you retaliate? And he said, well, we preserve to a strategist strike whenever we want. And everybody knows that he doesn't really mean it but now if and this is big if, the Russians actually did supply the regime with this S300, this is a long range missile.
BILBASSYIt can reach 150 miles, they're very sophisticated. They can hit multiple targets at the same time. That might slightly change the game to the degree that actually Prime Minister Netanyahu maybe knows about that. When he was with President Putin in Russia, when he met him on this Black Sea Resort and he said to him, this is a game changer. Do not do that.
BILBASSYSo this is an important issue, I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon although President Assad said yesterday that we have commitment from the Russians but I don't think that we'll go ahead with this." Or this in preparation for the peace talks, transitional government in Geneva but it's almost like Cold War tactics, Diane, between the West and Russia on influencing Syria.
LANDLERYes, I think Nadia's getting at the big story here. In the last two to three weeks this has really become more clearly than ever a proxy war between a lot of different players. We haven't really even talked about Hezbollah and Iran today. That was last week's big story.
LANDLERBut you now have the Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah, Israel are all part of this which just raises the complexity of fixing it all the more.
REHMMark Landler of "The New York Times." Short break here, we'll talk further about Hezbollah and other topics of great interest. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Before we move off the subject of Syria, let's talk a little about Hezbollah and what Hezbollah is up to, Nadia.
BILBASSYVery interesting. Long time ago everybody was implicating them in sending fighters to help and abate President Assad. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah denied it many times on television publically. Last week he came and he said, okay guys, you fighting in Syria, we are fighting in Syria. Let's try to avoid any destruction for Lebanon. Let's fight in Syria.
BILBASSYAnd the battle now, as I'm sure your guests talked about in previous programs, about this small town of Qusair. And now there is talk about 50,000 of Hezbollah fighters who are hard battle tested, they have been fighting for so long the very able in the battlefield. And this city is very strategic. It's very important. It's only six miles from the Lebanese border. It's a fly route for the Syrian army. And is psychologically as well it's very important of who wins it. Is it Hezbollah fighters who are aligning themselves with the Syrian regime or everybody else who are anti-Hezbollah?
BILBASSYSo Hezbollah now has been somehow discredited in the Arab world because before they been seen as a resistant movement. Now they been seen as the guys who killing women and children in the city of Qusair. And publically putting themselves -- throwing themselves and their weight with the Syrian regime. Many saying that the instruction comes from Iran. It wasn't just Hezbollah himself and Hassan Nasrallah, but the Iranians saying it.
BILBASSYAnd just want to add one little thing. Yesterday, the ambassador of Iran in Lebanon gave an interview to our sister station, Alarabia. And news anchor asked him, what if Bashar Assad falls, what's going to happen? He was adamant with a big smile and confidence he said, he is not going to fall.
REHMHe's not going to fall.
BILBASSYHe is not going to fall. Twice he said that.
REHMNow the fighting has actually spread into Lebanon where you had some rockets fired.
LANDLERYeah, I mean, this is the dangerous -- the very dangerous regional element of Hezbollah getting more and more engaged, which is the spillover to Lebanon. And, you know, there's been sectarian tension and some violence in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. And, you know, for Hezbollah this is not without another risk in addition to this notion of the grouping discredited in the Arab world. There's actually the risk of backlash in Lebanon itself where, you know, Lebanese Shiite families whose sons are Hezbollah fighters going off and being killed in the service of Assad and Alawite Sunni regime.
LANDLERThat could cause Nasrallah and Hezbollah problems in Lebanon. But more to the point, it's going to destabilize Lebanon and increase the risk that -- you know, and there are some in the administration who say that they worry that in the long run what Syria's going to wind up looking like is a lot like Lebanon did in the 1980s, which is this sort of sectarian chronic fighting between groups. And this may, you know, have the effect of accelerating that.
REHMAnd here's an email from Masud (sp?) here in Washington, D.C. who says, "Iran and Turkey have taken opposing sides with respect to the Syrian civil war given the incredible independence Kurds currently enjoy in the new Iraq. And the autonomy one can expect them to gain following the inevitable fall of the Assad regime. In what ways does your panel see future Iranian Turkish cooperation with respect to the Kurdish issue?"
GUTTMANWell, that's an interesting idea actually of finding this common enemy for -- in Turkey and Iran in the face of a Kurdish minority. I think most people would agree that if and when Syria does disintegrate, the Kurds maybe will be able to find their own place or find a certain way of asserting their independent or nationality inside this fractured state.
GUTTMANBut it doesn't seem like a great prospect right now and I don't see this right now as something that can actually unite in an effective way Iran and Turkey, because all the other interests are totally opposed.
REHMHow -- you mentioned earlier, Mark Landler, the opinion polls showing 66 percent of Americans really do not want to be involved in another war in the Middle East. But people care when they see 70, 80, 100,000 people being killed, being murdered, being massacred. How do we separate our internal conscience from that desire not to spend more dollars or bodies on war?
LANDLERWell, that's the most difficult dilemma that any president faces. And this one, President Obama's very conscious of not repeating some of the mistakes of the past, whether it's in Rwanda or Bosnia where, you know, reluctance to get involved allowed things to happen that were later regretted. And so I don't think there's an easy answer to that question. Is it 70,000, is it 100,000? I mean, we're above 80,000 already. And you don't see any indication yet that public opinion has shifted in an important way.
LANDLERBut, you know, of course there's a question as to when our humanitarian impulses have to kick in. And the president's also, in fact, articulated a philosophy that when the U.S. is in a position to protect and head off mass slaughter as in Benghazi and Libya, that we have a responsibility to do that. He's actually embraced this concept of responsibility to protect. And so I think that I'm sure he must wrestle with this day in and day out as to when they reach the moment where we really feel obliged to do more.
REHMAnd humanitarian aid may be one thing but supplying arms and even more becomes another. I'm sure we could spend the entire time talking about Syria. Let's move on to Pakistan. What do we know about this drone strike that killed the Pakistan Taliban leader -- number two leader?
BILBASSYWe know that intelligence so far, whether it's from the Pakistani side or the American, saying that it has killed number two of the Pakistani Taliban. His name is Waliur Rehman. And he is -- he succeeded the head which is Hakimullah Mehsud. He is around 44 year old. He has been very lethal in organizing attacks against civilians. Thousands have been killed. He's been targeted in the same area that the drones have been targeted, always Waziristan. It's no-man's land.
BILBASSYOf course the White House won't confirm it although they went to explain all the good reason why this guys should die because he's a bad guy. There's a $5 million on his head.
REHMSo they did not want to take responsibility for it.
LANDLERNo. At this -- you know, this illustrates, above all, the difficulty that President Obama's going to have to translate some of those ideas he expressed in his big speech last week into reality. And, you know, he gave himself a lot of wiggle room in terms of when these covert CIA drone strikes would actually be finally wound down. I mean, if you look at the statistics as we've reported and others, the number of these strikes have actually dropped in Pakistan quite radically in the last year or so, partly because of the increased scrutiny on the drone program in the U.S. and partly because the number of high-value targets has sort of been diminished over time.
LANDLERBut nevertheless, this shows that at least for the next year or so while American troops are next door in Afghanistan and there's a perceived threat to them, that President Obama will reserve the right to authorized these covert strikes.
REHMSo how did this drone strike affect prospects for peace talks proposed by the Pakistan's incoming president?
GUTTMANWell, definitely they're not helpful. Incoming President Nawaz Sharif spoke about that. In a sense, Pakistanis would like to see these drone attacks end. But on the other hand, it is a useful diversion of all the other issues that the country is struggling with. And we saw that in the recent elections over there as well. I think the Pakistanis see it as a great extent as some kind of an adjustment to President Obama's speech, in a way clarifying that yes, drone strikes will be winding down but no, we're not giving up the use of this instrument we had. And that will require adjustment on the ground as well.
LANDLERThe only other point I'd make about the Pakistanis is that, you know, the Pakistani Taliban's been responsible for thousands of civilian casualties in Pakistan. A lot of their violence is directed at Pakistanis. So there is a belief -- or at least a hope in the administration that if you go after people who've done a lot of harm to Pakistanis, that will mitigate the unhappiness they feel at the continued existence of the covert drone program.
LANDLERAnd in fact, some intelligence officials have a name for this. They call them goodwill kills. Kills that may actually engender goodwill perhaps in the Pakistani military or in the public because they are going after really bad guys who's hurt Pakistanis.
REHMWho's going to replace this really bad guy who was taken out by the drone?
BILBASSYWell, some analysts say, Diane, that actually he is an important figure and it might hit on the core of the Taliban in Pakistan that is -- might not being replaced by somebody just as good. Also apparently he's not just -- he's been organizing all this killing, but also he's been the diplomat in the ways that he was operating with other people, negotiating when they have the feud with Haqqani group and others.
BILBASSYSo he has been seen as a figure almost who has some political asset. So if he's gone they might have a problem. But knowing this organization, there's always somebody who'd going to take over.
GUTTMANThere's an interesting lesson to learn from the Israeli battle during the second intifada. We kept on hearing for months there was always the number one on the wanted list of the Hamas that was targeted by Israelis. But then number two becomes number one and then number three becomes number one. And the experience shows that there is no end to it. There's always someone next in line.
REHMAnd let's talk about the suicide bombing attack on the Red Cross in Afghanistan, Mark.
LANDLERWell, it was shocking because the ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross is one of the only entities that has really been able to establish itself as a neutral force for good in Afghanistan. It's been in the country for 30 years. It's never been the target of a terrorist attack like this.
REHMSo why now?
LANDLERWell, I think the -- there's some mystery surrounding whether the motive was actually to go after the ICRC or after some other assets that were nearby. Regardless, it shows that the sort of strife in Afghanistan is entering a new and even more bloody phase. What's fascinating about the ICRC is they've even been praised by the Taliban themselves. They've been in an intermediary between families of imprisoned Taliban leaders. They've played a humanitarian role in those communities as well.
LANDLERSo it really was a shocking symbolic step that this institution, which enjoys this unusual reputation in Afghanistan is now also a target.
REHMAnd then you also had a UN organization hit, the International...
BILBASSY...the International Organizational Migration as well. And just to add to what Mark just said, the ICRC is the most neutral organization probably in the world actually. And they're mainly concerned on the humanitarian side of any conflict and they carried, as you said, letters to the Taliban. So they've been praised.
BILBASSYBut whether they were targeted or not, the question is now the Taliban is stepping up attacks everywhere because they know the Americans are going to exit in a year. They wanted to impose their presence there and they hit even in the Panjshir Valley, which is very interesting that maybe we can talk about it.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Go right ahead, Nadia.
BILBASSYWell, I mean, what I was trying to say is now they wanted to show that they are a force to be reckoned with in any political future in Afghanistan after the NATO and alliance coalitions leave. So it's not just they went for the soft target of attacking the ICRC and humanitarian organization, but actually they went to the governor in a very remote area in the Panjshir Valley. This is a rugged place that the Soviets couldn't really manage very well because of the nature of the terrain of the area.
BILBASSYAnd also with the Mujahedeen at the time, if you remember the line of the Panjshir was known as (unintelligible) at the time who was killed by the al-Qaida linked disguised as reporters who put this bomb in the camera and killed him there and they targeted him. So they went for the governor. There were like seven of them in a suicide -- they trying to do a suicide mission. Six of them or five of them were killed. One exploded his vest and managed to set the place on fire.
BILBASSYBut for them it's very important to show we can hit everywhere, not just a soft target, but the hard one we are forced to be reckoned with.
GUTTMANAnd also of course they have a chilling effect on any other kind of international group that wants to operate in Afghanistan. Because as the forces withdraw, there will be an increasing space there for humanitarian work and for international nongovernmental organizations. And if a target like the ICRC is attacked, known for its neutrality, appreciated by all sides, if that isn't safe anymore -- and we've seen the ICRC decided to freeze its activity for a while in the area, so it definitely will send a message to any other kind of foreign group that wants to work there and do humanitarian work. It's too dangerous.
REHMAnd lots of violence going on in Iraq this week as well, Nathan.
GUTTMANDefinitely. The think the numbers are -- we've seen more than a 1,000 people killed in violent attacks since April, which is critical to the numbers we've seen during the Iraq war. And the concern is that the sectarian violence is getting out of hand. To a certain extent, some people think it's a spillover of the Syrian situation where Sunnis and Shiites are on opposing sides. And this is reigniting the old sectarian tension in Iraq.
LANDLERYeah, there's sort of both a domestic element in Iraq and potentially a regional element. The domestic element is that Sunnis -- minority Sunnis feel that the Shiite government is persecuting some of their leading political figures. And there's a lot of anger among Sunnis. That's a long-running chronic issue in Iraq.
LANDLERThe regional element, which troubles a lot of people -- Ryan Crocker's talked about this, the former U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad -- is that you now see an alliance forming between al-Qaida and Iraq. And Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the -- you know, the more extremist group in Syria. And so you could see the tensions that are inflamed in Syria spilling over and in a sense making this domestic -- this preexisting domestic issue far more explosive. And that troubles a lot of people.
REHMIs Iraq heading back toward civil war?
LANDLERWell, let me quote Ryan Crocker because he knows more about it then I do. He doesn't think so. He thinks this is manageable, as bad as it is. And he doesn't think it has to go in that direction. But, you know, it raises an interesting question for Americans. The criticism of President Obama was that he got out of Iraq leaving very little, if any residual force behind and sort of left the Iraqis to their own devices.
LANDLERSo the question now is, what is our role? The Iraqis desperately want trade and economic ties with the United States. Can we play any sort of a constructive role in heading off that worse-case scenario?
BILBASSYI think the UN spokesperson in Baghdad won already that the country is heading towards a broader conflict if the political leadership do not act. The problem for -- as Mark said, basically the power sharing agreement that happened after the election never really fully implemented. There is always a suspicion between the Sunnis who dominated the country political life during Saddam Hussein and the majority Shiites.
BILBASSYAnd also this is -- we have to put it in a bigger context of neighboring countries like Iran who's supporting them, Saudi Arabia who are not really supporting the government there. So -- but all of these things have been there simmering. But the accidents -- or this particular spark by an incident in (word?) that led to the violence that we've seen now, which is a city next to (word?).
REHMNadia Bilbassy, Mark Landler, Nathan Guttman. They're all here to answer your questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Time to open the phones. First to Wichita, Kansas. Hiam (sp?), you're on the air.
HIAMHey, my question is, is the whole war in Syria where we have Russia with Syria and Iran kind of coming back to the Cold War (unintelligible) within the United States and adoption is kind of a Cold War where (unintelligible) ?
REHMAll right. Nathan.
GUTTMANWell, definitely the rhetoric sounds like Cold War rhetoric and we see the two powers or the one super power and the one used-to-be power trying to fight it out over Syria. I don't think it would reach the heights of the Cold War because first of all, Russia really doesn't have the power at the end of the day to pose a challenge to the United States. And also because a lot of it is just posturing in an attempt to gain some more influence in the region.
GUTTMANMany think that Putin is betting on a losing horse in terms of Syria, but that doesn't mean that in the short term he can't gain some influence by supporting Assad.
LANDLERYou know, it strikes me that it's almost a proxy war on two levels. One is the Cold War U.S. versus Russia level. And then the other level is within the Arab world between countries like the Turks and the Qataris who are more open to a Muslim Brotherhood style government after Assad, and the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Jordanians who really fear that kind of outcome. And you see that particular debate play out in this question of arming the rebels. Because the question is which rebels are you arming?
LANDLERThe Qataris have been much more aggressive in flooding arms into Syria and much less concerned if some of those arms end up in the hands of al-Nusra. The Turks and the Jordanians are -- I mean, rather not the Turks -- the Jordanians and the Saudis are very worried about that outcome. And so you see this kind of proxy war on a couple of different levels.
REHMAll right. I want to raise another issue before we continue with the phones, and that is China and whether U.S. systems have been compromised by Chinese hackers, Mark.
LANDLERWell, there is -- there have been these reports in the last week. The classified portion of a report from the defense science board, which is an advisory group, that says that the Chinese have in fact compromised through hacking designs for a wide variety of pretty advanced American weapon systems. The Patriot missile system, something called Fad which is an antimissile system that was actually in the news recently because the U.S. is planning to deploy one into the Pacific to counter the North Korean nuclear threat.
LANDLERAnd then several aircraft programs, including some very, very advanced ones like the joint strike fighter. So, yes, there's a lot of concerns that the Chinese are beginning to use sort of cyber hacking techniques to build on, you know, what is the classic business of espionage that's gone on forever. But in this case is really potentially compromising some sensitive systems.
REHMAnd what's the fear here, Nadia?
BILBASSYWell, this is a very important issue. The Pentagon, to start with, came and said the United States maybe is not equipped to deal with all this cyber attack. So if the Chinese government were behind it, which seems to be the indication for the first time or the military, they have access to the short journey of research into advanced weapon system by 25 years. So they getting the information for free. It give them an edge. The United States still number one in terms of weapon industries, so now the Chinese going and having all this information in an area that's very vital like Asia, the Persian Gulf, etcetera.
GUTTMANDefinitely it provides the Chinese with a shortcut that could make it easier for them to reach some kind of a balance with the United States further down the road. But on the other hand, there's also this concern, once a computer system is breached that you can put in malware, you can try to harm the system in many kinds of ways. And this goes back to previous reports we saw a few weeks ago about Iranian involvement in hacking U.S. business and the energy sector and the banking sector.
GUTTMANSo these vulnerabilities that the public isn't aware of most of the time could be significant not only in stealing information but actually in damaging U.S. systems.
REHMAnd while we're on the question of China, the implications, not just for pork but how Washington looks at Chinese investment more broadly. We learned this week that the Chinese are buying for billions of dollars Smithfield Pork.
LANDLERThat's right, Diane. And interestingly and perhaps counter intuitively, it's being looked at by CFIUS which is the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a committee that's typically focused on deals that would involve a foreign entity taking over an American company involved in critical infrastructure, ports, electronics, communications. In this case you'd think a pork company, why would that be an issue?
LANDLERWell, it turns out it is an issue because it goes to the question of food safety, the regulation of the food supply. The Chinese of course are nowhere near the United States in terms of the tightness of their regulations on food. And so there is a legitimate national security issue to be raised in the area of food safety. Now the Chinese have tried to allay those fears by saying, we're going to leave this entity based in the United States with its existing American management. This is as much about giving the Americans a chance to sell pork into the Chinese market as it is about sending Chinese food into the United States.
LANDLERSo it'll be very interesting to see whether this arouses the kind of opposition on Capitol Hill, let's say, the Dubai ports deal did several years ago, which became a firestorm because of fears that the Dubai in Middle East country was going to get involved in running American ports. So we'll have to see whether it develops that way, but it is sort of a fascinating illustration of how national security is really a much broader term than you might realize.
REHMExactly. To Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Bob.
BOBHello, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
BOBIf I could return to the Syrian conflict.
REHMGo right ahead.
BOBOne of your guests, a little while ago, thought that our humanitarian instincts should probably kick in and we should try to get involved helping some of the rebels in Syria. But I really think that the rebels over there are not our friends. I've heard mention of al-Nusra. I think there's been some interesting developments today in the news as far as sarin gas and these groups. But I'm not sure that I'm up on that yet.
BOBBut what I wanted to say is that I really think that if you want to be humanitarians here, we need to support the refugees, send our dollars to the UNHDR who is building refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and to not take this invitation to get blood on our hands by getting involved militarily. I think we'll pay for that in the long haul. And I have to get just a little cynical here and say that, you know, our military industrial complex here in the United States is hurting with the sequester. And I can't help to think that some of this -- and it was an invitation for us to get into some fisticuffs with the Russians over the Syrian conflict.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Nadia.
BILBASSYWell, let's just say that the United States, it's a fact, that it's the biggest donor in humanitarian aids to Syria. So they've already been doing that and they've been helping refugees. They've given what they call the nonlethal assistance. The question for Syria, Diane, is it's not just al-Nusra and these radical groups, the Jihadists, the one who allies themselves with al-Qaida. These are newcomers. They only happen to be formed in the last year or so.
BILBASSYThe Syrian conflict has been going on for two years almost. When this started, for six months it was peaceful. It was basically women and children going to the streets and demanding their political freedom, which the United States supports. Anybody who wanted to overthrow dictatorship, the United States supposed to be there for them.
BILBASSYMany people advocate that this is the good war. The problem here and the dilemmas -- and I understand all the complexity in front of the president and I don't have the intelligence that he has -- but what I was saying that this is -- many people think that if the United States were serious in showing that they were willing to do something, maybe not them but through the allies, through the Turks and others, not just supporting the revels with arms but doing something politically like no-fly zone, like Senator McCain was saying in a certain way.
BILBASSYPresident Assad know from day one that this administration does not mean business. When the president tell him step down, he knows there is no consequences.
REHMWhere is the UN in all of this, Mark Landler?
LANDLERWell, somewhat sidelined at the moment. I mean, one of the most high-profile things the UN is supposed to be doing at the moment is establishing whether chemical weapons were used in Iran -- in Syria, pardon me. And they have not been able to get their inspectors into the country. And that investigation is dead in its tracks. You know, likewise efforts to forge a political settlement have foundered in New York at the UN because the Russians are simply not willing to play ball. So at the moment, the UN's role and the role of the UN special representative has been one of sort of grinding frustration.
REHMAnd a no-fly zone is not quite as easy as it sounds.
LANDLERWell, yeah, that's an argument that there's a great deal of debate around. Skeptics have always said that the Syrian's air defenses are much more sophisticated than the Libyans for example. And also it is true that in order to create a safe corridor is a more complicated proposition in Syria than it was in Libya. And of course, if Assad were to get the S300 missiles that would then magnify the problem all the more.
LANDLERThere is another school of thought that says that those who are not interested in pursuing a no-fly zone have, in effect, exaggerated that. And that in deed when you look at the Israeli strikes of a few weeks ago where they took out some chemical storehouses, it actually suggested that maybe it is possible to effectively go after the Syrian air defenses. So this is a debate in the community of military analysts, and a pretty lively one.
GUTTMANWell, the other thing to keep in mind regarding a no-fly zone is what is the exit strategy even from such a limited measure? Because even if the U.S. can enforce a no-fly zone and do that with minimal collateral damage on the ground when it takes out the air defense systems, what happens if the carnage keeps on going on on the ground? What happens if there's another massacre on the ground and U.S. troops are around? Do they stop with the no-fly zone or do you move one step forward?
REHMVery, very tricky calculations and the U.S. clearly wanting to keep its distance. Let's go to a caller in Cleveland, Ohio who I gather is from Syria. Good morning, you're on the air.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANYes, hi. I'm actually originally from Hom and I cannot believe we are still finding excuses so we will not help the Syrian people. This whole revolution started based on having democracy in Syria. And it was peaceful demonstration. And because of the regime brutality and because of the regime using all kinds of tortures, it turned into a people start to arm themselves.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANAnd I just can't believe the whole world keeps finding excuses not to help the Free Syrian Army because they have to defend their families. They have to defend their country because of a dictator who is so ruthless. Do you know what kind of torture they are using?
REHMI'm sure it's absolutely horrible. But I was fascinated with this poll from inside Syria. Many, many supporting the regime, many not wanting the regime to continue. It's not a majority, is it?
LANDLERWell, I'll leave that to those who know Syria better than I to talk about the actual makeup of it. But, look, it's a fact that unlike in some of these cases, Egypt or even Libya, this is a much more complicated sectarian struggle with an Alawite minority government that's going to fight to the death. And that's just a more complicated picture than some of these other Arab awakenings have been.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Stantonsburg, N.C. Good morning, Henry.
HENRYGood morning, Diane. I would like to make a comment about the earlier part of the Syrian problem. When I heard reports on NPR of Ambassador Ford making what sounded like intemperate or even hysterical speeches about the oppressions -- this would've been around 2011. And then the Secretary of State backed up the opposition in such a way as to show that she felt that history was definitely on their side and that Assad should get out of the way.
HENRYThe president, shortly afterward, backed that up. I can't imagine that these rebels didn't think at that time that the U.S. government meant to be of use to them in the same way that they had been in Libya.
REHMThanks for your call, Henry.
BILBASSYTrue, actually. I was in Syria in January. And when you speak to people, they show great disappointment of how the United States is letting them down. I think put in the context of Ambassador Ford's comment, it was just after the spirit of the Arab Spring, we were talking about Tunisia, we were talking about Egypt and Libya and this domino effect to almost all the dictatorships were falling. And people thought, well, maybe this is the case with Syria.
BILBASSYBut this is, as we know two years later, it's one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Middle East. And that administration is not doing much about it in terms of trying to help the rebels.
BILBASSYThey were hoping -- Diane, sorry -- that Assad would be assassinated or they were hoping there's going to be defection. And if you remember in the earlier stages of that, that there would be defection from the army and things will change. They have their own dynamics. That's not the case and we know what's happening now.
REHMOf course the question is a good one, whether in fact a U.S. official with the high standing of Ambassador Ford might well have been more temperate in his own words.
LANDLERWell, I mean, this is rooted in the Obama Administration's experience with the entire Arab Spring and their belief that in the case of Egypt where there was a little bit of hemming and hawing. And then they finally came out strongly against Mubarak that that actually had a very vital effect in catalyzing the opposition in accelerating events. And likewise in Libya where after some hemming and hawing, they decided to back this limited military intervention. So the administration's sort of caught between not wanting to regard -- I mean, they're very open in saying every Arab country is different, has different characteristics.
LANDLEROn the other hand, past is often prologue and they can only learn from the experiences they've already had. And I think in the case of both Libya and Egypt, they concluded that if you come out strong at the right moment and make it clear that history has a momentum of its own, that that can actually help speed events. And they were, I think, surprised in a very unpleasant way by the way Syria's different.
GUTTMANWhich leads to the question, did the U.S. miss the opportunity to intervene in Syria when it could actually make a difference? Because there was expectation on the ground, as we heard, to back these statements of support with some kind of action. And that didn't happen two years -- or almost two-and-a-half years into it. Now there's not really any good option in helping the people on the ground. Now it's all fractured you have foreign fighters in there. There is no good prospect there anymore.
REHMNathan Guttman. He's Washington correspondent for Channel 1 Israeli News and the Jewish Daily Forward. Nadia Bilbassy is senior U.S. correspondent for Middle East Broadcast Center TV. Mark Landler is current White House reporter, former diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times. Thank you all so much.
LANDLERThank you, Diane.
BILBASSYThank you, Diane.
GUTTMANThank you, Diane.
REHMHave a great weekend. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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