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.
In Ukraine, a bitter standoff between the government and opposition protesters showed no signs of resolution. A week ahead of the Sochi Olympics, Russia announced it detained two alleged accomplices in the December suicide bombings in Volgograd. Activists said fighting in Syria killed nearly 1,900 people this week while peace talks were held in Switzerland. In Egypt, ousted President Mohamed Morsi went on trial. And in South Sudan, both sides accused each other of violating a ceasefire. 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. A chaotic week in Ukraine ends with the President taking a leave of absence and breaking off negotiations. The trial of former President Mohamed Morsi begins in Egypt, and the Obama administration criticizes Syria over delays in disposal of chemical weapons. Here for this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Elise Labott of CNN, Jonathan Landay of McClatchy, and Jennifer Griffin of Fox News. Do join us.
MS. DIANE REHM800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Happy Friday everybody.
MS. JENNIFER GRIFFINThanks for having us.
MR. JONATHAN LANDAYHi.
MS. ELISE LABOTTThank you.
REHMGood to see you all. Jonathan Landay, I know you've just been in Syria. Peace talks, I'm using quotes, peace talks ended today. Any progress?
LANDAYDoesn't seem that way. In fact, if you look at what the special UN envoy, Mr. Brahimi, had to say about the progress, he's talked about how the two sides engaged in an acceptable manner, and that there was a bit of common ground. And he called that progress.
REHMI wonder what that bit might have been.
LANDAYI think just the fact that he finally got these two sides in the same room talking to each other. The fact is that they were supposed to talk about a political solution, some kind of political solution to this terrible civil war that's going on. They ended up not talking about that. But they tried, I think, to talk about how do you address some of the terrible humanitarian situations on the ground that I myself was able to write about while I was there.
LANDAYAnd they came up -- there was a tentative agreement to send a food convoy into the sieged part of Homs, the city of Homs. That didn't -- ended up not happening. And so the mere fact that they got in the same room, I think, is what he called progress. The problem with all of that, of course, is that the people who are negotiating on the part of the opposition, the U.S. backed part of the opposition, are not the people who have control on the ground in the rebel parts of Syria and who are -- who have influencing the situation there.
LANDAYFor the most part, they are people that the United States doesn't want to deal with. And those are Islamist rebels, many of whom are linked to Al Qaida.
REHMAnd Jennifer, we've been told that nearly 1900 people killed in Syria just this week.
GRIFFINAbsolutely. In fact, that was just during the talks, during the last 10 days. 1900 civilians killed. But I would disagree a little bit with Jonathan. I don't think they accomplished much of anything at the Syrian talks. The only thing they really agreed on was to have a moment of silence on Thursday morning, to both stand up and have a moment of silence for the victims of the conflict. That was about all they could get. And, in fact, the regime representatives said that they weren't sure whether they would return for peace talks on February 10th.
GRIFFINThey had to check with President Bashar Al-Assad, so there was no real guarantee that these talks were going to go anywhere.
REHMHow about you, Elise?
LABOTTI completely agree with Jennifer. I mean, the fact that they got in the same room I think is significant and notable. However, this was never gonna be anything more than a diplomatic fig leaf, something that the diplomats could say, to check the box, to say that they're doing something. Because there is absolutely no alternative right now. The administration has ruled out military action, because -- in favor of this chemical weapons agreement, which now we see -- the Syrians are not even implemented. Maybe they've tried to get rid of about five percent of its chemical weapons.
LABOTTSo, I think that's why the U.S. was pushing this so hard. The Russians were pushing for their involvement. But this was nothing but a bunch of rhetorical statements, recriminations and the whole idea of the conference, which Jonathan said, was to get these parties together to talk about a transitional government, a post Assad era. The regime never even agreed to talk about that, so you came to these talks handicapped. The opposition was pushed to the brink, really, to the verge of collapse, to come sit down at these talks, and now they're going back.
LABOTTI would argue a little bit weaker, because now they're empty handed and don't even have this agreement on humanitarian aid.
LANDAYThe characterization of progress was not mine. It was Mr. Brahimi's characterization. I agree completely with what you're saying, and, in fact, the big takeaway I brought from my visit to Syria was the fact that American policy is so out of whack with the situation on the ground. The fact is that there is a considerable portion of Syrians who still support Bashar Assad. He can point to minorities like Christians, his own Alawite minority, as well as a lot of Sunnis who have chosen to back him for one reason.
LANDAYNot because they like him, but because they prefer him to Al Qaida. And the introduction of foreign jihadists into Syria has been an enormous factor in turning what was, you know, a lot of opposition into, among some Syrians, support. He's the lesser of the two evils.
REHMYou know, the whole thing makes me weep. Jennifer.
GRIFFINDiane, I think the real -- there were two blockbuster revelations this week, in terms of Syria. One was Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. He testified to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee that, in fact, there are 7,000 foreign fighters, Al Qaida linked foreign fighters, who are fighting in the Syrian conflict. And he said, for the first time, we heard intelligence officials, U.S. intelligence officials, talk about the training bases that are being set up by Al Qaida in Syria. And that there is concern in the intelligence community that an attack on the homeland could occur from Syria.
GRIFFINThat is a real change from a year ago, and what we heard the intelligence chiefs say to the Select Intelligence Community. Secondly, the revelation that the Assad regime has only delivered 4.1 percent of the chemical stockpiles that it was supposed to deliver as of now. You heard the President talk on Tuesday night in the State of the Union, one of his most strongest statements on national security was that American diplomacy backed by the threat of force is why Syria's chemical weapons are being eliminated.
GRIFFINBut, in fact, if we, if only 4.1 percent of those stockpiles have been delivered, that's a huge problem for the international community. In fact, the U.S. Navy has the MV Cape Ray, the new ship that has been reconfigured to dispose of these chemicals at sea. It's on route to the Mediterranean, and yet there are no toxic agents to pick up.
LABOTTAnd Diane, this whole growth of extremists, this allowing them to capture a large swath of territory, and they're not only fighting the regime now. Their main, actually, opponent right now, is the rebel groups, the moderate rebels on the ground, and this kind of bolsters Assad's argument that he is the alternative to terrorism. And that, the U.S. really, I would argue, only has itself to blame. The whole idea was to change Assad's calculus on the ground, change the balance of power on the ground. But, by doing nothing, the administration's worst fears came true, that this is a safe haven for terrorists now.
REHMSo, Jonathan, what happens next?
LANDAYThe betting in Damascus, when you talk to just about anyone, is that they need another two to five years to fight this out, that this is just gonna go on until both sides are totally exhausted, totally drained. I gotta tell you that a year ago, it looked like Assad was in a lot of trouble, but he has managed, in the last year, with a lot of help from the Russians, a lot of help from Iran and a lot of help from Lebanon's Hezbollah to secure himself a fairly significant amount of territory. It's very Kafkaesque in Damascus, where in downtown Damascus, you hardly know there's a war going on.
LANDAYThere's electricity, there's fuel. The restaurants are packed. There's food. And yet, two miles -- and the only sign of the war are sort of the checkpoints, which are everywhere. And at night, you can hear the fighting out in the suburbs. Only two miles away, there is the most unbelievable urban destruction I have -- and I've covered a lot of wars. I have never seen such urban destruction in my life. And yet, within, for instance, there's this refugee camp...
REHMIt's almost between here and Columbia, Maryland.
LANDAYNo. No. It's much closer. It's like between here and downtown Washington, D.C.
LANDAYThere's aid starting to get in right now to this -- I call it a former Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, which is two miles from downtown Damascus, which is basically a part of Damascus now. There's no tents. It's all -- it's a regular neighborhood. There's aid starting to get in there. But, within yards of the front lines of this place, where there are 16,000 people who've been without food for almost a year, there are full shops, there are restaurants, there are parks with kids playing in them. It's one of the most bizarre wars I have ever covered.
REHMJonathan Landay. He is Senior National Security and Intelligence Correspondent for McClatchy News. Let's turn now, Elise, to Ukraine. Talk about another country in turmoil.
LABOTTWell, and some people argue, Diane, that Ukraine could be on the verge of a civil war itself. The protestors have held out in the square. They occupied a lot of government buildings, forcing, really, the Prime Minister and the government to resign. President Yanukovych accepted their resignation. He, right now, is on a medical leave.
REHMHe called in sick.
GRIFFINHe posted a doctor's note on his website.
LANDAYAnd yet he did sign the amnesty bill today, so he's not sick enough not to sign the amnesty bill.
LABOTTWell, he actually left without signing this amnesty bill, but under pressure, not only from Parliament, but from the international community, this amnesty bill would give amnesty to any protestors if they vacate the government buildings that they occupied. And they're not really willing to do that right now.
REHMAnd they say no.
LABOTTThey say no. They are saying it's not enough, not only to release some detainees, but this amnesty bill. But they want real political change.
REHMWhy did the Prime Minister and the cabinet resign, Jennifer?
GRIFFINWell, I believe that what was happening is that the President was trying to clear the way to reach out to the opposition and to -- it was part of the negotiations to get out of this crisis. Because, as Elise said, there have been 100,000 protestors in Independent Square in the center, that government buildings have been taken over. And the reason he was softening his position towards the opposition, but then what was very interesting is what Russia did this week. And that is that they reneged on an aid bill to the Ukrainian government, which would have been a life line. And I think right now, the President's playing for time.
REHMJennifer Griffin. She's with Fox News. Co-author of "This Burning Land." Short break. Right back.
REHMAnd welcome back to the International Hour of the Friday News Roundup this week with Jennifer Griffin of Fox News, Jonathan Landay of McClatchy newspapers, Elise Labott of CNN. We have talked about Syria. We've talked about Ukraine. And now to Egypt where Egyptian prosecutors charged 20 journalists with conspiracy, Jennifer. Who are they? What are they accused of?
GRIFFINWell, 20 foreign and local reporters for Al-Jazeera who the regime in Egypt -- the military-controlled regime is saying were associated with terrorists. And one of those reporters is an Australian who is actually a personal friend of mine. We served overseas together, Peter Greste from Australia. And he is about as far from a terrorist as anyone I know. But they were arrested. They've been in jail since late December and they are now being put on trial. This is the first time that we've seen journalists put on trial in Egypt for these kinds of charges.
REHMClearly they don't want people reporting about what's happening there.
GRIFFINWell, they're -- what is interesting is -- and a lot of journalists are asking themselves this question right now, are they allowed to interview members of the Muslim Brotherhood? Because last month the Muslim Brotherhood was banned by the Egyptian government. It is now considered a terrorist group. And does that mean if you interview Muslim Brotherhood opposition figures, will you be arrested as a journalist? Many foreign journalists are concerned about this.
LANDAYOne of the other people who's been arrested is a friend of mine, Mohammed Fahmy. He was the acting bureau chief for Al-Jazeera in Cairo. And I remember -- I was there in August and September covering the turmoil. And I remember talking with Mohammed. He had been offered this job with Al-Jazeera. And he was kind of agonizing about it. You know, he's worked for CNN, he's worked for us at McClatchy. He's the author of a very well-received book on Egyptian politics. He's certainly not an extremist.
LANDAYBut I know that he had qualms about taking this job because of the threats to journalists and the threat to freedom of speech that have come with the military-imposed government. The military is going after journalists, is going after critics, is clamping down on free speech as part of this overall repression against any criticism, anyone who dares speak out against the government or criticize the government is labeled a terrorist.
REHMAnd meanwhile you have former President Morrissey going on trial this week.
LABOTTFormer President Morrissey is going on trial. And the kind of charges that he's against are -- some of them are serious such as, you know, killing protestors during the whole coup attempt by the military and -- or stealing chickens. So, I mean, there's a whole litany of charges. This week he was indicted, if you will, for working with terrorists to help his jailbreak during the 2011 revolution in which Hosni Mubarak was ousted.
LABOTTSo as everyone has been saying, this is just a blatant attempt to shut down the Muslim Brotherhood. They don't want to just arrest some of the leaders or get rid of the group. They want this group completely shut down. And anybody who worked for them, who supports them, who talks to them is now labeled in this broad swath with them. President Morrissey during the trial, it was a soundproof cage. In Egypt the defendant is usually put in a cage for, kind of the public spectacle and all. But this one was soundproof, which is really unprecedented, meaning that they really didn't even want to hear from him at all during the trial.
LANDAYI think there's something more to this as well. Let's not forget that the military, the Egyptian security forces gunned down hundreds of unarmed demonstrators pro Morrissey, Brotherhood demonstrators in the streets of Cairo last year. And they need to deflect people's attention from what they did. We're talking about hundreds of people who were simply gunned down in the street, unarmed people.
LANDAYAnd I think that by building up the Brotherhood as this terrorist band that's in league with Hamas and Hezbollah -- and it got so bizarre -- I remember reading this front page piece in an Egyptian newspaper in September where they said that the American ambassador was also involved with Hamas and Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood in trying to break off a piece of northern Egypt so that it could succeed and become an Islamic state.
GRIFFINWell, in the process, Diane, what's happening is that the regime, by using these tough tactics, they are fueling an insurgency that's already taking place in the Sinai. And that's where al-Qaida-linked militants have set up. And what's interesting is over the weekend in the last seven days for the first time, we've seen a shoulder-fired missile be fired. It was either an SA6 or SA7 that was fired at a Egyptian military helicopter, five soldiers killed. You're also seeing bombs go off in downtown Cairo. A general who worked for the interior ministry was assassinated.
GRIFFINSo in the process of squeezing the Muslim Brotherhood, the al-Qaida-linked insurgents are starting to set up bombs and bring down helicopters.
REHMAnd what is all this doing to the Egyptian economy? I was there just a few years ago. I mean, tourists abounded. No more.
LANDAYI went to the pyramids in September. I was the only tourist. There were no other tourists.
LANDAYI was the only one there. And it's so desperate. You know, when you approach the area where -- in Giza where the pyramids are, you have all of these separate tour operators. And in good times they're all busy...
LANDAY... and they're giving camel rides and horse rides. And they were so desperate that they had guys blocking the street and they attacked my car to try and get me to come to their shop -- to force me to come to their shop. They are so desperate for tourism. The economy is in very bad shape. They've gotten money from the Saudis I believe, somewhere around $12 billion I think. But it's not going to last. And the way this is going, it looks like tourism is not going to be coming back to Egypt anytime soon.
LABOTTBut this is an important point about the money that the Saudis and the emirates are getting from -- are giving to the Egyptian government. And this is in some ways to compensate for some of the aid that was suspended from the United States. But in other ways, they're really helping this government in their crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why I would argue that, yes, they want to deflect attention from the, you know, almost thousand Muslim Brotherhood supporters that they've killed.
LABOTTBut I think that for the Egyptian government, but also for others in the Gulf, that the Muslim Brotherhood is an existential threat. And so this is why the Saudis, this is why the emirates, they don't want to see these fledgling movements of Muslim Brotherhoods, of Sunnis, of Shia -- or Shia in their countries spread. And so this is why they're helping the Egyptian government and support actually this crackdown on all the violence that's ensued.
GRIFFINThe administration is in a real bind because the more than billion dollars of U.S. aide to Egypt is conditioned on the president being able to certify that Egypt is on the path to democracy. And if you look at what General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi did this week, he's the defense minister. He has elevated himself now to field marshal and he's preparing the way to basically run for president. And it's not clear whether those elections will be democratic. Most likely not.
LANDAYAnd you also have to remember, I mean, you haven't seen a lot of outrage from the American government. There's an American who's in jail who's been in jail since last August who was among the peaceful demonstrators with the Brotherhood against the coup -- who are demonstrating against the coup, an Egyptian American. He's been in jail. He smuggled a letter out about the conditions in which he's being held.
LANDAYWe know that Mohammed Fahmy is being held in terrible conditions. And they're in a jail that's reserved for the most hardened criminals. And yet at the bottom of all this where it comes for American interest, I think you're going to see the priority given to maintaining the peace agreement with Israel. That for the United States, that is really the bottom line.
GRIFFINAnd, Diane, interesting to note that last Saturday was the third anniversary of the revolution that removed President Mubarak. And yet in the State of the Union Address no mention of Egypt by the president.
REHMWhat happens to Morrissey now?
LABOTTWell, he's going to go through a trial. I think everyone -- human rights groups are very concerned not only with the charges but this is going to be a sham trial. So I think he'll be prosecuted to the fullest extent of Egyptian law. I'm not sure whether that will incur the death penalty, but certainly...
LANDAYThey see the death penalty.
LABOTT...certainly he will be prosecuted. And I think it shows this lack of mention in the State of the Union. It shows that the U.S. knows it has very little influence on the ground right now in Egypt. Because the Egyptian government has said, we see the Muslim Brotherhood as this existential threat and we don't -- we think it's more important than your aide. And the Gulf states are happy to make up the difference. So precious little influence.
REHMAll right. Let's turn to Russia. It announced it's detained suspects in the Volgograd suicide bombings. What's the latest there, Jennifer?
GRIFFINWell, what we know is that they say that these are two brothers who were responsible for the bombing in December that killed 34 people in Volgograd. It's -- let's remember what's happening next week. The Sochi Olympics are starting. President Putin is under incredible pressure internationally to look like he's tough and that he's doing all he can to prevent any sort of terror attacks. So whether these two brothers from Dagestan were really involved in the attack it's anyone guess.
LABOTTI think that this just shows how President Putin is trying to maintain this image that the Olympics are going to be safe. I think it's really all about the Olympics right now because there have been several attacks over the last several months, growing concern that there's going to be a major attack during the Olympics. And U.S. intelligence agencies are really concerned about it.
LANDAYAnd no necessarily in Sochi itself. I mean, Volgograd is not -- you know, a couple hundred miles away from Sochi. There are, you know, innumerable soft targets that could be hit anywhere in this vast country that would really make Mr. Putin look pretty bad. And let's not forget that an insurgent leader did call last year on Islamists in Russia to disrupt the Olympics.
REHMNow so far at least we haven't heard of any athletes -- American athletes who are going to skip the Olympics. But we have heard some say maybe their families shouldn't go.
GRIFFINI think that there -- people that I've talked to in the national security community feel that most likely there will not be an attack within the confines of the Olympic Games. But...
REHMBut they're cautioning everybody.
GRIFFIN...but their cautioning the -- they will most likely choose soft targets on the periphery. And that's why many of these athletes are saying they don't want their families to go because they don't want to be worrying about them. They want to concentrate on their event. They want to get in, they want to get out and they want to compete.
REHMAnd they shouldn't wear their uniforms anywhere but while they're competing.
LABOTTThat's right. And the State Department is sending out notices, travel alerts to Americans that would be considering going to the games, maybe urging them to reconsider, but also to not congregate in areas where westerners would be. Because, again, this whole idea of the soft target, this is -- because the games are going to be so heavily fortified with security the soft targets are going to be much easier to get to.
REHMWould you go?
LANDAYBut I go to Damascus.
REHMYeah, I understand. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." South Sudan. Rebels signed a ceasefire. Tens of thousands are refusing to leave the camps. New attacks reported, Jonathan.
LANDAYThe ceasefire was the result of peace talks that are going on between the two sides, one, the government of President Salva Kiir. The other his former vice-president, Mr. Machar. And despite the fact that they've signed the ceasefire in talks in Addis Ababa, there's still fighting going on which raises the question about how much control Mr. Machar has over the groups who are supporting him. This has become an ethnic battle between the two major ethnic groups in South Sudan and the Nuer and the Dinka.
LANDAYAnd to some extent it's a bit of an embarrassment for the United States which shepherded along the independence of South Sudan. The world's newest country gained independence last year only to dissolve into this ethnic maelstrom where you've had somewhere in the neighborhood estimated 10,000 people dead, 800,000 people driven from their homes. And the United States now is engaged very heavily in trying to push this ceasefire along into some kind of peace agreement.
REHMWhat about these men who were detained for allegedly plotting a coup in South Sudan?
LABOTTWell, they were detained for allegedly plotting the coup and others have been named in terms of this coup, including Mr. Mahar. They were detained. Four of them have been released and sent to Kenya for their own protection. So they're under house arrest, if you will, but they've been sent for their own protection. And this is felt that this is a kind of concession to the opposition and to the United States to kind of give the negotiations a chance. Because the U.S. has said that this will create a better climate for these type of negotiations to have a chance.
LABOTTAnd this is what the United States, way back in the summer when they saw that there was this political unrest and chaos, that they were urging President Kiir, you really have to have a more inclusive government. He let Mr. Machar go and that's when this really all ensued. Machar said that he wasn't plotting a coup but certainly this opposition that had -- some of them that served in the Kiir government, this is where the revolution, if you will, started.
REHMSo how does the U.S. help this whole process get back on track?
GRIFFINWell, right now the -- South Sudan is dependent on U.S. aide. They get something like 98 percent of their resources money come from their oil revenues. But the aide itself money, the rest is coming from the U.S. So under Secretary of State Bill Burns has been in Addis Ababa trying to broker the ceasefire agreement between the two sides. And I think what you're seeing is President Kiir is holding onto these four detainees as almost a bargaining chip in these negotiations.
GRIFFINAnd what's also interesting, Diane, I saw President Kiir down at Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa in December. He was greeted as, you know, the greatest new leader of the most recent country in Africa, and then he went home. And shortly after that, that's when this fighting between him and Machar began. And it quickly, as Jonathan pointed out, turned into an almost ethnic cleansing by the Dinka presidential guard.
LABOTTTen thousand people dead, six-hundred-and-fifty thousand or so displaced. I mean, this harkens back to some of the worst violence and ethnic cleansing that you saw in Dar 4, that you saw before that in Rwanda. And this again would put the administration in the front seat in terms of having to help end it.
REHMWell, but that's the question. What can the U.S. do to help end it? Not much?
LABOTTI think that there's not much, that certainly we're not talking in any way, shape and form about any type of military action. Although AU monitors are -- African Union monitors are supposed to come in. I think it's more the U.S. trying to push the diplomatic process along.
REHMElise Labott, foreign affairs reporter for CNN. Short break here. When we come back we'll open the phones. Stay with us.
REHMAnd, welcome back. Time to open the phones -- your questions, comments. 800-433-8850. First to John in Muskogee, Oklahoma. You're on the air.
JOHNHey, Diane. Love your show. Always love your discussions.
JOHNDealing with Egypt and particularly the Sinai, the Egyptians had a helicopter shot down. Any real concern about the multinational force and observer group that's there as part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords? And are they going to be in the middle of it? Are they really a threat? You rarely hear anything about them and, you know, they've been there since the early 80s.
REHMI'm glad you called.
LABOTTIt is amazing, Diane. They have been there. You don't hear much about them. But it's been decades that they're there. Yeah, there's this very real concern about the increased militant al-Qaida activity in the Sinai. And, as you pointed out, this helicopter being shot down with this shoulder-fired missile -- remember there was a lot of talk and a lot of concern in Libya, when, after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, that the shoulder-fired MANPADS that those 20,000-plus weapons could migrate, and they are starting to show up in places like the Sinai, and in Mali, and in other North African countries.
LABOTTAnd actually this multinational force of about 1,000 or so has had to curtail its activities in recent months because of all of this violence and because they feel that there could be additional threat.
REHMAll right. To Doug in Birmingham, Alabama. You're on the air.
DOUGHi, Diane. I'd like to comment on Secretary Kerry's role in Syria. And, you know, I he bears some personal responsibility in his ineptness when he said, you know, that all he has to do is give up the chemical weapons. What that did was give Assad the breathing room that he needed to marshal his forces and fight the rebels. He was on the ropes. And then Secretary Kerry made, what I feel like is one of the biggest blunders. And then the president said, you know, drew the red line in the sand. And then they've done nothing. And, you know, they're in Europe now trying to negotiate, you know, a truce.
DOUGAnd, I just think it's a complete failure. And it just shows the ineptness of the Obama administration. And then the comment that Hilary Clinton made when she was Secretary of State, that Assad was a reformer. You know, they need to get somebody who's professional and knows what they're doing in there. And I think Secretary Kerry should resign. Thank you very much for your...
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Jonathan.
LANDAYI'm not sure that, I mean, certainly Secretary Kerry doesn't really have much of a leg to stand on when he says Assad has to go. And that's American policy. And I'm not sure that the chemical weapons agreement "saved" Assad, because Assad was going to be saved one way or the other by Iran and by Hezbollah. They are not going to allow him to fall. Certainly, I think it provided breathing room to him. It gave him some international legitimacy -- restored international legitimacy for him. But I'm not sure that it "saved" him.
GRIFFINWell, if you look at what James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence said this week to the Senate Intelligence Committee as they were looking at the threat assessment -- the worldwide threat assessment, he, when he was talking about Russia and Syria and the chemical weapons deal, he did say that that agreement -- the agreement not to strike militarily and to offer a deal -- provided legitimacy not only to the Assad regime, but also to Russia.
GRIFFINAnd I think it's really important to look at the bind that Secretary Kerry and the State Department and this administration has put itself in terms of with agreements with Syria and Iran, that they were very anxious to get, they need Russia to a point that they are not able to criticize Russia. So they are not criticizing Russia for its role in Ukraine. It's playing a very bad role in Ukraine. And they are not able to do things, like you saw The New York Times had this report this week that Russia has been carrying out since 2008, intermediate ballistic-missile tests.
GRIFFINAnd Secretary Kerry has not raised it with the Russians because they need the Russians so much right now.
LANDAYI think actually that this delay in the surrender and removal of the chemical weapons is a major embarrassment to Russia. I think it puts Russia in a very bad place.
LANDAYWell, who was it who came up with that idea in the first place? Who was it whose influence was being counted on by the world to ensure that Mr. Assad abided by that agreement? It was Mr. Putin. Right now, Mr. Assad is not doing that. And I don't think it make Russia look all that good either.
LABOTTBut we've already went down that road. I mean this agreement was to stave off -- yes, it's supposed to get rid of the chemical weapons. Everyone agrees that chemical weapons are bad. But this was never about chemical weapons. It was always about having to find a face-saving way to stop the US from having to launch very unpopular military action. So that's what the Russians were able to do. They're pointing to problems that the Syrian's are having in transporting. The Syrian's did ask for some kind of equipment that the UN denied. I'm not saying that that's an excuse.
LABOTTBut that's what their pointing to right now. So I would argue that the Russians really have rehabilitated themselves in some ways. I mean, maybe some of us in this room and our listeners feel the other way. But, in terms of Assad, he's a lot stronger than he was before this chemical weapons agreement. And he has -- they have Russians to thank for this.
GRIFFINBut I think the problem, Elise, is that the Russians hold the final cards. And now that the chemical weapons deal is going up in smoke, if the US and its allies want to go to the UN Security Council, Russia will block any efforts to impose sanctions or any other sort of criticism of the Assad regime. And that's where the State Department has boxed itself into a corner.
LABOTTWell, I think one area -- if I might -- one area where I think they could get Russian acquiescence is on the humanitarian delivery. And that's what they're talking about, a UN Security Council resolution right now. And that would be something that Russians -- it would be very politically hard for them to (word?) .
REHMAll right. And speaking of the Russians, we've got a question from Paul in Morehead City, North Carolina. You're on the air.
PAULYes. Hello, Diane.
PAULHow'd you weather the storm?
REHMAh, pretty well, thanks.
PAULThings are back to life here.
PAULMy question was about the Olympics and how safe the US Olympic Team is and what we will do if there are any problems over there.
REHMWell, aren't there -- isn't there a naval ship nearby?
LABOTTThere were two Navy vessels that were sent to the Black Sea. But the Pentagon is downplaying the role that they would necessarily play. They have to be invited in by the Russians. The State Department would have to ask the DOD to use those assets. So while they have moved those two Navy vessels, the closest war planes, if you were going to evacuate anyone, are still going to be in Germany, still a few hour flight away. And, again, it all depends on permission from the Russians. And it is doubtful that President Putin would ever ask for help from the Americans.
REHMAll right. To Chris in Radcliff, Kentucky. It's your turn.
CHRISHello, good morning. My question is in regard to the situation in Ukraine. The Republic of Moldova signed the (word?) agreement with the EU last year and that damaged its economic relationship with Russia, on which Moldova was very dependent. And I wanted to know if it is known as far as Ukraine's decision to side with Russia, how that may affect the Ukrainian government's direct relationship with Moldova. Thanks for taking my call.
CHRISAnd I'll hear the response off the air.
REHMThanks. About half the people in Ukraine side with wanting to move the economic tie to Russia and a half want to be part of the EU.
LABOTTWell, the country is divided.
LABOTTThere are two Ukraines here. One speaks Russian and wants to move closer towards Russia. And the other wants to move closer to the West and closer to Europe. And I was actually in Moldova with Secretary Kerry. He was supposed to go to Ukraine for an international meeting. He canceled that visit and instead went to Moldova. Why? To reward the Moldovans for actually being the ones that signed this European Partnership. And so what he said was, We don't want to get in a bidding war with the Russians over Ukraine or over these countries.
LABOTTBut, in fact, that's exactly what it was. And so the US and Europe are all banding together to show the people the benefits of European integration. It was really, I think, interesting that Ukraine is now becoming the new battlefield between the US and Europe on one side and Russia on the other.
LANDAYI think the United States, for the most part, is letting the Europeans carry the water on this thing. The United States has revoked some visas of people who oversaw the crackdown or were involved in the crackdown on the protesters. But it's really, you know, Putin was just in Brussels, and he basically said to the EU, Keep out of the Ukraine. And that afternoon, the EU's chief foreign policy maven went to Ukraine to try and mediate between the two sides. But for the most part, what you're seeing here is a battle between -- for influence, I think, between the EU and Russia, using money.
LANDAYThe EU offer was, you know, as far as some people were concerned, was a paltry $800 million. The Russians came in with $8 billion -- about $15 billion. They have delivered $3 billion of that already. It's the second tranche of that that Putin has now suspended.
LABOTTWell, he suspended it and he reneged on what he told the Europeans he would do on Tuesday. So, remember, the whole reason that the Ukraine protests began was because there was consideration by the president to accept an EU trade deal and money, and that's when Putin and Russia stepped in and began sort of strong-arming the President Yanukovych to not do that. And I think it's very interesting that, if the US is leaving this to the Europeans, the Germans have been very outspoken. In fact, in Germany, they have a 24-hour news channel devoted to the revolution that's taking place in Ukraine.
GRIFFINOh, I don't think that the U.S. is really leaving it to the Europeans. They're very involved behind the scenes. The US is in daily touch with the opposition right now, helping them in terms of strategy. There are US sanctions ready to go, if the President Yanukovych decides to turn the military on the protesters. So the European's may be the face of this, but the US is very involved behind the scenes.
REHMHow much do you think his interest in foreign policy came across in the president's State of the Union Address?
GRIFFINWell, it's very interesting, Diane. Stars and Stripes newspaper did an analysis of the last five State of the Union Addresses that the president gave. And they found that, compared to the Bush administration, that the Address -- that President Obama usually spent about less than 20 percent, between 10 and 20 percent of his time talking about national security and foreign policy in his States of the Union. If you look at this State of the Union -- I looked at the numbers, and he didn't start talking about foreign policy until one hour and 59 second into the speech.
GRIFFINAnd he spent just 14 minutes of the 80 minutes talking about foreign policy issues. And so that is...
GRIFFINSo that's less than 20 percent.
REHMYeah, but I mean, it's a pretty good amount.
GRIFFINWell, it's a pretty good amount if you have a lot of meat in those 14 minutes. But, for instance, when he talked about Syria, he just talked about, you know, the importance of ending these Jihadi groups, but not what he was going to do to get rid of them. Or that the US is boosting the opposition, but no new initiatives on what he was going to do. When he talked about Afghanistan, he said, We're leaving Afghanistan. But he really didn't get into any details that I think people are really looking for in terms of how many troops he is going to leave there.
GRIFFINI think one area that he really spent the majority on was this Iran deal. And, again, not many specifics on what -- whether the military option was still on the table, what he would do if Iran didn't sign a permanent agreement to curb its nuclear program. But I think that this showed that, while foreign policy is not really a priority right now as he tries to complete his domestic agenda, that this Iran deal is something he wants to get through.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. What about Afghanistan?
LANDAYWell, actually, in the State of the Union Speech, the president did drop a bit of some news on Afghanistan, and he made it very clear that if Afghanistan does sign this bilateral security agreement with the United States, the United States, in fact, is going to keep troops in Afghanistan. He said, he put it -- a small force of American troops. We don't know how many. He hasn't talked about that. We've seen numerous reports of somewhere between 10,000 to 12,000.
REHMBut Karzai keeps walking away.
LANDAYBut he's under enormous pressure -- enormous pressure. And it's not just from tribal elders. It's not just from the Parliament. People are putting marriages on hold. They're taking their money out of the country. There's an enormous amount of uncertainty in the country over the fact that he may not sign this and the Americans are going to leave. The fact is, we may not be popular in Afghanistan, but a majority of Afghans still want Americans there, because the United States military presence provides kind of like this reassuring backbone to the Afghan military.
LANDAYIt's the Afghan military that really wants the Americans there. And the fact that Karzai won't sign this -- there are some people who are getting increasingly concerned that the Afghan military is going to look at this and say, Mr. President, either you sign this or else. Now, we're not at that stage yet, but there's growing concern that that could happen.
GRIFFINWell, remember, President Karzai has to step down in April. There's a presidential election and, by law, he has to step down. The US government could wait him out and it's not the end of the world. The planners at the Pentagon are going crazy because they're trying to make plans for the end of the year. We still have 38,000 US troops there plus the NATO contingent. They wanted to have this all signed, sealed and delivered so they could go to Brussels to the next NATO ministerial meeting and work on how many troops will remain next year.
GRIFFINBut they're very frustrated with Karzai. But, if he doesn't sign, there still is the potential that the next president would.
LABOTTBut the problem is, what if there is a disputed election? What if there is a runoff? This could drag on. And I think the US needs to have a drop-dead deadline in terms of when it would have to withdraw, if they don't have it. Or maybe NATO, I mean, at the UN Security Council, they vote to -- I don't know what the NATO rules are, but the UN Security Council always can vote to extend another six months. Maybe NATO decides, listen, we can put this off another couple of months while we work this out.
GRIFFINWell, the administration also keeps looking rather foolish by giving Karzai a drop-dead deadline. You hear it from National Security Advisors. And then it comes and goes, so our -- those deadlines don’t really mean much.
LANDAYI wouldn't count Mr. Karzai out after April either. He's clearly using the bilateral security agreement as a way of influencing the election, that he is going to use it to probably endorse a particular candidate. He is building his new house directly behind the presidential palace, so that he is going to continue to have a role. He sees himself as being the father or the new father or the latest father of the Afghan nation. He intends to remain active in this.
REHMAnd I think we ought to say, what is the sticking point that Karzai has in regard to not signing? It is that he or the Afghan government will have total control, legal control over US military.
LANDAYHe keeps making it up. The latest excuse is that the United States has to start peace talks with the Taliban, despite the fact that they tried and failed last year.
LABOTTAnd with Pakistan.
REHMAnd with Pakistan. What a mess this world seems to be in. Jonathan Landay of McClatchy News; Elise Labott of CNN; Jennifer Griffin of Fox News; thank you all so much.
REHMHave a great weekend, a peaceful weekend. Watch the Super Bowl. I'm going to watch the Puppy Bowl. Thank you very much. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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