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.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Violence in Eastern Ukraine escalates days ahead of a presidential election. China and Russia sign a $400 billion natural gas deal. The U.S. charges Chinese military officials with cyber espionage. Thailand’s military takes control of the government in a coup. Pakistan wages an offensive against tribal militants. The U.S. sends troops to Africa to help search for kidnapped Nigerian girls. An Egyptian court sentences former President Mubarak. And Iran arrests six young people for making a video of themselves dancing to the popular song “Happy.” A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a cold. She'll be back next week. Ukraine prepares for a critical presidential election as fighting flares in the east. Thailand's military takes over the government in a coup. And China and Russia sign a 400 billion dollar natural gas deal. Joining me for the international hour of our "Friday News Roundup," David Ignatius of The Washington Post, Jennifer Griffin of Fox News and Geoff Dyer of The Financial Times. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. GEOFF DYERGood morning.
MR. DAVID IGNATIUSGood morning.
MS. JENNIFER GRIFFINGood morning.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. You can call our toll free number. It's 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, we have elections scheduled Sunday in Ukraine, but more violence happening there in the east. Geoffrey, bring us up to date on what's happening there.
DYERWell, there was another big incident yesterday, where there were as many as 16 Ukrainian soldiers appear to have been killed in an attack on a checkpoint that they had set up in a village in the eastern part of the country. And that seems to be an attack launched, although we don't know for sure, by Russian activists -- pro-Russian separatists, Russian activists. This, obviously, a few days before the election, at a time when it had seemed as if things were ever so slightly calming down before the election. And then another very bad incident that has raised tensions once again.
PAGEJennifer, do we think the elections are going to go well? What's the expectation?
GRIFFINWell, I think what's really interesting is to hear what Russian President Vladimir Putin had to say today. He said he would accept the results of the election, and just yesterday, we heard from Pentagon officials and NATO officials that they were seeing some signs, if small, that the Russian military was packing up some of its equipment on the border. There are still about 40,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, but there were some trains and some flights out, suggesting some movement and pulling back.
PAGESo David, why is it significant that Vladimir Putin says he'll accept the results of this election?
IGNATIUSWell, three weeks ago, there was real fear that with Russian troops, perhaps 40,000 Russian troops amassed on the border, that they might move into eastern Ukraine, and that you could see an effort to splinter the country, physically. I think Putin decided that the risk of military intervention, rolling the tanks across an international border, was well beyond what he wanted to take. And he also got signs from the United States that, more or less, not aligned, neutral Ukraine was what the US envisioned.
IGNATIUSFinally, I think the fact that German Chancellor Merkel said, after her visit to Washington, if Russia destabilizes this election by supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, or worse, sending troops across, Germany would consider that sufficient reason to impose serious economic sanctions. And I think Putin got the message. That really seemed to change his behavior. After that, he began making different kinds of statements.
GRIFFINAlso, I think that the Ukrainian leadership has said that it doesn't really matter if Russia's on the border. They've already caused enough trouble by putting in place certain opposition, pro-Russian, opposition leaders who are causing trouble, as you saw, at that checkpoint near Donetsk. They don't need Russia. They already know they have Russia's backing in those eastern provinces where there are separatist movements still moving forward.
PAGESo, Geoff, tell us about the candidates who are running for president of Ukraine.
DYERWell, the far and away frontrunner is Michael Petro Poroshenko, who is a very rich billionaire. He's a -- he has a very large chocolate business. That's where he's made a lot of his money. But he's also very much a leading figure of the political elite. He's been a foreign minister. He's been involved with all series of governments for the last decade. So, he's not completely tainted as much as his fortune doesn't come from some sort of sweetheart energy deals, which is where most of the oligarchs have made their money.
DYERBut he's not exactly a fresh face either. He's someone who is quite associated with lots of the problems of the past, as well.
PAGEHe's only 48-years-old, he's known as "The Chocolate King."
PAGEI guess because of his candy business.
DYER...some people call him Ukraine's Willy Wonka, is another one of his nicknames.
PAGEAnd, if he wins this election, what is that likely to mean going forward, in terms of how Ukraine positions itself, how the government handles this, what is clearly, clearly continues to be a tricky situation?
DYERWell, the first thing is just the nature of the election. I mean, he is very much the frontrunner, but it's not at all clear that he's gonna win a decisive victory this weekend. He could be forced into a runoff in three weeks time. In which case, there's another whole three weeks of this process of uncertainty and confusion as to what might happen. So, we're not maybe clear of the things, completely, this weekend. If he does get a very decisive victory, that will give a much stronger platform for the Ukrainian state to try and slowly impose more control over some of these eastern bits of the country, where these separatists have been, you know, taking police stations and taking local governments.
DYERBut that's going to be a very, very difficult process. I mean, does he send in the military? Does he try and negotiate? How does he deal with the Russians? There are big question marks about him and his relationship with the Russians, as well. He has a chocolate factory in Russia. He has a shipyard in Crimea. So, he has a lot of personal skin in this game, as well. So, this can be -- even if he wins a very decisive victory, there's gonna be a lot of very difficult questions he's gonna have to answer.
GRIFFINHe's an interesting character, Petro Poroshenko, because, in fact, he lost about 500 million dollars of his wealth when the Russians closed his chocolate factory in Russia, a couple of months ago, and lost this shipyard in Sevastopol, as Geoff mentioned. He also has said he has an interesting relationship to -- in the past, to Russia, and he said that this is not a movement away from Russia, but away from the Soviet Union. And the reason he's the frontrunner, right now, is that when he met with a former Ukrainian businessman, Dmitry Firtash, who is pro-Russian and is in exile for corruption.
GRIFFINAnd he may be a liaison to Russia, so he doesn't have the background that someone like Vitali Klitschko, the ex-boxing champ who was in the Maidan Square, in the midst of the fight. He pulled out of the election to allow Poroshenko to move forward, and it's possible that Putin feels more comfortable with Poroshenko.
IGNATIUSYeah, I think we look to be heading toward a situation in which the government that's elected in Ukraine, the government that will be seated in Kiev, will be acceptable to Russia, even as it retains some western looking personalities and the history of the Maidan protests that put the government in place. And over time, that's probably the most stable situation that the west can hope for. The idea of a Ukraine that basically defied Putin, defied Russia, was a permanent challenge on Russia' border, seemed like a recipe for instability. The bargaining now will be over what kind of decentralization Ukraine will have.
IGNATIUSThe government has been pushing a system that would have strong central control through governors, even as there was decentralization of local control. Russia has a very different formula that would, essentially, allow a quasi-autonomous federated units. That will be bargained out over the next months, as well.
DYERAnd one of the keys things, I think, to watch out for is the extent to which he's accepted by people in eastern Ukraine. There's also reports suggesting that maybe only 10 or 20 percent of the polling stations in some of the eastern provinces are gonna be open, because the Russian separatists have closed them down through intimidation. People are afraid to vote. So, even if the new government is a bit more acceptable to the Russian government, it might not be -- have a huge amount of legitimacy in some of these very contested parts of the east of the country.
PAGEOn Tueday's "Diane Rehm Show," there'll be a show on the reaction to the results in Ukraine, an analysis. I bet we'll want to be listening for that. So, Vladimir Putin traveled to China this week, Jennifer, and signed this huge natural gas deal. A 30-year deal. Tell us about it, and especially why it happened at this moment.
GRIFFINWell, it's very significant. It's worth about 400 billion dollars. They'll begin pumping in about four years time. It's a 30 year contract. One trillion cubic meters of gas. It's significant, coming on the heels of the tensions with Ukraine. Russia is looking to replace some of the gas contracts with Ukraine, as well as with western Europe. So, it is filling Putin's coffers at a time when the sanctions imposed by the west and the US over the Ukraine crisis were starting to bite, in some ways. So, it is very significant, and it comes at this, this very crucial moment, in terms of Russia's relationship to the west.
PAGESo, David, how does the United States feel about this partnership between two of our big rivals, Russia and China?
IGNATIUSWell, I think there's been some concern, certainly among foreign policy commentators, that as some people have been writing, this is the end of the Sino-Soviet split that began in the '60s, early '70s that my colleague, Charles Krauthammer on (unintelligible) editorial page, said this is the real pivot. It's Russia's pivot to China that's gonna be the decisive one, not the US pivot that President Obama has pushed. I guess my own feeling is that for China, reliability of energy supplies is crucial.
IGNATIUSThat a China that's just desperate for energy is not in the US interest. That to the extent that Russia looks east, in terms of its gas supply, that is gonna open a degree of freedom for countries in Europe that have been so dependent on Russia. And Russia dependent on them as customers. So, I think some of the anxiety about this deal is probably misplaced. I mean, natural gas, like any commodity, is fungible. The more that goes to China means the more that will be available for other places.
PAGESo Geoff, who got a better deal, Russia or China?
DYERWell, one of the great questions about this deal is that the price is a secret. And the price is actually the key thing here, cause that would tell us a lot about the underlying politics. If Russia's paying a low price for this gas, which is what most analysts seem to think, that would show that Vladimir Putin was really desperate to get a deal here, to show the world that while the west is trying to isolate him, that he has very big, powerful important friends, that he's not isolated. But if actually China paid quite a lot of money for this gas than people expect, then that would tell you something quite interesting about China, as well.
DYERIt would suggest that China is maybe a bit more willing to play up this kind of idea of anti-western partnership with Russia, against the US and against the West, than maybe we heretofore suspected. So, the price is the key thing, but we don't know it yet.
GRIFFINI think what's interesting is what Vladimir Putin said about the deal. He said, our Chinese friends are difficult, hard negotiators, suggesting that he did -- they knew, the Chinese knew that they had Putin over a barrel. He also said, and this is very interesting, this is the biggest contract in the history of the gas sector of the former USSR. So, invoking USSR, at this time, Putin clearly still has this sort of notion of rebuilding the former Soviet Union.
DYERI think, if you look at what Russia's been doing the last few years, they've been doing two things. It has been getting closer to China, which is part of a sort of anti-western play. But it's also been getting closer to some of China's rivals in Asia. Vietnam and Japan, and potentially India, as well. It doesn't want to be China's junior partner. That's the long-term game for Russia.
PAGEWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones. Our phone lines are open. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email at email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Geoff Dyer, foreign policy correspondent for the Financial Times. He's the author of "The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition With China -- and How American Can Win." And Jennifer Griffin, she's national security correspondent with Fox News. She's the co-author of the book "This Burning Land." And David Ignatius, a columnist at the Washington Post. He's the author of a forthcoming novel "The Director."
PAGEYou know if you go to "The Diane Rehm Show" website drshow.org you can see a link to a video on YouTube called the Happy song. Let's listen to just a bit of what that is.
PAGESo this is a happy song clearly, and the reason it's in the news is there is a video that shows a half dozen young adults from Iran dancing to it. David, what happened to them?
IGNATIUSWell, they were arrested in a moment that shows you how intolerant and really how nervous the Iranian regime is. I mean, if you can get arrested for dancing to Pharrell Williams on a rooftop, boy, that's a repressive society. And I think it's an embarrassing moment for Iran. I was in Tehran in December. The hunger of Iranians to have normal life, to be able to listen to pop music, they're going by the thousands to Kurdistan, a place that Iranians used to hold in contempt, to see pop music acts, just to get out and have fun.
IGNATIUSSo here's this moment where the authorities are in effect saying, happiness is illegal. And it makes them look bad that there's a tweet that is attributed to president Hassan Rouhani. We don't know that it's true but it's a wonderful little message he's supposed to have tweeted. Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy. Whether he actually tweeted that or not, that's what people in Iran think.
PAGEBut the Tehran police chief called it an obscene video clip that offended the public morals and was released in cyber space. Jennifer, do you think the kids who made this video meant it as a statement? Do you think they realized that they were putting themselves in some peril?
GRIFFINI think everything is a statement in Iran these days. Remember the Ayatollah Khomeini said there's no fun in Islam. What is most interesting about this incident is how quickly it was reversed. These young people were -- who were dancing without headscarves on and in western garb and men and women together, they were arrested within six hours. And the Tehran's police chief bragged about it.
GRIFFINThen after the alleged Hassan Rouhani tweet, they were released. The director is still in custody but the question is, it really illustrates this tension between those that want to sort of loosen the restrictions -- and also, Rouhani had just given a speech about the internet and giving young people access to the World Wide Web. Right now Facebook and Twitter are banned in Iran.
PAGEYou know, interesting though, the power of social media even in places where the government is -- wants to prevent them from becoming powerful.
DYERAbsolutely. And a lot of analysts are suggesting this is really part of the ongoing power struggle in Iran since the election of Hassan Rouhani. He is likely not promising a more liberal Iran, but something more relaxed, slightly more, you know, laid back Iran. And a lot of people say this arrest was part of the hardliners attempt to show the Iranians that Rouhani is impotent, that he can't make these changes, that we're still in control.
DYERAnd that's really sort of the underlying context. And that's why a lot of people follow this tweet from Iran and Israel are not -- most people around believe it because they see this arrest as an attack on him.
PAGENow we think that the report says the six dancers have been released, but they could still stand trial. Is that right, Jennifer?
GRIFFINThey're still facing charges. And I think the real question in all of this is whether the spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, is he happy with this action by them, by the police chief, by the release? And that is still the great unknown.
PAGEHere's an email from Dan. He writes us from Sacramento. He writes, "Iran, the Grinch who stole happy. I wonder if those in power in Iran realize how such a petty move makes them look on the world stage. I think the world would rather see them threaten nuclear war than to arrest a group of people dancing to the Happy song."
IGNATIUSWell, I think your correspondent's view from California is right. Again, what you sense in Tehran is the desire of Iranians pretty much across the political spectrum, to be connected to the world. Iran's really tired of being isolated. The Iranians feel, this is our moment. This is a very dynamic society. They say we could be as prosperous -- more prosperous than Turkey. And they want to break out of this cordon.
IGNATIUSAnd so I think moments like this where they're trying to be part of international social networks and the authorities try to squeeze that are potentially very dangerous for the authorities. Because this goes right to the heart of what bothers Iranians most. And I think is the reason that Rouhani got elected in the first place.
PAGELet's go to Houston and talk to Ryan. He's our first caller. Ryan, hi, you're on the air.
RYANHi. Thanks for taking my call this hour. I guess, you know, in relation to the Iran thing, basically the emailer basically got it right on the head, you know. Iran's basically trying to make fun illegal. And, you know, that never really works out for anybody. It's just going to make people even more rebellious, I think, in that respect. And more people are going to, you know, do things that they enjoy doing. And Iran's just going to have to deal with it.
RYANBut my comment was actually in regard to the discussion on Putin and China earlier and how Putin's trying to kind of rebuild the old Soviet Union. I think that Putin might be starting to get a little senile because, you know he's basically acting as if the Cold War never ended, or he's trying to kind of spark it again. I don't know. Kind of what are your thoughts on that?
PAGERyan, thanks so much for your call. Geoff, are we seeing the start of a new Cold War?
DYERI don't think we should really see it in these terms. The way to think about it, these are two very big important countries that have a consorted interest in the U.S. not being the dominant power in the world. That's the one thing they really have in common. And so when events line up in that direction they will be together.
DYERThey're also two big, you know, great powers in their own right and they're rivals in lots of ways as well. They're competing for influence in Central Asia for instance. The Russians are very paranoid about Chinese incursions in Eastern Siberia. So there's lots of ways as much as they are big powerful countries that are rivals as well. We shouldn't necessarily see them as this sort of ideological axis that are working together all the time.
GRIFFINBut look at the headaches that both Russia and China caused the U.S. at the United Nations Security Council this week when the U.S. tried to get passed, along with their French allies, a move in Syria to refer the crimes that have been committed on the ground there by the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court. Russia and China stood together and blocked that. And there was nothing the U.S. and the French could do about it.
IGNATIUSI guess my only addition to this is that China today is a strong dynamic economy led by a leader who's, I think, the strongest leader in the world today in terms of decisive actions. Xi Jinping has decided that he's going to address the problem of corruption in the communist party aggressively. He's gone after the former head of public security, he's gone after the state oil company. He's really been tough in going after this problem.
IGNATIUSPutin sits on a corrupt empire. Russia's population declines every year. The fundamentals of the Russian economy are so weak. So when I look at the two, we have one fading country so desperate to recover the status, the trappings of super power glory. And we have another country that is rising and, you know, that keeps addressing problems and solving them. And so I think in that sense there's a real imbalance between Xi Jinping, a strong leader and Vladimir Putin, a tough leader playing a weak hand.
PAGEOur phone lines are open. You can give us a call. 1-800-433-8850 is our toll free number. But while we're talking about China, really an extraordinary news conference this week by attorney general Eric Holder when he announced that five Chinese military officials were being indicted on 31 counts of cyber espionage. Geoff, have we ever seen something like this before?
DYERThis is absolutely the first time that they've gone after -- the U.S. government has tried to prosecute officials of a firm government for cyber espionage. They have prosecuted lots of people who have been caught in the act, if you like, stealing intellectual property from companies. But they've never actually gone after people who are doing it remotely through the internet.
DYERThis is something the U.S. had been planning for quite a long time. You know, the Justice Department's talking about this 18 months ago. There was a very big concerted campaign the first half of last year by the Obama Administration to put pressure on China over cyber hacking. And then along came Edward Snowden and the political pressure just evaporated overnight.
PAGEWell, the political pressure evaporated and the allegations of hypocrisy on the part of the United States began in a serious way. Jennifer, why? Why does that happen because of the Snowden disclosures.
GRIFFINWell, let's remember, when Edward Snowden first revealed what he did about the NSA, it was when the Chinese leader had just landed in California. And there were accusations at the time by some of the -- those who oversee intelligence that was there some connection between Snowden and the Chinese because the timing was somewhat suspect. I think...
PAGEAnd now with the benefit of some passage of time do we think there was a connection?
GRIFFINI don't think anybody's been able to prove any connection, though it was suspicious that Edward Snowden went to Hong Kong as his -- you know, that was where he made his revelations.
PAGEBefore we leave this point, David, this is a charge that's sometimes made about Edward Snowden. Do we have an understanding of it now that some time has passed?
IGNATIUSWhen I -- it's a really important allegation that Snowden was used directly by Chinese intelligence and by Russian intelligence before he sought refuge in Moscow. It's been made publically several times by Mike Rogers the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. And I keep asking people in the government if there's any hard evidence to support it and they keep telling me no, there isn't.
IGNATIUSI think this is in the area of mystery surrounding the Snowden case that are unresolved, but I think it'd be a stretch today for us to say that there was any specific link in terms of the timing of Snowden's revelations and the visit of (word?) to California. It certainly was embarrassing. It did take the air out of what was then a real U.S. effort to raise cyber espionage. That campaign disappeared until this week's indictments.
PAGESo Jennifer, you were telling -- apologies for interrupting you. Go ahead.
GRIFFINNo, not at all. I think what was interesting is the Chinese reaction. On Monday they called in the Ambassador Max Baucus into the foreign ministry. And they really laid out all sorts of accusations of how the U.S. itself through the NSA and through the Pentagon had been cyber hacking and creating these backdoors into Trojan horses, into Chinese internet system.
GRIFFINBut I think what's really important is look at the timing of when Eric Holder made this announcement on a Monday. It came just days after China's chief of staff of the military, top army leader, was in the Pentagon. They rolled out the red carpet. He was the guest of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey. And they had a joint press conference in which, you know, it seemed as though there was this real warming towards China.
GRIFFINAnd then suddenly two days later all of the efforts at any sort of cyber cooperation were somewhat undone. And I think this is really emblematic of the administration not knowing how to pivot to Asia, what the relationship to China is. Is China a friend or a foe? And they, in the process, are sending very mixed signals to the Chinese.
PAGESo Geoff, when we talk about cyber espionage, what kinds of things are the Chinese accused of doing?
DYERWhat the U.S. government's trying to argue is that China is doing something very different from what other governments do. The U.S. would say that it's entirely legitimate to do espionage to the internet and other means for reasons of national security to find out about defense issues and political issues. What they accused the Chinese of doing is of stealing trade secrets from private American companies and then passing them to their own companies to give those companies an advantage in commerce.
DYERThe problem with this indictment is that they're making a very, very fine distinction. A lot of the charges they make in this indictment are actually about Chinese companies spying on U.S. companies because of trade litigation. What the Snowden documents have shown us is the U.S. does spy on other countries in trade negotiations.
DYERTo make the distinction between trade negotiations being a legitimate target and trade litigation as being somewhat off limits, that's a very, very narrow distinction that's going to be hard for the U.S. to make.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. So a big announcement by the Justice Department, 31 count indictments. So Jennifer, should we expect a big trial?
GRIFFINWell, I don't think that the Chinese are going to extradite these five Chinese leaders, which their handles are somewhat laughable. They call themselves -- one of them is known as Ugly Gorilla online, KandyGoo, Jack Sun. These are hackers who were based in a specific 12-story building in Shanghai known as unit 61398. It is a building that NSA -- the U.S. intelligent services have basically traced a lot of this hacking back to.
GRIFFINIt's important to remember that China is responsible for almost all of the 300 malware programs that are known to exist in the world. And what this indictment on Monday by the Justice Department does is it points out that there were five U.S. companies, U.S. Steel, Alcoa and others that were targeted by the Chinese, and at a loss of more than $100 billion a year in trade secrets lost.
PAGELet's talk to Lee. He's calling us from Miami, Fla. Lee, thanks for holding on.
LEEWell, thank you very much. I just wanted to comment on and just get a general sense that I think it's interesting, you know, that the United States is willing to try to prosecute people who are living in China and, you know, accused of committing crimes against the United States when the United States, as we all know, does commit the very same kinds of acts against China. And the very fact that the Chinese government is unwilling to, I guess, expose these embarrassing acts by the United States.
LEEIt's very telling. Why is the United States so willing to put all of our laundry out there when we're -- our own government is unwilling to actually take responsibility for its own actions? So all of this about China and Russia trying to act against the United States or even trying to act in some sort of malicious intent. It's silly. Everyone's acting in their own best interests, except for the United States, who seems to be acting in the interest of its oligarchs. Thank you.
PAGEAll right. Lee, thanks very much for your call. David Ignatius, what do you think?
IGNATIUSWell, certainly that's the argument the Chinese are making. A Chinese official was quoted as saying, this is like a thief crying, stop thief, that it's fundamentally hypocritical because of aggressive U.S. espionage efforts. I think the distinction that the U.S. is trying to draw on this indictment -- and it certainly is colorful filled with these, you know, the crazy names, as it is like out of a spy thriller, if I can say that.
IGNATIUSBut they're trying to draw the distinction between stealing intellectual property, stealing the property of U.S. Steel, of General Electric, of other U.S. companies, things that have enormous commercial value. American companies feel that, you know, their most precious assets are just being ripped off week by week. The distinction between that and the other things that countries do -- China is certainly not the only country that steals economic secrets.
IGNATIUSCountries in Europe are notorious for doing that. It's alleged that Israel does that. So this is not a unique case but there's no violator that is thought to be, by analyst not just in the U.S. but all over, as egregious as the Chinese. And this indictment lays down a marker. We're never going to get these five PLA soldiers to trial anywhere but it lays down a marker and says, the U.S. is going to take this more seriously.
IGNATIUSTo the caller's point, you know, a lot of things that the U.S. has been doing really makes the world angry and the world is expressing that. And it's obvious U.S. behavior will be different going forward. Will Chinese behavior be different? That's the question this raises.
GRIFFINWell, I think it's interesting that a year ago when we first learned about unit 61398, this 12-story building in Shanghai, that when that was publically revealed here in the U.S., for five months the hackers in that building went quiet. So this is a shot across the bow by the U.S. government to the Chinese saying, we know what you're doing.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll talk about that coup in Thailand and more. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're joined this hour by Jennifer Griffin, national security correspondent with Fox News, Geoff Dyer, foreign policy correspondent for the Financial Times, and David Ignatius, columnist at The Washington Post. Well, the Thai military has taken over the government, Jennifer. Why has this happened now?
GRIFFINWell, first thing you must remember is that Thailand has a coup addiction. This is the 19th attempted coup, the 12th successful coup by the military since 1932. So this happens very frequently. What is happening right now is that essentially the sister of a leader that is in exile, the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the sister had been in power. And their party essentially represented the rural countryside. And the smaller minority party that represents the sort of middle-class interests and the military and the paid -- basically, they have had years of tension between the two.
GRIFFINAnd so Yingluck Shinawatra was removed by the military, that's the sister. And it just, right now, it's unclear how they are going to get back to any sort of democracy. And in the background is the Thai king, who's 86 years old, is very ill. And that is a source of some of the instability right now.
PAGESo, Geoff, Thailand, of course, a U.S. ally, does this situation raise concerns here in the United States?
DYERI mean it does inasmuch as, you know, this is a military coup. It's officially a military coup, so the U.S. has to suspend all sorts of cooperation and aid that it gives to Thailand. But more broadly, this is a -- as Jennifer mentioned -- this is a power -- this particular power struggle has been raging for most of the last decade between this, like the Thai establishment -- the military, the business political elite in Bangkok -- and the family of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was the leader in the early 2000s. He was a very, very popular, but very divisive figure. Now he was booted out by the military in 2006.
DYERThe country had then been -- a series of elections were won by people who were proxies of him, including his sister. And this is this fight that's been playing out for a number of years. But it is becoming very, very dangerous, because in the past the king, who is an enormously important, powerful figure in the country, had at least provided some kind of stabilizing influence. He was able to rough off some of the sharp edges of some of these political contests. He's ailing.
DYERAnd there's a real debate about the succession, who will take over for him. The prince who's supposed to take over is a very unpopular figure. He has a daughter as well who's much more popular, but isn't supposed to take over. So this dynastic succession is mixing with this long-running political dispute. And that's taking Thailand into very, very -- very, very dangerous, uncharted territory.
PAGEWell, in the past, of course, after these coups, as Jennifer mentioned, there's been a return to kind of the regular order. Do we think that will happen in pretty short order in this case, David?
IGNATIUSI haven't heard predictions about how quickly this period of martial law will end. I do think that an ingredient for Thai stability -- and this is one of the great economic success stories in the world -- has been the monarchy. As we remember from the movie, "The King and I," Thais do revere their king. When I was an international newspaper editor for the International Herald Tribune, I discovered you do not criticize the King of Thailand. It's, I mean -- so the king is ailing.
IGNATIUSThe military is seen as kind of acting as a proxy for royalists, the establishment, the traditional elite, which has been nervous for a decade about the kind of populism that Shinawatra represents. I guess the final ingredient is that throughout Southeast Asia you see movement as countries react to what they fear is an increasingly assertive China. And I have -- I wonder in the back of my mind whether that's a factor in the military's decision to move and try to consolidate power and, you know, in their mind, get a stronger Thai foundation -- like Vietnam, which is very nervous about Chinese activity, like the Philippines, like other Southeast Asian countries.
IGNATIUSI think the Thais are looking to reach and it's undergoing change. And that goes to a central question for us, what's the U.S. role? Are we going to reach out to the Thais, a traditional ally, help them? Or are we going to keep our distance because of the coup?
GRIFFINOne of the criticisms of the Chinese army chief when he was visiting the Pentagon was that the U.S. has raised expectations in Asia by talking about this pivot to Asia. And that it has empowered smaller countries like Vietnam and even Japan, who -- in their territorial disputes with China. And it is curious, what will the U.S. reaction to Thailand be? Who will they side with? Will -- and -- but certainly the Chinese feel that this undefined pivot to Asia is causing trouble in Asia.
PAGELet's go to Chelan, Wash., in Washington State and talk to Cezanne. Cezanne, hi. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show.
CEZANNEOh, thank you for taking my call today. I have a two-pronged question, if I may. The second question is unrelated to the first. But I'm wondering if the weakness in the foreign policy of the United States in reaction to the Crimean -- Russia taking the Crimea, is directly related to China putting its troops on the Vietnam border -- amassing troops there and maybe saying, you know, maybe we can grab some more land or take some more property and the U.S. isn't going to do something.
CEZANNEAnd my second question, if I may?
PAGEYes, please go ahead.
CEZANNEIt's unrelated, but I'm wondering if the nuclear explosions and tests that we've had around the world over the last 60 years or so are actually weakening our ozone and being a direct result -- or creating a climate change, and why no one has ever spoken of that.
PAGECezanne, that's a big, big question. I want to talk first about the initial question you raise, which is whether there's a response to the takeover of Crimea and the fact that that wasn't repelled. Are we seeing repercussions of that around the world?
GRIFFINWe certainly have seen in Vietnam -- the background to the tension between Vietnam and China right now is that the Chinese placed an oil rig in territorially disputed waters off Vietnam, and have placed some boats there to protect the rig. And the Vietnamese -- there have been protests in the streets. They've gotten very violent.
GRIFFINThey have -- many Chinese workers have had to leave the country. And essentially the argument by countries like Japan and Vietnam is that the U.S. unwillingness to defend Ukraine when Russia went into Crimea, suggested that the U.S. was not going to stand up if China did something like made a move on the Shikoku Islands that Japan -- that are disputed with Japan -- and also placing this oil rig in this -- these territorial waters that are disputed.
PAGEWell, in fact, it's become a kind of Republican theme here that, not just on Crimea but also on Syria for instance, that the actions of the Obama administration have encouraged our rivals, our opponents around the world to act -- that the U.S. won't respond in a decisive way. What do you think about that, Geoff?
DYERI'd be very careful about drawing direct connections from Crimea to what's happening in Asia. I mean, if you think just about the geography of Crimea, Putin was able to take it over. He didn't even need to send in troops because there already were Russian troops in Crimea. It's just next door. It's a -- there was no military options that the U.S. or anyone else had to repel Russia from Crimea. What's happening in Asia is part of a much longer story that really started to pick up in about 2007, 2008.
DYERIt's a sort of long-term Chinese strategy to try and exert more control over the South China Sea, over the East China Sea. At the time, it was utterly -- one of the motivations for it was the perception of American weakness from the financial crisis. And in some ways now China's reacting more assertively because it sees the U.S. pushing back more strongly with its pivot. But that's very hard to draw a direct link between what's happening in Europe and what's happening in Asia. There's a much more longer, deeper story happening in Asia.
PAGEWell, David, what do you think about this -- this criticism though of President Obama on the foreign stage?
IGNATIUSIf this was just partisan criticism in the U.S. from Republican critics, you'd say, well that's just part of how our politics are these days. But I travel a lot overseas and there's no place I go that I don't hear from local government officials, journalists, this perception that the United States, under President Obama, is less assertive, less engaged in the world. The Economist summed it up in a cover headline recently. What would the U.S. fight for today? There are lots of good reasons why we don't have real military options in Ukraine.
IGNATIUSAnd anybody who looks at this carefully says that a lot of things people talk about are not realistic and that behaving carefully, responsibly, as Obama's done, makes some sense. Syria's a lot more complicated. But around the world, this is a world that does still look to the United States to maintain a rules-based order. And as people perceive the United States pulling back in this post-war era, where Americans feel burned, I think there is a worry about a weaker United States and other people trying to fill the vacuum.
GRIFFINAnd yet there is this contradiction, because the one area in recent weeks that we've seen the administration very willing to act is when 276 girls in Nigeria are kidnapped by a local affiliate of al-Qaida, Boko Haram. You see drones being -- we have 80 Air Force personnel who have just landed in Chad to set -- drones flying over Nigeria, in a search that, really, once you start to look at it, is almost impossible from the air if you're going to have drones up above a forested jungle looking for these girls who have been divided into smaller groups. So there are a lot of contradictions in the foreign policy right now as well.
PAGEBring us up to date, Geoff, on the situation that has touched so many hearts around the world -- these Nigerian girls who were kidnapped. Have there been any developments?
DYERWell the unfortunate thing is in that case there do not seem to be any real great developments. There's no real news about where they are. The Nigerian authorities have not shown any capacity to find them or to really exert any kind of influence over the situation. And even more worryingly, there's been a whole series of violent incidents in the country as well -- there's bombings, suicide bombings, attacks on villages by the same group that kidnapped the girls. So there's a much broader sense of the country that's destabilizing as a result of this kind of tension.
PAGEConcerns, in fact, David, that democracy may be coming to an end in Nigeria.
IGNATIUSWell, the Nigerian -- this huge, rich, populous country, has its own version of democracy. I'd be -- it's too early for me to say that. They're not responding well to the crisis of Boko Haram. And that's been of concern to the U.S. now for a year or more. And I would say, just generally, as you look at the world, the Obama administration made a great point, certainly during the election campaign of 2012, that the al-Qaida problem basically had been tackled -- that al-Qaida was on the run, splintered. And al-Qaida's coming back big time in Syria, in Iraq, in North Africa. It's putting down deep roots.
IGNATIUSAnd I think at some point the administration's going to have to think more, talk more to the American people about how it plans to respond to that.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And, of course, it all fits in a piece doesn't it? That the American's response, their weariness to the war in Afghanistan...
IGNATIUSThis is a country -- President Obama read the country right in the 2012 election. This is a country that just feels these wars over the last 10 years didn't get us much. We spent a trillion dollars and all these lives lost. What do we get for it? The fascinating Pew Research poll that, in which 52 percent of Americans said the country should mind its own business. So different from the forward-leaning internationalist America that people are used to. But, so that's where the country is. The President's job is to lead the country toward good policy. And, as I said, there's just too much disorder in the world, for you not to think the White House needs to take a stronger stance.
PAGESo true. But what was the first topic we talked about in the first hour of the News Roundup? It was this scandal involving care of veterans at VA hospitals. And one reason the VA is overwhelmed is because they have all these veterans returning from these two long wars. Jennifer, we -- well, tell us what's happening in Afghanistan. Of course the U.S. role in that war is winding down this year. But we saw a sort of spring offensive by the Taliban.
GRIFFINWell I think you -- every spring you see a spring offensive by the Taliban, because the snows melt and the Taliban that have been resting in Pakistan come back across the border and -- and they also know that the U.S. -- the Taliban know how to read U.S. public opinion. And they read newspapers and the Internet. And they know that there's a big debate about whether to keep any U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the end of this year. You have a unresolved situation in terms of the presidential election, Hamid Karzai's successor. There will be a runoff, I believe, on June 14.
GRIFFINAnd you have two candidates who -- Abdul Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and then you also have Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister. Both somewhat Western leaning, but can they hold Afghanistan together? Today you saw that the Taliban attacked the Indian Consulate out in Herat. It was repelled. But the Taliban are feeling strong and they're going to be testing this government. And this new government, whoever wins, is going to need U.S. -- the U.S. military there to help stabilize things for the coming few years. And it's not clear whether the President plans to keep any troops in Afghanistan after the end of this year.
PAGEWhat's -- what does that debate look like, Geoff, in terms of what the continuing U.S. role will be in Afghanistan.
DYERI still think that the general view is that the administration would like to keep some sort of presence in the country -- maybe around 5,000, maybe around 10,000 troops. But they're really -- what they're waiting for is for a new president to be elected. And they -- both of the two presidents in the runoff have said that they would sign this agreement that would facilitate the U.S. to remain in the country.
DYERSo I think they're just holding back at the moment, letting this electoral process play out, and hope that once they do get a president in place, that that president will follow through, will sign the agreement and will allow the U.S. to keep a presence. But it's getting very close to the deadline. There's also logistical issues as well. The planning issues have become very complicated. So it's getting very close, but I think the U.S. will still think that it ultimately will end up with some kind of presence next year going forward.
PAGEYeah. We've blown past a lot of deadlines when it comes to that. Well, but just one final topic. Pope Francis, traveling to the Holy Land this weekend. Jennifer, you covered the last Pope's visit.
GRIFFINAnd that was the historic -- it was actually John Paul II's historic visit back in 2000. He was the first pope to visit Israel. Since then, in the last 14 years now, this is the third pope to visit the Holy Land. What's significant about this visit is that Pope Francis is taking with him a Muslim Imam, a Jewish Rabbi and a Maronite Christian from Lebanon is going to Israel, to land captured in the 1967 war for the first time. This is not going to make Hezbollah very happy.
GRIFFINBut Pope Francis is using this 50th anniversary of the reconciliation between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church as an opportunity to reach out to Orthodox Christians. But, very interesting, the Russian Orthodox Church is holding out on that front.
PAGELaying a wreath at the grave of the founder of the Zionist movement, David.
IGNATIUSWell, the Pope is trying to -- it's a very politically delicate trip -- trying not to be seen to be leaning in either direction in this Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think Jennifer's right that one of the most interesting aspects of this trip is that the Maronite Patriarch, now a Cardinal, is going to accompany the Pope. And the implications of this -- Lebanese friends have been telling me, if this Lebanese Patriarch visits Jerusalem and occupied areas, that will have repercussions back home that will be important.
PAGEWe'll talk about that, I'm sure, next week on the "Friday News Roundup" of "The Diane Rehm Show." Now, I want to thank David Ignatius, Jennifer Griffin, Geoff Dyer for being with us this hour. Thank you.
IGNATIUSThanks very much.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back next week. Have a great holiday weekend. Thanks for listening.
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