War in Ukraine: airstrikes, drones and a looming counteroffensive
This week saw heightened tensions in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. A wave of drone strikes hit the Russian capital Tuesday morning, bringing the war to Moscow for the first…
Guest Host: Susan Page
Ukraine’s president signs a historic trade and economic pact with the EU. Secretary of State Kerry presses Moscow to rein in pro-Russian separatists fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Iraq’s parliament plans to convene next week to begin the work of electing a new government. In Egypt, prison sentences for three Al Jazeera journalists spark global outrage. A former aide to Britain’s prime minister is convicted of phone hacking charges. And an ebola outbreak in West Africa claims more than 300 lives. 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'll be back next week. President Obama proposes funding Syrian rebels to combat the growing reach of ISIS. Ukraine signs a landmark trade agreement with the EU despite bitter Russian objections. And international outrage over Egypt's sentencing of Al Jazeera journalists. Here to discuss this week's top international stories on our "Friday News Roundup," David Ignatius of The Washington Post.
MS. SUSAN PAGEElise Labott of CNN and Greg Myre of NPR. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. ELISE LABOTTThank you.
MR. DAVID IGNATIUSThank you, Susan.
MR. GREG MYREThank you.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. Our toll free number, it's 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well Greg, a turnabout on the part of the administration. The President Obama has asked Congress to authorize significant amount of aid for Syria. Why is he asking for it now? What changed his mind?
MYREWell, I think we see the developments both in Syria and in Iraq with ISIS's tremendous gains and a sense that this problem is no longer confined to Syria. It's become even bigger than anticipated. But there's still the question of how are you going to find the rebel groups that you're going to give it to? How are you going to train them, and can they make a difference in a war that's now more than three years old? And the moderate groups the US will support has not been doing that well on the battlefield.
PAGESo, Elise, put this in some context for us, because we know now, from Hillary Clinton's new memoir, that she and others, had urged the President to agree to this kind of aid some time ago.
LABOTTThat's right. Then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus at the time, all thought that unless you start aiding some of the moderate rebels, you're gonna see the growth of extremism that we're seeing right now, and I think what's so interesting is why the President is doing it now. It's part of this whole effort that he announced at his recent speech at West Point about combating terrorism in the region, which shows now that the administration sees Syria through the lens of counter-terrorism. And really, it's coming to roost the fact that they didn't do anything to address the political challenges that were going on in Syria all this time ago.
LABOTTSo now they have this huge issue and it's -- what is the -- my question is what is the strategic vision for what they're going to do with the Syrians? Is it to fight ISIS and these militants that are crossing freely on the border between Syria and Iraq? Or are they to fight Assad and get Assad out, because it doesn't seem that if President Assad were to go right now that that's going to end the problem. You still have this massive terrorism problem.
PAGESo David, what's the strategic vision?
IGNATIUSWell, just to make one technical point, if I might, the thing that the administration that's -- has proposed, that's new, is 500 million dollars in funding for what would be a so-called Title 10, that is to say, over US military program, to train and assist vetted Syrian moderate opposition forces. So they're requesting that authority for a legal program, overt program, to supplement an existing covert program, in which the CIA has been training for more than a year, smaller numbers of Syrian opposition forces. In other words, the United States, for some time, has been assisting the Syrian rebels, but it's been doing so on secret.
IGNATIUSThe second point to make is although the President has decided to seek authorization for this program, it is not clear that it will go forward because of weariness on the part of the country that would be the principal training base for these open, overt forces. And that's Jordan. The Jordanians worry that a publicly announced program, unlike the current CIA program, would expose them in the region.
PAGEAnd yet the President's asking Congress for this money. Is there any question that Congress will approve it, Greg? Is Congress likely to say OK?
MYREWell, just in the general sense, there are certainly members of Congress that have been pushing for this for a long time. Certainly on the Republican side, but there's a lot of wariness in Congress, too. Again, that attitude and mood seems to be shifting a little bit. I don't know that it's an absolute, clear cut -- that he'll get exactly what he wants and when he wants it.
PAGEAnd David, you said this would be to vetted fighters, vetted Syrian fighters. I mean, that's another issue, right? The nature of the fighters that we might be training and supplying with weapons.
LABOTTWell, that was one of the whole questions in the first place and the wariness on the part of US in terms of how do you vet these rebels? How do you make sure that these weapons are not going to go into the hands of extremists? Which many of them were kind of infiltrating the opposition. And now you do see a little bit more. It's still not a clear cut case where there are moderate rebels and extremists on the other side, but the battle lines are a little bit more clearly drawn in terms of who the moderates are and who the extremists are.
LABOTTBut again, my question is who are they going to be fighting and what is the goal here? Is it to get rid of Assad? Is it to get rid of ISIS, because I don't see a 500 million dollar program ending the terrorism program -- the terrorism problem that's going on throughout the region. And I might just add that this is part of a 1.5 billion dollar regional stabilization fund that's also going to be giving money to Lebanon, to Turkey, to Jordan, to address this terrorism threat that is really proliferating the region from the conflict in Syria.
PAGEDavid, do administration officials now believe, or even acknowledge privately, that the course that was taken a couple of years ago was -- turned out to be a mistake. To refuse to do more to help the Syrian opposition at an earlier point?
IGNATIUSI think looking at the consequences of US relative inaction, they would say that we've ended up in a place that's very dangerous and if other courses could be taken in hindsight, I think people would want to do that. Officials do caution the program that Secretary Clinton, CIA Chief Dave Petraeus, Leon Panetta supported in the middle of 2012, was a limited program. It was an early version of the CIA covert action program that has been ongoing, that is so invisible and so toothless, you could say, that a lot of people aren't even aware of it.
IGNATIUSJust make one more point about what's been announced, because I think it's the central innovation here. This force of vetted Syrian, moderate opposition forces would be a stabilization force. It's an idea that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has supported. And the idea is that they would go into the areas that had been liberated in southern and northern Syria. They'd be trained in much larger numbers, because it would be an overt program. There would be nearly 10,000, by one estimate, by the end of this year, if this program is approved. And they would take up that space that's empty, in which ISIS and the terrorists have been growing.
IGNATIUSAnd that's the part of this that's new and a good idea.
PAGEIf Jordan feels too fragile in its security to allow this to happen on its ground, on its soil, is there another place to train them?
IGNATIUSThere are various countries that had been considered as possible training sites. Most of their names are still secret. One interesting thing is that some Jordanians have proposed a mandate for this force, that would come from the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is the organization of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, et cetera, of which Jordan is kind of an associate member. Which the Jordanians feel would give this program some legal standing. So that's really the next thing to watch, the political side.
PAGEYou know, one side of how complicated this region has become is here we're talking about doing more to aid the Syrian rebels. Meanwhile, Syria, the government, is striking in Iraq on the side -- on our side, on the side that we also support. What is happening there, Greg?
MYREYeah. I mean, for the past three years, since the Arab Spring exploded in 2011, the changes in policy and who's aligned with whom is changing almost by the day. So what we see is the United States is supporting the Iraq government. Iran is supporting the Iraq government. And now Syria is showing support by having launched some airstrikes in western Iraq because the Syrian government and the Iraq government are both fighting the same group, ISIS. So the way that these players shift and change, you get some very strange alliances that couldn't have been imagined a year or two ago.
LABOTTBut I have to say, I think it's -- everyone is looking at this, that oh, for the first time, the US, Iran and Syria are on the same side, but you know, they may have strategic, kind of, similar goals is to fight back ISIS. But they're watching each other, jockeying for influence in the country. The US and Iran are not on the same side here. The US does not want Iran to further its influence in the country. Already Iran is sending weapons, cash, support. The head of the Revolutionary Guard, Quds Force, has been to Iraq several times to advise the government.
LABOTTAnd part of why the US is actually opening -- I wouldn't call them full talks, but is speaking to Iran about what's going on in Iraq, is because they want to send a message. Listen, we understand that everybody wants to fight this terrorism problem, but you going into Iraq is not the answer.
PAGEMeanwhile, we have the first of those US special forces arriving in Baghdad. The President announced their deployment last week. What are they going to do, David?
IGNATIUSWell, the idea is that they will assess the capabilities of the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army buckled, first in Anbar Province, in western Iraq, and then in Mosul and Tikrit in northern Iraq, just basically cut and ran. And so the idea is that these special forces will assess and then begin advising and assisting. They're also, I'm told, a number of them are duel capable, in a sense that they could quickly, many of them are special operations forces, take on a much more aggressive role in a counter-terrorism program.
IGNATIUSYou know, it's well known that the US, in the past in Iraq, conducted raids to take out leaders that were seen as particularly threatening. It's clear with our drones over Iraq that we've been trying to get information about where key leaders are. So, obviously we're getting the kinds of capabilities into the country that could deal with that.
PAGEWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about what's happening with Ukraine and Russia and we'll take your calls and questions. 1-800-433-8850. Our phone lines are open. Stay with us.
MS. DIANE REHMWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio for the International Hour of our Friday News Roundup, Greg Myre. He's international editor at NPR. He's co-author of "This Burning Land." Elise Labott, she's foreign affairs reporter for CNN. And David Ignatius, a columnist with the Washington Post and contributor to the Post Partisan blog on WashigntonPost.com. His new novel is called "The Director." Let's talk about Ukraine. Ukraine today signed a trade agreement with the EU. This is a very big deal, Elise. Why?
LABOTTThat's right. President Poroshenko who was recently elected, you know, signed this trade deal allowing, you know, really free trade with the European Union countries. Also Moldova and Georgia also signed it. But what he was saying is, this is a very important day for the country because this is how we are shedding our yoke of the Soviet era and moving more towards the west.
LABOTTAnd, you know, with everything going on right now in Ukraine and the fragile ceasefire that is existing right now, the Russians are not happy about it. And although President Putin hasn't spoken on it, his deputies are saying that there are going to be consequences.
REHMWell, you know, Greg, in fact this was the same agreement that in November sparked the beginning of this kind of cascading crises in Ukraine.
MYRERight. It's quite possible to imagine seven months ago if Ukraine had gone ahead and signed something as mundane as a trade deal and life had gone on and this whole crisis hadn't erupted. I think the interesting thing here is to look at the trajectory that some of these conflicts will often take. And if you were Russian, if you were Putin, the fun part was seizing Crimea and annexing Crimea and it felt good for a while.
MYRENow I think you're seeing some of the questions coming to the fore, is Crimea and that annexation, is that an asset or is that a liability? And Putin is seeing, I think, some of the downside with this where he's pushed Ukraine and other countries even further toward EU and away from Russia. He's got this -- he's got to support and subsidize Crimea, a fairly poor place that can't make it economically on its own. He's facing a big loss of investment in Russia. So I think the burdens and the liabilities of that move are now starting to hit home.
REHMAnd, in fact, Putin this week on Tuesday asked Russia's parliament to revoke his power to send troops into Ukraine. Is that a real gesture, David, or is that some kind of political calculation on his part?
IGNATIUSWell, it is a gesture. It was meant to signal that Russia's interested in some compromise. And another thing the EU was doing today was considering whether to add sanctions against Russia. That they didn't do. And I think one purpose of Russia's signals of its interest of a settlement was to head off sanctions. This is a day in which the basic weakness of Putin's position, I think, became clearer.
IGNATIUSAnd what's happened is that the process that began last December that the then president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych decided he would walk away from under pressure from Moscow has gone ahead. And in the process Putin has managed to alienate just about everybody in his neighborhood. So the thing he tried to prevent has happened and he's got a lot of extra baggage along with it. So it's not a happy day for Putin.
REHMThe ceasefire, Elise, that you mentioned, is it holding, the ceasefire in Ukraine?
LABOTTWell, President Poroshenko extended it for another, I think, 12 hours in order to kind of jumpstart negotiations between these Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government. I mean, even as the ceasefire has been going on, it's been very shaky. There have been incidents. There was the shooting down of a Ukrainian military helicopter earlier this week, which the U.S. charges was from a Russian-made weapon.
LABOTTSo even as President Putin is taking steps as what U.S. calls a charm offensive, these separatists have the Russian support, the Russian weapons, Russian money and Russian backing to keep destabilizing Ukraine. So we'll see what happens over the weekend. With the ceasefire maybe if there's no major incident it can go on in this shaky form. But certainly it's very fragile.
REHMLet's invite our listeners to join our conversation. Let's go first to Samuel. He's calling us from Upper Marlboro, Md. Samuel, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
SAMUELHi, good morning. How y'all doing?
SAMUELAll I'm saying is, you know, when the Syrian conflict started I did say the same thing. The statement that we made about Assad needs to go without knowing who we want to replace him with. I actually think the United States should support Assad at this point. I'm sorry, because the guys that want to replace him are just going to burn down the place. They don't want no government or democratic system. So I think you guys should support Assad instead of criticizing him all the time.
REHMOkay. Samuel, thanks very much for your call. Elise, you're nodding your head. You agree?
LABOTTWell, I don't know if I agree but I think when you see what's happened in the Arab world over the last many years and particularly when you see what's happened with Iraq and you ask some Iraqis, are you better off without Saddam Hussein, for instance. And they say, no. And the question is, are Syria's ills now, everything that's happened over the last three years of civil war going to change with Assad out? No. They'll further -- there'll probably be more chaos and political vacuum.
LABOTTAnd so it's really a kind of devil's choice for the United States and the International Community. The public line is they want to see Assad go but they still need to build up a moderate opposition that will be able to assume that political vacuum. If you look at what's happening in Libya, it's the same thing. Is Libya better off without Moammar Gadhafi? I think these countries and these people that are living with such violence and chaos, they really don't know at this point.
REHMBut Assad was accused of such terrible actions against his own people, David. In retrospect should we have not opposed him, not try to depose him?
IGNATIUSI think a leader who uses chemical weapons against his own people, and the evidence is quite strong that Assad has done that, is someone who no country should support, including the United States. I think it is true that we've learned over the last ten years that if you knock the pegs out from under a governing regime, as the United States did in Iraq and as a coalition including the U.S. did in Libya, and is trying to do in Syria, you end up with a chaotic fragile state or a state that just begins to dissolve. And that's an important lesson.
IGNATIUSI just would note that what's happening in Syria and across the Arab world is a kind of bottom up revolution. We shouldn't forget, citizens in these countries went into the streets and took risks. They're paying a terrible price for them now, to say I'm a citizen. I have rights. I live in a police state. I'm sick of it. And I watched that close-up in each of these countries, in Egypt and in Syria, in Iraq. It's real. It's awful to see the bloodshed, loss of life that's followed. But I think the feeling that people had that ignited these protests is one that deserves sympathy even now.
REHMGreg, in Egypt this week, three Al Jazeera journalists received prison sentences, seven years, ten years. What are they accused of? What have they been convicted of?
MYRESo these were the three Al Jazeera journalists. They were arrested back in December accused of aiding terrorism or effectively helping the Muslim Brotherhood. And their arrests came just a few days after the Muslim Brotherhood had been banned there and the Brotherhood being the group that won Egypt's election. It had run the country for a year before it was ousted in a coup just about a year ago.
MYREAnd these journalists were doing basic journalism. One of them, Peter Greste, I happen to know quite well. I worked with him in Afghanistan 20 years ago. Totally professional journalist doing very good solid work. They were arrested in their hotel room in Cairo, have been dragged into court multiple times in cages. There were appeals most recently by John Kerry when he was in Cairo I believe last Sunday asking for clemency in this case. And yet a day later the sentences came down and the leadership in Egypt, General Sisi and others have said, we're not going to intervene in court cases.
REHMNow was there in fact evidence that they had helped the Muslim Brotherhood or helped terrorists, Elise?
LABOTTNo, there was no evidence of any of that. And some of the other Al Jazeera journalists, including a very good friend of mine, Sue Turton, who was a British citizen and was tried in absentia, I mean, these just were -- these journalist were just doing their job. And that’s why I think there's been such an outcry from the journalistic community that journalism is not a crime. And just because you're reporting on a certain instance and talking to sources from both sides of the aisle doesn't mean that they committed any crime.
LABOTTBut I must say, Secretary Kerry who's, you know, calling the verdict chilling and draconian, the next day was in Egypt talking about restoring aid that's been held to the Egyptian government. And I think it's a very mixed message to criticize the government for human rights and not only of these journalists, these sentences, but hundreds, close to a thousand death sentences of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and members, I think sends a very mixed message about U.S. fortitude against violation of human rights.
REHMJust as a sign of the kind of evidence that was submitted, one of these three journalists was given an extra three years in jail for possession of a weapon which was a single spent police bullet he had picked up after a street protest to keep as a souvenir. David, do you think these sentences are going to stick?
IGNATIUSWell, there is enormous international pressure on Egypt to reverse the Al Jazeera sentences. And my impression is that el-Sisi really has gone farther than I think he realized. There is a sense of betrayal on the part of Secretary Kerry who feels insulted that these sentences were handed down essentially as his airplane took off. It was almost a deliberate slap at the American Secretary of State who had stuck his neck out to try to sit down with the new leadership of Egypt. Some of el-Sisi's conservative supporters in the Arab world are furious at the way he's behaved in the last several weeks.
IGNATIUSSo I think that the Egyptians are going to have to wake up to the fact that they have more problems -- their problem isn't just in Washington with journalists who are unhappy, but they have problems even with the people they think are their best friends.
REHMWell, if John Kerry was so insulted, what is he going to do about it?
IGNATIUSWe'll see but, you know, a lot of people are watching to see whether Kerry will take a stronger stand. People say that he feels personally attacked by this and that he's going to make it clear. Well, we'll have to watch and see what he does.
LABOTTThere is a movement on the hill to suspend some of this aid. Representative Schiff has proposed an amendment to some of the aid that would hold off on the aid. But it remains to be seen. Obviously the U.S. has put its strategic relationship with Egypt, with everything going on in the region right now, the guarantee of the peace treaty with Israel, has at least for now put that as a priority over any dissatisfaction they have with the lack of Democratic reforms by the Egyptians.
REHMWell, those of us who are journalists who believe in the role of journalism in public affairs are thinking about these three journalists and hoping the situation gets resolved. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Well, we talked about those journalists. Maybe we should talk about a journalist who got off this week in London. The phone hacking scandal that we've talked so much about in the last couple years, what are the results of that trial, Greg?
MYREIt was a bit mixed. There was one conviction, Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor and subsequent to that an aide to Prime Minister David Cameron. He was convicted in the phone hacking scandal. Rebekah Brooks the other, the redheaded editor who succeeded him, and you probably -- very recognizable from her appearance. She and others were acquitted so that's what's happened so far.
MYRENow, Britain is still going through a debate, how should they regulate the press? They're trying to create a new independent commission that would take effect in a couple months. So they seem to have this very tortured debate about how to regulate the press. And Rupert Murdoch is -- maybe get called in by Scotland Yard for an interview. But I don't know if we'll see anymore convictions or court cases.
REHMSo David, what did the scandal tell us about how Britain works, the politics and the journalism?
IGNATIUSWell, first it showed just how extreme the British tabloids are in going after stories. They pay for stories. They pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get exclusives. And the evidence showed they hack people's phones. The thing that really got this to the level of a national scandal was when it was discovered that a kidnapped teenager named Milly Dowler had had her cell phone hacked by newspapers while she was -- disappeared while people were searching for her trying to get exclusives about what might be on her voicemail.
IGNATIUSAnd people thought, you know, the newspapers here have completely jumped the line. And then they began to look into this culture and saw that the News of the World in particular, but this is true of other British tabloids as well, there had been a culture of all sorts of behavior, you know, working with maybe paying off police officers for information in addition to hacking. So we learned a lot about British journalistic culture. Whether it'll change we'll see.
IGNATIUSWe also learned a lot about the Rupert Murdoch empire. I mean, Murdoch has not been charged in this and his closest aid, Rebekah Brooks, has gotten off. But for Murdoch it was a very, very painful awkward situation when he was called to testify about this.
REHMWe have an email from Alex. Alex says he's 12 years old. Alex, we're glad you're listening to the Friday News Roundup. He says, "I have two questions. One, how will the U.S. get training and weapons to the Syrian rebels to help ISIS and Assad? And two, since al-Qaida condemned ISIS, why are other radical Islamic groups joining ISIS?"
LABOTTWell, it's a very -- that's a very good question and our listeners always continue to give us good questions at any age. How would they get the rebels? As we discussed before, they would need to find a third party. And the likely candidate for that is Jordan, where they could bring some of the rebels out and train them and equip them. And also, as David said earlier, move into some of these liberated areas and training possibly could even, I guess, continue over there.
LABOTTWhy is ISIS -- there has been a split between ISIS and al-Qaida. And originally it was kind of an issue of power struggle. Al-Qaida was really popular in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And al-Qaida in Iraq was back in Iraq kind of manning the home front, also interested in Syria. And that became a kind of power struggle between the two of them. But now al-Qaida has really broken with ISIS and said that this group is even more brutal than they are. And when al-Qaida says that you're more brutal than they are, that is really saying something.
LABOTTI mean, these ISIS guys are real psychopaths. It's the kind of beheading videos that we've come to know that are so terrible. And when you look at a group like Al-Nusra Front which is kind of indigenous to Syria, in some ways those extremists are trying to go in and win the hearts and minds of the people. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of that from the ISIS crow. They're extremely brutal.
REHMA human rights watch report was issued today that analyzed satellite imagery in some of those photos and concluded that insurgents did execute at least 160 captives in Tikrit between June 11 and June 14.
IGNATIUSYes, I believe these were some of the photos that came out, we saw at the time. And it was difficult to confirm them at that point. There does seem to be some level of confirmation now. And to pick up a little bit on what Elise said, it is interesting because we've seen this extreme brutality. In fact, they were the ones boasting about this. This wasn't something that ISIS was trying to cover up. They were boasting about it. And yet they've been fairly moderate in not enforcing their brand of Islamic rule so far.
REHMWe're going to take a short break. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio for the international hour of our Friday News Roundup, Elise Labott from CNN, Greg Myre from NPR, David Ignatius from The Washington Post. We've been taking your calls, reading your questions. Here's an email we've gotten. It -- the tone of this is similar to any number of other emails that I've been seeing this hour. This one is from Ryan in Alexandria, Va.
PAGEHe writes, "Can you ask your guests to give a brief explanation about why wholesale physical and political withdrawal from the Middle East is not in our best interests? In all seriousness, why can't we just remove our military presence from the Gulf, leave Israel on its own, and let the political degeneration in the region run its course? David.
IGNATIUSWell, that's obviously tempting as Americans look at how much we have paid in money, over a trillion dollars, and human lives, and how little we've gotten out of it. I think the answer would be that we now have in Iraq and in Syria a terrorist group that potentially threatens the American homeland. And we saw on 9/11/2001 how devastating those attacks can be. So there would be an argument that, without making the mistakes of the last decade, sending in hundreds of thousands of American troops, the U.S. ought to be vigilant -- if withdrawing and leaving this kind of safe zone for people to mount attacks on the United States, Europe, other countries, would be a mistake.
IGNATIUSSo I think the trick is to address this problem, which should concern Americans -- it's worth taking seriously -- without making the same mistakes that have infuriated citizens around the country.
MYREJust to pick up on David's point. I mean, we have a very clear example. In the 1980s, the U.S. got very involved in the war in Afghanistan and then pulled out. I was living and working in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early to mid '90s. And there was this complete sense of abandonment. And you know there were these radicals still there, still plotting, still thinking. And it came back to bite on 9/11. We're looking at a very similar, possibly similar scenario here with ISIS taking a large chunk of land where they would have a base to train and to plot and to figure out what they want to do.
MYRENo certainty that you would end up with a similar result at the end of it. But we do have a very clear example of a place where the U.S. got deeply involved in the Muslim world, pulled out, abandoned the place and left this chaotic mess behind.
LABOTTWell, and I think that's why we did not learn the lessons of Afghanistan when we exited Iraq. I mean, I think that there is a lot of blame to go around here. You have, obviously there were a lot of issues of how the Bush administration got the U.S. into Iraq. But how the Obama administration pulled the U.S. out -- obviously you weren't going to keep troops there forever, but there was a kind of lack of diplomatic engagement that decreased as the U.S. withdrew.
LABOTTAnd this -- what's happening in Iraq right now, I don't want to say was entirely preventable, but was foreseeable, because at the heart it's a political crisis with the Maliki government, that has been plaguing Iraq for years. And they've been begging the U.S. for more attention.
PAGEThe very difficult situation we now face in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces, is that going to change or reshape the way we withdraw from Afghanistan?
IGNATIUSWell, I hope so. I hope that President Obama, who announced at West Point or just before his West Point speech that he intended to draw down troops next year to roughly 10,000. And then by the end of 2016, all troops would be gone. It was a time-pegged withdrawal, not a conditions-pegged withdrawal. And a lot of people said, for goodness sakes, the president should learn from our experience in Afghanistan, in Iraq, that you pull all the troops out when there's enough stability that you can be confident going forward that it won't be a mess.
IGNATIUSIt is important to note that after other wars in our history, after World War II in Europe, after the Korean War, after the war against Japan, the United States left thousands of troops in place as a kind of stabilizing bulwark. And the American people were patient with those commitments in a way they haven't been patient I think in the last decade.
PAGEWhy the difference?
IGNATIUSWell, I think in part it was because those commitments were better explained to the country. I think, I would fault President Obama. You know, he came into office in a rush to end these wars. And the public, you know, sick and tired of the money and other costs, was eager to listen to that message. You saw that during the 2012 campaign. By the end of that campaign Mitt Romney was almost as eager to pull troops out as President Obama. So I hope everybody's learned a lesson. But the question is, how painful a lesson it's going to be for the United States.
PAGELet's go to San Francisco and talk to Rob. Rob, thanks for holding on.
ROBThank you for taking my call. This is obviously a huge subject with a million possible things to comment on. But I just want to make one quick one. Assessments of the Iraqi Army as having been ill trained or ill equipped to take on the ISIL threat I think are a bit premature, in that most of the army is primarily, as you know, consists of Shias, who in the north and west are less protecting their own areas and more of an occupying force, somewhat in their own minds as well as the locals.
ROBSo they're drop their weapons and run strategy that we saw in the west and north would almost definitely not be repeated in the holy cities of Najaf, or Karbala and definitely not in areas like Sadr City or Baghdad itself. And nowhere south of that.
PAGEAll right, Rob. Thanks for your call. Greg, what do you think?
MYREYeah, I agree with him in the sense that as we get -- as ISIS moves south and closer to Baghdad, we're already seeing a greater resistance. And as you move into these Shia areas, they're not going to be able to roll through them like they did in Sunni areas. However, the concept of an army is that it's a national army and that it protects the entire country, not just where your co-religionists happen to live. So, yes, I think we might see -- it's quite plausible that we'll see sort of front lines form where between Sunni areas converge with Shiite areas. However, if you have an army, it needs to protect the whole country.
PAGERob, thanks for your call. Well, here's an emailer with a similar question when it comes to how these troops have performed. He, Frank writes, "Please have the panel discuss the ease with which ISIS has rolled over Iraqi forces in the north and west of Iraq, yet have been unable to dislodge Assad's government from Syria. Is Assad's army that formidable?"
IGNATIUSI would say that part of ISIS's success in Iraq stems from the very sectarian and corrupt leadership of the Iraqi Army and Maliki's purge of key generals. It is said that in the months before the collapse of the army, Maliki fired generals who were competent and replaced them with political people -- more political people who would be loyal to him and to his Dawa Party.
IGNATIUSIn Syria, Assad has managed, in some ways surprisingly, to keep the core of his army intact. Let it be said, he got help at a crucial area, when the Syrian Army was really reeling, from Hezbollah and from other Iranian-backed units. Had Iran not sent it's proxies in to help Assad, I'm not sure that he could have survived.
PAGEElise, Iraq has started the process of forming a new government. Will it include Nouri al-Maliki?
LABOTTWell, it's unclear. Certainly the Shia, the Kurds and even I think some in the Shia -- the Sunni, the Kurds and even some of the Shia community are hoping that it won't. And certainly the United States, although it won't call publically for his ouster, is sending the message that Iraq definitely needs a more inclusive government. The Gulf States clearly would like to see Maliki out. The parliament will meet next week and will -- Maliki will try to form a government. It looks unlikely that he will have the votes himself to form a government.
LABOTTAnd that -- then it remains to be seen whether his Shia Party will be able to come up with another candidate. We've seen in the past that Maliki has had trouble forming a government. Vice President Biden has interceded. The Iranians have put pressure on Shia to let him live another day. So certainly there's not a lot of political support for Maliki right now. But he could end up garnering enough votes.
LABOTTIt doesn't look very good that he will, but -- and also I think that there's a recognition in Iraq that Maliki needs to go, for someone else to take the reins, most likely a Shia, but that someone else take the reins, form a new government, and that will be a bull worth fighting against ISIS. I think that's the ideal scenario.
PAGESo one lesson in American politics, it's hard to beat somebody with nobody. Is there somebody, is there a figure that we have identified as saying, well, this person should really be the new prime minister?
LABOTTThat's the problem. I mean there really isn't. The name of Ahmad al-Maliki, Alaki -- sorry, Alawi -- sorry about that -- who was a former prime minister. He was a very popular candidate among the Gulf Nations. His name has been floated, but I don't hear a lot of support for him or anybody else right now.
PAGEJohn Kerry was talking to the Kurds -- sending messages to the Kurds this week. What was his message and how did they respond, Greg?
MYREWell, he certainly wants to try to keep the country together, to work out some way of pacifying Iraq. And the Kurds were not particularly thrilled with that message. This is an ethnic group that has been fighting for a state for nearly a century. And they may be at a moment when they have a greater chance of potential statehood than they have at any time in the past. They need to be careful not to overplay their hand. And things could certainly turn around and go badly for them, as it has in the past. But the Kurds are feeling like the winners right now in Iraq, and are talking about statehood.
PAGEWell we know that years ago Joe Biden was talking about, let's divide Iraq into three territories so that we don't see this kind of sectarian violence. Is that a possibility now, do you think, David?
IGNATIUSWell, on the ground, Iraq is effectively divided into three parts. You have a Sunnistan, which is controlled principally by ISIS and by tribal fighters who allied with it. You have a Shia area that includes Baghdad, but whose defense I'm told is really primarily the Shiite militias, groups like (word?), another Iranian supported Shiite militias, not the Iraqi Army. And then you have Kurdistan, which has its own very strong army known as the Peshmerga. So on the ground, a de facto division exists. The question is whether there's enough will, especially among the Kurds, to keep some kind of confederal idea of Iraq alive.
IGNATIUSIt's going to be awhile before the country's put back together, before any kind of Iraqi government presence is back in Mosul, for example or Tikrit. So if the Kurds decide that a confederal arrangement is the best they can realistically hope for, they're really the crucial leverage that the U.S. has. They are, as Greg said, the success story. There the place that the U.S. would base counterterrorism efforts if the Iraqi government is not reformed under a post-Maliki leader who has some traction nationally.
LABOTTWell, and you also heard Iraqi president, a Kurd, Massoud Barzani, say, listen, now that the Peshmerga are in Kirkuk, we've been fighting for this for years. We've been asking the government for more autonomy. We've been looking for a more inclusive government. It's not happening. And we're never leaving. And so that really raises a lot of questions about whether the Kurds are going to cease this opportunity for more autonomy in the future.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There's been an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the largest in history. A death toll, more than 390 people. We thought Ebola had been conquered, Greg.
MYRERight. It crops up periodically and there's no cure for this. It has a death rate of about 50 percent. So what's different this time and why is it so big? I mean, generally it's broken out in Central Africa. And this time it's in West Africa. I believe it's been in three countries now, Guinea and Sierra Leone and Liberia. And in that part of Africa people travel around pretty widely. So there is a sense and a feeling that it has spread more widely than in the past. And it takes a lot of manpower to create these isolation centers. And therefore, it really is straining resources and really is in danger of exploding on a much, much larger level than we've ever seen before.
PAGEThe group Doctors Without Borders says the outbreak is out of control. Ebola, no cure, kills 90 percent of those infected. Elise, is there any risk to the United States or to Europe?
LABOTTThe World Health Organization doesn't think so. Because if you look at the international hubs where people that are mostly in Guinea would go, they're not going to the kind of hubs that would reach the United States. But certainly they could go to Hong Kong, they could, you know, go from Hong Kong, maybe a lot of Africans travel to Paris. And so they were thinking that if an international city would be affected it could be Paris. But it doesn't look like it would hit the United States. But it could become a sub-regional crisis. And that's why a lot of health professionals are going to be meeting next week to discuss how to contain it.
PAGESo in this hour of the News Roundup, we've talked about death and disaster and war and catastrophe. Thank goodness for the World Cup, David.
IGNATIUSWell, that is about the only bright side of the news these days. And it was amazing to see, here in Washington, and I'm sure all over the United States, yesterday, people just glued to television sets -- big ones, little ones, gathered in auditoriums. There was a group in Dupont Circle watching a giant-screen TV, seeing the U.S. lose to Germany, but because of the way in which this has been designed, able to escape the group of death -- the initial group that the U.S. had been placed in -- and go on to the next round in which the U.S. is expected to play Belgium.
IGNATIUSAnd it is amazing, I mean, soccer, futbol, is the world's game. And the United States has always been the odd person out, saying no, no, no. You know, we have our own sports. And you just have a sense that soccer fever may finally be hitting America.
PAGEDo you think it lasts, Elise?
LABOTTNo. I think -- it's interesting, because I played when I was a little kid and my whole township really was into soccer, as we call it here. But you only kind of see it around the World Cup. And I think it's -- I think it's more of an issue of patriotism than love of the sport. I have to say though, as a spectator and someone who watches the game, I think it's great that the U.S. is going to live another day and be able to continue to play and move forward. But it didn't taste as sweet as it should have, if we would have won. And I think the kind of rules with all the matching, which I really don’t understand at all, were kind of weird. But it'll be good to continue to watch more matches.
PAGEAnytime you can see huge groups of Americans gathered in parks chanting U.S.A., U.S.A., it makes you want our team to win. Well, I want to thank you for being with us this hour. David Ignatius from The Washington Post, Elise Labott from CNN, Greg Myre from NPR, thanks so much for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back next week. Thanks for listening. Have a great weekend.
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