Guest Host: Frank Sesno

On Saturday, the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a video showing yet another hostage execution. The latest victim: British aid worker David Haines. It’s the third beheading of a captured western hostage since the U.S. began airstrikes Aug. 8 in Iraq. British Prime Minister David Cameron reacted to news of the killing by vowing to “hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice.” Secretary of State John Kerry is in France today meeting with European and Arab leaders from more than 20 countries about building a coalition to confront ISIS. Guest host Frank Sesno and guests discuss the U.S. fight against the Islamic State and the extent of Arab and European government support.


  • Ambassador Nicholas Burns Politics professor, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and senior foreign affairs columnist, Global Post; former under secretary of state (2005-08) and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO (2001-05)
  • Ambassador James Jeffrey The Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at The Washington Institute; former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey.
  • Robin Wright Analyst and joint fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
  • Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief, Al-Arabiya News Channel.


  • 10:06:54

    MR. FRANK SESNOAnd hello, everyone. Thanks for joining us. I'm Frank Senso, director of The School of Media and Public Affairs of the George Washington University, host of Planet Forward and I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. She's recovering from a voice treatment and will be back next week. A video released over the weekend by the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria showed another brutal execution.

  • 10:07:15

    MR. FRANK SESNOThis time, it was British aide worker, David Haines. Joining me in the studio to talk about the growing threat from ISIS and who's joining the U.S. in the fight against them, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya news channel, Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center, James Jeffrey of The Washington Institute and joining us by phone from Carlsbad, California, Nicholas Burns of Harvard University. Welcome to you all.

  • 10:07:41

    MR. FRANK SESNOHisham Melhem, let's start with you. The ISIS execution, that horrible video that was released over the weekend, what do we know about how recent that actually is? Do we know anything? Does anyone claim to know anything from having seen it?

  • 10:07:57

    MR. HISHAM MELHEMI really don't think so. I think, I mean, we can determine now that the authenticity, unfortunately, of the video, but this is part of the ongoing message of ISIS. They are using these horrible crimes to recruit people, send a strong message to the region. In fact, you would think sometimes that they are goading the West to attack them. And they are on a roll. And I think, in the end, it will take not only military power to subdue them and to contain them and eventually, years from now, to defeat them.

  • 10:08:34

    MR. HISHAM MELHEMAnd I think -- I wrote a piece last week and said that the United States can degrade ISIS, but in the end, the challenge is for the Arabs and the Muslims to deal with their own demons, the social, cultural, political demons that created al-Qaida, which was the antecedent to ISIS, that created Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya in Egypt, which is the antecedent of al-Qaida and so on and so forth.

  • 10:08:59

    MR. HISHAM MELHEMAnd unless the Arabs step up to the plate and own this issue -- and this will start by admitting that this is their own problem and in the end, they have go solve it, with a little help from their friends, nothing is going to happen because we can bomb them and we weaken them and degrade them for a while, but you're not going to uproot them.

  • 10:09:18

    SESNORobin Wright, the British authorities say they know who that executioner, who appears to be the same person now we've seen three times, who that person is. What do we know about that? Where does that take us, anyplace?

  • 10:09:32

    MS. ROBIN WRIGHTI don't think we know the identity of what -- the man is known as Jihadi John. Obviously, intelligence community's not going to release his name because they'll be looking for him. This gives -- if they announce who he is, that will put him into hiding probably. But this is a moment where it's not just the United States now. Britain has also lost someone. There are other foreigners who are held by ISIS.

  • 10:09:56

    MS. ROBIN WRIGHTAnd, of course, one of the vulnerabilities of this new coalition is the fact that their citizens also become dangers for the coalition. They become targets. And you can see this become something that, like in Beirut in the 1980s, when there were hostages from all kinds of countries who were taken by what was the embryonic version of Hezbollah.

  • 10:10:19

    SESNORobin, how much of these executions and these execution videos now driving U.S. and what they're trying to turn into an alliance strategy?

  • 10:10:30

    WRIGHTOh, I think the beheadings have been fundamental in swinging public opinion behind the coalition to -- all the polls from The Washington Post, ABC, CNN show that about 70 percent of Americans believe ISIS is now a threat to the United States. They favor bombing by a majority. This is up from numbers that were 45 percent in June so there's a striking shift in public mood and public support for some kind of action against ISIS.

  • 10:10:58

    SESNOAmbassador James Jeffrey, you were ambassador to both Iraq and Turkey and so you know the region and those countries very, very well. Obviously, ISIS or ISIL, however it's referred to, is doing a lot more and a lot more damage than we see in these horrific videos on the ground. But I'm wondering if you could talk about the impact of the videos for the moment and where we are at this moment with respect to these two countries where you have served and know best, Iraq and Turkey.

  • 10:11:22

    AMB. JAMES JEFFREYWell, certainly. The killing of David Haines, and I know his work from the Non Violent Peace Force, is yet another example, after two American journalists, that these folks will stop at nothing to underline that they're all about violence, they're all about establishing their caliphate in the region. This poses, obviously, an existential threat immediately to Iraq. They've seized almost a third of the country and much of the Sunni Arab population is under their sway.

  • 10:11:47

    AMB. JAMES JEFFREYBut in the long run, it threatens Turkey. They have 40 Turkish hostages taken in Mosul and it threatens the entire region. That's as much of a problem as the possible terror in the homeland to me because we're all about trying to maintain an international system of order, of rule of law and of peaceful settlement of disputes and that's what these guys are absolutely against.

  • 10:12:11

    SESNOWhat can you tell us about David Haines, this latest victim?

  • 10:12:13

    JEFFREYI just know that he's worked in Sudan and that he basically was not only an aide worker, but he tried to do reconciliation and work on the ground under very dangerous circumstances, just like the journalists that also died. These people were heroes that were trying to make the world better and they died for it.

  • 10:12:31

    SESNONicholas Burns, you're joining us from California. You're a politics professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School, former undersecretary of state here in Washington and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. How do you assess the international mood coming together around this series of events? Certainly domestically, here in the U.S., public opinion has moved very dramatically just in the last several weeks.

  • 10:12:53

    AMB. NICHOLAS BURNSWell, I think you have public opinion in both the United Kingdom and Western Europe that's quite concerned about this, but I think, Frank, your question goes to the heart of the problem the administration's gonna have. President Obama has a very sensible strategy here, to continue U.S. airstrikes, but also to form an international coalition. And that's the gamble that he's taking, that's he's gonna get sufficient support from the NATO allies.

  • 10:13:14

    AMB. NICHOLAS BURNSHe did two weeks ago at the Wales summit, nearly two weeks now, have rhetorical support. Will he have actually military commitment from the European allies? And more importantly, will Turkey and some of the Sunni Gulf states come through with actual military assistance for...

  • 10:13:28

    SESNOAnd what are your answers to those questions?

  • 10:13:29

    BURNSI think it's gonna be very, very difficult to get substantial support from Europeans as always. And I think that there are going to be problems -- there are major problems with Turkey now. Turkey, of course, has not been able to shut down or not been willing to shut down the flow of jihadi fighters across the Turkish border into Iraq and Turkey also has not blocked the illicit ISIS oil sales on the black market.

  • 10:13:52

    BURNSSo these are major questions. And I think, Frank, a lot of the press in the United States has focused on the military aspects of this. The diplomatic aspects, the coalition-building are just as important maybe in the next three or four week, more important.

  • 10:14:05

    SESNORobin Wright, I see you nodding your head throughout.

  • 10:14:07

    WRIGHTYes. Nick's absolutely right. I think we have a house of cards at the moment. We have a structured...

  • 10:14:12

    SESNOA house of cards.

  • 10:14:12

    WRIGHTYeah, I think that this is a structure that is not -- doesn't have reinforcement. It doesn't have support beams. It has no furnishings, no windows, no doors. It's a loosely defined -- the Jeddah communique that came out last week after Secretary of State Kerry was there talked about countries...

  • 10:14:29

    SESNOIn the region.

  • 10:14:29

    WRIGHTYeah. Was in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, and several foreign ministers from the Gulf countries and Egypt and Jordan talked with him at length about what roles they would play and the communique basically said they would play a role as appropriate. And you find that their involvement is rather minimal. It is Saudi Arabia providing bases for some training of some Syrians, that this is -- what we've seen so far is fairly limited involvement.

  • 10:14:59

    WRIGHTThe French have said they'll fly combat missions or provide air intelligence over Iraq, but they don't want to get involved in Syria. And, of course, Syria is where the action really will end. We can arguably push ISIS, the Islamic State, back in Syria, but the question becomes how do we defeat them in Syria. And that's kind of phase two that no one's defined.

  • 10:15:21

    WRIGHTWe are really in this tentative stage. I think the administration is looking for something that is a halfway point between the robust coalition of Desert Storm in 1990 and '91 when you had three dozen countries, including, ironically, the Syrians, sending troops and being involved, and the kind of weak coalition of the willing that was kind of token, in name only, where you had countries like Albania and Romania, sending token forces.

  • 10:15:45

    WRIGHTBut they're looking for something in between. But the danger is that they get a lot of verbal commitment. It looks good on paper, but it is not really as robust as necessary to really defeat what is the most dangerous of the three wars we've fought in Iraq in 25 years.

  • 10:15:58

    SESNOHisham Melhem.

  • 10:15:59

    MELHEMThis is the coalition of the hesitant. I mean, this is not 1991. This is not the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush, with Jim Baker, with Brent Scowcroft, with people with the strategic heft going to the region, which was a different region, and going to Europe, which was a different Europe to mobilize the international community to do battle with Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

  • 10:16:22

    MELHEMThis is a completely different world now and, unfortunately, the United States will do the heavy lifting militarily. But the United States should push the regional powers who are somewhat responsible for what's happening in Iraq and in Syria today. I always say adapt societies are in the main responsible for the phenomenon of al-Qaida and ISIS. Turkey allowed its border to be violated for years, allowing these nuts coming from all over the world, cross the Turkish border and go to Syria.

  • 10:16:50

    MELHEMQatar, Kuwait, money from the Gulf, we didn't really push hard until recently. We named, you know, individuals in Kuwait responsible for this. So in the end, this is going to be a long haul. This is not going to be resolved any time soon and, unfortunately, the United States will do the heavy lifting. But, again, there is only one country that could lead, which is the United States.

  • 10:17:11

    SESNOAmbassador Jeffrey is a coalition of the hesitant a coalition at all?

  • 10:17:13

    JEFFREYIt can be. It's a question of how we use them and how they allow themselves to be used. I agree with Ishmael (sp?) at the end of the day, this is a political battle to destroy ISIS and the folks in the region are gonna have to be in the lead. But it also has a military component and these people will not be in the lead on the political side if they don't see a strong American political component.

  • 10:17:35

    JEFFREYNow, America has the military capability with locals on the ground, Iraqi forces, be it regular army or Peshmerga and eventually we hope Syrian Sunni resistance to take these guys on. But we need two things from the coalition. First of all, to keep the American people on board and that's been a problem for good reason in the past. We need a broad international coalition. Secondly, and even more importantly, and Ishmael has indicated some of this, as have the other speakers, we need this coalition to not undercut us.

  • 10:18:08

    JEFFREYWe were undercut in Iraq by Iran and Syria and to some degree, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and in Afghanistan by Pakistan. If that happens, this isn't going to work.

  • 10:18:16

    SESNOYou also need a functional government in Iraq, which you don't have.

  • 10:18:20

    JEFFREYWell, I would say we are actually pretty close to getting one. There, I would give a lot of credit to the Obama administration for working hard to get Maliki out, who was absolutely poison to the Kurds and to the Sunnis, and putting together something that looks like it's working.

  • 10:18:32

    SESNOYou're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Take a very short break, but coming up, more on the situation, the dire situation, in the Middle East and taking on ISIS.

  • 10:19:59

    SESNOAnd welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane today. We're talking about the situation in the Middle East and taking on ISIS and the coalition that the United States, the Obama Administration is trying to assemble to do the job. They say it will be a very long haul.

  • 10:20:14

    SESNOHere with us to discuss the situation, Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya News Channel, Robin Wright, analyst and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." James Jeffrey, he's the Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. And Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of State and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, currently the politics professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and senior foreign affairs columnist for Global Post.

  • 10:20:48

    SESNONick Burns, let me come to you. I'd like you to talk for a couple minutes or for a second so we can go to others over a couple minutes, about something that Hisham Melhem raised a moment ago, and that is the very different nature of this crisis, this moment then what we faced before. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, George Herbert Walker Bush said, this aggression shall not stand. The UN resolution called for a very specific tangible goal, push Saddam out of Kuwait, shove him back.

  • 10:21:16

    SESNOGulf War II, a more ambitious goal but still confined within borders. What is the strategic goal? What is success at this very ambitious task that's being set up now?

  • 10:21:30

    BURNSWell, Frank, I think that is the question that the administration is struggling to answer. And I have a lot of sympathy with them. We're in the early stages, if you will, of this current phase of this crisis. I think the administration has to make two big decisions. Do they have a strategy for a combined theater, Iraq and Syria, because ISIS of course, was formed in Syria, has its base there. And if we're going to degrade ISIS or even to defeat it, we're going to have a Syria part of the strategy that's equally robust as the Iraq strategy.

  • 10:21:59

    BURNSSecondly, the administration also has to decide overtime what's the strategic ambition on the horizon? Is it to contain ISIS or is it to defeat it? The president in his address to the nation last week used the word destroy. That's the language, defeat, destroy that Secretary Kerry has been using. But those two objectives take you down very different roads. Contain, of course, is something that is a little bit more passive. It's the use of tactical air power just to freeze ISIS in place.

  • 10:22:29

    BURNSDefeat would require an effort over many years, a massive coalition of Arab and European countries which will stay with us and sustain military effort by the United States...

  • 10:22:40

    SESNOWell, so what is...

  • 10:22:40

    BURNS...that will require patients by the American people and congress.

  • 10:22:43

    SESNOWhat is the policy? Is it defeat? Is it destroy? Is it contain?

  • 10:22:48

    BURNSThe rhetorical ambition is to defeat and destroy but we don't -- but the administration has not yet been able to piece together. It's trying a combined Iraq-Syria strategy with buy-in from the allies to accomplish that. And that's going to take some time. I think Secretary Kerry's working very hard this week, you've seen him, on the coalition piece. And I do think that the diplomatic aspect of this has come to the fore and is really overshadowing some of the military questions right now.

  • 10:23:15

    SESNOAmb. Jeffrey, I have an email from Gary who, to this point, asks, "Is there really a permanent military solution? I recently heard," he writes, "a commentator says we should go after those funding ISIS, eliminating funds he suggested would leave ISIS impotent." Are we doing this?

  • 10:23:30

    JEFFREYWe are doing that. It's part of the solution but it's a very good question, Frank. Frankly, there's no military solution to anything if you dig deep enough. Everything is political in the end. But there are often no solution without a military component.

  • 10:23:46

    SESNOCan ISIS be defeated on the battlefield?

  • 10:23:48

    JEFFREYYes. It has been defeated on the battlefield at Hadisa at Mosul dam and in Amerli.

  • 10:23:54

    SESNOBut that defeat's tactical. Those are battles not the war.

  • 10:23:58

    JEFFREYTo quote Clausewitz, strategy is the sewing together of tactical successes for some larger goal."

  • 10:24:04

    SESNOLet me quote Robin Wright.

  • 10:24:06

    WRIGHTWell, I think the military part of this confrontation unfortunately is the smaller part. I think the bigger challenge is the political side of dealing with the grievances of people on the ground. You see thousands of young men, 12,400 forces not even in Iraq and Syria gravitating to ISIS, supposedly up to 30,000 fighters total now, because they feel alienated from their political systems. They feel that they are betrayed by their own governments. They feel there's no alternative but this dreadful extremist movement.

  • 10:24:40

    WRIGHTAnd that really, at the end of the day, has to be what both the countries in the region and the outside world deal with trying -- using our aid to provide -- to help create jobs. This is where the Arab Spring got sidetracked because it didn't deliver. There's a lot more at stake than just the military defeat of an extremist movement.

  • 10:24:59

    SESNOFor our listeners, if you want to become part of the conversation or ask a question, you can call us at 1-800-433-8850 or you can email us at We'll move to your questions in just a few minutes. Hisham Melhem, let's talk for just a moment about this new Iraqi government, in terms of the role that they must play on the ground at this defeat of ISIS or whatever you're going to try to do, is going to happen.

  • 10:25:24

    MELHEMCan I do...

  • 10:25:25


  • 10:25:26

    MELHEM...something quickly about the messaging of the Obama Administration? The messaging has been contradictory and hesitant and tentative in the last few weeks. First, the president was insisting on containing ISIS. Then John Kerry began to talk about destroying ISIS. John Kerry later on said, this is not the war. Two days later, he was contradicted by everybody, no, this is a war. They have to come up with a clear message.

  • 10:25:47

    SESNOWell, and yesterday, Denis McDonough, the president's chief of staff said the following on Meet the Press, and I'm quoting, "success looks like an ISIL" -- what they call ISIL ISIS -- "that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States, an ISIL that can't accumulate followers or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iraq or otherwise " Is that defeat, destroy?

  • 10:26:05

    MELHEMIt's still tactical. I think it's still tactical.

  • 10:26:06


  • 10:26:07

    MELHEMI think that's tactical and containment. Look, let me say a few words about Iraq. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the country was broken by almost three decades of war. What you have in Syria and Iraq are basically broken societies, broken polities. There's no political life per say. Civil society was pulverized. Prisons are full of political prisoners. So these societies are extremely weak. You have strong regimes sometimes because they have their own praetorian guards and all that, but the societies themselves, in terms of institutions are extremely weak. And now you're starting from scratch in Iraq.

  • 10:26:47

    MELHEMWe went to Iraq. We didn't create sectarians in Iraq but we made it worse. We left the system that is based on sectarian divisions of sport. This was one of the main mistakes of the United States. We've broken Iraq further and that's why we had the antecedent of ISIS, which was al-Qaida in Mesopotamia.

  • 10:27:06

    SESNOAmbassador Jeffrey, would you address that since you served in Iraq?

  • 10:27:10

    JEFFREYI would say that I've heard a lot of people in Iraq say exactly the same thing but of the 80 percent of the population that were Shia or Kurdish, very few of them take that position. Their argument is, this country was sectarian for a long time before 2003. On the other hand, Hisham is right that what we have is a country that is split today regardless of how it got there on sectarian lines. And we have to help sew it together and I think we're doing that.

  • 10:27:37

    SESNOI want to go to Robin Wright and then Ambassador Nicholas Burns on the issue of Iran, which the president did not mention in his speech when he talked about taking on this task, which is very much a player in the region and certainly a player with Iraq and with Syria.

  • 10:27:56

    WRIGHTWell, Iran actually shares our deep fear of ISIS. It does so for a lot of reasons. It actually wants to see the territorial borders stay intact. It fears the rise of Sunni extremism. I've been in Iran twice in the last eight months and as far back as December they were talking almost obsessively about the threat from the Sunni extremist movement. This is long before ISIS took territory in Iraq.

  • 10:28:20

    WRIGHTI think the Iranians are a little bit more strategically savvy today than they were in the early days of the revolution in terms of understanding that they want better relations with the Gulf countries, that they have common cause for the first time with the United States after years of challenging the American presence both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • 10:28:41

    WRIGHTAnd I -- it's interesting that the United States is taking a very tough position saying Iran should not be included in this new coalition because it has been a supporter of President Assad in Syria and is a state sponsor of terror and so forth when, in fact, Iran might actually be the single biggest aid in helping both politically in getting the Shiite-dominated government to take actions in opening up to the Sunnis because of this common interest.

  • 10:29:13

    SESNOAmbassador Jeffrey wants to disagree with you.

  • 10:29:15


  • 10:29:15

    JEFFREYYeah, we have agreed to disagree on this. Nobody's ever explained to me, other than not try to undercut what's going on in Baghdad, Iran can do to help bring down the Assad government. That would help. If Iran gets involved in fighting ISIS, the rest of the Sunni world is going to either go neutral or even worse somehow start supporting or cutting their bets with ISIS. Iran has nothing to add and it has a lot to take away. It needs to sit on the sidelines and watch this thing.

  • 10:29:47

    SESNONick Burns, Nicholas Burns.

  • 10:29:49

    BURNSWell, I think that the administration's right not to integrate Iran as a coalition member. It will, as Jim Jeffrey said, Ambassador Jeffrey, reinforce the concern in the Sunni world. This is really a Sunni-Shiite problem. But I do think we ought to take the opportunity to at least, while we don't integrate the Iranians in a coalition, talk to the Iranians. Try to share perspectives with the Iranians. Open up a channel to them to talk about some of these regional issues.

  • 10:30:15

    BURNSAnd to complicate this further, Frank, we also have to make a decision, do we somehow triangulate what's happening with Iran and Iraq and the Middle East with the nuclear issues, the attempt by Iran to seek a nuclear weapons capability. I think there the administration is very correct to separate that issue, those negotiations that are going on. We wouldn't want the Iranians to think that we're letting up the pressure on the nuclear issue because we may need their support on the Iraq issue.

  • 10:30:38

    WRIGHTThat's an important point. But there's also the reality that we have to deal with. The Shiite militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga are now on the ground, the most important fighting forces against ISIS. And Iran controls arms, aids -- you pick your adjective -- the Shiite militias on the ground. The Iraqi army has played a smaller role so far. And, you know, it's one thing to say in principle, let's exclude the Iranians, for a lot of justifiable reasons, understandable reasons. But the fact is that because Iran already plays an important role that they -- it's hard to exclude them completely from at least the conversation.

  • 10:31:18

    MELHEMI think the Iranians are as responsible as other Sunni powers in the region, like Saudi Arabia, for the sectarian, you know, inferno that we see in the region.

  • 10:31:27

    SESNOI'm Frank Sesno and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to call us, please do so at 1-800-433-8850. Send an email to We'll get to that. We'll turn to your questions and comments in just a moment. But Hisham, before we move off of Iran, Iran has already been criticizing the conference that's taking place in Paris today as we speak, that President Francois Hollande has pulled together.

  • 10:31:52

    SESNOAnd they said the following. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has not been waiting for the formation of an international coalition. It has been carrying out its obligations." What do they mean?

  • 10:32:03

    MELHEMWell, maintaining Assad power and maintain the status quo in Iraq. Look, I think the Iranians would like to maintain the territorial integrity of Iraq so that Iraq will float in their political orbit. The Iranians are responsible for the weakness of the Iraqi government because they've been arming Shiite militias and they've been interfering in Iraq's affair. Iran unfortunately today has more influence in Iraq than we do as Americans.

  • 10:32:28

    MELHEMIran and Hezbollah saved the Assad regime and we should not forget this. And when we talk about -- you know, Robin was talking about Sunni sectarianism and whatnot, Iran did contribute to the sectarian infernal region by arming Hezbollah, but arming the Shiite militias in Iraq, by allowing and helping Shiite volunteers from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, everywhere to go and fight on Assad's side. And they have played a very negative role in Iraq for a long time.

  • 10:32:56

    MELHEMThey have the longest border with Iraq. They will always be influential there but you have to be extremely wary of Iran. Iran is the only country in the region that knows what it wants. And it's an ambitious country and it is led by theocracy. So if you complain about the Saudis, the Iranians are worse in that sense.

  • 10:33:13

    SESNONick Burns, I want to go out to 20,000' for a minute and try to absorb what I might be thinking if I were listening to this conversation in Iowa or in Idaho, from afar. We went to war in Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. That didn't solve the problem. We went to war for ten years after 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan. That didn't solve the problem. It's gotten more complex, not less. Is this an insoluble problem?

  • 10:33:43

    BURNSWell, I think the task that the president has, and he started it last week with his brief address to the nation, is to answer two questions for the American people. Why is the Middle East still vital to us? What is it vital to the United States that we be engaged there with our military, with our active diplomacy under Kerry's leadership? And secondly, why we're not going to be able to resolve the problems of the Middle East?

  • 10:34:07

    BURNSThe Middle East is on -- in the short term the Middle East is on fire from the Arab revolutions three-and-a-half years ago. It's been fundamentally destabilized if you look at all the major states from Syria to Iraq to Egypt. And so the president has to say to the American people, this is worth the effort, not to put 100,000 American ground troops in but to have years of American airpower and American advisors on the ground. But we're not going to be able to resolve their problems. We're just going to be able to hopefully help to hold, with the Arab states, the region together, especially Iraq and Syria which have been fundamentally torn apart by this crisis.

  • 10:34:44


  • 10:34:44

    BURNSThat's a very difficult message for the president of the American people.

  • 10:34:46 Donald Rumsfeld was right, this is the long war.

  • 10:34:51

    BURNSWell, it's a variation of it. I think it will be a mistake to say we're fighting global terrorism because it's much too broad a generalization. But it's right to say that what happens in Iraq and Syria does fundamentally affect the long-term national security interests of the United States. So a lot of what the president has to do -- and I think he's done a very sensible job of piecing together a strategy, airstrikes, train the Peshmerga and Iraqi army and Syrian rebels as our ground forces, so that our ground forces don't have to be there.

  • 10:35:21

    BURNSThird, build the coalition, which we've been focusing on in this program. It's all problematic but it's not -- as Jim Jeffrey says, it's not impossible. This could succeed but it's going to take a very long time. And that gets to the politics, Frank, in the United States. Will the congress, will the people sustain this, as President Obama said last week, not just in his presidency but well into the next presidency.

  • 10:35:45

    SESNOWhat do you think, Ambassador Jeffrey?

  • 10:35:45

    JEFFREYFrank, I'm as optimistic in some respects as Nick. I think that the president's pursuing basically a good policy. What I'm worried about is the tone and the tenor. And that may be unfair because that's subjective.

  • 10:35:58

    SESNOWhose tone and tenor?

  • 10:35:59

    JEFFREYThe president's.

  • 10:35:59

    SESNOWhat do you mean?

  • 10:35:59

    JEFFREYOkay. In the speech Wednesday night, he repeatedly said no ground troops essentially under any condition. He talked about how this might be like Somali or like Yemen, i.e. minor operations that we hardly noticed. It's already bigger than either place frankly, to within 150 strikes. He needs to be more confident and more of a worrier or he's not going to motivate the people in the region to go in with him.

  • 10:36:27

    SESNOI want to bring in the voices and the questions from the audience. Now, Robin Wright, here's one from one of our questioners, "Reading on the internet that ISIS is now recruiting women from western nations, why such a draw from western nations for ISIS for this extremist group?"

  • 10:36:44

    WRIGHTWell, you know, I'm not among them so I'm not sure exactly what the appeal is.

  • 10:36:49

    SESNOI'm very glad to hear that.

  • 10:36:51

    WRIGHTBut, look, as I said earlier, I think there's a sense of alienation, there's a sense of that's a cause. There is this tension even in Europe and the United States with some of the Muslim communities who feel that they are marginalized, disenfranchised, discriminated against and so forth. There may be some appeal. I think a lot of these people haven't covered wars for 40 years. A lot of these people are also misfits. We shouldn’t always attribute idealism to them, that these are people looking for their own, you know, cause to fight with because they don't have much in their lives.

  • 10:37:29

    SESNOWe are discussing the crisis, the confrontation with ISIS, the coalition that may be built to confront it and the United States' options. Coming up, your calls, your questions for the remainder of this hour. Stay tuned.

  • 10:39:57

    SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane today. We're talking about the crisis in the Middle East, ISIS, and taking them on as a coalition is being formed -- or at least they're attempting to form it -- led by the United States. Joining us, Nicholas Burns, politics professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, former undersecretary of state from 2005 to 2008, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO prior to that, 2001 to 2005. Ambassador James Jeffrey, Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at The Washington Institute. He's former U.S. Ambassador to both Iraq and to Turkey.

  • 10:40:30

    SESNORobin Wright is an analyst and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Woodrow Wilson International Center and author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." And Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel and a long-standing and very well respected columnist in the region. Let's to the telephone -- to the phones and the lines now and ask our caller from Cleveland, Laura, you're on the air. Please go ahead with your question.

  • 10:40:55

    LAURAYes. Thank you for taking my call. As I watch this horror unfold, I mean, it looks like kind of a jihadi blitzkrieg. But I would think that soon there would be cracks within the organization. And when I hear about young people from democracies wanting to join this group, I wonder if there's any effort to get out information about what life must be like for the grunt within this group? Because I would think it would be horrible, horrible. I mean they would not be treated with any respect...

  • 10:41:30


  • 10:41:30

    LAURA...or have any decision making ability at all.

  • 10:41:35

    SESNORobin Wright, do you want to take that on?

  • 10:41:37

    WRIGHTI think we've already seen some of the first reports by Western journalists who've interviewed some of those who have defected and talked about how horrified they were by the tactics used by ISIS and have left it for that reason. Let's hope there are more.

  • 10:41:50

    SESNOOkay. Let's go to -- oh, let me see if I can get this going here and go to another caller. Doug in Alabama, Birmingham. Go ahead, please.

  • 10:41:58

    DOUGYeah. I wish that -- you keep saying that there's not a military solution. I wish you would explain that to my father, who fought in north Africa and Italy and to my uncle who fought against Japan in the Pacific and my brother who fought in the first Gulf War. Ambassador Burns says there's not a -- that there's not a military solution. Well, the military solution comes first. And the political solution comes after they're defeated.

  • 10:42:23

    SESNOGreat question and great observation. Ambassador Burns, you want to respond to that? And then Ambassador Jeffrey.

  • 10:42:28

    BURNSIt's a very good question. I didn't say that there isn't a military solution. I simply suggested, in the short term, in the next few weeks, the president's going to have to put more of his time and attention on the political diplomatic side. We have to build up a coalition of military partners so that they can be with us in the airstrikes, and then build up a coalition of ground partners -- Syrian rebel forces, the Iraqi Army, the Peshmerga -- so they can do the fighting on the ground. So the military side is extremely important here. But it has to be enveloped in a bigger diplomatic strategy. So I would say it's a joint diplomatic-military solution.

  • 10:43:07

    SESNOHisham Melhem.

  • 10:43:08

    MELHEMWell, the difference between this war, if you want to call it war, and the wars of the Second World War and others, we are not fighting a conventional military. You are not fighting a state. It's very difficult to fight non-state actors. And when you look at the Middle East today -- the eastern part of the Arab world, the world called the Arab East -- you see that Iraq and Syria, they have within their borders, and Lebanon, they have two of the most powerful non-state actors in the world. One is ISIS and the second one is Hezbollah.

  • 10:43:35

    MELHEMSo, and these grew at the expense of the integrity of the states of Syria and the integrity of the state of Iraq. These are new forces that grew in these broken societies. Defeating them will not end up with one of them surrendering, the way Japan surrendered after the Second World War.

  • 10:43:54

    SESNOAmbassador Jeffrey.

  • 10:43:54

    JEFFREYYour caller is right in emphasizing the military, because that's exactly what this administration doesn't do. I agree with Nick that there's a whole diplomatic-political side of this. But there's nobody I would trust more to do that than Barack Obama. That's what he's all about. He loves doing that. It's in him. What isn't in him naturally, as we saw in his speech and have seen over six years, is to wage a military campaign. And you need to do that as well. If we want to get people on our side to stay on our side -- and particularly people to go out and fight -- they need to believe that we are in this thing to the bitter end and will do what is necessary to smash them.

  • 10:44:29

    SESNOSo then is it wise for the president to take off the table boots on the ground? If you're really serious about defeating these folks, might there not need to be reengaged action on the ground?

  • 10:44:40

    JEFFREYIt is absolutely wrong to do that.

  • 10:44:42

    SESNOTo do what?

  • 10:44:44

    JEFFREYTo take boots on the ground off. Obviously we don't want to do that for many reasons. And I just did a piece on this. They generate antibodies (ph), you have to be very careful. They shouldn't get involved in armed nation building. But if you have to take down a place like Fallujah, you may have to use American troops.

  • 10:45:01

    MELHEMI absolutely agree with that. You don't take anything off the table. Don't telegraph to your enemies what you will and you will not do. And tell them we will chase you to the gates of hell. That's the only thing I liked recently by Joe Biden. He was correct on that one.

  • 10:45:14

    WRIGHTI actually understand why you don't want to take anything off the table. But at the end of the day, presence of American troops on the ground does make it -- add a different dimension. And I think we've seen -- whether it's the Marines in Beirut in the 1980s or the U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq -- that there are polarizing things that redefine a conflict and create unintended consequences that we have to be very careful. I think the president is right in looking for the Iraqis to fight this war themselves. We are not the legal power, as we were the last time around after pushing Saddam Hussein for power.

  • 10:45:49

    WRIGHTThis is an Iraqi government. We're trying to reinforce the Iraqi state. And it is up to the Iraqis to fight this war in order to be the credible entity that they want to be.

  • 10:46:00

    SESNONuha joins us now from Atlanta, Ga. Hi, Nuha.

  • 10:46:04

    NUHAHi. I'm calling because -- I have two comments. First of all, you cannot -- we have to defeat this ISIS. And we cannot involve Iran and Syria in helping because they are part of the problems. The problems started because Assad was slaughtering his own people for three and a half years, and Hezbollah was helping him and Iran was helping him. The second point is, we need to establish democracy and establish, like, sharing the powers in the Middle East, in Iraq, between the Shia and the Sunni, it should be a shared power. Otherwise, this ideology is not going to go away. The ideology of this craziness is because of the injustice and because the youth have no jobs, they have no future. And they follow these crazy idiots to do these things.

  • 10:46:58

    SESNOSure. Well, let me -- Nuha, let me turn that question through over to Ambassador Jeffrey, who served in Iraq. What Nuha just said is we need to establish democracy. That has proved very difficult in such a divided society.

  • 10:47:10

    JEFFREYWe actually, I think, were pretty successful establishing a democracy. What we couldn't establish...

  • 10:47:14

    SESNONouri al-Maliki's government was a democracy?

  • 10:47:16

    JEFFREYIt was a democracy. What it wasn't was a very good democracy. It wasn't a pluralistic democracy and it wasn't based upon the kind of civil society that you need to sustain a democracy.

  • 10:47:25

    SESNOBut it's a democracy that has generated this country flying apart.

  • 10:47:28

    JEFFREYIt is also a democracy that generated a constitutional process that just got rid of Nouri al-Maliki. So in a purely formal sense, it is a democracy. What you don't have is a society that can support easily a democratic system. Thus it bounces along in a not particularly satisfactory way.

  • 10:47:45

    SESNONicholas Burns, let me pull you into this.

  • 10:47:48

    BURNSWell, I think that Jim's right to suggest that, you know, we can't close the door on the prospect of democracy in Iraq. No matter what you think of the decision to go into Iraq in 2003, elements of a democratic state have been built. It is highly imperfect, but it has been good to see this alternance of power in Baghdad, just this summer, just this last couple of weeks. And, Frank, I'd say one more thing to the caller. I think it is absolutely right to say that if you have a combined Iraq-Syria strategy -- and that's what the United States has to have -- you cannot align yourself with Assad or the Iranian government. Because it won't be credible. And I thought that was a very good question.

  • 10:48:26

    SESNOOkay. Another good question, I think, from Dale, who joins us from Denton, Texas. Hello, Dale.

  • 10:48:30

    DALEHello. Yes. I have a question regarding ISIS and their funding. My understanding is that they earn about one to two million dollars a day in oil transactions. Who exactly do they actually conduct these transactions with? And why is it so difficult to put a reign on that? And another question regarding training the moderates in Syria -- I mean, we spent 10 years training Iraqis and they got run over by ISIS so quickly -- why are we confident that if we train the moderates in Syria, they'd be able to put off -- put off ISIS?

  • 10:49:08

    SESNOOkay. Well, thanks. Two great questions. I'm not sure confidence is a word I would use any of these questions. But they're excellent questions. Hisham Melhem, first the oil.

  • 10:49:14

    MELHEMFunding for ISIS is from multiple sources -- from extortion from businesses in the areas that they controlled. They are selling oil illicitly to the government in Damascus and to people in Turkey and Kurdistan at times, through shady middlemen. And now they are levying taxes. And they received a huge amount of money from wealthy individuals in the Gulf over the last two, three years. And that's one of the problems that the -- our Treasury Department has been working on effectively in the last few months. And that required -- I mean, for the first time, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Department named Kuwait as one of the sources. And they designated Kuwaiti individuals as huge contributors to these groups.

  • 10:50:02

    SESNOAnd Ambassador Jeffrey, what about this idea of encouraging, forming some kind of democratic coalition or reform coalition in Syria?

  • 10:50:11

    JEFFREYI think that's going to be a harder task than in Iraq. We start with the low-hanging fruit. We have allies in Iraq. We know the terrain. We know the people. We're already on the roll there. Work on that while simultaneously working on the larger problem of Syria. Because that, as everybody said today, is going to be tougher.

  • 10:50:30

    SESNORobin Wright, briefly.

  • 10:50:31

    WRIGHTThe Syrian coalition is largely exiles. It's been -- it doesn't have a proven track record inside the country. And the danger is, once you arm them, can they actually retain those weapons? Do they become vulnerable to -- whether it's seizure or purchase by extremist groups who are, as Hisham pointed out, very well heeled. There are some real challenges in the Syrian leg of this. And that's one of the reasons we haven't seen more movement on the Syrian front. And that's where it becomes a quagmire, frankly.

  • 10:50:58

    SESNOWe started this conversation today, folks, with the frame of reference of this latest, horrific execution of this British aid worker over the weekend. And there's an email from Greta in Virginia, who asks, "How is it that the grotesque videos of beheadings are 'recruitment tools'?" in quotes, she puts them. "What is the attraction, the appeal? Why do people respond positively to them?" Hisham Melhem, do people respond positively to them? What is the impact of these?

  • 10:51:24

    MELHEMApparently, some psychopaths in Europe and in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world are impressed by these gruesome acts of violence. And unfortunately, look, I mean, there's a long history of chopping off heads in Middle Eastern history, in Arab history, in Ottoman history and Islamic history. And some of those misfits that Robin correctly talked about can go there. And finally, in every major war, we see volunteers. There were 45,000 volunteers, individually, going to Spain to fight on the side of the republic, and thousands of others were, you know, fighting on the other side. So this is really not new. What is new is that this is in the age of social media and the Internet.

  • 10:52:00

    SESNOI'm Frank Sesno and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And your calls and questions can come in to us at 1-800-433-8850 or Nick Burns, you have served in the State Department. You have served as Ambassador to NATO. You've been around the world. I'd like you to pick up on this notion of social media for just a moment and the impact that these videos have had. Because it seems to me, too, there's an irony. And I almost wonder whether, at some level, these videos have backfired on these -- on the terrorists who are using them. Because we have seen public opinion in the United States and elsewhere change very quickly, as a result or maybe just accelerated by these videos, in favor of military action. How do you see the impact of these videos on policy and opinion?

  • 10:52:48

    BURNSWell, I think that's exactly right. I think that the ISIS leadership has miscalculated here. If by -- in such a repulsive, brutal, evil way, they have killed these two journalists and -- American journalists, now, the British aid worker -- if they thought that somehow that was going to assist them, it's had the reversed affect. It has caused mass revulsion in the West. It has caused people to support a much more firm and robust and aggressive American military response. And I think there's just mass opposition globally to the evil that this group represents.

  • 10:53:23

    BURNSNow President Obama has an opportunity here to take that anger and direct it towards a sensible strategy. He's going to have to explain, as he tried to last week, this is a long-term effort. That we cannot defeat or even contain ISIS over a period of weeks or months. It's going to take many years to do. And that's really a challenge he has with Congress and the American people going forward.

  • 10:53:48

    WRIGHTOne of the most important challenges the administration faces is coming up with its own public diplomacy campaign to fight the extraordinary capabilities of ISIS -- the sophistication in the use of social media. The State Department has a new video out now that tries to tap into the resentment of the beheadings and the crucifixions and the grotesque actions that are taken by ISIS. But it uses this sarcastic tone. And it says, you know, join ISIS and, you know, behead people and...

  • 10:54:17

    SESNOYeah. Yeah.

  • 10:54:18

    WRIGHT...and crucify them and so forth. And it has a sarcastic attitude that doesn't play well. I don't think that will reverberate in a positive way or convince anyone in the region. And unfortunately, we don't know how to tap into the anger in a way that is going to turn people on our side and against the others.

  • 10:54:36

    SESNOBack to the phones. Kayla from Denton, Texas. Hi, Kayla. Thanks for joining us.

  • 10:54:40

    KAYLAThank you. I just had a comment or response to the man who called from Birmingham saying that we needed military strikes first...

  • 10:54:48

    SESNOSure. Sure.

  • 10:54:48

    KAYLA...and politics second.

  • 10:54:49

    SESNOBriefly, if you could, because we're running down on time here.

  • 10:54:52

    KAYLAI'm also a person that comes from two generations of war veterans, so I've, you know, seen it secondhand as well, what military strikes can do. I just think it's absolute ignorance that military strikes should come first and politics come second. We've already got this terrible impression of the rest of the world that Americans just like to use brute force first, ask questions later. And we -- taxpayers already spend millions of dollars on our military. I think it would serve us better to use our diplomacy first and use our military force as a last resort, when we've exhausted all efforts and still aren't getting anywhere.

  • 10:55:27

    SESNOKayla, thank you very much. And it's a very good -- a series of very good points. That's actually what we're seeing play out now, this joining of military and diplomacy against these very challenging situations. In about the two minutes left, folks, that we have, I'd like to go to each one of you briefly and ask you what you're looking for in the days ahead, to see whether this coalition -- whether this international resistance to ISIS -- is actually going to gain traction. Nick Burns, let's start with you.

  • 10:55:53

    BURNSWell, I think that -- can the administration assemble a strong coalition to oppose ISIS? And, as Jim Jeffrey knows, he was ambassador there, Turkey is the key country. Secretary Kerry was in Ankara to meet President Erdogan. We're not getting what we want from the Turks. Secondly, Frank, I'd look for whether or not the European allies and the Gulf partners -- the Saudis, Emirates, Kuwaitis -- will actually come through with concrete military assistance as opposed to just rhetoric. And the Gulf States, in particular, have to go after their citizens, as Hisham as said, who are funding ISIS from Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia.

  • 10:56:29

    SESNOGreat. Ambassador Jeffrey.

  • 10:56:30

    JEFFREYAs Nick said, we need political support in particular from the Gulf States and from Turkey. I'm less concerned about the military support. That we can do, if they will support us politically.

  • 10:56:42

    SESNORobin Wright, what are you watching for?

  • 10:56:43

    WRIGHTMoney from the Gulf. The Gulfees paid for a lot of Operation Desert Storm. And this is one time, at a time we're pulling out of the Great Recession, that we could use some financial aid to pay the -- we've already spent $1 billion just on the airstrikes so far.

  • 10:56:57

    SESNOHisham Melhem.

  • 10:56:57

    MELHEMThe Arab states are waiting for the military plan to see if they can join. And I would argue that a country like UAE, which fought with us in Bosnia and Libya and has 1,200 men in Afghanistan, will be one of them. But they have to be -- they need clarity.

  • 10:57:11

    SESNOHisham Melhem, Robin Wright, James Jeffrey and Nicholas Burns, thanks to you all very much for giving some clarity and some insight on a very complicated and very dynamic and dangerous situation.

  • 10:57:21

    BURNSThank you.

  • 10:57:21

    SESNOI'm Frank Sesno. You've been listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

Untangling The Lies Of Rep. George Santos

Thursday, Jan 19 2023Behind the lies of Congressman George Santos. Diane talks to the owner of the small weekly paper that first broke the story, and a Washington Post journalist who is following the money to see who financed Santos's political rise.