America’s Collision Course With The Debt Ceiling
As the nation counts down to default, Diane talks to longtime Congress watcher Norm Ornstein about the debt limit negotiations, what's at stake and whether he sees a way forward.
Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party win a surprisingly solid victory in the British elections. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forms a new coalition of conservative and religious parties, but with a slim majority in Parliament. Saudi Arabia proposes a five-day halt to airstrikes on rebels in Yemen to allow aid agencies to reach civilians. And Nigeria’s military rescue hundreds of women and children kidnapped by Boko Haram. A panel of journalists joins guest host Indira Lakshmanan for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. In Britain, the heads of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties resign after a solid victory by Prime Minister Cameron and the Conservatives. In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu puts together a tenuous coalition government and Saudi Arabia offers a five-day humanitarian truce in the Yemen conflict, but vows to respond harshly to rebel attacks on border areas.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoining me for this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Shane Harris of The Daily Beast, Laura Jakes of Foreign Policy and Paul Danahar of the BBC. We'll be taking your questions and comments all through the hour. Call us at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a message on Facebook or Twitter. Welcome to all of you.
MR. SHANE HARRISGood morning.
MR. PAUL DANAHARThanks very much.
MS. LAURA JAKESThanks for having us.
LAKSHMANANSo it's a big surprise in the British elections. Prime Minister David Cameron and his conservatives won an outright, it seems, solid victory despite what the polls have predicted. Paul.
DANAHARAnd despite what they thought they would get as well because David Cameron didn't believe he would get a majority. He thought he'd be back in power with Liberal Democrats. It was an upset for absolutely everyone. The SNP, the Scottish National Party, swept the board. They took 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland. I mean, there's lots of winners, the SNP and the Conservatives. There's lots of losers, the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party, the UKIP Party, which was the anti-immigrant party.
DANAHARPerhaps the biggest loser over time may be the United Kingdom as an entity because this result basically throws that into doubt. Two reasons for that. One is that the SNP are now going to be sitting in a Parliament they don't actually believe should exist because they want to break away from the United Kingdom, and secondly, with the Conservatives getting back in power, they've made -- they're reinstated their commitment to having a vote about leaving Europe.
DANAHARAnd if there is that vote and if the majority of the UK votes to leave, then the Scots will say, well, we don't want to leave. We want to stay. And that will have -- there'll be another referendum. So either way, we could end up with the United Kingdom not looking like the United Kingdom when we have the next election.
LAKSHMANANWow. Okay. So let's unpack those one at a time. The Labour Party was nearly wiped out by the surge in support for the Scottish National Party in Scotland so do you think -- how soon are we looking at another fight for Scottish independence?
DANAHARWell, they won't do it straightaway because they lost narrowly last time. They're gonna wait until they know they're gonna be able to push it through and I think Europe will be the big issue there because the Conservatives say they want to give people a yes or no option on Europe. There's a lot of anti-European feeling and although the -- a lot of the talk before the election was about UKIP, this UK Independence Party, which wanted to leave Europe.
DANAHARNow, they only got one seat, but they came second in about a third of the seats available and they came third in about half. So there's a big up swell of support for them. If we'd have had a different system of proportional representation system, they may have got about 60 seats, as many as the SNP. So the groundswell of frustration and anger in the UK over Europe is gonna bleed out again and it's gonna become really, really divisive and that may lead to the UK, as I say, breaking up.
LAKSHMANANOkay. Shane, tell us a little bit more about what this means for Britain's relationship with the EU since it seems like now there'll be this referendum.
HARRISRight. So there'll be this referendum on whether or not, you know, Britain wants to pull out of the EU alliance. I mean, if that were to happen, if we're just speculating, let's say, or hypothetically the majority of British voters did vote to leave that EU, that would obviously put Germany in a different position vis a vis the EU for having to foot more of, like, the bill and sort of being one of the big players.
HARRISBut what does that mean for the US relationship with the UK as well? I mean, does this put the UK into being more of a sort of non-international, more isolationist kind of mode? They are our most stalwart ally over there, obviously. Have been for many, many decades. I mean, I think that probably the Obama administration looks warily even at the rise of the SNP, the Scottish National Party, where one of their big elements of their platform was wanting to suspend all development on their ballistic nuclear missile program in Great Britain.
HARRISI think people over here look at that and say, what, are you crazy? I mean, you're part of our security alliance and now you're talking about possibly pulling out of the European Union as well. So I mean, again, that's far off, I think, in the future, but I think if we're just imagining what that would look like, it could dramatically change our relationship vis a vis the UK as well and the security dynamic in Europe.
LAKSHMANANAnd some have actually said that this election highlights Britain's shrinking role on the world stage. Do you agree with that?
DANAHARI think there's certainly been an inward-lookingness about the UK recently. I mean, you remember that the vote over whether or not to join American in bombing Syria, it was a no. That was a big shock for everybody because it wasn't expected in the White House. It wasn't really expected in Westminster. It was a badly organized political -- the organization behind trying to get those votes went really badly wrong.
DANAHARBut I think the thing is that Britain's role really is only important if it can influence Europe. If it walks away from Europe, what is it offering? Well, it's spending much less money on its military arms. It's becoming much less interventionist in its foreign policy. So you may end up with a situation that a country that, to be fair, has been punching above its weight for quite a long time may begin punching at its weight.
DANAHARAnd if you look at its weight, it's not as big as many other countries around the world that have less influence than it does.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Laura, after a brief visit from John Kerry, Saudi Arabia has now proposed a brief ceasefire in Yemen. Tell us what would that entail and how do we get to this point.
JAKESThe issue here is that humanitarian aid that has been pledged to refugees and people who have been displaced from their homes in Yemen due to the fighting over the last several months has not been actually able to reach them. Now, last month, the king of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, offered a $274 million humanitarian aid package to Yemen.
JAKESThe many humanitarian aid groups have been very wary of this because it is happening at the same time that Saudi continues the bombing. There's been a lot of criticism, a lot of questions on how can you continue bombing and still want this humanitarian aid to get out to places of the country where it's simply too dangerous for people to travel?
JAKESThere have been at least two strikes by what's believed to be Saudi air forces on a humanitarian aid warehouse and also convoys where carrying humanitarian aid workers...
LAKSHMANANIntentional or accidental?
JAKESWell, I'm sure it's hard for anybody to say definitively. I'm sure Riyadh would say accidentally. There've been a lot of questions as to why Riyadh did not have the coordinates for some of these convoys and warehouses. That's something that the United States has been trying to coordinate and make sure that the bombing isn't happening in the places where the people need the aid or where the people are trying to deliver the aid.
JAKESSo anyways, earlier this week, and it was announced formally yesterday in Riyadh, the -- King Salman and the new foreign minister who's a person we know here in Washington as the former ambassador from Saudi Arabia, that's Adel al-Jubeir, announced this ceasefire in areas where the humanitarian aid would go. Most of that has been up in the north in the Houthi-controlled areas.
JAKESHowever, the strikes still continue. They continued this morning. And this has all been pitched as a potential ceasefire. It really remains to be seen if this is going to happen and no specifics have been given as to when this would take place, how long it would last and where exactly the ceasefire would happen to make sure that people aren't being killed as they're trying to save lives.
LAKSHMANANSo we don't even know if the ceasefire is actually gonna take hold. So, you know, what are the chances -- we've been hearing leaders saying that this could actually lead to a more significant decrease in violence. What are the chances of that?
HARRISI agree with Laura. I mean, for the ceasefire to hold, the Houthis have to agree to cease fire as well. So the Saudis have already said it needs to be a ceasefire in all parts of Yemen. I mean, the fact that it has become so dangerous the humanitarian aid can't even get there, we've been increasing -- the U.S. has been increasing our intelligence-sharing with the Saudis to try and get them to be more precise in their targeting, to cut down on the tremendous number of civilian deaths that have been occurring.
HARRISIt's really turned into a humanitarian disaster. I mean, this is John Kerry going over there, I think, trying -- it's a fairly desperate situation that maybe is not revealed by the optics of, you know, these formal meetings and these kinds of things. We've been pressuring the Saudis in as many ways as we can think of, I think, to back off on this. And the ceasefire, obviously, would be the most absolute way of doing that.
HARRISBut, you know, it's not even clear when it would be implemented. It's remains to be seen whether this would hold for even the minimum of five days that they're talking about, frankly.
JAKESIf I can add something as well, one of the more significant issues regarding this humanitarian aid pledge that Riyadh made last month is that it's probably the first time in recent memory that a belligerent to a conflict, that is to say somebody who is bombing, who is involved in the warfare, has donated 100 percent of the campaign. I mean, usually most of these campaigns are funded by multiple countries.
JAKESThat was certainly the case that humanitarian workers had hoped for in Yemen. But, again, it raises this question as to why bother spending all of this money if the fighting is going to continue.
DANAHARI think the other thing that's interesting about this whole story is that we've seen Saudi losing faith in American foreign policy, not listening to America about lots of different issues. It began with Syria when they began to arm the rebels when the Americans were saying, hang on, don't do this kind of thing, we've got no coordination going here. And this is a slow pull-away by the Gulf states, supported by countries like Egypt, to go their own way when it comes to foreign policy.
DANAHARSo when they start making a mess, they're probably not going to listen to you anyway because they went and did this, because they feel that the policy coming out of America isn't strong enough, isn't standing up against Iran enough. So how Kerry goes there and says, look, guys you know, you've got to do this and the Saudis have been saying, well, you've not being doing what we've wanted for years so why should we listen to you?
DANAHARIt's a really complicated mess and it is a mess and the Saudis aren't particularly good at doing this kind of stuff. They don't have a lot of experience of doing it very well and there's no reason to suggest they're going to do any better.
LAKSHMANANShane, another issue happening in Yemen right now with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula saying that one of its top leaders was killed earlier in a U.S. drone strike. Very quickly, before our break, what do you think this is going to mean for ongoing efforts (unintelligible)
HARRISWell, it means that we are still very much trying, despite the situation in Yemen, to conduct a counterterrorism operation there. This is the second recently senior al-Qaeda leader we've killed in Yemen reportedly. I think this show the CIA not backing off on its attempts to continue a counterterrorism campaign there, even though we do not have a presence militarily in that country anymore.
LAKSHMANANWe'll take a short break. I look forward to hearing your questions and your comments. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining me this week on the International News Roundup, Paul Danahar, Washington bureau chief of the BBC and author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring," Lara Jakes deputy managing editor for news at Foreign Policy magazine, and Shane Harris senior correspondent and The Daily Beast a Future of War fellow at the New America Foundation and author of "War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex."
LAKSHMANANShane, before the break, we were talking about Yemen and this drone strike by the United States that supposedly killed one of the top leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. What does that say about our ability to continue to have influence or project U.S. power in Yemen?
HARRISI think the top line is that it says that we still do have that ability, even though it might be more limited. I mean, a few months back, we pulled out our Special Operations Forces from Yemen, along with our diplomatic personnel, because the country was so dangerous and was in such chaos. And there was a big question about whether or not the CIA would be able to continue a campaign of drone strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Yemen, which intelligence officials say is the most dangerous of the al-Qaeda branches and the most equipped to put bombs onto airplanes and kill American civilians.
HARRISSo there was this open question of, well, does this mean it's an end to the counterterrorism campaign in Yemen? And we've seen, actually, some precise air strikes targeting senior members of that group. So what I think it tells you is that this is by no means off the CIA's radar. And interesting, as, you know, John Kerry is over trying to negotiate a ceasefire, we're conducting this sort of covert bombing campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen at the same time, and I think you'd expect that's going to continue.
LAKSHMANANWell, you know, think about the situation for Yemeni civilians here. They're being bombed by the Saudis, who are trying to hit the Houthis but are obviously hitting a lot of civilians, and as Lara told us earlier, civilian aid convoys, as well, and then we've got the drone strikes coming from America, aimed at the al-Qaeda leaders. But what about civilian casualties, Lara?
MS. LARA JAKESWell, about 1,000, 1,400 people have been killed in Yemen since the air strikes began or since, at least since the war began earlier this year, late last year. So it doesn't spell a lot of good news, frankly. I also think we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Iran's role in this conflict, as well. This has widely been seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Some of the air strikes that Saudi has been conducting has been to hit what is believed to be humanitarian, or actually not humanitarian aid but aid for the Houthi rebels coming in from Iran.
MS. LARA JAKESFor example, the Saudis hit the Sana'a air strip last week, which jeopardized more aid coming in. The Saudis said hey, these are more weapons, this is more assistance coming in to these fighters who are putting civilians at risk, so of course we're going to bomb them.
MS. LARA JAKESThere was an interesting moment yesterday when John Kerry met with President, I'm sorry, Yemeni President Hadi, in exile. He was in Riyadh, as well, for those meetings. And President Hadi said, oh, we'll see you in Sana'a since, and John Kerry said, well, we'll see.
DANAHARWe've got work to do.
LAKSHMANANAll right, let's take a call from Travis in Columbia, Maryland. Travis, you're on the air.
TRAVISYeah, hi, panel, thank you for taking my call.
TRAVISJust a quick question. So al-Qaeda, sounds like, has had a presence in Yemen for a very long period of time and has controlled pretty large swaths of the country. But it wasn't until the Houthis started taking over large chunks of territory that Saudi Arabia banded together with Egypt and Turkey and a much larger group of countries. I guess it just, if you can comment on why Saudi Arabia thought now to be the time to go after the Houthis, but such an effort wasn't made against al-Qaeda in the preceding years.
HARRISWell, I think there were concerns about the Houthis making territorial gains and coming very close to the borders with Saudi Arabia. I mean, remember the Saudis have gotten into fights with the Houthis before. It wasn't even clear that an air strike campaign would begin, and it's also not clear that we in the United States have much advance warning of it. But importantly, this gets to the issue of, you know, Houthi, the Houthis and al-Qaeda are fighting each other in Yemen. So if the Houthis are being weakened in the air strike, does that now give an upper hand to al-Qaeda?
HARRISSo, I mean, in the sort of strange calculus of this, a ceasefire could potentially put the Houthis and al-Qaeda back fighting each other, and that would be good for the United States. So there's all kinds of moving pieces in this. It's by no means static or one-dimensional or even two-dimensional.
LAKSHMANANI think the caller was also trying to ask, though, why were the Saudis not bombing al-Qaeda, and they are bombing the Houthis?
DANAHARWell, the thing about the Saudis is that their entire foreign policy in that part of the world is totally confused because - it's so complicated these days because in the old days, you kind of said, right, we're against Iran, but we're also fighting ISIS, and ISIS is a Sunni group that's also against Iran. And so, every different country has a different set of pieces, and all the rules are different in every different country. So from the Saudis' point of view, their big bogey is Iran, and if they have to kind of focus on Iran, and leave the kind of ISIS and the al-Qaeda to one side, they'll do that because what they're thinking about is what is a threat to us as a nation.
DANAHARThey believe they've got, perhaps wrongly, a lot of the kind of Sunni militancy in their own country under wraps at the moment, so now they want to focus on Iran. When they've dealt with Iran, they may move back to dealing with ISIS and dealing with al-Qaeda, but the Saudis are constantly kind of changing where they think the biggest threat is coming from. But the only real constant in that is Iran, and they've been so nervous about Iran becoming influential in Yemen, influential in Syria, influential in Iraq, they want to break that momentum before they start going after other people.
LAKSHMANANSo that first priority is Iran above all.
DANAHARIran, Iran, Iran, and then Iran. I mean, that's kind of where their priorities are.
LAKSHMANANOkay, so Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to pull together a coalition government, literally in the eleventh hour, just before the deadline. Let's hear more about the makeup of this coalition. It's been called the most right-wing government in Israel's history. Paul, you used to be based there.
DANAHARYeah, and I think that's a fair assessment. I mean, the interesting thing, the one thing Netanyahu is brilliant at is staying in power. He's a fantastic politician. He's very, very good at making everybody else feel slightly unsettled. And what he's done is he's pulled together a coalition that in many ways is weaker than the one that he had before, when he collapsed it. I kind of think that if he'd known this was going to be the result, he may not have actually gone for early elections because he's now held hostage by the ultra-Orthodox parties and by the settler party, Jewish Home.
DANAHARAll the promises that he made about reforming Israeli society created the 2013 result was about dealing with issues to do with the ultra-Orthodox parties because so many Israelis now blame the religious organizations, religious groups, for the state of their economy, and economy was the big issue. So you're looking at a government that basically is going to be incredibly unpopular with a large swath of middle-class Israel, and if it survives more than a year, I'll be very surprised.
LAKSHMANANSo is this coalition going to hold together, Lara?
JAKESWell, we will again have to see, and I think one thing that's important to note, that as long as Netanyahu stays in power with this government, tensions with the United States are going to continue to strain. They have been at a low point, perhaps a historically low point, over the last several years, especially with the breakup of the peace process a little over a year ago that John Kerry was trying to broker between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
JAKESThings have only gotten worse since. We saw Prime Minister Netanyahu come here and give a speech to Congress, in which the White House did not invite him to, it was seen as a breach of protocol, and many of the people who are going to be part of this new coalition government, I would like to Ayelet Shaked, for example, extremely right-wing lawmaker in the new parliament, she's now the justice minister. She has been accused of making statements that are racist, that have been compared to Hitler, and you can envision a scenario where...
LAKSHMANANRacist statements against Arabs?
JAKESYes, sorry, and you can envision a scenario where the White House is going to have to respond to whether it agrees with some of the statements that are coming out of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv right now. That's something that really hasn't happened in the past. The United States hasn't been asked to respond directly to - or they have been asked to respond directly, but it hasn't been a proactive type of thing. The White House may now feel compelled to proactively say, hey, we do not agree with the statements of this particular minister. These are completely counterproductive to what it is we're trying to do here.
LAKSHMANANWow, so creating another tension in U.S.-Israeli relations, potentially. Shane, tell us a little bit more about how the makeup of Netanyahu's coalition, what that's going to mean for any chance of a two-state solution and a peace with the Palestinians.
HARRISRight, and Netanyahu, famously before the election, came out and said, no, I'm against the two-state solution and then tried to walk that back quite incredibly in the American press the next day. The obituary is being written for this coalition almost as soon as it was announced. I mean, even the minister that Lara was talking about, somebody, one of her critics described her as like appointing a pyromaniac to head the fire department. No hope whatsoever here for any peace process or a two-state solution, not that there was great hope before, from the last time that it broke down.
HARRISBut, you know, with the - importantly with the exit of the former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who decided at the last moment not to join this coalition, that put Netanyahu in the most razor-thin possible of majorities, only 61 seats. It's the thinnest majority in Israel in the past two decades. That really, essentially, put him in a box and makes it even more likely that this coalition is not going to hold.
HARRISIt's a question of whether, in Israel, you're reading people saying, will they even be able to govern, much less tackle things like the peace process or the tremendous socioeconomic issues that we've been discussing.
DANAHARI think, though, I mean, the reason why Lieberman didn't join the government is he doesn't think it's going to last very long.
DANAHARAnd being inside this government would damage him more than being outside it. So he's quite a clever tactician. So he's sitting there thinking these guys won't last a year, and when you talk about the peace process, I mean, the ultra-Orthodox don't care about the peace process. They're not interesting in kind of the boundaries of Israel and the Palestinian state. So the driving force there will be the settler party, Jewish Home, and there's absolutely no way that they're even considering any conversations with the Palestinians. They want to take over two-thirds of the West Bank.
DANAHARSo you have a situation where we, the peace process under this government is completely dead. The question is, will they bury it, because it's been hanging around now and getting smellier and smellier and worse and worse. And nobody believes it has a future. So where do we go from here? I mean, what's very clear, I mean, I know that John Kerry was hopeful before the Israeli elections that he might get another crack at it. He knows that's a dead dog, and we won't see this presidency trying in its last kind of 48 hours to do something in the Middle East like all the other ones have because it's not going to happen.
LAKSHMANANSo the Obama administration essentially has to shelve any hope of making Mideast peace?
DANAHARAbsolutely, absolutely, and I suspect if we carry on with Israel moving to the right in this way, and we see the settler parties get stronger and stronger, that comes, that means the same thing for the next president and possibly the next president after that. There is absolutely no momentum towards having a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians at the moment.
LAKSHMANANLara, can you give us an update on the developments in Iraq this week?
JAKESAbsolutely. This week, we saw, kind of interestingly, the Pentagon come out and say that the oil refinery in the town of Baiji in northwest Iraq, actually central west Iraq, it's important to Iraq because it pumps out 300 million barrels per day, it's a lifeline to the Iraqi - sorry, it's a lifeline to the Iraqi economy, that was overtaken by ISIS yet again. And so the Pentagon comes out and says, oh, well, we thought Baiji was going to be a strategic battleground. We no longer believe it is going to be.
JAKESThe fact of the matter is that the Islamic State is moving in to many of these areas and taking over what we thought were going to be key battlegrounds. Foreign Policy this week ran a story by a reporter by the name of Jane Arraf, she's kind of like the lion of Babylon among the press corps in Baghdad, she's been there forever, and she wrote an interesting story out of the western province of Anbar, which is very Sunni-dominated, and she said that some of the Shiite militias that, many of which have been backed by Iran, are now going to be joining with these very Sunni militant groups that had been waiting for the United States and for Baghdad to offer more help.
JAKESThat hasn't happened. It gives Iran yet another in to be seen as the person who's really going to sweep in and help secure victory in a very tenuous battleground.
HARRISIt's just a tremendous reminder, too, of how fundamentally the story of Iraq, right, has changed. I mean, now we're seeing ISIS making these extraordinary territorial gains. This is going to be a major issue in the 2016 election, right. What will the next president do to combat ISIS? And as much as President Obama has talked about not putting troops on the ground and relying on training the Iraqi military and looking forward to strategic advances to take back Mosul, I don't think anyone's really hopeful that that's going to happen.
HARRISAnd I do think that the question of whether or not U.S. forces are put back into play will be one that presidential candidates have to contend with.
HARRISNow the reality is that, you know, do we think Iraq will stay in the present form. And I think it's very difficult to believe that there's any prospect that Iraq is ever going to be functioning as a state as it was in the past because it's just slowly pulling apart. It's always only ever been held together by force. I mean, it wasn't a natural state as it came together. First it was the British, then it was a succession of Iraqis, then it was Saddam.
HARRISSo there's nothing really holding people together. You know, yes, we have a slightly more moderate leader in Iraq now, but the legacy of Maliki, the sectarian divide that he created or helped create and then fanned, has just destroyed any trust in so many communities, and Lara knows that better than anyone because she lived there.
HARRISIt's just really, really difficult to put it back together again, and to put it back together again from 75,000 feet up in the air, whatever it is, I mean, that's even harder. So can you trust the troops that are acting on your behalf? I mean, we've got basically a proxy force here to do what America hopes can be done. Can you trust them? Can they do it very well? Does that mean if you really want to solve it, you have to put American troops back on the ground? And how do you sell that to the American public, who are sick of being in Iraq and getting nothing for it?
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Lara, the part about how do you sell that to the American public.
JAKESI think it is a very hard lift. I don't think there is any appetite from almost any corner of the American electorate to go back to Iraq, to put boots on the ground. I think this government has tried to kind of square that circle by saying, well, we're not really putting boots on the ground, but we are doing this with more air support, more strikes, more Special Operations Forces. I suspect that the next government in the United States will do that, perhaps ramp it up a little bit, as well.
JAKESWhat we would not want to see, what I don't think anybody would want to see, is a fragmenting of Iraq that would create a safe haven for ISIS, which it already pretty much is starting to happen through northern Iraq and into Syria. And that's something that, whether it's Iraq, whether it's Syria, the West is going to have to deal with this issue to try to prevent it from becoming a safe haven, much in the way that Afghanistan and Pakistan were a safe haven for al-Qaeda for so long.
LAKSHMANANAll right, let's take a quick call from Josef (PH) in Washington, D.C.
JOSEFHi, thank you for having me. This is Josef.
LAKSHMANANYes, of course, go ahead.
JOSEFAnd my question, I'm just wondering, why before the situation escalate, why they don't work together. It doesn't make sense, the U.S. government supporting or working with a dictator that has over $60 billion (unintelligible) . Yemen is the poorest country on the planet. So with this kind of president, (unintelligible) . So the U.S. government has to stop working with those kind of leaders and has to work with the Yemen situation also. The U.S. government has to work and start relations with Eritrean government, can play a role on this, East Africa, or...
LAKSHMANANOkay, thank you, Josef. Lara, very quick comment on that before we go to our break?
JAKESI just think it's interesting that the United States, what he's saying is how, why are we working with a government that's a dictator. I - you know, the United States is now working with President Hadi. Prior to Hadi coming in to power, the United States was working with President Saleh, who is now on the side of the Houthis. And so as much as the Yemeni leaders have been opportunistic, the United States leaders have been opportunistic, as well.
JAKESIt's all about people, and this should be no shock to anybody, it's about governments trying to get the most of what they want for their best interests.
LAKSHMANANComing up, more of your calls and your questions for our panel on the International Hour. We'll be right back. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining me this week for our International News Roundup, Shane Harris, Senior Correspondent for the Daily Beast. Paul Danahar, Washington Bureau Chief of the BBC and Lara Jakes, Deputy Managing Editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Lara, we had some good news earlier this week that some of the girls held captive by the militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria, have been freed. Are these the famous Chibok girls that drew worldwide attention?
JAKESWell, the Nigerian army says it doesn't know. It looks like they are not. Just to recap really quickly, April, 2014, more than 200 school girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram from their town in Chibok, Nigeria. And over the last couple of weeks, more than 700 hostages have been released by Boko Haram, including several hundred women and girls. It's interesting to watch the Nigerian social media on this issue, since we don't know, and it looks increasingly like these are not the girls, people are saying, oh well, you know, it doesn't matter then.
JAKESOr okay, that's nice, but what's happened to the girls? Where are our girls? And it's really set off this anger in Nigeria that, look, this is a huge success. People are being released. These women who have been held, who were recently released, had been raped, they had been starved, they had been forced to walk in areas where there were land mines. They saw people get their feet blown off by land mines that Boko Haram had planted. And there's this huge question of okay, is it the girls? And we should probably all take a step back and say, okay, we don't know. Perhaps not.
JAKESBut it really doesn't matter all that much. Hundreds of people have been released by this militant group and that is really good news, and it's part of the world that doesn't get a lot.
LAKSHMANANRight. So, 700 women and girls. Do we know how many more are still being held? Shane?
HARRISWell, I don't think we know exactly. There were probably, 200, I think, taken from Chibok, was the idea. And it seems like there were perhaps many more being released than maybe people even understood or appreciated were being held in the first place. One thing I think that this raises, too, is what does this mean for the status of Boko Haram, if they're letting these prisoners go? Does this mean that they're weakened? Are they retreating? My colleague Nancy Youssef had a story in the Daily Beast yesterday talking to intelligence officials and experts in this country, saying look, don't suspect that just because they've been freed, this means that Boko Haram is weakened.
HARRISWe don't have a great sense of where they are. It seems like the Nigerian military has been proceeding very slowly through some very dense jungles, trying to find them. It could be that they are recouping and regrouping. That part we just don't know, and so they clearly persist to be a threat, obviously to people in Nigeria, even though, fortunately, these individual prisoners have been -- escaped or set free.
LAKSHMANANWell, Amnesty International, last month, said that Boko Haram had kidnapped more than 2,000 women and girls since the beginning of last year. And as Lara was saying, many of those were forced into sexual slavery and trained to fight. NPR reported this week that most of the captives, this week, who we're talking about, who were released, were children. Many of them between the ages of zero and five. Why is Boko Haram targeting babies and toddler girls?
DANAHARWell, that's unfortunately something that's happened across Africa. In Sierra Leone, during the war there, in Congo. They basically raid. They take people and they will have their -- the slightly older girls looking after the younger girls until those girls are old enough to carry out some of the chores. I mean, they're basically recruiting people to carry things, to, when they get a little bit older, to be sex slaves, basically. I think what we need to remember about Boko Haram is sometimes we look at it as though it's an army and it's not.
DANAHARIt's a guerilla organization. So, they will give up some of their captives so they can kind of act as a guerilla group. And then when they get confident again, they can take some people back. Because at the end of the day, you know, they are, you know, surrounded by opportunities to take hostages. So, giving up some doesn't mean they've given up the idea of taking them. It just means they've probably relocated and when they get to their new location, they'll take hostages from there, too.
LAKSHMANANAnd does this represent any sort of a change in terms of the tactics on the part of the Nigerian government?
HARRISWell, so far, I don't think they've had great success in fighting back Boko Haram. I mean, we've tried to provide some intelligence support to locating the girls, but I don't think that this necessarily illustrates or portends any sort of change on their part. No.
JAKESAnd I'd just like to note that the wife of President Buhari, or President-elect Buhari, is down in Buenos Aires today. She was calling for a more international assistance from the global community to, again, find the Chibok girls. And it sort of misses the point, doesn't it? I mean, there are, as you noted, thousands of people who are being held. Why just focus on these 200 girls?
LAKSHMANANRight. All of them need our attention, and particularly the Nigerian government's as well. We have a comment here from Ross in Stevensville, Maryland, who says given that the mid-East peace process is now absolutely, positively dead, would it be smart for President Obama and the State Department to officially declare it dead instead of continuing to pretend that it's viable? And he asks, would it be smart for the US to recognize Palestine as a sovereign nation? Paul.
DANAHARWell, I think the reality is that there has to be some kind of solution to deal with the problem. So, nobody wants to say the whole process is dead. However, there are organizations within Israel and within the Palestinian territories who are saying yeah, let's declare it dead, because then what we can do, if you're a pro-Palestinian lobbyist, is try and fight an anti-apartheid campaign, in the way that South Africa did. From the point of view of the Jewish Home Party, they're saying, look, we want to take back what we think is our land.
DANAHARAnd so, the problem at the moment is that the formula that was created all those years ago, hasn't worked. So, something new does have to be done. But when you declare that that formula is dead and you have nothing else to replace it with, then it just means the whole thing begins to fall apart. And there really is a risk that if there isn't some kind of effort to stop these two sides, the tension between these two sides growing and growing, there will be more conflict. So, there's no plan, but there's no plan A and there's no plan B. So, if you get rid of plan A, you've got no plan.
DANAHARAnd so no one knows what will happen. And so they're clinging on to this plan A in the hope that miraculously, someone finds something else that they can do. But it's not working. Everybody knows it's not working. Nobody really wants to admit that it's not working and so they just kind of bumble along and hope that something will fall out of the sky and save everybody.
LAKSHMANANPlan A, plan B, plan C. We have a caller, Mike, from San Antonio, Texas, who says when George H. W. Bush was President and Israel expanded settlements, he cut off aid. Could Obama or the United Nations do the same?
DANAHARWell, he could try that, but, I mean, would it get through Congress? Probably not. Would it make any difference? Probably not. I mean, the reality now is that the West Bank is pocketed with settlements. And although they actually control a very small proportion of the actual kind of landscape, in terms of how big the settlements are, the area around them that has to be controlled by Israel, to keep the settlements safe, is enormous. So, about 60 percent of the West Bank, although it's not occupied in terms of people living there, it's controlled by the Israelis to keep the settlers safe.
DANAHARAnd so you have this constant tension. Now, if you took away money from the Israeli government because of settlements, they probably would get funding from somewhere else. So, I don't even think if the government did step in, the American government did step in, that that would stop the problem.
JAKESBut I also think it's important to note, as Paul did, Congress would never stand for that. I mean, the current makeup in Congress is so pro-Israel right now. That was obvious when House Speaker Boehner had the Prime Minister over to speak in kind of a snub at the White House, like we spoke about earlier. That's just not going to happen.
LAKSHMANANWe saw that the Senate passed 98 to 1 this Iran Oversight Bill this week. We talked about this on the domestic hour and the politics of it. But I want to know, from the international point of view, is this actually going to tie President Obama's hands, in any way, if he decides to make a nuclear deal with Iran?
HARRISWell, I think if the administration is playing this smart, it actually might use this as leverage in the negotiation. Because it can go back to the Iranians, with whom we're hammering out the final elements of the deal with our international partners. There's a June 30th deadline for that. You know, we can go back to the Iranians and say, look, we have to be able to pass Congressional muster on this, even though they're not technically voting on the deal. They're voting on sanctions.
HARRISBut they're going to review the deal. We could go to the Iranians and say, we've got a contentious, you know, party, opposing party back there to deal with. You've got to give some concessions. You've got to make sure we get to the finish line here and give a little bit as well. We'll see if that happens, but, you know, from what we've seen with the broad outlines, just from the framework agreement, you know, it's gonna be very interesting to see how Republicans react to this once they see it all written down on paper and, importantly, the classified information underlying this agreement.
HARRISI think what you're going to see is the Republicans might be asking a lot of questions about how do you intend to verify this agreement? How exactly are we going to know that the Iranians aren't cheating? I mean, that's really where Congress is probably going to try and, you know, push back and insert itself into this process, which, by the way, is what the Republicans have said they wanted.
DANAHARI think the other thing is that the Iranians, they're probably not going to get a more willing President than Obama. I mean, this is Obama's only foreign policy legacy. He wants to get a deal done. They want to probably get a deal done while it's him, because they don't know who's going to be coming next. So, there is a lot of possibility that they will be flexible and Obama's saying, look guys, as Shane was saying, look, if it's not me, it's nobody. And so that may make them actually kind of make compromises whereas with somebody else they wouldn't have done.
LAKSHMANANAnd Lara, where are we now on the negotiations with Iran?
JAKESWell, the technical negotiations continue. They're facing a June 30th deadline for a final deal. It will likely follow the broad outlines that we saw announced last month in Luzon. I thought it was very interesting that following this vote in the Senate yesterday, that you did not see a huge outcry from Tehran or from any prominent Iranian leaders. President Rohani has been silent on this. Supreme Leader Khamenei has been silent on this. Foreign Minister Zarif has said very little about it, except that a couple of days ago, he tweeted that he was quote, unquote, determined to end what he called a manufactured crisis over this deal.
JAKESHe said that it is moving forward, although some hurdles still remain. There is a cleric, one cleric today, who was calling for anti-US sentiments and -- but only in regards to US activity in Iraq and in Yemen and in Syria. But, so far, really, nobody has come out and said, we don't like this vote that just happened. This shows that the United States is dealing in bad faith. These are things they have been throwing at Washington now for months, if not years. So, the fact that Tehran is very silent on this, I think, spells, forecasts that this vote is going to go forward and it's not going to be as contentious as what we had thought a couple of months ago.
LAKSHMANANThey're just ignoring it, basically.
JAKESOr they're accepting it.
JAKESThey're saying it's not going to be a big deal.
LAKSHMANANWe have a tweet from LDC, who says, can anyone explain how the UK election polls were so wrong?
DANAHARWell, they may not have been. They looked very wrong when I was watching it in the early hours of the morning, but what it may have been is a surge at the end, to support the conservatives, because people thought that the SNP, the party in Scotland, would end up pulling together with the Labor Party, and then the SNP would control the agenda in Westminster, in the London Parliament. And so, there's a bit of a sense that perhaps people genuinely were saying, I'm going to vote Labor. I'm going to vote Labor.
DANAHARAnd then, Nichola Sturgeon came out and said, we'll do anything to keep the Touries out. We will get into power with Labor, and a lot of English folks just thought, I don't want the SNP controlling what happens in Westminster. I'm gonna vote Labor. So, it may have been the polls were wrong, but they were all wrong. So therefore, perhaps, it means they weren't wrong at that stage, but in the last 24 hours, people said, I'm not taking a chance with the Scottish National Party. I'm going to go for somebody I know will be able to keep their influence down.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have an email from Sean, who sort of builds on that question, and says, could the conservative wins in Israel and Britain indicate a trend similar to the Thatcher/Reagan sweeps in the late 70s or early 80s? Anyone got some historical thoughts on that?
DANAHARI don't think it, necessarily. I mean, I think the thing about the conservative party in the UK is it's probably more to the left than the Democratic Party is in America. It's a very liberal party, if you look at it from a global perspective. I think what we're seeing there -- these are very local issues. I don't think it's a sweep. It's about what's happening in each individual country.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Let's take a call from Chris in Washington, D.C. Chris, go ahead.
CHRISHi, I just want to change the subject a little bit in reference to the VE Day celebration going on in Moscow here soon. And I think it's unfortunate and very disrespectful to the millions of dead that were lost in that war, that we're not just overlooking our political differences of the moment. And show proper respect for such a significant anniversary in many countries' histories. And that's all.
LAKSHMANANYou mean by not sending someone from the United States to Russia for the ceremony?
CHRISYeah. Exactly. I think it's a really bad call, very disrespectful call to the many millions that died by hanging up on a current political difference that we have of the day, and we should have overlooked that for the ceremony.
LAKSHMANANThank you, Chris. So, you know, the larger question about US/Russian relations and are they tainting something that should be a 70 year celebration of working together. Shane.
HARRISYeah, I think that's a very interesting and probably, arguably, a very fair point. I mean, this is, you know, we're actually, we're celebrating in Washington today the 70th anniversary. There's going to be a huge flyover of World War II aircraft over the National Mall, which I think promises to be quite a spectacular sight, actually, and a lot of people are coming out for that. There are celebrations going on in London today, as well. But yes, ideally, in a perfect world, this would be a moment where we sort of bury these differences and come together to remember such an important anniversary.
HARRISUnderscores the toxicity, I think, of the relationship between the United States and Russia right now, which is clearly pervading all manner of policy.
DANAHARI think the other issue here, though, is even if the Americans had gone there in good faith, they believe the Russians would have used that visit in bad faith for their own ends. So, it was a very difficult judgment to make.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Let's take a call from Sunday in Indianapolis. Sunday, you're on the air.
SUNDAYThank you for taking my call.
LAKSHMANANGo ahead, please.
SUNDAYYes. Yes. I want to contribute to in reference to the problem in Africa on the (unintelligible) . The extra problem, you know, with corruption. All the leaders are corrupt.
SUNDAYAnd the problem in Africa and in the world will continue as long as the Western world encourage these corrupt leaders. Why? All the stolen money were not kept in Africa, (unintelligible) and, you know, in Europe. (unintelligible) to take a decisive tactic if you want to stop all this Boko Haram. (unintelligible) from one of the (unintelligible) 20 million dollars.
LAKSHMANANOkay, so Sunday's point is that we are actually supporting these corrupt leaders in Africa.
JAKESAnd that's certainly something that’s been a problem for a very long time, not just in Nigeria, not just in Africa, but across much of the world, right? But one of the concerns is that the more aid that the United States, or even that other groups, the United Nations, other countries give to these governments, it just lines the pockets of their leaders as opposed to trying to help the people who need it the most. That's one of the things that humanitarian aid groups have said in giving aid directly to NGOs, as opposed to governments.
JAKESYou know, but I think there's also, to be fair, the United States and the world leaders sort of have to dance with the partner that they -- that's on the dance floor. I know John Kerry was in Ethiopia very recently. There's a lot of questions about Ethiopia's leadership and how their human rights records. Certainly, that's not unique to Ethiopia, but that's the government that Washington can deal with.
LAKSHMANANSo, we deal with who we have and we don't get to choose. Lara Jakes, Deputy Managing Editor for news at Foreign Policy Magazine, Paul Danahar of the BBC, and Shane Harris of the Daily Beast. Thank you so much for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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