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Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
The so-called Islamic State makes major gains this week, capturing Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, prompting new questions about U.S. strategy against the terror group. U.S. intelligence officials release a trove of documents from the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, providing an unprecedented window into the man’s private world and his final days. The international community condemns Egypt for sentencing ousted President Mohamed Morsi and more than 100 others to death. Southeast Asian nations agree to a temporary measure to relieve the latest migrant crisis on the high seas. And the last administrative hurdle to Cuba re-opening its Washington embassy is cleared. A panel of journalists joins guest host Indira Lakshmanan for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Yochi Dreazen Managing editor for news at Foreign Policy and author of the book "The Invisible Front."
- Nancy Youssef Senior defense and national security correspondent, The Daily Beast.
- Greg Myre International editor, NPR.org; co-author of "This Burning Land: Lessons from the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict."
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back next week. The militant group, ISIS, captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the ancient site of Palmyra, 600 miles away, wresting control over more than half of Syria. The U.S. makes public hundreds of documents seized four years ago in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And Cuba and the U.S. clear a major hurdle to establishing full diplomatic relations and opening an embassy here in Washington.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoining me for this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy magazine, Nancy Youssef of The Daily Beast and Greg Myre of NPR. We will be taking your comments and your questions throughout the hour. We want to hear what you think about this week's happenings around the world. You can call us on 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoin us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning, everyone. Thanks for being here.
MS. NANCY YOUSSEFHello.
MR. GREG MYREGood morning.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENGood morning.
LAKSHMANANSo Nancy, I want to start with you. We heard, this week, about the dramatic U.S. raid that killed a high-ranking ISIS leader and captured this trove of important documents, possibly financial. But now, we're ending the week on news of the fall of Palmyra in Syria, chilling details of the capture of Ramadi in Iraq by the same group. So what is happening here?
YOUSSEFWell, the capture of -- or the killing of Abu Sayyaf and the capture of this wife were overshadowed by these two major events, two cities falling much in similar ways. Government forces running away in both instances. And Ramadi in Iraq -- they both have their own sort of significance. In Ramadi in Iraq, for Americans, I think in particular, significant as it's a place where 1400 troops were killed and it's the capital of al-Anbar Province, which is the Sunni-dominated area of Iraq.
YOUSSEFIt was really the last bastion of sort of independent ISIS-free area in Anbar and then it fell so swiftly, in a matter of hours. Also, the tactics that they use, that ISIS used, I thought was very interesting in that they deployed a number of car bombs, some of them the size of the kinds of bombs that were seen in Oklahoma City.
LAKSHMANANThat's right, 10 out of 30 bombs were just like any one Oklahoma City bomb.
YOUSSEFThat's right. Killing 150 people. And so the U.S., which had been celebrating, and the Iraqi government, which had been celebrating the fall of Tikrit out of ISIS hands, suddenly had to capitulate that maybe the Islamist State was stronger than they had said before. And then, of course, Palmyra has its own symbolic significance. This is a city, ancient ruins unseen anywhere else in the world.
YOUSSEFAnd, again, government forces fleeing pretty quickly. And now you have these very, very valuable ruins in jeopardy of being destroyed as ISIS has done in other areas in the region, most notably Mosul, where they put out these videos of artifacts being destroyed and thousands of years old artifacts being destroyed because they reject anything that was around before the State of Islam.
LAKSHMANANIt reminds you of the Taliban and Bamiyan in Afghanistan destroying those giant Buddhas, but -- so you've got these 2,000 year old Roman colonnades, other priceless artifacts which, I think, authorities are concerned that they might traffic to make money for the group and then, we also have Palmyra being significant because it's amongst gas fields and astride a whole network of roads across the country's central desert, right?
LAKSHMANANSo they're gaining. It sounds like they're gaining. They've got half of Syria now.
YOUSSEFYes. They have half of Syria. I mean, there are two different battlefields, right. I mean, in Syria, the trafficking that you mentioned of artifacts has happened in the past. And while they've put out these dramatic videos of destroying artifacts, we've heard a number of times of artifacts, smaller artifacts, being sold on the black market as a way of making revenue. And one of the things we saw, some of the Syrian archeologists, they are doing as the city was being run over by ISIS was hiding and storing those artifacts for that reason.
YOUSSEFSo the U.S. is insistent that ISIS is not losing. President Obama gave an interview with The Atlantic saying so. But certainly psychologically, it is a devastating loss in both countries. For the Iraqi army to be run over by ISIS as it was so devastatingly so was harmful and it hurt Haider al-Abadi, the U.S.-backed prime minister of Iraq, tremendously as well because his military apparatus could not stand up to it and it appears that he will need those Shia militias that the U.S. has sort of urged him not to lean on as much to try to take back some of those areas.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Yochi, I mean, we see here that just two months after ISIS was driven out of the Iraqi city of Tikrit, now they're back. They shook off those setbacks at 600 miles apart on opposite ends of the battlefield. So what is President Obama saying about this? Is this a sign his policy is failing?
DREAZENRight. So in his interview with The Atlantic yesterday, which was remarkable for a lot of reasons, including sort of jaw-droppingly straight comments about Iran and the Iran talks, he insisted -- his quote was "no, we are not losing," that this was a tactical setback, which is, again, a very gentle way of putting it. The two quotes from the week that I think were much more interesting than his and sort of undercut a lot of the kind of spin coming out of the White House about the impact of Ramadi's fall and, frankly, the possible fall of the Baiji oil refinery, which although it's been offline now for more than a year, is the biggest refinery in Iraq, Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff talking about the punitive Iraqi allies allegedly fighting on behalf of their own city said, they were driven out of Ramadi.
DREAZENThe drove out of Ramadi, making clear that they fled as compared to fighting to the death. You had other people from CENTCOM saying not to worry about the enormous amounts of American weaponry falling into ISIS hands because the Iraqis had maintained it so poorly that it didn't work in the first place. So when you have a strategy that depends on a reconstituted Iraqi military, on Shiite tribal militias whose entrance brings up whole other issues and Sunni tribal fighters and what you're hearing from the White House is we're not losing.
DREAZENWhat you're hearing from the military is, one, they won't fight, two, they haven't maintained the weapons we gave them in the first place so you're getting this very diametrically opposed view. The only thing you do know is that on the map, ISIS territory is growing in Iraq. ISIS territory is growing markedly in Syria. Very clear that the strategy we have now doesn't work. And then, the question is, do we accept that and make it an issue of just containing the damage, or does something the U.S. is doing have to change.
DREAZENBut the current strategy, very clearly, is not working.
LAKSHMANANWell, is there any sign that they're reconsidering, that anything is changing at the White House or CENTCOM.
DREAZENNo, you're beginning to hear more people on the Hill, Democrats as well as Republicans, say that the U.S. true presence should grow, but the White House keeps saying, no, no, no. We're not sending more -- and more importantly, they're not sending them any further forward towards the front lines than they currently are.
LAKSHMANANRight. Greg, especially in Syria, this is really marked and President Bashar al-Assad has clung onto power for four years no, despite this raging civil war, even while outside nations have armed his opponents. But now, we have the most radical branch of the opposition, ISIS, controlling half of the country. Is he on the verge of collapse finally?
MYREHe's been suffering a lot of setbacks lately and not just to ISIS. The al-Nusra front, which is the al-Qaida ally in Syria, has also been gaining ground. So what we have seen is Assad growing weaker. And this raises an even more complicated question on the Syria side of this border. In Iraq, the U.S., it's clear that they're backing the government. In Syria, it's a little messy because on the one hand, you don't want to see ISIS grow. On the other hand, the U.S. has not quite been clear about what they want to happen with Assad.
MYREThey say he must go, but they aren't really pushing for him to leave because this could mean an ISIS takeover. So I think you just have the further complication in Syria of what seems to be Assad's weakness, the multiple groups that are fighting on that battlefield and a growing ISIS presence.
LAKSHMANANAnd who would be in charge if Assad falls or is overthrown? Could ISIS actually run a government?
MYREWell, they have shown some signs of doing that, both in eastern Syria and in Western Iraq. Another significant development this week, to that point, is a report came out from the Rand Corporation and appeared in the New York Times about where is ISIS getting its resources. And these are very much estimates and I'm not sure how precise they may be, but it was talking of ISIS raising a billion -- more than a billion dollars in assets.
MYREAnd I think one of the strategies or one of the premises of the Obama approach to this has been that ISIS will run out of resources. They operate in a pretty impoverished area. How will they keep going? But through extortion and taxes, they have been able to raise significant amounts of money and as we've seen, they don’t seem to be short of resources. So the sense of attrition doesn't seem to be happening, at least not yet.
LAKSHMANANRight. And taxes and extortion now seem to outstrip oil even, which was their big thing last year, their big way of earning money. Nancy, Yochi referred to now more calls on the Hill for U.S. troops on the ground doing something about this. Do you have any insight into, within the administration, are they taking these calls seriously? I heard Senator Lindsey Graham was saying the U.S. needs to send 10,000 troops to Iraq to fight ISIS.
LAKSHMANANIs there any possibility of that?
YOUSSEFWell, the most notable testimony we heard this week was from Fred Kagan and Jack King who were the authors of the 2007 surge plan that was executed in Iraq and some say lead to a big turnaround there. And they were arguing for about 20,000 troops in an advisory role to bolster the Iraqi forces. The administration, though, has been steadfast that there will be no boots on the ground and even though these two gentlemen were proposing something that didn't involve combat, the idea of sending in 20,000 troops to retrain, work alongside the Iraqis when -- as it's become clear that they are not capable of carrying out a military plan, not capable of maintaining their weapons, I mean, I think, to me, what's so interesting is, I start to wonder why is it that these militia forces are so much better fighters than the U.S.-trained Iraqi army?
YOUSSEFAnd there's no evidence that more people on the ground, more equipment, more support, more air power is leading to a substantive change in how they carry out their war-fighting. And so that's sort of the resistance you're getting from the White House and also the fear of going back into Iraq, I think, for a lot of people is just a no-go politically.
LAKSHMANANYochi, quickly, before we go to our break, Republicans are now blaming President Obama for the rise of ISIS. So they're changing the narrative. It's because of the pullout from Iraq, not because of the invasion itself.
DREAZENWhich, for them, is remarkably convenient politically. You avoid the question of was the Iraq war a mistake, which Jeb Bush tripped over five times in a week. You avoid the question of what would you have done back in 2003. You can shove that aside and just say, whatever happened in '03, President Obama has garbled and we are now worse off because the rise of the Islamic State.
DREAZENSo for them, politically, it's a win, win, win in every possible respect.
LAKSHMANANWe're gonna take a short break now. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking today with Greg Myre, international editor at NPR.org and co-author of "This Burning Land: Lessons from the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," with Nancy Youssef, senior defense and national security correspondent for The Daily Beast, and Yochi Dreazen, managing editor for news at Foreign Policy and author of the new book, "The Invisible Front." Before the break, we were talking, Yochi, about the spread of ISIS and their onward march in Iraq and Syria.
LAKSHMANANI also want to know, they're expanding into Libya, and this week they took control of former Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi's home town. So what inroads are they making in North Africa and how significant is this?
DREAZENSo what you're seeing is that they're making inroads in, depending on who you speak to, as many as 16 countries: in Afghanistan, in Egypt, in the Sinai, which obviously matters strategically for Israel as well, in Libya and on and on and on. The question becomes in some of these countries, when you have a branch of this group say -- or a group, excuse me, say, we are part of the Islamic State, are they actually or is it just sort of a PR move?
DREAZENIs it just sort of branding? Because the Islamic State is the cool brand...
DREAZEN...not to be glib, but sort of in those circles the cooler brand. When you get to Libya, there are many people in the U.S. government who believe that that proclaimed branch is part of the Islamic State. They say that there have been commanders, other leaders, other logisticians sent from Rocca, from the Islamic State's headquarters in Syria to Libya to help command this branch.
LAKSHMANANSo training and money.
DREAZENTraining, money and people.
LAKSHMANANSo an actual overt link between ISIS and one of these branches in this case.
DREAZENYes, an overt -- exactly. An overt link. There are -- some of those people will also say that about the ISIS branches -- proclaimed branches in Afghanistan and Egypt. But there's near unanimity when it comes to Libya among a small circle of U.S. intelligence officials that that is part of the Islamic State. The hard question is a strategic one and a political one. The strategic one is, let's assume that they're right, that this is part of the Islamic State. What does the U.S. do? It's struggling to find support for airstrikes in Iraq or Syria.
DREAZENWould it find any support for airstrikes into Libya? Nobody wants Libya. Libya has been a mess since Gadhafi fell. And then politically, for the White House, they're already facing criticism that they're failing in Libya -- excuse me, in Syria and in Iraq. Then the question would be, if they say, yes, Libya is part of the Islamic State now, the question would be, well, why aren't you doing more?
LAKSHMANANDoes that compel them to do airstrikes there? And you know, we've also heard administration officials say that among these branches who are declaring themselves part of the Islamic State, that the Sinai province is actually a legitimate, scary, dangerous, violent, even though they're a small group. And Boko Haram has actually been officially accepted. They have this Internet, online, social media contact certainly with ISIS. I mean, how much does that compel them to do more, Nancy?
YOUSSEFWell, I just want to go through -- assert though what happened there because I thought it was significant just practically what happened. And this is a place -- we -- I think Americans know it best as the place where that culvert was that Gadhafi was found and later killed in October of 2011. And for about four months now, there's been an increased presence of Islamic State fighters, a lot of them local fighters, which I think is interesting. And although leadership is coming from places like Iraq and Syria, you have a lot of local fighters.
YOUSSEFAnd this week, they took over the hospital, the radio station, the hall where Gadhafi used to host foreign leaders during their very interesting visits there. And it was interesting because, up until this point, people talked about the ISIS presence in Libya in pockets -- in pockets of Derna, which is in the far east of Libya and has been an Islamic-extremist stronghold for years, and Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising, and now in Sirte. And I have to tell you, I spent a lot of time in Libya. I was there for the uprising. And the fact that the local fighters from Misrata, who are known as some of the best fighters in Libya, could not push these forces off was very interesting.
YOUSSEFAnd also to this idea about the expansion of the ISIS fight into Libya. There is one country that is eager to take on ISIS in Libya, and that's Egypt, because they see it as an immediate threat.
YOUSSEFAnd it's action that...
LAKSHMANANAnd they've got their Coptic Christians who were beheaded by ISIS, that's right, in Libya.
YOUSSEFNear that -- the very -- in, near Sirte, where this takeover happened. And there's been a real resistance from the United States to empower the Egyptians to do that because of the ongoing tension between those two countries. And so it's interesting to me that in the battle for the Islamic State, we're coming up against internal struggles within the Middle East and its relationship to the United States. And so Egypt has done a few strikes. I wouldn't argue they were successful, but they did strikes. And it hasn't had any real impact.
YOUSSEFBut Libya is particularly interesting because the reality is it's a failed state and that you have these fiefdoms as Islamic State emerging -- another one, now the third major one -- is troubling in any country, but particularly someplace like Libya where there are so many Islamists coming through doing training and fighting and there's no government force. The best one couldn't fend it off.
LAKSHMANANSo Egypt wants to be more forward leaning. How about Iraq's and Syria's neighbors? How are they reacting to the gains that have been made by ISIS in the past week?
MYREWell, I think they're very nervous as well. And, again, just to pick up a little bit on what Yochi and Nancy said, I think the U.S. will have to make some choices here. And given that it's already committed to Syria and Iraq, I think you will see an ongoing commitment there. But in places like Libya, I think the U.S. has pretty much washed it's hand. It is not going to make a major -- take a major action there, or, for example, what Saudi Arabia has been involved in, in Yemen.
MYRESo I think that the question might be not whether the U.S. gets deeply involved, which I think is probably unlikely, but how does it deal with allies, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, which are going into these countries and maybe doing things that the U.S. does or does not want them to do. And that's going to be a very tricky and delicate question.
YOUSSEFCould I just add? You know, one of the metrics that I use to measure whether the Islamic State is properly or formally, in (word?) and other cities, if we start seeing media campaigns emerging of an -- not just an alliance but -- to the Islamic State, but media campaigns, funding, fighters. So Sirte is going to be an interesting, I think, metric in terms of how the Islamic State is able to expand its brand, if they are able to get money out, if we start to see a media campaign that's similar to the ones that they launched in Nigeria.
YOUSSEFThat those -- it'll be a metric in terms of their ability to adapt in the face of these coalition airstrikes.
LAKSHMANANWhether they can spread from Libya and beyond. Let's go to the phones. Let's take a call from Ed in Kalamazoo, Mich. Ed, you're on the line.
EDYes. With regards to ISIS, I was wondering how serious is this a problem in the sense that there was a lot of calls from the Republicans, like Lindsey Graham and John McCain about doing more. I was thinking, will there be actual debate in Congress about how serious the ISIS threat is? Would there be a proposal to send troops or to actually declare war? I'm confused as to how this entity and how serious a threat it is. If it is that serious, wouldn't we want to have the Congress involved in it? Wouldn't we want to have a debate?
EDA debate over sending troops?
LAKSHMANANOkay, it's an excellent question, Ed. Yochi, you know, Ed brings it up. Americans want to know. We have someone from Grand Rapids, Mich., a listener who's asking the same question. Is ISIS really a threat to the West, outside of the Middle East? And should there be debate in Congress about sending U.S. ground troops in?
DREAZENI think Ed's question is exactly right. I also think that there is a wondrous degree of optimism in the premise of the question. Congress would like to bash President Obama on this as often as it can. But any move towards doing anything, even the notion of an authorization for the use of military force, basically a legislative sort of seal of approval for the White House to do something more aggressive in Iraq and Syria, that has not gone anywhere. So there's been a little bit of a debate but no movement toward anything substantive whatsoever.
DREAZENThe question about whether ISIS is a threat to the West is an interesting one. It comes out a little bit and I know we'll talk about it later in the Bin Laden documents. There's a massive strategic difference between al-Qaida's worldview and the Islamic State's worldview. There are many people that you talk to who say, yes, the Islamic State has foreign fighters who have passports and could theoretically go back to their countries to fight. But that for the Islamic State, they are about territory. They are about maintaining what they have. They're not about carrying out, targeting attacks in the U.S. and trying to...
LAKSHMANANMm-hmm, building a caliphate.
DREAZENBut that's their focus.
LAKSHMANANWell, you bring up the Osama Bin Laden documents. Let's move on to that. The Obama Administration intelligence officials released hundreds of these documents that were seized in the raid that killed Bin Laden back in 2011. Why now? Does this have anything to do with the investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, casting doubt on the narrative of the Bin Laden raid? Or why do you think it's happening now, Nancy?
YOUSSEFOf course not. It has nothing to do with that. That's the official line. I'll leave it to your listeners to decide if they believe that. But there were 103 documents and files. And for Washingtonians like us it was fascinating because you got additional insight into how Osama Bin Laden lived and operated. And he emerged as a much more complex figure than I think as we have known him for -- since 9/11, on one hand, worrying about his wife and his children. He was getting ready, apparently, to train his son, Hamza, who was at the time 22, to be the next leader.
LAKSHMANANWho's still at large?
YOUSSEFWho's still at large. He had a number of books geared towards understanding the West: Bob Woodward's book, "Obama's Wars," Michael Scheuer's "Imperial Hubris," Rand Corporation documents, Congressional testimony. That there was a real swell of documents and books there to suggest, you know, he was trying to understand the West. And also some of the friction within the group crept in there. You could see, you know, al-Qaida was of the belief that you go after the West first. And once you tackle that, then you try to form the Caliphate. And you see younger members expressing their impatience with al-Qaida, the lack of support, their wanting to create the Caliphate now, sort of the early seeds of what would then emerge as ISIS because of that friction.
YOUSSEFAnd so you see these older leaders with a lot of baggage and a lot of security problems that are more aligned with the group, and younger members who don't have as much background but are very eager to carry a different message and a different brand of terrorism than Bin Laden was proposing.
LAKSHMANANOkay, Greg, what's the new information that we're learning about Bin Laden, the man himself, from these documents? There's some really personal correspondence to one of his wives, to other family members.
MYRERight. He wrote some letters. One is to one of his wives who was basically detained in Iran after the 9/11 attacks and one of -- some of his sons there. So there were, well, at least attempted correspondence -- we don't know exactly how far everything got -- but to show that he hadn't -- they were expressing that they had not seen him for years. And they desperately wanted to see them. And he spoke of how he wanted to see them as well. So this was a man with about, the best we know, four wives and 20 children. So there was -- you saw these personal elements of his correspondence.
MYREAnd also at the other way, just the universality of bureaucracy. You saw some very odd stuff in the application, such as, you know, if you are martyred, whom should we contact?
MYRESo you saw both the personal side of him...
LAKSHMANANSo like human resources reports from al-Qaida.
MYREAbsolutely. And talk about expense reports and things like this. So, yes, it gave a much fuller picture of Osama than we had seen before.
LAKSHMANANI saw him apologizing to his daughter in one of the letters for, you know, not being there, which was interesting. Yochi, you know, you had mentioned earlier that Osama Bin Laden had some pretty strong views about how you need to go after the West, hit targets in the United States particularly. We saw one line where they said, prioritize Jews in your attacks. And this is very different from what ISIS is doing in terms of establishing an Islamic State. What did Bin Laden think about establishing an Islamic State?
DREAZENSo there was another interesting element to this, that I could just mention it briefly first, which is, the Bush Administration, in the years before Bin Laden's death, when they were asked, well, why have you not caught him? How have you failed to do so? They said, he's irrelevant. He's in a cave somewhere. He's cut off from al-Qaida. He's just living in -- as a hermit. That is not true. I mean, it's evident, the more stuff that comes out, that not only was he reading a ton of material about the U.S., developing a sophisticated understanding of the U.S., he was somebody who was issuing orders fairly routinely to other members of al-Qaida.
DREAZENBut there is this fundamental difference, and Bin Laden, when he was talking to some of the leaders about the Islamic State, he said, throughout history and especially recent history, he said, whenever there's been an Islamic State declared, it's been destroyed. And he specifically referenced Afghanistan, that if Afghanistan was close to an Islamic State, it was close to a Caliphate, and it was destroyed by the U.S. Obviously left unsaid was that it was destroyed by the U.S. because of his own attacks. But that was his worldview. His worldview was, recent history has shown that an Islamic State cannot yet be established. Therefore, go after -- weaken the West first.
DREAZENWeaken it economically, which has been a theme of his for several years, in other writings that were released, that to his mind, he couldn't believe how much money the U.S. spent after 9/11, the trillions of dollars spent. To him, that was a benefit that he wasn't even expecting.
DREAZENSo his feeling was, weaken the West economically. Weaken its willingness to fight. Kill as many Americans or Jews as possible. And then, after that, try to create a state.
LAKSHMANANSo bring down the West first. Once they're weak and unable to respond, then you can set up your Islamic State.
LAKSHMANANNot while they still have the firepower to respond. I'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're sitting in -- and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. Nancy, you made reference to the now notorious -- it's even become a hashtag, BinLadensbookshelf. So you mentioned some of the books. What else surprised you there?
YOUSSEFA couple of things. One was how much he rejected sort of individual jihads, small-time attacks. That they had to be mega-attacks, if you will. That this small kind of attacks that we now have come to see over and over again and they're so embraced by ISIS, was universally rejected by him. And of course the fact that he was contemplating leaving Abbottabad in the month leading up to his killing. And that he fretted that he was a security inconvenience for those around him, that he wasn't able to do the kinds of things that he wanted, that he felt that they were burdened and couldn't carry out missions because he had been there. And that he was contemplating a move from Abbottabad, where he was eventually killed.
YOUSSEFAnd I guess the last thing was how much significance he placed on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, that he had made repeated references to it and how to mark it. And all the video and audio, not being specific, that there was a real effort to mobilize the youth and yet be true to his sort of brand of terrorism.
LAKSHMANANI was struck by what he was reading and, you know, Yochi, he was reading your magazine, Foreign Policy. Several copies of that were found, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and also some really offbeat things, like a healthy eating guide for wrestlers called "The Grappler's Guide to Sports Nutrition." That, I thought, was one of the oddest ones on his shelf. Let's take a call. We've got Jimmy-Joe in Fayette County, Penn. Jimmy-Joe, you're on the line. Go ahead.
JIMMY-JOEThank you, Indira. And I appreciate what you do. And I wanted to say this question for the whole panel but I wanted to zoom in on Nancy because you have that military affairs cap on and it seems like you know what's going on. So, Nancy, tell me and the rest of the panel, how can a rag-tag army of, what, 50,000 guerilla fighters for a whole year take on the world, defeat the Iraqi guy? They threw their guns down. They let them take our tanks. They let them take our artillery shells. And then we're really surprised that Richard Engel said, the Syrian Army did the same thing when they went to that Roman town in Syria, where the Syrian Army ran away.
JIMMY-JOENow, come on. Pat Buchanan says the Turks could take these guys out in three weeks -- not necessarily vaporize them, but they could neutralize them. Nancy...
LAKSHMANANOkay. All right. So Jimmy...
JIMMY-JOE...is ISIS a super army or what?
LAKSHMANANJimmy-Joe wants to know, he says, basically that ISIS has taken so much power and land, but there a small population compared to the rest of the country. How are they doing this?
YOUSSEFWell, as the U.S. knows very well, insurgencies are incredibly difficult to defeat. And we're talking about armies that don't nearly have the kind of training and equipment and unifying, sort of, power behind them, if you will. I mean, we talk about the Iraqi Army defending the Iraqi State, when the very idea of the Iraqi State is at odds right now. And so when you have forces that are new -- these are units that have been put up in the last few years -- taking on jihadists who think that they are carrying out the ultimate mission, if you will, the -- carrying out God's ultimate mission.
YOUSSEFAnd they're planting car bombs, ten of them the size of the ones that were carried out in Oklahoma City. And you have, you know, in Ramadi, for example, the special forces, the best-of-the-best of the Iraqi Army fled first. The Iraqi Army Brigades see this and say, we've got to go too. They thought that the sand storm there had stopped them from getting any kind of air support, that essentially that they didn't have any sort of superiority over the Islamic State. They had lost it. They had lost it in organization. They had lost it in the air.
LAKSHMANANSo incredible viciousness of this group, something that we're not used to seeing before. We're going to take a short break. Coming up, we're going to have more of your calls and your questions. We'll be right back. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining me are Yochi Dreazen, Managing Editor for News at Foreign Policy, Nancy Youssef, Senior Defense and National Security Correspondent at the Daily Beast, and Greg Myre, International Editor at NPR.org. Greg, let us turn to Cuba. This is what I spent my last few days immersed in and writing about. So, US and Cuban officials are wrapping up a fourth round of talks, of negotiations since January. Today, in Washington, we know they just had press conferences in this hour. What are the remaining obstacles to establishing full diplomatic relations and where are they as of now?
MYREThey seem to be pretty close, but not quite there yet. It seems these are bridgeable issues, they are things like the Cubans want to make sure that the US diplomats don't go to Havana and start developing dissident contacts and...
LAKSHMANANWhich they already have.
MYREAnd the US wants to make sure that its diplomats are free to talk to people, free to talk to ordinary Cubans, that people who communicate with the US Embassy there would not be harassed. So, these are the kinds of things they're looking at right now. But, it seems like there has been a momentum since last December when President Obama announced this. Again, these seem bridgeable, but there will also be some difficulties when the President can do certain things with executive actions, but Congress would also be involved, in terms of approving an ambassador or lifting some of the trade and travel sanctions.
LAKSHMANANSo, Congress could slow it down in that respect, even if the administration decides, we're ready to open embassies, Congress could not approve the ambassador, for example.
MYREAbsolutely. That's one issue, and then even looking a little farther down the road, if all the changes are made through Obama's executive actions, that would suggest that a future president who may not agree with those executive actions could reverse them.
LAKSHMANANYochi, the big news this week on Cuba was that we found out that Cuba finally has a bank willing to take on its business. And this, of course, clears the last administrative hurdle for them to reopen an embassy here. It's a small Florida bank called Stonegate and I wrote about how this very sensitive deal was brokered over steak salad at a popular D.C. restaurant. Why was it so hard to find a bank willing to open an account for Cuba and why does it matter?
DREAZENSo, part of it was it was not clear how much cash Cuba actually had. I mean, access to American dollars as compared to other currencies that would be harder to process. Part of it was fear, that you might run afoul of very complicated, very arcane, very lengthy US sanctions policy. Part of it was fear that you might get boycotted by other Cuban customers and other Latino American customers who would say, this regime is evil. You're helping an evil regime.
LAKSHMANANAnd you're Castro's banker, for example.
DREAZENExactly. Yeah, and you're Castro's banker and a banker of a man who stole our land, stole our territory, stole our homes, keeps imprisoning political dissidents. It is remarkable, and I know you've written some wonderful stuff this week, but just how fast this has happened. I mean, we think eight months ago, 10 months ago, a year ago, how toxic Cuba was as a political issue. No one wanted to talk about it.
DREAZENAnd here we are.
LAKSHMANANAnd Alan Gross was still imprisoned.
DREAZENAlan Gross was in prison.
LAKSHMANANAnd none of this could happened if this USAID contractor had not been released, of course, as part of this deal last December.
DREAZENExactly. Now there could be an announcement of the first US Ambassador could come any moment. The re-opening of the embassy could come within days or weeks. It's extraordinary.
LAKSHMANANWell Nancy, we know that the administration has to give at least 15 days notice to Congress of its intention to reopen an embassy, but at that point, what else are we waiting for? What are the remaining issues and the boxes they need to check and how soon do you think we could actually see this happen?
YOUSSEFWell, I think that's why this bank deal is so extraordinary, because not having a bank to process Visa applications, to process salaries, to process the practicalities of running an embassy was a huge hurdle. We know that the deadline for taking it off the terror list is May 29th, and so the expectation is that with this bank, the issue is settled that you can now start to practically carry out the logistics, if you will, of opening an embassy. And so, it sounds like a small thing, that a bank with just 22 branches could have such influence on the expansion and the diplomatic relations between Cuba, but it's a huge, logistical, practical, you know.
YOUSSEFAnd maybe it's because I'm around the military so much, logistics is often the biggest part of it, and so to me, this is such an important step to getting to that...
LAKSHMANANIt's all about logistics, and of course, I mean, it sets a precedent. Then the question is, if American businesses are allowed to start doing business with Cuba, then I guess other banks will have to follow.
LAKSHMANANIn order to process those transactions. Greg, we've been hearing a lot more this week about the plight of the Rohingya refugees, stranded at sea in boats that have referred to as floating coffins. Remind us who are the Rohingya people and what's happened to them?
MYREThe Rohingyas are this minority in Myanmar, primarily. They're Muslim in a mostly Buddhist country. And they've been treated very poorly. Often living, effectively, in camps. And they have now become a refugee issue throughout southeast Asia. And in many cases, they have been in boats, some of these groups have been in boats for weeks, even months, and no one wants to take them. No country wants to become the place where the refugees all head to.
MYREWe've seen something similar in the Mediterranean. So, it's become very rapidly a regional problem, where Myanmar and Bangladesh seems to be the starting point or the departure point, but Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, are being pulled into this as potential spots where the refugees could land.
LAKSHMANANAnd from Bangladesh, it seems like it's more poverty that people are fleeing and Myanmar, it's more the persecution for these Rohingya. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia have just said that they are willing to take these refugees for one year, but no more than one year. So, it's a stop gap measure. What is the US doing, Yochi, to alleviate this crisis or, you know, how are we stepping in?
DREAZENNot very much. And there's been some talk of US Navy vessels helping to rescue ships that are at sea, trying to help save refugees to get them to what may be one year havens. There's an interesting political element to this, and obviously, there's the old joke that in an election cycle, everything is political on some level. For Hillary Clinton, both in her book and publicly, when she talked about her accomplishments to Secretary of State, she proudly points to Myanmar, to her role in helping a transition from this closed off military dictatorship to a much more open country.
DREAZENAung San Suu Kyi, who was a sainted figure in the West is again someone that is, comes up again and again in Hillary's talking points. But Aung San Suu Kyi has not done much, if anything, to help the plight of the Rohingya. She has come under personal criticism by the US and by others around the world for having, at a minimum, not stopped some of the persecution, if not having harshly flamed it. So, you have a country that is seen as one of Hillary Clinton's few demonstrable victories that is now going off the rails.
DREAZENAnd you have a woman who was seen as a sainted figure in the West being tied to, again, at minimum, not helping to tamp down this crisis...
LAKSHMANANRight, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who apparently, when she was asked about it, didn't say the right answer.
YOUSSEFTo be clear, the Rohingyas are referred to in Myanmar as Bengalis, that they're not even citizens of the country, even though they have a very long and rich history of being in that country, and there was tremendous pressure -- I mean, there was a wonderful editorial cartoon, I think it was in the Economist today of a boat filled with Rohingyas and all these countries holding up their hands, keeping them away, including Myanmar. And so, today was the first time that we saw the Navy of Myanmar start taking up two boats.
YOUSSEFIt was the first, sort of, acknowledgement...
LAKSHMANANTaking in its own citizens, actually.
YOUSSEF...yes. Yes. But even when they did it, they said they've taken in these Bengalis. The suggestion being that they're not from that country.
LAKSHMANANInstead of acknowledging them as Myanmar citizens.
YOUSSEFThat's right. That's the sort of tiny steps of progression that's been made since this crisis emerged. And remember that a lot of these people are moving when they are because we're approaching monsoon season and this would be the last time. But imagine 25,000 since January, fleeing on boats, for months at a time, and that most that they can get is maybe food and water delivered from other nations, but being told you're not welcome here.
LAKSHMANANWell, this is the same thing we're hearing in Europe with migrants from North Africa streaming across the Mediterranean and thousands of them dying at sea. The UN has now said that at least 51 million people have been driven out of their homes by civil war as of the end of 2013. This is beginning to feel like a global migrant crisis. Is that what we're seeing?
YOUSSEFWell, it's interesting that you bring up Europe, because one of the things that we saw in Europe was that at one point, they weren't rescuing people because they were fearing that if they rescued them, that they would encourage more people to come. This week, we heard from the Australian Prime Minister saying we're not going to welcome them here, because to welcome them here would be to encourage them to do more. I think the big difference is, in Europe, the migrants there, a lot of them have contacts in Europe and have final destinations. That maybe they're coming through Italy, but they're often going to places like Germany and have a network that they can reach out to.
YOUSSEFWhere that's not in place for the Rohingyas in Myanmar. And I think the other big difference, you talked about this migration shift. The crisis of Syria, Arab Spring and all the aftershocks from that has created the biggest migration issue we've ever seen since World War II. It is fundamentally changing countries. You know, we talk about Libya. There were four million people, five hundred thousand that were in Tunisia. In Syria, you have a million Sunni in Lebanon, which disrupts a very fragile political process. And because Syria has not been dealt with, it is taking so much of the funding and resources and attention to a migrant issue that is spreading all over the world.
YOUSSEFSomething that we've never seen. And I don't know how you put these countries back together again when you fundamentally change the population of all of them.
LAKSHMANANSo, a global refugee crisis on a scale that we haven't seen since World War II. And, of course, the post-World War II period with the partition of India and Pakistan. Greg, this week in Egypt, the former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was sentenced to death along with more than 100 others. How did this come about?
MYREWell, this is part of the ongoing crackdown by President el-Sisi, who took over almost two years ago in a coup. And Mohamed Morsi, just to refresh our listeners, was the leader of the -- one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who the Brotherhood won election in 2012, ruled pretty badly for a year and then was overthrown by General el-Sisi, now President el-Sisi two years ago. And there's been this systematic crackdown on people affiliated with the Brotherhood and other Islamists. And Morsi being a target. And he was convicted and sentenced to death, still not final.
MYREIt still has to work its way a little further. But for a prison break, he was in prison in 2011 and got out. The interesting thing here is it's not just a crackdown on the Islamists. It's a crackdown on a very wide range of people, including academics, civil society groups, human rights groups. So, it's not simply a military crackdown against Islamists. It's against a broad range of people that were academics, including one who's teaching here at Georgetown, who was also sentenced to death.
LAKSHMANANSo Yochi, what's the international reaction to these death sentences been and could it affect US relations with Egypt?
DREAZENSilence. I mean, there's been condemnation of it, but beyond the condemnation, which is sort of rote, that's been it. You know, Greg rightly used the word coup, which is a word that the US still refuses to use in any kind of official sense, because that would then trigger cutbacks in the kind of aid that the US could provide. If anything, the US is ramping up aid to Egypt, because it sees a threat from the Islamic State in Sinai. It sees a threat from other terrorist groups from the refugee crisis Nancy alluded to. So not only is aid not being cut back because of it, but aid is ramping up, as this happens.
DREAZENYou know, there's the old, kind of cynical joke about the Arab world, in particular. The one man, one vote, one time. So, we think about what happened a few years ago. This was a free election. He did win. He had many flaws. He was ultimately taken down in a coup. El-Sisi is an old style Egyptian autocratic military style dictator. He's now back. And just think about the fact that an elected leader may be put to death for what is a sham trial and a sham charge. And nothing's happened.
LAKSHMANANIncredible. Nancy, is this verdict going to hold, and what does it mean for the Muslim Brotherhood?
YOUSSEFWell, you know, I lived in Egypt for all of Mohamed Morsi's presidency, from his election and all the way through (unintelligible) and I can tell you it's amazing, because this was the first legitimately elected leader of Egypt and now it's being referred to the Grand Mufti. We'll have a final verdict on June 2nd. The fact that they're pushing it through so quickly suggests that there's a possibility -- there'll be appeals, but there's a possibility of sentencing him. Now, and as an Egyptian, it's shocking to me the sort of repeat of past mistakes.
YOUSSEFBecause when the Muslim Brotherhood first rose in the 50s, the same thing happened. There was a crackdown. The top leaders were executed, the lower level guys were released and it led to ultimately Sadat's assassination and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, my time in Egypt, what I saw of the Brotherhood, so many younger members were frustrated with how the Brotherhood performed when they were in office. And so many of the leaders are in prison right now that you're starting to see splinter groups form.
YOUSSEFThat, and we see this in Egypt all the time, something we don't talk about here. IEDs going off every day, killing one and two, literally every day, that the level of instability that's been brought by this has been extraordinary, but the Muslim Brotherhood, I think, as we know it, it's in danger because that one umbrella is gone as his mini fiefdom, if you will. And just to give you a sense of the level of instability these verdicts are causing, the Islamic State in Egypt called for people to kill judges. Three were killed in the Sinai within hours of this verdict being delivered.
LAKSHMANANActual judicial killings.
YOUSSEFThat's right. So, for me, as an Egyptian, it's extraordinary how threatened the regime is, not just by Muslim Brotherhood, but by anybody who had the gall to question the status quo from 2011, liberals, revolutionaries, academics, intellectuals, they're all...
YOUSSEF...journalists. They're all under the same umbrella.
LAKSHMANANSo this elected leader, will he be put to death?
YOUSSEFHe could be. I mean, the fact that they referred it to the Grand Mufti so quickly, it's a very real possibility. Again, there will be an appeals process, but it's not just him, but the entire Muslim Brother leadership could be put to death. It's extraordinary.
LAKSHMANANThat's incredible. I'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got some emails here which are really focused on our discussion about ISIS. One person says, can insurgencies be defeated simply by military power? And a listener says that Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Vietnam are all proof enough that simply fighting committed insurgencies with military power, I think the listener means by the US, in this case, is costly and unwinnable. And we have another listener who writes in and says you can impose dictatorships or colonial rule, but you cannot impose democracy.
LAKSHMANANI see no evidence that boots on the ground work. It's been a failure for decades, so why do political voices keep bringing up boots on the ground?
MYREThere's no one answer. Because if there was, you'd probably see it implemented right here. Insurgencies don't always win. They are defeated, but it often takes many years to do it. It requires very much a political solution in addition to a military solution. So I think that the sense that this could just be defeated by US air power or by rag tag group of militia men is not realistic and we're not anywhere close to seeing some sort of military solution, let alone a political solution.
DREAZENYou can find the examples in history of insurgencies that were defeated militarily. There are not many of them, but what that required was extraordinary brutality on an enormous scale for a very long time. So you'd be talking about tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dead for years and years and years to come and that would be the price we would have to accept, as the West, if we were going to watch a brutal, let's say an Iraqi government aided by the Shiite militias, slaughter Islamic State supporters and Sunnis by the hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands. That would be the price to even potentially defeat this militarily.
YOUSSEFCan I just add that what I think makes Iraq exceptional is it is not an organic state. It is only since 1932. The borders are not organic to a state. And you're starting to see Shia and Kurds, in particular, already start to carve out their own independence. So the idea of saving Iraq, defeating an insurgency, when at the same time, you've got the major ethnic groups that are carving out their own sort of independent states is, I think, an additional complication.
LAKSHMANANWe've got a listener, Anna, from Raleigh, North Carolina, who says she's a World War II veteran and she's saddened to see the US thirst for wars, especially ones with no purpose. And Phil from Indianapolis says the fighting in the Middle East seems to be a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Why don't they talk it out and so that they don't have all this fighting between Sunnis and Shiites and has it just become a grudge match at this point? Quickly, in 30 seconds.
DREAZENThey've been fighting for a millennia. This is not a region, unfortunately, that lends itself to talked out solutions.
MYREWe're seeing an historic upheaval right now. It's going to play out over a very long period of time.
LAKSHMANANGreg Myre, International Editor at npr.org. Nancy Youssef, Senior Defense Correspondent at the Daily Beast and Yochi Dreazen, Managing Editor for News at Foreign Policy. Thank you guys so much for joining us today.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News, sitting in for Diane Rehm, who will be back next week. And thank you so much for listening. Have a great weekend holiday, everyone.
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