Inflation is high. The GDP has shrunk. But the job market has never been better. The Washington Post's Damian Paletta helps make sense of the U.S. economy today.
Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
The Obama Administration says it will send Special Ops forces to Syria to help fight the Islamic State. World leaders meet for Syrian peace talks in Vienna, with Iran at the table for the first time. China lifts its one-child policy amid worries of a graying population. A Chinese naval chief accuses the U.S. of “provocative acts” in the South China Sea, warning a minor incident could spark war. Fifty migrants die in the latest series of shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea. Iran detains another Iranian-American. And the E.U. awards its top human rights prize to an imprisoned Saudi blogger.
- Mark Landler White House correspondent, The New York Times
- Paul Danahar Washington bureau chief, BBC; author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring"
- Holger Stark Washington bureau chief, Der Spiegel
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back on Monday. As the White House reportedly decides to send special forces to Syria, Secretary of State Kerry is in Vienna for peace talks on Syria that, for the first time, include Iran. Meanwhile, another Iranian-American is believed to have been arrested while visiting Iran. Rescue efforts continue after boats carrying hundreds of migrants sink off the Greek Isles and China abandons its decade-long one child policy.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoining me for this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Mark Landler of the New York Times, Paul Danahar of the BBC and Holger Stark of Germany's Der Spiegel. We will be taking your comments and your questions throughout the hour. What do you think of the latest news coming out of Syria? Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. You can join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Welcome everyone. Happy Friday.
MR. MARK LANDLERThank you very much.
MR. HOLGER STARKHello.
MR. PAUL DANAHARGood morning, Indira.
LAKSHMANANAll right. So the first thing is this big breaking news. It's come out just within that last one hour that the U.S. is apparently going to send Special Forces to Syria. Paul, what is this latest news?
DANAHARYes, well, we're understanding that the White House will announce later this afternoon that a small team of U.S. Special Forces will be based in Northern Syria to tackle ISIS. The numbers are varying. We're talking about up to 50 at the moment. What's, I think, quite interesting is all the briefing that's going on is emphasizing it's not a change. It's a shift. It's not a change, which means it's a change. Otherwise, they wouldn't be going out there and briefing so heavily against using that word.
DANAHARI think what the White House has slowly had to acknowledge because of Russia's involvement in this is that they're way, way behind on having a policy in Syria and this is catch-up. This is trying to get them back where they should have been in 2012 before they opened the door to everybody else to just jump in.
LAKSHMANANSo partly a reaction to Russia's actually taking over military action with planes, et cetera, and jumping into the game to back Assad, it seems.
DANAHARWell, the American policy towards Syria and Iraq has been entirely reactive. There's been nothing proactive done at all since the Arab Spring began. So this is a -- they've been slapped in the face by the Russians. The Iranians are now sort of cockahoop and the Gulfies are absolutely mad with America and this entire policy. So this is trying to recalibrate, trying to bring people back onto -- into some sense of having some confidence that American has a policy and will go through a policy.
DANAHARWe've seen so many shifts and changes and backwards and forwards, you know. ISIS is nothing that we need to really worry about. They're a JV team. Oh, hang on, they really are -- we need to worry about them. So this is America trying to find its way in a very public way, and it's, you know, it's awkward, but they're getting there slowly.
LAKSHMANANOkay. And Mark, we saw the administration taking a lot of heat after the information came out that they had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on training, you know, so-called moderate Syria rebels who were going to fight Assad and they had only four or five of them to speak for after these hundreds of millions of dollars' investment. How many American commandos are going to be going to Syria and Iraq under this new plan?
LANDLERWell, as Paul said, the number is going to be very modest. It'll be up to 50 so, you know, again, we're not talking about a large influx of American troops, just as we weren't talking about a large number of American-trained rebels. But one has to wonder, at a time like this, whether the president isn't sort of headed straight down the slippery slope he was trying to avoid. Earlier in the week, Ashton Carter was testifying before the Senate and he described this strategy as something he called the three Rs, which was Raqqah in Syria, Ramadi in Iraq and raids.
LANDLERSo the goal of the U.S., broadly speaking, is to help the local forces push ISIS out of Raqqah in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq, and to help them carry out raids that go after the ISIS leadership. The problem with this is if you think about it, it's actually a fairly ambitious strategy and if you're going to really follow through on it, it suggests a couple of things. One, these special forces might find themselves really in a lot of combat situations and, two, it's not totally clear to me how you accomplish these goals with 50 American troops, however well trained.
LANDLERSo I think the problem the president is going to rapidly encounter is what he knew a year ago when he and Martin Dempsey were discussing this plan, which is how do you really do this without putting larger and larger numbers of American troops into combat situations? Which is precisely what the president has been trying to avoid.
LAKSHMANANWell, Holger, I mean, I think at this point, it looks like military officials are not going to be able to rule out the possibility that American forces could be pulled into occasional direct firefights with the Islamic State given that they're going to be right there at the confrontation line. So what about putting American lives at risk? This is something that Obama specifically said he did not want to go down that track of starting another Middle Eastern war with American soldiers at risk.
STARKAt the end, it comes down all to a very principle question, who's fighting ISIS on the ground? It's the same questions that is (unintelligible) since two years, basically, and so far, we didn't see someone who would be willing or capable of fighting ISIS on the ground. And I think Obama just acknowledged that someone needs to do it and it would be probably under American lead. We have some 20,000 Kurdish troops coming from Northern Iraq, Northern Syria. Those Peshmergas are well trained. They are well equipped, but nevertheless, they need some guidance and that's probably the purpose, why these special operation commands need to take the lead to improve the capability of the Kurdish fighters.
STARKAnd we've seen last week that was a role model, that special raid which happened where the first American soldier died. So we saw already the first casualty in Syria by an American soldier. And I'm sure we will see more of those dead bodies coming home.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. And the reports in the last hour have indicated that there might be some U.S. forces imbedded with the Peshmerga in their fight against ISIS. I mean, at the same time, the Pentagon is calling this an advise and assist mission, but is that not the same way that Vietnam was characterized at the beginning, Paul?
DANAHARAbsolutely. And we saw how that carried on. I mean, I think the guy that was killed in Kirkuk was also part of an advise and assist and when it started to go wrong, they jumped off the helicopter and they got involved and that's how this chap died. I think Mark made a really key point. What's interesting is Ash Carter has set benchmarks. Ramadi and Raqqah. The previous defense ministers, defense secretaries, have tried to avoid setting benchmarks because they knew they couldn't really meet any of them.
DANAHARWhat we're seeing now is a much more proactive, robust response, I think, from this defense secretary, who can't be gotten rid of because Obama's gone through so many of them that he can, I think, take this on himself and push policy forward in the way that, I think, his predecessors didn't have a chance to do. So setting these benchmarks means they can then be checked against them. And if they don't make progress, they're going to be seen to be wanting.
LAKSHMANANUm-hum. And the timing of this expected announcement is pretty interesting, too, because, of course, this news is leaking out and apparently will be confirmed today by the White House at the same time that Secretary of State John Kerry is in Vienna for talks on Syria with about a dozen nations, including the arch nemeses of Bashar al Assad, the Saudis, for example. And yet, there's something -- we've seen so many of these meetings. You and I, Mark, have been to many of these meeting, like Geneva 1 and 2 together with Hillary Clinton.
LAKSHMANANAnd yet, there have been so many of these meetings and something is different this time. Iran is at the table for the first time. What difference is that going to make?
LANDLERWell, not only Iran, but as you say, Saudi, the two principle antagonists in this proxy war are sitting across the table from each other with the United States and Russia as well. So it is different than the Geneva process. But, you know, Paul was saying before we sat down on the show that the timing of this military announcement by the United States is undoubtedly linked to this conference because one of the criticisms of the U.S. in all of the previous diplomatic efforts, whether it's Geneva 1 or Geneva 2 was that we never had any skin in the game.
LANDLERAnd lacking any skin in the game, we really had no leverage to push the sides toward a political settlement. I think the thinking in today's announcement is this will show, okay, well, the United States is willing to make some larger commitments. Perhaps, that gives us a little leverage, some leverage we didn't have before. I have to say it feels to me like a triumph of hope over experience. There's no incentive that I can see and any ready incentive for the Iranians or the Saudis to back off their positions.
LANDLERAnd the involvement of the Russians just introduces a very mischievous element because, you know, I continue to believe that Putin doesn't just view this as a proxy war in the Middle East. He views it as part of a broader pushback against the United States and the West. So I just don't see where the underlying dynamic has changed in a way that will bring a better outcome this time in Vienna than what we saw in Geneva two years ago.
LAKSHMANANI'm struck that for four years we've been told by U.S. officials privately that, oh, no, Russia tells us that they're willing to throw Assad under the bus, that they're not married to Assad. And we're now hearing the same thing about Iran, that Iran says, you know, they're not definitely attached to Assad. They want peace. They want to resolve it. But I'm wondering, both Russia and Iran have been openly supporting Assad on the battlefield as well as behind the scenes for years. What are the risks of now, at least in the case of Tehran, allowing them to play a larger and now legitimized role in determining Syria's future? Holger.
STARKI think Russia's involvement has been really a game changer. A game changer for everyone, including Tehran, including the Iranians. The Iranians are under pressure as well. They haven't been willing to attend those talks in Vienna for a long time. At least behind the scenes, they always signal that they wouldn't participate. It was just a recent change in the last days that they agreed to fly to Vienna and participate in those talks because Russia has put some pressure not only on the U.S., but also on Tehran.
STARKThey are fearful of losing their influence. They stick to Assad, but they also know that Assad's departure is far away. Putin's involvement clearly threw a lifeline to save Assad for at least a half a year or even longer. In Vienna, it's clear that Assad's departure will not be negotiated and we are speaking about slow first steps. And the fact itself that they are sitting at one table in Vienna is already a great improvement. No one expected that.
STARKAnd I spoke to one top diplomat who was involved in the preparation of that Vienna conference this weekend. He said, like, we're moving slowly to base one and he compared it to baseball and said, no one knows if we ever will reach base two. So Assad's departure, a transition process is maybe base three, base four, a home run maybe at the end. But we're far away from that. Don’t expect too much of those talks.
LAKSHMANANOkay. We're going to take a short break now. Coming up, more on this week's top international news stories, plus your comments and questions. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio to discuss this week's top international news headlines, Mark Landler, White House correspondent for The New York Times, Paul Danahar, Washington bureau chief of the BBC and author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring," and Holger Stark, Washington bureau chief of Der Spiegel, the German magazine.
LAKSHMANANSo we've been getting a bunch of emails about the news that just has broken about the U.S. planning to send U.S. special forces to Syria, possibly Iraq, to fight ISIS. So one says, rather than waging a disastrously expensive -- in lives as well as dollars -- man-on-man war against ISIS, with its endless supply of soldiers, why aren't we strangling their weapon supply? If they don't have weapons, they can't fight. If they don't have modern weapons, they definitely can't fight. And this listener is asking whether the Saudis are supplying ISIS with weapons. Paul.
DANAHARI think, unfortunately, many of the best weapons they've got are American. Because they captured them from the Iraqi Army. So, unfortunately, they're not fighting with old weapons, they're fighting with a lot of awfully good weapons. Many of the weapons that were being used in Syria were actually taken out of Libya and flown in often by people at the Qataris, to try and support the FSA. But the Russian weapons were getting into the -- used by the Syrians. And some of the Syrian rebels -- Syrian Army were selling some of their weapons to the rebels to make money for themselves, when they thought the government was going to collapse. It was a nest egg for them.
DANAHARSo there are a lot of weapons. They're not going to be stopped from getting in because there are too many sides now actively fighting a proxy war here. So standing back and hoping it'll all go away or fizzle out is not really an option anymore. And we were talking about the kind of -- the diplomatic issue here and why is everybody talking now? What's brought everyone to the table? It's become such a massive mess. There's so many arms, so many guns, so much invested in it now from so many sides to fight a war. And we're now seeing this massive migration problem, which is affecting Europe.
DANAHARSo what we used to have was a policy of containment. That's what the West wanted. It's a mess. It's somebody else's mess. Let's keep it in one place. Now, it's spilled out all over the place. It's spilled out into geopolitics. It's spilled out into a migration crisis. Now the Western powers and the Iranians and the Russians have to deal with this because this problem has come to them. They were hoping to keep it at arm's length.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, we'll come back to the diplomatic process. I want to read this tweet from N. C. Gardner, who says, so we're going to send 50 special forces to the ground in Syria. This is a mistake on so many levels. And an email from Dan, who says, with the announcement that the U.S. will begin having special forces in Syria, will this delay the total withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan? And is the president rethinking his total resistance to boots on the ground? Mark.
LANDLERWell, the president did announce that he's slowing down and actually halting the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. So, you know, that ship has sailed. I think that the -- what these emails are showing is what Obama himself feels. There's a profound unease in the American public with the prospect of another war in the Middle East and I think the president shares that. And this is why, I imagine, this is a deeply anguishing set of events for him. This really runs counter to everything he had hoped to do with his foreign policy. I mean, it's sort of ironic to think that, in his final year, he continues to fight in Afghanistan, where he had hoped to be completely gone from. And he is potentially ramping up a new war in Syria and Iraq.
LANDLERSo it's really the worst possible outcome for the president. The one thing I'd say though is, if it is 50 -- if it is indeed only 50 special ops -- the truth is we had special ops on the ground already. They've taken part in raids. As a practical military matter, if they're really going to stick to this number, it's not actually much different than what we've been doing on the ground in Syria and Iraq for the past few months anyway.
LAKSHMANANOf course, if it stays at 50...
LANDLERIf it stays.
LAKSHMANAN...which is a big question. Holger, I mean, we're talking about a Syrian conflict that has dragged on for more than four-and-a-half years now. Why the sudden diplomatic push now, in Vienna, to come up with a solution, with all these parties that the U.S. -- including some, like Iran, that the U.S. did not want at the table before. How much is the migrant crisis in Europe and, you know, in your own country, home country of Germany, driving these efforts?
STARKI think the migrant crisis is second big game changer because no one in Europe can afford any longer that millions and billions of people from the Middle East flee to the European countries. It comes to an almost existential crisis in many of those European countries. It starts in Turkey. It hits Greece. It hits Italy. And it ends up in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Germany, alone, faces probably one million of refugees this year, in a country of -- a population of 80 million. That's a big, big challenge for everyone.
STARKSo even without the general political perspective in the Middle East, it is necessary for every European country to get involved in those talks because you can't fight the refugee crisis in Germany or in Scandinavia. You need to fight it there where it happens. And that's the Middle East, that's Syria. Syria is by far the most -- the hugest contingent of people who are fleeing towards Europe these days. And Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, traveled extensively to Turkey to talk to Erdogan at the Turkish government about the potential solution. A no-fly zone has been on the table, refugee camps in that region. And so everybody must have a vital interest in Europe to move ahead and to be more involved than in the past.
LAKSHMANANRight. Although, again, 14 years almost to the week that the war in Afghanistan started. Among those refugees in Europe, we're now seeing some Afghan refugees as well. So clearly that situation hasn't resolved. So, Paul, on the Syrian issue, with these diplomatic talks, what is the U.S. hoping to achieve in the near term?
DANAHARI think the U.S. is hoping to be relevant again in the near term. Because it hasn't been very relevant in recent months and years because the Russians and the Iranians and the Saudis have been setting the pace. So I think this is an attempt for America to basically say, as Mark said, you know, we have got skin in the game. We are taking this seriously. We're not just going to bide our time until we've all left the administration. We need to get involved. And the Europeans are pushing that. The prospect of Russia becoming much, much more influential in the Middle East -- and the Gulf is looking towards Russia instead of America as a big key partner -- is kind of frightening, if you look at the traditional relationships over the years.
DANAHARSo this is America trying to say, guys, we're back in the mix. Start listening to us again.
LAKSHMANANHmm. Mark, I mean, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have long demanded that President Assad of Syria leave. And Russia and Iran have long backed him. So is there any chance that either side is going to change their position now? Is the U.S. wavering on the idea that Assad should play no role in the transition?
LANDLERWell, the U.S. has been less emphatic about this than the Saudis have. For the Saudis, this is a cardinal principle. Assad must go. He's the arch enemy to them. The U.S. has publicly stuck to that all the way. But I think that, frankly, within the administration there's a recognition that this isn't going to happen anytime soon and that, if we make it a precondition, we're not likely to get anywhere. I don't see the dynamic changing. I don't see why the Russians or the Iranians should feel any more compelled to back off Assad now than they did, say, six months or a year ago.
LANDLERI think -- I wanted to add one more sort of peripheral point to what Holger and Paul have said. This is going to be an interesting test of whether the U.S. and Iran have any scope for diplomacy in the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal. If you recall, that deal was negotiated in a very narrow way. It was about the Iranian nuclear file and the nuclear file alone. But the administration clearly hoped that, if they could get an agreement on the nuclear issue, it might open the door to working with the Iranians on other issues -- whether it be Afghanistan or in the Middle East.
LANDLERNow you're seeing the Iranians across the table from the United States on an issue not related to the nuclear program. It'll be fascinating to see whether there is scope for progress or whether, as some people have predicted, that the short-term aftermath of the nuclear deal will actually be a more hard-line Iran, an Iran that presses its interests in the region more aggressively, just to sort of show that it's -- that the post-nuclear deal period is not going to be one of a more concessionary Iran. So I think if you're looking at this from John Kerry's perspective, it's a very interesting test case of whether he's accomplished more than simply curbing the Iranian nuclear program with the deal this past summer.
LAKSHMANANMm-hmm. Paul, ahead of these Vienna talks, the Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that Russia was having second thoughts about its active role in Syria, supporting Assad. Russia then dismissed his comments. So is this political posturing? And on whose side? Or is the U.S. giving an accurate assessment here?
DANAHARThe Americans keep saying, you know, Russia, you're going to get yourself into a big mess. This is a quagmire. You know? And they're almost saying, look, guys, look how silly they are. They're going and doing what we wouldn't even dream of doing. How crazy are they? The reality is that Putin isn't crazy. And he's not stupid. And he sat back and looked how this has been going for the last couple of years and he's made a very definite policy decision. Russia's going to have a role. Russia's going to have a greater role in the Middle East. And that's all part of Putin's own sense of himself, about recreating Russian power around the globe.
DANAHARSo this is not an isolated case. This is where Russia -- it's the next step after Ukraine, you've got them getting more involved in the Middle East. And I think where we are now is that this administration, the Obama administration, and particularly the military -- because they're the ones that keep talking about how concerned they are about Russia -- they are saying, we've got to start dealing with them diplomatically because they're becoming much, much more forceful on the military front.
STARKAnd, frankly, the strategy worked out well. Putin deserved the credit that this conference in Vienna is taking place. Without Russia's involvement, we wouldn't see such a conference. Everybody's forced to move now because Russia engaged military -- in a military way and now we see diplomatic progress. Where it goes, that's still unclear. But don't forget that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said already a month ago that she could imagine even talks with Assad. So I think the option that Assad will disappear, that's not the near future.
LAKSHMANANHmm. Well, Russia, even earlier this week, claimed that representatives of the Free Syrian Army, backed by the U.S., had actually visited Moscow several times. The Free Syrian Army has denied this. But if it's -- is it true? And if so, what's the significance?
STARKI think Putin plays it very smart. He had not only Syrian opposition forces visiting him in Moscow but also the Saudis, the Iranians, Assad himself came. So he's receiving all that credit and he's enjoying it. He was in desperate situation half a year ago, the sanctions -- the Ukrainian sanctions really damaged Russia's economy, so he looked like the pariah of international politics. Now he's in the middle of the game. He's a centerpiece. Without Russia, nothing will move. He enjoys that very much. He's betting on the European Union lifting the sanctions or parts of the sanctions in January because of the Ukraine crisis.
STARKSo the political progress is huge for Russia. He's enjoying the card. He will keep on continuing playing it. And contrarily to the Americans, he's willing to sacrifice his soldiers. So we will probably see a lot of Russian soldiers dying in the next month in the fight against ISIS, but also the moderate Syrian rebel groups. But he's willing to sacrifice that for the greater good of Russia's success.
LAKSHMANANSo a year and a half after the beginning of the Crimean-Ukraine crisis, Putin is no longer a pariah but now a pivotal player on the world stage, is basically what you're saying.
STARKI think that's a fair description.
LAKSHMANANAnd it sounds like the deputy secretary of state's description of them reconsidering their involvement is perhaps more wishful thinking than anything else.
STARKYeah, I would say so.
LAKSHMANANOkay. Let's take a quick call here from Travis in Washington, D.C. Travis, you're on the air.
TRAVISHello. Great to speak with you. You mentioned that the goal of U.S. involvement is to regain relevance in the Middle East. But it would seem that the last 15 years of U.S. relevancy has resulted in three failed states, maybe four if you include Yemen, as well as our partners backing the jihadis who we are fighting, as well as attacking the Kurds who are hoping to support us. So I guess my question is, it seems we were so busy fighting our own allies, what do we stand to gain from interjecting more troops into this chaos?
LAKSHMANANOkay. Thanks, Travis. Mark, you want to take that quickly?
LANDLERWell, I think Travis gets at the great riddle of America's involvement in the Middle East. When we intervene, and certainly intervene on a large scale, the results are disastrous. When we pull out and try to stay away, the results are also disastrous. There seems -- there may be a sweet spot of American involvement in this region but this president hasn't found it. His predecessor didn't find it. And that question will bedevil the next American president, too. I think that President Obama founded his foreign policy on trying to extract the U.S. And he's discovered, at the end of his presidency, he can't do that.
LANDLERThis election, on foreign policy grounds, is largely going to be about, how do you get that balance right? How do you avoid finding yourself in the situation that Travis outlined?
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, you can call us on 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Paul, you wanted to add a comment to that.
DANAHARYeah, I think the key thing here is that everyone involved in this conflict has had a policy from the beginning and has carried it out -- everyone but America. America hasn't worked out what it wants from this. The Saudis have and the Qataris have and the Russians have and the Iranians have. American still doesn't know what it wants to get out of what's going on. It doesn't have a Middle East policy yet, as Mark was saying. It doesn't know whether it -- what kind of Middle East policy it needs because it doesn't know what it's actually trying to achieve.
DANAHARAnd until American can make some very, very firm decisions about, we want this and we don't want that, it's going to carry on going like this, in this kind of very confused, reactive, ad hoc, winding road towards some kind of goal that hasn't really been set out.
LAKSHMANANAnd, of course, one of the major human tragedies that has come out of all of this, which we alluded to earlier, is this huge migrant crisis, with all these Middle Eastern migrants coming into Europe. A tragedy off the Greek island of Lesbos on Wednesday. Tell us what happened, Holger.
STARKYeah, there was another boat which sank and a couple of people -- children among them -- drowned, like we saw it in the past weeks, in the past months so often. All the attempts to rescue those people failed. The German Navy is patrolling in the Mediterranean Sea, not to avoid those boats but to help them. But nevertheless, they are overcrowded, they are bad equipped. They sank several times in the past. They will sink in the future. We only can hope that the winter time will lower the numbers of people who are fleeing from Northern Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. But it's a human tragedy, probably the biggest one that the European countries faced since World War II.
LAKSHMANANSo what about the latest EU efforts to cope with this crisis and to try to stave off all this -- all these tragic drownings?
STARKThe European Union met this week and has set up a 17-point plan to at least put away the pressure a little bit from the European countries. It's just a slow -- it's a first step. I think we are at the verge of the future of the European Union, as a whole, because the old Dublin Treaty, which was invented to solve migrant questions, which basically said that a refugee states where he first hit the European Union, doesn't work any longer. In the past, it was Greece, it was Macedonia, it was Turkey. So whenever a refugee traveled to those countries, he was maintained to stay there.
STARKNow all the refugees are traveling to the core of Europe because they know Germany provides good conditions, the Scandinavian countries provide good conditions. This is not going to work any longer. The question of serenity, the question of basic rules within the European Union are at stake. And we definitely need to improve on that point.
LAKSHMANANI think that the specifics were that they were going to create 100,000 new places in Greece and the Western Balkans to help accommodate the flood of migrants and also fresh reserves of border guards and injections of cash to help the Balkan nations pay for all of this. Quickly, Paul, is there any hope this is going to be effective?
DANAHARNo, probably not. I mean, the reality is, until the flow stops, we're not going to see a way that Europe can cope with them. These are stopgap measures, they're sticking plasters to try and solve a massive, massive wound in Europe.
LAKSHMANANAll right. We're going to take a short break. Coming up, we'll take more of your calls and your questions on this week top international headlines. We'll be right back. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining me in the studio, Holger Stark, Washington bureau chief of Der Spiegel, Paul Danahar, Washington bureau chief of the BBC, and Mark Landler, White House correspondent of The New York Times. So another major thing that has just come out in the news is that it seems that Iran has arrested another American. What do we know, Mark?
LANDLERWell, he's an Iranian-American businessman who -- an oil executive. His name is Siamak Namazi. And he was arrested while visiting relatives from Dubai, where he's based. This is being interpreted by some people as a sign that hardliners in Iran are going to block foreign investors, particularly American investors, who try to come in in the wake of the nuclear deal to do business in Iran.
LAKSHMANANWeren't they encouraging foreigners to come in and do business?
LANDLERWell, this maybe gets at some of the rivalries inside Iran. The government, the Rouhani government, made foreign investment and the attracting of foreign investment a key incentive for getting this nuclear deal done. If the hardliners who oppose the deal are able to show that in fact we're not seeing that influx of foreign investment, it strengthens their case against Rouhani. It seems to me, though, that, you know, the fact of the matter is the French sent a very large delegation into Iran, the Germans have been sending businesspeople into Iran. There will be a huge influx of foreign investors in Iran.
LANDLERIt may point out that the U.S. is going to lag in this area, which you might expect because we've had no commercial ties of any kind with this country for 30 years. That's very different than the Europeans.
LAKSHMANANAnd even with the lifting of the U.S. secondary sanctions, the primary general embargo on U.S. business with Iran is going to remain.
LANDLERThat is in fact the case. And I think what's interesting about this is it raises the issue of what the administration is going to say or do about this. The Washington Post Tehran bureau chef Jason Rezaian has now been in prison in Iran for 15 months, the longest internment of any American there in years, and the president...
LAKSHMANANLonger than the U.S. hostages after the revolution, that's right.
LANDLERLonger than the hostages. And the White House has said very little about this. And that's become a bit of a sore point both with Rezaian's family and with the Washington Post, which would like to see their colleague released. So it'll be interesting to see whether there's a pattern of these sort of arrests and detentions. And if so, is the U.S. going to make a louder case about it and protest it more vigorously than it has so far? That will be something to watch.
LAKSHMANANYeah, big questions. I believe that two other Iranian-Americans, Saeed Abedini, the Christian pastor, and Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, have been in prison perhaps even longer than Jason, but all three of these men, and Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent who went missing in Iran, a lot of people thought that with the nuclear deal that these men, the three who were already under arrest, were going to be released and that information would come out about Robert Levinson. That has not happened. So what are hardliners trying to achieve with increasing arrests, putting another U.S.-Iranian citizen under arrest, Paul?
DANAHARWell, this is the internal battles that are going on in Iran, and it's a balancing act for the supreme leader. He has to work out how to keep all these different sides happy. So, you know, if you arrest a couple of Americans, and, you know, the hint being they must be spying, then it's a way of keeping the hardliners happy while you've got Rouhani going off around the other side of the world making friends.
DANAHARThis is a very difficult balancing act for the supreme leader. You know, he's come under pressure before with Ahmadinejad when he was (unintelligible) that he may even lose a lot of power. So he's now trying to balance all these different forces in Iran. It's incredibly difficult, and this is basically throwing a piece of meat to the hardliners saying look, guys, we're still going to be hard on them.
LAKSHMANANAll right, let's take a call from Trudy in Rochester, New York. Trudy, you're on the air.
TRUDYThank you for taking my call. My question is, since we went into Iraq under the Bush administration, ever since then, one after the other country fell, and that's the reason we have also now in Syria this mess. Now my question is are -- if the United States also, you know, receiving refugees who come to the European countries, European countries alone should not take all these refugees. I feel sorry for them because myself, I was, during World War II, a refugee.
LAKSHMANANAnd where are you from, Trudy, originally?
TRUDYI'm from Germany, and I know I call my family, in fact I'm going to be going to Germany next month. And I have heard even from people that they have taken in refugees. And to me, the United States has an obligation to take also refugees here.
LAKSHMANANAll right, thank you so much for your call, Trudy. Holger, you know, she makes a point. Europeans have taken in a great number of refugees, although in Germany we're hearing about new violence against migrants happening, You know, the flip side of the very welcoming parades that we saw of Germans wearing T-shirts welcoming migrants. So how is it seen in Europe? Is the perception that Europe has done its part, and the U.S. needs to do more?
STARKI think that's a fair point. We discussed the numbers already a little bit. Germany alone is facing approximately one million of refugees this year. Coming back from the German asylum right in our constitution, we guarantee everyone who is under political oppression a place in Germany because as Nazi formed the Third Reich, Germans had to flee themselves. So we guarantee those people that they are able to come to Germany. So it's not a political question whether or not we are willing to take them. It's a guaranteed right.
STARKIn America it's different, but the American numbers are really small. It's 80,000 this year shall increase -- be increased to 100,000 a year. But given the huge, huge number of Americans, the huge country that you have here with more than 300 million and all its space here, America would be capable of taking way, way more of those Syria refugees. And as Trudy pointed out, America has at least an indirect connection to that crisis in the Middle East. So it would be definitely something that the Obama administration should consider of taking more refugees.
LAKSHMANANOkay, let's talk about another big piece of news out of China this week with the announcement that it would end the decades-old one-child policy that started under Mao Zedong, and Mark, I have to turn to you for this because I know you lived in China. You were my neighbor across the street in Hong Kong when we were both correspondents there. So tell me, why are they doing this, and what is the impact going to be?
LANDLERWell, a couple of reasons. I think really principally a demographic reason. The workforce is aging in China. The birthrate is declining. And economic growth is also slowing. And I think the Chinese see a situation unfolding in the next several decades where you will have a very large number of older people, retired people, and a smaller number of people in the workforce carrying a huge burden.
LANDLERSo I think the principal driver for this is economic. It's interesting because the on-child policy was one of the greatest symbols of the control of the communist party over the population, and loosening that is, in a sense, an admission that this level of control isn't necessarily the best path for China. And it's an interesting moment for President Xi Jinping to do it. He's been an extremely vigorous leader. He's established very rapid control over the pillars of power in China.
LAKSHMANANBut now he's sort of loosening his grip on something. The other interesting question that arises from it is will Chinese actually go along with it, will they respond to it. Many Chinese are having very small families anyway because the economy is growing more slowly and because Chinese society is so incredibly competitive. So it'll interesting to see. And this will unfold very slowly over a period of decades, whether you start to see larger families in China or whether the Chinese conclude for all sorts of very valid reasons that one child is still the way -- is still the way to go.
LAKSHMANANYou know, it's interesting you say that. I saw some Chinese commenting on Chinese social messaging platforms yesterday on that aspect of control, the government's control. They said, now is the government going to force us to have two children each? So, you know, there is a suspicion that comes up. Now Paul, you were based in Beijing for the BBC even more recently.
LAKSHMANANBy 2020, as Mark alluded to, China's going to have an estimated 30 million bachelors. There's a huge gender imbalance. This is partly because of the huge problem of female infanticide. When parents thought they could only have one child, when they had a girl, many of those girls were killed, as you well know. So tell us what kind of an impact this is going to have on gender balance, and, you know, will that decrease the infanticide problem that China had?
DANAHARWell, it may do over time. But I mean, I think if you look at when they've relaxed these things before, as Mark was saying, the pickup hasn't been great because it's become so competitive in China to put your kid into a good school because there was a lot of money. There was basically kind of two sets of grandparents and the parents all putting all of their money into this one child. The people used to talk about it being the sun, and the parents revolved around it.
DANAHARAnd the key thing is now it's become almost incredibly ridiculously priced to put your child into -- to put one child through schooling and all the things that they need for it and incredibly competitive. And so I think we will see a slow change in the demographics and the sex ratio but over a very, very long time. And if you go into Chinese schools now, we did this thing for the BBC once is we asked all the girls to go and grab a boy, and they all went and grabbed a boy, and there was about 10, 15 boys standing in the playground out of a class of about 40 that had no one to grab them.
DANAHARIt's incredibly distorted. I mean, it's happened in other parts of the world. It's happened in parts of India, where you've had a similar kind of thing. But in China it was institutionalized. It was government-controlled. So it was very, very rigorous. And so changing that back again is going to take an awful long time.
LAKSHMANANAlthough of course the government was not in any way condoning the female infanticide, but you ended up, in rural areas particularly, with this imbalance, the ratio of around 117 boys for every 100 girls causing a real problem for marriages, as well. Holger, also in China this week, a U.S. naval destroyer sailed near artificial islands that were built by China in the South China Sea. This prompted a very angry reaction from the Chinese navy. Germany itself was -- has suggested resolving this in an international court. What's going on?
STARKWell, the Chinese clearly tried to gather some influence in the Asian Pacific. They see themselves as the first power over there, and they challenge America's position. So they have basically invented a couple of islands, and they claim that this is their home territory, which would mean that within a distance of 12 miles it would be their sea, and it would exclude American warships, for example, to sail through the waters. And the Americans are not accepting.
STARKSo at the end it's a power struggle that we see over there. The Chinese definitely see themselves as this is our backyard, you don't have to be here without our permission. The Americans are not accepting that. So they tested the waters literally this week by sailing through that 12-mile zone, and the Chinese reacted angrily. They issued a couple of warnings. Nothing happened so far, but it's clearly heating up, and it's at least a diplomatic crisis, hopefully not a military one.
LAKSHMANANWell, it's an echo of a year ago, if you recall, when the Chinese declared an air defense zone, and the Americans just ignored it and flew right through it. I mean, it seems, Mark, that the American point is we have guaranteed freedom of navigation since World War II in the Pacific, and we want to continue doing that. But, you know, has -- can the U.S. treat the Pacific as kind of their back lake, so to speak?
LANDLERWell, and it goes back even a little bit further than that, to probably something that you and I covered together when Hillary Clinton went out to the region in 2010 and first said that the U.S. had an interest in seeing the disputes between China and its neighbors resolve peacefully. I'd link it to the president's pivot to Asia. The pivot has a few different elements. One of them is a diplomatic -- a military security element, which is to reassert the American role in the Western Pacific.
LANDLERThe problem that the U.S. faces is that it is very badly outgunned in this battle. The South Sea fleet, the Chinese South Sea fleet, has well over 100 ships in it. The Fifth Fleet, or the Sixth Fleet, rather, in -- that sails out of Okinawa is much smaller. So as the U.S. tries to assert itself, it's going to find itself with an increasingly larger Chinese presence that after all is in China's backyard.
LANDLERAs one of the American naval officials put it, they've got the home field advantage.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. So this week, the EU awarded an imprisoned Saudi blogger its top human rights prize. Remind us who he is, Paul, and why he's in prison.
DANAHARHis name is Raif Badawi, and he was imprisoned because basically he was blogging about things that weren't going very well in Saudi Arabia. So he was jailed for 10 years and was given 1,000 lashes, or that was the sentence, for insulting Islam. It was basically was what he was done for. But this is -- it's really interesting in Saudi Arabia because they have the most interactive and most engaged Internet community of anywhere in the world, per percentage of population, because it's the only way that you can communicate with everyone. Everything else is completely controlled.
DANAHARSo, you know, it may seem like overkill going after a blogger, but in Saudi Arabia these people have incredible influence because they are the only means of information that many young people have. And what really scares the Saudis is angry young people being able to get access to information that isn't controlled by the government. So they've gone after this guy because they're worried that -- it's a message they're trying to send to everybody else, and the Europeans are saying, you know what, we recognize how important these kind of characters are, and that's why they've given him the prize.
LAKSHMANANSo Holger, I mean, it's a curious thing. I mean, what message is the EU sending here? They're clearly trying to get through directly to the Saudi king. Tell us about that.
STARKI think that's a sign of solidarity and a sign that also Saudi Arabia must consider freedom of speech in the times of the Internet. And I really like that award, the Sakharov Award, because it -- today we're sitting together with the Saudis in Vienna. So basically it's a small award. It's all connected. So Saudi Arabia...
LAKSHMANANThat's right, you have the EU at the table with the U.S. and the Saudis all in Vienna over the Syria crisis.
STARKRight, and that's the same country which is issuing 1,000 lashes to one guy who's just...
DANAHARMaybe they could give him the award, and they can take it back from him.
LAKSHMANANI don't know that that would be appreciated.
STARKWe're delivering weapons, guns, tanks to the Saudis. I mean, that's an important partner in that region. And on the other hand, they mistreat basic human rights like that. So I think that's a very important sign of solidarity.
LAKSHMANANMark, wrap us up with the sort of White House perspective on this because Saudi Arabia obviously beheads prisoners. It does all sorts of things that we criticize in other nations who are not our allies, but we don't speak up about it with Saudi Arabia. What's the White House view?
LANDLERWell, before I answer that, can I just quickly correct something? A few minutes ago I talked about the Sixth Fleet, and as a former Hong Kong correspondent, I should've remembered it's the Seventh Fleet that sails in the Pacific, not the Sixth.
LANDLERStill outmatched by the Chinese, at least in numerical terms. To answer the question on Saudi Arabia, look, that is the basic struggle the U.S. has had in dealing with our allies in the Middle East, sort of that choice between security and values. The U.S. has tried periodically to make human rights a greater part of the dialogue with Saudi Arabia. Historically, and particularly during the period when they were our largest supplier of crude oil, which I think they still are, that we've had to...
LAKSHMANANIsn't it Canada? I think Canada might be.
LANDLERLargest Middle East supplier.
LANDLERYeah. I think that the U.S. has historically fallen short in this area and continues to do so, and it'll be interesting to see in the context of the diplomacy that Holger's talking about whether some of these issues come up. They tend not to, and I'd sort of be surprised to see a stronger U.S. voice in this area. You will remember that Hillary Clinton at the big speech she gave at the Brookings Institute a couple of months ago made a very interesting comment about Saudi Arabia's not playing a positive role, and I think that caught a lot of people off guard.
LANDLERIf you did see Saudi Arabia and its conduct become an issue in the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has suggested that she might be taking a somewhat tougher line. So interesting to watch.
LAKSHMANANAll right, we will. Mark Landler of The New York Times, Paul Danahar of the BBC, Holger Stark of Der Spiegel, thank you all so much for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all out there for listening, and have a great weekend, everyone.
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