The Cook Political Report's Amy Walter discusses why President Biden's popular policies haven't translated to popularity among voters.
Bahrain and Sudan join Saudi Arabia in cutting diplomatic ties with Iran. Violence has erupted across the Middle East following the execution of a Shiite cleric by the Saudi government. Two Munich train stations closed and Moscow shut down Red Square following terror threats over the New Year’s holiday. In Iraq, the fighting continues in cities held by ISIS militants after the Iraqi army retook Mosul. The U.N. sets a roadmap for Syria peace talks. And Sweden is the latest country to tighten borders amid the ongoing migrant crisis. Diane and a panel of journalists discuss the top international stories as we start the New Year.
- David Ignatius Columnist, The Washington Post, and contributor, "Post Partisan" blog on washingtonpost.com. His latest novel is "The Director."
- Nancy Youssef Senior defense and national security correspondent, The Daily Beast.
- James Kitfield Contributing editor, National Journal, and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Saudi Arabia says it's cutting diplomatic ties with Iran following a wave of protests and violence after the Saudi government executed a Shiite cleric. ISIS releases a new video that claims to show the killing of five British citizens and the UN announces a road map for Syria peace talks to be held later this month.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd here to talk about these and other top international stories as well as the global outlook for 2016, David Ignatius of The Washington Post, Nancy Youssef of The Daily Beast and James Kitfield of National Journal and the Center For the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Do join us on this first program of the new year. I invite you to call us on 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And thank you all for being here.
MS. NANCY YOUSSEFHi, Diane.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood to be here.
MR. DAVID IGNATIUSHi, Diane.
REHMHappy New Year.
IGNATIUSHappy New Year.
YOUSSEFHappy New Year.
KITFIELDHappy New Year.
REHMDavid Ignatius, China's stock market dropped some 7 percent this morning or yesterday and now the U.S. stock market down about 430 points. What's going on here?
IGNATIUSThe big story of 2016 is likely to be the softening of the Chinese economy and we're getting off to an early recognition of that. There have been questions about whether the Chinese growth numbers are even close to being accurate. Some estimates are that rather than the 6 percent that the Chinese have been talking about recently could be well below that. I've seen numbers as low as 2 to 3 percent. So China clearly is decelerating. That shows up in every world commodity market and it's showing up in equity markets in China and spreading around the world.
IGNATIUSUsually, the U.S. stock market after initial reaction, like what we're seeing today, steadies itself. And we'll have to see in the days ahead. I was struck, in addition, Diane, if the China news wasn't bad enough, the concern in international oil markets that's what's going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which we'll talk about later in the show, the concern is that it's serious enough that for the first time in a long while, you're seeing strengthening, really strengthening of oil prices.
IGNATIUSOil prices, when I looked this morning, we're up 3 percent. That's after falling 35 percent last year. They're down a little less than that in London now. But that's another sign of a very anxious world as the new year begins.
REHMAnd certainly, James Kitfield, anxious about these public executions in Saudi Arabia. Talk about who was put to death, why and what the reaction has been in Iran.
KITFIELDWell, the person put to death was a sheikh, Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who was a leading Shia sheikh who lived in eastern part of Saudi Arabia where there's a significant Shia minority. He was very vocal in 2011 when the Arab Spring revolutions came through and, you know, the Shias in Bahrain, particularly, next door to Saudi Arabia, but also in eastern Saudi Arabia were agitating for more rights 'cause they feel themselves to be a discriminated minority. Why Saudi Arabia chose to do this at this time, though, is almost incomprehensible because, you know, Secretary Kerry has been trying -- the reaction of the Obama administration to these horrific ISIS-inspired attacks on Paris and California was to really double-down on diplomacy to try to find some way out of this morass in the Syrian civil war.
KITFIELDThere is a -- he put the Iranians and the Saudis together at the table. They agreed on some rebel groups who could represent that faction. They agreed to push -- Iranians agreed to push Assad to take part in these talks. These are scheduled for January 25. And at this point, they choose to actually, you know, exacerbate the Shia-Sunni divide in the, you know. They've now severed diplomatic relationship with Iran, pulled their ambassador out, a mob ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. So we're a step closer to this all-out regional Shia versus Sunni civil war that we've already seen spread from Syria to Iraq to Yemen.
KITFIELDThis has just exacerbated it. It's pretty incomprehensible to me why they chose this moment to do this.
YOUSSEFWell, sometimes things can hinge on one person and in the case of Saudi Arabia, you have a new king, King Salman, who's been much more aggressive than his predecessor. You've seen a Saudi Arabia that has felt unstable in that time because of oil prices dropping, which has threatened sort of the biggest way that they've been able to buy stability, if you will. You've seen 157 executions, a record that hasn't been seen in 20 years.
YOUSSEFYou've seen a country that has felt that it's in a very tenuous position with the rise of jihadism within their own borders, a number of attacks in that time. And so there were warnings that you had a state that was increasingly nervous and increasingly desperate to show its assertiveness over its Shia population in particular and arguably this was -- if you want to be jaded about it, was a way to sort of unify the Sunni bloc and speak out in one voice.
YOUSSEFWhat was interesting was the reaction. I mean, it wasn't just Iran that reacted. Haider Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq, tweeted out his outrage. Hezbollah spoke out. I mean, you really saw this sort of codifying of Sunni-Shia divide and on the other side, Sudan pulling out its diplomatic channels from there. You're starting to see these sort of blocs being formed of Sunni/Shia and I just think it's a function of a Saudi Arabia that does not feel safe and this seeing an increased rise in the Shia minority and in jihadism and these 47 executions were a message to both sides.
REHMAnd certainly Saudi Arabia's concern about lifting sanctions on Iran and closer operating ties with Iran and the U.S., David.
IGNATIUSI think a central part of the Saudi insecurity that's motivating these actions is mistrust of the United States, their traditional, longtime patron and ally. And in the kingdom, there is growing feeling that the United States under President Obama is not a steadfast, solid ally, that it's more worried in finding a new relationship with Iran than it is in working with its traditional Gulf allies. And almost nothing that this administration has tried to do -- and they've really worked hard to reassure the Saudis.
IGNATIUSThey had a summit meeting with President Obama at Camp David in the middle of last year to add reassurance. They've offered new weapons, everything they can think of.
REHMSo now what do all these executions mean for relations between the U.S. and Saudi?
IGNATIUSTalking last night to the White House and the State Department, I heard a lot of anxiety about what's happening. Secretary Kerry has been trying to reach out to the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir. He didn't reach him last night. He probably will reach him today. He did speak with the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, with whom he's formed a close relationship. If you want a little snapshot of the moment, the United States reaches Iran's foreign minister, but can't reach Saudi Arabia's. How could that be?
IGNATIUSBut so I think Secretary Kerry and the President are trying as hard as they can to put the diplomacy that James and Nancy referred to back on track. There is a meeting scheduled for the end of this month in Geneva that would bring Saudi Arabia and Iran around the same negotiating table to talk about how to deal with Syria mess. They've already had, amazingly, two meetings where Iran and Saudi Arabia sat together. That's what's been blown up, unfortunately.
REHMSo you don't think that meeting is going to take place?
IGNATIUSI was told that Secretary Kerry talked at length last night with Stephan de Mistura, who is the UN special envoy for Syria who's responsible for this meeting in Geneva and there was an announcement that as far as they know, it's still on track, but we'll have to see today and in the coming days.
YOUSSEFCan I just add, one of the other indicators was, from what I can tell, Saudi Arabia did not notify the United States beforehand? It seemed that the administration was caught off guard and the U.S., I think, finds itself in a very difficult position, trying to mitigate two opposing sides, one of them, from the Sunni perspective, it helped embolden. So arguably the consequence is rather than sort of being a bridge between both sides and having a relationship with the both sides, it's on the track of diminishing its relationship with both Sunni and Shia.
KITFIELDYou know, this is how I think it could really damage U.S./Saudi relations. If this, you know, this diplomacy is the Obama administration's answer to what's happened with ISIS. They don't really have a military answer so they have doubled down on the diplomatic track. If that, you know, try to imagine right now Iran and Saudi Arabia at the same table having severed relations, with Iran threatening repercussions sort of ominously, and reaching a successful deal to end the Syria war. It's very hard for me to see how that happens.
KITFIELDSo if this scuttles this, you know, I imagine they'll probably all show up for the meeting, but will it be successful. I think the chances of success which were maybe, you know, 40-60, are just now turned to 80-20 against and that's a problem.
REHMAnd, you know, all of this comes as you've got the U.S. and Iran going forward with this missile agreement. And now, Iran is moving forward with missile production.
IGNATIUSIran is pretty blatantly violating what the U.S. hope was and understanding, that some limits on that program would remain enforced through the UN. We should note, because there's so many negative, gloomy things on the horizon, that one positive is that a week ago, Iran did send 25,000 pounds of uranium on a Russian ship for reprocessing, which, as required by the nuclear agreement. So the nuclear agreement is going forward as specified.
REHMDavid Ignatius of The Washington Post. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Just before the break, we were talking about Iran, it's agreement with the U.S. David, you wrote a column recently about what you say is Iran's economic sabotage. What do you mean?
IGNATIUSOne of the hopes that advocates of the nuclear deal with Iran had was that it would be an opening to -- of the Iranian economy, culture, society to the West. And so many Iranian exiles -- people living outside the country, Iranian Americans -- began thinking about setting up businesses in Iran, doing trade, seeing this new Iran opening up, where they could make money and also see the country changing. The Iranian hardliners have seen this threat coming and have moved very aggressively this year -- and that was the subject of my column -- to try to stop it.
IGNATIUSAnd the most recent and disturbing thing that they've done is to take a young man, Siamak Namazi, who was a business consultant, went to Tufts, went to the London business school, wanted to be doing business in this new Iran, and they arrested him in October. Much like my colleague, Jason Rezaian, our Washington Post reporter...
IGNATIUS...he's done nothing wrong, there was no. Here's the big charge against this young man, Siamak Namazi, it's that he is a member of the world economic forum, Global -- Young Global Leaders Program. How shocking. But that's the kind of thing that the Iranian hardliners are seeing as a threat. Because it, you know, it symbolizes opening -- an interconnection with the West, a different Iran.
REHMSo they didn't like the nuclear agreement with the U.S. to begin with?
IGNATIUSI think they were prepared to allow the nuclear agreement to go forward. What they're trying to do is stop a further erosion of their power. They don't want to see the old elite come back. They don't want to see their own businesses, the IRGC-controlled businesses lose power. And they have convinced Khamenei, okay, do the deal, but stop the infiltration.
KITFIELDYou know, and I think this is kind of the return of the hardliners on both sides. I mean, the missile test, for instance, and the firing of the missiles near our warships. Clearly, Rouhani, who reached this deal, is feeling pressure from the hardliners in his own country who want to show that they are now still strong and anti-American. The missiles weren't implicitly tied to the nuclear deal. They were never going to give up their missiles. I mean, they -- it's there asymmetric weapon of choice. And we respond -- the Obama administration responded by floating sanctions that they had not imposed yet, but also signaling that, you know, we will -- if you keep down this track, we will also, you know, go back on the sanctions track.
KITFIELDI don't think this kills the nuclear deal, but it shows that the hardliners on both sides of this are very uncomfortable with any retracement between Iran and Washington, and as are the Saudis.
REHMAnd now the U.S. is imposing new visa requirements on anybody coming in. That hasn't made Teheran very happy.
YOUSSEFThat's right. Because there are American conservatives here who have their own objections and you're starting to see that dance happen as well. You have the Republicans and Saudi Arabia saying that Obama is willing to let Iran get away with any transgression -- shooting, as James mentioned, at the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman, expand this ballistic missile testing -- and not implement sanctions. And, frankly, we saw that this week, where the U.S. said, we're going to implement sanctions on 12 individuals and companies that are helping to bolster Iran's ballistic missile program, only to then say, actually, no, we're not.
YOUSSEFAnd so the fragility of the deal, vis-à-vis the conservatives, is evident on both sides. And so everybody believes that there's going to be a deal. But you can just feel how fragile it is and how one conservative move on either side or an effort to appease any conservative could put the deal in jeopardy.
REHMAnd lots of fear about terrorism throughout the Middle East and Europe. And do we yet know the cause of that fire in Dubai?
KITFIELDI have seen nothing that suggests that that was an act of terrorism. And until I do, I mean, I'm not going to speculate. It doesn't seem to me to fit the modus operandi of most terrorist attacks, which are explosions that kill lots of people. It just -- but I really have not seen anything there to suggest to me that that was a terrorist attack. In terrorism, in general, though, on this -- the reason this -- this exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia divide is so unhelpful, is that feeds the fires that stoke ISIS, that that is what it is all about. It wants this sectarian civil war from the ashes of which its caliphate will gain territory. So that's -- this is playing right into its narrative.
KITFIELDAnd what the Obama administration, Secretary Kerry, are doing to end the civil -- the Syrian civil war, because that feeds that fire. So if you're not, you know, if you're going to exacerbate that conflict, you're going to feed ISIS. You're playing right into its narrative. And that's a big problem.
IGNATIUSI think James put it just right. The force that we now call ISIS began as al-Qaida in Iraq. And its goal, essentially, was to set Sunni and Shia in Iraq against each other, to set off a sectarian civil war in Iraq. And they basically succeeded. And that civil war has now raged across the Middle East. It's ripped up Iraq, Syria, Yemen. And it's shocking to see the Saudis fall into this trap, to go ever deeper in the sectarian divide. The war in Yemen -- I understand the Saudis want to push back, they want to show they're tough. They're not going to accede another capital to Iran. But the effect of it has been to deepen this terrible problem.
IGNATIUSThe U.S. keeps warning the Saudi Arabia, for goodness sakes, be careful. You won't find a military victory here. And it isn't working.
YOUSSEFCan I just add, on a micro level, one of the things that you see from all this is more economic instability in the region and, from that, the brain drain. I was just in the region last month and the exodus of young, liberal, well-educated Arabs from the region because of this now 15 years of instability, it, you know, I left and I thought, you know, we're not creating a region. You know, we -- and John Edwards used to talk about, of the two Americas. And then you start to see two worlds, where there are parts of the world where you have such a massive brain drain that it becomes a nation of have-nots rather than a community within those nations.
YOUSSEFI was really struck in Egypt, I've never seen it such where people who never dreamed of leaving are desperate to get out. And it's a function of a sort sectarianism and, from that, the growth of sort of fundamental approaches to Islam and economic instability. There is -- you can see it on a very micro level when you go to the region.
REHMAnd where is Moscow in all of this? What's happening with the leadership there and Putin's relationship with leaders in Iran, leaders in other parts of the Middle East?
IGNATIUSPutin, characteristically, at the end of September, thought he could be the big man, that he could send in a military force, that he could order this situation that the U.S. had made such a mess of. And he has now wandered ever deeper, month by month, in the Russian version of this quagmire. There's a book I remember reading years ago by Barbara Tuchman, who wrote the story of how we stumbled into World War I, called "The March of Folly." And every time I look at Russia and Saudi actions regarding Syria, I think, this is the march of folly.
IGNATIUSThe Russians just killed an opposition leader in Syria, who was strong enough, who had enough control in the south, that he was willing to bring his opposition forces into this discussion about a ceasefire. He was not an attractive man. He had a terrible record. But he did have control of his people and he might have been able to negotiate with him. The Russians killed him. So one more person who might have helped figure out a path out of this is gone. And that's the way this conflict is heading, tragically.
KITFIELDI totally agree with that. I think that Putin is wondering now, how he gets himself out of this. And that is the only hopeful silver lining here is that Russia will understand that its own equities are going to be served -- is by finding some transition, some solution to this.
REHMWith the U.S.?
KITFIELDWell, I mean, that's what this diplomacy, later this month, was designed to do. The Russians helped bring along Iran, who helps bring along Assad. We bring along Saudi Arabia, who helped bring along the Persian Gulf States and Turkey and the Sunni blocks. And we find some accommodation. Because, right now, the only group that is served, you know, well served by this conflict is ISIS. That's it. Assad's not well served by it. Russia's stuck in the middle of it now. It's already had one of its war planes shot down by a NATO nation, and you can imagine how dangerous that is.
KITFIELDI mean, I was very interested in the fact that something like a bipartisan consensus has emerged from the campaign trail -- and I've written about this -- where Hillary Clinton and a majority of the Republican presidential candidates are calling for no-fly zones -- U.S.-enforced no-fly zones in Syria, which is an act of war, which will get us more closely involved in that conflict, especially in airspace where we could in conflict with Russian airplanes. So this -- it does sound like the prelude to war. One where all kinds of outside powers have come in, unable to fix it, get, you know, stuck deeper in the quagmire. Until you find a diplomatic resolution, it's heading towards more conflict that services more extremism.
REHMDo you really believe we're headed for war there?
IGNATIUSWell, there is a war. The question is, is it going to deepen and draw us into what could be a really catastrophic conflict? President Obama's caution, often derided, serves him well in this sense. He and our military, after two very difficult wars, are reluctant to jump in further when they don't understand the consequences.
IGNATIUSI should also note, Secretary of State Kerry has been often mocked for his -- just, you know, insistence on trying these diplomatic routes. And he actually had some success with this process that began in Geneva. He had two meetings with Saudis and Iranians around the table. There is a process to identify an acceptable opposition. And, you know, this is a ragged Syrian group. But they managed to come together, with Saudi help, to stay in the same room. The Chinese have helped with the diplomacy. They just had the Syrian foreign minister to China and the Syrian foreign minister said, yes. We'll come to this meeting in Geneva if you need us.
IGNATIUSSo it's not -- if these things could work, could move forward, there'd be some reason to think maybe there's a way out. Not war.
REHMSo, think ahead, if a Republican is elected -- no matter who that Republican might be -- how might the efforts at diplomacy change?
KITFIELDWell, this is what I worry about is that, you know, you say on the campaign trail what makes you look strong. You know, and you come up with an answer. And we've -- as I've said, not only the Republicans but the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has called for this. So has David Petraeus . So has former Iraq -- U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. So it's not like it's a harebrained idea. We did this in Iraq throughout the '90s. But it is an act of war. It does draw us closer into the Syrian civil war. It does have lots of escalation risk if the Syrian air-defense systems target us like the Iraqis did in the 1990s -- do you destroy that, you know, near Damascus?
KITFIELDSo, it's a major step. And I think, if a Republican is nominated or elected and he's run on this campaign, there'll be serious pressure to actually implement what he's called for. Another reason why I think the Obama administration is desperate to back Kerry's...
KITFIELD...diplomacy, they don't want this haunting Hillary Clinton for the next year of the campaign trail. And they also don't want what they see as really sort of misguided, you know, U.S. involvement that could escalate.
IGNATIUSThis is -- in the balance of, just to note finally -- at the Pentagon, our military is preparing for the likelihood that the next president, whoever he or she is, will want a more assertive U.S. military policy. As James says, it's likely they'll call for a no-fly zone in Syria. But that's just the beginning. They will also want a more assertive policy toward Russia. They will also want a more assertive policy toward China, in the South China Sea. So the Pentagon is beginning to think, how do we respond to these demands for greater use of military -- U.S. military power?
IGNATIUSI think it's something that I hope will be part of the campaign debate, because it's really a big question. Can we afford it? What kind of weapons are we talking about? What are the risks?
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You wanted to jump in, Nancy.
YOUSSEFYeah. I just wanted to say, one of the things that strikes me is, the irony is, one could argue that the U.S. approach towards ISIS is working in the sense that ISIS has not been able to gain any major territory in the last year. It has lost almost all the territory it's gained in the last six months. It's lost Tikrit. It's lost Sinjar in Iraq. And now it lost Ramadi. In terms of attacks, the attacks they've wanted to carry out, they have not been able to. In Paris, as horrific as Paris was, they weren't able to get into the stadium. And by the way, it was a Muslim security guard who stopped them. They've only been able to hit the softest targets out there.
YOUSSEFThere is an argument to be made that ISIS is on its heels. And it's interesting to me that, as we have these debates, that the Obama administration, clearly feeling it doesn't have a strategic problem but a communications one, has failed to even make that argument out there. Rather, you'll hear the president say, it's hard. It's complicated. We don't want to get involved. But there is an argument. You can agree or disagree, but you can make the case that this has had some effect. And I'm amazed at how little the administration has done to advocate that position.
KITFIELDWell, and that's part of their post-Paris, post-San Bernardino plan is to change the narrative and say that this is working and, at the same time, to sort of double down. So what have they done since then? They've started to attack the oil infrastructure of the Islamic State. They averted that originally because they were worried about civilian casualties. They dropped some leaflets and said, we're going to bomb this truck yard of oil tankers, which they did. They have in -- put special -- U.S. Special Forces in Syria for the first time. They have dramatically increased the number of airstrikes inside Iraq and the retaking of Ramadi was part of -- showed part of what you can get from that.
KITFIELDSo they are, sort of, do believe that it's working. But they also understand -- and this gets to David's point about what the U.S. military is looking at -- we're probably a Paris-like attack in the United States away from a demand to do something much more serious. I mean, I think that's true. I think a lot of military guys think that's true. If you just watched what happened after that and you can imagine that happening inside the United States, I could easily see a call for a much more aggressive measures if something like that happened.
IGNATIUSYou know, a question that the Pentagon and the White House face is -- I'd summarize it as this -- if you look ahead toward 2016, you'd have to say that a terrorist attack inside the U.S. of whatever dimensions is likely. And, as James says, the demand, we've got to strike back, hit them hard, you know, bomb the blankety-blank out of them, will be will be very loud. So you can say it's wise, rather than to be a prisoner of public reaction and to react in the spasmodic way that might take us down a road that would be very costly, let's get out ahead of this and move now in a measured way that's sensible. And I think that debate...
IGNATIUS...that's why I've come to think that during the year the president may begin to do some of the things that he has said he doesn't want to do -- maybe even including no-fly zones, certainly including more use of U.S. Special Forces. Because he wants to get out ahead of the demands for a much more unplanned, uncoordinated response.
YOUSSEFAnd that would be a switch because our -- the U.S. intervention against ISIS so far has been almost exclusively reactionary, from June 24, when ISIS took over Mosul to the beheading of James Foley and Steven Sotloff in August that led to the U.S. military strike intervention, it has been largely a reactionary policy thus far.
REHMNancy Youssef, she's senior defense and national security correspondent for The Daily Beast. Short break. When we come back, your calls, your comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here's an email from Michael, in Texas, who says, "I think I speak for lots of Americans when I say we're suffering Middle East fatigue. We're so concerned with what's happening in the Middle East, neglecting serious problems we have at home. Let these people go their own way. They're draining resources from the rest of the semi-sane world. The Middle East is a geo-political Rubik's cube without satisfactory resolution." David?
IGNATIUSI think there's a lot of wisdom in that. And it's certainly is what a lot of people feel. And if we stand back and look at this we know that this is a story of a generation. It's not gonna be solved militarily by the U.S. or anybody else. And it's gonna get solved over time as these countries develop more modern governance and kinda grow out of this period.
IGNATIUSThat said, the question is how we avoid severe damage to the United States' homeland and to the global economic system on which we depend in this period. My own feeling has been that if you just leave it to kinda burn, that you get burned in the process, that there are just too many people who'd like to launch external operations against the United States here or in Europe.
IGNATIUSThere's just too much collateral damage that we'd suffer in a strategy of -- call the nine neglect -- for that really to be a realistic option, although it's tempting. Everyone, I think, sees a little bit of what you're correspondent said.
YOUSSEFWell, it's interesting that -- it has been tried in a sense, hasn't it? In Iraq, the U.S. tried it with a heavy footprint, a large number of ground troops, large number of airstrikes. Didn't get very far. And Libya, it was tried with sort of a half-footprint, right, and a number of airstrikes. And then the decision was we're gonna trust it to the transitional national council to come up with a way to govern Libya. That didn't work out well.
YOUSSEFAnd Syria, the U.S. tried it with a very light footprint. And, again, had -- that didn't turn out well. And it found itself having to intervene. So I think there's a recognition, even within government, of this Middle East fatigue. There just hasn't been an ability to calculate how you balance that national sentiment, arguably, and protecting the homeland.
YOUSSEFBecause these are threats -- it's a -- the difference between safety and danger is a few people with plotting an attack. And so how do you strike that balance between not finding yourself embroiled in a quagmire and also having the eyes on the ground to understand potential threats?
REHMLet's talk about Syria and what some of the details of the UN roadmap are for peace in that country. James?
KITFIELDWell, the essentials -- and it's been on the table for the last couple of years -- is a ceasefire, first and foremost, where everyone stands down and it leaves the country pretty much divided between Assad's forces that, you know, own a lot of territory around Damascus and the coast. Rebel groups have a lot of territory in the South and in, you know, towards the Turkish border, including Kurdish groups. And ISIS, which has a lot of territory in the East.
KITFIELDAfter that ceasefire, you come to some agreement on a transition and eventual elections in Syria so the Syrians can chart their own course. We have always said we cannot imagine Assad remaining in power at the end of this transition, but we have, you know, said that is not a precondition anymore. And it's just impossible to imagine, after killing 200,000 plus of his countrymen that he will ever be accepted as a unifying figure.
KITFIELDSo I think we understand that he will not be the future leader, if there is a transition like that. But that's very hard to get to when the passions -- there's so much debt, there's so much revenge passion. It's very hard to get there. So, I mean, I credit Secretary Kerry for giving it, you know, everything he's got. I still think, you know, the one possible silver lining is that everyone comes to realize that the current status quo serves no one but ISIS, and no one likes ISIS.
IGNATIUSJust to add one thing to that good summary, the key pathway to this ceasefire is to decide who is gathered together under the umbrella of trying to forge a transition and who is the enemy. And one thing a source who's close to the Syrian government has said to me is, look, we understand that the Syrian army cannot govern effectively in areas that are controlled by the opposition.
IGNATIUSAnd we understand that some of the Islamist groups that have been supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, we don't like them, but if they agree to take part in this transition process, if they come to Geneva, if they meet, as most of these groups did, in Saudi Arabia to talk about a common agenda, as this person put it, if you come to the party, you get an invitation.
IGNATIUSIn other words, we will accept that you can take part. And then the enemy becomes the people who don't come to the party, who don't agree the ceasefire. And, obviously, that will be ISIS, number one. And Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate, number two, and perhaps some other groups that also keep shooting.
REHMAll right. Let's take a call from Pittsburgh, Pa. Carlana, you're on the air.
CARLANAHi. About two weeks ago or so, there was a news report that the National Security Agency had uncovered evidence that Israel's Bibi Netanyahu was thinking of ways to sabotage Obama's agreement with Iran. And also that Republican politicians, such as Senator McCain and others, had been in on some of these discussions. Plus, I believe a representative and Israel and some of the Republicans have been visiting Saudi Arabia.
CARLANASo I just wondered if they signaled to Saudi Arabia that the likelihood of a Republican president down the line and that they would be looking kindly on anything that Saudi Arabia did to sabotage the Iran agreement.
KITFIELDReally interesting question and observation from your listener. There were, you know, believable reports that the NSA has been monitoring communications from the leader of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, who was in an active campaign to sabotage the Iran deal, the Obama administration's chief diplomatic initiative was. And it, interestingly, did scoop up discussions between him and U.S. lawmakers in Congress who opposed the deal.
KITFIELDAnd that does get you into very interesting territory when you listen in on your own, you know, one branch of government is listening in on the conversations of another branch of government's with a foreign leader. Not sure of all of the legalese associated with that, but it's certainly an uncomfortable discussion for the administration to have.
KITFIELDOn the other hand, let it be known that the Israeli government was actively, diplomatically, trying to sabotage an American president's key diplomatic initiative. And you could understand why that president might want to know exactly what they were saying.
REHMCould, in fact, that have resulted in Saudi Arabia's actions, which are now threatening the whole Syria deal, the whole Iran Agreement deal?
IGNATIUSWell, anything's possible. I think it'd be unlikely that the Saudi monarch would take dictation from…
REHMDid you hear that same report that our listener referred to?
IGNATIUSI've heard about the interception of conversations.
IGNATIUSThe footnote I would add was that Donald Trump was asked about this on "Face The Nation" yesterday. And he was asked whether -- should we have a rule that says we can't spy on friends like Israel. And Trump wouldn't say that. And he said, now all countries spy on each other. That's the way the world is. And so you wouldn't rule that out? Well, no. It was a bit piece of Donald Trump rare politic where the correct answer, politically, is I'm shocked, it's outrageous, how dare we spy on Israel, they're our friend and ally. And he, if I heard him right, stopped short of that.
REHMJohn Dickerson asking the question. Go ahead, Nancy.
YOUSSEFI just want to get to the caller's question about whether a Republican president, presuming that the outcome in 2016 could upend the Iran deal. One of the things we forget in this country, this is not a deal between Iran and the United States. It is between several other countries. The U.K. has already opened -- reopened its embassy there. So this notion that one president could undo the deal, I think, is misleading, given that the pathway's already being set by other nations that are part of this deal to reengage with Iran.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from Catherine, in Michigan. "How close are we to seeing the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran become a true war between the two?"
KITFIELDWe're very close. I mean, they -- we have a proxy war going on and have been going on for years in Syria between Iran and Saudi Arabia, supporting different sides, different proxies in that conflict. We then have Yemen, which the -- Saudi Arabia's actually launching, along with some other Persian Gulf states, actively bombing and has people on the ground in Yemen, fighting against the Houthis or Shia-aligned group.
KITFIELDYou have in Iraq, basically, a split in that country between Shia and Sunni parts. The Sunni parts are now occupied by ISIS, which is a Sunni terror group. So it's game on already. And this is why the -- it's almost, as I said before, so incomprehensible to me that Saudi Arabia would pick this time, right before this peace conference, to further exacerbate that sectarian divide. Because Nancy's right, they don't feel secure. I don't understand how what they've done recently is gonna make them feel more secure. I would think it would make them feel a lot less secure.
REHMHere's an email from Guy, in Florida, who says, "When ISIS executes one person by beheading it's reported repeatedly as barbaric. However, when Saudi Arabia executes 47 people in the same way, the method is almost never mentioned. I haven't heard beheadings brought up in this story on television or radio." David?
IGNATIUSThe reading that I've done said that of the executions, the 47 most recent ones and the 157 last year, some were beheadings, some were carried out by other means. We don't know which was which. But I think that the fundamental point is certainly true. That Saudi justice, under this very strict Islamic code, is troubling the U.S. repeatedly for years, to no effect, has raised this issue. The list of prisoners that were executed, the U.S. discussed with the Saudis.
IGNATIUSI don't think they really went to bat about Nimr al-Nimr, the sheik who was so important. But the broader question of human rights is one that they've raised. Saudi Arabia is in a state of ferment. Yes, you have a new king, King Salman, but the real player who's driving these events, I think, is the deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
IGNATIUSThe king's son, who's young, who is -- has a vision for the future of Saudi Arabia, who's determined to show young Saudis that this kingdom isn't gonna lie down and take Iranian dictation anymore. We're gonna fight back. We're gonna fight back this way, that way. So I think that's a lot of this, it's trying to send a message. They don't trust the U.S. to protect them. They're gonna -- sending a message. We'll protect ourselves. And it's leading them, sadly, into ever deeper confrontation.
REHMBut you have this intrigue now with the Israeli's trying to shoot down, if you will, the Iran deal with the U.S. and other countries. You have this deputy trying to engage Iran, militarily almost. What a complicated situation we find ourselves in.
KITFIELDYeah, that's our analogy to pre-World War I. It's one of those situations where if you just -- and it gets to can you afford to walk away from the Middle East. I wish we could, quite honestly. We tried that with Syria for three and four years, and, you know, tell me how you think that looks now because whoever, you know, fills the vacuum of power, if the United States turns away, are not gonna be actors like ISIS that we're gonna find very comfortable partnership with in this world.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Araj, in McLean, Va. You're on the air.
ARAJHello, Diane. And thank you for taking my call.
ARAJMy question is for Mr. Ignatius, whom I have a lot of respect for. I'm a former analyst, the intelligence service, a Middle East analyst. And my question is, as to -- there's absolutely no difference between the policies and the ideologies of the Saudi Arabia and the Islamic States. And basically, since 9/11, Saudi Arabia, besides what's going on now, has done a lot of supporting, financially and otherwise, the terrorists around the world, the Wahhabism, Salafism and as I'm sure Mr. Ignatius knows.
ARAJThe question is, not just Republicans or Democrats, why doesn't the United States call it what it is? And at the same time, I'm pretty sure there is gonna be a war, but if there is a war, a bigger war in the Middle East, which may start World War III, then the U.S. will be on the wrong side in history.
IGNATIUSI -- that's a powerful set of comments. I think there's no question that the Saudis supported Wahhabist, strain of fundamentalist Islam, the network of mosques and madrassas the Saudis have funded around the Islamic world have been a threat, ultimately to Saudi Arabia itself, but certainly to the stability of the region. I don't think it's right to say that Saudi Arabia and ISIS are the same thing. I've heard people in the Middle East say ISIS is Saudi Arabia, you know, 2.0.
IGNATIUSI don't believe that. If -- I look at the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Naif, who risked his life running this Saudi intelligence service when a bomber walked into his office and tried to kill him. These are people who have faced repeated assassination attempts and have tried to be reliable partners for the U.S. in counterterrorism, and in many ways that we don't learn about, but perhaps our caller knows about, the Saudis have tried to assist us.
IGNATIUSThe funding that goes to ISIS may come from Saudi private citizens, but I'm not aware of evidence that it comes from the government itself. So I think I'd like to see the next president just be clear with the Saudis, that funding the roots of this violent extremism that is so destabilizing, that's just eating the Arab world, the Muslim world alive, just has to stop.
YOUSSEFBut the conundrum is the more that they feel that the -- that they're losing control, that the region's unstable, that Iran's gaining more power, the more likely they are to fight this war by proxy states. Because realistically, the Saudi -- Saudi Arabia's army is not equipped enough to take on a proper war, as we would think of it, between Iran. And so I agree with you. But I think as long as they feel that they're in a state of instability, they are more likely to continue to do what they are doing now.
REHMLast word, James?
KITFIELDThe source of radicalization that is behind Islamic extremism does have its epicenter in Saudi Arabia. And it is this very intolerant view of fundamentalist Islam that the Salafis have been promulgating for decades. It was behind al Qaeda's ideology. It's behind ISIS ideology. And until we get at that root cause, we'll be dealing with a world looks a lot like today.
REHMJames Kitfield, Nancy Youssef, David Ignatius, I wish I could wish you a happy New Year, doesn't sound that way. Thanks for being here.
IGNATIUSThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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