From The Archives: A 2008 Conversation With Barbara Walters
A conversation from the archives with Barbara Walters about her 2008 memoir "Audition," a story of family challenges, celebrity gossip and blazing a trail in TV news.
Guest Host: Derek McGinty
Iran detains and then releases 10 American sailors whose Navy boats drifted into their territorial waters. The Pentagon says the cause was a “navigational error.” ISIS claims responsibility for a deadly attack in Indonesia on Thursday, raising alarms about global terrorism once again. German President Angela Merkel is under pressure to toughen asylum rules following attacks on women in Cologne that were blamed on migrants. In Syria, a UN relief operation reaches starving citizens of a rebel-held town. And actor Sean Penn says he regrets meeting with Mexico’s most-wanted drug lord. Guest host Derek McGinty and a panel of journalists discuss the top international stories of the week.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYWell, thanks for joining us. I'm Derek McGinty sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. The Islamic State claims responsibility now for a terror attack in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Iran detains and then releases ten American sailors and Germany's chancellor facing pressure now over refugee policies. Joining me now to talk about the international stories that made the headlines this week in our international hour of our Friday News Roundup, Moises Naim with El Pais, Nancy Youssef at The Daily Beast and Shawn Donnan with The Financial Times. Welcome to all of you.
MS. NANCY YOUSSEFHello.
MR. MOISES NAIMHi.
MR. SHAWN DONNANThanks for having us.
MCGINTYAnd I want to say hello to our listeners as well. The number here, 800-433-8850, 800-433-8850 or drop us an email at email@example.com. All right. So ISIS says, we did it. They blew up some things in the center of Jakarta, including a police traffic post near an affluent shopping area. Give us an update a little bit, Nancy, as to exactly what happened and then reaction to that.
YOUSSEFWell, we had a series of attacks that appeared to start at a police station or near a police station moved over to a Starbucks and some of the other areas frequented by Westerners. There were a total of seven killed, including the five attackers. And it's believed that this was an attack funded, orchestrated by an Indonesian man who -- Bahrun Naim, who was in Raqqah, Syria. And so it was troubling in a number of senses. Indonesia had never seen an attack by the Islamic State before.
YOUSSEFThere had been previous attacks by previous groups, but not to this extent. And the idea that these attacks could be orchestrated from the capital of the Islamic State by a local national really raised fears about how the group was seeking to expand and its reach and its influence through local nationals. These are not people coming from outside, but these are native-born residents plotting attacks from afar on their home states.
MCGINTYAnd then, that's the scary thing about ISIS, right? I mean, in this country and around the world, they seem to be able to recruit insiders to do their dirty work, Moises.
NAIMYeah. That's the case. And it's worth noting that the five suicide bombers were the ones that were the main victims. It's one of the surprising thing about this event is the low level of casualties. There were only two people that -- two victims, two innocent victims that died and 20 casualties. And they used very primitive devices. The police then also found six more bombs that were not detonated in the area. And so the interesting story here is how primitive it was, how, you know, the connections with Raqqah, that Nancy mentioned, and also, let's remember that Indonesia is the world's largest -- has the world's largest Muslim countries -- is the country with the largest Muslim population.
MCGINTYSo go ahead.
DONNANAnd I think the important thing is also to remember that while this is the first attack in Indonesia by the Islamic State, Indonesia has had a long history in recent years of terrorist attacks, going back to the 2002 Bali bombings, a numbers of bombings in Jakarta on the Australian embassy, on luxury hotels that followed in the years after that and also that Indonesia, while it is largely a moderate Islamic majority country and has a very distinct brand of Muslim, I worked there as a journalist and when you ask an Indonesian what sort of Muslim they are, whether they are Shia or Sunni, they look at you with a blank look.
DONNANThey'll just say I'm a Muslim. They're a very distinct form of Islam from what you see in the Middle East. But they have had a problem with Islamic extremism that has gone back decades and there is, you know, some signs that while the kind of the badge on this, the Islamic State badge on this is new, actually the groups and the kind of constituencies that are involved are some of the same that have been there for some time.
MCGINTYAnd that brings us to an important question. How much of this is really ISIS and how much of this is discontented Muslims in their own country doing this?
DONNANWell, and I think that's the frightening thing about all of these attacks really, is that it, one, it tells us about the spread of ISIS and, two, it tells us about just how very simple the links can be often by social media. This guy, Bahrun Naim, is a guy who, a few years ago, was running an internet cafe in Solo, a city in central Java.
MCGINTYSo the question is then also, how strong is ISIS. I mean, the casualty level, while tragic, is certainly relatively small.
DONNANSo that's, I mean, there's a really important distinction between this attack that we saw this week and what Moises said about the organization and the primitive tools that they had. In some of the previous attacks, like the al-Qaida-backed and organized attacks that you saw in the early 2000s, like the 2002 Bali bombing, in that case, the main architect of that attack was a guy called Hambali, who is now at Guantanamo Bay, as one of 17 high value people there at Guantanamo Bay.
DONNANHe was talking to Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in the lead up to this. This was a man who had met Osama bin Laden in the lead-up to the attack and it was also an attack that was funded by several hundred thousand dollars that were sent through from al-Qaida. Very different form of organization.
YOUSSEFIn terms of numbers, what's interesting is there are an estimated 600 Indonesians in Iraq and Syria, part of the Islamic State, no more than 2,000 in the country of 250 plus million people. And so one of the surprises with this week's attack is the Islamic State's ability to reach into Asia, particularly in a country like Indonesia, which had relatively few numbers of both ISIS supporters within its borders and those who had traveled to the Islamic State.
MCGINTYAnd once again, the question of expanding their influence, Moises, what do you think?
NAIMYes, Derek. Good question. How strong is ISIS? And so there are two ISIS. ISIS as an organization and ISIS as an inspiration. So you have an organization that is getting weaker because it's being hammered. It still has some significant capacity to organize and, you know, it has money. It has people. It has weapons. But that organization is weakening. But as an inspiration, as people are in different countries that get inspired to do these things, ISIS is becoming far more global and its reach has become more...
MCGINTYSo you're saying really it's becoming an idea more than an actual thing.
NAIMIt inspires people, some people, but as an organization, again, that's the question.
YOUSSEFI think the challenge is if it were just this attack, it would be harder to sort of understand it. But we had a series of attacks this week by local nationals in other countries. And so the question becomes is this a group that's on its heels in its state itself and is trying to exert influence, trying to recruit new members outside? It certainly was a push by them to make themselves known and a presence outside the international community at a time when they're losing territory within the state itself, as we saw in recent weeks in Ramadi.
YOUSSEFI think the big takeaway from all of the attacks that we saw this week in Afghanistan and Turkey and in Iraq is that even if the Islamic State is defeated within its borders, the threat of the Islamic State does not go away because as Moises was saying, its influence will continue, arguably, beyond the state itself.
MCGINTYRight. And now, you see the issue of migrants coming to the forefront in other countries, many of them from that part of the world. People are scared. We know what's going on in politics here in this country, but it's not that different in Germany right now, where over the New Year's Eve, they had sex assaults, they had robberies in several cities and Chancellor Angela Merkel's government had to tighten up their asylum rules to deal with this.
YOUSSEFWell, the attacks themselves were really frightening. You had New Year's Eve celebrations and a police force that wasn't prepared for these kinds of threat. And I have to tell you as somebody who lived in Egypt, these are the kinds of threats I've seen in Cairo and that is that groups of men will surround women in crowded areas and assault them. And in Egypt, they would literally assign people to different roles, somebody to take off the top, someone to take off the bottom.
MCGINTYOh, my goodness.
YOUSSEFAnd so there was evidence that these kinds of attacks in Cologne, which shocked Germany at a time when it's really debating whether the introduction of migrants is a good or a bad thing. You had 600 plus reports that came in in the days after the attack and now, Angela Merkel's party asking for legislation that would ban migrants from third world countries as so many of these migrants from Syria and Iraq and other places come through a different country, not just through Germany directly.
YOUSSEFBut the assaults were so shocking to the community and yet, familiar to those in the region who've been around this culture that allows for sexual assault and to see it sort of infiltrate into the migrant community was really upsetting for those who are worried about the spread of xenophobia. And this played right into that perception.
DONNANLook, this is just a real reminder of how this political conversation here in the U.S. -- and we saw this last night in the Republican debate -- and in Europe is going to be dominated by these conflicts in the Middle East -- or is going to be shadowed by these conflicts in the Middle East. I mean, Germany has, in the last year, taken in more than a million refugees. That number is astonishing, especially when you think of it as a country of 80 million people versus a country like the U.S. of 200 and -- oh, sorry, 300...
DONNAN320 million people that has taken in roughly 2500 Syrian refugees this last year.
NAIMThis is the largest movement of people in Europe since the second world war and Europe is clearly not equipped. I don't think any country is equipped to absorb and deal with this massive inflow of asylum seekers. The question here is if this waiver for asylum seekers will jeopardize and undermine and eventually crush the European project, the idea that Europe was going -- is an integrated area where there's freedom of movement of people and capital and everything else.
NAIMSo is the result of all this a more united Europe? Is there more Europe or as a result of this threat, Europe will fragment? And we'll see (word?) thy neighbor policy which each country transfers the burden of dealing with the asylum seekers to another and then, if other countries strengthening their restrictions to migrants and to the movement of people.
MCGINTYMoises Naim is chief international columnist for El Pais, Nancy Youssef is senior defense and national security correspondent at The Daily Beast, Shawn Donnan, world trade editor for The Financial Times. I'm Derek McGinty and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCGINTYYou're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Derek McGinty sitting in with our panel of journalists as we talk about the international stories in the headlines this past week. And as we noted, in Europe there is a serious problem. There are attacks and many of them have been carried out by those who had not been in the country very long, some of them there illegally, some of them migrants from the Middle East. But I'm curious how the reaction has been across Europe, not just in Germany. But what has -- what are some of the other countries doing?
NAIMOne of the interesting initiatives, because it can signal where this all is going, is in Denmark. The Danish government wants to institute a plan that would allow the police to take cash and valuables from the migrants, up to -- and just leave them with, the top will be $1,500. They say that they will take the money and the valuables from asylum seekers in order to defray the costs of lodging and housing and everything else. In fact, this is just a deterrent. This is -- they want the migrants to know that, if they go to Denmark, their valuables will be taken and confiscated.
MCGINTYAnd so then they won't want to come.
NAIMAnd they won't want to come. And so, again, the beggar-thy-neighbor possibility is there, meaning each country will try to create conditions that will push migrants to another country.
NAIMAnd therefore undermine the spirit of integration, of unity of Europe.
DONNANAnd that's exactly what we're seeing across Europe. I mean, the Swedes have introduced border controls, which is -- they're checking passports, which was something they hadn't done for years at the border. That has prompted others to do the same. The Swiss have announced yesterday that they were going to do the same thing as the Danes in terms of confiscating valuables. It is this game of trying to keep the migrants out and trying to send them somewhere else. And at some point, as Moises was saying before the break, this is going to really threaten the fabric of Europe.
MCGINTYAnd so you're saying the real casualty of this, beyond the human cost, could be to the very spirit of what the EU is.
YOUSSEFAnd to give you a sense of how this was introduced, there was such outrage that they compromised and said, okay, you can keep sentimental things like your wedding ring. I mean, that was the compromise solution, which gives you a sense of the effort deterring people from coming in. There were ads put in newspapers in Beirut warning people that they would have to pay or help to pay the costs of their lodging. And we should note that it's not just this idea of paying for costs but they also said that those who are not united with their children will have -- will not be allowed to be united until three years in, rather than one year in. And so this is legal efforts to discourage people from entering Denmark.
YOUSSEFAnd the numbers that the Danes have sustained are relatively small compared to other parts of Europe. In 2015, only 21,000 refugees were -- entered Denmark, which as we note compared to Germany's 1.1 million is relatively small. But it's such a divisive issue and increasingly a political issue where you have leaders of government facing opposition within their own parties and opposing parties over this issue.
MCGINTYBut these people -- when I say these people, I'm talking about the Europeans themselves -- had been very generous with their energy and their home and their countries up until the point where the dangers surfaced. Can you blame them for getting nervous at this point?
YOUSSEFBut I don't think it's just danger. I think it's just the influx of people. I think it was such a shock and you had a European community so unprepared for this. We're talking about 100,000 people a month and breathtaking numbers that they were so unprepared for. On top of that, the perception that this is an increased security problem. We often phrase this as something that was just a humanitarian issue. But for some countries, there was an economic incentive. For example, in Germany, those refugees would supplement the sort of blue-collar jobs there.
YOUSSEFAnd so this idea that this was just out of good heartedness, I think there's a limit to that. I think this was as much about self interest. And once it became overwhelming for those states, you started to see these conflicts arise.
MCGINTYGo ahead. And then we'll get to the phones.
DONNANAnd we have, I mean, we have a number of big elections coming up in Europe as well. So, in the U.K. later this year there's a vote on whether to stay in the EU, and this plays into that debate. And in Germany next year, you have national elections that Angela Merkel is looking at. Same in France. You know, there's a healthy element of political preservation in all the politics (word?)
MCGINTYI heard that there was one in this country too. Let's go to Matt in Bay City, Mich. Matt, you're on the air.
MATTHi. Thanks for taking my call. My question is, with everything that's going on right now, the increased attacks with ISIS, then it seems like they're starting to spread out even more. What is your opinion on the idea Mr. Trump had of the temporary ban?
MCGINTYAll right. Let's put this out there. He -- Donald Trump, and he doubled down on it in the debate last night, saying, we have to figure out what's going on before we let anymore Muslims into the United States, Shawn.
DONNANAnd I think that was one of the more interesting moments in the debate last night, when you saw the rest of the Republican candidates really round on Donald Trump for that. And that's very simply, I don't think anyone in the world today, or I think very few people in the world today are comfortable with a kind of blanket labeling of an ethnic group.
YOUSSEFWell, I would just say, from the U.S. military prospective that there is a feeling that this strategy to some degree is working in the sense that you have an ISIS that has been weakened, that has not been able to take any major territory in the last year, that has only been able to launch these kinds of soft attacks that we've seen in the last year. And that these attacks are in retaliation for the loss of territory over the past few months. An so, when people see these attacks, it's understandable to be frustrated because civilians are increasingly at risk. But even in the State of the Union, President Obama noted that ISIS does not pose an existential threat to the United States.
YOUSSEFAnd so how you put that threat in its proper context when, at one hand, civilians increasingly feel under danger. And yet the indications are that the group itself is increasingly under siege.
MCGINTYLet's get to Susan in St. Louis, Mo. Hello, Susan.
SUSANOh, good morning. Good to hear you, Derek.
MCGINTYWell, thank you. Thank you.
SUSANI have been very -- I have been appalled about the experience in Cologne when so many women were, oh, assaulted, whatever you want to -- whatever word you want to use. But then I heard a very extensive report on the BBC about human trafficking and prostitution in Europe. And nobody ever seems to give any context to Cologne. But I believe prostitution has been legalized in Germany and Cologne has the largest house of prostitution in the world. It's called Pascha. And so this is all on the BBC. I can see how this could be somewhat confusing to refugees. I mean, I, you know.
MCGINTYHow would that have anything to do with attacking helpless women on the street?
SUSANWell, you know, I -- far be it for me to make any defense of any kind. But if you're a stranger, you're an outsider and you don't understand, you don't get it all. But you -- there's this huge, you know, legalized house of prostitution. I don't know. You know, I'm just saying.
MCGINTYAll right. Well, let's...
SUSANI'm just saying, let's talk about context just a little bit here.
MCGINTYAll right. You've thrown it out on the table. Let's see if anybody wants to run with it.
DONNANLook, I'm not sure of what the laws are in Germany regarding prostitution or the houses of ill repute of Cologne's, but I think there's a real cultural question here. And that's why this has become such a big issue in Germany. And it's a question of cultural assimilation. Before Christmas, Angela Merkel was talking about multiculturalism and the idea that actually multiculturalism has not worked in Europe in recent decades. And that's the fundamental conversation here.
MCGINTYAnd she seems to be also talking about some sort of culture shock or culture clash that might come from so many people from such a different place pouring into Europe.
YOUSSEFAnd seeing things that they just haven't seen before. I mean, things that we take for granted in the Western world are -- can be very foreign to people from the Middle East, women allowed to dress however they want. I mean this is a region that often teaches men that if a woman is sexually assaulted it's because of the way she dressed. This is something we so common -- I commonly heard in Egypt. And so the assimilation problem is a real one. I should point out though that there are a number of Syrian refugees who spoke out publicly and were ashamed of what happened and sought to say that we are not all like this. And that's a sign of assimilation in and of itself.
YOUSSEFAnd so we have to be, I think, careful about branding every refugee as susceptible to sort of the sexism that so many associate with the Middle East and, at the same time, acknowledge that there is an assimilation challenge that confronts Europe and Germany, in particular, when you have as many refugees that have come in -- mostly young men -- in such a short period of time.
NAIMThis is a story of everyone being in unprecedented challenges. The police in Cologne was not prepared and they said that, you know, we did not expect this. We did not know how to handle it. The migrants that were participating were also in unprecedented conditions in their lives. Many of them were there for the first time. The victims, the society, trying to digest this massive inflow of strangers with very different cultures. So there is a lot that is new, that is unprecedented, for which people are not prepared, that are never faced before.
MCGINTYThat's Moises Naim. He is the chief international columnist for El Pais and a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His book is called, "The End of Power." Nancy Youssef, senior defense and national security correspondent at The Daily Beast. And Shawn Donnan, world trade editor for the Financial Times. My name's Derek McGinty. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." And we're taking your phone calls at 202 -- I keep saying 202 -- it's 800-433-8850. Perhaps a harking back to my old days.
YOUSSEFWe have an email as well from Mike in D.C. who says, there were five attackers with assault weapons and explosives attacking one of the most densely populated cities in the world. They killed two people before they died. We can stop being scared of these totally incompetent killers. The world is literally spending trillions of dollars to stop these attacks which kill fewer people yearly than sharks. We need to stop the insanity. We have actual problems. Are we overestimating the power of ISIS?
YOUSSEFI don't know. I mean, I was debating this all week as we started seeing these attacks come in. Because, as Mike points out, the scale of them was not what you would expect for a terror group that is in its -- at its apex, if you will. But at the same time, it's -- I'm hesitant to underestimate this group because they have shown to be very adaptable, very quick at adjusting their tactics such that they can have impact. And the fact that they are losing territory, to me, says that they are more likely than even a few months ago to launch these attacks. Because their goal is to remain relevant, to stop us from thinking that they're not a threat. And so they're more likely to try to launch these attacks.
YOUSSEFBut, as Mike points out, so far they have only been able to hit soft targets and, in the last week, not in the kind of way that you would associate with the Islamic State, given the attention that we give to it.
DONNANBut let's not forget also that we're just a few months away from the Paris attacks, which were -- and these attacks in Jakarta this week were modeled on those very attacks in Paris. And Bahrun Naim, the organizer or the accused organizer of this, had been actually blogging ahead of these attacks saying Indonesians should take inspiration from Paris...
DONNAN...and try and mount their own ones. Just because this one went wrong or didn't go or wasn't as deadly as past attacks doesn't mean that we should be downplaying the threat.
YOUSSEFI agree that Paris was horrific. But the one place they wanted to get in to, that stadium, they were unable to do it, to the point that the people in the stadium didn't even know about the attacks until afterwards. And by the way, it was a Muslim guard who stopped them. And so, again, the stadiums, cafes, excuse me, concert halls, cafes -- those are soft targets. They have yet to get in and hit a hard target as we would think of it, someplace that's secure, and inflict mass casualties in the hundreds or thousands that I think that they aspire to. And so that's the dilemma. Are they weak or are they not? It's impossible to say in the immediate because this is not a group that should ever be underestimated.
NAIMThey have to get lucky once. You know. It's true that in recent attacks they have not been competent. They have been inept. They have gone after soft, unprotected target, killing innocents. But one day, they may get away with a big one. Let's remember 9/11 was not a minor event. It was a massive tragedy. And, you know, the story here is that there are people in the world that are committed for the long term to inflict as much human damage as possible in countries that they see as their enemies.
MCGINTYI'm Derek McGinty and you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's get back to our phone calls, if we might. Neville in New York, you're on the air. Go ahead.
NEVILLEYeah. Thank you for taking my call. I just heard on NPR that the -- that General Electric was selling off their -- not electronics but their consumer -- their appliance business to a Chinese firm. And I'm concerned because it seems we keep selling off our manufacturing base and I'm worried that all we're going to be left with is everyone working in service jobs, slinging hamburgers at minimum wage. You know, one of the reasons we won World War II was we out-manufactured the Germans and the Japanese and we had a phrase we used back then called fortress America. And I think fortress America is slowly eroding because of our manufacturing base. I'd like your people's comment.
DONNANWell, this is the sale of the GE appliance business to Haier, a Chinese company, for some $5 billion. It was announced today. It's not the first sale of a kind of totemic American company. Remember way back, IBM selling its laptop business to a company called Lenovo. Those Lenovo laptops that you see at Best Buy nowadays used to be IBM laptops. Look, this is the story of recent decades in the global economy. This is globalization. And what you're -- the caller is expressing is the fear that we're seeing in the U.S. economy that we've been exporting our jobs in recent decades. And that obviously feeds into the political debate today and the rise of people like Donald Trump.
MCGINTYIrene in Gainesville, Fla.
IRENEHi. Thanks for taking my call.
IRENEMy question or my comment was about what you talked about earlier about how Donald Trump's comments about banning Muslims. I wanted to ask the panel, on the short and long term, how do you think that's going to affect national security?
NAIMThere is an interesting contradiction in Mr. Trump's statements and proposals because he's very disdainful of the capacity of the government to do things. Every time he speaks, he shows -- he gives examples of things that to him are appalled. He says that they are idiots, that they don't know. That the government, that the U.S. government doesn't know how to do things and how to perform. At the same time, his proposal requires massive government operations at a highly effective, efficient way. The logistics of doing what he wants to do -- either, you know, expelling 11 million Hispanics, or 12 million Hispanics, or selective, you know, closing the borders, and then, you know, targeting Muslins -- that requires massive governmental expansion.
NAIMAnd so he's against big government. But at the same time, he is proposing the largest government expansion that will be -- that we'll see in order to go ahead with -- to implement his plans.
MCGINTYI think it was interesting to note that several of the other candidates on stage last night made the very same point, that you can't have coalitions with people. It's like somebody said once, you can't call a girl ugly and then ask her to the prom, right? You can't tell people that we don't like you, we don't want your people, but will you help us fight this war?
DONNANYeah. Look, it's clear that the next president is going to have to engage with allies in the Middle East if they want to defeat ISIS. And that they're going to have to build a coalition. And as the other candidates were saying, that's going to be very hard to do if those people cannot come visit the United States.
MCGINTYNancy, what do you think?
YOUSSEFWell, my only thought is really this country has done such a phenomenal job of integrating its Muslim population, especially to Europe. Muslims in this country generally make more money, have integrated quite well. And so this idea then, now, brandishing a population that has embraced the American experience as well as anybody, just strikes me as unnecessary.
MCGINTYWe're having a lively conversation on the international stories of the week. And it's going to continue right after this break. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCGINTYYou are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I am Derek McGinty, sitting in for Diane this, Moises Naim is the chief international columnist for El Pais. Nancy Youssef, senior defense and national security correspondent at The Daily Beast, and Shawn Donnan, world trade editor for the Financial Times. They are our panel. And Nancy, I know you've been wanting to get to this situation in Iran. We had 10 U.S. sailors picked up. The boat somehow ventured into Iranian waters, still some question as to whether they ran out of fuel. What happened?
YOUSSEFNo -- well, these sailors were allegedly traveling between Kuwait and Bahrain. The problem is that coastline, and they're in Riverine boats, which are quite small, maybe 50 feet wide, and they don't really need to go off the coastline very far, arguably 30 miles maximum. And somehow these sailors found themselves in -- near Farsi Island, 90 miles in. And the Pentagon hasn't been quite clear about why. They say they diverted off course but were not really clear why.
YOUSSEFSomehow the Iranians were able to board two vessels, force these 10 sailors to put their hands on their heads, force someone to apologize, even though they said they were all treated well, and so the Obama administration found itself in a bit of a dilemma because on one hand it was celebrating the fact that the relationship between Secretary Kerry and counterpart Mohammad Zarif in Iran allowed this to resolve relatively quickly, about 18 hours, and yet at the same time, as they were sort of celebrating the benefits of this new-found diplomacy between the two nations, the Iranians were releasing one video after another, showing the sailors treated in a way that, while not violating international law, certainly violated international norms.
YOUSSEFAnd so the question becomes why were those two boats there. The original explanation was a mechanical problem, and yet if there -- and that they somehow drifted into Iranian waters. But if there's a mechanical problem, those sailors are trained to -- for one boat to tow the other, not to try to do repairs in the middle of the sea. And on top of that, when they were released, they were allowed to get into their boats and go to Bahrain. So if there was a mechanical problem, how did that happen? If they ran out of fuel, how does it happen in 2016 that U.S. sailors are running out of gas that long?
YOUSSEFThe official explanation from Secretary Carter yesterday was navigational errors, which again is very hard to understand since we all have GPS in our phones, and at what point do you have -- again, there are all these -- the Pentagon has really been quite mute about what happened. Privately there's a worry that there were serious mistakes made by the sailors. And then there was the public frustration of seeing sailors treated as they were, on their own boats no less, by the Iranians.
YOUSSEFBut overall, had the relationship between Kerry and Zarif not been what it was, we might have a very different situation. The challenge becomes -- is now you have diplomacy not between two countries but between two people. So what happens when one or both of those people leaves office?
DONNANLook, I think there's two ways. What actually happened there is going to be a mystery for some time. I'm guessing we're not going to get anyone being terribly forthcoming about the real situation there. But what was really telling this week was two things. One was the change in the relationship. When this happened in 2007, when Iran captured British sailors, it was a matter of weeks before they were released. It was much more of an agonizing crisis. And the same thing happened in 2004. Again, it took days for it to happen.
DONNANThis time, as Nancy says, it was resolved within a matter of hours.
MCGINTYYeah, but at the same time, why create the ugly atmospherics of sending out these videos and pictures? And it makes you think that they were kind of thumbing their nose at us.
DONNANYeah, but they also have domestic constituencies. I think, you know, a big part of that is playing to the hardliners in Iran, who themselves are uncomfortable with the Iran nuclear deal. There's -- you know, there's a propaganda machine that is aimed inward, as well as outward, there. I think the other fascinating thing for me, watching this an outsider here in Washington, was the two very different reactions to the crisis, the kind of the cool, calm head that Obama was trying to project, not even mentioning it in the State of the Union Address as this was unfolding, and the real dialing-up immediately of a sense of crisis that you saw on the Republican side.
NAIMAnd the background story here is that this is taking place just days before the implementation of the agreement of the nuclear deal between Iran and the six powers and the United States. To everybody's surprise, it's happening, and it's happening in a more effective way than anybody had anticipated. All of the safeguards are now being -- you know, there was an issue about the Iraq plutonium reactor. Now that has been taken care. It is filled with cement. So there are a lot of things that the experts said would never happen, and all of them are happening.
NAIMAnd is in the context of this complex negotiations that the sailors have either navigational problems or mechanical problems. And so it is very strange. But a year from now, no one will remember what happened with these sailors, and a year from now the deal...
MCGINTYEveryone will remember the Iran nuclear deal.
NAIMRight, and as my colleagues have said, a few years ago this would have become a hostage situation in which the sailors would be taken to a jail and, you know, and without -- and lots of uncertainty about how they would be released or not, and the United States with great pressures to do something about it, thus escalating a very difficult situation. None of that happened, and so that's very important.
MCGINTYLet's -- our listeners have thoughts on this one. It's Hank in Manistique, Michigan, you're on the air, Hank.
HANKThank you. My feeling is, and my understanding is, that those boats have, like, redundant GPS systems, like three at the most, they go in pairs so if they get in trouble they can help each other, and they carry extra fuel. My feeling is that this was an outright attack by the Iranians in international waters and that the Obama administration just didn't have enough intestinal fortitude to release it as that. That's my feelings. I'll take -- listen off the air.
MCGINTYIs that possible?
YOUSSEFWell, Hank's right in that there usually are redundant systems. These boats are relatively small. There wasn't a high-ranking officer on them, as one would think of. These were really young kids. But they -- might have jammed a system? Maybe the Pentagon says that they had spotty communications right before they disappeared, and then they lost communications altogether.
YOUSSEFWhat Hank's getting at, though, is it doesn't add up to what we're told about how the military is trained to handle situations. And even the images themselves, they were forced to put their hands on their head on their own boats. I mean, the U.S. boats can outpace the Iranian boats in that area, no doubt. If the Iranians are coming close, why couldn't they just turn around the other way? They could have outpaced them.
YOUSSEFWas it a mechanical problem in both boats, GPS problems in both boats? I mean, there's a lot of things that don't quite add up in this, and the consequence really is, you know, the rules of the sea, the laws of the sea, if you will, are as much perception as anything. And the U.S. military enjoyed undented, unscathed reputation as the superior naval power in the region. And the idea that the Iranians were able to board these boats and do what they did I think has punctured that image.
MCGINTYUnless, you know, I hate to this, you engage in some further speculation on the other extreme of what our friend Hank in Michigan said, which was that there was some secret mission going on, that these boats were intentionally in that region, and it just didn't work out, and they got caught. I mean, that could be it, as well. We don't know any more about it than Hank does, but if you want to speculate, you can go in either direction.
YOUSSEFWell, the lack of transparency from the Pentagon, and I work at the Pentagon every day, and it was notably muted, the response from the Pentagon. You couldn't get anybody to talk about it. And so I think that lack of transparency lends itself to all these speculative questions.
MCGINTYBut the other question would be, would the United States have something to gain by hiding the fact that this was an aggressive act by the Iranians, if it was indeed such? Would they have something to gain by hiding it, or would they play it up? I mean, Hank thinks that they would have something to gain by not playing up the aggressiveness.
NAIMWe don't know yet, and so the story here is either sheer incompetence and great ineptitude or spying and a far more complex conspiracy. As you say, you know, there's all kinds of speculations, what were they doing there. Were they spying? They were listening. There were trying to extricate someone from Iran. Who know? But we don't know. It's either gross ineptitude or very complex spying.
MCGINTYLet's talk to Ian, who's in Indianapolis, Indiana.
IANHey, thank you for taking my call. Sorry to hear that Diane's out on the operation. I hope she feels better.
MCGINTYShe's recovering even as we speak.
IANGood to hear. Good to hear. Well yeah, thanks for the great show today. My comment is broader scale. Going back to the attacks in Cologne, I do feel that, you know, what we're seeing here is the after-effects of, you know, clash of cultures, as it were. That's pretty obvious. But as someone like me, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, and so it's going to be a very easy comment for me to make. A lot of people are not going to be able to agree with it. But suffice it to say, if the human race's goal is to get to a point, progress to a point where we're all getting along peacefully and genuinely, our goal is world peace, we're going to have to do something, and I want to suggest something as extreme as a denouncement of religion entirely on both sides.
IANWhat we see in America, conservative circles, is a very extreme position taken, illustrated mostly from Donald Trump. I just see it, you know, from my point of view, it is the same but opposite, you know, side of the coin, you know, when we're talking about jihadi Islam, you know, extremists. When it comes down to trying to create a peaceful world, I just don't see when the fervor that leads to all of this violence and the vast, you know, differences in our cultures, as deeply entwined in religion as they seem to be on both sides, we're going to have to lose religion. We're going to have to de-emphasize the traditions that come with religion so that they do not lead to these emotionally charged, you know, viewpoints that lead to...
MCGINTYIan, it's certainly an interesting idea, one that I'm sure is not going anywhere, at least not at this point. Let's talk to Kyle in Dandridge, Tennessee.
KYLEHi, so I was wondering if it was an Iranian patrol boat that had lost power and drifted into our waters, say our Bahrainian bases there, you know, we would have definitely detained their sailors. And how would we have treated them? We would have boarded them and with weapons because they're drifting into our waters from international, and we probably would've detained them for much more than just a day, even. So...
YOUSSEFSo it's a little...
MCGINTYAll right, so you think that the treatment that we are complaining about we would have dealt out if it had been -- the situation had been reversed.
YOUSSEFSo it's a little complicated because as I understand the rules of the sea, if you will, is that if you are having a mechanical problem, that is sort of a reason to raise your hands and say we're having problems and that another nation would essentially offer help. The Defense Department has said that they would not -- they haven't really addressed whether they would board or not. What they've said is we wouldn't have broadcast videos of Iranian sailors with their hands on their heads and things of that sort.
YOUSSEFAnd so the question of would the U.S. have done it, it's hard to answer since we don't really understand the circumstances in which that -- those two Riverine boats found themselves. But I think at the minimum, it's fair to say that the U.S. wouldn't have broadcast those videos. Now when two Iranians -- or excuse me, when Iranian fishermen were -- I don't want to say detained, but the U.S. found them last year, they took videos, but they were smiling and posing. So that's -- if that's any metric, then there it is.
NAIMOne thing that we do know is what General Lloyd Austin, the commander of CENTCOM, which is -- he oversees military operations in the Persian Gulf. And he said that nothing was taken from the U.S. boats, that all equipment was there, that, you know, it was untouched. So it looked like it was a very swift, very quick return of the boats untouched.
MCGINTYAll right, I'm Derek McGinty, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Before we get out of here, and our time's running down, we're going to get to something a little lighter, a little lighter, Sean Penn and his conversation with El Chapo, the -- one of the most notorious, if not the most notorious, drug dealer in the world, now in custody. Sean's taken some heat and now says he regrets going through all these secret routes and so forth to get to his conversation with El Chapo. What's your take on this, Moises?
NAIMHe essentially says that he wanted to start a conversation about the policy of the war on drugs and that talking to Chapo would help with that. He now says also that the Mexican government felt humiliated that a Hollywood actor would get to El Chapo, where Mexican forces couldn't. And therefore that the Mexican government, in retaliation, released all these things in order to endanger and put at risk his life, that in some ways the government is -- the Mexican government is encouraging the cartels to put him in the crosshairs and that, you know, he's at risk.
NAIMThe main player in this, however, is not Sean Penn. He is the best known, but the big player is an actress, a Mexican actress called Kate del Castillo. And Chapo seemed to have been very attracted to her, and there is a trove of SMS, of messages in between the two in which they are organizing an encounter. They don't know each other, but Chapo, of course, is very attracted to this beautiful actress and invites her to -- and she says that she has a friend that she wants to bring, and that is Sean Penn.
NAIMAnd she reaches out to Sean Penn and proposes that they will go and meet together, and I think behind this is the idea of a movie about Chapo's life, that even Chapo -- Chapo seemed to have two goals. One is to get to be the best friends of Kate del Castillo and second is to have a movie about his life.
MCGINTYSo his ego was involved in this.
NAIMYou know, Hollywood's allure is very powerful, even for drug kingpins.
DONNANAnd I think that is really the lighter thing in this story. I mean a sinister man, but a sinister man like El Chapo having this ego and this crush on an actress. I think the one sure bet here is that if El Chapo set out to have a biopic made of him, and that was what the meetings with Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo were about, I think we're pretty sure now that we're going to see the biopic of El Chapo. It's a Hollywood love story now.
MCGINTYBut the question, the question now is, or that's being asked is, and Sean Penn wrote a piece for Rolling Stone about his encounter, you know, as a journalist, was that the right thing to do, to go find this much wanted criminal from, you know, and to sit down with him and in secret?
DONNANSo I think there's two things here that have been really the reaction among journalists. Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, very quickly tweeted out the other night a really haunting tweet, which was that Mexican journalists who have had experiences with El Chapo have had a very different experience and that he has been responsible for the death of many Mexican journalists who have tried to cover the drug war down there so that, you know, that is a -- something that we need to remember, that this is not a nice man and that his history with journalists hasn't been simply entertaining them in his jungle lair.
NAIMSean Penn has a history of dabbling in journalism. He interviewed Hugo Chavez. He interviewed I think Fidel Castro and others. And I think there is a consensus that we would rather him stick to being an actor rather than a journalist. He's not a very good journalist.
MCGINTYMoises Naim is the chief international columnist for El Pais. He's a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of book "The End of Power." Nancy Youssef, she's the senior defense and national security correspondent at The Daily Beast. Shawn Donnan is the world trade editor for the Financial Times. Folks, thanks so much for coming in, and we appreciate the conversation. I appreciate spending the week with you, the listeners of NPR here -- or WAMU. I'm Derek McGinty. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." Thank you so much for being here.
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