Susan Glasser and Peter Baker are veteran political journalists who closely covered the presidency of Donald Trump, he as the New York Times chief White House correspondent, she as a…
Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
Denmark faces a backlash over a new law to seize the valuables of asylum-seekers. Syrian peace talks hit a snag. And the World Health Organization warns the Zika virus is “spreading explosively.” A panel of journalists joins guest host Indira Lakshmanan for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Tom Bowman Pentagon correspondent, NPR
- Missy Ryan Pentagon reporter, The Washington Post
- Matthew Lee Diplomatic writer, Associated Press.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. A question mark hangs over Syrian peace talks due to get underway today amid disputes over whether an end to air strikes and blockades must be a precondition for negotiations. A top U.S. military official calls for an enduring U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. A new report from Human Rights Watch denounces Europe over its handling of the crisis of migrants fleeing Mideast warzones. The World Health Organization raises alarms over the explosive spread of the Zika virus.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoining us for the international hour of the Friday News Roundup, Tom Bowman, defense correspondent for NPR, Missy Ryan, Pentagon reporter for The Washington Post and Matthew Lee, diplomatic writer with The Associated Press. Thank you all for being here.
MR. TOM BOWMANThank you.
MS. MISSY RYANThanks.
MR. MATTHEW LEEGood to be here.
LAKSHMANANAnd we would like you, the listener, to join the conversation. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at email@example.com or you can always send us a message on Facebook or at tweet to @drshow. So Matt, I want to start off with this new round of peace talks on Syria that's supposed to be starting today, but it's definitely getting off to a rocky start. Tell us what's happening.
LEEWell, I think that's kind of an understatement, a rocky start. You know, these were supposed to be peace negotiations and they turned into proximity talks where, you know, the two sides aren't in the same room and they have the UN envoy running between them to now -- I think what we can say safely is no proximity talk because the main opposition group, the Saudi-backed opposition group is refusing to go so they're not even in Geneva. So, you know, it's an unusual way to get peace talks started when one side isn't even there.
LEEThat said, I don’t think that we can write it off as a complete disaster yet because in a way, you can do proximity talks, as were envisioned, with one party not there. It would be roughly the same. Does it really matter if they're in another room at the hotel or if they're in another city? So let's wait and see, but certainly not off to a good start.
LAKSHMANANYou're using a term, of course, that we're familiar with, together as being state department reporters covering Secretary Kerry and Secretary Clinton, but proximity talks essentially means shuttle diplomacy where you happen to be in neighboring rooms. Now, they're not even necessarily in neighboring rooms, as you say. What difference does it make if they're not even gonna meet with each other?
LEEWell, right, but it's more than they're not even in neighboring rooms. They're not even in neighboring cities. You know, they're a continent away.
LAKSHMANANWell, and the main problem is that the opposition groups are disputing what the standard should be for starting these peace talks.
RYANAnd I think another element that's underlying the situation there is that there's a perception among the opposition that the West is backing away from its insistence that Assad step down from power. And, you know, I think it's a fair criticism that they're making and there is increasing evidence that Russia's military involvement has strengthened Assad and is sort of reshaping not only the battlefield, but the diplomatic situation as well.
BOWMANIt shows you that Russia really is in the driver's seat here. They're doing a lot more bombing up around Aleppo and now to the south where there are Western-backed rebels. Now, the Russians are also looking at perhaps creating another airfield in northeast Syria. They've sent a couple of planes in there, some Russian soldiers to do measurements and so forth. People I talk with at the Pentagon said it reminds us of Latakia, when they went up there and trying to open an airfield.
BOWMANOne Pentagon official told me it would be a game-changer if Russia started to open an airfield up in northeast Syria. They're cozying up to the Kurds up there as well and also the Americans up there have just opened a supply base, resupply base for their several dozen special operators up in northeast Syria. So things are getting worse, not better in this.
LAKSHMANANWell, Bashar al-Assad's government, of course, bolstered by the Russian military support at this point is, as you say, in some cases, doing what it pleases. Is there any sign that the Syrian government is allowing or will allow humanitarian aid to reach people in besieged towns?
BOWMANThere's no sense of that happening yet. And the UN put out, I think, a report basically saying a half million people are in danger of starvation. I think another 7 million are in harm's way and a lot of those folks, let's face it, are gonna head for the exits and head up into Turkey and eventually into Europe to seek refugee status. Somebody told me last year when this all started, they said, Tom, it's gonna get worse before it gets better, but it seems every month, it is getting worse.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, Matt, I want to know what can negotiators hope to achieve at all without the opposition at the table?
LEEWell, I think, first of all, the opposition feels like it's being pressured to drop its main demand which it essentially in saying that Assad does not have to go, that they want, in order to attend the talks, they want an end to the bombardment. They want the opening of these humanitarian corridors and they want prisoners to be released. But, you know, the government doesn't even look like it's ready to take on that. You have senior Ba'ath party officials in Syria saying that they're not going to give anything up.
LEEThey're not going to make any concessions at all. And as we've been noting here, with the Russian support bolstering the regime, this has created a situation where the opposition is unlikely to get much, if anything at all, from showing up. And so I think that they're looking at this and saying, hey, if we can't get even our most minimal -- let's forget about Assad for the moment. We can't even get our most minimal requirements met, then what's the point. So I think that the best case scenario, which is really a bad scenario, but the best case scenario is that the UN envoy, Stefan de Misturo, is able to get the government in his meetings today in Geneva with their delegation, is able to get them to commit to one or more of the opposition's requirements and maybe that's the way to unlock it.
BOWMANBut why should they? They're in a stronger position.
RYANAnd it's not just Russian support. It's Iran. There's been no let-up in Iranian military support. Hezbollah is still there and very active and, you know, Iran, arguably, has stronger interest in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. And this is coming at a time -- it's interesting because Iran is the shadow player in the proximity talks and it's coming at a time when Iran is being welcomed back into Europe and its role in Syria just hasn't changed.
LAKSHMANANWell, of course, Tom, this takes us right back to the European migrant crisis because if this war is not being settled, we've already got, what is it -- the latest figure, 250,000 dead, more and more, hundreds and, in fact millions of people fleeing the country. So what is the latest on that? I mean, Danish lawmakers this week have approved a very controversial new bill. Tell us about that.
BOWMANWell, that's when they want to confiscate money above $1450 for each refugee coming in. Some have likened it to the Nazis stealing valuables from the Jews back during World War II. This shows you the pressure on governments and people in Scandinavian countries. They're inundated with these refugees. It think Sweden has the most per capita refugees coming in. And, again, this not going to get -- this is only gonna get worse. I was on this show, I think, two months ago. We were talking about Germany accepting refugees and there may be a backlash as a result of accepting these refugees.
BOWMANAnd this is precisely what happened. And, again, as the fighting continues and as the bombing increases around Aleppo and now in the south, you're going to see more and more of these, I think, 4 to 7 million people displaced within Syria start to head for the exits. They're going to go right up through Turkey into Jordan or back into Lebanon and a lot of those people are going to press into Turkey and into Europe and it's going to be a hoard. You're not going to be able to stop them, as some say, just turn them back and let them go home. They're not gonna go home.
RYANAnd two key things have happened, Tom, actually since we were here last and that was, obviously, the November 13 Paris attacks and the attacks, the sexual assaults, that took place in Cologne, Germany, around the year.
LAKSHMANANThat have been blamed on some migrants.
LAKSHMANANOr at least some refugees.
RYANAnd in Paris, of course, many of the attackers had fought in Syria and some of them, we believe, used the migrant route to get back into Europe possibly. And so I think it's hard to overstate the anxiety level in Europe about these two things, which may or may not be legitimately linked, but in the public perception, they are.
LEEAnd it's not just Norway and Germany, you know. You have rightwing movements in Hungary and Poland and France and, you know, to a certain extent, we see this being played out kind of in the domestic U.S. political arena. So this is...
LAKSHMANANWith Donald Trump's comments about migrants and others.
LEEPrecisely, precisely. I mean, those sound, you know, he could be a rightwing European leader.
LAKSHMANANWell, it's interesting because even Sweden with, of course, this reputation as one of the most liberal Scandinavian states with a very large welfare state is also now taking a tougher stance on these migrants from war torn countries.
LEEPrecisely. And I think that we're going to see this trend continuing, especially if there's no progress at all in these peace talks.
LAKSHMANANWell, I think Sweden has said that they're going to reject up to 80,000 people who've applied for asylum in the country in the last year, as many as half of whom would be forced to, essentially, be deported against their will. I'm wondering what has the reaction been in Europe to this because, of course, Europe prides itself on being a welcoming place and many of these countries are social democrat governments. What has the reaction been to the governments toughing their stance?
RYANI mean, I think that Europeans are divided, like Americans are divided. You know, obviously, there are many Europeans who, as you say, pride themselves on their welcoming of refugees. I remember when I worked in Iraq, many of the Iraqi colleagues I had sort of saw the Scandinavian countries as this utopia where they could resettle and sort of integrate seamlessly into society. And now, clearly, those assumptions are no longer valid, at least without question.
RYANAnd I think that, you know, it's really getting at these underlying fears that people have not just about their own security and the fears of terrorism, but economic security as well. I think that there's a debate that's really raging right now as to whether or not migrants are good for Europe's economy and I think that there are people who are making very passionate arguments on both sides of that.
BOWMANAnd it shows you what...
LAKSHMANANAnd Human Rights Watch actually weighed in on this, denouncing Europe's handling of the migrant crisis, saying there was blatant Islamophobia and demonizing of refugees. And I think that ties into what you said, Missy, about the Paris attacks. All right. We're gonna have to take a short break here. Coming up, more with your comments and you questions on the international news headlines of the week. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining me here in the studio for the whole hour to talk about the international headlines of this week, Matt Lee, diplomatic writer for the Associated Press, Missy Ryan, Pentagon reporter for The Washington Post, and Tom Bowman, defense correspondent at NPR. Before the break, we were talking about the Syrian war and how it spawned this incredible refugee crisis in Europe, and how it seems to not be getting any better at all. Tom?
BOWMANNo. That's right. You know, the bombing is continuing by the Russians and Syrians north of Damascus, around Aleppo and they've opened a new front in the South, as well. And we are -- as we were talking earlier, this is gonna lead to more people, the millions of displaced people within Syria heading for the exits, up through Turkey and into Europe.
BOWMANAnd that Europe has been inundated with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of refugees. And now they're pulling up the welcome mat and they're saying we can't accept anymore. And Sweden, of course, is gonna start putting people on planes and deporting them from the country.
LAKSHMANANAnd this is also affecting policy, to some extent, in the United States, Matt.
LEERight. I mean, we've seen the legislation passed that enhances scrutiny of the 38 countries that are in Visa waiver program for dual nationals or people from those countries who have been…
LAKSHMANANAnd includes many Europeans, of course.
LEEIndeed, it does. Anyone who has been in one of these state sponsors of terrorism countries, which would be Syria or Sudan, will have to now get a Visa to -- in the last five years -- will have to get a Visa to come into the country. They can't take advantage of this program anymore. It's causing huge resentment among Europeans. But, you know, this…
LAKSHMANANThe Visa waiver program, of course, means that if you're from one of those so-called friendly countries you don't even need a Visa, you can just show up in the United States. Now, if you're European and you've been to Syria or Sudan, you know, no dice.
LEECorrect. Well, you have to go and get a Visa, which it can be a time consuming process. And certainly is frustrating and inconvenient. But we're -- what I think the American people need to look out for is reciprocity. European countries tightening up their own allowance of U.S. citizens or dual U.S. citizens to get into their countries.
LAKSHMANANWell, we have listener on Twitter who's saying, "If the nation states in Europe are prepared to reject refugees, than it seems their best long-term strategy is to make Syria a desirable home." That comes back to everything, doesn't it?
RYANEasier said than done. I mean, you know, here we are. We're almost five years into this crisis and there's no end in sight.
LAKSHMANANAnd let me put this to you, Missy. We have an email from Dennis, in North Carolina, who says, "If Assad leaves," so if the Syrian peace talks work, if Assad leaves, "doesn't that leave a void that will necessarily be filled by ISIS?"
RYANWell, I think that's what the outside powers are trying to avoid, to keep as much of the Syrian state intact in some sort of transition process. And one of -- but obviously, one of the most contentious issues is the sort of depth of the state or how far with -- into the government institutions do you reach in keeping technocrats and bureaucrats who may not have any sort of affiliation, political affiliation with the outside regime. And to what extent do you make the people who are most associated with the abuses that have taken place leave power.
BOWMANWell, that's absolutely right. You're gonna have to have some sort of functioning bureaucracy, functioning government. Assad does not have to be at the head of that, but you need to keep the trains running on time and everything else within a government. One of the things Pentagon people worry about, and foreman chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Marty Dempsey, right before he left said, what I worry about most is Assad just falling and ISIS just heading into Damascus, which would be a real nightmare scenario.
BOWMANI don't think anybody believes that will happen. And again, we talked earlier about Assad's in a better position now than he's ever been, with Russian and Iranian support. But the concern is that government falling. I don't see that happening. The way is how do you get to a transition government with Assad now in a better position than he's ever been in.
RYANAnd really, I mean, what people are afraid of is a repeat of what occurred in Iraq, where there was a disintegration of the government. To a large extent, we saw what happened there. And then in a more recent example, in Libya, which has sort of come back to haunt the West even as we speak. You know, there was no real plan for keeping the Libyan institutions, as flimsy as they were, intact and then, you know, the country disintegrated into civil war.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, one listener, James, from Pittsburgh, Pa., is chiding us, pointing out that we're referring to the Syrians as migrants and we should be referring them as refugees.
BOWMANThat's a fair point. There certainly are -- there is a lot to flee from in Syria. And they are certainly legitimate refugees. I think that we may have just fallen into this shorthand of our migrants, which would include, you know, others, people from north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa who are perhaps not fleeing conflict as bad as what is in Syria, more economic migrants.
BOWMANBut, yeah, you know, this idea that there could be a power vacuum in Syria on Assad's departure is a real fear. And -- but it's also one that, of course, the Russians and the Iranians and Assad himself have been warning about for some time now, saying that, you know, there's only one person who can really hold what's left of the state together, and that's Assad. And there's no clear successor to him.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, I want to move on to another story in the news this week, which is Afghanistan. Missy, President Obama's nominee to become the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. Tell us what he said and also fill us in about your story this week about an about-face within the Obama administration over a possible decades-long commitment for U.S. troops there. We were all supposed to be out, I thought, by the end of last year.
LAKSHMANANBut tell us about it.
RYANIt's been a pretty striking year for people who are following Afghanistan. You know, even only a few months ago the U.S. military was actively planning for bringing the American military presence to a close entirely by the time Obama leaves office. And, you know, there's been -- he backed away from that plan. There's been a number of changes to his stated plan from 2014 to end the war in Afghanistan.
RYANAnd that's a reflection of deteriorated security there. The fact that al-Qaida remains a resilient force. Now, you have an ISIL presence in eastern Afghanistan. And what we're really seeing now are military commanders talking about many years, potentially decades, of requiring at least thousands of foreign troops, American troops most likely, in order to help the local forces withstand the threats that they face.
LAKSHMANANSo just give us the numbers. Right now there are about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
LAKSHMANANAnd the question is last October Obama abandoned this plan to take the troops down to zero by the end of 2016, by the end of this year. And instead he's now gonna shrink them to 5,500, is that right?
RYANAs it stands now, but there's a widespread expectation that that may be changed again. And certainly there was a suggestion yesterday from Lt. Gen. Mick Nicholson that because of deteriorated security that those plans may be -- may need to be revised.
BOWMANThat's what General Nicholson said, that if you go down to 5,000 that may not be enough to push back the Taliban and also any al-Qaida that comes into the country. And you're right, they destroyed an al-Qaida camp south of Kandahar back in October. It was a huge camp. And the U.S. went in and bombed it repeatedly. But it shows the resilience of al-Qaida coming back into Afghanistan. It shows you also the resurgence of the Taliban, too. Those are the big concerns.
BOWMANThe Taliban now is pushing into Helmand Province, which the Marines pushed back the Taliban back in 2009, when I was there with them. A lot of blood, a lot of wounded and killed by the Marine Corps. And now those areas captured by the Marine Corps are back in Taliban hands. So there are a couple things going on. And Missy's right. They're looking at the troop levels. And a lot of people you talk with privately say we don't think we'll be dropping from 10,000 to 5,000 by year's end.
BOWMANWe'll likely keep at 10,000 well into 2017. That's one issue. The other issue John Campbell, the current -- Gen. John Campbell, the current commander there, wants to push U.S. troops closer to the front lines with Afghan forces to prevent the loss of key terrain, like in Helmand Province, the provincial capital Lashkar Gah and other areas. He also wants to use more air power, more airstrikes to help the Afghan forces. We saw some of that up in Kunduz and of course there was that tragedy at the hospital, killed several dozen people.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. The bombing by U.S. forces.
BOWMANAbsolutely. And also in Marjah you saw airstrikes, as well, pushing back the Taliban in Marjah in the Helmand Province, too. So next year look for U.S. troops closer to the front lines. Look for a lot more American airstrikes to push back this tide of the Taliban.
LAKSHMANANMatt, you know, here we have Tom referring to a Taliban resurgence. Can we link that directly to a reduced U.S. and NATO troop presence?
LEEI think it's hard not to, to make that link. You know, we -- there was just a special -- the inspector general for reconstruction just came out with a new report this morning, saying that the Afghan government or, sorry, the Taliban and other forces control about 30 percent of Afghan territory, which is not good at all. And certainly not a sign of -- that reducing the number of foreign troops, particularly American troops, has contributed to this. We talk about the pathetic state of the Syrian…
LAKSHMANANAnd that's 30 percent -- that's Taliban control in one-third of the country 15 years…
LEECorrect, yes, correct.
LAKSHMANAN…after the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power and has had troops in ever since.
LEEAnd we talk about the pathetic state of the Syrian peace talks, I mean, they, you know, there has been an effort now for the last month or so to get an Afghan peace talks going, to get the Taliban in. The U.S., the Chinese, the Pakistanis and the Afghans all working on this. But that's going nowhere at all either. In fact, you see the Taliban increasing its presence.
RYANI just want to add one thing regarding NATO and European troops. The Obama administration has actually come in for a lot of criticism from its European allies for what they see as a precipitous, sort of politically driven withdrawal. And I think that that has contributed to American decisions to slow the timeline and now really take a hard look at what Afghanistan is gonna need in the future.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Tom, give us a very quick summary of, you know, there was also talk this past week about U.S. involvement in another place, a place that has ISIS now, about 3,000 ISIS fighters. I'm talking about Libya.
BOWMANWell, roughly 1,000 to 2,000 ISIS fighters, I believe, around the city of Surt. And what the U.S. is -- there were meetings at the White House this week on Libya. There'll be more meetings as well. And what they're looking at is to come up with a government of national accord. There are two governments now in Libya. There's one based in Tripoli, there's another in the East. They're trying to bring these two groups together and come up with, you know, an umbrella government.
BOWMANAnd once, and if, that happens, they're looking at sending in a fairly sizable number of NATO troops, Italians and Brits, maybe a couple of thousand, to provide security around Tripoli, to also train some sort of government army as well. And the U.S. would provide enablers, intelligence, surveillance, radar, it could be refueling planes, it could be drones to provide surveillance, it could be bombing runs around this area of Surt where all these ISIS leaders, ISIS fighters are hanging out now.
BOWMANAnd the concern is this, that with Libya you have a growing ISIS presence that's close to Egypt and close to Italy, right across the water in the Mediterranean. So there's a great concern. And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dunford, says he's very, very worried about the increased ISIS presence there. But the bottom line is Libya has to form a government before anything happens.
LAKSHMANANAll right. I'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's turn our attention to Iran, which seemed to go on a little bit of a shopping spree in Europe this week, after international sanctions were lifted. What kind of deals are we seeing or might we see, Matt?
LEEWell, we saw the big one with Airbus, you know. What, $25 billion worth of planes that were signed during President Rouhani's visit to France. I think we can expect to see a lot more of that, particularly related to, you know, heavy industry infrastructure, roads and bridges and that kind of thing. Yeah, European countries are looking -- companies, sorry, are looking to take great advantage of these -- of the nuclear sanctions being lifted. And I think we're just gonna see more and more. Iran is a big market for these countries and their companies.
LAKSHMANANWell, I'm thinking that Iran could actually be kind of key to European economies. Just this week, France declared a state of economic emergency. And they have almost 11 percent unemployment. And Germany's industrial production growth has gone down to zero since the start of the year. So, Missy, I mean, I think we've all asked ourselves this question, whether part of the push for lifting sanctions on Iran was also because it could be a real boom to European companies.
RYANIt's a good question. Yeah, it's a country with 80 million people, a large middle class, a taste for Western consumer goods. So there are a lot of opportunities. You know, in addition to the Airbus deal there was a deal, 400 million Euros for Peugeot, which gets them back in the market that was very lucrative for them. But there are also a lot of risks for European countries, especially firms in the financial sector. There are, you know, sanctions that are still in place, and there's always the threat of the snap-back provisions that, you know, could run companies into legal problems and fees. So the risks are not -- the opportunities are not without the risk here.
BOWMANYeah, we had a French Iranian lawyer on NPR last night talking about the Peugeot deal. They plan on building 200,000 cars at a facility outside of Tehran. It's the second largest automaker in Iran and they left in 2012 when the sanctions kicked in. But there's also concerns, this lawyer said, about, you know, will the sanctions go back into place, will there be a snap-back. And also, they can't deal with American banks, as well, because of sanctions are still in place.
BOWMANSo the European companies are worried about that. If they have American subsidiaries, let's say, they have to make sure that, you know, the money is kept away from the Americans, the banks and subsidiaries. So it's very complicated. And there's concern, again, that you could have a snap-back of these sanctions. And these businessmen will be in trouble, you know.
LAKSHMANANWell, the snap-back is a really key point. It's something that the opponents of this nuclear accord insured were worked into the nuclear deal. That means that if Iran, at any time, doesn't comply with that agreement that we covered for two and a half years to get there, that they could just -- those -- all those sanctions could come right back. So how risky is it, Matt, for these -- for France and Italy and others to engage in these deals?
LEEWell, I mean, I think there is a risk, but I'm not sure that the risk is going to be enough to give them much pause. The immediate benefits, revenue benefits, from getting back into the Iranian market will probably, in the end I think, outweigh the threat of snap-back, which a lot of people don't think is really a viable threat. It has been written in a way so that they would automatically go back in and -- which was designed to prevent the Russians and the Chinese from not allowing them to back.
LEEBut, you know, for that to happen, you have to have the IAEA find Iran in material breach of the agreement and, you know, there's a question as to whether they'll be able to do that, even if Iran is cheating.
LAKSHMANANAnd key point, though, is regardless, even if Iran complies with everything, U.S. companies cannot follow suit. Tell us why.
RYANWell, I mean, there are American sanctions that still are in place. And that…
BOWMANBecause of terrorism and human rights abuses. So…
RYANExactly. And so they have to negotiate around those. But what I was gonna say is there's this economic (unintelligible), you have these European countries sort of salivating at these, you know, legitimate business opportunities. But there's this sort of veneer of -- this awkward veneer that is there, too, at this moment.
RYANWhich is, you know, you have the Iranian leader come to Europe. And you have the -- a lot of criticism from the Italian public over a decision and Italy to cover up nudes from Roman antiquity in a museum where the Iranian delegation was hosted. You had France keeping wine off the menu.
BOWMANOh, no, they didn't.
RYAN…out of respect…
LAKSHMANANNo, they didn't.
LAKSHMANANThe France refused to keep wine off the menu. They said -- what they said was we're not gonna have any state dinner then or state lunch because we will never take wine off our menu for a state meal.
RYANSo you have a debate here over whether -- what is appropriate.
RYANAnd I think that there is, you know, I mean, there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of that.
LAKSHMANANWell, I think, you know, one important thing to point out is that it's not just the terrorism and human rights sanctions that continue in the United States. It's also the primary U.S. embargo on Iran. So U.S. companies cannot do business with Iran except in a few cases, pistachios, carpets, things like that. So, you know, they're not getting to take advantage of this.
LEEThere are some opportunities. There were some industries that were carved out, including civil aviation. So I think…
LEE…we may be able to see some U.S. firms.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. But very minor, not on the level that the Europeans can do it. All right. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back more of your calls and your comments. And more about this week's international headlines. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining me this hour in the studio to talk about this week's top international headlines, Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for NPR, Missy Ryan, defense reporter for The Washington Post, Matt Lee, diplomatic correspondent for the Associated Press. I want to go to some of the comments we're getting from our listeners. Mike in D.C. says your guests' comparison of the Danish government taking some wealth from migrants to what the Germans did to the Jews before World War II is simply ridiculous.
LAKSHMANANI don't necessarily agree with what the Danes are doing, but they are taking noncitizens into their country and providing some services to those people. The Nazis were stealing wealth from their own German citizens before incarcerating and killing them.
BOWMANWell, I was quoting what other people are saying about this, critics. I wasn't comparing it to the Nazis. Others have been saying that.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. Of course it comes down to the question of Scandinavia being seen as a welcoming place, and I think Europe in general having had its arms open to refugees. As one of our listeners pointed out, they're not economic migrants, they're refugees. All right, let's take a call from Casper in Orlando, Florida. Casper, you're on the line.
CASPERHello, my name is Casper, actually (unintelligible) .
LAKSHMANANI'm sorry, you said you were Danish citizen?
CASPERYes I am, yes I am. And my comment (unintelligible) as part of a PR campaign that started when the Danish government put an ad in the Syrian newspaper discouraging refugees from going to Denmark. And this is the backlash we're seeing from sales of public relations from not understanding how international, national branding works. So sending these messages to refugees is now giving you a backlash, and I just don't think it's worth that sort of approach, and it looks like incompetence on the Danish government's part.
CASPERIn my opinion, and I wanted to...
LAKSHMANANAll right, well so Casper is saying that it's basically saying the political capital of Denmark by trying to give signals to make people stay away, putting an ad I papers in Syria, saying that Denmark is not a nice place to be. What's your reaction?
LEEI don't think -- it's a very unusual non-marketing or anti-marketing campaign for any government to take on. Don't come here. We're going to -- we're not good, and we're not welcoming. But I think, you know, you see from this new legislation that that is a -- you know, they're trying to make it push the point home that look, if you're going to -- please don't come, but if you do come, expect to cough something up because we're not just going to give away these benefits for free.
LAKSHMANANAnd Casper's specific point is that it's hurting Denmark's image in the world. Is that true?
RYANPotentially to a certain extent, but I think when you're getting to their objective, which is deterring migration or asylum-seeking from Syria, I just doubt that that's going to work in the short term because there is such desperation there. And, you know, there's also limited information.
BOWMANListen, if you're being bombed and starved to death, an ad in the newspaper is not going to stop you from voting with your feet.
LAKSHMANANAll right, let's go to the Zika virus. This week, the World Health Organization said that the Zika virus, which is suspected of being linked to birth defects in children and paralysis in adults is spreading explosively. For listeners, we did an entire hour on this earlier in the week with top listeners on infectious diseases, so if you want to the total nitty-gritty details, you can go to our website at drshow.org and listen to the full audio.
LAKSHMANANIn the meantime, Tom, tell us what the WHO said yesterday.
BOWMANWell, they said it's exploding throughout Central and South America. They're -- I guess they're telling women in Brazil not to get pregnant. I think Salvador and Jamaica, as well. It's a huge problem. They're trying to deal with, trying to eradicate it, but it's -- again, it's explosive. I guess the only good news is that they think it's unlikely it'll move into the United States. I guess the type of mosquito that carries this is not prevalent in the United States.
BOWMANThe tiger mosquito is all over the United States. I can tell you from personal experience in my own backyard in Alexandria, the tiger mosquito there in the summer is prevalent, but for the Zika virus, it looks like it won't head into the United States. But again, it's a huge problem and expanding in Central and South America.
LEEIt's a huge problem also for people coming there and going -- coming from there and also people going there. I mean, look, we've got Brazil about to host the Olympics in August. The situation is pretty dire.
LAKSHMANANAnd Brazil is at the epicenter of this outbreak.
LEEExactly, and, you know, is this going to make some Olympic teams, spectators, think twice about going there?
BOWMANAnd there was a picture in the newspaper, a bunch of guys spraying down in Brazil of the tennis venue down in -- down there for the Olympics.
LAKSHMANANThat's right, and the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has said that the country is waging war on mosquitoes, and they literally employing troops, Brazilian troops, to go around and help health workers spray. But in fact we were told by experts earlier this week that the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carried the Zika virus, does actually exist in Florida. So Margaret Chan, the head of the WHO, was talking about how it could even -- it's now in two dozen countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, it could come into the United States, right, Missy?
RYANYeah, I mean, there have been 31 cases imported into the United States so far, but all the birth defects, there have been -- appear to have originated in Brazil. But I think that it's really important to mention that the scientific picture is far from complete. They haven't even established conclusively a link between the virus and this microcephaly and the brain damage that you're seeing in the thousands of children in Brazil. So there's a lot more research to be done, and I think the hope is that the international community can galvanize around sort of accelerated research and a potential, you know, vaccination and stuff like that, the way they did for Ebola.
BOWMANAnd they're saying it's going to take years for a vaccine.
BOWMANThat there's no cure right now.
LAKSHMANANAlthough now we know that the vaccine experts are working on it. They're hoping that big pharma is going to get behind it because there's this possibility, and I think this is part of the reason that Margaret Chan of the WHO was raising the alarm, given that it could, you know, infect the mosquitoes in Florida. They were talking about sort of accelerating work towards a vaccine. The WHO is going to have an emergency meeting on Monday to help determine the response. Last year, the WHO was criticized for reacting too slowly to Ebola, right?
LEECorrect, correct, and so now we have, you know, again a situation where WHO and -- is coming under scrutiny, and we'll see, you know, how -- what they're able to do. Do not forget that the mosquito, a mosquito, is the most dangerous animal on the planet. It carries all sorts of things. I mean, it doesn't carry Ebola, but it does -- it does carry malaria, which is a big killer, and now the Zika virus. So, you know, eradication of mosquito is definitely the first place to start here.
BOWMANI would like to know what they're spraying, too, and how prevalent the spraying is. I don't recall anybody spraying around this area, for example.
LAKSHMANANRight, well apparently they're using DEET, and so that's what they're doing in Brazil, and also trying to eliminate standing water. We had listeners who were concerned about having a pregnant -- about having young daughters who would in future become pregnant and whether they would be in danger, whether their future fertility is in danger, and the answer we got earlier, I can say, from Anthony Fauci, the doctor who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was that they frankly don't know yet. This is part of what WHO is trying to figure out.
RYANAnd one thing to add is -- another thing that the scientists are trying to get to the bottom of is whether or not the microcephaly is just one of potential additional problems caused to unborn children by the virus, and I think that they have seen -- there is some suggestion that in Brazil there are children who don't have microcephaly but have brain lesions that they think may be linked to this.
LAKSHMANANInteresting, in the cases of microcephaly that you referred to, which is the small brain, every one of those children apparently had the Zika virus in the brain, so there's a correlation, but they haven't yet proven that that is the cause.
LAKSHMANANSo another thing going on this week, it may not be -- a lot of our listeners may not have heard about it, but it's the trial of the former president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo. It began this week at the International Criminal Court. It's a real test of this court now, which -- he's the first former head of any state to reach trial at this particular tribunal in the Hague, right, Matt?
LEEThat is correct. It is a -- let's say it's a feather in the cap, for want of a better phrase, for the ICC, which is based in the Hague, to even get him and get him on trial there. But, you know, as we've seen with other tribunals, you know, the victory for the prosecution is not assured. Laurent Gbagbo was probably -- has been held responsible for many deaths during the -- his refusal to stand down after elections, and, you know, I think this -- he will mount a stirring defense. Already his lawyers have said that, you know, the ICC does not even have standing to try him.
LEESo it will be a test for the ICC and its panel, three-judge panel that are look at this, and it's going to take a long time before we know whether or not it has succeeded in producing and holding someone accountable for the violence that happened there.
RYANAnd I would just add that if it is successful that there are plenty of other, more recent incidents of violence around disputed elections that you can imagine might make their way to the Hague.
LEECorrect, and remember the ICC has an outstanding warrant for a current leader.
LEEThe president of Sudan.
LEEExactly, Omar al-Bashir, and, you know, there is absolutely no indication that arrest warrant is ever going to be acted upon. President Bashir seems to fly around the African continent and to other places without...
LAKSHMANANUnstopped, yes. And also let's not forget that the judges at the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Colonel Gaddafi of Libya in 2011. He of course was killed soon afterwards, they didn't get a chance with him. They also pursued President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya on charges about post-election violence there.
LEEWhich were dropped.
LAKSHMANANWhen eventually dropped. So there have been some big misses for this court. All right, well, let's take a call from Larry in Hollywood, Florida. Larry, go ahead, you're on the air.
LARRYYeah, thank you for taking my call.
LARRYI'm from Nigeria originally, and I'm concerned about the virus spread by the mosquitoes because to my understanding, they say that the virus was originally from Africa.
LARRYAnd nobody is telling us about the kids or the women in Africa that are affected. And if they are not affected, did they have immunization against it? And if they were affected, how come this wasn't addressed before now, before it even started spreading to other parts of the countries.
LAKSHMANANAll right, well, Larry brings up an interesting point. The Zika virus is, of course, named after the Zika Forest in Uganda, and it was first spotted in 1947 in Africa. But I think it's partly that it's because it has not had a terrible spread in Africa. For some reason, it has had a terrible spread in Latin America and the Caribbean. So that's what's brought it to our attention.
LEEI think that's right. You know, who would've heard -- before two weeks ago had heard of Zika virus? I don't know. I don't follow it closely, but perhaps there are -- the WHO, it was on their radar screen, as well as other -- as well as other physicians of the medical -- you know, in the medical community. But certainly as a common knowledge for the public, Zika is new.
LAKSHMANANAll right, I'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, I want to take another call here from Mark in Windsor, New Hampshire. Mark, go ahead, you're on the air.
MARKHi there, Indira, thanks for taking my call.
MARKI just wanted to make a comment on 50, 60 years from now, how are we going to look back at all these conflicts that have been going on since the World Trade Center came down? And are we going to be looked at as a passive population for not trying to come out to a solution that is not just an all-out war for years?
LAKSHMANANOkay, thank you, Mark, I think that's a good question for you, Tom. How are we going to look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even Syria, Libya? Will these be something that we sat by idly and didn't take care of properly, the caller wants to know?
BOWMANWell, there's some argument that four or five years ago, it would've been wise to train and arm Syrian rebels when ISIS was in its infancy. You had the entire national security establishment telling President Obama to do that. He decided not to. We'll never know what impact that would've had. Likely you would've -- ISIS would not have grown as strong, they would not have created a caliphate, with General Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, calls their center of gravity that you have to remove.
BOWMANI think 50, 60 years from now, you will see a different Syria and Iraq, even if they're called by those names. I find that one of the most interesting stories. After ISIS is defeated, and we don't know how long it'll take, a year or two or three, what will happen to those countries. Can they exist as they do now? Well -- the borders don't exist anymore. Will you see Iraq split up into thirds, with the Kurds and Sunni and Shiite? Will Syria become something else? Will there be an independent Kurdistan? I find those to be absolutely fascinating issues.
BOWMANI was on a trip with a senior Army official last month, and he went to several places in Iraq and Israel, talked to all sorts of leaders, and a lot of them said the same thing, Iraq doesn't exist anymore.
RYANI think it's a great question. I think there's a legitimate argument for the sort of passivity of the United States in the face of human rights abuses in some of the countries that we're talking about. Obviously from a societal perspective, there's a low rate of participation in the military compared to conflicts in the past like World War II, but on the other hand, I think there's a very legitimate criticism for the cases in which we've taken a more activist foreign policy and jumping into situations like Iraq that we clearly weren't prepared for as a country with really great, tragic results that we all saw, starting 2003.
LAKSHMANANAll right, well, we have two listeners here, Bradley from Wichita, Kansas, and Jamie from Tampa, Florida, who are making similar points. They're saying we need to allow Syrian refugees into the United States. It is the humane thing to do. And Jamie says it's also not just Syrian refugees, but that her village near Tampa -- or sorry, her village in Germany, it seems she lives in Tampa and Germany, is full of people from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Everyone's trying to help as much as they can.
LEEYes, I mean, it is the humane thing to do to accept them, but at times of, you know, great upheaval like what we're seeing now, not just in Syria, not just in Iraq, not just in Libya, in times of great upheaval, it is often the case that the humane thing to do become politically unpopular or in some cases even politically impossible to follow through on.
LEESo, you know, if you look at the map, you know, red as we would say, conflict areas, from North Africa through the Middle East, you know, it -- I don’t think we're yet at the, you know, second coming phase of this, but certainly the 21st-century version of Yeats might want to be starting to warm up his pen or her pen, as it were, because as we've all been saying here, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
BOWMANAnd you have a number of governors in the United States saying we won't accept Syrian refugees, even if they're children. There's a great deal of fear here, that the terrorists will come in with these groups. But I think the caller raises a good point that the U.S. probably could do a lot more bringing in refugees not only from Syria but from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well. A lot of Iraqis who work for the American military, for example, have a real hard time getting into this country.
LAKSHMANANLast word, Missy?
RYANYou know, I think that it's -- in some ways it's the nature of our country at stake. I think that, you know, we've built ourselves as a nation of immigrants, and this is our opportunity to show that we continue to do that.
LAKSHMANANAll right, Missy Ryan, Pentagon reporter with the Washington Post, Tom Bowman, a defense correspondent with NPR, Matt Lee, diplomatic correspondent with the Associated Press. Thank you all so much for joining us this hour. Thank you to all of our listeners. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Tune back in next week. Thanks.
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