Guest Host: Tom Gjelten

People greet US military convoys on the Czech- Polish border near Harrachov village on their way from Baltic countries to base in Vilseck, southern Germany in March 2015.  As a signal to Russia, the U.S. plans to quadruple military spending in Europe, particularly in the central and eastern regions.

People greet US military convoys on the Czech- Polish border near Harrachov village on their way from Baltic countries to base in Vilseck, southern Germany in March 2015. As a signal to Russia, the U.S. plans to quadruple military spending in Europe, particularly in the central and eastern regions.

The head of NATO says Russian air strikes in Syria are undermining efforts to end the civil war. Syrian peace talks were suspended this week; they’re set to resume later this month. Saudi Arabia for the first time offers to deploy ground troops in Syria to join the fight against ISIS. Meanwhile, the strength of ISIS in Libya is forcing the Obama administration to weigh a larger U.S. presence there. The U.S. announces plans to quadruple military spending in Europe in response to aggressive moves by Russia. And a U.N. human rights panel calls for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to be freed immediately. A panel of journalists joins guest host Tom Gjelten for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.


  • Mark Landler White House correspondent, The New York Times
  • Nadia Bilbassy Washington bureau chief, Al Arabiya
  • Jay Solomon Foreign affairs correspondent, The Wall Street Journal.


  • 11:06:53

    MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on a book tour, but will be back next week. Saudi Arabia offers to send ground troops to Syria to fight ISIS. The U.S. plans to quadruple military spending in Europe as a signal to Russia, and a UN panel finds Julian Assange should be allowed to walk free from the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

  • 11:07:17

    MR. TOM GJELTENJoining us for the international hour of the Friday News Roundup, Mark Landler, White House correspondent for The New York Times, Nadia Bilbassy, Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya and Jay Solomon, foreign affairs correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. And we want your input. Call us with your questions and comments on the international news of the week. Our phone number's 1-800-433-8850. You can email us, or you can go to our website or our Facebook page or you can send us a tweet.

  • 11:07:50

    MR. TOM GJELTENPanelists, thanks for coming in.

  • 11:07:51

    MR. MARK LANDLERThank you.

  • 11:07:51

    MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning.

  • 11:07:51

    MR. JAY SOLOMONGood morning, Tom.

  • 11:07:52

    GJELTENJay, let's begin with you with the story with which we have begun the international news hour too many times over the last few years, Syria. More terrible news this week. We had peace talks going. They fell apart. They will resume, but what's the prospects?

  • 11:08:12

    SOLOMONThe prospects are not great right now. Basically, you had the talks going underway in Geneva. No one was optimistic going ahead and in the middle of the talks, the Russian and the Syrian air force has sort of accelerated an offensive to retake Aleppo, which was a real rebel stronghold. And the reason the Russians kind of intervened in the first place in September was fears that the Assad regime in their heartland was being choked off.

  • 11:08:38

    SOLOMONAnd the opposition group getting heavily pressured by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and their kind of biggest supporters were not gonna stay in a process where basically it looked like the Russians and the Syrians and the Iranians, which formed this alliance, were using the talks as diplomatic cover to continue to advance their position and retake land. And the U.S., which has been pushing for these talks, has kind of become almost a bystander, 'cause we're not supporting the opposition very much at all and in many ways, the U.S. position has almost become the same as Russia, which is, you know, you got to deal with ISIS first.

  • 11:09:20

    SOLOMONThe Assad regime's gotta go at some point, but they're not really saying when and the U.S. has kind of become a back party and there's not much hope that this situation is going to stabilize. The Saudis now are talking about sending in a ground force. The Turks might be sending in troops into the north as these refugees flood to their border and their own -- the proxies they've been supporting inside Syria are being routed. So it looks like a free-for-all, is basically where it's headed.

  • 11:09:50

    GJELTENNow, Nadia, the opposition says that they won't participate in these talks until the offensive stops. Now, normally, you know, sitting up preconditions to peace talks is a kind of a frustrating thing to see. But in this case, they certainly have a point. If, in fact, as Jay says, that these talks are being used as diplomatic cover for an offensive, you can understand why the opposition is demanding that offensive stop as a condition for going back. What are the chances that these talks are going to resume on February 25?

  • 11:10:23

    BILBASSYVery little. And I think you have a very good point. I actually spoke with some Syrian activists this morning. They're saying that the Russian planes with the regime are carpet bombing the areas around Aleppo. As a result, you have a new massive wave of people leaving this area, especially the villages and the towns around Aleppo, 15,000 people trying to cross to the Turkish border. And for a while, the Turks has closed this border. What the regime and the Russians are trying to do is to cut the supply lines for the rebels who are in control of Aleppo.

  • 11:10:55

    BILBASSYAleppo has been always kind of the last city, if you want, to fall, especially -- well, part of it because part of it is under the regime control. But from the beginning, everybody knew that the Russian presence in Syria, when they went there on September 30, was to protect the regime. It wasn't to fight ISIS. And all the statistics have shown that and demonstrated that basically, the target that they've hitting were the opposition that trained by the U.S. But it's worse than that because the opposition, (unintelligible) and the U.S., no doubt, when Secretary Kerry visited Riyadh, he put some pressure on them to go and attend these talks.

  • 11:11:34

    BILBASSYThey were saying, basically, the precondition that we want is to allow humanitarian aids to go to besieged areas like Madaya, like (word?) et cetera, we cannot -- I mean, the Russians are basically bombing their way and the regime to the negotiation table and we have to show our people at least that the bombing against civilians, let alone the rebel groups and the armed groups and who is going to representing the opposition or not. But they're talking basically about civilians. But the Russians refused to do that. And while they were negotiating, the bombing was continuing.

  • 11:12:04

    BILBASSYAs a result, there was massive civilian casualties. So they said, what's the point of sitting there. And just to frame this negotiation, if you remember when Secretary Kerry was in Vienna, for him success was basically to get the neighboring countries to sit on the same tables, including the Europeans and the Saudis and the Iranians, with that, the Syrian opposition and the government. So that, for him, was a success. So nobody, from day one, thought that this negotiation was gonna have breakthrough, but at least they were trying to secure some kind of ceasefire in certain areas to allow these humanitarian aids to get to people who are dying of starvation in the 21st century.

  • 11:12:43

    GJELTENAnd Mark Landler, as Jay said, meanwhile, the other big news is that Saudi Arabia is now talking about sending ground troops to Syria. Under what conditions? What would it mean? What do you make of that development?

  • 11:12:56

    LANDLERWell, you know, it's a little bit murky because the statement that the Saudis issues said that they would agree to do this if there was consensus among coalition leaders. There was a separate statement issued by the Saudis' representatives in Washington yesterday that suggested that this would hinge on ground troops being committed by other members of the coalition. And if by other members the Saudis mean the U.S., that's clearly a non starter. So I think there's a little bit of skepticism, you know, at the White House about how serious the Saudis are about this or even if they're serious, what the likelihood would be, given the fact that President Obama has ruled this out and he's not going to change his mind.

  • 11:13:36

    LANDLERI wanted to pick up on one point that Nadia made. From the rebels point of view, and the reason this is so difficult for them, is that if they accept peace talks or negotiation and win no kind of concession from Assad or the Russians on bombing, what they do is they open the door to al-Nusra and the more radical elements taking an ever stronger role in the opposition. And so their fear is that they're being sold out in a way by both the United States and anyone else who encourages them to come to the table. I think that really the most likely outcome we can see, even if the talks were to come back together, is that they could be used as a mechanism for the sides to keep speaking to each other and maybe as a result, head off some of the worst of the humanitarian abuses.

  • 11:14:27

    LANDLERBut for structural reasons having to do with the Saudis' agenda, the Iranian agenda, the Turkish agenda, the Russian agenda, it's just very difficult to see how you get any kind of a structural breakthrough.

  • 11:14:40

    GJELTENJay, I was -- I noticed this op-ed in The Washington Post this morning from Nicholas Burns and James Jeffrey. Both of who have served in the Obama administration, both of whom have been very supportive of President Obama's policies up until now at least. But this actually turns out to be a very critical column. They say, "we believe President Obama can no longer avoid providing stronger American leadership to reverse the tidal wave of suffering and violence in this area. Where the United States has fallen short is in framing a clear, consistent and forceful strategy for it to play its traditional leadership role in the Middle East."

  • 11:15:15

    GJELTENThose are pretty strong words, pretty strong criticism of the administration's policy with regard to Syria.

  • 11:15:21

    SOLOMONYeah, I mean, I think it crystallizes the fact that the U.S. really doesn't have any levers or leverage in this conflict anymore. You've got the Russians bombing with their air force. You've got the Iranians deployed there with their own military, with Hezbollah. And they're actually making gains now. I mean, I think the White House initial perspective was Putin's gone in there. He's gonna get bogged down in a quagmire. But now it's starting to look that they're actually achieving their gains, which is probably not long term to recapture all of the country. It's to fortify what were the strongholds of the Assad regime on the coast and in Aleppo, the biggest economic city.

  • 11:16:02

    SOLOMONAnd the Iranians basically want to maintain the supply lines for Hezbollah from the Lebanese border into -- from Syria into Lebanon. So in this situation, why are the Russians or the Iranians going to listen to the U.S. when they're making these gains. And I think there's a fear now that it's almost too late. I mean, maybe the U.S. could try -- like, the biggest play the U.S. seems to be doing is trying to kind of fortify the Kurds in the north and making that kind of an enclave. But I increasingly am hearing, and you probably are too, that this conflict could end up just polarizing these regions.

  • 11:16:37

    SOLOMONYou're gonna have an Alawite area backed by the Russians on the coast, the Iranians and Hezbollah, the Kurdish region, and then a Sunni stand.

  • 11:16:45

    GJELTENWell, Nadia, speaking of that, how do you see this war changing? I mean, one of the implications of Saudi Arabia joining this would be to sort accelerate its own confrontation with Iran.

  • 11:16:59

    BILBASSYWell, I mean, the Saudis saying basically that they are going to fight ISIS. ISIS, and al-Qaida before them, have been posing a threat to the Saudi government. They're trying to assassinate the crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. They have been carried a series of bombing against a Shiite mosque in Saudi Arabia. So for them, ISIS is a natural enemy and therefore, they're willing to go and fight. Now, the administration has been critical of this coalition, 64 countries, and basically, they're saying, okay, we want you to provide troops. And now the Saudis said, okay, we're willing to go and provide troops, but we need to sort out the details, as Mark just said, and we're gonna meet in Brussels and we're gonna discuss this.

  • 11:17:40

    BILBASSYBut I think the condition, just like (word?) did before, that the U.S. has to be more involved.

  • 11:17:45

    GJELTENNadia Bilbassy is Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya. My other two columnists -- panelists, rather -- are Mark Landler, White House correspondent for the New York Times, and Jay Solomon, foreign affairs correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. We're gonna take a short break. Remember, our phone number, 1-800-433-8850. I'm Tom Gjelten. Stay tuned.

  • 11:19:53

    GJELTENHello, again. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And this is the second hour of our international, of our national, of our weekly News Roundup. This is the hour when we talk about international news. And my guests are Mark Landler from The New York Times, Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya, and Jay Solomon from The Wall Street Journal.

  • 11:20:13

    GJELTENMark, so before the break we were talking about how Russia has been a problem in Syria with its offensive that that has really changed sort of the situation on the ground and appears determined to support the Assad government. The specter of Russia sort of reemerging as a real adversary of the United States was also underlined this week when we had the United States saying it's going to quadruple military spending in Europe. That seems like a real echo of 20 years ago, doesn't it? What's going on?

  • 11:20:54

    LANDLERYeah. I mean, there's a lot of talk these days about a new Cold War. And the Obama administration signaled this week that it was going to request a lot more money for what they call the European Reassurance Initiative. And the idea is to send, to pre-position heavy equipment and artillery in kind of the eastern border of NATO, Central and Eastern Europe, less as a way to prevent the Russians from overrunning the border -- which they could do if they wanted to and no one thinks they will -- but to be a deterrent for Putin more generally. You know, Putin's obviously viewed as a threat on a number of fronts. And this is -- this would be kind of way to signal that the West remains deeply suspicious of his motives.

  • 11:21:44

    LANDLERAnd the idea would be, if you pre-position this equipment, it is easier to move in a rotational force, a combat brigade, if you need it, you can do it more quickly. And so, you know, the idea would be maybe in Poland and the Baltics, you would have this equipment available. And then you could rush in troops if you needed to. Now, as a practical matter, as I said a moment ago, military strategists will tell you that the Russians could overwhelm whatever NATO has along this border if they wanted to. And almost nobody believes Putin would take a risk like that. Because under the mutual defense provisions of the NATO Alliance, we'd be forced to respond militarily. But nevertheless, it's an important symbolic gesture on the part of the Alliance.

  • 11:22:33

    GJELTENWell, Jay, how has Russia reacted to this? How has Putin -- Mark said he hasn't really had too much to say. But I think that we -- given the way that Putin responds to provocations like this, I think we can expect a reaction.

  • 11:22:46

    SOLOMONYeah, I think he'll say they're, you know, they're trying to encircle us again. He'll take provocative statements. It was interesting, this week, the U.S. sanctioned five Russians for something called the Magnitsky Act. There was a lawyer killed in Moscow and the U.S. has human right violations, sanctions related to that. And the Russians immediately did a tit for tat and sanctioned five American officials. I don't know who they were exactly. But I think the U.S.-Russian relationship is -- it's -- I'm sure there'll be a reaction. And it -- but it also kind of underlines how discordant it is. The U.S. is trying to work closely with Russia in Syria.

  • 11:23:22


  • 11:23:23

    SOLOMONAnd many reporters who've been following it closely feel the Russians have been playing us, basically. Yeah, we'll coordinate with you. We're happy to talk. Meanwhile, they keep pushing the lines and creating a situation where the, you know, the lines are what they've established and the U.S. has to basically accept it. I think what Mark wrote about this week was the bolstering of allies in the region, it's going to be interesting. Because many European leaders, when they look about what the U.S. could do, their biggest fear is Syria -- the refugees swamping their...

  • 11:23:56


  • 11:23:56

    SOLOMON...their borders. They're worried about Russia. But their biggest fear is, what does this bring, whether it's more ISIS, more just destabilization from the refugees. And they don't think the U.S. has done nearly enough. And it's strengthened Putin's hand. You've seen the French, you've seen the British kind of go to Putin and say, look, if you're going to be the one to kill off ISIS, even though there's not much evidence that that's really what he's targeting, he's strengthened his position and he's likely to continue to play it.

  • 11:24:24


  • 11:24:25

    GJELTENMeanwhile, Nadia, European countries have dropped their defense spending in Europe. To what extent does that indicate, as Jay suggests, that that's not where they see the threat right now?

  • 11:24:38

    BILBASSYWell, yes, to a certain extent. But at the same time, the crisis of the immigration, mainly from Syria and Iraq, is going to cause a new threat. So the kind of the threat has changed. But I mean, saying that, it's interesting two points here. Number one is the Pentagon has listed Russia as the top threat to the U.S. in comparison to North Korea, Iran and ISIS.

  • 11:25:05

    BILBASSYAnd now they're saying, it's not just, as you said, to bolster the safety and the security of the Baltic states and the states that border on Russia, but also to deal with the Southern Europe, which is the threat coming from ISIS in Southern Europe, especially if we're going to talk about Libya and the new setting of a shock that ISIS is trying to have and the threat that it can pose to the shipping in the Mediterranean and attacking Italy, et cetera.

  • 11:25:33

    BILBASSYSo, in a way, you know, I mean, defense budget has never been a very popular issue in Europe, especially with the new governments, socialist governments and leftist governments. So they want to spend less on defense and more on education and other administries. But I think, now that they're facing with a huge problem with migration, especially in Germany, they might have to reconsider.

  • 11:25:55

    GJELTENMark, as Nadia said, the Pentagon is saying Russia is a number one threat. I don't know if you watched the Democratic debate last night where the candidates were asked to rank the countries that were most threatening. And, first, Bernie Sanders wanted to say ISIS. And then, you know, but that's not a country. So it's hard, actually, isn't it, to rank which...

  • 11:26:14

    LANDLERAnd then he sort of talked a lot about North Korea.

  • 11:26:18


  • 11:26:19

    LANDLERI mean, I will say, on Hillary Clinton's side, having listened to her over the fall in a number of foreign policy speeches, she does view the Russians, I think, as a -- to paraphrase what Mitt Romney said four years ago -- the number one geopolitical threat. And I think she has very openly called for the need for the U.S. to think of Russia as an ongoing, long-term, geopolitical threat to the U.S. And I would imagine, if she were elected, you would see that reflected in policy.

  • 11:26:45

    LANDLERI did want to make one final point on why Putin may not have reacted as ferociously as people thought. I mean...

  • 11:26:51

    SOLOMONSo far.

  • 11:26:51

    LANDLERSo far. It's also true that he has tried very deliberately to lower tensions on the Ukraine crisis, you know, this Minsk Agreement that everyone always talks about. I mean, and I think the goal here is he's hoping that he can lower the pressure on economic sanctions. I mean, it is worth remembering that with cratering oil prices, he does have an economic problem at home. The sanctions make that problem worse. I think if he can kind of lull the Europeans into thinking that the Ukraine crisis is sort of the least of their worries, he might relieve some of that economic pressure.

  • 11:27:30

    LANDLERAnd I know that it is a calculation of the U.S., in making this announcement this week, that they thought he would have some valid reasons for not reacting as aggressively or virulently as he might have in the past.

  • 11:27:43

    GJELTENSo Bernie Sanders and Mark have mentioned North Korea. Jay, we have seen this pattern so often in the past when one country or one crisis sort of gets too much attention relative to North Korea that the North Korean leadership does something to sort of put itself back on the front page. And we may see a long-range missile test coming shortly from North Korea. That'll certainly catch people's attention.

  • 11:28:09

    SOLOMONYeah. I mean, they call it a satellite launch. But they have notified the U.N. that they are, you know, that they're preparing to do it. And coming after the test of their fourth atomic weapon last month, which they've described as a hydrogen bomb. I think the U.S. is a bit...

  • 11:28:25


  • 11:28:25

    SOLOMON...suspicious. But I think there is a general conclusion, it is a type of booster weapon, which is more -- has more yield than a traditional atomic weapon. They are making progress and they are, you know, once -- they're developing the delivery systems, they're -- the Pentagon has said they believe the North Koreans can miniaturize a nuclear bomb to put on top of a missile. So it's getting very dangerous. And I think the big question will be is what is the Chinese going to do? I mean, this is always the cycle.

  • 11:28:55


  • 11:28:55

    SOLOMONThey do something provocative. The U.S. says the Chinese are extremely upset. And then they do nothing. And the sense is now, they're still -- John Kerry was in China last week. He got very -- almost no assurances from the Chinese that they were going to take anything very coercive against North Korea if they go ahead. So I think you're going to see more sanctions and threats to deploy U.S. -- more missile defense systems into the region.

  • 11:29:19

    GJELTENSo, but we were talking before, if North Korea were to launch a missile, there's not any technology or platform available right now to shoot it down, for example. Right?

  • 11:29:30

    BILBASSYI don't know. I mean, I don't think so. But both Japan and South Korea has been prepared for that...

  • 11:29:34


  • 11:29:35

    BILBASSY...just in case they do it. And just some experts were saying that basically the same technology that applies to producing these long-range ballistic missiles is the same as launching, you know, a satellite into space. So they're very similar. And this is why they can use this as a disguise.

  • 11:29:51


  • 11:29:51

    BILBASSYBut, you know, because of their track record, of course, nobody would believe in.

  • 11:29:55

    GJELTENMeanwhile, Mark, your paper reported this week that the Obama administration is under increasing pressure to take seriously the situation in Libya, where ISIS apparently has a pretty well-established beachhead now.

  • 11:30:10

    LANDLERThat's right. I mean, and this is, again, falling into the category of kind of eternal recurrence in the Middle East. I mean, it was really five years ago this month that the debate began in the Obama administration about intervening in Libya. If you recall, that was the early days of the Arab Spring and Moammar Gadhafi was marching on Benghazi. And here we are five years later, sort of beginning to reenact the debate. Of course, the enemy this time is ISIS, which has by some accounts has several thousand fighters now in Libya, views Libya as a very promising springboard for activities elsewhere.

  • 11:30:47

    LANDLERAnd the sense is and the recommendation I think that the president has gotten from some of his advisors is to think about special-ops and other ways to get in and try to go after ISIS. All of this, to my mind, carries an echo of the debate we had in Syria on ISIS. And I would imagine that President Obama will be just as reluctant. I mean, if you recall, President Obama thought his decision to intervene, which then sort of opened a Pandora's box in Libya and really led to chaos, even though we did get rid of Gadhafi. He views that as perhaps his most regretted move in terms of military intervention. And in a way, it was -- it set the stage for his deep reluctance to get involved in Syria.

  • 11:31:32

    LANDLERSo, for me, as someone who's followed this now for five years, I just would be very surprised if President Obama agreed to anything beyond an extremely limited and constrained approach to this and maybe not even that. Because I think he views the lesson of Libya as, if you get involved, you're just asking for trouble. The mission will creep. You will slide into something more than you expected or ever wanted.

  • 11:31:57

    GJELTENOkay. That may be the lesson from Libya. But what about the lesson from Syria, where, I mean, I quoted earlier, you know, criticism from some of President Obama's own supporters, saying he has not -- the United States has not shown sufficient leadership in Syria. Is -- are there lessons from Syria that might now inform this new decision on Libya?

  • 11:32:17

    SOLOMONWell, I think the Europeans have been pressuring and criticizing the Obama administration for not acting in Syria because of the refugee flow. Libya's is much worse. I would assume the pressure -- I mean, not much worse, but the pressure on the White House to cooperate with them -- with the European states, in some ways. Because Libya is right under their belly and there are smuggling routes, I mean...

  • 11:32:37


  • 11:32:37

    SOLOMON...smuggling routes of refugees coming from Libya into Europe.

  • 11:32:42

    GJELTENInto Italy, mm-hmm.

  • 11:32:43

    SOLOMONYeah. So the ability of the West to do nothing in Libya, I think it's going to be very difficult. But, again, it's a fractured political system. And just like Syria, there are different foreign countries backing different elements, which makes it very difficult to stabilize.

  • 11:32:59

    GJELTENA fractured political situation. Nadia, what is the situation in Libya right now?

  • 11:33:04

    BILBASSYIt's pretty bad. It's a failed state.

  • 11:33:06

    GJELTENIt's a failed state.

  • 11:33:07

    BILBASSYIt's -- hierarchically, it is a homogeneous society which doesn't have the divide between the Sunnis and Shiites and other minorities that you have seen in the rest of the Middle East. But, yet, they are bitterly divided on tribal lines.

  • 11:33:19


  • 11:33:20

    BILBASSYSo now we have two governments: one in Tripoli and one in Benghazi. The U.N. has been trying to broker this unity government. They have failed, although Secretary Kerry was kind of somehow under the impression that they will be able to have it. And, hence, I think the meeting that the president had last week with his national security team was trying to push for this government. Because once you have a government, they will be able to send what Mark was talking about, which is the steps of trying to fight ISIS in Libya, send special troops maybe to train some of this vetted opposition leaders, et cetera.

  • 11:33:54

    BILBASSYBut I think the situation is pretty bad. And it actually is going to be worse. Because every time you tighten the noose around ISIS' neck in Syria and Iraq, they going to go to Libya. And they already have a huge presence in the city of Sirte. And they have tons of money. And actually Secretary Kerry was criticized when he said in this donors, in this meeting in Rome recently, that ISIS will be able to go to Libya and use the petrol money because they have oil fields, et cetera.

  • 11:34:25

    BILBASSYAnd I just saw some statistics that's really terrifying because it's the opposite. What ISIS were doing now is trying to burn the oil fields in Libya to deprive the government of any kind of stability to use oil money as revenue to create some kind of quasi-normal life. And, instead, they're relying on tons of money that they have. And I was just looking at some of the money that they had. And I mean they have $1 to $3 million dollars a day that come in from the black market of selling oils in Syria. They have $360 million that they get from extortion of taxation. This new -- their idea of this caliphate that they can impose taxes on people and actually generate revenue is really scary.

  • 11:35:09

    BILBASSYThey also have $40 million in donation from wealthy donors. I don't know from where. And, you know, they have enough money, in addition to the $2.5 billion that they got from the Mosul Bank. So they have enough money. So Libya, for them, is an anarchy. It's a place with no borders. They can go to Chad. They can go to Mali. They can cross the Mediterranean. They can go to Italy. They can pose a serious threat that we have not seen since al-Qaida in North Africa.

  • 11:35:37

    GJELTENWell, you mentioned Secretary Kerry in Rome. What he said was the last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access...

  • 11:35:44

    BILBASSYThat's right.

  • 11:35:44

    GJELTEN...billions of dollars of oil revenue. And, Mark, in your paper's story, Defense Secretary Carter and General Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs, both said that some kind of U.S. and allied military force may be needed. On the other hand, as you say, President Obama is very reluctant here. How powerful -- how much pressure is the White House under right now to reconsider its reluctance to intervene in Libya?

  • 11:36:12

    LANDLERWell, I mean, an important distinction between now and five years ago is that ISIS poses a threat to the U.S., a direct threat. And one area where President Obama has consistently acted is in the counterterrorism sphere. So that is -- the nature of the threat is somewhat different. I mean, five years ago, we were talking about heading off a humanitarian disaster in Benghazi. If we're talking about a threat to the American homeland or to American interests overseas, that does increase the pressure on him. And as Jay has pointed out, there's pressure from the Europeans on this. And if you recall, it was really pressure from the Europeans five years ago that pushed the U.S. to back the NATO intervention in Libya. So there's a precedent for this.

  • 11:36:55

    LANDLERThat said, President Obama has steadfastly rebuffed the advice of his war council when he thinks that it leads nowhere good. And if you look at Syria and recall the debate on arming the moderate rebels several years ago, every single member of his national security staff was favoring and pushing and proposing this and he still said no. So I never discount President Obama's willingness to say no, even if it leaves him in a somewhat isolated position.

  • 11:37:23

    GJELTENAnd he doesn't have to worry about running for reelection.

  • 11:37:26


  • 11:37:26

    GJELTENSo he can make his own decisions. Mark Landler is White House correspondent for The New York Times. My other panelists are Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya and Jay Solomon from The Wall Street Journal. We're going to take a break. When we come back, your calls. Stay tuned.

  • 11:40:01

    GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. This is the international hour of the Friday News Roundup, and our guests are Mark Landler, White House correspondent for The New York Times, Nadia Bilbassy, Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya, and Jay Solomon, foreign affairs correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. A lot of interest and concern about the relationship between the United States and Russia. We have a tweet, saying can you help us understand better the likelihood of a sustained U.S.-Russia conflict over Syria.

  • 11:40:37

    GJELTENAnother tweet, who's wondering how on Earth -- there's no name attached to this -- how on Earth is the U.S. ERI boost, and that remind me, Mark, the European...

  • 11:40:46

    LANDLERReassurance Initiative.

  • 11:40:48

    GJELTENReassurance Initiative, how on Earth is that a provocative move. Can you explain that to me. And meanwhile, let's see what Raja from Cincinnati, Ohio, thinks about this developing confrontation between the United States and Russia. Hello, Raja, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:41:06

    RAJAHi Tom, thank you for taking my call. My question, I was initially regarding the U.S. spending, but as I was listening to the show, you know, I formulated, like, a better sort of question that I wanted to just put forth to the guests.

  • 11:41:19

    GJELTENWell, before you do that, before you do that, Raja, let's just -- tell us what your original question about what Russia, and then we'll let you move on.

  • 11:41:27

    RAJAOkay, well the original question was regarding the increase in U.S. spending against primarily Russia being, you know, the target for that spending, you know, to counter the Russian threat. So my original question was, like, do we really need to do that in Europe, where there is no, as such, like, on a comparative note, an active conflict going on like the one in the Middle East, that you make Russia sort of like seem like a threat, and then you want to quadruple the spending because I've been following the debates, and all the candidates, on the Republican side at least, talk about increase military spending, increase military spending.

  • 11:42:02

    RAJAAnd U.S. already spends more on military than the next, I don't know, 10 countries.

  • 11:42:09

    BILBASSYSeven countries.

  • 11:42:10

    RAJASo do we really need to do that to counter the Russian threat?

  • 11:42:16


  • 11:42:17

    RAJAAnd my related question on that was, you know, after listening to the discussion that you had with the guests, that there is an active conflict going on in Syria. Then there is the Libyan problem, which, you know, as one of the guests said, Obama, or President Obama, regretted that his decision to go into Libya like that. But then now we know that there is that problem, and even the Europeans are pressuring the U.S. to do something about Libya. They're not asking for, you know, more military armaments for their fight against Russia. They're asking us to do stuff in Libya and the Middle East, where the refugee crisis is hurting them.

  • 11:42:50

    GJELTENAnd you agree with that?

  • 11:42:51

    RAJAYeah, and I agree with that because that's where an active conflict is going on.

  • 11:42:56

    GJELTENRight, okay.

  • 11:42:56

    RAJASo I feel like the whole political situation makes a bigger threat out of Russia than there is because maybe it gives them more, you know, political brownie points when it comes to campaigning, that hey, we are doing something against Russia. But where it really matters, I feel it's, you know, lacking, the effort, like in the Middle East and in Libya.

  • 11:43:16

    GJELTENOkay, Jay, do you want to respond to that?

  • 11:43:17

    SOLOMONWell, I think he does make a good point in the sense that most of the European leaders, officials I spoke to are much more concerned right now about the refugee flow coming into their countries from Syria and this threat from Libya. So if -- I would assume if you ask many European leaders, they would say a strong U.S. leadership position in taking care of Syria and Libya is probably their most immediate concern and to stop that refugee thing.

  • 11:43:47

    SOLOMONAt the same time, you also hear some European leaders talk about this as, like, the 1930s. They're facing a dual threat of both an extremist group, then it was the Nazis, now it's ISIS but also this continuing move by Putin to sort of use energy or, you know, right-wing groups to try to gain control of European -- to increase his influence in Europe. So there is concern about Putin, and I think what's been kind of brilliant about what he's done is he's made himself indispensable in some ways to the Europeans.

  • 11:44:22

    SOLOMONThey are so worried about ISIS that this concern about him kind of choking them off has become secondary. But I would say their initial concerns really are Libya and Syria and the refugee flow right now.

  • 11:44:38

    GJELTENOkay, we're going to have time for a couple more phone calls, but before we go back to that, I did want to mention the situation with Julian Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012. He's back in the news this week because a U.N. rights panel weighed in on his situation. Nadia, are you up to speed on that? What's going on?

  • 11:44:59

    BILBASSYYeah, I mean, he's been, for three and a half years, the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and basically this U.N. panel, which is not legally binding, they were finding...

  • 11:45:09

    GJELTENIt's a human rights panel.

  • 11:45:10

    BILBASSYIt's a human rights panel. They say he was arbitrarily arrested and therefore -- or detained, and therefore they will make the finding official, but the British government saying, well, we're not going to accept that and the Swedish foreign ministry saying that, you know, if he's been released, then we still want to ask to extradite him from London to Sweden to face these charges of rape or sexual assault. And I mean, he's saying, well, look, I mean, I have been here for three and a half years, and his lawyer is asking for his release, but he said I'm going to walk out, and maybe you can arrest me.

  • 11:45:46

    BILBASSYI don't know where he's going to go from there, whether he'll go to his native Australia or wherever, but, you know, it's a continuing saga with Assange.

  • 11:45:57

    GJELTENMark, do you think that this was going to make any difference, have any practical effect on his situation and the prospect for him getting out of there?

  • 11:46:05

    LANDLERNo, I don't. I mean, if you look at what the British foreign secretary said, he said that this ruling was ridiculous. He pointed out it was non-binding. I mean, if you read a lot of the press coverage in the U.K. in the last day, there's a lot of derision about this. I mean, this is a guy who was violating the terms of his bail and was effectively a fugitive when he went into the Ecuadorian embassy.

  • 11:46:29

    LANDLERAnd as people point out, no one's preventing him from leaving the Ecuadorian embassy. He can leave tomorrow. He can walk out. Now, he'll get about 25 feet and be put into a police van.

  • 11:46:38


  • 11:46:39

    LANDLERSo -- but the situation is sort of largely of his own making, and as a result, I don't see where -- now it is true, and Nadia sort of alluded to this, it is true that the cost of round-the-clock coverage of the Ecuadorian embassy became a political issue in Britain, and there are people that are criticizing the way the government has handled this and allowed it to become this kind of prolonged drama.

  • 11:47:02

    LANDLERBut I don't see what the incentive is for the British to suddenly drop three and a half years of policy and say you are free to go, and indeed not only that, but we'll pay you compensation for having put you through this.

  • 11:47:13

    BILBASSYYeah, and also the U.S. wanted him. I think there was some panel in Virginia that were discussing him, that he might be asked to come here for -- to face trial for some of the documents that he has published.

  • 11:47:27

    SOLOMONI think here it's -- here it's probably hardened on Assange. I mean, after the San Bernardino attack, you heard a lot of stuff about Snowden and what was leaked and how are people using that, and so...

  • 11:47:36

    GJELTENWell, and Europe, too, I mean, the whole uproar over surveillance and privacy sort of diminished after the Paris attacks and the rising concern about the prospect of more terrorist attacks in Europe. Let's go back to the phones now. Marty is on the line from St. Louis, Missouri. Hello, Marty, thanks for calling us.

  • 11:47:57

    MARTYYeah, I think some of the major problem is now, you know, we go into these countries, and, like, I think the Middle East has been a big problem, Syria and Gaddafi and all that, but when we take these leaders out, it's like we leave these countries in turmoil. And then I think like the last caller said, now we got to do this humanitarian thing, which is even that much more money to take care of all these people.

  • 11:48:24

    MARTYBut I think that right now, the humanitarian aid that's needed for these countries and stuff, I'm hearing so many terrible things about people suffering, is one of the things that I think we can get more people on our side if we go in there in a humanitarian way instead of, like, some of the candidates are saying, like carpet-bombing somebody or something, you know. And so I think that's -- right now, that's where we're at, you know.

  • 11:48:52

    GJELTENWell you know what, Marty? Sometimes it's hard to draw a really clear line between humanitarian intervention and military intervention. That's been true in other conflict.

  • 11:49:00


  • 11:49:01

    GJELTENIn Somalia. And in Syria right now, one of the demands is that humanitarian aid reach the rebels, and they're being blocked from doing it, aren't they, Nadia?

  • 11:49:10

    BILBASSYWell, but they did it in Iraq. They did it in Mount Sinjar when the Yazidis were surrounded. But I think the criticism against the U.S. often is it has the most, the strongest military superpower on the face of this Earth. They can take out Gaddafi, and they can take out Saddam Hussein, any dictator and asset if they wanted to. The problem is they always have no plan for the day after. So they're not good in nation-building.

  • 11:49:36

    BILBASSYAnd I think one of the regrets that President Obama has mentioned, actually, regarding Libya, that he said that the day after, we never had a plan for stabilizing the country. And that was the case in Iraq, that if you can track it down to the invasion during the Bush administration and how the de-Ba'athification and the, you know, the Iraqi army that was 400,000 strong, men that they disappeared with their arms, and you have the insurgents (unintelligible) anybody who knows the ABCs of foreign policy can tell you the scenario.

  • 11:50:06

    BILBASSYBut the problem is, again, like, okay, fine, we get rid of these people, but we are not good in nation-building. And then you have this humanitarian crisis that there was in the world, and the opposition, actually, one of the points that they were talking back to the Syria -- to the Geneva talks, is they wanted air -- humanitarian aids to be air-dropped into areas like Madaya. But you cannot do it because the Russians are there, and the Syrian air force is there. So it's not like Iraq, where they had the cooperation and permission of the government to do so.

  • 11:50:36

    GJELTENMark, with regard to sort of the pros and cons of intervention generally and specifically in Libya, an emailer wants to know what the specific U.S. interests in Libya are. Are those oil company interests? Is it oil? Do you have any response?

  • 11:50:52

    LANDLERWell, I think in the current debate, it's really about ISIS. It's a counterterrorism threat. And so, I mean, in some ways it's a more legitimate, direct threat than what you had five years ago, when it was more of a debate over humanitarian intervention. And if you recall, a number of advisors to President Obama, including Bob Gates, made the argument that there was no direct, strategic interest that the United States had in Libya in 2011. You probably couldn't make that argument today.

  • 11:51:20

    LANDLERI wanted to pick up on one thing Nadia said, though, which I think is the riddle about this question of intervention. Libya, some people have said to me, was in a way an effort to learn the lessons of two prior interventions. One was, if you recall, the one in Srebrenica in the Balkans, which was a humanitarian intervention. We waited too long, we dragged our feet, there was a genocidal killing there, and we finally intervened.

  • 11:51:45

    LANDLERIn Iraq, we intervened and left an enormous presence behind and went through all the troubles of nation-building an de-Ba'athification that Nadia alluded to. So when President Obama made the decision on Libya, he was very mindful of these two prior precedents, one where we waited too long and arguably didn't do enough, another where we went in quickly and arguably did too much.

  • 11:52:08

    LANDLERHe was looking for some sort of golden mean with Libya, where we went in and averted the slaughter, but we then didn't leave this massive presence behind. But of course the outcome is he didn't get it right in Libya, either. And I think that as foreign policy theorists think about this question of intervention, we're still struggling to figure out what is the right balance between heading off a humanitarian calamity but not intervening to such an extent that you leave an untenable situation behind.

  • 11:52:38

    LANDLERAnd so it's clearly not a balance that any U.S. president has gotten perfectly right, and the next one will deal with it just as President Obama has.

  • 11:52:45

    GJELTENThat's Mark Landler. He's White House correspondent for The New York Times. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Lee is on the line now from Cincinnati, Ohio. Hello, Lee.

  • 11:52:58

    LEEHello and good morning. I have good friends who live in Tunisia. As you know, Tunisia was -- is the source of the -- original source of the Arab Spring. It's a democracy and a struggling country, and it's next to Libya. And I'm really concerned because I think if ISIS takes over Libya, I think Tunisia is just the next domino in that array, and I'm wondering if anybody has any comments of what the U.S. should do about that.

  • 11:53:31

    GJELTENWell, that's a really interesting question. I mean, Tunisia has been one of the few relatively positive stories coming out of the Arab Spring, right, Nadia?

  • 11:53:41

    BILBASSYOh absolutely. I mean, Tunisia is different than the rest of the Arab world, in comparison, because it's a more educated population, it's very small. They don't have the sectarian divide. They managed somehow to form this government. There was compromise. But yet ISIS and al-Qaeda has a strong presence in Tunisia. Actually, Tunisia provides a large number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq than probably more than any other Arab countries, which is the contradictory of having...

  • 11:54:10

    GJELTENWhy is that, do you think?

  • 11:54:10

    BILBASSYI actually don't know. I mean, this is a good question. I don't know because as I said, Tunisia was labeled as the Jasmine Revolution in the Arab world in the beginning, and as I say, people are more open-minded, they're Western-oriented, they are the highest number of Ph.D. and master's degrees holders in comparison to the rest of the Arab world. They have a secular system from the Bourguiba years, where women have the most -- they enjoy better rights than any other Arab countries.

  • 11:54:38

    BILBASSYYet they brought this fundamentalists that they're willing to go and die and kill in both Libya and Syria and Iraq. But the caller is absolutely right, and that's a concern about Libya, is borders that open with Egypt and the Sinai and the smuggling of weapons and, in Tunisia in particular, will threaten this very fragile democracy. And we have seen it already, Tom. You know, there have been many attacks. They have killed foreign tourists in Tunisia. They have killed policemen.

  • 11:55:01

    BILBASSYSo this -- they are mounting attacks all the time, and the country needs help from the outside world, especially the United States and Europe.

  • 11:55:07

    GJELTENWe have time for one more phone call. David is on the line from Texas. Hello, David.

  • 11:55:11

    DAVIDYes, sir, thank you. The reason I called, I'm a former Marine fighter pilot, flew the F-18 in Iraq, as well as Somalia, and I ran into a Kuwaiti air force pilot who was training in my city to become an instructor in the same planes that I flew and instructed in. And his -- his question to me was, why isn't the U.S. doing more to fight ISIS? And he talked about how his country is fighting ISIS in Yemen to keep them out of their country.

  • 11:55:37

    DAVIDAnd I couldn't really answer him because I'm not really sure what the rationale the president has for not doing more. But I'd like -- I think -- you know, I was in Somalia, and I saw the lessons there. We pulled out -- we had stabilized enough to where at least the genocide was much less than it was before we got there, and the Pakistanis were helping us with that, and we pulled out, and it just went back to what it's been like, and it's still chaos in Somalia. And we have a tendency to cut and run before we finish the job.

  • 11:56:04

    GJELTENAll right, well thanks, David. Jay, so the Kuwaiti fighter pilot tells David -- wants to know why we're not doing more to fight ISIS, and he claims that Kuwait is actually fighting ISIS. But some people might sort of push back on that and say that the Gulf countries could do a lot more to fight ISIS and not just in Yemen but in Syria, more likely.

  • 11:56:26

    SOLOMONYeah, I mean, there's been frustration, I guess, by the Obama administration because when they initially started these airstrikes in Syria, they built this coalition, and there were some initial strikes by the Saudis, by the Jordanians. But the Saudis basically redirected their entire operation to Yemen, away from Syria, to fight what they basically saw was a war with the Iranians, who were backing the Houthi militias. So it's been very difficult to get Saudi and the Gulf's support. After this Iran nuclear deal, too, there's a lot more skepticism amongst those states towards the U.S. because they see Washington almost having some sort of rapprochement with Iran. So it's -- those fissures have been exacerbated.

  • 11:57:09

    GJELTENJay Solomon, from the Wall Street Journal, and my other panelists have been Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya and Mark Landler from The New York Times. Any of you have any Super Bowl predictions? Nadia laughs.

  • 11:57:20

    BILBASSYI'll pass. I'm not good in football, so...

  • 11:57:22

    GJELTENShe's not good in football. Okay, we'll leave that for another show. So thank you to all of you.

  • 11:57:29


  • 11:57:29

    BILBASSYThank you, Tom.

  • 11:57:30

    GJELTENThanks for listening. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."

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