Pulitzer Prize winning author Anthony Doerr talks about his new novel, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," and why he says his job as a writer is to reveal our interconnections as people, and as a planet.
The U.S. and Russia announce a plan for a temporary halt to hostilities in Syria. Secretary Kerry says both parties agreed to deliver desperately needed aid to Syrian cities within days. Turkey’s leaders reject U.N. demands to open its border to thousands more Syrian refugees. NATO sends warships to the Aegean sea to deter migrant smuggling. U.S. oil prices drop below $27 a barrel. And the U.S. senate approves sanctions intended to limit North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Yochi Dreazen Managing editor, Foreign Policy; author, "The Invisible Front"
- Nancy Youssef Senior defense and national security correspondent, The Daily Beast
- Geoff Dyer Foreign policy correspondent, Financial Times; author of "The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China--and How America Can Win."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. World powers agree to reach a ceasefire in Syria in one week to allow in humanitarian aid. NATO orders ships to the Aegean Sea to assist in the migrant crisis. And in a rebuke to North Korea, Seoul closes a shared industrial complex. Here for the international hour of the Friday News Roundup, Yochi Dreazen, managing editor at Foreign Policy, Nancy Youssef, senior defense and national security correspondent for The Daily Beast and Geoff Dyer, he's foreign policy correspondent at The Financial Times.
MS. DIANE REHMWe do invite your calls, comments throughout the hour. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. It's good to see all of you.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENHi, Diane.
MS. NANCY YOUSSEFHello.
MR. GEOFF DYERGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood to have you here. Yochi Dreazen, this agreement between the U.S. and Russia over Syria, what kind of an agreement are we talking about? How extensive is it?
DREAZENWe're talking about an aspirational agreement much more than we are a concrete one. Even the quotes from John Kerry, who talked about how these right now are words on paper, it's not the most optimistic of assessments. I mean, what they're realizing right now is that there's a giant loophole in the middle of this that until it's resolved, it's not clear at all how this works or doesn't work. And the loophole is that it obviously doesn't apply to the Islamic State who are not part of the talks and never would be.
DREAZENIt does not apply to the al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaida. So most importantly, it doesn't apply to the Russian military campaign. So nothing is done more, absolutely nothing, to turn the tide in Syria than Vladimir Putin and the bombing campaign he's carrying out in and near Aleppo in particular, which has been a main rebel stronghold for years and about to fall to Assad. For years, this White House has said there's not military solution to Syria. There very well may be one, it's just a Russian military solution, not an American one.
DREAZENAnd what you had on these talks, you had Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister on the one hand saying, we support them diplomatically. Then, on the battlefield, you have Russian planes continuing to bomb. And so the dual role of Russia, which, more than anything else, will determine if the ceasefire works and if Assad regains Aleppo and more of the country is, I think, the thing to watch going forward.
REHMWasn't there, initially, some statement to the effect that there would be a ceasefire as of March 1 and that they would continue to bomb between now and March I, Nancy?
YOUSSEFWell, that was the Russian proposal before this agreement. So the context in which I think this all came up that's worth noting is you've had a very aggressive airstrike campaign by Russia in the city of Aleppo. Aleppo's arguably one of the most important cities in Syria. It's the biggest one. And how Aleppo goes arguably is how the war goes. It could be the biggest gain for Assad because if the city falls and if the province falls, you essentially rid Syria of all the other opposition groups other than ISIS.
YOUSSEFAnd so you leave a Syria, essentially, where the choice is between Assad and ISIS. And so it was in this context that there's talk about this -- what they're not calling a cessation of hostilities. The Russians were calling for a March 1 ceasefire. I think it's interesting that they agreed to a few days shorter. The key component in all of this is what happens in the next few days? Vis a vis, the Russian air campaign. How aggressive are they?
YOUSSEFAre they gonna use this one-week period before the agreement begins, in terms of the cessation of hostilities, to give Assad more power, to position him in a better way. So we really are in a position of wait and see. I just want to point out, I read the document that was produced from this agreement this morning. One of the interesting things to me is the -- in the area where they talk about humanitarian aid, which is another part of this, the idea is that you cease fire and get humanitarian aid into Syrian people who, of course, have been devastated.
REHMNo water, even.
YOUSSEFThat's right. The first city mentioned in that agreement is Darazor. Darazor is a city that is being challenged by ISIS and a lot of the residents there are considered Assad supporters and on top of that, they received humanitarian aid from the Russians through air drops just a few days ago. So it's interesting out of all the cities they chose to protect or get humanitarian aid first, that it was Darazor. It tells you something about who's arguably gotten the upper hand in these agreements.
DYEROh, I think Yochi really hit on the key point here, which is the al-Nusra Front. Even if this agreement goes through, the cessation of hostilities takes place over the next week, there still will be some bombing. You know, the Russians and the Americans can still bomb ISIS and they can still bomb al-Nusra Front. Nusra is fighting alongside in lots of places, including Aleppo, with some of the groups that are being sponsored by the West. So even under this agreement, it's possible that you could have legitimate Russian bombing campaigns against people who are fighting on the Western side.
DYERAnd the Russians will exploit that. I mean, they know that the West's dirty secret is that we've sort of become the friend of the friend of al-Qaida in Syria and that's the gap that if they want to, they will ruthlessly exploit in this agreement.
REHMSo how much optimism do you put into any negotiations that are going on?
DREAZENIt's interesting. The main opposition groups in Syria, all day today, have been reacting very, very positively in a way that is striking to me, in the comments coming from there, the comments coming from the representatives stateside are all basically saying this is a great first step. It's better than we expected. It's better than we hoped. Which surprises me because there are so many loopholes. The bombing will, without question, continue in...
REHMEven the Russians are saying this is a great first step?
DREAZENNo. Well, the Russians are saying kind of what John Kerry -- they're basically echoing John Kerry, that it is a first step. But the Russian line, which is interesting, is how dare you, the U.S., criticize us. We're bombing at the invitation of the sovereign government of Syria. You're bombing under your own sort of made-up permission, made-up guidelines. So they're very pointed in what they say. Their ambassador at the UN, there was a piece we did yesterday about the Twitter war between the Russian ministry of defense and the main U.S. spokesman for the campaign going after each other on Twitter.
DREAZENBut the Russia line consistently is we are there at the invitation of Bashar al-Assad. We're fighting terrorists. You should not dare criticize us.
REHMAnd the fact of the matter is that Bashar al-Assad will stay under this negotiation?
YOUSSEFWell, remember the Syrian parties were not at the negotiation and so I think the most optimistic view on this is, number one, this is the first cessation of any -- of fighting that's even been discussed in a five-year civil war and, number two, it suggests that the Russians and the U.S. are willing to talk in such a way that potentially we can start to have a conversation of political transition. When the Russian intervention began in September, the idea of both sides coming and talking together was out of the questions.
YOUSSEFThe fact that both sides are, at least, willing to come to the table potentially lays the groundwork for some kind of negotiation. Remember that for the Russians, for all the advantages that arguably they've had in the last few days, the way things are shaping out now, the only way Assad stays in power is with Russian help and Iranian help. That means that they are potentially signing up for unending commitment to the cause that is Assad. So potentially, maybe there's a window for them to say, we're open to political transition because there's a cost to us, too, to continue to back Assad.
YOUSSEFHe cannot hold onto these territories without outside help.
DYERI think that's absolutely right. I mean, the optimistic reading of this is that Russia has now reached its aims that it set out in September when it intervened in Syria. First of all, it defended, you know, the regime's heartland in Latakia. It's now pushed, you know, the regime control a bit further inland so the key western cities in the country, close to taking Aleppo. It is possible that the Russians now think, we've solidified the regime, now we can actually open a, you know, seriously talk about putting the country back together with the regime in the driving seat.
DYERThat's possible. But it is also possible that the Russians, just like Assad has said today, that they see they now have a path to actually win this war and to keep Assad in power. And they will simple use this cessation of hostilities, this pause, as just a way to, you know, buy a bit of time while they prosecute their military campaign.
REHMAnd time is what the thousands of refugees at Turkey's border do not have. Turkey has closed its border. Is there any effort underway, any possibly successful effort to get Turkey to reconsider?
DYERSo there have been a lot of talks this week, a lot of pressure on the Turks, but there's also a parallel effort between Turkey and the EU. The EU has given a lot of money to the Turks to look after the refugees, over 2 million refugees who already are in Turkey. You know, Europe has, you know, I think huge problems, as we'll discuss, about the refugees, but we sometimes forget just the huge numbers of people who are in Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan already.
DYERI mean, they really are suffering. But they are also playing their own game with this as well. They're trying to get as much advantage as they can over this particular situation. It hasn't quite been resolved yet, but then those talks are ongoing.
YOUSSEFOne of the things that, I think, frustrates Turkey is they've taken refugees so their argument is to be complicit in the Russian backed defensive, which, from their advantage, gives the Kurds and advantage, a potential to take more of that border area, which, to them, they see as an existential threat. In addition, Erdogan has said that they have spent $9 billion on refugees. And this idea that Turkey is to take them in, to them strikes them as a double standard. I mean, the quote that he headed this week when he gave his speech in Ankar about this is "we don’t have idiot written on our forehead."
YOUSSEFSo you get the sense of the frustration that the Turks have not only with the developments in Syria, but how Europe has responded to Turkey's response to the crisis.
REHMWell, and you've got this water supply cut off to these refugees. I mean, how can they survive until these talks resume?
DREAZENI think, ultimately, the West and the Turkish government won't let there be starvation and people dying of dysentery and illness. Despite the tough talk, on some level, the camps will survive. The bigger question is where do they go? And right now, they're two and a half -- by the conservative estimate, there are 2.5 million refugees inside Turkey. Where do they go?
REHMYochi Dreazen, he's managing editor at Foreign Policy and author of "The Invisible Front." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here in the studio Geoff Dyer, he's foreign policy correspondent at the Financial Times. He's the author of the book titled "The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China--and How America Can Win." Nancy Youssef is senior defense national security correspondent for The Daily Beast. Yochi Dreazen is managing editor at Foreign Policy. I want to take a call here because I think it goes to the heart of everything we'll be talking about in this hour. It's from Carlana in Pittsburgh, Pa. You're on the air.
CARLANAHello. Well, I'm sorry to inform the nation that the United States is no longer the leader of the free world, and we'll be the last ones to find out about it. You can go back quite a ways, but just starting with the Bush and Cheney administration invading Iraq. Europeans were against that, and eventually they couldn't even go to Europe to meetings because the demonstrations were so large. And then Obama's had his share of bungles. When he -- I should also mention that American banks were in the leadership in encouraging a lot of the European banks to go along with some of the really stupid...
REHMAll right. I want to go to your direct point. To Geoff Dyer who is with the Financial Times, a British publication. Is the U.S. no longer the leader of the free world?
DYERWell, certainly the U.S. position as the sort of leading par in the Middle East has come under considerable challenge the last decade. I think the caller's right on that front. I mean, Phil Gordon, he used to be the White House national security advisor for the Middle East had this line where he says, you know, the U.S. and Iraq, we toppled the dictator and invaded the country and it was a disaster. And Libya, we toppled the dictator and didn't invade. It turned out to be a disaster. And then Syria, we didn't topple the dictator and we didn't invade, and it's also turned out to be a disaster.
DYERSo at a broad level this should be a moment of a lot of self-reflection and a certain humility amongst the Middle East foreign policy community to try to understand what is it the U.S. is trying to do in the region, what it wants to do and what it can do.
REHMAt the same time, I don't know if you were here in Washington when Herblock was the cartoonist and we all remember the sun going down on the British Empire. So, I mean, there are those kinds of talks all over again now facing the U.S.
DYERI moved to Washington from Asia. I was based in China for a few years before I moved here. I would say the position of the U.S. in Asia is completely different. The U.S. is popular. It's accepted. It's still powerful, still very influential, and still has a reasonably coherent, intelligent strategy for dealing with a rising China. It's a very different reality and very different atmosphere surrounding U.S. power in Asia than it is in the Middle East. And Europe has become a different question as well in the last few years with Putin and Ukraine.
DYERSame sorts of questions about U.S. (word?) . But, again, I think the U.S. in Europe is still generally very much accepted, popular, and there's a lot of interest and demand for the U.S. to remain very much engaged.
REHMWhat do you think, Yochi?
DREAZENThe line that you often hear from Obama officials, past and present, is, yes, Russia, China, but nobody wants their values, and nobody wants their government, that people when they still think of what kind of country they want, they look to the U.S. and they don't look to Russia and China. They're strong, but nobody wants to replicate a Russian system in their own country. Which is both true and irrelevant, because Obama has this optimistic view that the world is a rational place, and if you're rational enough, it will flow according to the way you want it to.
DREAZENRussia right now may not be the country people want to replicate, but they are the country, especially the Middle East, that other governments want to help. So when Iraq needs help against the Islamic State, they go to Russia. When Syria needs help, they go to Russia. When Gulf allies were increasingly worried about the White House, they're voting with their feet. They're going to Russia. They're seeking Russian help, in moderating Iran or being a mediator with Iran. They're not going to the U.S. anymore.
REHMAll right. Let's take this call from Frank in Charlotte, N.C. You're on the air.
FRANKHi. You know, I think that it's time for our president to go to Iran and sit down and speak to the people. You know, I don't think -- I think that nobody, like the person just said, wants to kill each other. I believe that we could all sit down, talk to each other and get things resolved. I think our president is a very smart man, and he'll be able to do it.
REHMWhat do you think, Yochi? Could President Obama go to Iran?
DREAZENThat'd be the ultimate of last minute, guy leaving off office moves. I doubt it. There's been an issue in the current campaign. I know you talked about it a little bit last hour where Hillary Clinton has said that Bernie Sanders is naïve on Iran, kind of using a line she used against candidate Obama in 2008. It would be a massive, historic surprise, akin to Nixon going to China, if Obama were to go to Iran. I doubt it. Iran is still doing so many things in the Middle East that we don't like. Therefore him to go would be seen as validating a regime that is still an adversary with the U.S. in a lot of ways. I would be floored if he did.
REHMBut wasn't China in the same situation when Nixon went there?
DYERThat's a possible analogy, but, I mean, I think the thing to say is that Obama has already engaged very deeply with Iran in the last few years. You know, he had the nuclear deal and there are now very regular conversations between John Kerry and Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister. There now is a channel communication, a diplomatic relationship between the two countries. That has transformed from what it was a few years ago.
DYERGoing to Iran would be a much bigger step, and it would -- as Yochi said, it would be seen as a validation of the Iranian regime. It would be resented by lots of Iranian people I suspect.
REHMBut I still want to go back to that China question. Wasn't there a great outcry at first with the idea of Nixon going to China?
DYERAbsolutely, there was. But, I mean, through the Iran diplomacy of the last few years, the U.S. has already brought Iran in from the cold in a way that the Nixon trip to China brought China in from the cold in a certain sense. So a lot of that work has already been done. There wouldn't necessarily be much more that would be achieved by the president personally going to Iran.
REHMI don't know about that.
DREAZENI mean, there's also just a toxicity to Iran and sort of the population culture and the popular -- the way that countries are seen around the world by the U.S. citizens. Many U.S. voters remember the hostage takeover. Many of them do consider them to be nuclear arm jihadist, apocalyptic madmen bent on eradicating Israel. There is still so much built up anger at Iran that I just -- it's hard to imagine to me.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about NATO and the migrant crisis. Nancy, what does NATO plan to do? We were talking about all these refugees who cannot get into Turkey. It's closed its borders. What can NATO do? What can it hope to accomplish?
YOUSSEFSo a little bit of context, there's already been 75,000 migrants to enter Greece this year. We're only in February. And so there's a real crisis at a time when Europe has sort of reached its apex of tolerance for migrants coming in, and watching the crisis in Aleppo has sort of resurrected fears of another wave of migrants coming through an unprepared Europe. And so it was in this context that you had NATO meeting and deciding to send three ships to the Aegean Sea, such that they can meet some of these migrants boats that come through.
YOUSSEFWhat's unclear is what those ships will be. One will be German. One will be Turkish. One will be Greek. And that allows them, because of this agreement, it allows them to go into -- each other's international waters without any sort of conflict. But it's unclear to me what exactly those ships would do. How do you stop a migrant boat? Oftentimes when these bigger boats confront migrants boats, they tip them over. What happens when there are refugees in the water? It will fall on them, presumably to rescue them. So it really, to me, speaks to the desperate attempts to stop the migrant issue, rather than confront how does Europe deal with the ongoing flow of migrants coming to their borders.
YOUSSEFThis idea that you could stop them at sea is not quite clear to me how that would happen. And, in fact, General Breedlove, the U.S. European commander, immediately after it was announced sort of seemed flummoxed at the idea, and said, well, we have to figure out what the rules are. What are the rules of engagement? How are we going to interact? So it seemed that this was an effort to stop the migrants rather than deal with the migrant issue. And I think there are a lot of logistics essentially to work out about what exactly you do when you see a migrant boat in the water.
DYERYeah, I mean, this is much more symbolic announcement than a real announcement. As Nancy said, Naval ships cannot do very much to stop these boats coming across the sea. And if they did get -- did engage with some of these ships, they could actually make the problem a lot worse by creating some sort of disasters, accident where hundreds of people drown. So it's a way of NATO saying, we want to have a role, we want to keep engaged, it's not just the European Union, it's also NATO's going to be part of this big problem. But in practical terms, it's hard to see that it will make any difference.
REHMAnd of course Turkey is pushing back against the U.N. who's saying, Turkey, you got to take more refugees, and they're saying, we can't. We can't do anymore.
DREAZENYou know, President Erdogan who occasionally speaks like a Turkish version of Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump and is not prone to understatement talked openly about, we will send busloads of these migrants to Europe. So it's not just like, we're not going to take anymore, it's in these very graphic, visceral terms, you know, Europe, you deal with it. We can't afford it. We don’t want to deal with it. It's now on you.
DREAZENBut there's an interesting sidepiece to this, which is part of the way that they're trying to deal with the migrant issue is to really step up efforts to find and arrest the smugglers, the people who are actually taking refugees to the water, putting them on boats and sending these rickety, very dangerous boats out into the water. All of us know the horrific numbers of people who died. And I mention that because this week the photo that probably did more than any other single image to bring this to the world's attention of the heartbreaking photo of the drowned boy, Aylan Kurdi. I mean, I still kind of tear up as a relatively new father thinking of it.
DREAZENBut Turkey this week put on trial to human smugglers. They say, we're responsible for putting his family on the boat, a boat that was unsafe. And they're charging them effectively with murder. So it's worth remembering that this photo of this tragic, tragic case, which is of course a micro-chasm of hundreds of thousands of tragic cases...
DREAZEN...that's also what they're doing. So it's not just ships on the sea. It's, can you find the criminals and can you go after them?
YOUSSEFCan I just add? I think that one of the takeaways from the last year was that whatever measures people thought that would mitigate the flow of migrants in 2015 turned out to not be true. There were high winds. There was cold weather. There were arrests. There were boats that were clearly unsafe.
REHMThey just kept going.
YOUSSEFPeople were dying. And they just kept going. So I think the measure that Yochi talks about is very important, but these efforts that we've seen over the past year have done very little to stop the flow. You cannot stop people who are in such dire straits as so many are in the region.
REHMAnd what about the EU's effort to restrict passport travel throughout Europe?
DYERSo what we're seeing essentially is the EU formally acknowledging what has been happening over the last few months and a more piecemeal measure, which is different countries in the EU putting up restrictions to stopping this free flowment of people within the EU that is supposed to be one of its crowning achievements, also called Schengen arrangement. So we've had in recent months, we've had, you know, restrictions between Denmark and Sweden, you know, two of the most liberal countries in Europe. They're even not allowing people to flow freely without having passports.
DYERAnd what the EU is announcing today is essentially just formalizing that, put into practice a recognition of the Schengen arrangement is almost on the verge of collapse.
REHMSo explain then what happens when one tries to move between countries.
DYERIt would be like moving from any other -- moving across any other border where you'd have to show a passport when you cross the border. That becomes quite complicated in Europe because there's lots of countries with lots of trains that flow every day between different countries.
REHMSo people will literally be stopped at trains, at planes, at borders?
DYERAll across Europe you're seeing border controls going up at the borders between different countries. And this is going to accelerate that process I would imagine.
YOUSSEFI think one thing to point out is the way that this came about, which was an emergency provision within the agreement which was designed to create a united Europe that says, Greece cannot handle its border, and therefore we will have the right to resurrect these kind of border controls. And it really speaks to this idea of a European Union really in jeopardy because of the migrant issue and how much it's divided Europe. This is just another example of several that we've seen over the past few months, and arguably the past year.
REHMNancy Youssef of The Daily Beast. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What about South Korea and North Korea? You've got South Korea now cutting power to an industrial complex it shares with North Korea. Talk about Kaesong, what it is, what it does.
DREAZENSo Kaesong was meant to be a place where you could have two things happen. One, just South Korean and North Korean people interacting with each other, because right now it's alien populations one to the other. South Koreans hear about North Korea from a distance. North Korea, if they hear about South Korea at all, it's purely propaganda. So part of it was have some way for these two countries to interact where it's not across a border between a nuclear armed country and its neighbor. And then to try to do something, even if it's small, to boost the North Korean economy.
DREAZENThe numbers about starvation within North Korea are just staggering. So this was symbolic, but the symbol was something that will help boost a starving, impoverished country. It hasn't worked. I mean, it hasn't done much on the economic front. We've watched North Korea test missiles. We've watched it test new bombs. We've watched it build up its artillery arsenal. So it hasn't worked on that front, nor has it worked on the economic front.
DREAZENThis week, what you had basically was North Korea say, we are nationalizing it and seizing all military equipment. When South Korea pulled its people out and cut electricity, they didn't take any of their equipment. All the equipment stayed behind because North Korea basically said, it's ours and we're willing to use force to keep it. South Korea is not one to go to a shooting engagement over some tractors and factory buildings. So what was meant to be a symbol of hope, meant to be a symbol of economic improvement has now been militarized by North Korea.
DYERAbsolutely. I mean, this was a policy over a decade ago in South Korea called the Sunshine Policy of trying to engage with the north, also using this complex to encourage kind of Chinese-style economic reforms in North Korea, hoping that that would, you know, soften the edges of this regime and create a path for a more stable peninsula. But it simply hasn't worked and so this is the sort of final recognition, and both sides are effectively pulling the plug.
REHMAnd what about this missile defense system, Nancy?
YOUSSEFWell, it was that launch that led to the closure of Kaesong. You had the North Koreans launch a satellite into orbit. It reached nine minutes, I think nine and a half minutes. The North Koreans were saying that this was to test the satellite. South Korea and the U.S. are a little b it more suspicious and believe that it is to be a part of a developing intercontinental ballistics' system. And from that all these sort of reactions and counteractions were set off. You had China, which was very angry. They actually sent a diplomat urging North Korea not to do this launch. And they essentially spit in the face of China and said, we're going to do it anyway. And not only did it, but did it on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year, as though just to add insult to injury.
YOUSSEFAfter that you had the closing of Kaesong and threats back and forth, that Yochi and Geoff described. And now you're having the United States a vote by Congress, which in our polarized Congress, a vote 96 to 0 to sanction North Korea in the form of cybersecurity and on people who are believed to do business in North Korea. The House could vote on that measure as early as today. And it's all part of in the context of a Kim Jong-un who is doing increasingly bombastic things to assert his authority and his young reign.
YOUSSEFThis week we also saw the killing of a North Korean general by the regime for corruption, fabrication. This was the number three there because there's a feeling that Kim Jong-un is trying to steal power from a reticent army. And so it's quite an active week on the peninsula this week, and this power grab, not only over borders, but within the state itself.
REHMNancy Youssef, Geoff Dyer, Yochi Dreazen. They're all here to answer your questions after we take a short break. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Time to go to the phones, first to Ali here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
ALIHi Diane. I think there was a serious misapprehension of what is actually going on in the Middle East and has been going on for the past decade. There is really a proxy war going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has unfolded itself not only in Iraq and Syria but also in Yemen, in Libya, in many other parts of the Middle East. And that has divided, actually, the camps of the West and the East between the United States mostly supporting Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia, whereas Russia is supporting Shiite countries led by Iran.
ALIAnd we continue to vilify Iran, which obviously has also many, many downfalls, but we continue vilifying them when in reality Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of terrorism throughout the world with their Wahhabi doctrine.
DREAZENYou know, I think that that's generally true, although there is one obvious, massive, glaring exception, which is that the U.S. now has backed the government of Iraq, which has been a Shiite government, at times very harshly sectarian, very close to Iran. So as a general rule, the idea of a proxy war is something that's unquestionably true, but Iraq is a massive, massive exception to it.
REHMAll right, to Jerry in O'Fallon, Missouri, you're on the air.
JERRYGood morning. Yesterday I ran across a couple of item, seemingly independent, I'm looking at a story now by Colin Taylor, that Iran has revealed that Republicans tried to delay the release of U.S. prisoners until after the election. I've yet to see any correlation in any major news source. I wondered if any -- it's been on anyone else's radar.
REHMLet's find out. Nancy?
YOUSSEFI saw the report. I haven't had the chance to report on it. It was very reminiscent of the Iran hostage deal, when the hostages were not release until the very early hours of the Reagan administration, despite the aggressive efforts by President Carter. I too haven't seen anyone else report it, other than that report you cite. Now, it's hard to know is that true, or is this Iran trying to insert itself in an already interesting political process that we're going through in this country.
DYERLikewise, I have no particular information. The logic doesn't quite make sense inasmuch as all the Republican presidential candidates have said that they will tear up the Iran deal on the first day. So it's hard to know what leverage that they would have to then actually do some sort of deal over hostages with Iran at the same time. So it doesn't particularly -- you know, it doesn't smell right.
REHMYochi, have you heard, as well?
DREAZENI haven't. I'm very skeptical of it. I mean, if anything, the Republicans have gone the other direction. I mean, they've been very public before and after the deal being signed and trying to say to Iran, hey, if you sign this, we will do everything we can to get it repealed, blocked, torn up. So the idea that they'd be communicating on this very different avenue, it's hard for me to believe it's true.
REHMAll right, Nancy, let's talk about the horrible death of a young Italian doctoral student in Egypt. It's really gained huge attention.
YOUSSEFYes, so he was a 28 doctoral student from Oxford -- or Cambridge, excuse me. And he was studying trade unions in Egypt, which is controversial in and of itself. He left his house in downtown Cairo, around there, January 25 of this year, which was the five-year anniversary of the uprising, a time when the Egyptian authorities were already very aggressively on the street and in the weeks leading up to it were arresting Egyptians left, right and center in anticipation of potential protests and whatnot.
YOUSSEFAnd this is very common in Egypt, people disappearing off the streets, but what's so unusual in this case is that it was a foreigner. And so, as often happens in Egypt, people don't know who's taken their loved one, and there will be Twitter campaigns, and such a campaign was launched for this student, asking where he was. The Italian government went to President Sisi and said where is our citizen. Two days later, his body appears, half-naked on the outskirts of Cairo, off of a road, clear signs of torture, cigarette burns in his body, nails missing from his hands and feet.
YOUSSEFThe autopsy conducted by the Italians determined that he had been tortured for a prolonged period of time. The Egyptians first tried to say it was an accident, and that obviously didn't go very well, and then they said that they were investigating. The Italians believe that the Egyptians believe that he was a spy, but it's really unprecedented. I mean, we have been seeing this with the Egyptians. People disappear literally every day because there has been -- you know, I think a lot of people think what's going on in Egypt is that you have a new dictator in Sisi, and I think that's an oversimplification.
YOUSSEFI think what's happened is because the government has successfully put down the Muslim Brotherhood, by arresting thousands, and has successfully put down the revolutionaries by putting down and arresting thousands that there's now infighting within the government, and you have nobody really in control. And I think it's why you're seeing when people disappear, sometimes the police take them, sometimes the military takes them, sometimes state security, but the idea that a student could be treated like this has just outraged the international community and really solidified Egypt's place as another unstable Arab state.
DREAZENI had the chance this week to interview the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, who had been a former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. And much of the interview had been him being very diplomatic about Syria, about this, about that. So then we of course asked him about Giulio Regeni, who was the student who was tortured and killed, and that's when he kind of exploded, and he said how dare the world accuse us, people -- this is almost a verbatim quote, crime happens everywhere. I'm sure that the day that he was killed you had murders here in Washington and in the U.S., so why do you assume that we did it, why would anybody assume we're responsible, it's criminal, it's this, it's that. Pause, and we're of course cooperating with the Italians. Pause, back to this is crime, this is murder, it could happen anywhere, we're outraged that the world would think we were responsible.
DREAZENBut what was reflected in that was this really got not just the Italians, I mean the Italian press reported almost immediately that senior Italian officials believed, and as Nancy indicated, that he had been captured and tortured by the Egyptian security forces. So there's outrage there. But it's also a live-wire issue in Egypt. Egypt is already feeling that they're being criticized from outside for their handling of human rights issues, for terrorism.
DREAZENOne other thing he had mentioned to me that stuck with me, again the foreign minister, he said when there's a terror attack anywhere else in the world, that country is seen as the victim, and when there's a terror attack in Egypt, there's no sympathy, they're seen as the -- as sort of responsible in some way for what took place. And it -- whether you think it's true or not, and I happen to not think it's true, it's really revealing of the mindset of this Sisi regime. They feel themselves besieged by criticism from outside, and they're sort of circling the wagons in response to it.
REHMYou want to add?
DYERI think where this fits into the Washington debate, and you do hear discussion in Washington, and some people say, you know, we should be working very closely with Sisi, he's a strong leader, he's an example of a certain kind of moderate Islam, he could be a very valuable partner in the fight against ISIS and Islamist terrorist.
DYERBut as Nancy and Yochi have described, this shows a state, a sort of level of political violence that is both shocking, but it shows a kind of fragility in the state, and it gives a sense that there are huge political problems being stored up in Egypt that could come back to the fore, could explode sometime in the near future.
YOUSSEFTo Shoukry's point that this could have been a criminal element, Egyptians show up on those highways on the outskirts of Cairo regularly with cigarette burns, with nails missing. This is -- these are practices that are emblematic of the government forces. And to this idea that we're being besieged, remember that Sisi is in a very fragile position. The economy in Egypt is faltering. There's a real frustration with this president who came in with great expectations from the people. He doesn't really have a plan.
YOUSSEFAnd again, I'm not sure that he has total control of the state apparatus services. Last year he gave the military two raises. He gave the judges three raises. This is not a leader who feels strongly in control of the country. And so I think the idea of saying that we are being besieged and victimized is a common tactic to unify Egyptians around the Egyptian nationality. Remember after the Metrojet crash in Sharm-el-Sheikh last October, the Egyptians said, well, this was a plot, this was a conspiracy.
YOUSSEFIt is a way to unify the people and absolve the state of their responsibility and arguably their complicit actions, that are leading to this kind of instability.
REHMAnd here's a New York Times editorial of today or yesterday really suggesting that Egyptian security forces could have been involved. I mean, why would they choose this student, because of the area of study, trade unions?
DREAZENYeah, I mean, Egypt's had, as Nancy indicated, the governments, successful governments, have had very complicated relationships with unions, which they've seen as a way for opposition parties to form. They believe that in the past, the Muslim Brotherhood survived because it had a union structure and sort of knew how to operate the way a union did.
DREAZENAnd if you had people gathering outside of government oversight, it's a slippery slope. The next thing you know, you've got chaos, and you've got opposition parties, and you've got anarchy and coups and the like. That's the only reason why there's, I think, even a shred of credibility that would explain not if they did it, which seems very likely, but the -- why they did it.
YOUSSEFI would just add the student was studying unions post-Mubarak, and what's happened since then is that unions, which used to be under government control, are increasingly becoming independent. And so that's why some of these elements that Yochi describe are happening in Egypt. The government has lost control of yet another apparatus that was so key to its rule over the country.
REHMHere's an email from Jason in Washington, who says, we're selling tons of arms to Egypt so they can kill their own citizens, Geoffrey.
DYERThis has just been a long-running kind of question about U.S. policy in Egypt, really going back to Mubarak and then after he was overthrown. And the administration has never really been able to work out the answer to that. They've sort of hemmed and hawed an held back at times of weapons, and now they're supplying them again. It's been a very confused and muddled policy.
REHMAll right, and a question from Tom in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. You're on the air.
TOMAnd thank you for all your great panel's advice and insights. A friend of mine said that his young son was recently deployed on a small carrier group, or will be shortly, to those contested islands off of China that have been militarized by China. And it goes back to that question of what is the status of that area, and what is the U.S. involvement in that contested area?
DREAZENIt's a really interesting point. I mean, the islands in question are called the Senkaku. These are islands that have been contested between Japan and China for a very long time. The satellite imagery of the kind of bases China is building is staggering. They're building bases on some of these islands that are bigger than the Pentagon, not in terms of office space but just in terms of land mass taken up, deep-water ports, air strips, et cetera.
DREAZENThe U.S. has for a long time said we're going to defend these waters, we're going to defend our right to go through these waters and then not gone through them. China declared an air defense zone, where planes would have to register with China before they flew through. The U.S. said we don't recognize it, we'll never recognize it and then avoid that air space.
DREAZENEarlier this year, you had -- it was either earlier this year or late last year, you had the U.S. make a point of publicly steaming through those waters and saying they would do it again. They haven't done it again. So it's been this very interesting issue where step by step, day by day, Japan is seeing more of these islands get built over by the Chinese, the U.S. saying we will never allow it and then not really -- not really questioning either the water control or the air control.
REHMSo what's the point of sending ships to that area?
DREAZENIt's to try to reassure the Japanese, and it's to try to do anything they can to slow the Chinese.
YOUSSEFAlso by sending those ships, you're -- by passing through, you're saying we're not honoring your definition of who controls this water mass, this area.
REHMAll right, let's talk for a moment about the global economy and what's going on this week when oil prices dropped below $27 a barrel. And this morning you had a price rebound to a certain extent. Are we going to continue to see this, Geoffrey?
DYERSo low oil prices should be a very good signal for the global economy.
DYERIf you're not an oil-producing country, of course, right, because this should put more money in consumers' pockets. It should allow people to -- you know, more money to spend on other things, they're spending less money on gas, and you're seeing that to some extent in the U.S. You're seeing the car industry is doing very well here. But it should be very good for consumers in Europe, for the economies that are struggling, it should be very good for consumers in Japan.
DYERBut actually what seems to be happening, it's sort of a chicken-and-egg situation. What seems to be the case is that low oil prices are a reflection of a very weak global economy.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." How weak?
DYERSo, I mean, the latest bits of bad news we've seen are more bad news out of China, where we already knew the economy was decelerating very quickly, but we've seen reserve figures this week that showed that there was quite a lot of capital flight from China, which could show that a lot of people in China are very, very worried about what's happening in their economy.
DYERIn certain European countries and Japan, you've got a slight technical thing, but they're imposing negative interest rates. But again that's another signal that they think their economies are very weak, and they're using extremely unorthodox monetary policy measure to try to stimulate their economies. And even in the U.S., as you kind of touched on a bit in the first hour, there is a discussion, there are some people saying there's a sort of one in three chance that the U.S. could go into recession.
DYERSo all of this is pushing down prices of things like oil, commodities and share prices, and you get this general impression of a very weak global economy, where no one has really got the capacity to take up the slack and to be a new engine.
YOUSSEFI think it's a wonderful analysis. I would just add there's also basic economics of supply and demand, where there is an expectation that there would be growing demand. That hasn't happened. Meanwhile, you have U.S. producing more, Iran expected now to produce more because of the Iran deal, Iraq expected to produce more and not enough demand. And that's I think sort of the other factor that has led people to say that over the long term, the idea of $30 a barrel is not going to be an outlier by the norm.
YOUSSEFI think the expectation in January, when the prices dropped and then picked up again, that this was just going to be a small blip and that we'd be back on the up and up, if you will, but the report from the International Energy Agency this month saying don't expect that I think has sort of reaffirmed a lot of the worries that Geoff spelled out.
REHMWell, they're saying the surplus may be even greater than anticipated.
DREAZENRight. I mean, there was a belief for a while that Iran, once the deal is signed, that they'd start selling oil, and whoof, all this money is coming into Iran, which is blatantly untrue. There's already a glut on the world market. Iran, if it pumps out, they're not going to be reaping a lot of money. The Iraqi budget has collapsed. There's a genuine crisis in Iraq about whether their government survives the fact that they have no money to spend on their military operations, no money to spend on social welfare.
DREAZENYou know, it's very rare that you can, in this country, drive past a gas station, buy something on the shelf and realize that there's a direct connection to geopolitics overseas. There is. When you're driving down, down to Washington, and gas is $179 a barrel, across the world that means Iraq's government may fall. When you're looking at gas in some other part of the country being $175 a barrel, that means the Russian government is suddenly hitting a crunch.
DREAZENAnd so on this show we often talk about these really fascinating issues that are overseas. Here, every American is being touched by this. Every American, when they're seeing these gas signs, should remember that across the world this ricochets in a very profound way.
REHMAnd we have a final caller. Beth in Holland, Michigan, says, can we speak to the notion of hope in solving or going forward for our civilization? A lot of people are worried, Yochi.
DREAZENYeah, it's something that President Obama has tried to talk to. He's tried to say the Islamic State is scary, but it's not apocalyptic. This isn't the Cold War, where we could be wiped off the face of the map. Unfortunately, world opinion, especially in the U.S., we scare easily as a country. We don't like to admit that. We like to think that we're the Americans, we're so strong, we're so tough. We scare. I mean, you listen to the dialogue in the Republican debate, you would think ISIS has an army marching on Washington, and it's -- the reality is that by any measure, this is still a safer time to live than at any time in history.
DREAZENYou know, Steven Pinker, who researches this, talks a lot about how your odds of dying violently are still lower than they were 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago. But we forget that. We forget that -- we think ISIS is going to destroy the world, China, North Korea, Russia. There is reason to be optimistic. Unfortunately, we're not touching on it.
REHMYochi Dreazen, managing editor at Foreign Policy, author of "The Invisible Front," Nancy Youssef, senior defense and national, pardon me, security correspondent for The Daily Beast and Geoff Dyer of the Financial Times. Thank you all. Have a great weekend. I'll see you again soon.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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