Guest Host: Cecilia Kang

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile in San Cristobal de Las Casas on February 15. Thousands of indigenous Mexicans flocked on Monday to a field in the southern state of Chiapas to attend Pope Francis' mass.

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile in San Cristobal de Las Casas on February 15. Thousands of indigenous Mexicans flocked on Monday to a field in the southern state of Chiapas to attend Pope Francis' mass.

The U.S. carries out airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya. Humanitarian aid convoys arrive in besieged areas of Syria. And in Mexico Pope Francis calls attention to the world’s migrant crises. A panel of journalists joins guest host Cecilia Kang for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.


  • James Kitfield Contributing editor, National Journal; senior fellow, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
  • Karen DeYoung Senior national security correspondent, The Washington Post
  • Edward Luce Chief U.S. columnist and commentator, Financial Times; author of "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent"


  • 11:06:54

    MS. CECILIA KANGThanks for joining us. I'm Cecilia Kang of the New York Times sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on a book tour. U.S. airstrikes target an ISIS camp in Libya. EU leaders meet to discuss the future of British membership and in Mexico, Pope Francis calls attention to the world's migrant crisis. Here to discuss the week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, James Kitfield of the National Journal, Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post and Edward Luce of the Financial Times. Thanks for joining us.

  • 11:07:27

    MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood to be here.

  • 11:07:27

    MR. EDWARD LUCEThank you.

  • 11:07:28

    KANGWe'll be taking your comments, questions throughout the hour. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email at and join us on Facebook or Twitter. Edward, let's start off with the news of the moment. The U.S. carried out airstrikes in Libya. Tell us about the operation and what we do know.

  • 11:07:52

    LUCEWell, this was an F15 strike in the early hours of this morning on a group based not too far from -- about 50 miles west of Tripoli. A Tunisian group affiliated to al-Qaida that was believed to be responsible for the two attacks last year in Tunisia. There was one on a resort in June where 38 were gunned down on the beach and in the hotel resort. And there was another on a museum in Tunis earlier that year. And this group, lead by a man called Noureddine Chouchane who was believed to have been -- thought to have been killed in the strike, this group has strong links with ISIS in Syria.

  • 11:08:41

    LUCEAnd, of course, a lot of the ISIS recruits in Syria are from Tunisia. So it's a clean strike by all accounts.

  • 11:08:51

    KANGAnd Karen, what we know so far, at least the mayor of the Libyan city of Sabratha has said that there were 41 people killed so far. Is the U.S. opening a new front against ISIS?

  • 11:09:03

    MS. KAREN DEYOUNGWell, you know, President Obama has been under a lot of pressure to stop the Islamic State expansion in Libya and certainly U.S. intelligence has said this is the primary area of expansion. As they get increasingly pushed in Syria and Iraq, they have tried to move beyond there. And Libya, as a pretty much ungoverned space, is where they have settled. You know, President Obama said this week that there have to be greater efforts not only by the United States but by other countries to prevent the Islamic State from digging in in Libya while they're kind of desperately trying to form a new government there from two rival groups.

  • 11:09:45

    MS. KAREN DEYOUNGBut they've been reluctant to start an overall offensive there, the Americans and their allies have, because they want this government to be formed and they want this government to ask for assistance. I think this was something -- a target of opportunity. The last similar airstrike in Libya was last November when they, again, spotted someone they thought was a senior official and decided to go after them.

  • 11:10:09

    KANGAnd James, what is the political situation in Libya? Has there been any progress in creating a unified government?

  • 11:10:15

    KITFIELDWell, there was, you know, meetings, but they have sort of dissolved into acrimony and bickering so I don't think there's much progress. I agree that this ISIS expansion, I mean, we watched this and the U.S. security establishment is very cognizant of the fact that when they pressured al-Qaida in the Pakistan tribal areas for the last decade, they saw it sort of survive through the rise of these affiliates around the world, al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaida in Yemen.

  • 11:10:48

    KITFIELDThey're seeing ISIS do the same thing. As they pressure in Syria particularly, they're seeing it sort of take root in other places through these affiliates and they're very worried about that. And Libya is the place where they've been most worried because, as has been said, that really is an ungoverned space and that's the kind of spaces they flock to.

  • 11:11:07

    KANGMeanwhile, the EU is currently holding a summit to discuss the future of Great Britain's membership. Edward, can you please explain what this is about?

  • 11:11:16

    LUCEWell, David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain, had a longstanding pledge to hold a referendum in Britain after having -- on Britain's EU membership, whether it should stay in or out, the so-called Brexit Referendum, after securing a better deal for Britain in Europe from his 27 colleagues. And that deal is now something he's trying to sort of get the last dots and Is on and they stayed up till 5:00 AM in Brussels on Thursday night and then resumed after two, three hours' sleep during Friday. And right now, they're having...

  • 11:11:54

    KANGThey're currently talking.

  • 11:11:55

    LUCEYes. They're currently talking. It was initially billed as an English breakfast and it moved into an English brunch and now, apparently, it's an English dinner. And as the joke goes, you know, if they can serve some traditional English fare, like, marmite on toast, you know, perhaps the French will cave in and agree to whatever Cameron asks. But on a more serious level, you know, the Germans, Angela Merkel is very keen to give Cameron what he wants, which is an opt out from an every closer union.

  • 11:12:24

    LUCEBritain doesn't feel like an integral part of the EU and it wants acknowledgement of that. Secondly, it wants to have a veto over any Eurozone regulations on the financial sector. London, of course, is the capital of the Eurozone trading, but Britain is not a member of the euro. So Britain fears if this sort of fast track in a Eurozone core of Europe can regulate London to death and the French are very reluctant. Francois Hollande is very reluctant to give that to Cameron.

  • 11:12:58

    LUCESo these are two of the sticking points. The final one is on migrants. Britain wants an opt out from paying benefits to migrant families. And, again, the Europeans, particularly Merkel, want to accommodate Cameron as far as they can, but they don't want to undercut a core sort of principle of Europe, which is free movement of people.

  • 11:13:20


  • 11:13:21

    DEYOUNGWell, I think it's interesting that this migrant issue has become an integral part of these negotiations, which have been going on for a long time about, as Edward said, about the currency, about the European parliament and now, as Cameron sort of struggles to build support before a referendum that he said will be held in June, they've focused on the migrant issue because the European Union is desperately trying to parcel out these migrants so they don't all get stuck in one place and to decide what assistance, what government aid, they should be allotted.

  • 11:14:01

    DEYOUNGAnd Britain wants to opt out of whatever the EU decides and that would be something that would be very popular in Britain and would allow Cameron to go home and say, great, I've kept us from being subsumed by this migrant wave.

  • 11:14:15

    KANGAnd James, what are your thoughts on the demand by Britain?

  • 11:14:18

    KITFIELDWell, I mean, I think the Europeans want to try to accommodate him to the degree possible 'cause really the stakes are pretty existential. And we've watched this high wire act from Cameron already with the Scottish referendum, you know. Do you break up the British empire? Now, we're talking about, at a sort of a moment of existential crisis for the EU with this immigration situation, that basically there's not answer for 'cause there's no agreement within the Union about what to do with these immigrants.

  • 11:14:44

    KITFIELDSo Europe's looking like it's unraveling already over the immigration issue. We just got finished with the Greek bailout. We have the rise of a lot of right wing nationalist parties, anti-immigrant, but also anti-EU. And this referendum, according to polling, is pretty close. So if he loses this and Britain actually pulls out, the concern is the EU starts to unravel 'cause it shows a way out for a lot of people who are very anti-EU now. So the stakes are very, very high here so I imagine that the European leaders want to give him what's necessary for them to win this referendum. But I think it's going to be a close thing.

  • 11:15:18

    KANGEdward, I mean, I guess sort of bottom line, how likely would it be that Great Britain might actually leave the EU?

  • 11:15:25

    LUCEYou know, I think it's a 50/50 right now.

  • 11:15:28


  • 11:15:28

    LUCEAs Karen said, the referendum's set for June 23. The key thing is can Cameron bring home a deal from Brussels that persuades more your skeptical figures like Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, to back a Remain Campaign as opposed to a Leave Campaign. And Boris Johnson is sitting on the fence right now. You know, the conservative party is deeply split on this and Cameron needs to get as many of his colleagues in line with him. And if he can, I believe Britain will stay in. And if he can't, Britain will leave.

  • 11:16:05

    KANG50/50, Karen. What would the cost, though, be to leaving, leaving for Great Britain and what would that mean for the future of the EU?

  • 11:16:13

    DEYOUNGWell, I think that the, you know, what Germany and other countries would say is that this would have a huge economic cost for Britain, but I think what James said is very true. The EU is kind of on the verge of falling apart and we've heard the Germans say, and others say, that this an organization and European unity is something that's been built over 70 years. And the migrant crisis, in particular, and to the extent that that has bolstered the conversation and the dispute in Britain really is challenging, that unity where you have some countries saying not us, we're not taking any of these people and you have other countries saying, you know, this is the law here.

  • 11:17:01

    DEYOUNGThis is the humanitarian law that's part of our own governance and we can't say no to this. I think there's real concern and some of that concern's being directed toward Washington, where they would like a stronger policy from the United States in Syria and in Iraq as a way of stopping this migration.

  • 11:17:21


  • 11:17:21

    LUCECan I just make one distinction here?

  • 11:17:23


  • 11:17:23

    LUCEThere's the migrant crisis of refugees coming from the Middle East and Britain's role in that and Germany's role in that. But there's the separate British complaint about internal EU migration to Britain and the paying of welfare payments to them the moment they arrive. And so that is sort of a separate dispute.

  • 11:17:43

    KANGRight. Thank you for that distinction. Coming up, more of the Friday News Roundup.

  • 11:20:02

    KANGWelcome back. I'm Cecilia Kang sitting in for Diane Rehm. I am joined by James Kitfield, the contributing editor at the National Journal and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, Karen DeYoung, the senior national security correspondent at The Washington Post, and Edward Luce, the chief U.S. columnist and commentator at the Financial Times and the author of the book, "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent."

  • 11:20:30

    KANGJames, in Syria, convoys carrying urgently needed aid have reached some besieged areas. Bring us up to speed on that.

  • 11:20:38

    KITFIELDWell, this is part of the whole deal that Secretary Kerry reached with the Russians for a ceasefire. And that ceasefire is supposed to go into effect at the end of this week. So the trucks left, which is a good thing. You know, both sides in this conflict are using starvation as a -- of a tactic of war. So you have really, really desperate populations in various places. So those hundred trucks will be very welcomed. But the ceasefire agreement was put off. And, you know, count me as skeptical. There's a fatal flaw in this ceasefire, which is...

  • 11:21:09


  • 11:21:11

    KITFIELD...the Russians and the Americans insist that, even after the ceasefire, they will keep attacking terrorists. Well, we think ISIS is the terrorist. The Russians think all the rebels that we're backing are the terrorists. And if that tit-for-tat keeps going on, we've seen Russia this past week increase its bombing around Aleppo, has bombed two hospitals, bombed schools. The Russians deny that this happened, said it's the Americans. Well, the Americans aren't bombing around Aleppo because ISIS is not anywhere near around Aleppo. So I -- it's hard for me to be very optimistic about this ceasefire. But, you know, we can all keep our fingers crossed.

  • 11:21:44

    KITFIELDBut I think that the, you know, the Russians and the Assad regime feel like they're -- have the momentum behind their side. If they can capture Aleppo, that's a critical knife in the heart of the rebel movement because it includes, you know, communication, landlines between them and Turkey. So, you know, it just doesn't feel like this ceasefire is ready to take hold to me.

  • 11:22:07

    KANGIndeed, an agreement in Munich last week was reached to at least begin the talks of cessation of hostilities. Karen, what are your thoughts on the ceasefire and where it stands, with what James just said?

  • 11:22:19

    DEYOUNGWell, the Munich agreement said that the ceasefire would begin in one week. The agreement was signed last Friday, and so that would be today. The -- there's a taskforce headed by the United States and Russia that was supposed to meet in Geneva on last Tuesday to decide what they called the modalities -- one of those diplomatic words that basically means they were going to draw on a map where bombing was not allowed and where bombing was allowed, what groups would be exempt from bombing. The meeting on Tuesday was canceled. Another meeting today. So far, it's been delayed all day.

  • 11:22:56

    DEYOUNGThe Russians came out this morning and said, oh, meeting canceled, not going to happen. The Americans came out and said, nope, that's not right. It's just been delayed. It's going to be today. And so it's just not clear what's going to happen. What is clear is that there's not going to be a ceasefire today, which is what the Munich agreement initially said.

  • 11:23:14

    KANGAnd, Edward, explain the significance of that -- the delay, the potential that this might be delayed, the potential that there may not be an agreement on the cessation of hostilities. What does that mean?

  • 11:23:25

    LUCEWell, first and foremost, it's a humanitarian potential. Aleppo is a city of 3-400,000 people. It is essentially under siege. And as Jim and Karen mentioned, you know, the Russians are continuing to strike areas in and around it. And so there's no humanitarian corridor to Aleppo. It's redolent Sarajevo, you know, in the 1990s. The potential for -- the scale of human disaster there is huge. So that's the first implication.

  • 11:23:57

    LUCEThe second is that if the U.S. and Russia are unable to agree on implementing, you know, something as basic as a very temporary cessation of hostilities, then, you know, larger prospects of peace talks and getting the Syrian opposition together and agreeing who the Syrian opposition is and the Syrian opposition agreeing amongst themselves who they are, look very, very weak indeed.

  • 11:24:21

    DEYOUNGBut I think that Edward's right in the sense that all of this was supposed to be in order to allow peace talks to start...

  • 11:24:29


  • 11:24:29

    DEYOUNG...between the opposition and the government of Bashar al-Assad. There was an initial meeting held. The opposition said, wait a minute. How can we meet while people are starving, while civilians are being bombed. And so the talks were stopped while this Munich process was underway. If the Munich process does not succeed, I don't see people coming back to the table to talk. The next meeting between the opposition and the government was supposed to be on the 25th of February. The U.N. came out this morning and said, well, that's not going to happen. And so we'll reschedule it sometime in the future.

  • 11:25:05

    DEYOUNGBut I think the larger point for the Obama administration is that, in many people's eyes, including some of our allies and certainly political opponents in this country, it looks like the Americans are being played by the Russians. The Russians sat down at the table. They agreed to all this stuff. And there has been a lot of delay. And meanwhile, the bombing has not only not stopped, but it's increased.

  • 11:25:32

    KANGJames, would you agree? Does it look like the U.S. being played? And how do the optics affect all of this?

  • 11:25:36

    KITFIELDIt feels that way and we've seen this show before with the Russians. We did it in the Eastern Ukraine, while they were sort of arguing for a cessation, a ceasefire, et cetera. And even as they were arguing, you saw their, you know, heavy weaponry crossing the border in support of, you know, the rebels as they were making offensives here and there. We saw something similar in Crimea, where they were -- denied anything was going on for the longest time. And then just, presto-chango, this is now annexed to Russia. So, yeah, this feels like modus operandi for Russia.

  • 11:26:05

    KITFIELDThe question is, at what point will they, you know, are they willing to stop if they capture Aleppo? I mean, maybe they're just trying to increase their leverage of the Assad regime and their own leverage when peace talks finally begin. That's one possibility. But as long as the momentum is with the Russians and the Assad regime, it's hard for me to imagine them stopping.

  • 11:26:24

    KANGKaren, meanwhile Russia was blamed for airstrikes on Monday that hit hospitals in northern Syria. Russia rejects those accusations. What do we actually know?

  • 11:26:34

    DEYOUNGWell, I think the Americans know an awful lot, because they have a lot of aerial surveillance both from satellites and unmanned aircraft over Syria. I think they pretty much know what happened. I think that they're reluctant to say it because the Russians have denied it. They're trying to get the Russians to sit down at the table over a ceasefire. And once they say, no, the Russians actually hit hospitals, hit mosques, hit schools and killed a lot of civilians, the thought is that this will make it even more difficult for them to sit down at the table.

  • 11:27:10

    DEYOUNGBut I think that there's, you know, this is a real crunch point for the administration, which is pretty divided over what to do next. Once you declare that this peace process is not going to work, then you're faced with the decision, well, then what are you going to do? Are you going to allow the Russians and Assad to basically take over that part of the country in the west that they want to take over, because you believe that the fight against the Islamic State is more important. Even though you've already said, no, we have to settle the civil war. Because without it, we won't get enough Syrians to fight against the Islamic State. We want to join forces with the Russians and the Syrian government to fight against the Islamic State.

  • 11:27:55

    DEYOUNGAnd so I think that this is, you know, the next days and week are going to be a pretty difficult time for the administration in terms of deciding what to do if really substantive negotiations don't go forward.

  • 11:28:08

    KANGThis week, also, in Turkey, in Ankara, the capital city, there was a car bombing and at least 28 people were killed. The Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed the Syrian-Kurdish military group, The People's Protection Units. Edward, tell us a little bit more about what happened and the significance of it.

  • 11:28:27

    LUCEWell, this was suicide bombing in Ankara, as you mentioned. The Turks have said that a man called Saleh Najar, who's a Kurdish-Syrian, was responsible for the attack. And they have stepped up pressure. They've used this instance to step up pressure on the Americans to declare the YPG, the Syrian-Kurdish -- very effective, Syrian-Kurdish fighting force as a terrorist group, something the Americans would be loathe to do. So, again, a little bit like what Karen's been describing on the Russia picture, the Americans are caught between a rock and a hard place.

  • 11:29:02


  • 11:29:03

    LUCEI mean, the YPG is the most effective anti-ISIS force there is. But it's also an existential threat to Turkey's sense of nationhood, because it believes it's linked up with Turkey's own Kurdish rebels, the PKK. So there's a real dilemma for the Americans here. They don't want to offend a NATO ally, Turkey, by appearing to side with a group that's carrying out terrorist attacks on its soil. But they don't want to defang or distance themselves from this very effective -- only existing effective anti-ISIS force that's on the ground.

  • 11:29:41

    KANGIt is indeed a complicated relationship. And the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan essentially did ask -- say that the U.S., you have to choose which side you're on. Explain a little bit more, James, about this complicated relationship between the U.S. and Turkey as it pertains to this particular group.

  • 11:29:58

    KITFIELDIt couldn't be more complicated. You know, we were very friendly with the Kurdish population in northern Iraq, for instance. They kept the peace throughout much of our fight in Iraq for the last decade. But they're -- Turkey has fought a secessionist group of Kurds, that we too considered terrorists, from Iraq, for three decades. Tens of thousands of people killed. A lot, you know, the concern of Turkey is very clear. If, as the map gets redrawn after this conflict in Syria, the Kurds are in control of a broad swath of territory around Turkey's border in both Iraq and Syria, the other side of that border is mostly Kurdish as well. It's Turkish Kurds. And they're afraid that they'll have a civil war on their hands.

  • 11:30:47

    KITFIELDSo they're very, very against the idea that the Kurds benefit from this conflict that we're seeing in Syria. Unfortunately for America, the Kurds are their only effective fighters against ISIS. I mean, that's it in terms of our proxy so far who are standing up to ISIS. So that puts us and our major ally, NATO ally in the region at loggerheads. And it also, you know, look at Turkey. It's had two mass-casualty suicide bombings in its capital in the last, you know, six months. It has shot down a Russian airplane, which puts it, you know, on the tip of conflict with a major power like Russia. Turkey is freaking out here.

  • 11:31:23

    KITFIELDAnd we, you know, so this thing starts to feel like 1913, where an assassination in the Balkans pulls in empires and great powers. Well, we're seeing that now. And, you know, all the candidates on the Republican side, as well as Hillary Clinton, have said that they would, you know, put a no-fly zone in northern Syria, which the Turks very much want, which is going to put us potentially at loggerheads with Russian airpower in that region. So this thing starts to feel like it's spinning out of control. So, you know, I think there's a bit of desperation in our sort of diplomatic effort to find some cessation of hostilities. Because it's hard to see where the escalation stops here.

  • 11:32:02

    KANGI'm Cecilia Kang of The New York Times. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Or send an email to, find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Karen, the pope has made quite a bit of news in his recent visit to Mexico. His words and actions seemed to directly take on the treatment of Mexican migrants in the U.S. Tell us about what he said.

  • 11:32:31

    DEYOUNGWell, he said -- much of what he said was on the ride home, the stuff that's caused a controversy. You know, he gets up with a microphone and talks to the press that's been following him. The first thing he said was that anybody who thinks about building a wall between the United States and Mexico is not Christian. That was taken, not surprisingly, by Donald Trump as a direct assault against him. He said, I don't like fighting with the pope. But he said it was disgraceful that the Catholic pontiff would say such a thing and that Pope Francis was essentially acting as a pawn for the Mexican government.

  • 11:33:16

    DEYOUNGWe learned this morning that the pope also said on the plane that he thought that it was not necessarily a sin to use contraception to avoid transmission of the Zika virus.

  • 11:33:31

    KANGYes. I think his words exactly were, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. Is that, Edward, a real endorsement though of contraceptives?

  • 11:33:40

    LUCEI think it would be taken as such. You know, the Vatican is either sort of hardcore, doctrinal certainty or else it's something very different. And this is something very different. He said abortion was an absolute evil and contraception in a case like this might not be, essentially. And there've been precedents. Pope Paul VI, in the 1960s, said that some of the nuns who were being raped in the Congo, in the war against Belgian colonialism there, might have prophylactic justification to prevent getting pregnant. And Pope Benedict, you know, a very hard-line pope, who preceded Pope Francis, made an exception in terms of -- in the case of African male prostitutes using condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

  • 11:34:30

    LUCESo I'm not sure this -- this isn't a complete break with precedent.

  • 11:34:34

    DEYOUNGBut I think what it does speak to is the church has been very careful when it has spoken about these issues to differentiate between transmission of disease and procreation. It has said and all of its encyclicals say that there can be no interference in intercourse for procreation. This speaks exactly to that. You're talking about preventing pregnancy of children that may be impaired due to this disease. So, even though you're right, he didn't say that directly. I think Edward's right, that that's how it will be taken.

  • 11:35:11

    KITFIELDAnd the church also -- and the pope spoke to this too -- you know, encyclicals come out, pronouncements are made, but the church also speaks about the pastoral duty of its people out in the field, of the bishops and priests out in the field. And I think you found, certainly with the AIDS situation, that priests on the ground, in their private communications with their parishioners, have often taken a very different position than what he Vatican has said. And I think he was sort of signaling that perhaps that's the case here. That if you feel that you need to counsel someone that they will not be committing a sin if they do this for this reason, then we're not going to call you out on it.

  • 11:36:02


  • 11:36:04

    KITFIELDYou know, this pope is different. You know, he says things that don't, you know, align with hardcore doctrine all the time. He's been doing it for a while on gays and on any number of other issues. So I'm not really surprised by it. The only thing I was surprised by was that, as opposed to saying if, you know, to build a wall is not a Christian act, he sort of seemed to imply that those who suggest building a wall were not Christian. So he went from the act not being Christian to the individual, which is...

  • 11:36:32


  • 11:36:32

    KITFIELD...I kind of, you know, it seemed like a step too far. Because he's now being criticized for sort of inserting himself into our politics.

  • 11:36:39


  • 11:36:39

    KITFIELDAnd that's something that a pope, I would think, would never really want to do. So I think that was probably a misstatement on his part. But again, he is someone who speaks his mind and lets the cards fall where they will. And he's done it again.

  • 11:36:53

    DEYOUNGBut I think, I mean, I think James is right. Just to read the quote. He was asked, specifically, about Trump and the call to build a wall. And he said, a person who only thinks about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.

  • 11:37:10

    LUCEYeah. I mean, you should hate the sin, not the sinner. And I think he crossed a line there.

  • 11:37:14


  • 11:37:14

    LUCEI agree. I mean, it was a pretty unwise, maybe un-forethought intrusion into American politics.

  • 11:37:21

    KITFIELDAnd of course, Trump -- played right into Trump's hands and he said that's disgraceful to question my faith, you know. And that's not an argument you really want to get into.

  • 11:37:27

    KANGThat's right. Coming up, your calls and questions for our panel. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:02

    KANGWelcome back. I'm Cecilia Kang of the New York Times, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined by Edward Luce, the chief U.S. columnist and commentator at the Financial Times and the author of "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent," Karen DeYoung, she is a senior national security correspondent at The Washington Post, and James Kitfield, the contributing editor at the National Journal and a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

  • 11:40:29

    KANGKaren, in Asia, Secretary John Kerry criticized Chinese President Xi for deploying missiles on a disputes South China Sea island. Officials say the satellite images confirm the missiles. What do we know?

  • 11:40:46

    DEYOUNGWell, we know that the United States and Taiwan both said that satellite imagery, as you said, had indicated that surface-to-air missile batteries had been put on one of these islands. These are islands in the South China Sea that essentially were piles of coral and sand that the Chinese went in and built them up, built air strips, put a lot of vehicles and a lot of buildings on them.

  • 11:41:14

    DEYOUNGIt is territory that's disputed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, other countries in the region. Kerry said that he was going to have a very serious conversation about Beijing about this. So this was an increase of militarization in the region and that they were going to call the Chinese to test. Now the Chinese came out this morning, however, and said, well, we're not the ones that are militarizing the South China Sea, it's the United States because as these islands have been built up, the Americans have sent war ships, they've been sailing around essentially saying these are international waters, we're free to sail there.

  • 11:42:00

    DEYOUNGAnd so the Chinese this morning struck back and said you're escalating tensions in the region, not us.

  • 11:42:08

    KANGEdward, what is the significance of that, of their, their calling out the U.S. actually?

  • 11:42:13

    LUCEWell, yeah, last fall, Xi Jinping, when he visited the States, gave an undertaking, supposedly, to President Obama that they wouldn't be building military installations.

  • 11:42:24

    KANGThat's right.

  • 11:42:26

    LUCEOn these reclaimed, land-dredged corals and rocks in the South China Sea. As Karen said, the Chinese are using, as a pretext, the American Freedom of Navigation naval patrols close to some of these islands and aerial surveillance operations as a reason to justify having built these missile batteries and other military constructions, including landing strips for aircraft.

  • 11:42:56

    LUCEI think, you know, that the key thing here is that the international court in The Hague is due to rule on China's claims. This is prompted by a complaint from the Philippines over Mischief Reef and the Spratly Islands. And they're due to rule sometime in the spring, April or May, and that's when the rubber will hit the road, as it were. That’s when we will see whether China will comply by an international ruling because it is expected to go the way of the complainants, of The Philippines and others. And if it doesn't comply, which is probably what will happen, then what the United States does then -- and we're building up to that, and this is all sort of -- this is all sort of testing each other out, these are games, shadowboxing if you like, in advance of what will be an escalation, a likely escalation of these disputes in the spring.

  • 11:43:54

    KANGAnd James, what's at stake? What if the U.S., if things do escalate, and the rubber does meet the road, as Edward says?

  • 11:44:03

    KITFIELDWell, throughout history, the major cause of way has been a rising power, you know, challenging a status-quo power, and we're seeing it in Asia with the United States and China. So the whole -- the whole -- our foreign policy for 30 years has been, you know, that China becomes a more responsible stakeholder in the international system that we're trying to sort of uphold.

  • 11:44:22

    KITFIELDChina has shown that it wants to change that system, and it wants a lot more influence in its neighborhood, and the stronger it gets, the more it pushes against sort of the rules of the road that we've established. So the stakes are very, very high, and that's why President Obama had the pivot to Asia. You know, it's why this was done, quite interestingly, while we're having an Asian conference in California.

  • 11:44:43

    KANGThat's right.

  • 11:44:43

    KITFIELDI don't think that was an accident, actually. I think that that's -- you know, we're -- the Asian conference is very much about having a united front so we can show China that isn't kind of -- it's scaring its neighbors, driving them into our arms, essentially, and China's saying we're not going to back off. So this thing continues to escalate. China feels that America is distracted in the Middle East. It feels that America is weak after a decade and a half of war, and it's going to try to press its advantage, and at some point we saw that, you know, the missiles call to me when, early in the Bush administration, they downed one out of spy aircraft, and that was an international incident, you know, getting our crew back. It was a huge deal.

  • 11:45:20

    KITFIELDWell, China is not going to shoot planes down on purpose, but if you put two militaries that are sort of at tension, their countries are at tension, in close proximity, bad things can happen, and that's my concern.

  • 11:45:32

    KANGAnd Karen, actually Obama did address the South China Sea tensions at the Asian summit in California this week. What did he say, and what's the significance of that?

  • 11:45:42

    DEYOUNGI think the U.S. position throughout has been we cannot have -- we are not going to permit this area to be militarized. The administration has made a big effort to, in a non-confrontational way, as they see it, to counter China's influence in the region. They have reached out to ASEAN, to other Asian organizations, many trips to Vietnam, many trips to the Philippines, and said we've got your back in this, and we are not going to permit these international waterways to be claimed by China, and where there are disputed claims, and this is what Obama said, we want them submitted to international bodies that -- whose responsibility is to adjudicate these disputes. You can't just go and claim something and build whatever you want on it. And so we are going to assert our right of freedom of navigation.

  • 11:46:42


  • 11:46:44

    LUCEI agree with that. I think that one point that China makes in response to Obama's -- to the American position that China should abide by international law is that the U.S. has not ratified membership of the U.N. Treaty of the Sea, and that is a sort of chink in the American diplomatic armor.

  • 11:47:02

    DEYOUNGWell, it was interesting, that came up, too, in Iran, when the sailors in the Persian Gulf were picked up, and we asserted all kinds of rights of passage. And the fact is that neither Iran nor the United States has signed that convention.

  • 11:47:17


  • 11:47:18

    KANGAnd they're among the few countries that haven't.

  • 11:47:20

    KANGWe have a question on the DR Show website. The question reads, is Turkey getting more involved in the Syrian mess? They can hardly avoid it if they want to avoid an independent Kurdistan. I need a diagram to sort out who's fighting who. But I'm pretty sure we have a friend on both sides of the same fight, and one of them is a NATO ally. Edward?

  • 11:47:42

    LUCEWell, as they say in Syria, the enemy of my enemy is my enemy. It's just really, really confusing.

  • 11:47:49

    KANGThat's an easy diagram.

  • 11:47:51

    LUCEIs Turkey getting more involved? Well yes, I mean, it's always been pretty heavily involved. Remember it's got more than two million of the Syrian refugees and plenty more expected to come. It's under huge pressure to keep them from Europe, to keep them in Turkey. So Turkey's involvement, you know, from a humanitarian level is huge. From a political level, it's also huge, as we were discussing earlier about its fear of the Kurdish separatist impact.

  • 11:48:17

    LUCEAnd then of course as Karen mentioned, there is the, you know, danger of a dramatic escalation if there are further classes with Russia. It shot down one Russian jet. So yeah, Turkey -- Turkey's an ally, it's a NATO ally. It's also backing people, has in the past backed people, that we don't in the West don't consider to be friendly. So it's confusing.

  • 11:48:42

    KANGAnother email from Sharif. "How sure is U.S. intelligence with reference to the airstrikes in Libya? They've been wrong before. Were these strikes done in coordination with the U.S. allies?" Karen?

  • 11:48:53

    DEYOUNGI think they were done in coordination with allies, particularly the British, who you recall in the museum bombing in Tunisia that we spoke about, most of the victims were British. The -- You know, I think they are as sure as they can be. They've got a lot of overhead assets watching these places. But they have nobody on the ground, and that's always the problem.

  • 11:49:22

    DEYOUNGThey look for patterns of behavior, they look for particular individuals. They say they're pretty sure that they got the guy that they were after, who was a Tunisia they believe was involved in these attacks in Tunisia. But I think that sometimes it takes weeks and months for them to come out and say yes we've got -- I mean, we just had an incident this week we ran a story in the Post about the last time this happened, where a senior terrorist, who had been involved in some of the operations in Mali and elsewhere in West Africa, we said good, he was a target, we got him, and now it appears that they're not so sure that they got him or not.

  • 11:50:10

    DEYOUNGAgain, they don't have people on the ground. They can't just walk in and look at bodies and say this is who we killed.

  • 11:50:17

    KANGGlobal oil prices have been steadily rising this week on hopes that OPEC would cut production, but now there's news that yesterday the deal fell through. What happened, Edward?

  • 11:50:29

    LUCEWell, earlier this week, Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed that they would freeze their oil output levels at January levels for the remainder of 2016, and this is an effort to stem this dramatic decline by three quarters or so of the oil price in the last year. Now the problem with that was they would only -- this would only become operational if Iran and others agreed also to freeze their production.

  • 11:51:03

    LUCEThe Iranians, who have just recently of course had sanctions lifted on them, including remaining sanctions on their oil exports, are wanting to get back to their historic levels of productions. There's a roughly half a million barrels a day of Iranian production due to come onto the market, and it's about a million below, a million barrels a day below Iran's production of what it could be.

  • 11:51:27

    LUCESo Iran sets this as a Saudi plot, essentially, to prevent it from realizing the financial gains of the nuclear deal.

  • 11:51:38

    KANGAnd the Iran-Saudi relationship is playing to that. Is that right?

  • 11:51:40

    LUCETotally. And but not just the Iranians. The Iraqis said that they would not abide by this deal unless basically the whole world did, which is an impossible demand, and Iraq of course is essentially a proxy for Iran in many diplomatic arenas, including the OPEC one.

  • 11:51:58


  • 11:51:58

    DEYOUNGYeah, I mean, I think, you know, the sort of operative point here, I think, beyond the politics, the regional politics that Edward spoke about, is that a lot of the oil producers, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, are in economic crisis, and even though the price is very low feel like all they can do to make money is to just pump more. Saudi Arabia is in a different position. They've got lots of reserves. They've got financial reserves. They've got a lot of oil reserves. And, you know, these -- the other countries say, well, you're -- easy for you to say, you know, we don't want to be in a position of freezing our output because it's really the only way we can avoid financial catastrophe, even at the very low prices now.

  • 11:52:49

    KANGI'm Cecilia Kang. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. James, how did the markets react worldwide to the deal collapse, and what does it mean for the global economy?

  • 11:52:58

    KITFIELDYou know, I haven't been watching the markets. I haven't seen -- I think the markets are doing pretty well. So I don't think this has been a huge, a huge problem. I mean the fact of the matter is no matter if this deal is cut or not that we're going to freeze it at current production levels, at current production levels, oil is historically very, very low. So, you know, the world markets in that sense are sort of nonplussed by this.

  • 11:53:17

    KANGWe have a caller, Kurt in St. Louis. Hello, Kurt, you're on the air.

  • 11:53:22

    KURTYes, hi, thank you for taking my call. I have the perfect solution to end the Syrian conflict, and that is first of all, I have to say that Russia, through its own actions, has basically thrown international law out the window both through its annexation of Crimea and its actions in Ukraine. And so based on that and the fact that it's already inserted itself in a very big way into Syria, the rest of the Security Council members, China, France, England and the U.S., should divide the rest of Syria into sectors just as the allies did in Berlin at the end of World War II and insert, oh, anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 troops per parachute, all in a simultaneous, multi...

  • 11:54:26

    KANGThanks, Kurt, for your call. We got a lot there. Edward, what do you think about his idea?

  • 11:54:30

    LUCEI think it was well-intentioned, but I'm not sure it's operational. I mean, the idea that the U.N. Security Council members, the U.S. and my country, Britain, are going to put boots on the ground in Syria is I think far-fetched at this point.

  • 11:54:43

    KANGLet's take another -- please go ahead, James.

  • 11:54:43

    KITFIELDHe makes a point, though, that -- and I've heard a lot of very smart people who've looked at what's happened in Iraq and Syria and have a very hard time figuring out how Humpty Dumpty gets put back together again, and I have that same hard time. I mean, with 250,000 people killed and the country sort of broken up into very ethnic groups, the Alawites, who are allied with the Shiites, and the Sunnis who are the majority, and then you have the terrorist groups and the Kurds in the north, it becomes very hard to see how the old borders get redrawn the same way.

  • 11:55:13

    DEYOUNGAnd I think it's worth noting, in terms of international law, the government of Bashar al-Assad is still the government recognized by the world community. The United States never broke relations with Syria. That government invited Russia to come in and help it against what it saw as an illegal uprising. If you want to sort of pick at international law, I think you end up with the United States and its allies, arguably are violating international law by bombing in Syria.

  • 11:55:47

    KANGFinally, former U.N. Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali died this week. How will he be remembered, James?

  • 11:55:53

    KITFIELDAs the person who had the impossible job. You know, the U.N. secretary-general in 1992, right after the end of the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War, where the Security Council was unified behind expelling Iraq from Kuwait, there was this new world order, as President George H.W. Bush said, and that new world order quickly collapsed, and we realized very quickly was all these sort of pent-up conflicts that were frozen during the Cold War were going to get very hot.

  • 11:56:23

    KITFIELDAnd so he immediately had Rwanda, the genocide there, where the U.N. was seen as -- the peacekeepers didn't step in and stop the massacre. He opposed the U.S. and NATO intervening in the Balkans war, which was a huge problem for us. And for that reason we sort of vetoed him having a second term. So he's a controversial figure, but I'm not sure anyone could've done that job well at that point in history.

  • 11:56:44


  • 11:56:45

    DEYOUNGI think also, as far as the United States is concerned, you know, this was the eve of Bill Clinton's re-election. The Republicans were saying, you know, why are spending so much money in the U.N. I mean, they don't like the U.N. in general. Boutros-Ghali sort of came to personify what in the eyes of a number of people in this country was this sort of inefficiency and ineptitude of the U.N., and I think the Americans said he's got to go.

  • 11:57:15

    KANGKaren DeYoung, the senior national security correspondent at the Washington Post, James Kitfield, contributing editor at the National Journal and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, Edward Luce, chief U.S. columnist and commentator at the Financial Times and author of "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent." I'm Cecilia Kang of the New York Times, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you for listening.

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