Guest Host: Derek McGinty

Supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather in the courtyard of celebrations after breaking into Baghdad's heavily fortified "Green Zone" on April 30.
Thousands of angry protesters stormed the parliament building after lawmakers again failed to approve new ministers.

Supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather in the courtyard of celebrations after breaking into Baghdad's heavily fortified "Green Zone" on April 30. Thousands of angry protesters stormed the parliament building after lawmakers again failed to approve new ministers.

Airstrikes hit a refugee camp in northern Syria, killing dozens. Insurgents in Aleppo launch a new offensive, despite a forty-eight hour truce. Turkish president Erdogan ousts the country’s prime minister in an effort to expand his power. Political turmoil continues in Iraq after protests erupt in Baghdad. A Navy SEAL dies near Mosul during a clash with ISIS. Central European countries push back on proposed e-u refugee quotas. Russia announces troop increases at its border with Europe in response to a growing NATO presence. And an American cruise ship docks in Havana for the first time in decades. A panel of journalists joins guest host Derek McGinty for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.

Guests

  • Declan Walsh Cairo bureau chief, The New York Times, covering the war in Syria
  • Tom Bowman Pentagon correspondent, NPR
  • Elise Labott Global affairs correspondent, CNN
  • Jay Solomon Foreign affairs correspondent, The Wall Street Journal.

Live Video From The Studio

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MR. DEREK MCGINTYWell, thanks for joining us. I'm Derek McGinty in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. Welcome to our weekly roundup of international stories in which we are, frankly, presiding over some very messy situations all over the world. In Syria, airstrikes kill at least two dozen people, and this after the United States and Russia announce a partial truce. Europe's refugee crisis, of course, fueled, in part, by that very war goes on and now they've announced a quota system for taking in those refugees.

  • 11:07:22

    MR. DEREK MCGINTYThings continue to deteriorate in Iraq after protestors storm Bagdad's green zone. Now, experts say the already fragile Iraqi government could be in even more serious jeopardy. Well, here to help put all of this and more in context for us, Tom Bowman with NPR, Elise Labott of CNN and Jay Solomon is with The Wall Street Journal. Our phone number here is 800-433-8850 and we will get to that and more.

  • 11:07:47

    MR. DEREK MCGINTYBut first, Declan Walsh with The New York Times is on the phone with us from Cairo and he is just back from reporting inside of Syria. Declan, how are you?

  • 11:07:57

    MR. DECLAN WALSHGood afternoon.

  • 11:07:58

    MCGINTYTell us a little bit about your reporting trip to Aleppo. You were there on the government side. What was going on?

  • 11:08:05

    WALSHSo I got a visa to visit government-held parts of Syria and it's very difficult for Western journalists to visit the rebel-held areas for the last number of years. They try to kidnap them and so on, is very high. So I travelled by road from Damascus to Aleppo and my arrival there coincided with a period of pretty intense fighting between the government and the rebels and there had been a ceasefire in place for about six weeks that had been brokered by the United States and Russia.

  • 11:08:36

    WALSHAnd that fell apart about two weeks ago and by the time I got there, both the government and the rebel forces were attacking each other across the front line with quite some ferocity.

  • 11:08:46

    MCGINTYWhat we hear about the civilian situation there is just total devastation and deprivation. Is that what you saw?

  • 11:08:54

    WALSHAbsolutely, particularly in the front line areas. The worst devastation, actually, was in the rebel-held side because the Syrian number has use of Russian warplanes to back its effort and quite heavy artillery. So you could hear the fire going across the frontline into the rebel areas. Similarly, there was also quite a lot of firing from the rebels into the areas where I was. They're civilian-populated areas. There was munitions dropping pretty much at random and killing sometimes two, three dozen people in a day.

  • 11:09:27

    MCGINTYWow. What is the food situation, at least as far as you could determine?

  • 11:09:32

    WALSHOn the government side in Aleppo, it's not so bad because there is one road that is still open into the city from Damascus and it's quite an unsecure road because it passes through territory that is bordered on one side by the Islamic State, on the other hand by other opposition groups and there has been sporadic fighting. The road has occasionally closed. But for now, it's open so the city does have a food supply.

  • 11:09:58

    WALSHAnd, in fact, one of the surprising things about Aleppo, when you arrive there, excuse me, is that, you know, while the suburbs are completely devastated in the sort of, unfortunately, iconic images of Syria, I think, that we're familiar with from recent years, the city center itself is actually functioning with some semblance of normality. So people are going about their daily lives as much as they can. Businesses are open. Schools and universities are functioning.

  • 11:10:25

    WALSHAnd so, you know, things are expensive. Things are difficult, but people are managing to go on with some form of life.

  • 11:10:31

    MCGINTYI think the most disturbing thing we've heard about is the shelling of hospitals and medical facilities, especially on the rebel-held side. I know you were on the government-held side, but what can you tell us about who's responsible for those attacks?

  • 11:10:44

    WALSHWell, there's a great deal of controversy, obviously, about that at the moment, but it does seem like the most likely culprits are Russian warplanes. The Syrian government has pressed a defensive with the support of Russia over the last couple of weeks, particularly in Aleppo, and the only forces in that conflict of theater -- or that theater of conflict that have active warplanes are either the Syrian military or the Russian side.

  • 11:11:11

    WALSHSo and they are accused, certainly, of responsibility, particularly for an attack on a hospital that killed at least 55 people, a hospital that was supported by the group Doctors Without Borders. And the Syrian government has denied responsibility for that. And then, some days later, there was a smaller attack on a hospital on the government side that killed at least three people and sort of devastated the hospital, a rocket appears to have hit the front side of the building.

  • 11:11:38

    MCGINTYYou spent some time at one of the government hospitals where wounded were being brought in. How did that look?

  • 11:11:45

    WALSHIt was terrible. It was on the worst day. The fighting was last Thursday. The attack on the hospital on the rebel side had taken place the night before and so it appeared that the rebels were responding with a very heavy barrage into the area where we were. So we went to the hospital where the casualties were being brought. And over a period of two or three hours, I think around 55, 60 people came in. Some of them were on the verge of death. Others had suffered some very serious injuries.

  • 11:12:19

    WALSHAnd there were some very emotional scenes in the hospital where, you know, screaming relatives and so on accompanied people, trying to get assistance for them as they were being rushed from one part to the other. And medics were triaging and so on. So it was really a pretty graphic illustration of how -- at the level of the individual, that civilians on both sides of this conflict are being targeted and are basically the people who are being killed.

  • 11:12:45

    MCGINTYYeah. Final question, Declan, what about when there is a partial truce or ceasefire? Does that bring any relief?

  • 11:12:52

    WALSHWell, it certainly did bring some relief in Aleppo for that period of six weeks or so, but once the truce broke, there was quite conflicted opinion, if you like, among people in the city. You know, some people, obviously, were disappointed that the truce had broken, but others said that they actually regretted the truce has taken place in the first instance because they felt that what it -- all that it did was it offered an opportunity to the two sides to regroup and to bring in fresh munitions to start a new assault in which they would be the principle victims.

  • 11:13:30

    MCGINTYDeclan Walsh, Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times, thank you so much for giving us some of your time and your insights. We appreciate it.

  • 11:13:37

    WALSHMy pleasure.

  • 11:13:38

    MCGINTYAll right. Well, we get back to these stories and you see it's still just a mess and I think most Americans don't realize how much of a mess they're dealing with over there.

  • 11:13:47

    MR. TOM BOWMANWell, he said it all. Intense fighting has nothing to do with the term ceasefire. I think everybody knew it was gonna happen. The Russians move the artillery up there. The Syrian forces are up around Aleppo. They're gonna move to take the rest of the city and then, for the most part, it's going to be really over. They're gonna have the whole western part of the country, the most populous part of the country. The next step is if they close off the last route into Turkey to help the Western-backed rebels and Russia's been in the driver's seat here for many months and well know that.

  • 11:14:16

    MR. TOM BOWMANAnd the Americans are reaching out to Russia to try to end this thing, but it's not gonna end any time soon. We're gonna see the same thing again. We're gonna see more civilian casualties. We're gonna see more refugees heading for the exits and it's gonna compound the problem in Turkey and Europe.

  • 11:14:30

    MCGINTYIt doesn't sound like the Russians have any incentive to cooperate.

  • 11:14:33

    MS. ELISE LABOTTWell, they're playing a real double game. Clearly, they don't want this to go on forever because they're contributing a considerable amount of manpower and money towards propping up the regime in Syria. So what they're doing is they're saying that they support a ceasefire, but they're only supporting a ceasefire really in areas that the regime holds and they're helping the regime strengthen their position in the north.

  • 11:14:56

    MS. ELISE LABOTTThey're trying to, you know, set them up in some kind of enclave in the north so they can pretty much hold power, even if the rest -- in that area, even if the rest of the country, you know, is held by the rebels or is held by ISIS or is held by ISIS. And so clearly, in some of these areas like Aleppo, what they're doing is they're allowing a temporary ceasefire to get, you know, supplies in, but eventually, they're gonna squeeze off Aleppo. People are going to come -- are going to leave and that's going to be a real, you know, psychological battlefield blow to the regime.

  • 11:15:30

    MS. ELISE LABOTTSo I think this is more of a strategic and tactical decision by the Russians to support this temporary truce, but they're, you know, still fighting because they say that al-Nusra -- Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the terrorist groups that is not included in this ceasefire, is holding a lot of territory in Aleppo and it gets very confusing because some of the rebels that are party to this agreement are fighting alongside Nusra. So it's very confusing and civilians are continuing to pay the price.

  • 11:16:00

    MR. JAY SOLOMONI think one of the difficult things, too, is the U.S. really almost looks of being complicit in this now because they have going -- these negotiations with the Russians for two, you know, three years and you see this pattern where Kerry meets the Russian foreign minister and the Russians say, well, we want a ceasefire and Kerry will say, we don't think the Russians are really wedded to Assad. They're not committed to him. But then, the talk doesn't go anywhere. The Russians double down. I mean, as the reporting came from Aleppo, the Russians are supporting, basically, airstrikes to retake Aleppo.

  • 11:16:32

    MR. JAY SOLOMONAnd if Assad reclaims Aleppo, the second largest city, he will basically have reconstituted this enclave and he will control most of the population of Syria. I think most analysis don't think he'll reclaim some of the kind of ISIS areas that are far off in the desert, but he basically will have reconstituted. And there's still threats, occasionally from the U.S. that, you know, if the Russians don't back off, if they don't bring Assad to heel, the U.S. will start supporting the opposition, these moderate opposition. But there's not much left. They've been saying that...

  • 11:17:06

    BOWMANI agree. Listen...

  • 11:17:07

    SOLOMON...for years. And they haven't done it.

  • 11:17:08

    BOWMANSecretary Kerry has talked about a new approach, should this all fail. That new approach may have been tried years ago with shoulder-fired missiles for the rebels, with more training for the rebels, with thousands more rebels. There are only 5,000 Syrian Arabs right now fighting ISIS. They want to add 10,000 more and they've tried to, you know, there's been support for the moderate rebels, but clearly not enough.

  • 11:17:33

    BOWMANAnd here's the thing. Even if you provided shoulder-fired missiles for the rebels now and they took out, let's say, a few Syrian aircraft, helicopters dropping barrel bombs or Russian aircraft, it would be a tactical win. The Russians could simply fly higher above those missiles and drop more bombs less accurately and kill more and more civilians. So that's not a game-changer and people talk about that often, providing shoulder-fired missiles. But again, it's not going to mean much in the long term.

  • 11:18:03

    MCGINTYAll right. Coming up, folks, more of our Friday News Roundup, including your phone calls.

  • 11:20:02

    MCGINTYWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Derek McGinty sitting in for Diane. And our phone number here is 800-433-8850. We're talking about the international stories making headlines this week. Our guests are Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for NPR, Elise Labott, she is the global affairs correspondent for CNN, and Jay Solomon is foreign affairs correspondent with The Wall Street Journal. We're getting in-depth on the situation in Syria. And basically, Elise, you say that the United States hasn't done enough to discourage the Russians.

  • 11:20:32

    LABOTTWell the Russians clearly have the dominance on the ground right now. And when the Russians went in, in September, with massive airpower and manpower, the U.S. pretty much made clear that it has no interest in getting into a conflict with Russia. That has, in essence, emboldened the regime to continue its offensive against the rebels. So when you see the Russians talking -- this -- these ceasefires were put in place not only to give the Syrian civilians some breathing space and help their quality of life and start to get some medical and humanitarian supplies in, it was also set up to create some kind of space for political negotiations...

  • 11:21:12

    MCGINTYHmm.

  • 11:21:12

    LABOTT...for a, quote, unquote, "transition" for a new government that would not include Assad, according to the U.S. and the allies and the oppositions. But even as the Russians, as was talking about with the ceasefire, even as the Russians talk about their willingness to help set up talks for a transition, their idea of what a transition means is much different than the other side. And they do not see Assad leaving. And when you see what they're trying to do to help Assad set up his little area in the north, you can see that this regime has no consideration of leaving whatsoever. So this just means that, you know, they'll continue to have some kind of process, as you will. But I don't see...

  • 11:21:53

    MCGINTYTom. Tom?

  • 11:21:53

    LABOTT...Assad leaving anytime soon.

  • 11:21:55

    MCGINTYLots of talk going on. But anybody -- and does the talk mean anything, Tom?

  • 11:21:59

    BOWMANNo, it really doesn't mean anything. And the administration, from day one, has put all its efforts on some sort of a diplomatic move here with Russia. That's never been in the cards. Russia wanted to keep their guy, Assad, in Syria. They want to keep their interests with the port and with their airfield now. So they have no interest in turning their back on Assad. I know Kerry and others have been pushing for leverage. And how do you get leverage? You provide a no-fly zone. Maybe you provide some airstrikes here and there. But that was never in the cards with this administration.

  • 11:22:31

    BOWMANThey didn't want to do what had to be done, in the minds of some military people, is, you know, you don't want to have barrel bombs being dropped by Syrian helicopters? You take them out on the ground. You take them out on the airfield. You don't have to create a no-fly zone. But it seems like this administration has not wanted to go the military route in dealing with Assad. They hoped for a diplomatic solution. Russia has been playing them, clearly. They'll have talks. They'll gain as much territory as they can. And as we said at the outset, once they get Aleppo, this is pretty much over.

  • 11:23:04

    MCGINTYYeah.

  • 11:23:04

    BOWMANThey have the bulk of the country and the U.S., still training up rebels to take Raqqa in the eastern part of the country, that's going to take months, many months, to even train up those rebels. They sent a couple of hundred Green Berets in to find and then train Syrian rebels. But that's going to be a difficult proposition. And, again, even if you train them up, moving toward Raqqa is going to take a long time. It's going to need a lot of air support. There are some now saying -- and this is, you know, behind the scenes -- maybe you need to send an American brigade into Raqqa, maybe some aircraft, some Apache attack helicopters. That's been bandied about.

  • 11:23:46

    BOWMANBut I'm telling you, there's no way this administration is going to agree to something like that. So this whole mess really, with both ISIS and Syria, is going to be left up to the next administration.

  • 11:23:55

    MCGINTYYou know, it's interesting that we also mentioned -- Declan Walsh talked about the attacks on the health care workers going on in Syria right now. The Security Council condemned these attacks. There's a U.N. resolution there. But the powerful nations in the world don't seem to have any appetite for doing much about it.

  • 11:24:12

    SOLOMONWell, I mean, his reporting was saying the Russians were probably responsible for some of this -- these attacks on these hospitals in Aleppo. So the Russians have been protecting Assad and blocking any real movement at the Security Council now for almost five years. I mean, another element of the diplomacy that's just been interesting is how much the Russians and the Iranians have been working behind the Americans' back. On the one hand, they're involved in these negotiations.

  • 11:24:40

    SOLOMONBut I remember last summer, I think, Elise was there, part of it too, they're having these marathon negotiations over their nuclear program. The Americans are meeting with the Russians and the Iranians every day. And they were plotting these operations inside Syria right behind the Americans' back. So once the deal was done, there was hope that the nuclear agreement could promote some resolution in Syria. But the Iranians and the Russians instead used it to really double-down their military operations inside Syria.

  • 11:25:07

    BOWMANAnd as we were saying earlier, the Russians have done this before. This is their playbook. They've done it in Georgia. They've done it in Ukraine. They get what they want. They get the territory they want. And then they have negotiations. They say, let's have a truce.

  • 11:25:20

    MCGINTYAll right. Let's go to a phone call. This is Charles in Annapolis, Md. You're on the air. Go ahead, Charles.

  • 11:25:26

    CHARLESYes, good morning. I appreciate the time. My question is basically is why is the U.S. involved (unintelligible) grew out of a civil war with the Arab Spring? We seem to be supporting unknown, ghost-like Western-backed fighters, whose, you know, allegiance is and philosophies of governing are unknown to us. I think it was a long-standing policy of the U.S. not to involve itself in civil wars. And so I hear -- all I hear is Russia, Russia, Russia, Iran. But this was -- this started out of a conflict within Syria. And I want to know what is our purpose there? What is our endgame?

  • 11:26:08

    MCGINTYI think he's asking a good question, Elise.

  • 11:26:10

    LABOTTI think it's an excellent point. And that was, you know, one of the things that has been an unknown throughout this whole Arab Spring. I mean, if you look back to Libya, the U.S. initially helped the Libyan transitional government. These were rebels that seemed to really have their act together in terms of setting up territory, setting up a shadow government. They really seemed to know what they were doing. After the fall of Gadhafi, after the U.S. and NATO helped get rid of Gadhafi, this government fell apart and then extremists took over.

  • 11:26:42

    LABOTTAnd I think one of the things in Syria is the U.S. never really had a handle on who the opposition was. And so that's why it took so much time to see who they could support. They were very reluctant to give them weapons because they weren't able to vet them properly. And that's still one of the main things that the U.S. has been grappling with, is that they do not really have a handle on who the opposition is. They don't think Assad should be there, but they don't see an alternative. And initially this was about helping people fight for freedom, fight against oppression. Obviously, as the war dragged on, what people feared would happen is that extremists would take over. And that's what really gave birth to ISIS.

  • 11:27:23

    MCGINTYYou know, every time we bring up funding rebels, I go back to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan and the shoulder-fired missiles that came back to haunt us after they were backed by us and the -- against the Russians in the '80s. You never know who you're giving weapons to.

  • 11:27:35

    BOWMANWell, it didn't work. It did work against the Russians.

  • 11:27:38

    MCGINTYYes, it did. But...

  • 11:27:39

    BOWMANBut you -- the blowback you had after that...

  • 11:27:40

    MCGINTYExactly.

  • 11:27:40

    BOWMAN...was problematic. I just want to pick up on what Elise said that, you know, if you look back four years ago, you had then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, you had the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marty Dempsey, you had Petraeus then at CIA, you had someone named Hillary Clinton, who was the secretary of state, and then you had Jim Mattis, who was the head of Central Command, all pushing, all five of them pushing to train and arm Syrian rebels. Now historians may look on that at some point and say, had they done that, things may have been different. We'll never know at this point. But there was a huge push back then to start this effort now.

  • 11:28:16

    BOWMANSo what are they doing now? They're starting to train rebels in Turkey, enablers they call them, to help the existing fighters -- people who can call in airstrikes, people who have communication skills. They're doing it by the dozens. They should have been doing it by the thousands according to military officials.

  • 11:28:31

    MCGINTYAll right, Jay.

  • 11:28:32

    SOLOMONBut I think on the -- when -- the caller asked, what is our national security interest in this? I think what people were worrying about has happened, that the refugee flow was going to infect Europe. You were going to have ISIS attacks in Europe because of this flood of refugees into these countries. And now, eventually, doing nothing is becoming a more direct threat to the United States, because our direct allies are being impacted. And, you know, how many attacks have there been Europe in the last three months that have been traced straight back to Syria? So I think whoever is the next president is still going to have to grapple with this.

  • 11:29:07

    MCGINTYI just -- it sounds like he's got -- whoever the next president, he or she is going to have a whole lot bad choices to make.

  • 11:29:14

    LABOTTI just want to go back to what you had mentioned earlier about the U.N. resolution calling for a halt to attacks against hospitals. It used to be that aid workers, people who were delivering humanitarian aid -- doctors, hospitals, ambulances -- were completely off limits. That was one of the, you know, rules of international war, that these people could not be targeted. In fact, journalists were largely considered to be able to do their job. But as you've seen, particularly in this conflict but also in Iraq and also in Syria, particularly because ISIS doesn't adhere to any of these laws of war, that hospitals and aid workers are increasingly on the front lines of these attacks.

  • 11:30:00

    LABOTTAnd there's really nothing anybody can do to stop it. And it's really hard for the U.N. Security Council to call on its members to stop when some of its other members, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, are launching these types of attacks.

  • 11:30:12

    MCGINTYLet's go to Robert in San Antonio. You're on the air, Robert.

  • 11:30:15

    ROBERTYes. The pictures shown of the Doctors Without Borders facilities do not show any red crosses painted on their roofs or on their walls. The Geneva Conventions require that any medical facility in a war zone be painted with a red cross on a white background. The Doctors Without Borders have consistently failed to do this. And so they are complicit in any attacks on their facilities. And Americans who are chastised or reprimanded, as they were, is improper.

  • 11:30:51

    MCGINTYOur panel does not like that. Elise?

  • 11:30:53

    LABOTTI'm sorry. I think that, you know, that hospital, you know, Doctors Without Borders clearly said that that was a hospital that particularly the Russians and the United States should have known about. And one of the reasons that some of the markings are not as prevalent as they used to be is because what I've just said. Because some of these are being targeted. Now, you remember a few months ago when the Americans by accident hit a hospital in Kunduz. And that's what people said, that it wasn't marked clearly enough. The Americans have been in Afghanistan for, you know, more than two dozen -- more than a dozen years. I think that they have very clear maps and coordinates of where these hospitals are. So it's okay...

  • 11:31:37

    BOWMANThey always provide coordinate of their hospitals, everyplace they go. It was done in Afghanistan. I'm sure it's done in Syria as well. You provide your coordinates to everyone, where this hospital is, so everybody knows it. Even if you don't paint some sort of a red cross on your roof, everybody knows where these are.

  • 11:31:54

    MCGINTYJay Bowman.

  • 11:31:55

    SOLOMONNo, I mean, if -- and the reports are that the Syrian military and the Russians hit these hospitals. It's very hard to believe that the Syrian regime doesn't know what it's targeting down in a city like Aleppo.

  • 11:32:08

    MCGINTYAll right. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, we were talking about U.S. intervention and how it can work out or it not work out. Let's talk about Iraq for a minute. Last Saturday we saw thousands of supporters of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadar coming over the walls in the Baghdad green zone. They ransacked the parliament building. They say they want a new cabinet, that the old one's corrupt. They're worried about the economics of the situation. It's a mess. The prime minister is calling for unity over there. But he's -- his situation is dire.

  • 11:32:42

    LABOTTWell, a lot of people say that the biggest problem in Iraq in the fight against ISIS is not necessarily on the battlefield. It's in the government in Baghdad. Prime Minister Abadi, last August, promised to improve services, to eliminate corruption, to put forward a government who was able to do this. He was not able to do that. There have been, you know, Muqtada al-Sadar, as you said, has been calling on his followers to lead protests. They stormed parliament. I mean, it's not going to go away. Prime Minister Abadi has put forward a technocratic government that he says would be able to do this. The parliament voted it down.

  • 11:33:18

    LABOTTSo a lot of people think, until there is -- you know, there was a very interesting op-ed in The New York Times saying that, until there's fresh blood in Iraq who's willing to help this prime minister change the course of government in the country, that nothing's going to happen. And as the U.S. tries to train up these forces to make a push on Mosul, to continue to go against ISIS, if he -- Abadi was seen as the person to unite the country. If he is not seen as someone to unite the country, that's not going to be someone who's going to be able to unite Iraqi forces. And that will hurt the fight against ISIS.

  • 11:33:53

    MCGINTYTom Bowman, you were shaking your head vigorously.

  • 11:33:54

    BOWMANYeah. I mean, more and more people are saying -- and there was an op-ed in The Post today by a Kurdish official -- that this country really doesn't exist anymore. The Kurds are going to go for an independence vote. You have Kurdish leaders basically saying that. Iraq doesn't exist. You're going to have to split it into thirds somehow.

  • 11:34:13

    MCGINTYIsn't that what Joe Biden said about six or eight years ago?

  • 11:34:15

    BOWMANJoe Biden, for years ago...

  • 11:34:16

    LABOTTHe sure did. He sure did.

  • 11:34:17

    BOWMAN...but here's the thing. But you're going to see more and more the splintering of this country as this thing moves on. Even if you eliminate ISIS, even if you take Mosul and move all of the ISIS -- kill or capture them out of Anbar Province, the biggest issue is this political issue.

  • 11:34:33

    MCGINTYHmm.

  • 11:34:33

    BOWMANAnd that's one of the problems that's leading to the Mosul mission as well. It's going to take them a long time to get up there and take Mosul. But there's a separate track of, okay, you take Mosul, who runs Mosul? What role do the Kurds play? What about the Shia militias and the Sunni groups as well? And it's a serious, serious issue.

  • 11:34:55

    SOLOMONAnd then one of the more complicated things about this latest unrest is that, particularly when Abadi came in, the mandate was to sort of heal the Sunni-Shia rift. But now you see even the Shiites splintering. I mean, Sadar is a Shiite leader. Abadi is a Shiite leader. And the fact that, you know, he's -- the leadership is so split, even the Shiite parties are sort of turning on themselves. And when Abadi came in, he had a big -- issue seemed to be, he could try to heal the ruins between the Sunni and the Shiite, so that they could take on ISIS in a more cohort coordinated way. But now it's even more fractured and more complicated with Sadar going in.

  • 11:35:31

    BOWMANAnd just one last point on that. I spent a lot of time in Iraq during the surge. And back then, the Sons of Iraq program, the U.S. was paying these fighters 300 bucks a month not to shoot at Americans and to help in the effort. Everyone said at that point that, listen, once the Americans leave, this thing is going to completely fall apart, because the Shia-led government has no interest in reaching out to the Sunnis.

  • 11:35:52

    MCGINTYAll right. So...

  • 11:35:53

    BOWMANThis was back in 2006 and '07.

  • 11:35:54

    MCGINTYSo seeing what you see in Iraq, can you really blame the administration for being hesitant to try anything similar in Syria?

  • 11:36:00

    BOWMANThey're kicking the can down the road. That's what they're doing. And what you're seeing now with ISIS and what you're seeing with this whole effort is basically containment.

  • 11:36:08

    LABOTTWell, look, I mean, with their -- there are similarities and there are differences. In Iraq, the U.S. -- but there is a pattern. The U.S. went into Iraq and then as soon as Saddam Hussein fell, they did not foresee what was going to be. And they, you know...

  • 11:36:24

    MCGINTYSome people foresaw.

  • 11:36:26

    LABOTTWell they pulled out and did not maintain the needed kind of political and diplomatic engagement that it was going to help this fledgling nation rebuild after years and years of oppression and dictatorship. They did the same thing in Libya. They went in. They got rid of a dictator and did not provide the necessary diplomatic and political engagement to help the government grow. I think there's been a lot of attention put forward to the day after of what would happen with Assad, but that day keeps on being kicked down the road. So I mean, I think, in Iraq, it's a little bit different. The U.S. is paying for the mistakes that it made all those ago.

  • 11:37:06

    BOWMANThe biggest mistake being going in, in the first place.

  • 11:37:08

    SOLOMONRight. But I think the Syria situation has so metastasized and so infected -- not just the Middle East but the European countries now, it's going to be very difficult for something, like Tom would say, we are training to some extent. But there's going to -- I don't see how there's not some more engagement in the next -- coming years.

  • 11:37:27

    LABOTTWell and you saw Vice President Biden, Secretary Kerry, the ISIS coordinator, Ambassador Brett McGurk go out there really trying to help this government get its act together. But there are a lot of problems and they are not listening to the U.S. right now.

  • 11:37:41

    MCGINTYAnd we will continue the conversation. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:40:01

    MCGINTYWelcome back to the Diane Rehm Show. I'm Derek McGinty, sitting in for Diane. And our guests for our international news hour, Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for NPR, Elise Labott is global affairs correspondent for CNN, and Jay Solomon, foreign affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Let's take a few more of your phone calls at 800-433-8850. Scott in Raleigh, North Carolina, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 11:40:27

    SCOTTHi, thanks for taking my call. I wanted to call and get the panelists' opinion. I have worked as a cultural attaché in the Middle East for the military, and I kind of hear, after 15 years of war, the same thing that I've heard in the past, and just as we begin talking about policies or actions that we say shouldn't be happening, for example our Russian friends hitting hospitals or things like that or that Saudi Arabia and Yemen, someone mentioned earlier, are doing things that we don't want them to do.

  • 11:41:03

    SCOTTWell, those are things culturally that are maybe accepted in that culture but not accepted in this culture, and we just continue to see and not recognize the difference. And so I would greatly appreciate some comments on how do we reconcile that when we keep having expectations, i.e., the Kurds. You mentioned earlier our Kurdish friends, who we've abandoned at times and not abandoned at times, but yet we expect them to be a part of a greater Iraq.

  • 11:41:30

    MCGINTYGetting very enthusiastic response from Elise over here. What do you think?

  • 11:41:32

    LABOTTWell, I think it's really the key to some of the failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East is that the U.S. just does not understand this region really and for successive administrations has tried to impose, you know, democratic and Western values on other countries, thinking that if they could just do it our way, they would be on the right track. And I think that there really needs to be more education and understanding from cultural attaches such as the caller when you're training foreign service officers.

  • 11:42:08

    LABOTTI mean, there aren't necessarily -- yes, there are diplomatic skills that they could learn, but what they could really learn is more about the culture and the values of this particular region and so that when there are these meetings, are these negotiations, that's taken into consideration instead of trying to, you know, paint it with a Western brush and hope that that's the ticket because it never is.

  • 11:42:31

    SOLOMONAlthough I was a little confused by the caller because he was describing what the Russians are doing and the Saudis are doing in Yemen. Indiscriminately bombing populations probably doesn't show much cultural sensitivity, either, on their part.

  • 11:42:44

    LABOTTRight.

  • 11:42:45

    SOLOMONBut...

  • 11:42:47

    LABOTTBut there is an understanding -- there is a lack of understanding, I think you would agree, by the U.S., by the West, of the Middle East and their different cultures and their religious traditions. I mean, that's one of the things that been the main, you know, kind of stumbling blocks between the U.S. and the Islamic and Muslim world is I don't really think that they, you know, understand, you know, the kind of deeply held religious, cultural beliefs.

  • 11:43:11

    BOWMANAnd the U.S. doesn't listen, doesn't listen to other countries, what are their needs, what do they want. I mean, back in Afghanistan early on, Afghans wanted only Muslim troops to come to the country and help out, and that was brushed aside. They wanted the money to go through them, only through their government. That was brushed aside. So what happens? You send 150,000 Americans in, and we're still there, and they're going to be there for quite some time. There are still 10,000 American forces there.

  • 11:43:35

    BOWMANWe've never been good at studying cultures and languages, and we're still not.

  • 11:43:41

    MCGINTYLet's move forward to another topic we want to get to before our time runs out, and that is the EU with this new quota system for taking in refugees. We all know tens of thousands are already there. What do they want to change, and how do they want to change it?

  • 11:43:52

    LABOTTWell, there has never necessarily been a quota system for refugees. Now there is one that proposes penalties if some of these countries are not going to take in their allotted amount of refugees. It aimed at kind of revamping these controversial regulations on handling the migrants. There have been millions coming into Europe, really the worst crisis since World War II. And many of them are stranded in camps. And so this is trying to redistribute the balance.

  • 11:44:26

    LABOTTGermany has been taking a lot. Greece and Italy have really been on the front lines of that. And this is an effort to get some of the other EU members to take their share. It's very controversial...

  • 11:44:36

    MCGINTYWell, they're talking about $287,000 fines per immigrant.

  • 11:44:40

    LABOTTPer immigrant.

  • 11:44:40

    MCGINTYPer immigrant.

  • 11:44:40

    BOWMANAnd this has already been rejected by the Czech government, by the Hungarians, as well.

  • 11:44:44

    MCGINTYSo who's in favor of it?

  • 11:44:47

    SOLOMONGermany is. I mean, some of the countries that are taking the biggest -- Merkel has been sort of the driving force in a lot of this.

  • 11:44:53

    LABOTTAnd obviously Greece and Italy but also the kind of EU commission, who doesn't really necessarily have a vote, but they're pushing it very stringently.

  • 11:45:00

    BOWMANAs you were saying earlier with the fighting in Aleppo, you're going to see more people heading for the exits, heading up through Turkey and onto Europe because they don't want to stay in Turkey. This problem is only going to get worse. I've been on this show many times. Every time I come on, we talk about this very issue. And it's getting worse by the day.

  • 11:45:17

    SOLOMONI mean, it's interesting, too, the politics of Turkey, which I think was something we were going to talk about, the basically removal or the forcing out of the prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who was really the driving interlocutor between the EU and Turkey about them, the Turks, continuing to take more of their -- of the refugees that are coming out of Syria. But in turn there is going to be some visa-free waiver for...

  • 11:45:42

    LABOTTThat's like one of the perks of the job, right?

  • 11:45:43

    SOLOMONYeah, but with his departure, now people -- you know, Erdogan today gave a speech basically saying we're not going to do some of the reforms the Europeans are demanding as part of this agreement that Davutoglu, and so I don't know what's going to happen with this guy gone.

  • 11:45:59

    LABOTTBut I mean this...

  • 11:45:59

    MCGINTYBut this is the thing. I'm sorry to cut you off.

  • 11:46:00

    SOLOMONSure.

  • 11:46:00

    MCGINTYErdogan and Turkey, that was supposed to be example of an Islamist government that could work, right, that could be part of the EU and could be part of the West in essence, maybe be a bridge. And now with the changes you're speaking about, maybe not.

  • 11:46:14

    LABOTTWell, Erdogan's authoritarian tendencies have really shocked some of the members, and it's -- you know, look, clearly the EU needs help. Turkey is willing to provide that. But there are a lot of people in the EU that feel that the EU is sacrificing its values about humanitarian, about human rights, about, you know, cracking down on journalists. They've been very concerned about Erdogan's growing authoritarian tendencies, and they feel that the Europeans are sacrificing that.

  • 11:46:42

    LABOTTSo, you know, making a devil's bargain with Erdogan has been a very controversial subject, particularly as, you know, Jay said, as the prime minister, who was seen as friendly towards the European Union, has resigned.

  • 11:46:53

    BOWMANAnd as he centralizes more power, what's going to happen? If he throws his prime minister over the side, Jay maybe you know, what's going to -- is he becoming more and more isolated? What's the future of Turkey?

  • 11:47:03

    SOLOMONI mean, Erdogan did win an election again. I think there is a fear that, you know, he came in as a reformer, and he did revitalize the Turkish economy. He really did. And it did have a bit of a, you know, democratic feel to it, and it's completely reversed itself in the last four years...

  • 11:47:20

    LABOTTOkay, but now he wants to change the constitution to establish this executive presidency. Usually the prime minister is the one that's supposed to be the head of the executive. Now he wants to change it. And if he's -- you know, look, Davutoglu was always someone who feel in line with Erdogan, but privately they had a lot of disagreements. And now he can put in someone that doesn't have as many disagreements with him. He can call for early elections to get more seats in parliament and really could be even more unchecked than ever, and that's very worrisome to the United States and Europe.

  • 11:47:51

    MCGINTYYou know, I read one quote that suggested in some places, perhaps Turkey, that democracy is like a bus, you know, you ride it until you get where you want to go, then you get off.

  • 11:47:57

    SOLOMONRight.

  • 11:47:59

    LABOTTRight.

  • 11:47:59

    BOWMANHe has been off that bus for quite some time now.

  • 11:48:01

    SOLOMONAnd Davutoglu did -- he went with a whimper today. He did not go out with a -- he gave a speech, basically he's still pledging fealty to Erdogan, so...

  • 11:48:10

    LABOTTProbably hedging his bets.

  • 11:48:11

    MCGINTYLet's take some more phone calls. Brad in Cincinnati, you're on the air. Go ahead. Hey Brad.

  • 11:48:16

    BRADGood morning, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to make the observation that it seems like in the media when you hear the media talking about foreign policy from the Bush era, it was always the Bush foreign policy, the Bush doctrine was thrown around a lot and talking about the mistakes going into Iraq. But when we talk about the here and now with the Obama policy, it's always the U.S. government's policy or the United States' policy. It's never the Obama policy.

  • 11:48:46

    SCOTTAnd you never hear about what is Obama's doctrine. We pulled out of Iraq, leaving Iraq to falter when it was very unstable, but the fledgling democracy, as your guests brought out, and then that's kind of passed over a lot by the media, I think, that mistake. And then we don't hear too much about Libya.

  • 11:49:06

    MCGINTYAll right, well let's talk about it. Let's talk about it.

  • 11:49:07

    BOWMANWe were talking earlier about, you know, this administration doesn't want to send shoulder-fired missiles. It, you know, doesn't want to deal with these hard issues in Syria. It doesn't want to send more troops into a place like Syria to take Raqqa or many more troops, as some have called for, to really deal with ISIS in Iraq. We've talked about this earlier. This is the White House. This isn't the Bush administration.

  • 11:49:30

    MCGINTYBut what the caller seems to be saying is that if there is an Obama doctrine, it is we're tired of fighting.

  • 11:49:36

    LABOTTWell, I think the caller makes an excellent point, that at what point the statute of limitations of the mistakes of the Bush administration expire and the mistakes of the Obama administration, who tried to, you know, do something different, there was always anything but Bush, this is a completely different doctrine. And, you know, there was a very interesting interview that the president did with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. That was called "The Obama Doctrine." And I encourage the caller to read it because it really does spell out how this president isn't only looking for necessarily, like, short-term tactical gain but is looking strategically down the line and how he thinks about U.S. engagement.

  • 11:50:17

    LABOTTAnd it is a very, as Tom was saying, a very much more cautious way of looking at things. I don't think it's fair necessarily to say that foreign policy reporters in the media, quote-unquote, have shied away from criticizing this administration on its foreign policy. There have been a lot of concerns about the way that the president has operated or his lack thereof of engagement in Syria, his, you know, continued withdrawal from Iraq, politically and diplomatically, and now, you know, the growth of ISIS.

  • 11:50:51

    LABOTTSo I think that there has been plenty of criticism and will continue to be about the foreign policy legacy that this president has handed over. There have also been, you know, some successes, and I think that that's true of any presidency.

  • 11:51:03

    SOLOMONI think he -- the caller makes a good point, too, that Barack Obama's foreign policy was maybe the most centralized foreign policy since Richard Nixon. I mean, you look at his -- the agreement with the Iranians, the rapprochement with Cuba. These were held and executed by such a small, you know, circle of people around Obama. So it really is his foreign policy. And I think compared to the Bush administration, it might -- there were probably more actors involved in foreign policy under Bush than there has been under Barack Obama.

  • 11:51:33

    MCGINTYAnd you do seem to be...

  • 11:51:33

    BOWMANAnd part of this stems from the campaign. He came into office basically saying I'm going to get out of Afghanistan, I'm going to get out of Iraq, and he's found that much more difficult to do once he's sitting in the Oval Office. There were 10,000-or-so troops at the end of I guess December 2010 in Iraq. He's pulled them all out. How many are there now? Five thousand and growing.

  • 11:51:55

    LABOTTAnd I think it's kind of interesting when you hear, you know, talk about the foreign policy platform of Donald Trump as he becomes the presumptive nominee. He's made a lot of proclamations about, you know, perhaps how he would be more of an isolationist, that yes, the U.S. needs to be a leader but maybe not as much financially. Does it really need to be the world's policeman?

  • 11:52:20

    LABOTTThe world is looking for the U.S. to lead, and, I mean, if the U.S. were to, you know, wholesale disengage from, you know, the international system and leave it to others, I think possibly a President Trump might find what the Obama administration found when it withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan, that it's much harder, the realities of governing are much harder than any idealistic policies that you really do want to implement when you assume the presidency.

  • 11:52:46

    MCGINTYInteresting, and...

  • 11:52:47

    BOWMANAnd also Donald Trump said that I will hammer ISIS. Now how do you do that? Do you do it with more air strikes, do you do it with more -- sending in more troops, thousands more U.S. troops? He said if the generals say send in U.S. troops, I will listen to them, and I will do that.

  • 11:53:02

    MCGINTYThis is the Diane Rehm Show. I want to get to at least what some might consider less bad news than what we've been talking about, or good news. You've been on your ideological bent here. But a cruise ship from Miami docked in Cuba this week, first time in decades that this has happened. And it's because the Obama administration has moved forward with ending the embargo, as much as it can administratively, on Cuba. Big deal, not such a big deal, Jay Solomon?

  • 11:53:27

    SOLOMONI think it's a big deal. I think the White House has been pretty clear, as they kind of -- as they leave office, they want some of their policies to be so far down the road that it's going to be hard for the next administration to pull back. And when you -- particularly in Cuba it's been as much business engagement and possible, even though the embargo still technically is in play. In Iran they're trying to do as much kind of engagement with the Iranians that the next administration can't pull it back.

  • 11:53:51

    SOLOMONSo I think, you know, cruise ships pulling into Havana is what they want.

  • 11:53:55

    MCGINTYYou know, you haven't seen much talk on the campaign trail of pulling back from Cuba.

  • 11:53:58

    LABOTTWell, I think, you know, that's exactly right, what Jay said. They want to make sure this is a runaway train. But at the same time, when you see all of the tourism that's going in, this week Chanel just launched a fashion show in Havana, and they cleaned up the Old City so that celebrities could come in, and then they walled it off. I think what is really going to be incumbent on the United States, and it'll be interesting to see, you know, whether it's Hillary Clinton, I think that engagement will continue. I don't -- I don't know what would happen under President Trump.

  • 11:54:26

    LABOTTI think some of the, you know...

  • 11:54:27

    SOLOMONOpen a casino.

  • 11:54:28

    LABOTTOr a hotel.

  • 11:54:28

    MCGINTYNot to mention a golf course.

  • 11:54:30

    LABOTTOr a hotel. But I think it's going to be really incumbent on the U.S. to make sure that this engagement trickles down to the average Cuban, who is really suffering. I was there with Secretary Kerry when he opened the embassy. These people are living on maybe, like, $12 a month, and it is very difficult to see where these tourism dollars are going to go down.

  • 11:54:51

    LABOTTI mean, for instance Chanel is opening up a store there, but nobody can necessarily -- in Cuba can even afford it. That's like a year's salary or more.

  • 11:55:00

    BOWMANHere's what's interesting. I was down there with my family back during Memorial Day last year, and we stayed in an AirBnB. And you're seeing more and more Cubans, tens of thousands of them, having AirBnBs, opening restaurants down the street. We stayed with this Cuban woman who's, you know, probably middle or upper-middle class by Cuban standards now. You're going to see more and more of that as these cruise ships pull up, as more and more Americans head there.

  • 11:55:22

    BOWMANCanada is sending huge numbers of tourist down to Cuba. So you're going to see I think a burgeoning middle class in Cuba, and once they have money, once they see how other people live, once they get a sense of how the world, you know, lives compared to them, you're going to maybe see some pressure for change. It's clearly not going to happen under this current management of the Castro brothers, but what comes after them? I think it's going to be fascinating.

  • 11:55:48

    BOWMANAnd again, as more and more people get money in Cuba through the tourists, you could see change. But we'll see if they can hold on to this system.

  • 11:55:57

    MCGINTYAre we beyond the point of no return on this in terms of going back to the way the United States related to Cuba for 50 years?

  • 11:56:02

    BOWMANWe're way beyond the point of no return.

  • 11:56:03

    LABOTTI think we're way beyond the point of no return. I mean, it'll -- it won't be -- it'll be slow and controlled under the Castro regime, but I think the train has left the station, and...

  • 11:56:14

    SOLOMONIt's not even an issue in the campaign at all.

  • 11:56:17

    LABOTTNo.

  • 11:56:17

    MCGINTYThat's what I'm saying, we haven't heard and come up.

  • 11:56:20

    LABOTTWell, and also the majority of -- there were still some hard-liners in Congress that, you know, are very against any type of engagement with Cuba until the Castros leave, but I think the majority of Congress, and the majority of Americans, do feel that it's time to kind of turn the page on the years of hatred and enemy...

  • 11:56:39

    BOWMANThere are also some Chamber of Commerce Republicans in Congress who want to see, you know, trade with Cuba, grain heading that way and so forth. So...

  • 11:56:47

    MCGINTYSo we end our conversation at least a bit on an up note. I want to thank all three of you for coming in, Tom Bowman, correspondent for NPR at the Pentagon, Elise Labott, global affairs correspondent for CNN, and Jay Solomon, foreign affairs correspondent with The Wall Street Journal. we've had a great conversation about foreign affairs today, and we appreciate your time, appreciate all of you who joined us. I'm Derek McGinty. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." Thank you for listening.

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