Susan Glasser and Peter Baker are veteran political journalists who closely covered the presidency of Donald Trump, he as the New York Times chief White House correspondent, she as a…
Guest Host: Rachel Martin
There’s a new interim president in Brazil after the Senate votes to begin an impeachment trial against their former leader Dilma Rousseff. Saudi Arabia’s king shakes up his cabinet as part of a new strategy to reduce the nation’s reliance on oil. ISIS takes responsibility for deadly attacks over two days in Iraq. A populist politician who is drawing comparisons to Donald Trump is elected president in the Philippines. And London’s new mayor says he’ll help Hillary Clinton win her bid for president.
- James Kitfield Contributing editor, National Journal; senior fellow, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
- Margaret Brennan CBS News correspondent covering the State Department
- Paul Danahar Washington bureau chief, BBC; author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring"
- Karen Lema Correspondent, Reuters
MS. RACHEL MARTINThanks for joining us. I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's "Weekend Edition" sitting in for Diane Rehm. The newly appointed president in Brazil names his cabinet after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. The king of Saudi Arabia moves forward with a plan to sell off part of the state-owned oil company there. And the Islamic State unleashes a string of suicide bombs in Iraq, killing more than 100 people.
MS. RACHEL MARTINHere to discuss this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, James Kitfield of the National Journal, Margaret Brennan of CBS News and Paul Danahar of the BBC. Welcome to you all.
MR. PAUL DANAHARThank you.
MS. MARGARET BRENNANThank you.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood to be here.
MARTINWe'd love to hear your thoughts and views in this hour. We'll be taking your comments and questions. Call us at 800-433-8850. Send us your email at email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or on Twitter, of course. And we're going to start with -- the big story of the week was in Brazil, a country we've been talking about a lot because the Olympics are coming.
MARTINBut all kinds of political chaos there. The president has stepped aside, as we mentioned, after the Senate voted to begin an impeachment trial. Jim, what happened in Brazil?
KITFIELDYou know, Brazil's been in kind of a freefall for much of the past year. It's going through the worst recession it's had in 80 years. It's going through a huge corruption scandal. You know, kind of ironically, President Rousseff wasn't really implicated in that scandal. They got her basically for taking loans from government banks and using those to pay for social programs and to fill holes in the budget.
KITFIELDHer argument is that that's what previous presidents have done, but the Senate disagrees, especially to the degree to which she's kept those -- taken those loans out and kept them relatively secret from the public before her reelection in 2014. So, you know, Brazil's in a terrible place and it's sort of indicative of all of these sort of BRIC countries that were -- did very well in the last 10 years through commodities, selling of commodities mostly to China, you know, oil or things like that.
KITFIELDAnd with China's sort of slowing economy, a lot of those countries are struggling mightily. And we've seen it with Turkey. We've seen it in Brazil and we're seeing it in a lot of these countries.
MARTINMargaret, this was a big hit for her personally, but also for her party, right? The entire workers party.
BRENNANAbsolutely. And it's interesting because now with the interim president, Temer, who's in there for the foreseeable future until there's some clarity with what happens next with Dilma Rousseff and if she's indeed impeached, then you've seen this sort of move to the right, which is such a sea change for South America and certainly for Dilma Rousseff who, remember -- I mean, she was tortured.
BRENNANShe was a Marxist revolutionary. She's got these credentials of, interestingly, not only being very much a leftist, but also presiding over a period of time in the wake of President Lula where you had a tremendous economic boom. And now, on her watch, you have this contraction, you know. As you were just saying, you know, worst economic hit since the 1930s and Petrobras really hurt there.
BRENNANSo it's a really interesting shift to see how this plays out next. But we don't know yet if it's -- if President Obama will, indeed, take up the invitation to go to Brazil this summer to attend the Olympics.
MARTINYeah, that's a whole other question.
BRENNANDo you want to dive into this kind of political morass.
MARTINPaul, what do we know about the Vice President who's not stepped in as the acting president? Who is he? Where does he come from? Who's in his cabinet?
DANAHARWell, he's a former law professor and he's been the kind of king maker for the last 20 years. I mean, every political movement that's been going on behind the scenes in Brazil, he's been a key player in all that. So, suddenly, the guy that's been in the shadows pulling a lot of the strings and guiding many of the political movements within Brazil suddenly is in the spotlight.
DANAHARHe's a right winger. He's appointed a cabinet entirely so far of men, which has got him some criticism. He's expected to be much more fiscally conservative than she ever was, so I suspect that the markets will look at this and see this as a positive thing. But Brazil is in a state of flux. It has been for a couple of years now and the former president or the temporary not president supporters, they're not going to take this lightly.
DANAHARAnd when you've got the Olympics coming up -- and we've seen nothing but demonstrations in Brazil the last few years -- this is not going to be a quiet summer for anybody in Brazil, I don't think.
MARTINI mean, there's also the Zika virus there.
KITFIELDYes, if they didn't have enough problems. Can I just make a quick point? On this wider regional transformation, I mean, it started with the drop in oil prices worldwide and so Venezuela can't then, you know, Chavez-ism goes away because Venezuela can't afford to send a lot of free oil or on very favorable terms to all its neighbors. And you're seeing this ripple effect. Argentina, in November, elected a rightist, more free market government and then voters rejected sort of the Peronistas.
KITFIELDSo you're seeing, as this sort of economic recession really ripples through Latin America, you're seeing a move back towards more sort of capitalist free market governments and philosophies and, you know, for the United States, that might represent an opportunity.
MARTINHuh. You all spend a lot of time thinking about these issues and when you look at Brazil, I mean, Paul, do you see this -- does it have the shape of a coup or is this just a messy kind of democracy working its way through?
DANAHARWell, I mean, I think what she's done, she's probably right in saying that it's been done before. And she's not seen as a corrupt politician. I mean, she's pretty much the only person who's not been dragged into the corruption scandals in Brazil. So I think many people, even those that perhaps don't like her, will be sympathetic of her claim that she's done nothing out of the ordinary in Brazil. And Brazil's, you know, a pretty opaque country when it comes to how money gets moved around and where the power is moved around within the country.
DANAHARSo I think there's an argument to say that she's come unstuck in quite an unlucky fashion if you compare the way that many other Brazilian politicians have managed to get away with, perhaps an awful lot more and hide an awful lot more in the way of kind of corruption over the years.
MARTINLet's shift gears and let's talk about some news that came out just yesterday. A member of the 9/11 commission, the commission that was set up to investigate the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this particular member, John Lehman, says there is evidence that Saudi officials supported al-Qaida in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks. This is, obviously, something that was very controversial at the time. What was Saudi Arabia's role, in any, in 9/11?
MARTINJames, how significant is it that this former member of the commission is suggesting that there was, perhaps, more of a link than we knew previously?
KITFIELDI think it's significant in the sense that we've -- he's just joining a chorus. Bob Graham, former senator from Florida who was also part of the commission, has been calling for the Obama administration to release these 28 pages. You know, no one has forgotten that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. You know, we've since learned that how Saudi is the wellspring of a lot of this radical Wahabbi doctrine that is adopted by these extremist groups like al-Qaida, like ISIS.
KITFIELDSo, you know, this relationship we have with Saudi Arabia has always been -- had certain tensions to it, which is why, I think, both the Bush and the Obama administration don't particularly want to have this come out and have to fight a very difficult war on behalf of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, you know, it's been -- enough has been learned about those 28 pages to know that there were Saudi officials, particularly this one diplomat in California, who was helping two of the hijackers who were in San Diego, not particularly, you know, a high level official.
KITFIELDSo the question is was there sort of tacit government knowledge of the plot and support of the plot or was this a rogue diplomat who had some personal relationship?
MARTINWho happened to have a government job?
KITFIELDRight. So we don't know that and, you know, we're journalists. I think we could all say that we'd like to see the 28 pages made public and then let's find out. Let's investigate.
MARTINMargaret, what is the reticence on the behalf of the administration to release these 28 pages? And this is the particular part of the commission's report, it was actually a previous congressional report.
BRENNANExactly. And that's something people get confused about a lot. It's not actually from the final report. It's sort of, like, raw data from the FBI and that is what leads to some apprehension about releasing it, even though the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has said it's coming. Just, you know, give us a few months. There has been some concern within the administration that because this is, as many have described it to me, sort of undigested information and leads, not necessarily conclusions. This was not the final report.
BRENNANThat there is an implication to putting that out there. There are names. And just because you are a person of interest does not make you a guilty person. Do you release those names? Do you redact those names? Obviously, there are many who would argue that that unfairly indicts people in the public opinion. I mean, this is still such a raw wound in the American psyche. It is a living memory. And when you say Saudi Arabia and 9/11 in the same sentence, people have a visceral reaction. And so they come to conclusions even without facts.
BRENNANSo there is some consternation as well, as you can well imagine, on the part of Saudi officials who say, officially, they want these 28 pages to be released, but they also know that this, in an election cycle, in a year like this, can damage what it is already -- I don't want to say fraught relationship, but a relationship that's a little tense.
MARTINTense right now.
DANAHARI think you can say fraught. And I think that the thing is that the Saudis were sloshing so much money around before 9/11 to all sorts of groups all over the Middle East, all over South Asia, you know, it was a free-for-all basically. And there's every possibility that some of the money that was coming out of government officials was ending up with the wrong people. But that's probably true in many other cases, too. This is particularly embarrassing because this lead to something.
DANAHARA lot of money that the Saudis threw in to places like Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Middle East, a lot of it into religious scores that had this Wahabbi strain of Islam that was incredibly conservative. It caused all sorts of trouble in loads and loads of countries, but here is something where you saw a linear role from here to there and that's why it's so embarrassing because, you know, at the end of the day, you know, 15 Saudis were on the plane and America invades Iraq.
DANAHARI mean, the whole thing was all a bit skewed right from the beginning.
MARTINStay with us. We are talking international news in the international hour of the Friday News Roundup. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARTINWelcome back. I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's "Weekend Edition" sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined in the studio by James Kitfield, contributing editor at the National Journal, also Margaret Brennan, CBS News correspondent covering the State Department, and Paul Danahar, Washington bureau chief at the BBC. And we've been talking about Saudi Arabia. And, Jim, you wanted to weigh in. Just give us a sense of where the U.S.-Saudi relationship is. It's a very important relationship. Where is it at in this moment?
KITFIELDI would argue this at a point of sort of existential crisis. The Saudi Arabians, as you remember, you know, a very close ally going back to the Persian Gulf War and before, in terms of sort of doing our bidding in terms of keeping the energy flowing in the Middle East, vociferously opposed to the Iran nuclear deal. They thought that that was like sort of us doing a rapprochement with Iran and they are sort of locked in a Shia versus Sunni conflict throughout the Middle East with Iran and Saudi carrying the Sunni banner.
KITFIELDThe withdrawal of all our troops from Iraq and what's happened to Iraq subsequently was also something that the Saudis are very upset about. They feel like the Sunnis in Iraq have been really badly treated ever since by the Shia government in Baghdad. The sort of redline that we didn't enforce in Syria against its use of chemical weapons and just letting Syria burn has really angered them. So it's created this narrative of disengagement, of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East that, quite frankly -- I know we're going to talk about later, The New York Times Magazine piece about Ben Rhodes, who basically, in that thing, admits that it was meant to be seen as a disengagement from the Middle East.
KITFIELDAll of these things have created a sense in Saudi Arabia that we are no longer their friends. And that was one reason why President Obama went there recently, to try to sort of calm those fears. So you can imagine into that sort of crisis in relationship, this 28 pages about, oh, were the Saudis complicit in 911, couldn't come at a worse time in their view.
MARTINI mean this is an ally that's so important on so many levels, not the least of which is because of the energy and the oil. And there's been some change in this and political change that's propelling it. This past week, the king shook up the cabinet and this has rippling effects for oil production. Margaret, can you tell us about the changes and what they mean for the markets?
BRENNANWell it's fascinating to see, because anyone who watches the oil markets knows, Ali Al-Naimi, their oil minister, as a sort of legend within energy. Yeah, he's 80 years old, so perhaps in another country it might not be unusual to see him retire. But it was shocking to many people to see his transition...
MARTINBecause he's just been around so long?
BRENNANYeah. He's been around so long. He was -- I mean, Saudi Arabia basically holds, you know, control over the spigots of oil and energy prices in many ways because of their influence within OPEC and deciding how much to pump. And that matters to how much you ultimately pay at the pump. So it was really interesting to see that shift. And not only was he moved out but the person who was put into that job is the former head of Aramco, the oil company.
MARTINHuge oil -- state-owned oil company.
BRENNANExactly. Khalid Al-Falih. So that's really interesting to watch because not only did they reshuffle and say, oh, we're going to put minerals and other industries under his umbrella. But remember that the plan so far, according to the Saudi King and the deputy crown prince, who many think has the real control over not only ruling the country but certainly this part of the portfolio, they plan to take Aramco public or at least part of it.
MARTINI mean, this is huge.
BRENNANIt's huge. I mean...
MARTINPaul, this could be -- this is, they're saying, the biggest IPO in history?
DANAHARYeah. And the idea behind this is to raise money so they can begin to invest in other things. The Qataris did this a few years ago, very successfully. They went around the world buying stuff up in property and businesses in Europe. Because the feeling was that the gas prices would go down first. And so the Qataris could see where this was going. And the Qataris had a much smaller population. The thing about the Saudis is they have quite a big population. They have a very young population and a lot of unemployment.
DANAHARAnd so what they've been struggling with is they have to keep people busy and employed and happy, because at the end of the day what they do not want in Saudi Arabia is sort of very unhappy people causing all sorts of strife within the kingdom. But they have suddenly seen that their income has plummeted. And they were -- when it went below $100 a barrel, they basically found themselves in a situation where they couldn't keep paying people off. Then after the Arab Spring, they dropped a couple of billion into the local economy and said, look, let's buy our way out of this trouble.
DANAHARBut, I mean, the fundamental problem that they've had is, the only reason why they're allies with the Americans is because of oil. There's nothing else. There's no shared values. There's no shared ideas about democracy and human rights or anything else. Oil is the only thing that links America with the Saudis. And increasingly, the way the markets have been changing with the shale oil boom, the Saudis have tried to destroy...
MARTINHere in the U.S., yeah.
DANAHAR...by fiddling around with the oil price, this has fundamentally taken away the foundations of the only thing that gave them any value to their relationship.
MARTINBut then if they diversify their economy, don't they then diminish their ties to the West, politically?
DANAHARWell, I think that the problem that, as far as they're concerned, Obama's already done that. And so what they're saying is, you know, this guy -- they probably think this guy is the worst president that they've ever had. And so what comes next must be better. But I think what we're seeing now with the changes that are going on is a recognition that they have to start standing a little bit more on their own two feet and think a bit more strategically about what they do with their money and the influence they have in other areas of the world economy, so they can push back a bit not just on oil.
BRENNANWhat the Saudis would say to that is -- because that sounds great, stand on your own two feet. They'd say, excuse me, you need our credibility in this region of the world. You need us to help...
MARTINAs a surrogate.
BRENNAN...as a surrogate as to stand alongside you.
DANAHARWhat credibility do they have? That's a big question.
BRENNANThey -- to prosecute the war against ISIS and against al-Qaida. But also the other economic tie that's huge is they're the largest purchaser of American weaponry in the world.
BRENNANAnd they will remind you of that, as they did when President Obama just visited. I was with him on that trip. And their response is like, I'm sorry? Free riders? We -- we're paying you good money for those weapons.
MARTINWhat do they do with those weapons?
BRENNANAnd we have this military alliance.
MARTINI mean, I guess in Yemen they're using them. But...
MARTIN...what does the Saudi military do?
BRENNANWell, this -- look, if you think you're buying American-made weapons and you get American skill and firepower, you're wrong in that assumption. You can have the equipment and that doesn't give you necessarily the tactical skills to use it in the way that the U.S. military does. But there is a lack of appreciation in many ways for -- whether it's right or wrong, the perception on the Saudi's part that they are on a -- in a region on fire and that they are threatened directly by Iran. So they're arming to the teeth with the idea that that is how the monarchy, which in many ways is the country, stays in power.
BRENNANSo they have it and keep it in the closet, yes, you're right. Yemen is a war that they are using a lot of that equipment in. But not as successfully as they had assumed. They thought it was going to be a real quick war and it is dragging on.
KITFIELDYou know, I think the fascinating underlier of this us the deputy crown prince. Watch him. King Salman's son is perhaps...
MARTINIs this bin Nayef?
KITFIELDRight, Muhammad, is, you know, the most transformative change agent I've seen in watching, you know, Saudi Arabia over three decades. He's now -- he basically has the defense portfolio. It's thought that his -- it was his idea to go into Yemen. He now has a piece of the oil portfolio. He has, you know, he's come out with a Saudi vision 2030 that is, again, trying to wean them off this quote, unquote, "addiction" to oil. They want to open up the country to more tourism. If they sell part of Saudi Aramco, it's going to open up their, you know, very opaque dealings to shareholder scrutiny, et cetera.
KITFIELDNow, I'm not sure if this guy is going to be successful. But he's certainly interesting to watch. I mean, the idea of Saudi Arabia opening up to tourism, with its religious police, you know, running around seeing if any ankle is showing, you know, beneath your burqa is kind of fascinating to me. But there is a lot of change. And it goes to this relationship with the United States we're talking about being much less close than it used to be. It goes to the fact that we are now a net exporter of energy. That through fracking technology and others, we have created a different dynamic on the oil markets around the world, where Saudi Arabia is not -- we're not as dependent on them as we used to be.
KITFIELDSo all of these things are happening at once. And they've got a change agent there who's trying to lead them through this thicket and it's pretty interesting watching them try to do it.
MARTINIt would be a generational change though -- more than a generational change if the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia were to somehow lessen.
DANAHARBut I think we've seen a generational change now in the Gulf. You've seen a change in leadership in Qatar. You've seen a change in leadership in terms of influence within Saudi. What we are seeing now is I think a bit like what happened in the Soviet Union. You know, you had -- you kept handing power to people that were on the verge of dying. And so there came a point where people said, we have to make a big jump here and actually build a new generation up. And the question is, you know, what do they do with their newfound power and who are these people and how will they exercise it? Because, in many ways, the Saudi government's always been about keeping the status quo.
DANAHARAnd what's changed now is they have to rethink everything. Because the whole world's changed around them. And this is a country where you were taught how to keep things exactly as they were -- you're religion, your culture, everything at many levels. And now it's about, we have to adapt. And that's the really interesting thing about the Gulf.
MARTINWell, and more and more of their young people are being educated abroad...
DANAHARAnd they're all (word?)
MARTIN...at the government's expense.
DANAHARI mean, the Saudis have the biggest percentage of people on social media, because that's how they communicate. So the idea that you used to be able to control these people and help them think about what they should be thinking about is completely gone. And that's why you need this generational shift, I guess, to manage a lot more sophisticatedly than they have done in the past.
MARTINI do want to acknowledge a story related to oil, the fires in Canada. This is something -- we don't think a lot about Canada in terms of international news, but this has real implications. I mean, these fires that have been raging are happening in the oil sands. And that, in turn, is affecting production. Is this something that you guys have been looking at?
BRENNANYou know, I think it takes a million barrels off the market of production every day, or in terms of where they normally are in this region of Canada. Oil sands is one of the more expensive ways to extract oil. But it's something that Canada relies on very heavily for employment. So it's definitely a worry for them. I mean, well, we have, I think, the next OPEC meeting June 2. So that's going to be a test for sort of reading what's happening out there in terms of supply. But, you know, as we've been talking about, oil price is pretty darn low right now. But we'll see, not only the new leadership of OPEC from the Saudi perspective, but sort of a read on where global supply is right now at that point.
KITFIELDPrices did jump very briefly...
KITFIELD...after that fire. And we've had the instability in Libya. You had the instability in Nigeria because of Boko Haram. You know, that OPEC meeting -- the last one couldn't decide on reducing production to raise prices because the Saudis and the Iranians couldn't come to any kind of agreement. You have new leadership on the Saudi side now. You know, it'd be interesting to see if they saw that bump in prices and said, you know, we'd like some more of that.
MARTINWell, stay with us. I am Rachel with NPR's "Weekend Edition," and you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 800-433-8850 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. It is the international news wrap-up of "The Diane Rehm Show." And we've been talking about Saudi Arabia. I want to pivot now to a different part of the world. And I'd like to bring in reporter Karen Lema of Reuters. She's based in Manila in the Philippines. And we're turning to Karen because this past Monday the citizens of the Philippines elected a new president. His name is Rodrigo Duterte. Karen, thanks so much for being with us.
MS. KAREN LEMAHi.
MARTINKaren, what can you tell us about the new president, President Duterte. Who is he?
LEMAWell, I think everybody knows that he served for almost two decades as the local chief executive of Davao City. And Davao City is the third-largest city in the Philippines. And he's earned a reputation -- earned the nickname called the, name it, the punisher, the executioner, because they're saying that he advocates extra judicial killings. And he's also known very well for his strong-handed approach in terms of dealing with crime, criminality and drugs. People perceive him as a man of action because of what he did in Davao, which used to be a lawless city because of insurgency.
LEMABut he was able to transform that city into now a bustling city known for its, you know, it's an ideal destination for business process, outsourcing. You have the likes of Convergys setting up business there.
MARTINBut clearly, I mean, you mention the nicknames that he has, the punisher...
MARTIN...in part because of the brutal response that he has had to certain uprisings. Some critics say he's crossed the line and accuse him of just out and out human rights violations. Clearly, the voters in the Philippines thought that it was worth it, that they prefer his strong-arm tactics?
LEMAThat's right. Well, you know, he always says that -- he did admit that, you know, he has no qualms of killing criminals, especially if they've crossed the line. But he's not going to kill somebody who is kneeling and hands are tied at their backs. But he said, you know, he's -- he hates drugs. That's why -- that explains his no-nonsense stands against this particular issue. But, yes, he did say that despite his human rights -- allegations of human rights, as he says, you know, they remain allegations because they haven't been proven.
LEMABut these Filipinos look past that because, first, for many Filipinos, Rodrigo Duterte represent change. He presented himself as someone outside the political establishment. He's not your traditional politician. And that probably added to his appeal to the Filipinos, who are tired of the country's elite, whom they think as also weak, ineffective and corrupt.
MARTINSounds like a familiar debate.
LEMAExactly, yes. You know? I'm sure. That's why it's probably, many people has likened him to Donald Trump, you know? His unconventional rhetoric and unorthodox approach...
MARTINAt least in style, if not in record. Yeah.
MARTINBut are there fears that this kind of person, I mean, the Philippines has a particular kind of history. And are there fears that this kind of leader in this moment harkens back to an era of dictatorships in the Philippines?
LEMAOf course, people asked -- I think some of the critics of Mayor Duterte really tried to raise that issue and project him as, like you said, authoritarian and maybe we're going to go back to dictatorship, et cetera. Bu the Mayor actually calls himself a socialist. And the way he justifies that is that, you know, when he tried to outline his programs, he did say that, you know, I'm going to focus on education. I'm going to put emphasis on agricultural development, rural development, and especially, you know, shift some of the focus away from central Manila, to make sure that the wealth is more evenly distributed and those, what he calls, have been left behind will benefit more.
LEMAThat's why -- at least that's how he counters this, you know, this fears that he might be a dictator because of his really, you know, strong-handed approach in these things and, you know, the disciplinarian, et cetera. He was -- he's popular for instituting a lot of policies in a city that has -- that were unpopular. And yet he was able to successfully implement that, like smoking ban or firecracker ban or speed limit. These are not easy policies to implement but he was able to do so. So people see him as a man of action.
MARTINKaren Lema is a correspondent with Reuters. She's been talking with us about the new president in the Philippines. Coming up, your calls and questions for our panel. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll be right back.
MARTINWelcome back. I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's "Weekend Edition," sitting in for Diane Rehm, and I'm joined in the studio by James Kitfield of the National Journal, Margaret Brennan of CBS News and Paul Danahar of the BBC. And before we switch gears and talk specifically about what's happening in Iraq and the recent attacks by ISIS, I want to turn to Al, who is calling in from Detroit, Michigan. Hi Al, you're on the air. Do we have Al? Hi, Al, can you hear me? Al, it sounds like he's on a car phone. Al, can you hear us?
MARTINHi, you're on the air.
ALYes, yes, okay. Here's my question or actually a brief statement first. Imagine for a moment, or what I'd like you to do is substitute the name or the country name of Iran instead of Saudi Arabia. Now take the 28 pages into consideration. It's coming, all that has to -- imagine all that stuff in the 28 pages is all about Iran.
MARTINAnd you think...
ALWhat would your discussion be like then?
MARTINWell that's a very different scenario. Thank you so much for your call. James?
KITFIELDWell, we have to remember that Iran tried to -- you know, Iran's been the biggest state supporter of terrorism going back to the revolution of 1979. Iran is very much the supporter of its proxies, Hezbollah, which we consider a terrorist group. It supports Hamas, who we also consider a terrorist group. Iran had a plot in the last couple of years to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington by blowing up a restaurant. That's very popular with probably some of us.
KITFIELDSo Iran, you know, whatever you say about Saudi Arabia, it's much more of an ally to us than Iran has been, and Iran has been complicit in terror going back to the kidnapping of the CIA station chief in Beirut in the 1980s and his murder.
DANAHARI think the key thing here is -- that we're talking about is a government sponsoring terrorism and lower-down officials getting involved perhaps in terrorism.
MARTINAnd the latter is the situation potentially in Saudi Arabia.
DANAHARAnd the latter is the situation in Saudi. So I mean, the Saudis unquestionably have not made things better in a lot of countries and have fueled some of the Islamic fundamentalism that's gone on around the region, but we're not saying that the upper leadership of the Saudi government have been deliberately carrying out or supporting terror acts against the West, and that's the big difference.
BRENNANAnd this is something that actually the Supreme Court in the United States just recently ruled on in terms of allowing Americans to actively sue Iran as a state for damages inflicted as a result of terrorism, et cetera, et cetera, whereas this very same issue is being debated on Capitol Hill in the form of the question of whether Saudi keeps its sovereign immunity or not.
BRENNANThe problem with that, which President Obama said he would veto that bill if ever it were to get to his desk, or at least he said he doesn't support it, if he hasn't used the four-letter veto word yet. But the difference is exactly what Paul just described there. Being Saudi alone is not proof of a government link, and that is really at the heart of the entire debate over the 28 pages and all the rest, and that's how all these issues get sort of conflated together is that's never been proven.
BRENNANSome would say it wasn't actively pursued enough, but it hasn't been proven.
MARTINLet's shift gears and look at what's happening in Iraq. This past week saw a series of deadly attacks, and it seems to keep happening. ISIS clearly has a foothold there that is destabilizing the government. James, give us just a sense of how stable or unstable the government of Haider al-Abadi is right now.
KITFIELDVery unstable. I mean, you don't need much proof, other than the fact that the mob, you know, went into the green zone last week and took over the parliament building and ran amok and basically sent these parliamentarians and Mr. Abadi fleeing for their lives. The -- there's an existential crisis in the governance of Iraq. The -- Mr. Abadi, who we support very strongly, has not been able to institute reforms, form a cabinet, you know, is basically paralyzed between him and some of the more radical factions.
KITFIELDAt the same time, ISIS has lost some ground, I think 40 percent of the ground it held last year in Iraq because of losing Ramadi and then losing Hitt. But...
MARTINBut they've still got Mosul.
KITFIELDThey still have Mosul, and that's the big -- Mosul and Raqqa and Syria are their big holdings right now, and we have our sites on both of those. But, you know, we've always thought that as you pushed ISIS out of holding territory and out of these cities, it was going to start responding by being more of a terrorist group, and that's what they're doing. They're trying to change the subject that they're losing on the battlefield, but they can still -- I mean, they have -- mounting a suicide bombing attack is right in their wheelhouse. They've been able to do that since they were al-Qaeda in Iraq and became very good at that under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
KITFIELDSo this group, as it loses territory, will probably revert more to sort of terrorist attacks, but that's actually -- I'm not going to say -- obviously the attacks were horrible, but it's not necessarily a sign of strength. It could be a sign of weakness in them.
MARTINWell because isn't the whole thing, ISIS is strong when it has ground because then it -- it's closer to achieving a caliphate, it's providing services for its citizens, and if it can't do that, then public support for ISIS starts to diminish, Paul?
DANAHARYeah, but I think one of the -- the target was Shiite neighborhood. So what they often also do is they want to make Sunnis feel -- they want to make the Sunnis feel vulnerable and stay with ISIS. So by attacking Shiite therefore means that the Sunnis are expecting some kind of retribution, and so therefore what ISIS is saying is they're coming for you, you may as well huddle with us because otherwise you're on your own. So these are -- they've often -- al-Qaeda did it before...
MARTINAgain exploiting the sectarian divide.
DANAHARExactly. Basically it is we're on the back foot, we don't want to start losing some of our kind of very weak support, we attack the Shiite, the Shiite attack the Sunni, and the Sunni come back to the ISIS fold. So it's a really cynical game that's played, but it's been played year after year after year in Iraq.
BRENNANAnd the thing that's interesting now is that it calls into question the administration's policy and the viability of it, which they've said from the get-go, you know, the foreign prime minister had to go, Maliki, that Abadi's in there, he's our guy now, we're supporting him because the requirement was good government and good governance needs to be there for the commander in chief to successfully order his military to fight ISIS, right, that the center needs to hold in order for the military to be responsive and prosecute the war in an effective way.
BRENNANThe White House still isn't ready to say they're worried enough about Abadi's stability, but obviously with the storming of the green zone, with his inability to really have a cabinet, the threats among -- in the north, particularly from Kurdish leaders to say we're going to split this country up because you're not sending us the oil revenues that we expected, we're having financial difficulty, why should we be loyal to Baghdad.
BRENNANThe fact that Abadi is having so many problems really calls into question whether he can lead, but it's not clear who the alternative would be, and Tehran may not be having the same level of patience that they did a few months ago with allowing Abadi to remain in power, but the U.S. doesn't really see anyone else as a viable alternative to come in there and command forces and run the country as prime minister.
DANAHARI think the key thing is there isn't an Iraq anymore as it once was. And the problem that we've got is everyone's trying to pretend that there is a country to hold together, whereas actually on the ground, it's already fractured into lots of little different bits. So...
MARTINBut this was the whole Joe Biden plan so many years ago was that this place can't be a nation-state, it's got to be this tripartite, three-region operation.
DANAHARBut the problem was that was accelerated when the Americans went in and basically helped sectarianize the institutions of power even more than they were. That accelerated the process. And there's no way back from that now because nobody trusts anybody else unless they are from the same sect or the same family or even the same tribe. It's just so complicated and difficult.
MARTINSo speaking of complicated and difficult, Don from Jacksonville has got an interesting question. Hi Don, you're on the air.
DONOh, thank you very much. Great panel, by the way. It's wonderful.
DONHistorically after this first world war, the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the Middle East into very unnatural states. And historically -- you know, people don't know about the history. So when we look at Iraq, we look at, you know, Sunni and Shiite and all that, and probably the strongest of the bunch was Saudi Arabia, Saudi being a king, Arabia was Arabia, and Saudi was a king, and he got -- somehow got Sykes-Picot. And if you ever know your Lawrence of Arabia, you will know, you know. I just wanted to comment on that because...
MARTINNo, it's an important, it's an important comment.
MARTINThank you so much for making it. I mean, Paul, go ahead. This is what you were saying.
DANAHAROne of the things going back, when a lot of these countries were formed, the minority groups were put in power. It happened in Syria, it happened in Iraq. And so you had a situation where you automatically built in, at birth, a sense of injustice amongst the majority of the population. And that was held together by basically strongman tactics over the generations, and when it began to fall apart, all of that came back out again, and that's what we're seeing playing out post the Arab Spring, post the invasion of Iraq.
MARTINSpeaking of ISIS, I want to acknowledge a trial that's happening in the state of Minnesota. There were opening arguments made in this trial about -- over these young men from Minnesota who have tried to ally themselves and join jihad with ISIS. James, what can you tell us about the significance of this?
KITFIELDWell, one thing that comes out to me is this Somali Diaspora in Minneapolist, which is the biggest in the country, has been a -- has had a problem with radicalization going back to 2006, 2007.
MARTINWhen young people were trying to join Image result for Al Shabaab.
KITFIELDRight, these called -- in 2007 there was the Somali Walkers, like a score of them showed up with Al Shabaab in Somalia. The first American suicide bomber was a Somali-American. So we're now seeing that that radicalization problem in Minneapolis, and the FBI has been trying to reach out to that community for going on a decade now, still remains. These three men are being tried, but there were six who -- of their fellow travelers who have already pleaded guilty.
KITFIELDAnd what's going to be interesting is to see how they became radicalized because they said they would sit and watch YouTube videos that ISIS puts out, and they sort of self-radicalized together as a group. This process of radicalization, the FBI said there's 1,000 cases of, you know, of some level of seriousness of people who have shown sympathies with ISIS in this country. So this idea of radicalization and how it happens and where it's centered is one of great interest to us.
MARTINI'm Rachel Martin with NPR's "Weekend Edition,: and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And I'm joined in studio by James Kitfield of the National Journal. We've also been talking with Margaret Brennan of CBS News and Paul Danahar of the Washington bureau chief at the BBC. And in our last few minutes, I wanted to touch on a couple of other stories. The city of London has a new mayor, and it's a big deal because it is the first Muslim to be mayor of a major Western city. Margaret, what do we know about Sadiq Khan?
BRENNANWell, we know that he has no problem wading into U.S. politics because he has taken a direct aim and direct shot at Donald Trump. I think he'd probably say that the first blow was struck by Mr. Trump in suggesting and calling for this ban on all Muslims. Sadiq Khan sees himself clearly not just as a politicians but in many ways a leader and a symbolic one to be Muslim, to have this historic role in the city of London and has spoken out quite emphatically to their close U.S. ally to say this is not the way that you should be treating religious groups and Muslims, and you're actually going to feed into extremism, Mr. Trump, if you speak this way.
BRENNANSo he took a direct aim there. The White House is -- I'm sure that they -- they haven't wanted to endorse, but they have said this is quite a historic election and are watching.
MARTINAlthough Donald Trump, we should point out, said he would make an exception, right.
KITFIELDAnd that was rejected.
BRENNANHe did, he did, yes, for the mayor.
DANAHARFor the mayor.
KITFIELDHe said no thank you.
MARTINHe said too bad, yeah, I don't want to come anyway. Paul, this is a big deal, though, for London. He had a lot of support.
DANAHARHe did have a lot of support, and I think the campaign was interesting because at the tail end of it, there were accusations that he's -- the man who was standing against him, certainly the people around him, tried to use underhand tactics to play the Islamic fundamentalism card, and it backfired big-time. And even many of the conservative supporters of Zac Goldsmith said that was the wrong way to do it.
DANAHARSo I mean, it is a big deal, and London is a massive melting pot of nationalities. And to be honest with you, if it was going to happen anywhere in the world, it kind of makes sense to do it in London because London is a kind of city where everybody comes, and everybody kind of gets on with their lives, and it feels -- it feels right, actually, to have a guy like him running the place.
MARTINLastly I want to touch on a story that came out that was quite controversial among the Washington press corps. This was a piece in the New York Times magazine, a long profile of a man named Ben Rhodes. He's a close advisor to President Obama on national security issues. And it got a lot of buzz because it seemed to be this very flattering profile of a close advisor, someone who's been with the president since his campaign days, but at the same time Rhodes -- there are moments when he doesn't, he doesn't come off so well, and he really lambasts the press corps, seeming to brag about manipulating the press on critical issues, in particular the Iran nuclear deal.
MARTINJames, did you read that? What -- do you have any thoughts about this?
KITFIELDYeah, I've read it, and I've interviewed Ben, and he's -- you know, it's a fascinating story because here is basically a guy who was in creative writing at 9/11 in college and sort of rose to first take part in the 9/11 commission report as a (unintelligible) and then took part in the Iraq Study Group report. And so by the time he gets to the Obama administration, he's pretty well-versed, you know, on those subjects. But he's just risen to sort of like Obama's alter-ego. He keeps referring to a mind meld he has with Obama, where he is not sure where I drop -- you know, I stop and he begins and vice versa, which, you know, comes off a bit arrogant, but I'm sure as a speechwriter, that sort of alter-ego sort of feeling is not unusual.
KITFIELDWhat I think he went too far, though, in this -- this healthy, quote-unquote, contempt for the foreign policy establishment that he calls the blob, and then he lumps Hillary Clinton into that and Bob Gates, people who have far more experience and far more credentials than Ben Rhodes has, it does sound arrogant, and it feeds into what I think, unfortunately, is a truism about the Obama in the last couple years, which is they have -- they have -- you know, and we've seen the books from the Bob Gates and the Panettas of the world and the Hillary Clintons comments about ignoring our advice, your secretary of state's advice, your secretary of defense's advice, and really bringing foreign policy inside the White House to a small clique of people. And that's, that...
MARTINWell, even the Jeff Goldberg piece in The Atlantic recently talks about the president wanting to rip up the playbook of the foreign policy establishment.
KITFIELDRight, but I mean, it creates this narrative that I think has a lot of truth to it, that they are inside of a bubble at this point, and why they can't see how this -- how the Atlantic interview and this interview is damaging to relationships that they still have to maintain in the last months in office strikes me as they're kind of doing their victory lap a little early.
MARTINAnd it reinforces, as you said, this idea that it's a small group of people who have been working with this president on national security issues, Paul.
DANAHARYeah, and there's always been tension between the White House and the State Department. And -- but I think it's been really, really prevalent here and really, really noticeable. I think the strange thing about it was, you know, for a guy like Ben Rhodes, who clearly is a clever man, it kind of felt why are you doing this now. I mean, this isn't a very clever thing to do, and I think what probably happened was a sense -- like someone at the White House said to me yesterday that basically the writer, Samuels, was almost embedded with Rhodes for a while.
KITFIELDI think probably got a little bit kind of relaxed and a bit too kind of careless, perhaps, in some of the comments that he was making in a way where you wouldn't necessarily do when you had half an hour here and half an hour there. And that comes out in the piece. I mean, there's one or two pieces, one or two points you could argue that they're fair, i.e., news organizations should spend more on foreign news and foreign bureaus. But the tone of it was wrong, and it's really kind of, I think, hit back on them.
MARTINAnd it's definitely caused a lot of stir here in Washington. Thank you so much, Paul Danahar of the BBC, Margaret Brennan of CBS News and James Kitfield of the National Journal, senior fellow, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's "Weekend Edition," sitting in for Diane Rehm. And thank you so much for listening.
Most Recent Shows
For months it looked like Russia was waging – and winning -- a battle of attrition. But last week Ukrainian forces made dramatic gains on the battlefield, retaking vast areas…
From McCarthyism to January Sixth, best-selling author David Corn says the G.O.P has a long history of using paranoia, grievance, and tribalism for political gain. His new book is "American Psychosis."
Anthropologist Anita Hannig discusses her new book, "The Day I Die," an intimate investigation of assisted death in America.