Guest Host: John Donvan

U.S. president Barack Obama greets monks as he tours the Wat Xieng Thong Buddhist Temple in Luang Prabang on September 7.

U.S. president Barack Obama greets monks as he tours the Wat Xieng Thong Buddhist Temple in Luang Prabang on September 7.

North Korea carries out its fifth nuclear test provoking condemnation around the world. Obama’s final trip to Asia as president was to focus on climate change and maritime security, but is over-shadowed by a dust-up with the Philippine president and confrontations with Chinese officials. While in China, Obama meets with Vladimir Putin over a Syrian ceasefire, but the countries fail to reach an agreement. Complicating negotiations, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warns Russia not to interfere with U.S. elections amid accusations they are hacking into American political institutions. And the Mexican finance minister resigns after a controversial visit from Donald Trump. Guest host John Donvan and a panel of journalists discuss the international week in news.


  • James Kitfield Contributing editor, National Journal; senior fellow, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
  • Kim Ghattas International affairs correspondent, BBC; author of "The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power"
  • Edward Luce Chief U.S. columnist and commentator, Financial Times; author of "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent"
  • Jennifer Glasse Freelance correspondent for Al Jazeera English, CBC, and PBS NewsHour


  • 11:06:54

    MR. JOHN DONVANThanks for joining us. I'm John Donvan, moderator of The Intelligence Squared US Debates, sitting in for Diane Rehm. North Korea has conducted another nuclear test and is claiming it will now make warheads. President Obama travels to China and Laos. And U.S. defense secretary, Ashton Carter, warns Russia to say out of our elections.

  • 11:07:16

    MR. JOHN DONVANJoining me for the international hour of the Friday News Roundup, James Kitfield with The National Journal and the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, Kim Ghattas with the BBC and Edward Luce of The Financial Times. Welcome to all of you.

  • 11:07:29

    MS. KIM GHATTASGood morning.

  • 11:07:29

    MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood to be here.

  • 11:07:30

    MR. EDWARD LUCEGood morning.

  • 11:07:30

    DONVANThis news, James Kitfield that North Korea has tested yet another nuclear warhead apparently the largest one yet. First of all, is it confirmed? Are we debating this at all or it did happen?

  • 11:07:45

    KITFIELDIt seems a pretty sure thing. I mean, it happened on the half hour. It was, you know, it came -- the waves came from their test site. I think it's pretty much assumed that it is -- it was their fifth nuclear test. The last one they claim was a hydrogen test, which would've been a great escalation in their capability. A lot of doubts about that. This one was quite massive so it may represent that they are, you know, continuing a pace with their nuclear program.

  • 11:08:14

    KITFIELDLast week, they fired, during the G20 Summit, three, you know, missiles into the Sea of Japan so this is the frozen conflict. What's not frozen is their advancement towards nuclear capability and that's the problem.

  • 11:08:27

    DONVANAnd it also comes with the sort of advertisement of boasting, actually, about it. I mean, the smiling woman who reads the news on North Korean television smiled and she then complained about, quote, "the racket of threats and sanctions kicked up by U.S.-led hostile forces to deny a sovereign state's exercise of the right to self defense." They're fighting words. They're coming out with fighting words.

  • 11:08:49

    KITFIELDWell, I mean, North Korea is known not only for fighting words, but just outrageous provocations in their rhetoric about, you know, they're still on a wartime footing. Actually, we are in a wartime footing specifically with North Korea because we never signed, you know, the armistice never really went into effect. There was a test in January. We got the Chinese to agree to really pretty strong sanctions. And this is, like I said, it's a one-trick pony.

  • 11:09:16

    KITFIELDThey provoke us. We try to get more sanctions trying to get them to back down and they provoke us more. We've seen this go on and on and on. The sanctions, clearly, did not deter North Korea so we'll see. President Obama has said that he's never going to give North Korea what it wants, which is recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state, nuclear weapon state. There's going to be more sanctions coming, but quite honestly, we've seen this show so many times, I'm very pessimistic that it'll have any impact on actually deterring its program.

  • 11:09:46

    DONVANAnd indeed, in terms of the dance you're talking about, just now, just as we go to air, the White House has put out a statement by the president. I'll quote a little bit of it. "The U.S. condemns North Korea's September 9th nuclear test in the strongest possible terms as a grave threat to regional security and to international peace and stability." And Edward Luce, as pointed out -- as James just has pointed out, China, North Korea's only ally, has been joining the sanction bandwagon, actually.

  • 11:10:13

    LUCEIt has been, although there are reports of pretty healthy trade across the Chinese, North Korean border at the same time. I mean, as ever, China is really the key here. China doesn't want North Korea to go nuclear because that would ratchet America's military presence, the missile defense systems that it's putting in place in South Korea. But it also doesn't want North Korea to collapse. It doesn't want a unified Korean peninsula because that could present a far bigger U.S. ally right up on China's border.

  • 11:10:43

    LUCESo how China responds to this, as ever, will be key. And I think, you know, the fact that this was a five kiloton yield test in January and today was ten, that's double in the space of nine months, shows that there is an exponential growth, albeit from a low level, you know. The Nagasaki, Hiroshima yields were roughly 15 kilotons. That's in 1945. So it's pretty small fry compared to global nuclear capacity today, but it's an exponential growth.

  • 11:11:13

    DONVANThis claim that North Korea is making to be miniaturizing its warheads, what's the significance of that, Kim Ghattas?

  • 11:11:20

    GHATTASWell, the significance of that is that it has -- it could potentially have the capability of reaching the United States shores and that is the greatest concern, of course. It's been able to continue its advances despite layers of UN sanctions. It is banned under UN sanctions from pursuing these nuclear advances and conducting these nuclear tests. And the concern is not just for the security of American's allies in the region. President Obama has spoken today to the Japanese leader and to the South Korean leader, but also for American security.

  • 11:11:58

    GHATTASThe idea that they could reach American shores across the Pacific is far in the distance, but as I just said, they are increasing their capability slowly but surely and this was the fifth and, we believe, the strongest nuclear test so far. We'll have a UN security council meeting later this afternoon. As James said, there will probably be more sanctions, but most likely not immediately today. But the key is China and whether they're willing to really corner North Korea on this issue or whether they are simply too concerned about Pyongyang crumbling.

  • 11:12:36

    DONVANJames Kitfield, a coincidence that this happened in the same week that President Obama made what was probably his last trip to the region?

  • 11:12:44

    KITFIELDNo. No, North Korea, this is their modus operandi. They look for the moment when their sort of provocations can have the most impact. They are upset about the sanctions that we introduced earlier in the year and they want to poke President Obama in the eye with this and say, you know, we're continuing a pace and so, no, not an accident. It's very much into their sort of wheelhouse of how they conduct their diplomacy. So one-trick pony, diplomacy, all about provocations with their nuclear program.

  • 11:13:12

    KITFIELDBut North Korea presents a huge problem and I'm not -- and I talk to security people. They're not convinced that it's that far away when they could plausibly miniaturize a warhead and mount it on a missile, which means that all of our allies in the Asian Pacific region could become under the nuclear range and within a matter of years, maybe it's just less than five years, could possibly reach, you know, have a missile that could reach Los Angeles or Hawaii or some American territory.

  • 11:13:39

    KITFIELDYou don’t want to -- I mean, we've been in this sort of mad, sort of mutually assertive destruction deterrence posture with other nuclear weapons adversaries for a long time, but North Korea's kind of a special case. It's not a rational actor all the time so you don't want to get into that kind of situation with North Korea.

  • 11:13:55

    DONVANWell, with the President in -- did you want to go -- go ahead.

  • 11:13:58

    GHATTASWell, the Chinese element is very interesting because I've spoken to, as we all have, American officials repeatedly over the course of the last six, seven years as I've been covering the state department and I remember very often hearing from American officials that they were hopeful that this time the Chinese would really read the riot act to the North Koreans and they would get these signals from the Chinese, but China never really delivered and that's why we're in this cycle where, yes, you know, the president can say he will never accept North Korea as a nuclear state, but they are, in fact, de facto a nuclear state.

  • 11:14:36

    GHATTASAnd we don’t know at what point China will really decide that it has -- the time has come to, in essence, read the riot act to the North Koreans.

  • 11:14:45

    DONVANEdward Luce, let's talk a little bit about the president's advertises his final trip to Asia as president. A sort of -- some farce seemed to take place at the beginning of the trip that overshadowed, for a time, everything else that was happening. What happened at his arrival?

  • 11:15:01

    LUCEWell, there was a dispute between Chinese officials and White House officials over the lack of a normal reception there of the stairs being brought up to the plane and the red carpet. So he got off the back of the plane because others, the press corps and White House officials, including Susan Rice, weren’t allowed to come out into the front of the normal stairs that come to the plane.

  • 11:15:27

    DONVANAnd then, they argued.

  • 11:15:28

    LUCEAnd then, they argued and one Chinese official shouted, this is China. This is our country. So clearly, this was taken by the media traveling with him and around the world as a sort of sign of, you know, a fading Obama, lame duck term, Chinese poking him in the eye and they've done it before. They did it on his first trip in 2009. There were a lot of petty humiliations there in terms of protocol in how Obama was received in Beijing on his first trip to China.

  • 11:16:03

    LUCEObama, himself, though, said, look, you know, these things happen. This is a minor protocol thing and it might well be an accident. And, you know, we have pretty heavy footprint. We turn up with all these planes and all these vehicles and all these security and so, you know, we've got to understand that other countries might see us -- he tried to mollify the situation, but I suspect he lost the media war there. I think people are taking it as very symbolic of Obama's pivot to Asia fading at the end of a lame duck presidency.

  • 11:16:36

    DONVANAnd James Kitfield, should they? I mean, in other words, Edward's saying there are no accidents like that.

  • 11:16:41

    KITFIELDRight. And if it was just that one isolated incident, I might take that, but at the same time, you have the Philippine president calling him a son of a bitch. That's not something you usually get from a treaty ally who's very dependent on you for security. At the same time, you Russian airplanes going within ten feet of our own Navy airplanes in the Black Sea. At the same time, when we're trying to get ceasefire in Syria, you see a big offensive mounted outside of Aleppo with the Russians and the Iranians and the Syrian Army.

  • 11:17:10

    KITFIELDAt the same time, you see China basically ignoring international mediation and arbitration about its actions in the South China Sea. It was part of a sort of mosaic that suggests that not only do they see President Obama as a lame duck, but the sense of American in retrenchment has become a part of the international scene now where any provocation seems to draw very little response and I think it is probably a problem.

  • 11:17:39

    DONVANAll right. We're going to unpack a lot of what you just said when we return and we're also going to visit into Afghanistan, a violent week there. And we'll be speaking with Jennifer Glasse who's on the ground. I'm John Donvan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:20:01

    DONVANWelcome back. I'm John Donvan, moderator of the Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Our guests are James Kitfield, Kim Ghattas, and Edward Luce. We are looking at this past and very, very event-filled week in the global sphere. And we've been talking about the president's visit to China. And, James Kitfield, there was, despite the point you making before that China may be have been poking it's eye -- it's thumb in the president's eye, there was an agreement on climate change.

  • 11:20:33

    KITFIELDClimate change.

  • 11:20:33


  • 11:20:34

    KITFIELDYeah, there was -- I didn't mean to imply that there was nothing accomplished on this trip. I think there was. I think that, I mean, I -- Asia is looking for America to sort of complete the pivot. The pivot has had some good effects. We've tightened our alliance structures with Vietnam and -- or not a treaty alliance, but we're selling them military -- we agreed to sell them military equipment. We have tightened our alliances with Japan and with the Philippines and with South Korea. But there are problems in the pivot. You know, we were never able to extricate ourselves from the Middle East. So the military presence they anticipate backing up that pivot never really arrived.

  • 11:21:08

    KITFIELDAnd, again, I just think that there is a lot of pushback we're getting from traditional allies. We have now Israel and the Palestinians going to -- saying, in principle, they'll go to Moscow to negotiate a peace deal. You know, something that for the 40 years has been sort of America's prerogative in that conflict. We have Turkey blaming us for a recent military coup...

  • 11:21:27


  • 11:21:27

    KITFIELD...some of their top officials saying that we were behind a military coup that killed hundreds of Turks. So I'm just saying that some of the pushback you're getting is something I'm seeing more and more of. I'm not blaming the Obama administration for all of it. I'm just saying that it's out there and I think the next president's going to confront a world that's starting to push back against American, sort of, predominance.

  • 11:21:49

    DONVANAnd, Edward Luce, in the context of China, there's the South China Sea issue, not resolved at all. Why don't you talk us through that?

  • 11:21:57

    LUCEWell, once again, President Obama raised this with Xi Jinping. He raised the fact that the tribunal in the Hague earlier this -- in July had ruled very much against China's claims that it's -- could resolve each of these issues bilaterally.

  • 11:22:13

    DONVANAnd remind our listeners what The Hague is talking about -- was talking about, what the Chinese are up to.

  • 11:22:18

    LUCEThe Hague was reminding China that the international Law of the Sea should apply in the South China Sea, that China cannot claim all these atolls and islands, some of which of course it's expanding as its own.

  • 11:22:30

    DONVANAnd you do mean literally expanding. They are...

  • 11:22:31


  • 11:22:31

    DONVAN...making islands bigger by dredging up sea bottom and making bigger islands.

  • 11:22:36

    LUCEI think the Pentagon estimated something like 3,000 acres now of newly arrived...

  • 11:22:40


  • 11:22:40

    LUCE...sand in the South China Sea. And, you know, the key that Obama thought he had with that ruling was that China would then, you know, adjust and moderate its position. But it's shown no signs of that. And it continued to be very assertive. And the fact, as Jim mentioned, that the original country that posted its claim to the international tribunal, the Philippines, the fact that the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, insulted Obama on this trip, causing Obama to cancel the meeting.

  • 11:23:13

    DONVANLet me stop you there because we want to hear what Duterte actually had to say, a little bit of it.

  • 11:23:17

    PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTEI am a president of a sovereign state. And we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people.

  • 11:23:31

    DONVANAnd then he went on to switch to Tagalog Philippine language, in which he -- let me say he insulted the president's mother in a vulgar way. We -- actually, we heard the term earlier in the broadcast, thank you, James. So go on with your point. What about that?

  • 11:23:45

    LUCESo the meeting between Obama and Duterte was canceled after this sort of tirade against Obama by Duterte. But more importantly, I think, is that Duterte has made very warm overtures to China and talked about softening the Philippine stance on China and doing a deal with China. And China, of course, which is brilliant with checkbook diplomacy -- Duterte, you know, needs money -- is responding in kind. So the American sort of (word?) back support for each of the other bilateral claimants that are faced off against China has weakened during Obama's trip -- not just weakening, you know, over the past few months, but in the past few days. That's a huge crack in the American-led sort of international consensus around China.

  • 11:24:32

    DONVANHuge crack, yeah.

  • 11:24:33

    LUCEHuge crack.

  • 11:24:34

    DONVANKim Ghattas, though, Duterte seemed to regret putting the crack there.

  • 11:24:40

    GHATTASHe seemed to regret what he had said about President Obama, this use of the expletive against the president. But it is still feeding into this narrative around President Obama's trip to Asia, that he was being pushed around. And that he wasn't able to rally America's allies in the region to really faceoff against China. Because whereas he made a very clear reference to The Hague Tribunal ruling about China's claims not being legitimate in a sense, he could not -- at the very end, the ASEAN Summit, the summit of Asian countries where he was meeting in Laos, made a very muted criticism of China's actions in the South China Sea.

  • 11:25:25


  • 11:25:26

    GHATTASIt was barely a paragraph.

  • 11:25:28

    DONVANSo does that suggest that the portrait of Obama looking weak is accurate.

  • 11:25:35

    GHATTASWell, you can look at it both ways. I think, you know, if you look back to 2008, the last year of the president of the Bush administration, I remember covering foreign policy then as well and the State Department. And there was a lot of sense that, you know, no one took President Bush seriously anymore because America was overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan because they weren't getting anywhere with the Iranians, because Russia had gone into Georgia. So there was that sense as well.

  • 11:26:04


  • 11:26:05

    GHATTASAnd speaking to America's allies in the Middle East, like the Saudis, they all said, oh, you know, we are not getting anything from this president. He's useless, et cetera, et cetera. So you do have that trend often at the end of an administration. But it is true that President Obama is widely criticized, including by his allies, for having fed either a real tangible trend or at least the perception of retrenchment. But we did see this accord between China and the United States on climate change, which was quite a breakthrough and a moment of harmony where commitment became action. And that is quite important and will have -- will signal to other countries that they should join in signing up and ratifying the Paris Treaty.

  • 11:26:49

    GHATTASBut China does this when it is in its own interest. And I think they've come to the conclusion that climate change is a threat for them. They should join hands with other countries. And on the South China Sea, we're not seeing that yet.

  • 11:27:01

    DONVANI'm going to bring in Jennifer Glasse now. Jennifer Glasse is a freelance correspondent for Al Jazeera English and for the CBC and for the PBS NewsHour. And she's speaking to us from Kabul. Jennifer Glasse, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:27:13

    MS. JENNIFER GLASSEThanks, John. Good to be with you.

  • 11:27:14

    DONVANSo, Jennifer, it's been a bad week. It's been a bad week in the city where you are. These explosions that took place at the Ministry of Defense, what happened and what did you see?

  • 11:27:26

    GLASSEWell, it was about four o'clock in the afternoon, the worst time of day, a very busy time of day. That's when all the offices let out, so there are usually buses of workers and people in the marketplace. I was actually in the center of town at the money market working on a story when we heard the explosion and we headed to the scene. It was just outside the Ministry of Defense. It was particularly brutal because there were two blasts. First, there was a remote-controlled bomb that went off. We -- a few people were injured, a man on a motorcycle and a few other bystanders, according to witnesses there.

  • 11:27:58

    GLASSEAnd then, as people came to help, including security services and military, because it was just outside the wall of the Ministry of Defense, a suicide bomber dressed in an Afghan Army uniform blew himself up in that crowd. Thirty-five people were killed, including three senior police officers and an Afghan general, and 90 were wounded. In the center of town, it's a busy marketplace. There are -- there's a taxi stand there, there are street vendors there, as well as the, obviously, soldiers and other military officials. And there's a police headquarters there leaving for work or changing shifts. So it was an extremely brutal attack by the Taliban in the center of town.

  • 11:28:37

    DONVANJennifer, so the fact that the ministry is so intimately associated, physically, with the marketplace in the center of town, that it's not that remarkable that its security could be penetrated, it sounds like.

  • 11:28:50

    GLASSEWell, they didn't penetrate the security of the ministry at all. The ministry...

  • 11:28:53

    DONVANAh, I see.

  • 11:28:53 surrounded by large blast walls. There are cameras all around. You know, as is usual, it is the civilians who bear the brunt of these attacks.

  • 11:29:02


  • 11:29:04

    GLASSEWhile they did manage to kill three senior police officers and an Afghan general, it was poor people and civilians just out earning a living who bore the brunt of this attack, as is so often the case. That's a very heavily fortified part of town, John. Not only is the Ministry of Defense there, the police district headquarters for district number two, which covers the center of Kabul is there. The Ministry of Finance is right there. And it's -- behind that is the presidential palace. It's a very heavily fortified, walled-in part of town. The Ministry of Defense was never really in jeopardy at all.

  • 11:29:38

    DONVANI see.

  • 11:29:39

    GLASSEIt really was just a symbolic move for the Taliban to show that they can get into the center of town, that they can cause this kind of trouble. And it really did cause gridlock across the city, because that kind of attack and when you have those kind of senior officials killed, police were out on the streets. They shut down major roads. It was gridlock. We had to walk a couple of miles to get back to the office.

  • 11:30:01

    DONVANWell, you don't have to be tactically brilliant to hit a soft target that way. So my question to you is, what does this tell us about the strength of the Taliban?

  • 11:30:11

    GLASSEWell, they do hit soft targets where they can. It -- later that evening, there was another attack at about 11 o'clock at night in Shahre Naow, in the center -- in a residential area that's also home to a lot of business and restaurants, another soft target. Three assailants there -- a car bomb went off. Three assailants there managed to hold off the security services for about 10 hours before they finally got in and killed them. But the Taliban are resurgent around the country. They control about 10 percent of the country, a little under 10 percent of the population and 25 percent of the country is contested.

  • 11:30:47

    GLASSEAnd the most recent thing that we saw this week was yesterday, Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan -- that's in the very center of Afghanistan, a big poppy-growing region -- Tarin Kowt, that's the provincial capital, almost fell. The major officials fled to the airport. The army and the military forces made tactical -- what they call a tactical retreat. And it looked as if the Taliban was going to move into the provincial capital when airstrikes began yesterday evening, so just about 24 hours ago when Afghan officials say that is what turned the Taliban around. But without that -- without those airstrikes, certainly the Taliban may have been able to move into Tarin Kowt.

  • 11:31:26

    GLASSENow they don't have to take these places for long, John. It's really a psychological thing. When they took Kunduz last year, they only held the center of the city for three days. But a year later, we're seeing lasting implications of that. Many people who worked in human rights, the civil service, were frightened to go back because the Taliban knew them by name and came to their homes and threatened them. And so even if they don't militarily hold the center of a city for a long time, psychologically it has a very detrimental effect on the population.

  • 11:31:54

    DONVANAll right, Jennifer Glasse, thank you so much and thanks for being there in the first place. We greatly appreciate your reporting and appreciate your being on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:32:02

    GLASSEAlways great to talk to you, John.

  • 11:32:04

    DONVANAnd I'm John Donvan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Responses to what you just heard, James?

  • 11:32:12

    KITFIELDThe Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan. I mean -- I was recently in Iraq. You know, we pulled all our troops out in 2011 and by 2014 we were forced to go back in because of ISIS. The conditions that allowed for, you know, because of the Syrian Civil War and the lack of any U.S. presence, the conditions were such that they allowed ISIS to come back. A lot of people, a lot of security people, a lot of senior security people were concerned that Afghanistan could -- the same thing could happen.

  • 11:32:42

    KITFIELDWhich is why President Obama, to his credit, froze the withdrawal -- we were supposed to be out of there by the end of this year, lock, stock and barrel -- froze the withdrawal. We still have 10,000 troops there. We've recently given them greater latitude to strike against Taliban targets, et cetera. You know, these nation-building efforts take a decade or more. And the last thing that they don't have is the kind of things that we bring to the table -- air power, surveillance, precision strike from the air. They won't have those things for years. And I'm afraid, if we don't want the Taliban to take back all the -- take Afghanistan back over, we'll have to be there.

  • 11:33:19

    DONVANLet's bring in Kevin from Cleveland, Ohio. Kevin, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:33:24

    KEVINThank you very much. I have seen, every time President Obama meets with Putin, a look on President Obama's face like he smells a rotten egg. Diplomacy one -- 101 tells, don't let your adversary know what you're thinking. And I think one of the reasons that the world is in the place that it's in is because we have elected a very inept and inexperienced person when it comes to diplomacy. I -- could you imagine FDR being at Yalta and making the faces at Stalin that President Obama is making at President Putin? I just think it's a joke.

  • 11:33:57

    DONVANWhat is the face that you see, Kevin?

  • 11:33:59

    KEVINOh, come on. At least a half a dozen times I've seen pictures of those two men meeting and shaking hands and Obama looks like he's -- he would rather be anywhere else in the world. The look of contempt on his face -- it -- the feeling is palpable.

  • 11:34:12

    DONVANAll right, Kevin. Thanks for your point. It gets us to a transition point to talk about the fact that President Obama, out in Asia this week, did actually get 90 minutes with Vladimir Putin. What came of that, Edward Luce?

  • 11:34:23

    LUCEWell, very little. I mean the main item on the menu was to get -- to try yet again to get a ceasefire deal between Russia and the United State -- orchestrated between Russia and the United States in Syria. And Obama tried. I think he'd express skepticism he'd even get there before meeting Putin. But he tried and he failed and said there was a big trust gap between the two. He raised also the fact that the Russians are thought to be behind the hack -- the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic groups. The FBI investigation into that apparently got nowhere.

  • 11:35:05

    LUCESo, I mean, I'm not surprised that Obama has difficulty to -- disguising what may be a frosty feeling towards Putin. There have been previous deals with Russia, including a previous ceasefire deal in Syria, and which the Americans probably have quite good reason to believe the Russians agreed to in bad faith. So there is a record there.

  • 11:35:26

    GHATTASI'm not sure that President Putin's facial expressions are any better, when you look at pictures of the two men meeting.

  • 11:35:33

    LUCEHe has Botox to -- as an excuse.

  • 11:35:36

    GHATTASI don't have that -- I'm not privy to that information. Diplomacy is hard, particularly with Russia right now. Because just as China is trying to push back against the United States in Asia, Russia is trying to insert itself and push back against American power, including in the Middle East. There's a lot between the two countries that is at stake, including, as Ed just mentioned, the idea that Russia may be potentially directly or indirectly trying to interfere with the U.S. election -- not necessarily to sway the result one way or another, but to cause enough chaos that it undermines trust in the result.

  • 11:36:16

    GHATTASBut when it comes to Syria and negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, this has been an ongoing trend where the Secretary of State John Kerry tries to get to an agreement with Sergei Lavrov and pins all his hopes on that and comes up empty handed. Mr. Kerry is in Geneva again today trying to negotiate a ceasefire in Syria that would involve grounding all Syrian-regime planes, stopping all Syrian-regime offensive action. And in exchange, there would be access -- humanitarian access for towns like -- cities like Aleppo, as well as Russian-American cooperation in targeting agreed-upon groups that are mostly linked to al-Qaida.

  • 11:37:09

    GHATTASBut this is the fourth time that he tries to get to this agreement. And the Pentagon and the CIA and it looks like the White House are also -- are starting to lose patience.

  • 11:37:18

    DONVANAll right. More when we come back from the break with James Kitfield, Kim Ghattas, and Edward Luce. I'm John Donvan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:40:01

    DONVANWelcome back. I'm John Donvan, moderator of The Intelligence Squared US Debate, sitting in for Diane Rehm. This is our Friday news roundup from the international perspective, where our guests are James Kitfield of the National Journal, Kim Ghattas of the BBC and Edward Luce of the, excuse me, of the Financial Times.

  • 11:40:17

    DONVANThere was news this week of a chlorine gas attack by government forces in Syria on the city of Aleppo. Kim Ghattas, has this actually been confirmed at this point?

  • 11:40:28

    GHATTASWe believe that it did, indeed, happen, and it's the second such attack in recent months. It's very difficult to confirm everything 100 percent within a country like Syria right now. I mean, the U.N. has even given up trying to tally the number of civilian deaths in the country because it's so hard to access. But it does raise the point again of what exactly was achieved in 2013, when the U.S. and Russia agreed on disarming, taking away Syria's chemical weapons.

  • 11:41:04

    GHATTASAnd yes, the OCPW at the time, the organization that oversaw the disarmament, won the Nobel Peace Prize, but the criticism at the time was fine, you know, you've removed this one element of the arsenal of the Syrian government, but people are still dying on a daily basis. And whether it's the chlorine attacks, whether it's barrel bombs, whether it's sieges of towns in the suburbs of -- areas in the suburbs of Damascus, this war is getting worse by the day, and that's why at some people will ask, you know, is the U.S. simply not willing to force a solution and is willing instead to cooperate with Russia whatever it takes just to bring this to an end.

  • 11:41:50

    DONVANAnd what would be the implications of that question being asked?

  • 11:41:53

    GHATTASWell either -- there are three scenarios forward for Syria. Either the United States decides that it has the will and capacity to provide leverage at the negotiating table for the rebels, which would mean upping the ante, providing them with more weapons, helping them gain the advantage militarily on the ground so they have -- the opposition has leverage at the table, or it decides that it doesn't want to take this risk and gives in to Russia and compromises in any way possible to get an agreement with Russia for a ceasefire that would then be to the advantage solely of the Syrian government, or there is no agreement, and we muddle through like this, and President Obama gives this poison chalice to the next president.

  • 11:42:39

    DONVANLet's bring in Janice, who is calling in from Pensacola, Florida. Janice, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:42:45

    JANICEThank you.

  • 11:42:46


  • 11:42:46

    JANICEIn defense of President Obama's lack of diplomacy, whatever the alleged allegation was, I would say that we have a cool-headed president who has inner strength, and I have appreciated his eight years in office so much because he doesn't rush to judgment, he doesn't rush to war, and he's not a backslapper. He's not a backslapper type. He doesn't massage people's -- other leaders' backs, you know, and want to have a beer with them. He is himself, and let's accept that.

  • 11:43:26

    JANICEHe has helped our country stay out of conflicts, and he's -- and yet he's addressed the real issue...

  • 11:43:36

    DONVANJanice, let me -- the only reason I'm interrupting you is I see that Kim is dying to jump in on this.

  • 11:43:39

    GHATTASI think Janice makes a very good point, and I do think that that is something about President Obama's approach to diplomacy and American power that is often overlooked. You know, there was a lot of criticism of President Bush for being overly eager to jump into, you know, international crises or go to war, and now we've had President Obama, who is much more cool-headed and who's looked at the big picture of things.

  • 11:44:05

    GHATTASAnd yes, there is criticism about his perceived retrenchment from the world, but there is something to be said for a president who has listened to his constituents, who has listened to the American public at large and has understood that Americans today do not want to see American adventures abroad. But that comes with consequences, as well, and I think that that is something that the candidates in this election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have not made clear to American voters, that retrenchment, yes, does mean that you are not deployed overseas, that you're not spending on the military, that you don't have soldiers being killed in action, but when the United States is not out there defending its interests, it has a cost on the economy, on its ability to protect its interests around the world.

  • 11:44:53

    DONVANEdward Luce?

  • 11:44:53

    LUCEI'd agree with both Kim and Janice in terms of appreciating, particularly more and more in this election year, Obama's rational, not rushing to action, not impetuous view of the world. That's particularly refreshing with people like Trump in the political scene. But I do think some backslapping and personal relations and human contact and the development of social ties is really important for a statesman, and I think Obama, you know, is not a people person, he's not a huge people person.

  • 11:45:25

    LUCEAnd I think sort of under the radar, that does come with a cost. That does -- that does impose a price that we don't see in the headlines but which, you know, when push comes to shove, and you need people to stand with you, say at the Asian Summit on China, you know, having really good, close relations with other Asian leaders would be chips you could call in, and he's not been brilliant at that.

  • 11:45:47

    DONVANJames Kitfield, his defense secretary, though, this week took a pretty hard tone towards Russia on the question of potential hacking of American systems. And, you know, there is this suspicion that Russians hacked into the Democratic National Committee computers, and potentially Russians may have hacked into some election centers, voting centers. And Ash Carter took a pretty tough line on that.

  • 11:46:13

    KITFIELDAnd rightfully so. I mean, if Russia -- I mean, it's not just circumstantial evidence that suggests that they were the ones that hacked into the DNC. It's pretty well -- when you -- our top intelligence guys point the finger and say that's who did it, they pretty much have good evidence on that. So, you know, how that got into WikiLeaks on the eve of the Democratic National convention you can speculate. I don't think it's too hard to connect those dots, either, actually.

  • 11:46:40

    KITFIELDBut it would be outrageous if Russia feels free to go into the heart of our democracy and call into question the outcome of our elections or to try to affect the outcome of our elections. So, you know, it is of this narrative of we're getting a lot of pushback from our adversaries and not a lot of support from our friends right now. And I -- you know, I mentioned Turkey, I Mentioned Israel, I mentioned Saudi Arabia, I mentioned Philippines. Our European allies are very much looking inward over Brexit, not particularly helpful in, you know, pushing back against Russia in eastern part of Europe.

  • 11:47:15

    KITFIELDSo, you know, our -- this is -- you know, Obama was elected to get us out of two very unpopular, very long, very costly wars, and that required a period of retrenchment, and the only thing I'm pointing out is that retrenchment, as Kim says, does have consequences. We can't be blind to the consequences. Whether -- you know, I would like to have a more honest debate in this country, though, between, you know, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. So what is your plan for ISIS? Are you going to defeat ISIS? Are you going to call your guys together? Believe me, these guys have been called together for the last eight years and asked by President Obama how do we defeat ISIS.

  • 11:47:48

    KITFIELDYou know, you do it long, slow and uncertainly if you're not willing to put your own boots on the ground and stake in the game. That's what he's decided to do. We're making great progress against ISIS, actually, but it's going to take a long time if we're not willing to commit any of our own troops. If you want to do it fast, you have to have your own troops.

  • 11:48:05

    DONVANOkay, here's a left turn in the conversation. We have a new saint. The Catholic Church named a new saint this week, canonized a new saint, Saint Teresa, known to most of the world as Mother Teresa, 150,000 people showed up in Rome. It was a beautiful and gorgeous day. She did most of her work in India. And Edward Luce, you've written a book about India. So talk to us about Mother Teresa and her canonization this week.

  • 11:48:29

    LUCEWell, she was a saint that Pope Francis particularly loved because she worked amongst the poor, and she worked to, you know, try and improve their lives in Calcutta, one of the poorest cities in India, and she did that for more than 60 years, and she became gradually this sainted figure in India before she became formally a saint. But also controversial figure, particularly amongst Hindu nationalists, who believed that she was using various orphanages and hospitals as covers for proselytizing to the Christian faith but also amongst some Westerners, notably my compatriot the late Christopher Hitchens, who wrote the book "Hell's Angel" about her and who claimed she consorted with autocrats and global millionaires in order to further her Christian mission and then others who believed that she, you know, didn't want to fight poverty, she had the-poor-will-always-be-with-us attitude that they claim was very passive.

  • 11:49:41

    LUCEBut I think the vast majority of Indians and non-Indians alike saw her as an immensely unusual and passionate woman who walked amongst lepers, amongst the sick in gutters, in the worst slums in the world and devoted day and night of her life to making the forgotten and the overlooked less uncomfortable and less forgotten than they would otherwise have been.

  • 11:50:10

    DONVANShe had two miracles attributed to her, which is a requirement for sainthood, and even those are controversial. I know that the survivors are still with us of people whose lives were saved, they believe, by having prayed to Mother Teresa after her death. And it's even torn one family apart, in fact, where part of the family agrees that she was saved by medicine, the woman was saved by medicine. The other part of the family, including the woman who believes she was saved by being -- by praying to Teresa.

  • 11:50:42

    DONVANNevertheless, I think the bottom line, as you say, is that probably 30, 40, 100 years from now, and that's how we tend to measure the impact of sainthood, or millennia, Mother Teresa, it seems like, I think you were saying, is going to be -- she's going to have her place in the constellation of saints.

  • 11:50:56

    LUCEThere are hundreds of thousands of children in orphanages around India who would otherwise be on the streets who will grow and become adults and have education and be healthy because of her legacy. And, you know, she might have met a couple of dictators and, you know, had photo ops with them. She didn't have a private Caribbean island, as far as I can tell.

  • 11:51:17

    DONVANI'm John Donvan, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to some callers and bring in Ashley from Medford, New York. Ashley, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 11:51:28

    ASHLEYThank you so much. I'm a longtime listeners, and I appreciate the panel bringing up the issue of climate change today. But my question is related to the reception of Asian nations that the panelists were talking about earlier. I'm wondering -- the hostile reception of President Obama and our country. I'm wondering if they, if the panelists think that perhaps some of this reception is related to the current election cycle, specifically with the lack of international experience that Donald Trump has. Are these nations perhaps, in the case that Donald Trump should win the election, are they setting the stage for being able to overpower our country?

  • 11:52:08

    DONVANVery interesting question, very interesting. Kim Ghattas?

  • 11:52:10

    GHATTASVery interesting question. I'm going to try to think out loud here. I mean, I think it -- I wouldn't describe it as hostile, first of all. I don't think the reception was hostile. I think the optics weren't great. I think President Obama didn't get, for example, the tougher reaction, tougher banding together of his Asian allies against China on the issue of the South China Sea, but I wouldn't describe it as hostile.

  • 11:52:39

    GHATTASAnd we must remember the climate change deal and the agreement between China and the United States. But I do think that in the last year of a presidency, after two terms, there is some effort by other countries in general, not just with this president, to sort of push and pull and see what they can get away with as they watch an election season unfold here in the United States.

  • 11:53:04

    GHATTASIt is inscribed in this trend that many people have described as President Obama's desire to isolate the United States or a trend of retrenchment, whether that is accurate or not. Certainly the White House disagrees with that. But when they -- when they watch -- when people around the world watch the election unfolding here with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I do think that there is not just a sense that if Donald Trump is elected it's a whole new ballgame but that that would also provide opportunity for a different -- different kinds of relationships between the United States and countries like Russia and China.

  • 11:53:36

    GHATTASBut when it comes to Hillary Clinton, I don't think that many countries are under the illusion that they could push her around if she were president.

  • 11:53:43


  • 11:53:44

    KITFIELDI agree with that. I mean, I don't think that the Trump factor has really been factored into how world leaders are reacting to Obama at this point. I think that they are as confounded about our election season as most American observers are. But I can assure you that if it looks like that Donald Trump is going to win, many of our allies will be absolutely aghast. He's already said that he would want to renegotiate and perhaps pull out of NATO. He has called into question his commitment to Article 5, which is a self-defense alliance, bedrock commitment.

  • 11:54:12

    KITFIELDHe has said that Japan and Korea can afford, you know, their own defense, and he pull the nuclear umbrella, perhaps, away from them if they weren't ready to pony up more money. He's going to build the wall and make Mexico pay for it. These are not things that make our allies warm and comfortable. If it starts to look like that is going to be our next president, they're going to have a lot of, you know, Obama remorse pretty quickly, I think.

  • 11:54:32


  • 11:54:33

    LUCEI do think there's a sense here, more broadly, not just with Trump, that American democracy is on trial. I mean, the idea that, you know, Putin can tarnish the legitimacy of this process, you know, it's because there are certain weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the American system, not just in terms of cybersecurity, that Trump is giving one expression to.

  • 11:54:54

    LUCEAnd I think, you know, Obama's inability to promise the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is after all the economic plank of the pivot to Asia and a key thing. Countries like Vietnam, it would seriously enrich, it would give them great access to the American market they didn't have. This is a real deal for them. I don't think it makes much different to America except politically, on the economic front. But in Asia, TPP is huge.

  • 11:55:17

    LUCEAnd Obama's inability to push that through and the fact that either of his successors would reject TPP, Trump more than Hillary, I think that's -- what was a huge factor in his perceived impotence at the G20 meeting.

  • 11:55:31

    DONVANLet's bring in Benjamin from Washington, North Carolina. Hi Benjamin, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 11:55:35

    BENJAMINThank you, my question is also about Asia. I am a Hillary supporter. I was wondering if we have a female head of state, what can we expect from Asian nations, where women are not always treated with equality they deserve?

  • 11:55:50

    DONVANWhat's the next part of that though, Benjamin? What are you thinking?

  • 11:55:55

    BENJAMINWhat can we expect out of Asian nations in terms of international diplomacy if we have a female head of state.

  • 11:56:02


  • 11:56:03

    BENJAMINIs the effect of them going to be problematic?

  • 11:56:05

    DONVANI follow you now, okay, thanks.

  • 11:56:07

    GHATTASYeah, I covered Hillary Clinton as secretary of state when she was -- when she was in the building and traveled around the world with her, and this comes up often, you know, how would a female secretary of state or how would a female president be treated by countries not only in Asia but also in the Arab world. And I can say with certainty that when I traveled around with her and saw her and reported on her meetings with everyone from the king of Saudi Arabia to her counterparts in Asia, that was never really a factor.

  • 11:56:38

    GHATTASWhen she walks into the room, she is the secretary of state of the United States, representing America, the superpower, and it will be the same when she -- if she gets elected when she walks into the room and represents the United States as the president. That doesn't mean that there won't be tensions with countries like China or Russia because of differences in politics and policies, but really from what I've seen, as a woman it simply does not play into it.

  • 11:57:10

    DONVANThey know when the boss is the boss.

  • 11:57:10

    GHATTASI mean, it can be used -- and it was used against Condoleezza Rice when she was secretary of state by the Russians, but in the end they represent the United States.

  • 11:57:17

    DONVANAll right, Benjamin, thanks for the question. I also want to thank our guests, James Kitfield, Kim Ghattas, Edward Luce and Jennifer Glasse, who joined us from Kabul. Thanks all three of you.

  • 11:57:25

    GHATTASThanks for having us.

  • 11:57:25

    DONVANI'm John Donvan, host and moderator of the Intelligence Squared US Debates. I've been sitting in for Federal Reserve. Thank you so much for listening.

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows