The Cook Political Report's Amy Walter discusses why President Biden's popular policies haven't translated to popularity among voters.
Guest Host: A Martinez
Accusations of fighting by both sides threaten Syria’s fragile ceasefire brokered by the U.S. and Russia. UN officials say Syria is delaying aid deliveries to civilians in violation of the agreement. Israel and the U.S. sign an unprecedented $38 billion military aid package. A former militiaman testifies the president of the Philippines presided over the killings of criminals and political opponents while he was mayor. And Obama pledges to lift all remaining sanctions against Myanmar. A panel of journalists joins guest host A Martinez for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Mark Landler White House correspondent, The New York Times; author of a new book, "Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power"
- Mary Beth Sheridan Deputy foreign editor, The Washington Post
- Uri Friedman Staff writer, The Atlantic, covering global affairs
- Emily Rauhala China correspondent, The Washington Post
MR. A. MARTINEZThanks for joining us. I'm A. Martinez of "Take Two" on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting for Diane Rehm. A ceasefire in Syria holds amid accusations of violations. The U.S. and Israel sign a record military aid deal worth $38 billion. And the head of the UN calls for urgent action against North Korea after last week's nuclear test.
MR. A. MARTINEZHere to discuss this week's top international stories on the Friday News roundup, Mark Landler of the New York Times, Mary Beth Sheridan of The Washington Post and Uri Friedman of The Atlantic. My thanks to all three of you for being here.
MS. MARY BETH SHERIDANThank you.
MR. MARK LANDLERThanks for having us.
MR. URI FRIEDMANGood to be here, A.
MARTINEZAll right. Let us start with you, Mary Beth. What's the latest on the Syrian ceasefire agreement that was brokered by Russia and the U.S. It took effect on Monday, we talked about it earlier this week on "The Diane Rehm Show." Is it holding okay?
SHERIDANWell, it's barely holding and I think the signs are not particularly good. There were clashes this morning that broke out near Damascus, which were the fiercest since the agreement was -- took effect. You also have had these real delays in getting any aid into Syria for the besieged people in Aleppo and that's a fundamental part of this agreement is trying to stop the fighting so that the aid can get to these desperate people. And there's been seemingly one roadblock after the other.
MARTINEZWow. Mark, when it comes to Assad's regime, UN officials say it's holding up and Mary Beth mentioned the delivery. So where do things go from here?
LANDLERWell, I mean, one of the important things will be to see whether the Russians can lean on the Syrian regime to actually remove its military from the road that leads into Aleppo. And that’s the part that's in some dispute right now. Beyond that, the interesting thing will be to see whether the U.S. and the Russians manage to make common cause in terms of jointly targeting either al-Nusra positions or ISIS positions. And it'll be interesting to see whether the Russians peel away at all from the Assad regime.
LANDLERThat's sort of the part of this that is the longer term consideration. It's worth noting that there's a lot about this deal that's controversial inside the U.S. government as well. The state department and the defense department have had a fairly open rift over the wisdom of doing this ceasefire and particularly on the issue of whether the Russians and the U.S. should jointly target enemy positions. The Pentagon is deeply skeptical of that.
LANDLERThe defense secretary, Ashton Carter, has been pretty vocal and blunt about that. The Secretary of State, John Kerry, who brokered this deal is pushing hard for it on the argument that what else are we going to do, but it's really not just a settled situation on the ground in Syria. It's also an unsettled situation within the administration here in Washington.
MARTINEZHe calls it -- Secretary Kerry calls it the last chance to hold Syria together, Uri. I mean, that sounds very dire.
FRIEDMANYeah. I mean, what he's arguing is that if we don't do anything, the fighting could escalate. More migrants could be created. There could be more of a migrant crisis. And he even said on NPR earlier this week that Syria could be split into enclaves where you have a Sunni enclave, a Kurdish enclave, an enclave that Assad controls. So I think he's painting a pretty dire picture of the situation right now and, you know, he wants to kind of create a sense of urgency about this idea of really trying to make this deal work.
FRIEDMANI think the issue is that there's a lot more to be worked out between Russia and the United States when it comes to what happens if the ceasefire holds. If they, as Mark mentioned, if they are going to jointly target ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra -- well, the U.S. and Russia have never worked in a military sense together like that, you know. They've worked on, diplomatically on the Iran deal. They've worked on getting rid of Assad's chemical weapons. But the idea of military cooperation is really unprecedented.
MARTINEZDon't forget, you can give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. That’s 1-800-433-8850. You can also email us, email@example.com. Or you can find us on Facebook and Twitter. And my Twitter handle is amartinezla. Mark, I want to go back to you for a second. You mentioned Russia maybe backing off on Assad. How likely could that possibly be? It seems like a line has been drawn in the sand on that, I thought.
LANDLERWell, I think that it's pretty clear that it's going to be very difficult to see that. And you know, the only question is whether the Russians conclude, for whatever reason, that their engagement has run its course. You know, Syria remains a very important regional ally for them. And, you know, the important thing to remember about all of this is that really, for some time now, it isn't so much the Assad regime that's been in the crosshairs.
LANDLERI think even on the U.S. side, there's a recognition that Assad is not the first order of business. The first order of business is al-Nusra and ISIS. And so I think that, you know, it's unlikely we're gonna see any striking change, but the prospect of the U.S. and the Russians working together in Syria would be a huge sea change in the way this conflict has unfolded and out of that could come some, you know, unpredictable consequences. So I think it's right to focus very much on whether this joint targeting works.
LANDLERAnd if it does, then, I think, we can be open to more unusual consequences flowing out of that. But it's too soon to say right now that it will work.
MARTINEZMary Beth, what do you think a joint U.S./Russia airstrike situation would look like?
SHERIDANYou know, it's really hard to know because this agreement has not been made public so a lot of the actual working details are not known at this point. We do know that the DOD officials have been trying to draw up maps where they would try to identify where are the areas where it's, say, almost all ISIS or almost all Jabhat al-Nusra, where are there areas where they're mixed because for the U.S., the big problem is some of the rebels that the U.S. has backed are working quite closely with al-Nusra so how do you coordinate those in a way that you don't hit the people you're backing.
SHERIDANThere's also been a lot of, you know, discussion at that Pentagon about how do you, you know, how do you do these in a way that the U.S. isn't legally responsible if the Russians happen to hit a target that turns out to be civilian. It's really intensely complicated.
MARTINEZAnd Uri, Mary Beth mentioned how the details -- some of the details haven't been made public. I guess that's one of the biggest problems, isn't it, that not everyone is completely clear on what exactly this is all about.
FRIEDMANEven Secretary of State John Kerry isn’t totally clear. Earlier in the week, he suggested or seemed to suggest that they might -- the U.S. might evaluate Syrian airstrikes that happened and then the state department actually kind of walked that back and said, no, it's just Russia and the United States that are coordinating. So I think there is a lot of confusion. We do know that there is a rough outline of kind of a staged process in the ideal world, right?
FRIEDMANNot necessarily that it's going to happen. But there is this joint targeting, then the Syrian air force stops hitting rebel-held areas. Humanitarian aid is able to be delivered and lastly, rebel groups and the government side come to some kind of peace talks where they talk about potentially a transition. Now, that is the ideal roadmap, but that's a long, long way off from a weeklong cease fire. And I think that's -- we have to put that in perspective and realize -- one last thing I'd add, though, is, you know, even if the ceasefire doesn't hold, sometimes we underestimate the value of failed ceasefires.
FRIEDMANIf a failed ceasefire doesn't work, but it builds confidence or a modicum of confidence among the parties, you know, it can lead to more trust down the line so you can -- a lot of final peace deals are built on broken ceasefires in the past. Or they have been sometimes. Other times, it can actually reduce trust. But even if this fails, there's a potential that the sides that need to come together to make a peace deal work could gain a little more confidence in each other.
MARTINEZLet's stay on this roadmap for a second. Mark, how does this thing maybe play out in the -- for it to be a success for as many sides as possible here?
LANDLERWell, how it would play out is that somehow the Russians and the U.S. come to some terms on how they can jointly target and the Russians are able to lean enough on Assad that he moves his troops out of the way and allows the humanitarian aid to flow into Aleppo. And then, as Uri said, this process, shaky as it is, begins to engender a level of confidence. And it is true about ceasefires. Once you've had one and proven that you can stop the hostility, it becomes easier to try to do it in the future, even if this particular ceasefire falls apart.
LANDLERBut the complicated thing about Syria is that we really have two separate issues going on in parallel. One is the fight against ISIS and its affiliates, and the other is the civil war involving the Assad regime and the two of them are linked, but they're not exactly the same and different actors have different agendas. The Russians care very deeply, I think, about shoring up Assad and keeping their interests in Syria alive. The Americans care overwhelmingly about defeating ISIS and pushing it out of its strongholds in the northern part of Syria.
LANDLERAnd then you have a lot of affiliated players. The Turks care deeply about Syria, but they worry deeply about the role of the Kurds. The Iranians care deeply. Assad is a strategic ally of theirs. So you've got all of these various players that have differing agendas on just an increasingly complex battlefield. So to say that it's going to play out in any sort of coherent way is probably just not realistic. I think we're in for fits and starts and setbacks and progress and that, hopefully, over time, it moves generally in the right direction.
MARTINEZMary Beth, if the people that need the help get it, that need the aid desperately get it, and if everything else fails, I mean, can we look at it as, hey, at least that happened?
SHERIDANWell, that would be wonderful, but I think the issue is that the fighting has to end on the roads that are leading to these besieged places. The government has to agree to not cut them off from aid and it's been doing that in a number of places and has succeeded, actually, in taking over a number of different towns by using that tactic. So I think these are really interrelated. It's a ceasefire and the ability to deliver aid so it's kind of hard to break them apart.
MARTINEZAs always, you can join us, 800-433-8850. That's 1-800-433-8850. You can also find us firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook and Twitter as well. Coming up, more of the Friday News Roundup. I’m A. Martinez filling in for Diane Rehm.
MARTINEZWelcome back. I'm A Martinez of "Take Two" on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Our guests today, Mark Landler, White House correspondent, The New York Times, and author of "Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power," Mary Beth Sheridan, deputy foreign editor at The Washington Post, and Uri Friedman, staff writer at The Atlantic covering global affairs. Before we get back to you three, let's go out to Manila. Emily, Rauhala, she's China correspondent for The Washington Post. She's currently on assignment in Manila. Emily, are you there?
MS. EMILY RAUHALAI'm here. Hello.
MARTINEZHello, Emily. Now you were at the Philippine Senate and heard testimony from a man who alleges that he was a hit man for the President of the Philippines Duterte, when Duterte was mayor of the town that he was mayor of. Tell us about the testimony you heard.
RAUHALASure. The testimony yesterday was truly extraordinary and for several reasons. The first is that it's the first time there's actually been sworn public testimony on the so-called Davao Death Squad, which is what human rights groups have called the group of contract killers alleged to have carried out murders on Duterte's behalf. The second reason it was extraordinary is that the simply detail, it was sort of right out of the "Bad Games" series, but in real life. Victims killed for money, victims fed to crocodiles, victims dumped in the ocean. The level of detail was truly explicit.
MARTINEZThe witness said that not just drug dealers and criminals were targeted. He allegedly even ordered the hit squad to kill the boyfriend of his own sister, the president's sister and a millionaire hotel owner. I mean, it just seems like it's not real, like it's a movie or something. I just -- it's hard to believe all of the things that are coming out of the Philippines right now.
RAUHALAI think that's very true. It has sort of a cinematic quality to it. And I should emphasize that these are allegations.
RAUHALAThis is the sworn testimony of one man. And you know, none of these have been proven. At the same time, it -- in broad strokes, what he said was consistent with what human rights groups and Duterte critics have said for years, which is that there was, you know, contract killing of both alleged criminals who were executed and, as well as, you know, the contract killing of opponents. The death of a journalist was named specifically. The hotel millionaire that you mentioned. Very specific, politically motivated attacks were alleged in the hearing. And that's why it's really sort of rocked the country.
MARTINEZThe witness is named Edgar Matobato. He's 57. Is he viewed as credible?
RAUHALAIt's hard to say. On one hand, he's a witness brought forward by, you know, senators and the respected Human Rights Commission. But very little is known about him. There are questions raised by the Duterte camp about where this guy came from, why he chose to come forward. Where has he been for the last few years, while -- since he has, you know, left the former mayor, the current president's service? A lot of those questions -- the details about his whereabouts for the last few years are being withheld, allegedly, you know, for the safety of the people who are protecting him. But certainly, Duterte's camp is raising questions about his credibility and there's no sort of firm verdict on that yet as far as I'm concerned.
MARTINEZNow how has President Duterte responded?
RAUHALAIt's been very interesting. The president, as you know, is quick to speak usually and usually speaks his mind. He hasn't, as far as I know, addressed the remarks or the specific allegations. But he's had some of his closest advisers and some of the other people named in the hearing, including his son, and some of his political allies speak out on his behalf. As far as I've seen, no one has denied specific allegations. But they have sort of dismissed the process and called what the witness said hearsay and tried to paint what the witness said as a politically motivated move against the president, sort of a -- allegations of a plot against the president has been their line. But we haven't actually heard from him on the specific allegations.
MARTINEZWhat about the Philippine public? They seemingly love the guy. What have -- what's the response been in the country?
RAUHALAIt's very mixed. I'm actually calling right now from outside a wake for a victim of one of these recent extrajudicial police killings. The father of one of these guys who was just shot by the police without a trial, without any sort of due process, just on the suspicion of being a drug dealer, told me that he voted for Duterte. And you know, rather than outright condemn the president, he said, you know, I like what he's doing for the people. I like what he's doing for the poor. But, you know, he shouldn't have killed my son.
RAUHALASo despite, you know, 3,000 bodies, the president remains popular. He's seen as someone who can take care of business, someone who's going to clean up the streets, someone who's going to end, you know, drug use. And he remains popular. The other factor on that though is critics, in an era where bodies are piling up literally, you know, there's 3,000 estimated dead since July, it's not a good time to voice criticism. So I'm sure there are critics of the president. But at this time, they're not feeling like they can nuggle much direct criticism at him.
MARTINEZEmily, last question for you. President Duterte has been, fair to say, aggressive when talking about the U.S., talking about President Obama and also about his seeming desire to move closer to China. What's your take on the stances that we're hearing from him?
RAUHALAWell, the first thing is that he hasn't been consistent. As you've mentioned, he's made some extremely strong comments, comments that have been interpreted in the United States as anti-American. He's referenced, you know, its colonial history. But then what happens every time he makes one of these comments is his team sort of moves afterwards to walk it back. I spent the last day talking to Western diplomats in Manila, you know, intellectuals, and I think everyone here has the same question. It's very unclear what his policy direction is. What's just talk? What's just rhetoric and strong-man posturing? And what is a significant change in policy?
RAUHALAAnd what I've heard so far is that people don't believe he will actually make, you know, abandon the relationship with the U.S., move away from military ties. But there may be a cooling of that relationship over the next, you know, six years of his presidency.
MARTINEZThank you very much, Emily.
MARTINEZThat's Emily Rauhala. She's China's correspondent for the -- actually China correspondent for The Washington Post. She's on assignment in Manila. Now back to Mark Landler, Mary Beth Sheridan and Uri Friedman. Mark, we mention, and it does have a cinematic quality, that's the way Emily described it. But it is amazing to hear that someone in a country that the United States has a good relationship with, as it is the Philippines foreign secretary said, it's a cooperative and symbiotic relationship, yesterday in D.C.
MARTINEZBut, so -- how do we kind of see this man in -- across the Pacific?
LANDLERWell, in the short run, it's a quandary for the United States. I traveled to Asia with President Obama last week. And you'll recall that there was meant to be a meeting, an introductory meeting with Obama and Duterte. And Duterte unleashed this profanity-laden diatribe against President Obama. And President Obama canceled the meeting. He later, you know, shook his hand and they exchanged pleasantries. But it was a very inauspicious start for that relationship. And it's complicated for the U.S., because the Philippines is a treaty ally of the U.S.
LANDLERAnd they are a very important player in a kind of an emerging situation with the Chinese over the South China Sea. There are some disputed reefs and shoals between China and the Philippines that's become increasingly tense. And the U.S. will be looking to the Philippines to show some restraint but also some backbone toward the Chinese. So in a way, we need a reliable, predictable leader in that job right now. And at least for the short run, as Duterte finds his footing, we don't have that. We have the opposite. We have an erratic leader who says and does things that seem to be really beyond the pale.
LANDLERSo I think that the U.S. is probably looking at the Philippines with some level of concern. They're probably hoping that, over time, he settles down, he gets a team around him, some of the contradictions in his policies are clarified. As Emily correctly said, he's been on the record as saying he wants American troops out of the Philippines. Then he says he doesn't. He seems to be tilting toward China. Then it's not so clear. So I think that the hope is that, over time, he settles down. We get some clarity. But it's a very difficult moment to have a leader in the Philippines who's so unpredictable.
MARTINEZMary Beth, that same Philippines foreign secretary yesterday, who called the relationship between the U.S. cooperative and symbiotic, also said the Philippines cannot forever be the little brown brothers of America. So I -- how do we kind of filter that and understand where they stand when it comes to our relationship?
SHERIDANRight. So I think what's important to understand is why is Duterte so popular with this approach that seems so unusual to us? And I think he is playing to the crowd. He's playing to populism. He's a guy who has won popularity because he's not politically correct. And I think the Philippines has...
MARTINEZIt sounds like someone we know.
LANDLERHmm. So I think, in the Philippines, there somewhat of a mixed feeling between -- yes, they remember very well the period in which they were sort of a colonial, you know, the U.S. really had, military bases had so much control over the country. And there's some resentment of that. On the other hand, there's fear of China's growing power in the region. And so under the previous government of Benigno Aquino there was a distinct warming of relations and a desire for more military cooperation with the U.S. So you really have these two phenomena going on at the same time.
MARTINEZUri, is there a chance that we lose an ally in terms of how they're getting -- I mean, after all, the Philippines and China are next-door neighbors. We're an ocean away. So do we fault the Philippines for maybe looking for an ally that's closer to them?
FRIEDMANI don't see any immediate danger of them not becoming an ally. As Emily mentioned and Mark mentioned, you know, there has been kind of a back and forth on terms of how strongly Duterte means what he says when he talks about straining the U.S. alliance. I do think there are major irritants right now in the alliance that could gradually make that alliance a lot weaker at a time when the U.S. is trying to counter China in the Asia-Pacific region. So just one example, human rights and the rule of law. So Duterte has kind of lashed out at Obama for what he perceives as a lecturing from the United States about human rights and the rule of law. He said, China will help us. The U.S. just gives us principles of law.
FRIEDMANAnd he's kind of chafed at that, especially from a former colonial power. On the other hand, as Emily mentioned, 3,000 people have reportedly been killed by vigilantes or police units because they were suspected drug users or drug dealers. To make that statistic even more remarkable, Duterte has only been president since June 30. This is two and a half months...
FRIEDMAN...and 3,000 people. You know, if you kind of look at that on a daily basis, that's about 50 people per day who are dying.
FRIEDMANAnd I think, you know, if that continues, and there's no, necessarily, any indication that it won't, how does the U.S. handle trying to keep this precarious alliance afloat while dealing with these human rights issues. And that kind of criticism will make Duterte even move more towards China. So I think that's going to be a real challenge going forward.
MARTINEZI'm A Martinez. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to get a hold of us, 1-800-433-8850. That's 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to email@example.com or find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. My Twitter handle is @amartinezla. Our guests, Mark Landler, White House correspondent at The New York Times, author of the book, "Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power," Mary Beth Sheridan, deputy foreign editor at The Washington Post, and Uri Friedman, staff writer at The Atlantic covering global affairs.
MARTINEZLet's stay in Asia for a second, go to North Korea. A U.N. secretary general is calling for urgent action by the Security Council to rein in North Korea's nuclear program. And sanctions don't seem to be having an effect, Mark. Are there any new approaches maybe on the table?
LANDLERWell, this is one of the real conundrums in foreign policy right now. The North Koreans appear to be on the road to really delivering a nuclear weapon that, within some period of time, could potentially reach the U.S. mainland. And it certainly has long-since threatened its immediate neighbors, South Korea and Japan. The Obama administration, for seven-and-a-half years, has sort of pursued a strategy that's been loosely called strategic patience. They've not really engaged the North Koreans diplomatically, with a couple of brief exceptions. And they've sort of tried to squeeze the sanctions tighter and tighter.
LANDLERBut there are problems with that. One is that some of these sanctions are difficult to enforce and there's slippage and certain things are getting to North Korea that shouldn't be. Secondly, if you really want to make sanctions bite, you really have to go after Chinese entities that are active in North Korea, beyond the limited areas of ballistic missiles and the nuclear program. Chinese banks, for example, that do all kinds of business with the North Koreans. These are called secondary sanctions. And they're kind of the next -- the new frontier in sanctioning North Korea.
LANDLERThe problem with those sanctions is, they would aggravate tensions with the Chinese, they would spike tensions. And we've been walking this delicate balance with the Chinese, where we want them to use their influence to crack down on the North Koreans, but we want to avoid antagonizing them in the process. So I think that a lot of policymakers are really struggling the question of, what is the obvious next step? There isn't really one. Military action is sort of hard to conceive at this point, given the proximity of South Korea to the North. And the sanctions, as I say, have some built-in limitations.
LANDLERSo I think that, you know, whoever is elected president in November will probably conduct a thorough policy review on North Korea. But it's not as though there's an easy panacea or a proposal that hasn't been tried yet. The administrations from Barack Obama to George W. Bush to Bill Clinton have all struggled with this same issue and I think all have failed to some degree to halt the progress of North Korea toward having this deliverable nuclear ability.
MARTINEZMary Beth, how entrenched is China in their position? Because here's the thing with nuclear weapons, whether -- whatever you feel about the country that has them, they can be pointed at anyone.
SHERIDANWell that's very true. And I think China's had a bit of an uncomfortable situation this week, as -- or in recent weeks, as North Korea -- or North Korea has been testing its missiles and a couple have gone to China.
SHERIDANHere's the issue for China. It is incredibly influential in North Korea. Seventy percent of North Korea's trade is with China. So you would think that China would be able to really kind of put the screws on North Korea. But China's concerns are, you know, it really wants a friendly ally on its border. So it's very, very hesitant about any kind of regime change. And I also think China really fears a chaotic situation in North Korea, in which the government collapses and the country is in a state of, you know, crisis. It's already a country suffering terrible problems with, you know, with hunger and so on. So the idea of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing over the border or some situation like that is deeply troubling to China.
SHERIDANSo they've just been, you know, they've certainly participated in different rounds of sanctions. But it's very tricky for them.
MARTINEZAnd, Uri, Japan seems to be getting a little nervous too.
FRIEDMANYeah. I mean, I think Japan, South Korea, you know, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general who's a former South Korean foreign minister said this week that he's never seen tensions as high as they are on the Korean Peninsula right now. And I think that's because North Korea is advancing in its nuclear program. And that has all its neighbors very worried. I think there's also kind of a -- there's a bit of a hands-up-in-the-air moment I think right now.
FRIEDMANBecause, you know, I saw a North Korean expert, Andrei Lankov, who wrote a piece today -- this week that said, you know, sanctions aren't working. Diplomacy isn't working. We can't do military strikes. China won't budge. They're pretty firm in their position. We have nothing left to do but try to get information in there and see if the people change their minds about their leader. So I think that's part of the issue.
MARTINEZComing up on "The Diane Rehm Show," we'll move from North Korea to Myanmar. We'll also be taking your thoughts too, 1-800-433-8850. Coming up, your calls and questions. A. Martinez filling in for Diane Rehm. We'll be right back.
MARTINEZWelcome back. I'm A. Martinez of "Take Two" on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Our guests today, Mark Landler, White House correspondent at The New York Times and author of the book "Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power," Mary Beth Sheridan, deputy foreign editor at The Washington Post, and Uri Friedman, staff writer at The Atlantic covering global affairs. As always, you can get a hold of us, 1-800-433-8850. That's 1-800-433-8850. You can email us, firstname.lastname@example.org, that's email@example.com, and you can find us on Facebook on Twitter. You can find me on Twitter @amartinezla.
MARTINEZAll right, so from North Korea, let's go to Myanmar. President Obama announced that he will be lifting all of the U.S. trade restrictions placed on Myanmar. Mark, how does this change things for Myanmar?
LANDLERWell potentially hugely. This is kind of the final step in what's been a historic diplomatic opening by the Obama administration, one that was engineered in the early days by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And it's a bipartisan success. Republicans in Congress, including Mitch McConnell, who have for a long time made Myanmar a top political priority and erected many of these sanctions are also sort of in favor of this opening.
LANDLERIt's not without controversy. Some human rights groups have raised objections in recent days, saying that the U.S. is giving up whatever leverage it had left to force the political opening to continue in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy icon who's now effective the de facto head of the government, came to the White House this week, and she's a beloved figure, and President Obama and Secretary Clinton have both forged a close relationship with her.
LANDLERBut rights groups will point out that even Aung San Suu Kyi doesn't have an unblemished record. There is a Muslim minority in Myanmar, the Rohingya, and the government, including Aung San Suu Kyi, are viewed as not having done enough to prevent the systematic persecution of these people. so there are still some outstanding concerns. As with Cuba and other diplomatic opening, these are not just seamless, smooth processes. They proceed in fits and starts. And I do think that some in the rights community would have preferred to see the U.S. be a little more withholding about this.
LANDLERBut the Obama administration's argument is, look, they've delivered on what they promise to do. They now have Aung San Suu Kyi as the head of the government in a democratic process. And we are now delivering on our side of the bargain with the bet that bringing American companies and investors into that country will only continue the process of opening the society and then crucially perhaps drawing Myanmar away from what had been a very close economic relationship with the Chinese, putting them maybe, perhaps, more in the American orbit. So there's a geopolitical dimension to this, as well.
MARTINEZMary Beth, when it comes to whoever happens to be in the White House next, does it matter at this point if they support lifting those sanctions, or does -- or is just what the president did, and that's it, and then we don't -- they don't have to think about it?
SHERIDANWell, some of these measures do have to go through Congress. So this is not something that will all happen immediately. But my sense is that, as Mark mentioned, there is pretty much of a bipartisan consensus on trying to work with the Aung San Suu Kyi government, and I would be surprised, and she herself has, while she's been criticized for perhaps not moving as fast as she should have with some of the ethnic minorities, while the military still has an extraordinary amount of power, I don't see a scenario in which this would be rolled back.
MARTINEZUri, when it comes to people that have said that maybe this -- and Mark just mentioned about lifting sanctions means that you're giving up leverage, is it giving up leverage? I mean, if they've come up with all the things that the United States wants them to do, I mean, shouldn't they be, I hate to use this word, rewarded?
FRIEDMANWell, actually rewarded is exactly what Obama said when he met with Aung San Suu Kyi in the White House.
FRIEDMANHe said we want to show that we will meet positive steps forward with some kind of reward. And it seems like Aung San Suu Kyi is also -- you know, she has long kind of argued that lifting sanctions too early could reverse some of these reforms. But she seems to be, if maybe reluctantly, supportive of what the White House is doing, as well, and I think the idea is we've seen enough steps that it's worth trying to show rewards, show that the U.S. acknowledges process, and also not only that, they need an economic boost.
FRIEDMANYou know, I think that not all of these sanctions are necessarily going to have a great economic positive effect for the whole population, but on the other hand, you know, they are looking to have more economic growth and have more economic rewards from opening up, and I think she realizes that's an important goal, as well.
MARTINEZSelfishly for the U.S., and that means that we get in there, right, to make some money.
LANDLERIt does, it does, but as I said earlier, I wanted to sort of put it in a broader context. One of the things the Obama administration has done very deliberately with its Asia policy is try to shore up our relationships in Southeast Asia. That's why the Philippines is so important. We were talking about that earlier. And that's also I think why the Myanmar relationship is another piece in that puzzle.
LANDLERIf you sort of reassert American presence in that region politically, diplomatically and economically, it provides a kind of a counterweight to China's dominance of the Asia-Pacific region. So I think that there's the obvious commercial incentive, but there is also this sort of geopolitical incentive.
MARTINEZAll right, from Myanmar let's now go to South America and Brazil. Former President Dilma Rousseff isn't the only Brazilian leader in hot water at the moment. Uri, can you explain the corruption charges against ex-President Lula da Silva?
FRIEDMANSure. So he's -- currently he has been charged with corruption in terms of taking bribes and money laundering. The idea, the notion here is that he had an apartment that he used in -- near Sao Paulo, a beachside apartment, and the charge is that he allowed a construction company to renovate it, and that construction company was part of a very, very massive scandal in Brazil right now that has involved business leaders, dozens of politicians and has involved billions of dollars that were siphoned off from the oil, state oil company, Petrobras, to construction companies and politicians.
FRIEDMANAnd so he is being charged with that, not only that, though. They were pretty grandiloquent in the charges. They also said that he was the conductor of a criminal orchestra, and the...
FRIEDMANThat's right, that was the language that the prosecutor used. And the idea there was that he was the head of the workers party, he was in government at the time this corruption scandal was going on, and he must have known that all this was happening. I will say, though, that it's kind of -- those charges right now from the reporting I've seen seem kind of speculative. The prosecutor hasn't brought very concrete evidence that he was a kind of mastermind here. But they've also brought these more specific charges, money laundering, corruption, and that is what is happening now, and we'll see what happens with that.
FRIEDMANHe has been charged, but there has been no prosecution just yet.
MARTINEZMary Beth, how much has the U.S. paid attention to this? It doesn't seem like the U.S. really is that involved one way or the other.
SHERIDANRight, so I think the importance for the U.S. is that -- think about Brazil's role both in -- in South America and the whole region, right. It's the -- it's one of the -- it's the largest country, has the biggest economy, and it's been a kind of crucial interlocutor between the more populist, leftist-type governments. So in terms of trying to find solutions to places like Venezuela, Brazil has had a certain ability to do that. It's been a major diplomatic force, right.
SHERIDANSo now we have a situation where the Brazilian economy is just in a terrible situation. We have the political system, which is, you know, seeming to fall apart. And what's important to really think about with Lula here is that this is not just one more president, right. This is a guy who was an extraordinarily popular leader. He managed to both sort of bring together -- he came from a guerrilla past, leftist guerrilla past, but he brought together this idea that you could combine that sort of concern for social justice with marketing economics and democracy, right. His policies helped lift, you know, millions of people out of poverty.
SHERIDANSo this is a legend who now is being accused of being a terribly corrupt individual and a guy whose policies -- really influences left all over Latin America is, you know, really in danger of going to -- possibly to jail, depending on how these charges, if indeed the evidence backs this up. So, you know, this is just a crucial country in the hemisphere, and it's really just adrift.
MARTINEZI'm ashamed to admit this, but I will, that one of the reasons why I even know about this is because of the Olympics being in Brazil and all the sports news coverage. So all of a sudden, the microscope of the world went on Brazil. And Mark, I guess -- I mean for me, yeah, I mix sports and politics, but Mary Beth mentioned how big Brazil is and how critical it is in the way I guess the United States filters everything with all the countries in South America, Venezuela, Ecuador. They all seemingly have something to do with the United States in trying to establish a relationship, but Brazil seems to be the leader in that -- in that charge.
LANDLERNo, there's no question about that, and I actually thinking bringing up the Olympics is absolutely relevant because, you know, there was a great deal of trepidation in the months leading up to the Olympics that the political chaos in the country...
MARTINEZTrepidation is a nice word, too.
MARTINEZBecause it was -- at least we thought it might be a disaster.
LANDLERWell that's what I was about to say, that it was this belief that the Olympics were sort of destined to fail and would sort of reveal all the chaos in the country at large. You had a president who was impeached, you had Lula facing the possibility of criminal indictment. You have a new president, vice president, who -- former vice president who heads a government that has a 15 percent approval rating. And the Olympics, as you well know, were deeply unpopular with people in Rio.
LANDLERAnd yet one must say they came off without a hitch, and they were really quite successful, at least as a public spectacle. And I think it goes to a sort of a broader observation that one can make about Brazil through all of these ups and downs and chaos, there is a kind of a muddling through quality about the Brazilians. Perhaps they're not living up to the high hopes that people had for them seven or 10 years ago, when they were always referred to as one of the brick countries, one of the great emerging economies of the world, but the fact is they do find a way to muddle through, and I think the Olympics were actually a timely reminder that we shouldn't assume that they won't figure this all out, as well. They have a knack for doing it.
MARTINEZYeah, the -- I never forget some of the, what, body parts in the water. Athletes should not put their head below water. Zika, you were going to get bit, you were going to take -- I haven't seen any numbers yet, and it's only been a few months, but I haven't seen any cases of Zika spreading worldwide. Mary Beth?
SHERIDANYeah, I just wanted to follow up on Mark's point. I think he's right that Brazil will not, you know, collapse or something. But I do think that you're looking at the discrediting of a democratic system, right. Brazil was a country that was ruled by the military for many years, and when you look at the unpopularity of the current leadership, it's really the unpopularity of a system, and I think there's deep questioning about whether democracy works, and when you see these folks who had appeared to be great leader, in fact now there's charges they were, you know, some of them filling their pockets with money or brokering all sorts of deals, staying in power and making alliances by arranging bribes everywhere, you know, you look around Latin America right now, and you see a real sense of people's approval of democracy dropping, and I think that's quite frightening.
MARTINEZYeah, my family is from Ecuador. I just went to Ecuador last year, went there for a month and a half, and you're right, Mary Beth, that's -- and the dollar is the currency in Ecuador, and there is a lot of Ecuadorians that can't stand that, that can't stand that connection, Uri, to the United States. And I'm wondering, I know we're going to focus on other things, but I'm wondering what that means for South America in general going forward with a brand new president coming up in a month and a half, how that relationship with all those countries in the U.S., is it fragile, is it -- it is steady? What should we call it? How should we look at it?
FRIEDMANI think it's really up in the -- up in the air. You know, I think that there are -- there was kind of a period where it felt that the Latin American left was kind of, you know, having a bad moment and a moment where it was kind of falling from power. You had Hugo Chavez die in Venezuela. You have now a more right-leaning president in Brazil. And so there was a period where this -- you know, there was a thought that this populism was waning.
FRIEDMANThe populism is often accompanied by anti-American sentiment. But I think a lot depends on who is the next president. I mean, you just had Donald Trump go to Mexico and then say he had a good trip because the official, the Mexican official who organized it, had to resign because it was such a disaster for Mexico. I mean, if that's his idea of having a good success in the region, then if he becomes president there might be a lot more turbulence.
FRIEDMANI imagine that if Hillary Clinton becomes president, we wouldn't see that big of a change in terms of the U.S. relationship in many of those countries because there would be a lot of continuity with what Obama's foreign policy is.
MARTINEZI'm A. Martinez. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Our guest, Mark Landler, White House correspondent of the New York Times, Mary Beth Sheridan, deputy foreign editor at The Washington Post and Uri Friedman, staff writer at The Atlantic, covering global affairs. All right, let's go to Israel now to wrap up this hour. Uri, tell us about the military aid deal that the U.S. signed with Israel this week. It is huge, 38 billion bucks.
FRIEDMANThirty-eight billion over 10 years. It's actually -- it's, you know, I saw in the reporting that it's half of all direct military aid that the U.S. provides worldwide. So this is a really big-ticket -- this is a big-ticket item. It's an increase over the past 10-year agreement, and I think one of the interesting things about this is that it has happened despite a lot of ambient reasons why it might now have happened.
FRIEDMANSo for example, the relationship between Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, is kind of rocky, it has been for years, and that's because of disagreements over the Iran deal and over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. You also have a political -- it's a moment of political transition in the United States right now, and so it's unclear what that'll mean for U.S.-Israeli relations.
FRIEDMANAnd also there is a, you know, segment of Democratic voters and young Americans who don't feel that the U.S. should be providing the kind of military aid that it provides to Israel. And so despite all of those things, though, this went through, and I think the Obama administration feels like it's a good example before they leave office of their commitment to Israel and also a way to smooth over relations that were frayed by the Iran deal.
FRIEDMANAnd also Israel, I think from Israel's perspective, it's also good to get that done, if America is willing, before the next president comes into office and before there's, you know, there's some uncertainty around what would happen then.
MARTINEZMark, what do you think about the timing of this? What does it say?
LANDLERWell, I think it was clearly designed to try to end the Obama administration on a sort of positive note with the Israelis, and it delivers on what President Obama always said, which was his determination to help the Israelis retain what he calls a qualitative military edge. And so he's delivered on that. There is an interesting thing about the way the president announced this.
LANDLERIn the second paragraph of his statement on this, he reaffirmed the fact that true security for Israel would only come if Israel actually followed through and delivered on a two-state solution with the Palestinians. So it was interesting that the president kind of went back to first principles on the Middle East peace process even as he announced this deal. I think that probably the Netanyahu government wasn't thrilled to see that language in there. President -- Prime Minister Netanyahu has clashed, as Uri said, repeatedly with President Obama on this issue.
LANDLERAnd it raises at least the prospect that President Obama may return to this theme before he leaves office. There's been a lot of speculation about whether he'll give a speech and lay out some sort of a roadmap for a peace deal. There had been some talk that he might even go to the United Nations and seek a Security Council resolution. That seems less likely now.
LANDLERBut the point is the president didn't just announce the defense deal without reminding people that there's a very important, unfinished piece of business here.
MARTINEZMary Beth, you've got 30 seconds, last word on this deal and what it means.
SHERIDANWell as has been said, it's really an interesting sign of the bipartisan commitment, of course, to Israel. But as Mark mentioned, you know, there's a sense, too, that Obama has now sort of shown his pro-Israel bona fides, and he can -- he can potentially try to move the ball forward in terms of, you know, the constantly frustrated efforts to press for some sort of peace deal. So it'll be interesting to see if that indeed happens in the next couple months.
MARTINEZAll right, my guests today, Mary Sheridan, deputy foreign editor at the Washington Post, Uri Fiedman, staff writer at the Atlantic covering global affairs, and Mark Landler, White House correspondent at The New York Times and author of "Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power." My thanks to all three of you for being here.
LANDLERThanks very much, A.
MARTINEZI'm A. Martinez of "Take Two" on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you very much for listening.
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