The man who helped craft President Obama’s Russia reset policy explains what went wrong. Then, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. discusses the surprising results of his country’s recent elections.
Syrian rebels seek evacuation from the besieged city of Aleppo. President-elect Trump chooses an Iowa governor with good relations with Beijing as ambassador to China. And Italy’s prime minister resigns after a referendum defeat. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- James Kitfield Contributing editor, National Journal; senior fellow, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress; author of "Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War"
- Nancy Youssef Senior defense and national security correspondent, The Daily Beast
- Demetri Sevastopulo Washington bureau chief, Financial Times
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President-elect Trump selects Iowa governor, Terry Branstad as ambassador to China. Syrian forces launch new attacks in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. And South Korea's parliament votes to impeach the president for her role in a corruption scandal. Here for the international News Roundup, James Kitfield, contributing editor at the National Journal, Nancy Youssef, senior defense and national security correspondent at The Daily Beast and Demetri Sevastopulo, Washington bureau chief for The Financial Times.
MS. DIANE REHMI look forward to your questions and comments. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook. Send us a tweet. Thank, all, for being here.
MS. NANCY YOUSSEFHi, Diane.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGreat to be here.
MR. DEMETRI SEVASTOPULOThank you.
REHMGood to see you. Trump has selected Iowa governor, Terry Branstad, to serve as our ambassador to China. What's the significance of that, James Kitfield?
KITFIELDThe significance is that he has had a long relationship with the leader of China, who came to Iowa 30 years ago on a trade delegation to learn about American agricultural techniques. Apparently, they have kept up a sort of, you know, back and forth relationship. Branstad was there as recently as just November on a trade delegation. So you know, what we're seeing with Trump, I think, is this tension between his picks that are sort of -- give you a sigh of relief because they seem kind of traditional and other ones that are quite sort of extreme.
KITFIELDAnd this one would be sort of the establishment kind of guy who has a relationship, knows the ins and outs of China/US trade. But it comes right after, of course, you know, Trump calling -- accepting the call from the leader of Taiwan, which was, you know, a break with 40 years of U.S. foreign policy. So you know, you saw the same kind of thing when he announced that Reince Priebus was going to be his chief of staff and Steve Bannon, the sort of bomb-throwing populist, was going to be his chief counselor.
KITFIELDHe seems to be throwing, you know, torn between these two impulses. And I suspect we're going to see that for the next four years.
REHMInteresting about this call to -- from Taiwan, whether it was weeks, months in the making, whether Bob Dole instigated that because the Chinese -- Taiwanese are clients of Bob Dole. What was the foundation of that, Nancy?
YOUSSEFWell, it was a fascinating week of reporting on this issue, because The Washington Post comes out and says that this had been a deal for months. At a time when people would assume that this was perhaps a diplomatic gaffe, as Trump had originally tweeted out, that he had accepted the call because it was simply congratulatory call. Vice president-elect Pence reiterated that point. And suddenly, it was not an impulse or a gaffe, but something months in the planning.
YOUSSEFAnd the New York Times comes back afterwards and said that Bob Dole, who had been working for a lobbying firm had spent at least six months lobbying the Trump camp to reach out to Taiwan to -- giving them language, the Taiwanese language to use with the Republican nominee. He was paid $140,000 from May to October to do this lobbying effort. And suddenly, it appears that rather than a gaffe, this was part of a calculated move to move away from the One China policy and potentially rile up the Chinese from a president-elect who has already said that he wants to call China a currency manipulator, that he wants to impose a tax on imports.
YOUSSEFAnd so it created a lot of early tension before even we've had inauguration. And yet, he goes forward and names an ambassador within weeks. You know, President Obama, President Bush waited months before they named an ambassador and here's a president-elect who's talking about changing relations with China and yet, his first ambassadorship nomination is for an ambassador to China.
REHMDemetri, you have a different take on this Taiwanese call.
SEVASTOPULOI do. Well, we broke the story last Friday. We also then after it were trying to work out very quickly what had happened. It's true that Bob Dole was being paid by the Taiwanese government since May. Frankly, he was being paid before Trump began the Republican nominee and there are lots of lobbying firms in this city who are paid by countries to lobby for -- you know, they're on the books. They have retainers. And I have no doubt he was pushing for that.
SEVASTOPULOBut if you look at the China advisors around Donald Trump, for the vast majority of them, would be considered pro-Taiwan and their view on Taiwan/China relations would be that the U.S. should be taking a more supportive stance on Taiwan, which is a democracy, versus China, which is a communist country. And so I think it came from his advisors. The big question is to what extent Trump really knew what he was doing. I don't think they pull the wool over his eyes, but whether he realized that he was turning, you know, the corner on something that's been the foundation of U.S./China policy, U.S./Taiwan policy for almost 40 years, I think that's not clear yet.
KITFIELDYou know, what's interesting, you know, and I've talked to people who were part of -- who are and were part of the Trump transition who say, you know, he is determined to break some China, that he wants to be a disruptor to a certain degree. It's not clear to me whether he has a, you know, a very sophisticated view of his negotiation stance with China and maybe this is a way to shake them up to get some leverage and then to segue back to a traditional One China policy. But I do know this. You know, one dark dog that was not barking in international affairs was Taiwan and there's plenty of wars and conflicts and crises around the world.
KITFIELDHe's stirring up another one that has potential for real conflict because China is not -- is a very serious -- Demetri will back this up. They think that Taiwan is a province. And if Taiwan is encouraged to go the independence route, it would very quickly come to military confrontation.
REHMSo how did China respond to the knowledge of that phone call?
SEVASTOPULOWell, initially, one of the ministers came out and basically blamed Taiwan. So this was the Taiwanese trying to stir things up. Presumably because they were worried about setting off relations with Donald Trump on a bad footing. But the next day, at the foreign ministry briefing, they were very critical of the phone call. And I think the context of this is China and Taiwan have had really stable relations for the last ten years. There are exchanges of people, flights that didn't happen before go back now between Beijing, Shanghais and Tai Pei.
SEVASTOPULOTrade between the two has increased. Investment has increased. And we had entered a period of very stable relations, which was good for everybody. And so the question is, why would you want to upset the apple cart right now?
REHMAnd how do you answer that?
SEVASTOPULOWell, after spending almost 16 months on the trail following Donald Trump, I think his MO is upsetting the apple cart and we've just seen another example of that. I don't think there's a deeper explanation, to be honest.
YOUSSEFWell, it's interesting, though. There's this questions about intent and how much he knew. Notably, afterwards, when this all was revealed, he tweeted out this sort of seeming contradiction in U.S. foreign policy, vis a vis Taiwan, where this call was considered against protocol and yet the United States conducts military sales. And so there is some awareness of what he is doing and how he's upsetting the status quo. I think the question is, to what end and what kind of policy is he trying to advance or is there a policy, and this is all about negotiation?
YOUSSEFThat he approaches these things as everything is negotiable, including U.S. relations with other countries.
SEVASTOPULOI mean, it's hugely complex because the U.S. government, by law, is mandated to help Taiwan defend itself. And the question is what does that mean? So the U.S., at the moment, over the last, you know, decades has sold weapons to Taiwan, which, you know, you can make the argument, well, if you're selling weapons to Taiwan, what's the big deal about calling the president or taking a call from the president, I should say. But the whole thing is premised on a very kind of tricky and complicated diplomatic equation.
REHMAnd fragile. And fragile.
SEVASTOPULOAnd fragile underpinning that maintaining that -- you know, there's a logic to maintaining that, even if it seems contradictory to people who are not looking at this on a day to day basis.
KITFIELDThere's a Kissinger elegance to the One China policy, which is that we recognize only one government being as the Chinese government, but at the same time, you know, in that same policy is, you know, the only way to resolve that dispute as peacefully and the negotiations between Taiwan and China. So it's implicit that, you know, if China tries to force a reunification by military force, we will come to their defense. But we also tell the Taiwanese -- and we had this early in the Bush administration. If you remember, the Republicans, again, were agitating to get more in the pocket of the Democracy movement in Taiwan.
KITFIELDThe Taiwanese were encouraged to, you know, go towards independence, made some announcements that way and pretty soon, we were in a full blown crisis with China. They knocked down one of our airplanes and it was, you know, very, very close to open conflict.
REHMSo you wouldn't see that happening here, would you?
KITFIELDThat is certainly what could happen here. If they see us encouraging Taiwan to, you know, proclaim for independence, there will be a confrontation, absolutely. And we are almost required to come in on the side of Taiwan if that happens. So that's why this is such a delicate thing and why you really don't -- there some apple carts really in the world you just don't want to kick over.
SEVASTOPULOI mean, James is exactly right. I mean, back in 2001 when you had the Chinese fighter jet came very close to a -- too close to a U.S. fighter which then had to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, these days, the number of, you know, potential incidents on the sea, in the sky are much greater because China has a much bigger military than it did 10, 15 years ago. And as the U.S. does exercises in the region, the Chinese are testing the U.S. You know, they're playing kind of a minor game of Chicken, almost every day.
SEVASTOPULOSo you know, it's a pretty interesting thing that Donald Trump has done here.
REHMDemetri Sevastopulo, he's Washington bureau chief for The Financial Times. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk about President Obama's final statement on foreign policy, his advice to the next administration after a short break. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back to the international hour of our Friday news roundup. You can join us on 800-433-8850, as I talk with Demetri Sevastopulo of Financial Times, Nancy Youssef of The Daily Beast, and James Kitfield, contributing editor to the National Journal. We have an email from Diana. How could Bob Dole work on this call for months, when Trump was elected a month ago. His crystal ball must have been amazingly clear. James.
KITFIELDWell, he was -- ever since he's been the nominee, which was in the summer, you know, that's when you -- that's when the lobbyists descend on people. Because there's a 50-50 chance or a 58 six -- 48 chance that he's going to be the next president of the United States. So he had many months while he was the nominee to make inroads. If you remember, he was at the Republican Convention, the only Republican former presidential nominee who showed up and showed -- and, you know, showed some support for Trump. So it was clear that, you know, I found that kind of strange at the time, you know. Why is Bob Dole sort of breaking with the rest of the former Republican presidents and Republican presidential nominees. Now we may know why.
REHMThere's an email from Kathleen. Does Governor Branstad speak Chinese?
KITFIELDNo, he doesn't.
REHMI didn't think so. All right. Let's talk about our current President Obama and what he said regarding some of the big issues facing the United States and his recommendations to President-elect Donald Trump.
SEVASTOPULOWell, President Obama this week gave basically what he would see as his valedictory speech on counterterrorism. And I think the top line was, he said that no foreign terrorist organization has planned and executed an attack on the U.S. He said that it's important to keep terrorism in perspective, as bad as it is and as difficult as it is for the families who suffer losses when their family members are killed, that it does not pose an existential threat to America. And I think the context here is that Donald Trump has basically come to power on one of his main campaign planks over the, particularly towards the end of the campaign, has been that the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton didn't do enough to tackle ISIS.
SEVASTOPULOAnd if you look at the people that Donald Trump has put around him -- so Retired General Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, Retired General James Mattis, who's going to be the Pentagon chief. There's talk about David Petraeus potentially for secretary of state. He has put another former general as head of the Department of Homeland Security. It's pretty clear that Donald Trump's foreign policy priority is terrorism and ISIS. And I think, you know, the way he's going to approach it and his philosophy is polar opposite to President Obama.
SEVASTOPULOAnd I think the White House is trying to kind of send a message at the end of the administration that, be very careful. It's very easy to criticize the previous administration for what they did or didn't do. But you need to think about the problem in the broader context.
REHMAnd to try to rely on diplomacy as opposed to weapons of war. I want to ask you all just about Michael Flynn as the national security adviser. As you all know, his son has been removed from the transition team because he was tweeting falsehoods. Indeed, Michael Flynn, the national security adviser appointee himself has been retweeting falsehoods. Is there going to be any pushback about that? These are fake stories that have been promulgated by a man who is in line to be the next national security adviser. James.
KITFIELDWell, there has been pushback. His son was fired from the transition, which was probably, you know, the surest sign of pushback. You know, I know Mike Flynn. He is in many ways an extremely brilliant intelligence officer. He, along with General McChrystal at Joint Special Operations Command, created the network -- the terrorist hunting network that Obama basically helped construct. You know, people think about drones, but there is a huge network out that that JSOC runs and targeting terror leaders, have killed more than 120 ISIS, you know, top guys.
KITFIELDMike Flynn is a maverick. He's always been very blunt spoken. And when I first heard that he has this job, I was very encouraged. Because he's an extremely smart guy. I'm confounded by these tweets. And all I can think of -- because he seems to me, and I've -- and had a profile in Politico magazine recently on him -- he -- it seems to me that it's -- this is coming from the top. Trump, himself, has constantly tweeted things that were fake news or came from white supremacist web sites, etcetera. Trump seems to still be in campaign mode. And I think that's kind of infected his team. His style is being adopted.
KITFIELDAnd it's very disconcerting to have someone in that position give credence and legitimacy to fake news. Because if we can't, you know, agree on some basic facts in this democracy, it'll become very difficult to manage it.
REHMI have an additional piece up on our web site about fake news that I recorded yesterday with James Fallows, this all in anticipation of launching our own podcast after the first of the year. But what is your thought on this, Nancy?
YOUSSEFSo when I look at the job of national security adviser, to me, it's somebody who's able to bring various agencies and cabinet officials together in such a way to build consensus. It's, in it's perfect form, a consensus-building job. And I -- to me, having these sort of inflammatory tweets or things that make you question facts doesn't lend itself to that. Remember that Mike Flynn does not go through a congressional nomination. So he will be the national security adviser. His secretary of defense is a four-star marine, who is also outspoken and not one to be kowtowed, as one might think. Flynn is a three-star, and those ranks stay even when you leave the military in some ways.
YOUSSEFSo when I look at these tweets, I wonder, how do you build consensus, when these messages are arguably so divisive, which is the key part of the job. And he will be taking over a cabinet, so far, that is shaping out to be filled with generals who had higher ranks, and filled with people who are opinionated and maybe hard to bring into the circle, because they will bring their own sort of very forthright opinions to the job. So that's how I look at these tweets and to the terms of the context of the job that he will be taking.
SEVASTOPULOI mean, I agree with James and Nancy. I mean, I knew Mike Flynn when I was at the Pentagon as well a number of years ago, and he was kind of a straight-laced, brash, maverick, Irish-American intelligence officer. Critics, including old friends of his, say he's kind of gone off the rails. And Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about two or three weeks ago at a public event in Washington said, the Mike Flynn I knew, who worked for me back in 2000 -- I guess it would have been maybe '06 or so, he had the temperament to be national security adviser. But the Mike Flynn I see now, who goes to Donald Trump rallies and cheerleads their lock-her-up chants about Hillary Clinton, I question that.
SEVASTOPULOAnd I saw Flynn twice at the convention, and it was amazing. I interviewed him down on the floor of the convention and it was amazing to see the transition from a guy who was very professional in his lane, as they like to say, when he was doing his intelligence work. He's now in a very different arena. And if you look at his background, he has huge experience in intelligence operations and developing the kind of networks that James was talking about. He has very limited experience with the rest of the world. And he's working for a man who has no foreign policy experience.
KITFIELDThere's an interesting thread that ties together Donald Trump's three picks so far -- Flynn, as national security adviser, General Kelly as Department of Homeland Security, and General Mattis as U.S. CENTCOM. All three of them got sideways with the Obama White House over their perception of the threat. General Mattis was kind of abruptly kicked out of his job at U.S. CENTCOM, you know, months before his anticipated removal because he was saying, while everybody else was focused on reaching this deal with Iran on its nuclear program, that, hey, by the way, Iran is still the number one state sponsor of terrorism and remains a huge threat.
KITFIELDFlynn was arguing that -- against this narrative that al-Qaida had started to crumble after we killed Osama bin Laden and was no longer a threat, or Islam extremist groups. He pushed back very hard against that. Didn't get to serve his final year as the head of Defense Intelligence Agency. And I interviewed General Kelly last year, just before he retired. And he was saying things that were -- in his last speech at the -- or press conference at the Pentagon, was pushing back against the closing of Guantanamo Bay and saying that the poorest border at the southern border was a terrorism threat, because we had seen terrorist groups, you know, reach out to some of those smuggling groups.
KITFIELDSo all three have a perception of the threat that kind of riled their relationship with the Obama White House. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if that's something that attracts them to Donald Trump.
YOUSSEFI think that's a very interesting point. But, note, we still don't know, even though they're contrarians, if there's a consistent policy amongst them. And we see this again with these growing list of names for secretary of state. There's no policy vision that you can derive from these nominees. And even with Mattis and Kelly and Flynn, you can see a more conservative approach, but it's not clear where Trump sees foreign policy going. John Bolton and Romney, for example, are very distrustful of Russia. You have a President-elect Trump that has been more willing to embrace Trump.
YOUSSEFYou have Stavridis, who is -- Admiral Stavridis, who was brought to Trump Tower this week, who was in favor of TP -- the TPP agreement and other nominees who aren't. So there is a contrarian thread through all -- much of these nominees. But there's not a clear vision in terms of where national security policy and foreign policy, writ large, are headed.
KITFIELDLet me just push back on that a little bit. I mean, I -- we don't know who's going to be secretary of state.
KITFIELDAnd the names are all over the place.
REHMRight. They sure are.
KITFIELDThere are different polls. I see a policy of being much more stringent in pushing back against Iran, which is doing all kinds of things in the Middle East. We could go into that discussion if you wanted to add it. I see a policy of being much more aggressive at going after ISIS. That's Flynn's -- that's his wheelhouse. And I see a policy from the Department of Homeland Security of being much more concerned about the southern border and making sure that that is secured. Because he is very threat conscious about what's coming up from those smuggling and drug-trafficking organizations. So those are three policy areas that I'm -- I would bet you will see.
REHMBut how concerned should we, as the general public, be about a man who says, lock her up? A man who is retweeting falsehoods? I mean, I am an ordinary citizen and I'm wondering about a man with that kind of power, who is being called a bit off the rails.
SEVASTOPULOWell, I mean, look at the history of people who have had that role and you get different models. You've had the Kissinger model, who has really centralized power in the White House. You had Stephen Hadley, under George Bush, who was, as Nancy described, really the -- trying to forge a consensus among very strong personalities. You know, Mike Flynn is going to be working with people who outranked him in the military, people who are not going to say, yes, sir, no, sir. He doesn't have a broad range of experience. You know, the things that he's tweeting are quite amazing.
SEVASTOPULOAnd I think it's up to journalists to push back and say, you know, facts are facts. And some of the stuff that's been circulated around and blaming China for ISIS and radical Islam, quite frankly, is just rubbish. And I think it's a concern. I mean, and around the world, people are looking at these appointments and saying, what does it tell us about Donald Trump. Because ultimately, the buck, you know, it lands on his desk.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." All right. And let's open the phones regarding various issues we've already talked about. First, to Will in, I think it's Ocala, Fla. You're on the air. Will?
WILLYes. Hi. First of all, this China flap over Taiwan. This is the president of the United States, free country of the world. He can talk to anyone he wants to, regardless of what anybody thinks about it. We're still the only superpower in the world. I don't think -- I personally don't fear anyone. I think it was a mistake when Nixon made the overtures to China. It's the same thing that Eisenhower did with the Russians. Now, how long did it take to solve that diplomatically? Seventy-one years? You know, it's -- we need -- that's the problem with now. Everyone looks at America and thinks that we're weak. We're not weak. We are perceived as weak because of the lackluster presidents that we've had that won't project American power.
WILLIt's about time we rattled some cages. China wants to draw the line? I don't think so. Taiwan is a democracy. Chinese is communism. Black and white to me. I don't have a problem with it.
SEVASTOPULOI understand where the caller is coming from. But the U.S. does not live in isolation from the rest of the world. China may not be a superpower yet, but it is an emerging superpower. It is a country that has an incredible trade relationship, financial relationship with the U.S. And for the next century, the most important relationship in the world, notwithstanding the Middle East, ISIS, etcetera, etcetera, is U.S.-China. And that relationship being stable is something that is in the interest of the whole planet.
REHMAll right, to...
KITFIELDAnd can I just make one quick point?
KITFIELDYou know, if you look through history and at the great wars in history -- and I'm going back for 300 years -- it is the status-quo power, you know, rubbing up against a rising power. So managing, as Demetri says, this relationship is extremely important. History will show that that is the -- a chief cause of major wars, you know, for centuries. And that's why it has to be handled very delicately.
REHMAll right. To J.P.. in Alexandria, Va. You're on the air.
J.P.Hi, Diane. Thank you for hosting such a great program. My wife says that I listen to you more than I do her.
REHMBetter watch out.
J.P.So my question is, with increasing amounts of Western companies investing in Iran -- like Shell, most recently -- will Trump still tear up the nuclear deal? Or will these investments make it too unpopular to pull out or even strictly enforce the deal, for that case?
KITFIELDYou know, I've been reading through a speech that General Mattis, who's going to be the secretary of defense and you would presume have a big say in that debate, and he said, no. There's no really going back on that deal. If you rip it up now, the other people who helped you reach that deal, all the permanent member of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, would not go along with you. So unless there is some really egregious cheating by Iran that suggests that they are not abiding by the deal, I suspect that they will not rip that deal up.
KITFIELDWhat I do suspect is probably a much more assertive sort of deterrence doctrine coming out of the U.S. Central Command to sort of hem in Iran on these other areas. But I don't anticipate that they'll tear that deal up.
REHMYou know, it's interesting. We're seeing a report that President Obama has ordered a full review of Russia's election hacking. What do you think they're -- what do you think he's after there?
SEVASTOPULOWell, I think, I mean there's been increasing pressure on the White House to look exactly at what Russia has done over the course of the election, whether it's the allegations that it hacked into the Clinton campaign's emails. And it comes as Donald Trump has basically said he doesn't think there's any evidence that Russia was involved.
REHMDemetri Sevastopulo, he is with the Financial Times. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, more on that and your thoughts. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back to the international hour of our Friday news roundup. Just before the break we learned that President Obama has ordered a full investigation of whether or to what extent Russia may have somehow interfered with the election process. Demetri, what do you expect to get out of that?
SEVASTOPULOWell, the only thing you can really determine -- let me just step back. You cannot determine whether the actions that the Russians allegedly took actually influenced voters. There's really no way to determine that. What you can determine is whether hackers in Russia, whether sponsored by the government or not, did things like hack into Hillary Clinton's campaign emails, possibly did other things that we aren't aware of and tried to influence a democratic election.
SEVASTOPULOAnd even if they had no impact at the end of the day, that's still a huge deal. That is interfering with another country. So I think it's important, actually, to get an answer on this, particularly when you have the Obama administration, and all of President Obama's intelligence agencies, the consensus or strong consensus is that Russia was behind this.
REHMSo why did...
SEVASTOPULOAnd Donald Trump says that they -- that there's no evidence that they were.
REHMSo why did the president wait until this late in the game to order this full investigation?
SEVASTOPULOI don't know, but I would speculate that he has come under -- A, he has come under more pressure from Capitol Hill, including from Democrats who maybe are looking for something to point to as a reason why Hillary Clinton lost or are just concerned that Russia was, you know, trying to mess up the U.S. election and want to find out exactly what happened.
SEVASTOPULOYou know, and it may be because Donald Trump is saying I disagree. Let's step back here. Donald Trump, the president-elect, who gets the briefings from the intelligence community, not as much as his predecessors, but he's -- at least once a week he's been briefed, he's been told by his intelligence chiefs Russia was behind this, and he is saying publicly I don't believe it.
SEVASTOPULOWell what is Donald Trump basing his belief on?
YOUSSEFAnd if I could just add to the conjecture, you know, there is a propensity in this country to embrace the results of an election, and I think if we're asking why not, I think there was a reticence up until recently to question the results of the election, particularly in such a polarizing election as this one, that Donald Trump was the winner, there was nothing in the recounts that suggested a substantial change in the outcome.
YOUSSEFSo to your question about why now, perhaps there was a reticence to start to question the results of election so close to an inauguration when, as Demetri says, you have a president-elect putting together a Cabinet, getting intelligence briefings, and yet there has been questions all along because it was so outrageous of a sovereign state interfering in the outcome of an election.
YOUSSEFAnd then the other question becomes what constitutes election hacking. Did those DNC hacks, is that enough to call for interference or change in the outcome? Are they looking strictly at what happened on election day? It becomes a very gray area, though, in terms of defining interfering with election results because, as Demetri notes, you cannot get into how a certain piece of information or lack of information changed somebody's voting preference.
KITFIELDWhy wouldn't we want to know if a foreign power, one that's quite adversarial to us and considers us an enemy, you know, used a cyber-attack to really influence our election? Why wouldn't you want to know the details of that? I mean, I think that -- I'm astounded that someone would not want to know that -- and Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator, has said that he would like to know himself, and I think he'll probably have some influence in doing hearings on this.
KITFIELDSo to me it's a no-brainer. If a country is trying to influence the basis of your own democracy, you'd want to know about that so you could stop it. So I think it's a really good idea to find out, not to suggest that it would change the election outcome but to suggest that there should be a way to keep this kind of thing from happening.
REHMAll right, here's an email from Lander, and this moves us on to another issue. What is the potential for the U.S. to end up in a weakened state if Trump pushes the isolationist agenda, backs away from supporting NATO and takes little interest in security briefings?
KITFIELDI mean, the potential is dramatic. Now I don't really think he's an isolationist. I think he's kind of a mercantilist. I think that he views the world as sort of a competition between us and even our closest friends on the economic sphere and that that's competition -- that playing field has been tilted against us, and he's going to try to fix that.
KITFIELDSo -- but I don't see him as a traditional isolationist, but what he said about NATO, so here's what you need to watch. NATO has a summit next year. These summits are really big deals. If he goes to or meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin before he meets with our closest allies, that'll send a signal that he -- that a lot of his sort of loose rhetoric on the campaign was really backed up by a real belief that the NATO alliance could be obsolete.
KITFIELDNow I don't think he'll do that. I think that the generals -- one thing about the generals is they all understand the importance of our alliances. It's in their -- it's in their DNA. So I don't think that will happen, but let's watch it because those are our closest allies in the world. Allies are what make us powerful, it's what distinguishes us from Russia and China. They don't have allies. We have a lot of allies, and those alliance -- those alliances have really allowed us to sort of build this liberal international order that we've benefitted from over the American century.
SEVASTOPULOI agree with that. I would just add that I think, you know, over the course of the campaign, Donald Trump made a series of comments about NATO and, you know, whether the U.S. would come to the defense of a NATO member, for example if Russia did something in the Baltics and, you know, said that NATO members have to pay their fair share.
SEVASTOPULOWell, the truth is the Obama administration and the Bush administration before that have all, Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, were all putting pressure on the Europeans to spend more on their defense, with a few exceptions. So Donald Trump is doing the same thing, but he's doing it in a much more kind of loose -- looser way. He's using looser language, which scares people.
SEVASTOPULONow his supporters will say that will scare the Europeans into spending more money. His critics say that it's very dangerous, that you don't want to give your allies any suggestion that they're not going to be supported because that opens the door to Vladimir Putin to walk in and do whatever he wants. And frankly, you know, the U.S. can't be isolationist because maybe what happens in Russia doesn't impact you in Washington, D.C., energy, trade, the global supply of services, these things are all interlinked. You cannot separate them. And so global stability is important for everyone.
YOUSSEFI would just simply say, and I think we've seen this in the Middle East as the Obama administration has been reticent to get involved in terms of -- in a heavy-handed way in the war on Syria, that vacuums are filled and that when the U.S. pulls out from a region in which it's had tremendous influence, that vacuum is filled. In the case of the Middle East we're increasingly seeing influence from Russia, from Iran, from China, and so it has weakened the U.S.' ability to shape outcomes, to influence outcomes, to better outcomes in their favor.
YOUSSEFAnd I think that we're seeing that this week, frankly, in Aleppo, as a very tangible example of that, where the U.S. has lost its inability to defend its backers and really shape an acceptable outcome from its perspective on Aleppo.
REHMReally a lot of contradictions going on in Syria. Yesterday Russia said Syrian forces had stopped their attacks to evacuate civilians. Today we hear Syrian government forces are pressing their attack in an attempt to take back Aleppo. Tell us the latest.
KITFIELDWell the latest was Secretary of State Kerry met with foreign policy Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Lavrov yesterday. No agreement was reached. We want a -- we and the rebels want a ceasefire. We want a ceasefire so we can pull out whoever wants to come out. There's 200,000 civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo, apparently. But the Russians and the Assad regime see an endgame here. They -- and quite honestly I see an endgame here, too. Aleppo will fall.
KITFIELDAnd so I think now we need to negotiate sort of the conditions where you just -- they surrender and pull out, and that's what's happening right now.
REHMIndeed with a line saying that the regime is now controlling 93 percent of Aleppo.
YOUSSEFRight, that is from the Russians. Now we've heard opposition forces that say it's closer to 60 percent. What was interesting this week is we had a major development, and these opposition forces have been fighting for months and months and months against sort of unbelievable circumstances. And yet in the last week they went from losing 30 percent to maybe 93 percent. Something on the ground changed that really led to the collapse of the opposition forces.
YOUSSEFAnd what's interesting to me is that Secretary Kerry is trying to negotiate, and I'm not sure to what end. What is the -- what is the negotiating power that the United States brings to the table when the war, practically speaking, is over in eastern Aleppo. Is this an effort to sort of face save for the opposition, to work out something for them? I don't know, but Aleppo fundamentally changed this week in a really surprising way, and we haven't gotten real clarity about what fundamentally changed.
YOUSSEFThere was an enclave that fell, but it seemed a domino effect. Now maybe at some point when do you know when water starts boiling, and I don't know if we're at -- that's what we're seeing in Aleppo, or there was a fundamental change on the ground. To be clear, though, if and when Aleppo falls, which some say could happen as early as Monday, the regime will control the five biggest cities in Syria. So it's a decisive, symbolic and practical win for the regime.
SEVASTOPULOI mean, there's less impetus on the Syrian government to do any kind of deal or come up with a ceasefire, A, because of what James and Nancy have just talked about, and B, because in six weeks we have a new U.S. president who has made it clear that he's going to put less pressure on Assad than the Obama administration.
KITFIELDEven Turkey is basically starting to say, you know, it's a done deal and withdraw some of its support for the rebels. I mean, it's -- we -- listen, the Russians, the Iranians and the Assad regime together were willing to put more skin in this game than anyone else, and they are going to win. They're not going to be able to control all of Syria, he doesn't have that capability, his military is not that capable, but they'll have a rump state in Eastern Syria that will be free of the rebels, and he'll still be in power.
REHMAll right, we were talking about NATO. Let's talk about what's happened in Europe this week, but first let me just remind, you are listening to the Diane Rehm Show. In Austria, defeat for the populist candidate for president there. He lost his election in a repeat runoff vote, Nancy.
YOUSSEFThat's right, Norbert Hofer, who was seen as the anti-refugee candidate in what can only be described as a very bitter, nearly year-long campaign. For the U.S. it seems like a short period of time, but for the Austrians it's quite a long bit of time. And some were looking at this election as a bellwether in terms of the Trump effect and the rise of sort of nationalism politics across Europe. And the fact that he was only 31,000 votes behind in the first election in May made many think that between that and Trump's win that this would be a win for a nationalist figure in Austria, and that did not happen.
YOUSSEFInstead a moderate and a liberal. And what was interesting is I think people were eager to sort of see what this says about Europe. I think Austria's small and has its own individual and independent circumstances, but it was the sort of starkest choice we've seen in Europe of late between the choices before the populace between nationalism and a Europe-embracing, inclusive, liberal candidate.
SEVASTOPULOI mean, European leaders for the most part were -- breathed a huge sigh of relief after this result because it would have been the first far-right head of state in Europe since World War II. It comes in the context of the Brexit vote in Britain, Donald Trump being elected, the rise of the National Front on the far right in France, the same tendencies in The Netherlands, Angela Merkel, who frankly some people would say is now the leader of the free world and not Donald Trump, facing huge pressure in Germany because of refugees.
SEVASTOPULOHowever, the -- I wouldn't say silver lining. The kind of dark cloud is here that the -- Heinz-Christian Strache, who won -- excuse me, who lost the election Austria, his party, the Freedom Party, if you believe the polls, is on course to do very well in parliamentary elections in two years' time, and he could become the chancellor of Austria.
REHMInteresting. What happened in Italy, James?
KITFIELDSo the prime minister resigned after a referendum on his idea to streamline the Italian government, you know, 63-plus Italian governments in the last 70 years. It's obviously very hard to govern. It's got almost 1,000 parliamentarians. This guy was kind of a reformer, seen as, you know, pro-Europe, pro-European Union, and when his reform failed, his referendum failed, he resigned. So that goes into the column of kind of wins or losses for establishment figures that give rise to some of these far-right nationalist movements.
KITFIELDAnd it's raising the question of, you know, will Italy itself stay in the European Union, or will there be an Italian exit.
REHMAnd let's talk about Chancellor Angela Merkel's ban on full-face veils. What did she say, Nancy, and why now, and what do you think about it?
YOUSSEFWell, the ban was when legally possible. Burqas are the ones you'll see women wear, Muslim women wear, some Muslim women wear, that covers everything but the eyes. She was giving a speech before her party, the Christian Democratic Union, and she said that she felt that where legally possible that burqas were not part of the German experience, that it wasn't a way to assimilate, and she called for the -- a law that would be put in place.
YOUSSEFNow practically speaking it's not clear that that would even be allowed legally, and moreover, there are not that many German Muslims wearing the burqa. This is not a prevalent problem. It seems to me this was about as much about politics as it was about practicality because she -- this comes weeks after she announced she'll be running for a fourth term and at a time when there's a feeling that there's an anti-sort of liberal stream running through Europe.
YOUSSEFAnd I should note that in the speech in which she presented this idea, she spent the bulk of it defending her embrace of refugees and allowing more than a million refugees to come to Germany. So while she made this mention, she also defended her decision to welcome refugees, which has been quite divisive in some parts of Germany.
SEVASTOPULOI mean, she's actually been under huge pressure. So her party re-elected her to go for a fourth term as chancellor by about 90 percent. That sounds great, but the last time, before the refugee crisis, it was 97 percent, you know, the kind of numbers you normally see in North Korea. Her party and her are under tremendous pressure because of the refugee crisis.
SEVASTOPULOGermany has had to roll back their kind of open-door policy. She was less worried about the burqa a couple of years ago. She's been forced to change her position, and she's looking around at the other really important countries in Europe in their neighborhood, whether it's The Netherlands and France in particular and seeing that the kind of the rise of Islamophobia is putting pressure on mainstream politicians in a way that hasn't been seen since frankly Hitler.
KITFIELDThe rise of far-right parties and anti-immigrant parties and anti-European Union parties is going to pull European politics to the right, and so here is a mainstream politician who is making a very rational political adjustment after having her part lose a number, you know, local elections around Germany. And we have saying to the Europeans for the longest time, you have not assimilated your Muslim populations. They live in Muslim ghettos. They are breeding grounds for extremism.
KITFIELDShe is saying look, if I -- if we're going to -- the burqa is inconsistent with assimilating women into a modern, Western, liberal society. You know, I think that argument can be made.
REHMHow do you feel about it, Nancy?
YOUSSEFYou know, I -- to me, I saw it as a political calculation. It's upsetting because what I worry about is in this effort to react to terrorism that we're creating a world community where we're less embracing of Muslims and actually creating new problems rather than solving old ones.
REHMInteresting. Nancy Youssef of The Daily Beast, Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times, James Kitfield, he is with the National Journal. Thank you all so much. Great to see you.
KITFIELDAlways a pleasure.
YOUSSEFGreat to see you, Diane.
REHMThank you, and thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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