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Obama's Foreign Policy, Take Two


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan with a special broadcast today from the Joseph H. and Claire Flom Auditorium at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Today's show is part of a project called The National Conversation, a joint production of the Wilson Center and NPR.

And with the election behind us, we focus today on U.S. foreign policy in the second Obama administration. The president faces ongoing repercussions of the Arab spring, including an immediate crisis in Syria, more on that in a moment; a constitutional crisis in Egypt and continued protests in Bahrain.

Barring a diplomatic breakthrough, there's a looming confrontation with Iran. Russia seeks dominance in much of the old Soviet Union and the broad strategic challenge of an emergent China. And of course I've left out a continent or two.

If you travel abroad, we want to hear from you. What is a problem the U.S. needs to address or an opportunity the U.S. ought to exploit? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also weigh in on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We'll also take questions from the audience here at the Wilson Center. But we begin with Syria, where after months of stalemate, rebel forces appear to have seized the initiative. NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos now joins us from Ankara, the capital of Turkey. Nice to have you back on the show, Deborah.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thanks, Neal, and I'm in Antakya, which is much closer to the Syrian-Turkish border.

CONAN: Well, good. I have to ask you about what seems like ominous news from Syria today: foreign airlines canceling flights into Damascus; reports that much of the Internet is down.

AMOS: Indeed the Internet was black in the whole country, and after this 20 months of revolt, it was unusual to say the least. We have seen the Internet shut down in some (unintelligible) towns, some neighborhoods, over time, usually Friday, it slows down, but never on this scale. And so it's been very difficult to find out what is happening inside the country.

There have been some videos that have emerged. There are some activists who still have satellite communications. But for Syria to go dark since about noon today is really something.

CONAN: And that raises the question: The government denies it's responsible. It blames what it calls terrorists. Others say it's the government itself that brought the Internet down.

AMOS: I've talked to some people who know a whole lot more about the Internet than I do, and they compare it to what happened in Egypt when President Mubarak flipped the switch and turned off the system there. This is a country-wide shutdown. It's very hard to think that any group could do this on their own. And so most people who do follow Internet protocols say that it is something that only a government can do.

CONAN: And that raises a question: In the case of Egypt, it was believed the purpose was to prevent rebel groups from - opposition groups from communicating amongst themselves. In this case, the fear would be this is the government doing things they don't want us to see.

AMOS: Well, there's two issues here. One is the regime has used the Internet over time and certainly over these 20 months to actually monitor activists, to find them. And so in a way they have kept it on for their own intelligence purposes. Today there was certainly speculation that this was a moment that the government was taking the gloves off, and they didn't want the videos to be uploaded.

But no country can really keep their Internet off forever, not a country that has banks, insurance companies, international businesses. You simply can't do it. And even the Egyptian government found that after a day or two they had to turn it back on.

Now we do have some limited reporting from inside Syria. Apparently there was a ferocious bombing campaign on a suburb called Daraa. And I saw some videos that emerged from yesterday, and it looks like the end of the Earth. There is nothing standing in some of these neighborhoods.

A video also emerged from Aleppo today, where there was a bombing on a school, and you could see people taking the bodies of young children out of that school. They had been killed in the bombing raid. I think we will not know, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, the full extent of what happened.

We do know that there was heavy fighting on the airport road, and Damascus Airport was shut, and there were many international carriers who suspended all flights into the Syrian capital.

CONAN: And they cited the situation around the airport, around Damascus, the capital. What do we know about that, and how serious is it, well, Emirates Air and Egypt Air don't fly in?

AMOS: Well, it is very serious for - certainly for the government to have their international airport shut down. Earlier in the day, there was some official news that those flights would be moved. That's very difficult. The rebels control so many of the roads outside of the capital that it's hard to think where exactly people would go to take international flights.

The fighting on the airport road was apparently very heavy from the limited reports we are getting. The Aleppo airport in the north has also been surrounded by rebels. Those flights are also sporadic. And so at the moment international flights in Syria are off.

CONAN: Step back for a moment, Deborah. There's been sort of a stalemate for several months now, as the government and rebel forces battled against each other. That seems to have shifted. How quickly are things changing?

AMOS: It does seem that we are in a different momentum that I have certainly seen in the past couple of months, even the past couple of weeks. And the real turn has come over maybe the past week. The rebels have taken four bases in a week, including a helicopter base outside of Damascus.

They didn't hold that base outside of Damascus because they know that there are air retaliations for that kind of activity. So they moved back out of that base. But in the north, they have held those bases, in particular a rather large base outside of Aleppo, which gave them an enormous cache of new weapons.

Yesterday we saw two regime aircraft taken down by surface-to-air missiles, and a video emerged early this morning of the gunner who shot those two aircraft down. He was a man said to be a schoolteacher. We were able to reach early this morning, into the country, people who know him. And they say that he had graduated from college, he's a geographer and then a schoolteacher. He joined the rebels.

And he was holding this missile launcher and talking about what had happened and how he'd shot them out of the sky and said that there would be no more regime flights over his town. That is a big jump for the rebels. We haven't seen that before, that they have been able to take out the air force because up until now, that has been the regime's trump card.

They - the rebels can hold the ground, but as long as the regime controls the skies, they really don't hold much of anything because towns and villages are bombed on a daily basis. So this is a bit of a game-changer.

Now, we're only one day out of this particular event. The real question is: How many of these surface-to-air missiles do the rebels actually have? And there's all kinds of speculations, from 40 to 60. We really don't know.

CONAN: And as this is going on, it raises a series of questions we haven't considered for a number of months now. Among them: Is there any thought toward and endgame? Are the rebels in any kind of a shape to present some sort of credible transition government? What are the Alawites going to do?

AMOS: Let's talk about the military first. They are in a chaotic mess, to be quite frank. It is lots of groups of rebels. They come together un some operations, they argue among themselves on others. It goes from, you know, secular, defected soldiers to downright jihadis with links to al-Qaida. And there is no real command structure.

The political part of the opposition is trying to very quickly bring themselves together. They feel that momentum coming. I was in the town of Gaziantep on the Syrian border, it's in Turkey, and was able to meet with some of those political leaders, was able to cross the border and meet some more in Aleppo Province. This is where the financial capital is, Aleppo, a town that was four million. Many of those people now have left.

That town is trying to organize itself, even trying to have an election over the next couple of weeks to have representatives from towns and villages, including Aleppo. There is already a transitional revolutionary council that has committees for humanitarian aid, for legal aid, for the military, for the police. But there's so many problems in setting up these local governments.

In the few trips I've taken in the past couple of days inside Syria, the thing that's really striking is, for example, garbage. You know, you kind of forget that that's so important to run a town, and garbage is everywhere. And you really see it in the videos. Nobody's figured out how to do that yet.

They are very busy ferrying people who have been wounded in these air attacks and artillery attacks. That takes up a great deal of time, to get people to field hospitals. Some smaller villages have been very good at standing up local governments. There's a town called Manbij(ph), and in Manbij, because it's a small town, they have three newspapers, they have a very good, working revolutionary committee that's running the town, but some of the larger places haven't quite gotten it yet.

And there's a real push to get this political structure together because I think the civilians are rightly worried that if they don't, then it's the rebels, it's the men with the guns who will have a larger say.

CONAN: In the meantime, there are also considerable forces that are still in support of the government. And it has been the thought that the Alawite community, the minority in Syria but nevertheless very loyal to President Assad, who is of their membership, of their company, that they would fight this to the death.

AMOS: It is true. And over these 20 months, the external opposition that has come together has never been very good at reaching out to the Alawite community. I would say they have failed to reach out to the minorities in Syria who are concerned that they will not do well in a government that is controlled by Sunnis and what they see as very conservative religious Sunnis. They are very worried about it.

This new opposition is trying to be a little better at reaching out to them, but still there is great concern in these communities for what will happen to them.

CONAN: And great concern in the region, too. You have Sunni power, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are funneling arms and supplies to the rebels; the Shia power, Iran, which is supporting the government. Many questions about how far they will go to support their ally. Deborah Amos, as always, thank you very much.

AMOS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: More from the Wilson Center in just a moment. Stay with us. It's NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan at the Woodrow Wilson Center today in Washington, D.C. The president says it's his job to do more than one thing at once. In his second term, he'll have plenty of opportunities. From Iran to China to the Middle East, his foreign policy to-do list must run several pages, and that's to say nothing of the future crises we know nothing about.

So help us out. If you travel abroad, we want to hear from you. What's the problem you see the U.S. needs to address as a priority or an opportunity the U.S. needs to exploit? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, We'll also take questions from the audience here at the Wilson Center.

With a long list of vexing foreign policy problems, President Obama and a new secretary of state will have to plot their priorities carefully. Joining us now with some ideas about where to start: David Ignatius, associate editor and columnist for the Washington Post; and Robert Kagan, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, author most recently of "The World America Made." And nice to have you both back on TALK OF THE NATION.


ROBERT KAGAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And David, let me start with you. Reports this morning that the Obama administration is reconsidering its Syria policy. This is just where we left off. And with the now certainty of a second term, thinking about being more bold.

IGNATIUS: Syria is one of the issues that the administration in effect put on hold. Late last summer, I read the administration, President Obama, kind of put a sign out on the White House lawn saying come back after November 6, and that was certainly true with Syria. What the administration is pondering is whether to take a more active role in shaping, supporting, even supplying, the Free Syrian Army, the military side, as it took a role in reshaping the political opposition.

It was really through Secretary of State Clinton's pressure that feuding countries that have been supporting different factions in the political opposition, got their act together earlier this month in Doha, Qatar, and formed a new coalition of political organizations.

As Deborah Amos said in that excellent report that preceded our part of the conversation, the opposition military, despite these recent victories, is a mess in terms of its command structure. So I think issue one for the administration is: How does the United States, working with its allies, empower leaders, they're called military councils in each of the major urban areas, so that they can exercise control over these many jihadist groups?

This is a real revolution. So the fighters have come from the ground up. Each mosque, each neighborhood, each town forms its own battalion. And those battalions seek funding from wealthy people from the Gulf, typically, and they operate largely independently. Unless that's pulled together, if Bashar al-Assad falls, as seems increasingly likely, you may have a completely chaotic situation on the ground with each battalion going for itself, with the kind of chaotic militia-driven non-governance that we're seeing now in Libya.

And I think the U.S. wants to focus on this as much thinking about after the fall of Bashar as getting to Bashar's fall.

CONAN: And Robert Kagan, as well, you know the - one of the concerns is if you supply effective weaponry to the opposition groups, that weaponry will fall into the hands of those jihadists we've been talking about.

KAGAN: Well, that's been the concern of the administration for a long time. I'm afraid, though, that, you know, the longer this has gone on, the greater the likelihood that the jihadists are going to be big forces. I think the only thing that I - one of the things that I worry about now is we have not seen the worst that Bashar has to deal out in terms of dealing with the population.

He is not Mubarak, and clearly the Syrian military is not quite the Egyptian military, which refused to fire on the people, ultimately, and whether Mubarak ordered it and they didn't do it or whether he wouldn't even order it, it's not clear. The Syrian air force certainly is already doing this. And I worry about this Internet blackout as a time when he may carry out things that we've haven't even begun to see yet, in which case I think that the United States and the world is going to carry a very heavy moral burden, and we will wind up being forced, as we were for instance after Srebrenica, to take action, maybe sooner.

And then we're not going to be talking about how many, you know, shoulder-fired anti-air missiles are in people's hands. We're going to be in a much bigger situation.

CONAN: Are you talking about chemical weapons here?

KAGAN: No, I'm talking about the need to respond to massive slaughter that has just reached a stage that the world can't, that we can't and many others can't tolerate anymore. And then we need to start looking at options that don't take six or eight months, and we hope Bashar falls.

CONAN: Let's step back just a little bit. Through the first Obama administration, there was criticism after the advent of the Arab spring that there was no coherence to the policy, it was this country this, this country that. You've got a situation where yes there's a new government in Egypt and a constitutional crisis there, a different situation in Libya, which seems to be still pretty chaotic; Bahrain, majority Shiite country where those people are advocating for their democratic rights, the United States aligned with the king there and with Saudi Arabia, his ally, Shiites there are (unintelligible)...

Should there be one clear and clearly articulated policy for all of these places that everybody understands? Do you go case by case?

KAGAN: Well, there's no such thing as perfect consistency in foreign policy. I think there should be an overall doctrine that we are trying to move all these regimes in the direction that their people clearly want them to go, and I think the days of dictatorship in the Arab world, which we'd gotten awfully used to, are clearly gone.

Now you obviously are going to use different tactics and different strategies in different countries, and we do have conflicting interests that guide us in a lot of different directions. But I don't think that's really the key issue. I wish honestly that the administration had even focused more on the policies that they said they were going to focus on, although I just want to say as a broad matter, second terms are often very productive terms for presidents.

They either start getting serious about things that they've been kicking down the road, they've learned from what they've been watching and are able to start implementing policy. So I'm - if you look at Bill Clinton's presidency, there's no question his second term was a lot more active and effective than his first time in foreign policy.

And so I'm hopeful that the Obama administration will now really begin to dig into some of these problems in a way that I don't think they really quite did in the first time.

CONAN: Well David Ignatius, in part because the State Department can sometimes be more tractable than Congress.


IGNATIUS: Well, this administration needs to communicate more effectively with Congress to do everything that's on its agenda, and I think that will be the measure of whether President Obama has a successful second term: Is he the leader of his own party? Is he the leader of the Congress? Does he speak to the country and then to the world as a decisive leader?

In foreign policy, what's striking to me is that he doesn't really have to worry a lot about framing the issues on the agenda. The issues are coming at him. The obvious ones coming at an accelerating speed are Syria, we've been talking about Syria. He needs a policy that's more coherent both to achieve the stated goal, the fall of Bashar al-Assad, but I think more important to think about what kind of governance you'll have in Syria and what to about the chemical weapons.

The chemical weapons in Syria, when I hear the news about turning off the Internet, I worry that that's prelude to using these ghastly weapons. The United States has warned strongly about this. More importantly perhaps so has Russia. This is a red line the international community has drawn.

Bashar al-Assad may go across that red line. What do we do next? Another problem coming at him fast is obviously Iran. We're in a period now when the U.S. needs to explore, perhaps through bilateral negotiations, whether there is a deal, whether you can see the shape of a deal. We could go on to other issues. But Obama in a sense has to respond quickly to things that are already in motion.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation, again 800-989-8255. Email us, You just heard David Ignatius, associate editor, columnist for the Washington Post; Robert Kagan is also with us, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. And let's get - let's see if we can get Mac(ph) on the line, and Mac's on the line with us from Phoenix.

MAC: Hey, good afternoon, gentlemen. I just wanted to, you know, maybe chime in and add to the point about taking advantage of the very widespread goodwill of the Iranian population towards the U.S. in the context of the nuclear negotiations.

CONAN: And...

MAC: And how (unintelligible) the regime and speaking directly to the people, more public diplomacy.

CONAN: Robert Kagan, the - many have urged the president to take that role that Mac is talking about and try to outflank the Iranian government with its own people.

KAGAN: Well, you know, the administration has consistently, whenever it's wanted to move toward negotiations, considered those two policies to be diametrically opposed. You're either talking to the people and effectively encouraging them to either influence or maybe even oust their regime, or you are talking to the regime.

I'm not sure that there's a clear tradeoff. I don't know that you can't do both. But up until this point, that's the way it is. Now by the way, some people will say that the Iranian people love their nuclear weapons too. I'm more skeptical of that. I actually believe we'd have an easier time dealing with a different kind of government on this issue than we're having with the current regime in Iran.

CONAN: Well, David Ignatius, whether or not they love their country, the belief is that an attack by the United States and/or Israel would ruin whatever support the Iranian people have for the United States.

IGNATIUS: Well, I think that certainly the regime would have a better chance of consolidating public support if it was attacked, and that's one of the strongest reasons against an attack, unless it's absolutely necessary. The only - it is literally the last resort before Iran becomes a nuclear power. What's striking to me about the public mood in Iran now as best you can tell from reading translations of the Iranian press is that the idea of talking with the United States of Iran entering into a real discussion about the nuclear issue and about key regional issues as well, that's now accepted.

Every faction that I see in Iran talks about - talk about what should be discussed, what the limits should be, but there once was a taboo not long ago - a taboo against this idea of talking to the great Satan. And I think we've entered into a different era, and so I regard that is as in itself positive.

CONAN: Let's get a question from here in the audience at The Woodrow Wilson Center.

PAULETTE LEE: Thank you very much. My name is Paulette Lee(ph). I'm a communications consultant here in the D.C. area. My question is, gentlemen, how do you see the United States' efforts to prevent Palestine from having any seat or any status in the U.N. as moving the peace process forward? Thank you.

CONAN: The United - thank you very much for the question. The United States voted against that at the General Assembly today and was among those who were outvoted, David Ignatius?

IGNATIUS: Well, the simple answer would be I see that policy as unsuccessful, that the U.S. has tried to prevent what happened today. Increasingly, it's tried halfheartedly more for form's sake than anything else. I think the question that we're asking as journalists here in Washington - I'm sure the administration is asking - is can this act that lists the status of Abu Mazen, the leader of the Palestinian authority...

CONAN: Mahmoud Abbas, yeah.

IGNATIUS: Mahmoud Abbas is his real name. The present - does this augmentation of the status reopen the path toward negotiations between Fatah, the organization he represents, perhaps joined with Hamas and Israel in order to have a platform for going further. And if that's so, then today's vote will be seen as a good thing.

CONAN: That's David Ignatius of The Washington Post. Also with us, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, author most recently of "The World America Made." You're listening to part of The National Conversation, a joint project between NPR and The Woodrow Wilson Center, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Robert Kagan, back on that same point. Given Hamas' political victory in the war between itself and Fatah in the recent conflict with Israel, does the move at the United Nations today and whatever position the United States takes on Palestinian status in terms of the PLO, does it make a difference?

KAGAN: Well, first of all, I'm not sure I agree that it was a complete victory for Hamas. I mean, one of the things that happened in the course of that conflict, Hamas clearly was trying to rally a changing Arab world behind it. And I think, for instance, President Morsi, in Egypt, said I am not going to be dragged into a conflict with Israel over the - over what you're doing. I'm not going to break the treaty arrangements that we have. And in fact, he helped achieve a cease-fire. So I'm not sure that Hamas accomplished everything they wanted.

Now, the problem of I think - or give Hamas the benefit of what's just happened is I think that although many who voted in the U.N., like Europeans, for Palestine's resolution believed and were hoping that they were helping Abbas. But if the result is it looks like the reason this happened is because of Hamas' attacks in Gaza against Israel, then it strengthens Hamas. And I think that at this point negotiating with Hamas is not an easy thing to do.

I mean, they will be - it will be the first time that that a group that has not renounced terror, has not renounced the use of force against Israel is supposed to be engaging in negotiations with Israel. That's not an easy thing to accomplish.

CONAN: And we have this email from Hannah(ph) which says two words and a lot of exclamation points: Mali crisis. This, of course, a reference to the situation in that northwest African country which is - the northern part of which has been taken over first in a Tuareg rebellion, and then it's been taken over by Islamist factions there who were forcing out the Tuaregs as well. Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, today called for U.N. military action in Mali. David Ignatius, how important is this?

IGNATIUS: Well, three words in response: don't know much.


IGNATIUS: I wish I knew more about the situation in Mali. I haven't been there. Most reluctant to comment on places that I don't know. It is obvious that the international community, including the U.S., is increasingly concerned about the growth of Islamic radicalism in Mali. And generally in that region, there's some discussion of whether this kind of falling domino effect after the fall of Gadhafi in Libya. You just had a lot of seepage of weapons and people south. The U.S. in recent years in dealing with African problems has turned to a combination of African Union forces, which have had, I would say, a different success, and the new AFRICOM, the command that we stood up, it isn't actually based in Africa but has responsibility for that, it's just clear that the war against Islamic radicalism is now going into Africa big time.

CONAN: Let's get a question from the microphone here at The Woodrow Wilson Center.

ELVIS COHN: Hello. Thanks. My name is Elvis Cohn(ph). I'm a federal employee here in the D.C. area. My question is on the so-called war on drugs. It is an understatement to say that it has been a failure over the years. And my question is, does the Obama administration see an opportunity here to move into a different way? Many leaders in Latin America are calling for a change in the policies, moving towards some sort of legalization. Do we see an opportunity here?

CONAN: Robert Kagan, Mexico's president-elect was just in town.

KAGAN: I think that, you know, this is an ongoing problem. It has - it's having particularly destructive effects in Central America where, you know, the crime is just out of sight. But I guess this is where I would start to say there are only so many things the president is going to be able to do. And we have mentioned, too, the other big decisions coming up is - on Afghanistan, which is going to have major implications for the president's second term and what happens in that second term. And we haven't even gotten to Asia yet. So, you know, everyone would like us to focus on the war on drugs and come up with a clever policy. But I'm just not going to - I don't think there is going to be a lot of bad blood expended on that.

CONAN: You may be right, but it's a war on our border which has taken the lives of tens of thousands.

KAGAN: For a very long time.

CONAN: When we come back, more of with our guests, David Ignatius and Robert Kagan. We promise to get (unintelligible) the Middle East and talk about some of those other parts of the world as well. We'd like to hear from you, 800-989-8255. Email us: Stay with us. We're in a special broadcast, part of the national conversation today from the Woodrow Wilson Center. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: Right now, we're discussing the foreign policy agenda for President Obama's second term. If you travel abroad, we want to hear your suggestion. What's a problem the U.S. needs to address or an opportunity the U.S. ought to exploit? 800-989-8255. Email: You can also weigh in on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And we'll also take questions from the audience here at the Wilson Center.

Our guests: Robert Kagan, author most recently of "The World America Made" and senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, and David Ignatius, associate editor and columnist at the Washington Post. We have a question from the audience here at the Wilson Center.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you. Yet another area. Is it time for the U.S. to reconcile with Cuba? And can the president actually do this without support of Congress and especially the House of Representatives?

CONAN: Robert Kagan, the election is over. The president does have a freer hand. Is Cuba one of the places where he can change policy?

KAGAN: I mean, I think in theory, yes. I think, first of all, you know, the very powerful Cuban-American community is shifting itself as generations sort of move on and younger generations come forward. And I think you've got, you know, some - you've got a very creative and thoughtful Republican senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, who takes great interest in this. But at the end of the day, and this is the thing, it really does depend a little bit on what the Cuban government does. The Cuban government has to be willing to show some intention of loosening up its grip on that society. I think if it does do so, you can see some steps in the United States to start easing the embargo and trying to start moving toward eventually, if there's reciprocal steps, some kind of moving toward normalization with Cuba. But it really does require that the Cuban government be willing to do so.

I mean, what we've seen in Burma, it didn't just happen - the United States didn't just lift sanctions. The Burmese government took some steps to give some hope that they were going to change. The Cuban government will need to do the same thing.

CONAN: David Ignatius, there was a new generation of leaders in Burma. Do we have to await the same in Havana?

IGNATIUS: Well, certainly we need to await a post-Castro era when there's a younger leadership. On this question of whether the president should, you know, take a strong stance on normalizing relationships with Cuba or deal with the war on drugs, I would hope that the president would think strategically, much as he did to such success in his campaign. And by that, I mean identifying a limited number of issues and going after them one by one and building from success to success. I think that's what leads to effective foreign policy. When you have everything kind of thrown up against the wall in the first year - and we saw a little bit of that, I think, in Obama's first year both in domestic and foreign policy - what you get is, I think, a kind of loss of momentum, loss of clarity.

So if the president can do his first job, which is win a big debt package fight on the Hill, then move to the Iran negotiations, which are topic A in foreign policy, move towards something with Israel and the Palestinians, move towards something clear with Syria, you know, one by one, you might begin to see some real progress.

CONAN: So after July, he should be free.

IGNATIUS: After, you know, this is the...


IGNATIUS: We'll find out just how strategic a person Obama is in policy making as opposed to politics and how effective a leader he is.

...out just how strategic President Obama is as - in policymaking, as opposed to politics, and how effective a leader he is over these next four years. But, you know, I think the next few months will tell us whether we're going to have something more systematic than what we saw the first term.

CONAN: And, Robert Kagan, if there's been a vision expressed about that by the president, it has been the pivot to the Pacific.

KAGAN: And as this conversation and every other conversation I've had over the last month since the pivot was announced has demonstrated, before you pivot, you finish talking about the Middle East. And as soon as you pivot, you go back to talking about the Middle East.

I mean, there was nothing more ironic, again, than the fact that the president, on his big trip to Asia, spent most of his term talking about Gaza, and the secretary of state had to break off the trip to go - heading back to Gaza. And I think this is going to continue to be the case. We are going to continue to be dragged back to the Middle East.

Now, what's unfortunate about that is - and I was in a conference in the Middle East where even people in the Middle East were saying: Can't the United States walk and chew gum at the same time? And we are clearly going to have to do that, because Asia is important. The president is right to put enormous emphasis on it. The president is right to involve the United States more deeply in the region. Secretary Clinton and her very capable Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell have done that up until now. But it's going to be difficult to sustain. And it's going to be difficult with a new secretary and a new team at the State Department. And it's going to be difficult in tight budget circumstances. And it's going to be difficult when the Middle East does keep dragging back our attention.

CONAN: Let's get another question from the audience here at the Wilson Center.

SHAY HESTER: Good afternoon. My name is Shay Hester(ph). And I visited my daughter and her husband in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They were there working with Burmese refugees whose lives have been put on hold for many decades. My question is: What is the Obama administration doing, or should they be doing to help these refugees return to Myanmar and get on with their lives?

CONAN: And David Ignatius, we've seen the president visit - the first president to visit Myanmar, also known as Burma. He was there briefly and, of course, met with the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well. But some questioned whether he has gone to far too fast.

IGNATIUS: Well, the one thing you can say, I think, is that the U.S. has built up some credibility and leverage with the government in Burma and Myanmar, which ought to be useful in dealing with this refugee problem. Refugee flows, in my experience, are one of the hardest problems to deal with. People just get settled. Think about how long it's going to take to get Afghan refugees who are in Pakistan back into Afghanistan. It's going to be a generation, and that may be true in this case.

But I think the Myanmar-Burma policy has been carefully handled. You know, if you're looking for real successes for Secretary Clinton in the first term, as she gets ready to leave, I'd say this would be high on the list.

CONAN: There is also the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The combat role for the United State is supposed to end, scheduled to end in 2014. How many troops between now and then are kept? How many troops after that are kept? And there is still the lesson of what we have wrought in Iraq after withdrawal from that situation. But, again, if there's been one consistent in the Obama administration, has been to withdraw from Iraq and complete the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

KAGAN: Yes. And, of course, this is one of those decisions that's not going to wait. He's going to have to make a decision in the next few weeks about how quickly to draw down the forces in Afghanistan. And there were certainly some significant players in the administration who would like to draw down very rapidly, and much more rapidly than the military commanders on the scene believe is appropriate. And so we'll see what - who wins that argument.

But if we do draw down rapidly, we're then going to test the proposition as to whether Afghanistan really can hold in the absence of, you know, a sufficient number of U.S. forces. And if it can't, we're going to start facing - dealing with the consequences of that. And I think that it's very easy to say, let's get out of Afghanistan.

I think we are going to - if nothing else - and people have been talking about this openly. If you care about what's going on in Pakistan, you're going to need to keep American troops in Afghanistan. That is the base from which the drones fly that allow the United States and this administration to attack terrorist bases along the border.

So then the question is going to be: Well, how many troops do you need to keep in place to do that? I'm prepared to predict that we are not going to be out of Afghanistan, unless you want to redefine what a combat role is to include upwards of 30,000 troops by 2014.

CONAN: David Ignatius, a lot of people will say this is going to be critical for the president's legacy. This is his war now.

IGNATIUS: It is his war. This was the war where he was going to refocus America's energy, get away from the bad war in Iraq. He did add 30,000 additional troops. Those are the troops that are now come out. And he has to decide what, going forward, is the commitment.

Like Bob Kagan, I think that some continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan - both on the counterterrorism side, to have bases to go after people who want to kill you and me and a lot of other people - is important. But I think equally important is the political transition. And I'd love to see the administration put more emphasis - as it thinks about taking the combat troops out - on political structures and accommodations that can either prevent a civil war or reduce the destabilizing effects of the kind of sorting out that's going to happen in Afghanistan. And I think that's the thing they haven't done and need to get more serious about.

CONAN: A question from the audience here at the Wilson Center.

IBRAHIM HUSSEIN: Good afternoon. My name is Ibrahim Hussein(ph). I'm an Egyptian-American, retired here in Washington, D.C. I like to start by saying, last January, I went back to Cairo to join the celebration of the first anniversary of the revolution. It was so wonderful that people who did not want into politics - from the cab drivers to the college professor - are all talking about democracy and freedom and human rights. And it is very sad for me to see what's happening now.

I have - in terms of the comment about strategic - that's what I came to say, the strategic direction for U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. policymaker, they need to realize difference between two things. One of them is Islam. Well, I'm born Muslim. Islam, all over the world, is a peaceful, loving, very much similar to other great religions.

And the difference between Islam and political Islam in making our policy and defining what you want to go do, and what do you want to do, we need to make sure we are not touching the big base of Islam. And we are only dealing with people who are using Islam for political objectives, that including the terrorists, the extremists, in my opinion, the Saudis. I mean, they are exploiting a great religion for immediate gain. And U.S. policymaker need to be aware of this distinction and promote the first and try to develop a strategy to with the latter. But the fact that we have election every two years makes it difficult.

CONAN: Robert Kagan, I hate to drag you bag to the Middle East.

KAGAN: Yeah, well, that's OK.


KAGAN: It's just - that's what's happening these days. I mean, look. The greatest - I mean, the greatest sort of laboratory of this whole tension and experiment is Egypt, where you have, you know, an avowed political Islamist group which won overwhelming. It is a testament to the, in my view, the failure of American policy over a couple of decades, that we played into Mubarak's strategy of weakening liberal forces in Egypt and objectively strengthening the Brotherhood by the way Mubarak handled his own dictatorship, and we tolerated it so that when the forces were unleashed, the Brotherhood was the best organized. The liberals were the most scattered. And we're now paying the consequence for that.

As a practical matter, however, the - Morsi won the election. The Brotherhood won the election overwhelmingly. The United States should be dealing with a democratically elected government. And I think, as we would in - with any government, whether Islamic or non-Islamic, we also need to do our best to hold them to the real standard of democracy, which is not just elections. It's about supporting individual rights. It's protecting minorities. It's protecting women. And we need to put, literally, our money where our mouth is in that regard. And that would be true whether it's an Islamist or not an Islamist government.

CONAN: We're talking about foreign policy in a second Obama administration. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And, David Ignatius, let me hit another part of that from our question, and that is the role of Saudi Arabia. This is a despotic king - monarchy, a gerontocracy, important to the United States for any number of reasons, if for no other reason, its opposition to Iran.

IGNATIUS: Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, strategic meaning that it has all that oil. And we may not need it as much in future years, but other countries will. I do think - when I visit Saudi Arabia, I'm reminded that while it's certainly an authoritarian regime, not a place where I'd want to live, it is seen by enough of its citizens - a majority of its citizens, it appears to me - as legitimate. King Abdullah is an old man, and he's not making decisions all that effectively, people say. But he is pretty well liked and respected by a majority of his subjects. We need to remember that.

So change is coming to Saudi Arabia. What I hear people worrying about is the regime is so old and creaky, it's just not getting the job done. But as near as I can tell, it's still seen as legitimate by enough of its citizens that I don't see a revolution in Saudi Arabia around the corner as we've seen in Syria.

CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left. And I'd like you both to step off a cliff, not the fiscal cliff, but perhaps the lift - the cliff of what we actually know. One thing, two things, three things are going to happen over the next four years that none of us in this room have anticipated or talked about. Robert Kagan, is there some part of the world, some issue - global warming, climate change, whatever - that keeps you up at night?


KAGAN: Many things keep me up at night. I've got two teenagers that keep me up at night. But - and this is always the part of the discussion where we say, OK, there are these things that are going to happen that we don't know about. What are they?

CONAN: Yeah.


KAGAN: And I don't know. No, for me, there is plenty of known-knowns that are out there that keep me up at night. You know, David has a hopeful view of the possibility of a negotiated settlement with Iran. I, myself, am dubious that there is any deal that we and they are going to agree on. And that includes whatever the Obama administration may propose, which is going to lead to this very difficult decision. I think Afghanistan is in a very dangerous state. I think Syria is going to get much worse before it gets better. I think we are facing a kind of long-term challenge from China, which can have short-term effects on us. So, for me, that's plenty to stay up awake at night over.

CONAN: David Ignatius, I guess we'll turn to you for comic relief.

IGNATIUS: Well, Bob Kagan covered the gloom and doom patrol admirably. Those are the things that we should worry about. Just to focus on thing that Bob talked about, because we haven't really covered it adequately, we have a new leadership in China under soon-to-be President Xi Jinping, now head of the Communist Party. And this new leadership - contrary to expectations - is not as inclusive of reform-minded people as a lot of U.S. analysts expected. And there is a danger with all of the problems of corruption, regional difference in China that a very nationalist policy will be taken, which this new leadership will try to unite by having external enemies, including the United States, including Japan. That scares me.

CONAN: And we could have a new nationalist government in Japan, as well. So we'll have to see where that goes. Thank you both, very much. And we'll chuckle all the way to the exits. So Robert Kagan and David Ignatius, joining us here at the Wilson Center.


CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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