Week In Review: Libya; Japan

Robert Siegel speaks with our regular political commentators, EJ Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times, about events in Libya and Japan this week.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Politics now. Last night, the U.N. Security Council approved a no-fly zone, and an authorization to protect Libyan civilians with force. Today, President Obama said, that's in our interests.

President BARACK OBAMA: Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gadhafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die; a humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.

SIEGEL: The president speaking today at the White House. Joining me now are columnists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Good to see you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Good to see you.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, last week you were praising President Obama for the way he was responding to demands for intervention in Libya. He was talking about tightening the noose. It's a bit more robust than just tightening the noose today. Is it the right thing to do? Is it the right time to do it?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. Last week; he had the metaphor; he didn't have the action. This week, he has the action. And as someone who's thought this was going to be necessary, I'm really glad he's done it. I must say, the way it's been done has raised a few red flags with me - mostly because I'm not sure the president really believes in what we're doing and I'm not sure what - that he knows what the next steps are.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has sort of been skeptical of this. I was wondering why we suddenly turned on a dime, and what was that skepticism? I wish the president explained that. I'm a little suspicious of us leading from the back, really letting the French and the U.K. out front. So I'm really glad he did it. But I have some doubts about whether we know what we're doing, and how committed we really are to it.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think Obama's Libya policy is inspired by James A. Baker III, the first secretary of State - the secretary of State for the first President Bush. Tom Donilon, the president's national security adviser, has always admired the way Baker put together a very broad, international coalition - both in the Arab world and western Europe - to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. And I think what Obama's done, in this case, is not acted until he had put together this coalition.

And that's why he was so much more forceful in speaking today - because he had this coalition behind him. Now you can't gloss over the fact that a lot of people have been killed while this coalition was being built. Gadhafi did gain some ground. But the benefit is that the U.S. is not isolated; it's not acting alone. And I think this policy can be sustained in a way that you might not be able to sustain it without this level of international support.

Mr. BROOKS: I agree. It does remind me very much of the Baker policy. I guess the downside of that is there's no really strategy there. It tends to be ad hoc. It tends to adjust day by day. And, you know, I think now with these democratic revolutions sort of sweeping or being crushed in the Middle East, it's time to have a broader strategy.

SIEGEL: Which raises a question that today, Yemenis were fired on for protesting against their government. There's been a crackdown on descent in Bahrain. If there's a wave sweeping the Arab world, can the United States pick the spots where it decides to honor democratic principles, and dock the ones where it's more uncomfortable?

Mr. DIONNE: I think the problem is that we have done that for 50 years. I mean, as - you know, that our foreign policy has always involved a mixture of supporting regimes that were friendly to us; that weren't - to be charitable -very good regimes. I think under these circumstances, what you're probably going to see is the United States continually tiptoeing toward supporting democracy. We'll probably get there in the end. But I don't think it'll be pretty as we go along.

SIEGEL: Let's turn to Japan right now, where the Japanese government has acknowledged that the nuclear disaster is more dangerous than they had previously judged. Here's a country that's synonymous with great engineering and with national discipline. What's been going on for the past week, David?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I'm sort of struck by the difference between their political culture and our political culture. We complain about the fights we have and the polarization and all that, but we do have a political culture that does get information out - because somebody's always going to scream at somebody - and there's a reasonable degree of openness.

The Japanese also - obviously - have a more consensual culture, but it does mean there is an establishment there which sometimes clamps down on information. So I, oddly -this week made me appreciate our political culture a little more.

SIEGEL: Because the message, the implicit message was: We who run things in this country, we've got this thing under control. Don't worry.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, that's the message they seem to be sending out, and there have been these two rival narratives of what's happening - from Washington and Tokyo. And our narrative seems a little more accurate.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. I think it was embarrassing to the Japanese government. Jay Carney, in the White House, had to try to explain this disjunction without actually criticizing the Japanese government. It was very, very tricky. But I think there's also a disjunction between the Japanese political leadership and civil society. I mean, when you look at what's happened on the ground, there has been an enormous amount of inventiveness and solidarity among the Japanese people.

I am still betting on Japan in the long run in this. Everybody has talked a lot about the resilience of the Japanese society. And I think they will be again, assuming this nuclear disaster doesn't get completely out of control.

SIEGEL: And we should say that the nuclear disaster is a challenge to the Japanese as they're also dealing with half a million people, almost, who are displaced from their homes for other reasons - because of the tsunami and the earthquake.

Mr. DIONNE: Absolutely right. And that could have had some effect on that poor government's ability to cope.

SIEGEL: What is this going to say about nuclear energy and the role that it's likely to play as - well, when this country engages with its energy policy one of these days? That's a hopeful statement I've just made.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. Yeah. We never will. Listen, I think the president and various people have done a responsible thing to say nuclear energy is going to be part of the repertoire of things we use for energy. But right now, I'd say it's looking pretty grim for an expanded nuclear industry - in part because of the high start-up costs; in part because there's just so much natural gas that we keep discovering, and it's just a lot cheaper. And so it doesn't seem like we're going to be moving away from some of the fossil fuels anytime soon.

Mr. DIONNE: No more nuclear plants near fault lines in the Earth, I think that's for sure. And I think we've gone back and forth - particularly among liberals, where liberals - who were against nuclear power for a very long time. Then, with the concern about global warming, nuclear power started looking a little better.

And you actually had some tiptoeing toward nuclear power among progressives, including environmentalists. This is a big push back. And the useful thing - Ed Markey, in the Congress, has talked about the need to review - how do we regulate this? Are we ready for a disaster? And so I think we'll have a debate, but we're not going to shut our nuclear plants.

SIEGEL: In what little time remains, does either of you have any news about the fiscal health of our nation, and whether there's going to be any agreement on anything in Washington - David?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Another nuclear meltdown over fiscal time - no, I think they've decided, I think they've clearly decided: We don't want to shut down the government. And there will be a messy solution and they'll say, OK, we'll have an election about our real philosophical differences in 2012.

Mr. DIONNE: I think you may need a shutdown before you can get an agreement.

Mr. BROOKS: Really?

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne, of the Washington Post; David Brooks, of the New York Times, thanks to both of you. Have a great weekend.

Mr. BROOKS: You, too.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

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