'Shop Talk': To Arm Libyan Rebels, Or Not?

The debate around whether the U.S should help arm Libyan rebels and the trial of baseball star Barry Bonds are two topics under discussion in this week's "Barbershop" conversation. Weighing in are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, Republican strategist Ron Christie and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for our weekly visit to the "Barbershop," where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, Republican strategist Ron Christie, and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre.

Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. What's up? Welcome to the shop. How are we doing?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney, Editor): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Republican Strategist): What's happening?

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated): Yo.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get things started with a topic that's got most of the headlines: the situation over in Libya. Now, the U.S. is helping to enforce a no-fly zone over Libyan skies. And people are talking about whether we should arm the anti-Gadhafi rebels.

MARTIN: You know, this is - I think this is an issue that kind of surfaced -it's kind of been hovering in the background all along. But this week, we learned that the CIA are on the ground in Libya. It's been reported that President Obama has issued orders to investigate the rebel forces and find out exactly who they are before a determination is made about what other steps the U.S. might take. And you know, as we've heard - that NATO is supposed to take over the no-fly zone - the authority over the no-fly zone, over the weekend.

Now, the president has essentially stuck to this argument, this line of providing humanitarian aid only, but this is what he said to NBC's Brian Williams when he was pressed on this question of supplying arms to the rebels. Here it is.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Anchor, NBC): With due respect, Mr. President, watching the reportings of our two correspondents in Libya, what it appears the rebels need is military equipment. Some of their equipment dates back to World War II. Are you ruling out U.S. military hardware assistance?

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm not ruling it out. But I'm also not ruling it in.

MARTIN: OK. So that's it. So Jimi, what do you think?

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. So our guys are already involved in two wars. Now, we've got planes in Libya. Do you think the U.S. should arm the Gadhafi rebels on the ground, also? Ron, where are you on this?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I am of the opinion that this was a war that we never should have had any direct action in. In other words, if you look at no-fly zones, if you look at the conflict in Bosnia and Serbia, where we had a no-fly zone that NATO was enforcing, you still had Muslims on the ground, who were being massacred.

And you look at this particular case and the president says, well, it's in our interest, and that we're stepping in for humanitarian reasons - well, if you apply the doctrine that he had, I would have said we should have been in Darfur; we should have been in Somalia; we should have been in Ethiopia. I don't see how this is in our regional or - frankly - national security interests, and I don't want our people dying in a civil war over there.

MARTIN: You don't think the U.S. played a positive role in Bosnia, though, in bringing that conflict to a close? You don't think so?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: After four years.

Mr. CHRISTIE: After - yes, after several years. But I think that there were still thousands of people who were being massacred - that we stood by and let them die because we didn't want to put boots on the ground.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

Mr. IZRAEL: A-train.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, yeah, you know, this is a three-dimensional chess board here. So when we first enforced the no-fly zone based on the U.N. Security Council resolution that was backed by the Arab League, you know, it was to quote-unquote, avert a humanitarian disaster in Benghazi, which is the second largest city in Libya, with a population of 670,000 - about the size of Charlotte, North Carolina, as President Obama said during his speech.

Now, you know, we have with this new presidential finding, you know, the concession that we have put in place CIA operatives on the ground there. And you know, when we talk about arming the rebels, we also - actually - have to talk about sending people in to train them - how to use, you know, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank, you know, machine guns. And so, you know, it - we've now shifted within, you know, a three-week period, from averting a humanitarian crisis to casting our lot, you know, with a ragtag group of youngsters for a regime change now.

So within three weeks, we've gone from a completely different endgame. You know, even Defense Secretary Bob Gates said that we should not arm the rebels right now. It's something that, you know, for an international lawyer like myself - like Ron pointed out, you know, we have Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, that's killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. We have, you know, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria - where, you know, slaughter is happening right now.

The fact is that Libya is the 11th largest exporter of oil in the world. If they were exporting artichokes instead...

MARTIN: So we should have done nothing. We should do nothing. We should have stood there and watched them - we should just do nothing.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No. I'm just talking about consistency. We cannot talk about any sort of doctrines, or Obama doctrine, when there's no consistency applied - because that doesn't make a doctrine.

MARTIN: Is there ever, though? I mean, is there ever really - I mean, really?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I mean, based on principle, yes, I do believe that. I mean, you know...

MARTIN: I mean, what about the argument - I know Peter Beinart made this argument; that just because you can't help everybody doesn't mean you don't help anyone.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. And Peter's a good friend of mine. And I disagree with him on this - that, you know, you cannot have consistency in foreign policy.

MARTIN: So what's your bottom line, Arsalan? Is it yes or no? You're saying...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I'm torn. I don't I can see the benefit of it, but I can see the cost of it, also, that people really haven't thought through.

MARTIN: Jimi, you want to get in on this?

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, you know, the U.S. shouldn't take sides. I couldn't figure out why we were there in the first place and given these rebels' military support, I'm not down with that. We don't have any place being there. That said, if we're going to be in, we need to be all the way in. If we're going to give weapons, then we need to give troops...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah. Right.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Tha's right.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...and I don't want to do that. I don't want to do that.

MARTIN: Really? Why? I don't understand the logic of that, either. Who says you have to be all the way in?

Mr. IZRAEL: I don't think we have business there in first place. It's like, if you're going to jump in a fight, then don't just give the dude a pipe or a baseball bat. You grab a bat, too...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: ...and get in there, and get it in. You know, I mean, but otherwise just stand on the outside because...

MARTIN: Who says so? But who says that if you're either - you're in, you're all the way in? There are levels of involvement in all kinds of situations. There is humanitarian aid; there is technical expertise.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: There is all kinds of, you know...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, one of the things we discussed earlier...

Mr. IZRAEL: It's civil war. Stay off that beat.

Mr. TORRE: Exactly.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: And you know...

Mr. IZRAEL: That's not your beat.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: And the concept of a no-fly zone, you know - under international law, it has severe ramifications because you cannot just impose a no-fly zone without actually enforcing it...

Mr. CHRISTIE: Right.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...upon a sovereign country, which under international law would be tantamount to a declaration of war.

Mr. CHRISTIE: That's correct.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: And so, you know, it's like economic sanctions. These are terms that everybody, you know, hears of, but they don't really know what they mean.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, well - and this is Pablo, just jumping in. I mean, obviously, when you talk about NATO being involved - I mean that's just changing the label on the stick - on the sort of the product, right? I mean, that's America anyway. I mean, I feel like, you know, the thing that really just bothers me about the whole thing is just rhetorical consistency, right? I mean like, what are we exactly doing? Why is it so hard to be up front about what our involvement is and what, you know, our philosophy is?

I mean, it's obvious that Obama's really torn here. He wants to have a foreign-policy win ahead of 2012, to hold over the Republicans. He wants to listen to someone like Samantha Power, who says that it's the moral obligation of states to stop genocide wherever it may be. And the problem is, obviously, that Libya does not fall between - does not fall cleanly into sort of - some sort of matrix where you say OK, let's do this.

And so, you know, it's hard, obviously. For public relations reasons, I actually understand completely why President Obama is doing that.

MARTIN: Isn't that a little cynical? Let me stop you right there, Pablo. Isn't that a little bit cynical to just assume that everything that any person does, particularly a leader of a country like the United I mean, with President Bush, George W. Bush...

Mr. TORRE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Ron's former boss, you know, the argument was that he was acting out some psychological animus toward Saddam Hussein, based on the fact that he tried to kill his father - which he did in fact, try to do. You see what I'm saying? So it's like...

Mr. TORRE: Well, I mean, well...

MARTIN: It seems, though, those are the most trivial reasons then - for some reason that that's - and I understand that we have been trained to be cynical by our culture. But is that really what you think it's about?

Mr. TORRE: Well, I mean, I think that President Obama isn't saying what he really wants to do. I mean, obviously, there's a difference between desire and what your personal philosophy is as the president, what you realistically can do to both stay in power, keep your party happy and - obviously - act in America's best interests.

But yeah, I mean, you know, listening to his speeches, I mean, you know, I'm not convinced that, you know, that - I don't have confidence in the guy in terms of just outlining what his objectives and goals are. I mean, it's just a big gulf between what he's saying, and what America is ultimately going to do.

I mean, enforcing a no-fly zone to begin with, you know, is itself - I mean, basically, in terms of how it's being carried out, I mean, that's being involved in a war. I mean, we can't talk about what is happening in Libya, really, without the right terminology.

MARTIN: OK. All right.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Let me just say one last thing, because we talked about my former boss, George W. Bush...

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead, Ron.

Mr. CHRISTIE: You could agree or disagree with him, but at least you knew what the Bush doctrine was. You know, he assembled a coalition of the willing, and you're either with us or against us, and this is what evil is, and we're going to root out evil and those who are trying to hurt us. You could disagree with that. I don't know what the Obama doctrine is. I don't know why the president chose this particular country, at this particular time, to intercede.

MARTIN: That doctrine evolved over time, did it not? I mean, you remember that he was elected on the premise of walking softly in the world, not intervening when it was not...

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, but then we had 9/11.

MARTIN: But my point is, his doctrine evolved in response to circumstances, right? So...

Mr. CHRISTIE: I don't think the president has had an evolution because he hasn't had a concrete foundation in foreign policy. And that's why I agree with Jimi.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: And Bush did?

MARTIN: Wait. Wait. Wait. President George W. Bush had a foundation for foreign policy?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Come on, man. No, no, no. I got to...

Mr. CHRISTIE: Yeah, of course, he did. Let me just say this: This is why I agree with Jimi. If you're going to go in, you're going to go all in. You're going to put boots on the ground, and you're going to enact regime change; you're going to change the regime. But you're not going to sit up there and throw bombs from 30,000 feet, one way or the other.

MARTIN: OK. If you're just joining us I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off. But we just have a lot of stuff that you also - you all wanted to talk about.

If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the "Barbershop" with Republican strategist Ron Christie - that's who you just heard author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre.

Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, moving on to baseball, record-breaker Barry Bonds. Now, his trial is under way in San Francisco. Not for nothing, he's charged with lying under oath about knowingly taking steroids, and about being injected by his personal trainer. So is this a case about a baseball player - is it interesting? I mean, some people say he is on trial just because he's a jerk, and it's not really about steroids. Pablo?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: Yeah?

Mr. IZRAEL: My man, what do you think?

Mr. TORRE: Well, I mean, talk about how government spends its money, right? I mean...

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. TORRE: You know, the government, at this point - according to SI's estimate -has spent about $6 million prosecuting Barry Bonds. Now, obviously, he's a jerk. I mean, that's, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Let's get that out of the way.

MARTIN: Let's just get that out of the way. Thanks for clarifying.

Mr. TORRE: Well, I mean, if you find me somebody who thinks he's not, I'd be glad to talk to that person on the phone - and find out what's wrong with them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: But seriously, I think the question is - it's not so much whether he's a jerk or why, you know, he's a jerk. It's really whether the government should be spending its money prosecuting a baseball player to this extent. And I mean, obviously, I mean, what he's charged with is lying under oath, and lying to the government - which is obviously illegal, against the law, and wrong in all those ways.

And I personally, actually, believe that the government, you know, should hold sports accountable - that, you know, it's that these people are actually committing fraud; that you know, that they should be held accountable, and held their feet to the fire for, you know defrauding a lot of people - from the American public to, you know, to government, to whomever else is involved in terms of, you know, steroid use and obviously, the long saga that Barry Bonds has had. But the question is just whether - to what degree that the government has license to spend money on this, right?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. TORRE: I mean, in a perfect world, baseball would govern itself - that the government would not need to step in. I mean - and honestly, if the government wanted to, it could prosecute any number of baseball players. Barry Bonds...

MARTIN: Couldn't you prosecute a number of people who really aren't that cute for wearing, you know, for wearing implants and letting us think they're cuter than they are?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I mean, come on. What is that?

Mr. TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, given how much...

Mr. TORRE: And we should.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: I mean, I'm not going to go as far as to say that is the (unintelligible). But...

MARTIN: Arsalan?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: It's interesting to me because, you know, as Pablo said, you know, Bonds is being charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. And these are traditionally, you know, charges that are brought, you know, after you've testified in some sort of grand jury hearing. It's based on a November 2007 indictment.

And it's really interesting because grand jury testimony is always held to be secret. And so, you know, the government has it. And they actually have to overtly and proactively try to indict you. You know, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis - formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals, you know, basically lied by omission in front of Congress. And he's cold-chilling right now as the batting coach, you know, for the Cardinals.

And so, you know, when you deal with perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges anywhere, you really are dealing with selective prosecution. So that's something you need to keep in mind as well.

MARTIN: Do you care? Ron, do you care?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I do. I'm from the San Francisco Bay area and, you know, the Giants won the World Series last year. And now you have, I think, their start to a new year diminished by a jerk - let's just say it - who cheated. And the sad part of it of all is...

MARTIN: Do you think he should be prosecuted?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I do. I mean, you know, you have two lawyers sitting right across from you. I think that in grand jury testimony, you have to tell the truth. And if you don't, and they find that you've obstructed justice or if you've lied by commission or omission, you should - frankly - pay the price.

MARTIN: I know I know, but his argument is, what are you lying about? What Pablo is saying, maybe he's lying about something that they shouldn't be investigating anyway.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, you can make the argument about my former boss, Scooter Libby. I mean, Scooter Libby was never found guilty of actually leaking Valerie Plame's name. He was found guilty of lying before a grand jury. And frankly, it just diminishes the sport of baseball, America's pastime. I think he had his opportunity to tell the truth; he didn't. And that's something he's going to have to live with.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Well, lots of views of that. OK, before we let you go, we have to talk about the Final Four, as painful as it is. Who busted their brackets? Who's still holding on?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: On day one, it was busted.

MARTIN: It was busted on day one.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: And mine was busted like Tiger Woods' Escalade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I want to know who is going to admit.

Mr. TORRE: That was good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: What?

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: When Morehead State beat Louisville, my bracket was busted like Tiger Woods' Escalade. But you know, what's really interesting is the fact that, you know, you have Butler and VCU - Virginia Commonwealth University - two Cinderellas. And what's sad is the fact that they actually have to play each other in the semifinals...

MARTIN: I know.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Whereas the two powerhouses, UConn and Kentucky...

Mr. TORRE: Yeah. Kentucky.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...get to play each other but...

MARTIN: I know. Who but their players' mamas thought that they would be there, right?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, come on, with a name listen.

Mr. TORRE: I don't think the...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Really quickly: With a name like Shaka Smart, you've got to root for the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams to win it all.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, it's funny, I mean, you talk about the players' mothers - I mean, I'm in Houston. I've been talking to these guys, and these players themselves didn't believe that they were going to be in it. And Selection Sunday rolled around, the VCU players - one guy was watching Cartoon Network. Another guy was at In-N-Out, getting a burger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: Another guy was, you know, like taking a nap. Only one player on that team actually watched the selection show and then obviously - you know, to me, VCU has - this is the most surprising Final Four in college basketball history. And what VCU has done is one - really, one of the greatest months in sports history.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. TORRE: But yeah, I mean, the flipside of what Arsalan's saying, obviously, is that we at least get one of those two teams - Butler and VCU - in the final, which is pretty good, too. I mean, against UConn, Kentucky, it'll be a marquee match-up.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: True.

MARTIN: Well, Arsalan is going for VCU. So Pablo, you're there. You're there. You're are you're the man. Tell us.

Mr. TORRE: You know, I saw VCU beat Kansas last weekend in San Antonio. I will no longer doubt Shaka Smart - for reasons of his name, and for his coaching ability. I pick VCU to go to the final and, you know, I'm going to pick them to lose to UConn on Monday night.

MARTIN: What? OK, you know what? Just for that, I'm going to play this clip of them winning getting into the Final Four.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Here it is. Here it is.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Nice, nice. Drop it.

MARTIN: Here it is.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Drop it.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ANNOUNCER: The Rams of Virginia Commonwealth have made it to the Final Four, knocking off the number one seed, the Jayhawks of Kansas.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Just thought I'd remind you...

Mr. TORRE: The sound...

MARTIN: ...knocking off the number one seed. OK?

Mr. TORRE: The sound in the background you heard was me just ripping up my notebook...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: ...because I was completely ill-prepared for the outcome of that game.

MARTIN: Ron, what about you? Who do you like?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I live in Commonwealth in Virginia, so I'm going to vote for Virginia Commonwealth University.

MARTIN: OK, awesome. Jimi, who do you like?

Mr. IZRAEL: I'm down with VCU. I really like coach Smart because he credits his mom with inadvertently teaching him the fundamentals of coaching. You know, he brings that low-key, high-pitch and intensity approach, and that sounds like the recipe for a win, to me.

MARTIN: I just like the name. I just want to be able to say the name...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Shaka.

MARTIN: Shaka Smart. I just want to have an excuse to say it. All right, Pablo, you know that here, we need to be fair.

Mr. TORRE: Of course. Of course.

MARTIN: So the NCAA women are this weekend.

Mr. TORRE: That's right.

MARTIN: Who do you like?

Mr. TORRE: I thought UConn already won that, but I guess it's just formality at this point.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, I know. Juggernaut. Juggernaut.

Mr. TORRE: You know, I mean, UConn is the best team, you know, in college basketball history - maybe in terms of dominance overall. Stanford beat them. They may - I think Stanford moves on to play UConn in the final. Stanford beat them on December 30th, I think, breaking that hundred-whatever game streak.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. TORRE: But UConn and Maya Moore - I mean, she might be the best player in their history, which is saying a hell of a lot when it comes to UConn women's basketball. So I think UConn, and Geno Auriemma gets his umpteenth title.

MARTIN: So which is the better game, the men's game or the women's game?

Mr. TORRE: The men's game just because they're - I mean, parity is really what we've learned about. I mean, there has been no dominant team this year. Everyone's been clumped together. VCU has been beating everybody. God knows what's going to happen, so keep your seatbelts fastened.

MARTIN: All right. Great. Time's up. Time's up. Oh, shoot. I thought we had a buzzer shot. Darn it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a freelance...

Mr. IZRAEL: April Fools'.

MARTIN: I know. Thank you, right? April Fools', right?

Jimi Izrael is freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He was with us from SoundWorks in Houston. Ron Christie is a Republican strategist, a former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and the founder of themuslimguy.com. Arsalan and Ron were here with us in our Washington, D.C., studio.

Thank you all so much.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Shaka.

Mr. TORRE: Later.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Thanks.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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