Obama's Strategy In The Middle East And Africa

Guest

Loren Jenkins, senior foreign editor, NPR

On Thursday, President Obama makes a major address on the uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa and what those events mean for the U.S. His comments will likely be compared to his speech in Cairo in June 2009, where he went to "seek a new beginning" in the region and the Muslim world.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

President Obama makes what the White House bills as a major address on the Middle East at the State Department on Thursday. You can expect comparisons to a speech in Cairo two years ago, where he went to seek a new beginning in the Muslim world.

Two major changes since then: the death of Osama bin Laden and the varied and widespread protest movement known as the Arab Spring.

Some argue the death of bin Laden provides an opportunity to sharply reduce U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Others say it's time to redouble our efforts and destroy al-Qaeda.

Some believe the U.S. needs to support Arab protests across the board, others that destabilization may be too dangerous in Syria and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. needs to act decisively to revitalize the peace process between Israeli and Palestinian, same say, or stand by its most important democratic ally in the region.

We're going to read you excerpts from several op-eds. We also want to hear from you. What do you want to hear from President Obama? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the case of Thomas Drake, who faces espionage charges for leaking secret documents. He says he's a whistleblower. Jane Mayer of the New Yorker joins us.

But first, the president's address to the Muslim world. NPR's senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins joins us here in Studio 3A. Loren, always nice to have you with us.

LOREN JENKINS: Always nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And in addition to this speech, the president sees the king of Jordan and the prime minister of Israel at the White House this week, pretty busy week and a big week for the Middle East.

JENKINS: Indeed. I think, you know, everyone is watching what comes out of this. You have - President Obama is to lay out a new vision of his policy toward the Middle East. He's going to meet with the president of - the prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu, this weekend and hear what he has to say.

But the Middle East is still roiling, as it has been since January with all sorts of revolts and movements and real big changes. It's not the same Middle East that he faced two years ago.

CONAN: And arguably, President Obama, now having ordered this successful raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, is not the same man who stood in Cairo to make that speech two years ago.

JENKINS: No, he's not, but he's still facing probably bigger problems than he faced two years ago.

CONAN: Let's start with some op-eds, and this is from the Daily Star, published in Lebanon, and Rami Khouri, who's been a frequent guest on this program.

Of all the alluring attributes of liberty, he writes, the most important one is that liberty is indivisible. That should form the foundation of American policy toward the Arabs who fight and die for their rights.

Obama, in his speech, should not bore or insult us with what we all know and believe in. We dont need lectures on the glory of Islam or the proud history of Arabs or the shared benefits of quality education and liberal trade regimes.

We dont need lessons on the utility of free elections, accountability or constitutionalism. We dont need diversions into the crazed world of frenzied terrorist cult. We dont need more pussy-footing baby steps by bewildered secretaries of state who ask Arab autocrats to please use a bit less force against their own people.

All we need from powerful Western democracies is a new level of courage, honesty and logical self-interest that allows them to declare openly and unequivocally: Liberty is the birthright of all human beings, and the United States supports the absolute and undifferentiated right of all those who struggle for their rights, to achieve and enjoy those rights, including Arabs, Iranians, as was the case with the Soviet dissidents back when.

JENKINS: Well, that's Rami, you know, who has one vision for all the Middle East. I think the real challenge that President Obama has, U.S. policymakers have, is the Middle East is not one entity, and not one policy fits all.

And what we're looking for here is one grand foreign policy that addresses every issue there. The situation in Libya is different than the situation in Syria, for instance. Libya doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things. Syria does.

We have one policy - we divide our policies between those that conform to our national interest and those that conform to our national values, and often these are in conflict.

CONAN: Well, let's read another editorial, this one from Jonathan Schanzer in the American Spectator. He's a former Mid-East analyst for the U.S. Treasury and the vice president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy.

Bahrainis unquestionably deserve better, he said. Of course the protests there have been crushed. However, Iran has penetrated Shiite society there. It could exploit the unrest.

If Shiite government gains power in Bahrain, even via democratic vote, it could become an Iranian proxy. This would be a loss for America. First, while it is far from a liberal democracy, Bahrain has been a valued ally. Specifically, it provides a home to our Navy's Fifth Fleet. It also serves as a geographical buffer for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional nemesis, on the Persian Gulf. Both are reasons to prevent the overthrow of the kingdom in Bahrain.

JENKINS: Well, that's a good example of a place where our interests dominate our values. We've acted, as a government, totally differently toward the uprising against the king of Bahrain than we did the uprising against President Mubarak in Egypt. And that's because one, Bahrain is the home of our Sixth Fleet.

CONAN: Fifth.

JENKINS: Fifth Fleet, sorry. And it is on a border with Iran. It is on the border of Saudi Arabia. It's right in the fault plain between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam.

CONAN: And some would complain, and we may get people on the line to do it: When does oil policy in our relationship with Saudi Arabia fundamental human rights and democracy? Seventy percent of the people in Bahrain are Shiite. They're not represented by a minority government.

JENKINS: Absolutely, and that's what the revolt was all about. The Shiite are, though they're the majority, they're treated as a minority and ruled by a Sunni establishment.

CONAN: Here's, this is another op-ed published yesterday in the Washington post by Nawaf Obaid, who is described as the senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for research in Islamic Studies.

And he wrote: For more than 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been bound by an unwritten bargain: oil for security. Riyadh has often protested but ultimately acquiesced to what it saw as misguided U.S. policies.

But American missteps in the region since September 11, an ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement-building have brought this arrangement to an end.

As the Saudis recalibrate the partnership, Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.

JENKINS: Indeed. I think this is a really interesting op-ed page that really, it's a shot across the bow from Saudi Arabia to the U.S., whether it represents the exact policies that Obaid outlines.

He is a senior advisor to Prince Turki, who was the former Saudi intelligence chief, briefly here 10 years ago the ambassador from Saudi Arabia and an important member of the royal family.

Basically, Saudi Arabia is really upset with the U.S. There is a split. They're seeing that the U.S. - they were hurt by the U.S. insistence on supporting demonstrators against Mubarak, who they viewed as an ally.

CONAN: Their old ally, yeah.

JENKINS: Their old ally and someone who represented the old order, the stable, Sunni order, conservative order that has persisted for decades in the Middle East.

They're threatened by the Arab spring, the fact that all around them, countries, people are rising up in the streets and challenging leaderships. So they're beginning to try and carve out a counter-revolution, bringing together all of the oil kingdoms.

Plus they've brought in the Sunni kingdoms of Morocco, Jordan into what used to be called the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is sort of a regional Gulf defense council.

And they're sort of challenging both the Arab spring and revolts. They're challenging U.S. policy, and they're hoping to sort of shore themselves up against what they perceive as an Iranian move to destabilize their kingdoms.

CONAN: One more line from his op-ed: Saudi Arabia will not allow the political unrest in the region to destabilize the Arab monarchies, the Gulf States, Jordan and Morocco. That's a declaration, if he speaks for the monarchy, that's a declaration of we are the regional policemen here.

JENKINS: That's exactly what they're saying. Whether they can do that, no matter what they say about, you know, wanting to break from U.S. policy, they're dependent on U.S. policy. They're dependent on U.S. aid. They're dependent on U.S. purchases of oil, and they're dependent on U.S. military equipment.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR senior foreign editor, Loren Jenkins, about the president's speech here in Washington on Thursday, on the Middle East. What do you want to hear from the president? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Charles(ph) joins us from Fort Collins in Colorado.

CHARLES (Caller): Hi, yeah. I'm just hoping that Obama talks about the creation of two states, between Israel and Palestine, because it is my unprofessional that at this time with everything happening around Israel, Syria, Egypt border and all these things that it could be a great opportunity for Obama to force or make heavy to get that 1967 line, create the two states just out of appeasing Arab uprisings that we don't know where they're going to go.

CONAN: It's interesting, Loren. That comes in September. The United Nations General Assembly is expected to be asked, and probably a majority will vote to accept, Palestine as a state in its 1967 borders.

JENKINS: Indeed. I think that's - yeah, our caller, that's the key issue. The key issue is: Will there be any movement, can there be any movement, towards trying to solve this problem of the Israelis and the Palestinians that's been going on now for decades?

They've been negotiating for 18 years, since the Oslo agreement, on efforts to try and split and form a viable two-state solution to the issue, and it has gone nowhere. The peace process is dead. Obama's much-touted Middle East advisor, George Mitchell, just resigned last week in frustration. He's gone nowhere in trying to bring about talks.

What's leading the Palestinians to go to the U.N. is they basically decided that their talks are going to go nowhere, haven't gone anywhere. There's nowhere to proceed in terms of peace negotiations at this time. So they're asking for recognition by the international community as a valid state.

CONAN: On the other hand, the Israelis say: We've just seen a unity agreement between Fatah, which runs the West Bank, and Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip. This is a terrorist organization, which denies - which declares from the get-go that it wants to destroy the state of Israel. We cannot talk with these people.

JENKINS: Well, that's real interesting. You know, Fatah was a terrorist organization that they ended up talking with, and over time, Fatah gave up its terrorist efforts and became a party of negotiations and a party to lead, at least, the West Bank and the Palestinians and a voice and a leadership of theirs.

They were once a terrorist organization. The Israelis learned to talk to them and make peace, and they could learn maybe to talk to Hamas and try and bring them around and make peace, too.

Before this agreement, one of the Israeli arguments was why they couldn't go anywhere in negotiations was they said they didn't have a partner for peace because the Palestinians were divided. Now they're trying to form a unity government, not divided. They will speak in a single, you know, one voice. They should be a partner for peace.

CONAN: Thanks very much of the call, Charles. More when we come back after a short break. What do you want to hear from President Obama Thursday, when he addresses the broad issues of the United States and the Middle East? Senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins will be with us, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

These emails on what some listeners would like to hear from President Obama when he speaks on the Middle East on Thursday. From Peter: Obama needs to get tough with Israel, cut off aid unless they cease the illegal occupation and truly negotiate.

This from Dan in Tulsa: I'd like to hear what the next step is in reduction of forces, considering that news reports have set the number of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as low as 100. It would be great to hear how close we are to accomplishing our objectives laid out when President Obama took office -disrupt, dismantle, etc. - and if there's room to start speeding up our withdrawal.

That speech comes on Thursday, a speech that comes as Arab protests continue across the region. NATO forces debate expanded air strikes in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, focus on rebuilding on their governments and starting democracy. And Syria continues a brutal crackdown on protestors.

The administration faces criticism for not coming up with a consistent response to events across the Middle East and North Africa and criticism to do more to resolve the Arab-Israeli peace process.

What do you hear from President Obama? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins is with us here in Studio 3A. And let's get Christopher(ph) on the line, Christopher calling from Kansas City.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Yeah, one of the things I would like to hear our president address is the prevalence of the religious persecution in the Middle East. I want him to be courageous and honest, and I want him to speak up and call the leaders of the Middle East to task for - and it's not just Christian. It's anyone who's not Muslim literally is in danger in that part of the world.

And to kind of take another angle on this, what I don't want to hear addressed, to be perfectly honest, I don't want to hear him about the Palestinians. I'm tired of hearing about the Palestinians, and I'm tired of hearing about how they are solely the victims.

They're not the only victims, and I think until the Palestinians can shed their culture of victimhood and until people outside of Palestine stop feeding that culture, that any real, meaningful peace between Palestine and Israel is simply going to be impossible.

CONAN: Thank you very much for that, Christopher, and religious persecution, I guess seen most recently, or in a new form, in Egypt, where the Copts of that country, who are a Christian sect, about 10 percent of the population there, have been attacked in some respects by some elements in Egypt.

JENKINS: Indeed. You know, the Copt/Muslim split in Egypt's been historic. It's been forever, ever since the Arabs came out of Arabia and converted the Egyptians to be Muslims, you know, before the early days of Islam.

It's a problem. Egyptians have dealt with it before. They're trying to deal with it now. There are these enmities. They're historic. It's not just about Christians and Muslims in the Middle East. It's also divisions between - in Syria, the dispute is between Sunni Muslims and the Alawites, which is a small sect that the president happens to be a part of, and the sect basically controls Syrian politics and the military.

So it crosses all lines. We've had Lebanon. We've had disputes between Druze and Sunnis and Shia and Christians. It's a part of the problem of the Middle East, is their - it's the birth of a lot of religions, and they're very antagonistic to each other and always have been, throughout history.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Mike(ph) on the line, Mike with us from Denver.

MIKE (Caller): Excuse me, yes. I'm actually not interested in hearing a lot from Obama. I mean, he's given a lot of great speeches. What we need is for him to actually do something.

And I think the bigger, the bigger thing I hope America learns, sooner than later, is that standing for democracy and human rights is always the right thing.

It may not fit our short-term political interests, but it's always the right thing. We stood for - we helped Saddam Hussein. We helped bin Laden. We overthrew a democratically elected government of Iran. You know, that led to the shah, which led to the ayatollahs, and the world has been paying for that since.

So it's - you know, we've being penny - what is it, pennywise and pound foolish. We're looking for short-term gains, but we end up hurting ourselves, and we end up hurting democracy and freedom all around the world long-term.

CONAN: And Mike, we get your broader point. I think it's factually inaccurate to say the United States helped bin Laden. But other than that, I think we get your you get your drift.

This idea, though, that helping the forces of democracy, some, Loren Jenkins, wonder: Are these indeed forces of democracy? What are we unleashing here? We thought those were forces of democracy, some did, in Iran. They turned out to be, well, maybe more democratic than the shah but no friends of the United States.

JENKINS: Well, I think that's the problem of revolutions: You never know where revolutions are going. No one knew where the French Revolution was going to end up. No one knew where there Russian revolution was going to end up.

It wasn't always seen as a Bolshevik revolution when it started. It ended up with a hardcore Bolshevik communist regime that lasted for half a century or more.

Change has come to the Middle East. It can't be stopped in a lot of places, as we've seen in Tunisia and Egypt. Where it ends up, no one really knows. And that's the challenge: Who's going to come out on top?

Egypt is still run by the military. That was basically what's been running, the group that's been running the country for 50 years. We have yet to see that it's going to have really free elections and a flourishing of democracy. It's being fought over right now in the streets and in unions and in, you know, think-tanks and everything else.

We're watching a change sweeping across the Middle East that will change it forever, but we don't know in which ways, and some may be positive and some may prove negative.

CONAN: Let's go to a couple more op-ed pieces, this from CNN by Emad Shahin, who's the Henry Luce Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame: Ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq and promoting a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East would be more effective ways to address violence against the United States than the use of military operations, he writes.

The end of bin Laden should represent the very defining moment not only for the Obama administration but for improved future relations between the United States and the Muslim peoples, which Obama so courageously called for in Cairo.

Bin Laden, al Qaeda and their violent methods, though not condoned by most Muslims, represented a phase in which some Muslims felt underrepresented internationally, besieged and embattled.

Now the Muslim world is changing rapidly as it attempts to chart a new course of freedom and democracy, empowered through peaceful and nonviolent means and people power.

This to some degree the same subject with a very different take from the Weekly Standard and Lee Smith: Bin Ladenism is simply not a matter of transnational Sunni jihadist-Salafis like the movement's namesake - Hamas, rooted in Palestinian nationalism, is also bin Ladenist, as is Lebanon's Shiite militia, Hezbollah.

The same is true for Hezbollah and Hamas's state partners in Iran and Syria, both of whom have shed the blood not only of Americans and our allies in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq, but also now of their own people.

So when Obama asks Muslims to reject violence, is he talking to Iran's supreme leader or to members of the Green movement that the Revolutionary Guard shot in the streets of Tehran?

Is he speaking to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or to the relatives of the peaceful protesters the Assad regime has mowed down with tanks and artillery in Homs, Deraa, Banias, and other Syrian cities?

And those are aspects of different policies. You can read the death of bin Laden in a lot of different ways.

JENKINS: Absolutely. You know, I think - we're moving on, beyond the death of bin Laden, but as I said, one's still not clear how weakened al-Qaeda is. It's certainly a tiny, small, disrupted faction, some in Yemen, some in Pakistan. But whether they're a real threat now to the world, as bin Laden tried to make them, is very much up in the air and may be doubtful.

CONAN: Let's see if we can another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Matthew(ph), Matthew with us from Philadelphia.

MATTHEW (Caller): Oh, wow, thanks for having me on the show. I listen to you all the time.

CONAN: Well, thanks for that. I'd like to hear Obama say that the end of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has come and for him to, however fast or slow, pull the troops out. I mean, it's time. And then to use that money to create the green economy and millions of green jobs in the United States.

CONAN: I doubt he's going to mention green jobs in the United States in a speech on the Middle East, but ending the U.S. presence in Iraq, the United States is scheduled to be out, all of the United States forces out of Iraq, by the end of this year, Loren Jenkins, unless the Iraqis ask us to stay. And the president is scheduled to make a decision on draw-down in Afghanistan, the start of it, in July.

JENKINS: Indeed. I think in Iraq, the die is cast. We're winding down there. There may be some request to keep a small resident force in Iraq, if the Iraqi government wants it to keep mostly trainers. But the war is - our war in Iraq is pretty much over.

Afghanistan is another situation. I mean, we went to war in Afghanistan basically to hunt down bin Laden. Bin Laden has been hunted down and is dead. The enemy now is the Taliban, which is not al-Qaida, which has a beef with its own leadership, is only interested in changing the government in Afghanistan, not in threatening the rest of the world as al-Qaida was.

So there's a real debate whether there's a justification to stay on indefinitely in Afghanistan as we are.

CONAN: And some reports that negotiations are underway, though we've seen reports of negotiations before that didn't seem to really go anywhere.

JENKINS: I think there are negotiations underway. I think they've been going underway in various forms for quite a while. That's what happens with wars. We negotiated with the North Vietnamese secretly for years before we got out of the war in Vietnam. I think none of these negotiations in - to end the war are done in public.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Matthew.

This email from Dick(ph) who says we did help bin Laden when fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. There's no evidence the United States provided money or funds to bin Laden. Do some of his allies, people who are now fighting us, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, yes, but not to bin Laden unless you say very broadly in the sense that we were helping some of the same people that he was helping. He was pretty much a fundraiser in those days.

This from William. With the possible removal of all U.S. forces from Iraq, I'd like to hear a statement on the increased use of contractors in Iraq. Will they be accountable? How will they be monitored?

Again, not something I'd expect the president to address in this speech, except perhaps in the context of we are keeping our promises to take U.S. military forces out of Iraq.

JENKINS: I think that's true. I mean, we don't know what - look, the whole thing of private contractors in warzones has grown amazingly in the last decade. There's going to be contractors working to defend the U.S. Embassy. The armed contractors doing security work in Iraq as long as there are American companies or diplomats working there.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins. As the president prepares for a major address on the Middle East in - at the State Department on Thursday, an address that had been scheduled, in many respects, before the death of Osama bin Laden, but now I think some speechwriters have probably been busy adding some new paragraphs to the president's remarks and reflecting the new situation.

The other reality that the president's speech is expected to reflect is the birth of the Arab Spring, that diverse movement of protests against governments from Yemen, Bahrain, in Syria now where a crackdown continues, in the North African states of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, to some degree in Morocco, of course, Libya where it has erupted into a civil war. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Loren Jenkins, the United States waited until the Arab League had called for the removal of Moammar Gadhafi, until the United Nations Security Council had passed a resolution calling on states - authorizing states to use military force to defend civilians in Libya. It led the way with airstrikes that took down the Libyan air defenses but has now let Egypt - excuse me - let Britain and France lead the way in NATO-coordinated assaults. Obviously, some U.S. activities continuing in terms of logistical support, tankers and...

JENKINS: Drones.

CONAN: ...drones, and that's been very important. Nevertheless, many criticize the president for hanging back and allowing the situation to fester into, well, what's developing into a stalemate in Libya.

JENKINS: Well, the problem of that is the notion that airpower alone can change the situation on the ground and can win a war. What we're seeing is the limits of airpower in a ground situation. You can create a no-fly zone, and you can keep a country's planes out of the air and keep their helicopters out of the air, and you can attack some tanks on the ground. But you can't really change the situation on the ground, which has to be done. That's what the military calls boots on the ground.

CONAN: And that's what the president specifically said he would not do and what the Security Council resolution says...

JENKINS: No.

CONAN: ...he cannot do.

JENKINS: He cannot do. And, you know, to be realistic, we have two wars going. We don't need a third ground war. I don't think this administration is in any way thinking of one or willing to try one.

CONAN: Here's an email from Ed(ph) in St. Louis. He needs to speak the truth. "The people's revolution," quote, unquote, in Egypt was nothing more than a military coup. If the Middle East wishes to change, it must do more than cause change. Such change must be nurtured, guided and managed to a successful endpoint. Changing from a dictatorship to a junta is like the difference between a Buick and an Oldsmobile. They're essentially the same car.

JENKINS: Well, you know, I was just in Egypt three weeks ago, and the change is much broader than perceived. The whole mood has changed in Egypt. There's a whole sense of possibility. Yes, the military is still holding the reins, and a transitory government which, hopefully, will lead to elections and, hopefully, will lead to the establishment of real democratic state. It's too early to tell, but the people have changed. The mood has changed in the sense of the possibilities of having freedom, the possibilities of having dignity. You hear that all the time. We've found our way to have our dignity back, and they've felt that in Egypt.

And a lot of these countries have been repressed by autocratic governments, dictatorships of one form or another, military leaderships. And now, they feel free to that. In Egypt, it's a palpable mood you feel, and there's an energy going that's very impressive.

CONAN: Yet, we heard one of the rationales for intervention in Libya was that perhaps the lesson would be drawn that Mubarak's - President Mubarak should have just massacred everybody in Tahrir Square and survived, and that would have been OK, and yet, you see dissent being crushed in places like Bahrain and even more bloodily in Syria.

JENKINS: Well, yeah, Egypt is different than Bahrain or Syria. It had an establishment. It had a government. It had institutions, and it had a military that wasn't prepared to shoot and kill its own people. It was much more educated about the rights of people, their citizenship.

It's just a different country. And I think they reacted one way. The Tunisians reacted very much like the Egyptians did, and the more repressive governments, Syria, Bahrain's king, Yemen, they reacted as they normally do, with great repression.

CONAN: We'll have to see what the president says about all of this on Thursday. Loren Jenkins, thanks as always for your time.

JENKINS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR senior Washington editor Loren Jenkins. Thanks to all of you who also called and sent us emails.

Coming up, we'll talk with New Yorker writer Jane Mayer about the government crackdown on leaks and the case of Thomas Drake. He says he blew the whistle on fraud, waste and abuse at the NSA. Next month, he faces a federal trial and 10 counts of espionage. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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