White House Faces Foreign Crises On Multiple Fronts

NPR's Cokie Roberts and Ari Shapiro, and Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, discuss the shooting down of a passenger jet in Ukraine and the Israeli military invasion of Gaza.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We should just tell you, on our internal story list here, this next segment is labeled World In Turmoil Analysis.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That's an overstatement of course, but dramatic and tragic news from Ukraine and the Middle East can make it feel that way.

MONTAGNE: And we'll sort through both big stories with several voices this morning. Let's start with a brutal weekend in Gaza. Israel's army yesterday suffered its deadliest day in years, while the death toll among Palestinians has exceeded 500.

NPR's Cokie Roberts is tracking that story as it looks from the U.S. side. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is the Obama administration's goal as this conflict escalates?

ROBERTS: Well, the goal is to try to de-escalate the conflict and try to end it as best as possible. And we know that Secretary Kerry is in the region now. He is in Cairo. We heard him in an unguarded moment on the air yesterday talk about his determination to go to the region. He was doing five TV talk shows. The satellite was up the whole time, and he didn't realize that he was being recorded when he talked to an aide and said somewhat sarcastically, this is a hell of a pinpoint, and it's crazy not to go to the region.

And in fact, Secretary Kerry has gone to Cairo to try to get Egypt to do something to broker this deal.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's bring another voice into this conversation now. NPR's Ari Shapiro has just finished two weeks of really remarkable reporting in Israel. And, Ari, do you sense that either side is ready to stop shooting?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Israel would be quick to say that it offered to accept the Egyptian cease-fire proposal that came out almost a week ago. But Hamas, of course, said that met none of its concerns. Israel really is sensitive to international pressure. People talk about it around the dinner table. When news events unfold, they say, how will the international community respond? And we saw a public shift from Friday when President Obama spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu and said he supported the Israeli military's actions, to Sunday, when they had a phone conversation, and President Obama said he expressed real concern.

So you do see the international reaction start to change, which does put a different kind of pressure on Israel.

INSKEEP: What was the difference? Is it just that the Israeli ground operation began and so the casualty numbers began to soar?

SHAPIRO: Well, you remember, Thursday night the operation began. And yes, we saw one day after another of the bloodiest days since this conflict started. The civilian casualties were difficult to see from the beginning, but the numbers started increasing. The images started to become much more graphic, and that kind of galvanizes the international community to the point that now you have the United Nations Human Rights Council saying it's going to hold an emergency session this week to address the problem. It's not so much that people in Israel care deeply about international opinion, but they know that international pressure has been what has brought these conflicts to an end in the past.

MONTAGNE: Well, we just heard Cokie say that Secretary Kerry is eager to get back in there, but is anyone really able to mediate this conflict?

SHAPIRO: This is the big problem. Egypt has mediated the conflict in the past. Egypt's current government is not trusted by Hamas at all. Turkey is a possible broker, but Israel does not trust Turkey at all. The U.S. is, of course, trying to play a role, but the U.S. has lost some credibility after the broader peace talks that Kerry was mediating fell apart. So right now, there really is no great broker who could step in and mediate this.

INSKEEP: OK. Ari Shapiro, thank - oh, go ahead, Cokie.

ROBERTS: And Netanyahu is working hard to - to convince the American people. He has been all over the U.S. airwaves, defending his actions in Israel. He's trying to make sure that the United States doesn't broker any deal that he finds is not acceptable to him.

INSKEEP: Using a lot of sharp phrases like calling Gaza a fortress of terror, yesterday on television.

ROBERTS: Right.

INSKEEP: Now let's turn to the other big story here - Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Of course, that went down over Ukraine last week.

Cokie, the United States has accused Russian-backed rebels of shooting down the plane. Russia has not accepted what the U.S. says is the evidence here. So what is the U.S. doing to build the pressure?

ROBERTS: Well, again, Secretary Kerry could not have been stronger yesterday, sounding like the prosecutor he once was, going out and saying there's an enormous amount of evidence that Russia supplied the anti-aircraft missile that brought down the plane. He said the U.S. Intelligence Agencies had seen the launch of a missile from rebel held territory and that social media had confirmed it in conversations on social media that have since been taken down. And you had Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic head of the Intelligence Committee, saying that we are back to Cold War footing with Russia and calling on Putin to man up.

But the problem here is that when you give this kind of a list of indictments, you expect then the secretary to say what he's going to do about it. And the answer to that is, basically, well, Europe needs to do more, particularly Germany. And so that has just raised the voices loudly of the president's critics.

INSKEEP: Also - also you've got to wonder, you know, calling on Putin to man up, he might take off his shirt. Anything could happen there. You just never know.

MONTAGNE: (Laughing) Yeah, I actually, I almost - I want to see that, in truth.

Let's bring in one more voice. Fiona Hill is a specialist in Russia at the Brookings Institution. And, Fiona, is Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, actually feeling the pressure?

FIONA HILL: I don't think he is in the way that we're expecting him to. In many respects, there's some parallels here with the situation we've just been talking about with Gaza and Israel because Putin is the kind of person who really tries to shift the whole focus of development. He tries to respond with his own kind of pressure, and pushing back on the incidents that keep happening. If you recall the situation around Syria after the chemical weapons attack, where that we described very clearly to the Syrian authorities, Putin pushed that onto the Syrian rebels. And in fact, he managed to change the course of the conversation so much, that when Secretary Kerry made similar kinds of statements about the future of the conflict in Syria, or what the United States and others might do in terms of the chemical weapons, Putin leaped right in there, shifted the whole focus onto the Syrian chemical weapons issue and next thing, had seized the diplomatic high ground by making Russia in charge of the charge to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons, making everyone forget that, in actual fact, he just accused the rebels rather than the government using them.

So I'm afraid we might be heading in a very similar direction here on the whole tragedy in Ukraine while Putin is trying to shift the discussion to what's the actual conflict in Ukraine and is now making lots of statements about the importance of having a cease-fire, which is, you know, really the only way to resolve this tragedy.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, you have to wonder after - even after the downing of this jetliner, isn't it difficult to get key European nations to press too hard because their major energy supplier is Russia?

HILL: That's absolutely correct. And Putin has been emphasizing those kinds of ties very clearly over the last several weeks since we've heard all the discussions about sanctions. I mean, the tragedy of this is very grave, but of course the irony of it is that it came just a day or so after the imposition of the (unintelligible) sanctions by the United States. And Putin is now very clearly saying, we should not make a political gain out of this tragedy, you know, we need to focus on this awful thing that has happened to the victims of this flight. And again, we have to resolve the war. And the real problem here is the escalation of the conflict between the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian separatists. So again, he's changing the course of the conversation, making it very difficult also for the Europeans and the United States to work together.

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts, I'm giving you the last word. We've just got a few seconds. President Obama was criticized for the style of his response to the downing of this jetliner. What about the substance? Is a strategy emerging?

ROBERTS: The strategy seems to be to call on Europe to be tougher towards Russia. But the American people clearly, in a new poll out today, are saying don't get involved in any of these places. We don't want any more American involvement in the world. That's a problem for the president.

MONTAGNE: The analysis from Cokie Roberts, also NPR's Ari Shapiro. And we were also joined by Fiona Hill, who co-authored the book "Mr. Putin: Operative In The Kremlin."

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