Week In Review: Obama's Nobel Prize, Afghanistan

President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize this week, just as he and his advisers were trying to set a clear strategy for the future of the war in Afghanistan. Host Scott Simon reviews the week in the news with Reihan Salam, a fellow at the New America Foundation and writer for publications including the National Review, Foreign Policy, Slate and the Washington Post.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize this week, just as he and his advisors were trying to set a clear strategy for the future of the war in Afghanistan. Dan Schorr is away this week. We're pleased to be joined now in the studio by Reihan Salam. He's a fellow at the New America Foundation, he's written for many publications and blogs, including the Washington Post, the National Review, the Daily Beast and Slate. Mr. Salam, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (New America Foundation): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Let's talk first about the Nobel Prize. You and the president both have Harvard in your background.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Grade inflation going on here?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SALAM: Well, it sure looks like it, Scott. But I don't know if we can blame President Obama for that, maybe we should blame the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

SIMON: Does this honor, an honor for all Americans, to be sure. As President Sarkozy of France said, this remind us how much the world really wants to love America. Does it come with any palpable political effect for the president?

Mr. SALAM: I think it does. I think it's subtle, but I think that for a lot of the president's most ardent supporters this is yet another sign that America has turned the page from the bad old Bush years, and for President Obama's critics it says here we go again, yet another undeserved laurel for a very young and very inexperienced and perhaps very naive president.

SIMON: I want to share with you an email I got from a listener. It says, quote: The liberal media establishment - I think she means me, not you�

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: �the liberal media establishment gave President Obama a free pass from having any ideas when he ran and now they give him a free pass from having any accomplishments when he's president, because he just says hope and change.

Mr. SALAM: I disagree with that slightly. I think that President Obama did have a lot of ideas when he ran for president. The thing is that back then he didn't emphasize the sacrifices they'd require and now he has to sell those sacrifices and he hasn't been doing a very good job of it. So I think that - again, he did have real ideas, but he doesn't seem to have the stomach all of the time for making some of the tough trade-offs.

SIMON: Like?

Mr. SALAM: Well, on health reform, for example. During the campaign he promised we're going to fix this system. There won't be an individual mandate and we're not going do it with any new taxes on anyone you know. It's going to be on those other folks. And now we're seeing that, wait a second, we need all of these compromises, we need an individual mandate, may be we need this, we need that. We might need to raise a lot of revenue to make this happen. And I think that he hasn't done a very good job of explaining those trade-offs. And that's one reason why he's floundered.

SIMON: A parenthetical issue, which may not be. President pointedly didn't meet with the Dalai Lama this week. President and the Dalai Lama are both Nobel Laureates now. Does this, does receiving this honor change any of the expectation on him as president of the United States?

Mr. SALAM: I won't lie to you. That's one thing I was hoping would happen, that somehow there's an alumni club of Nobel Laureates. And now that he's one of the gang, he has to look after not only the Dalai Lama, but also Daw Aung San Suu Kyi�

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SALAM: �in Burma. Then he also has to look after the interests of Shirin Ebadi, a human rights activist in Iran, and whole lot of other people who shared in that honor and who've made tremendous sacrifices for it. So that's one optimistic way of looking at it.

SIMON: There is a decision looming ahead on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. How do you see that debate is shaping up?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I think that the president and his advisors had concluded that a counterinsurgency strategy was the right way to move forward to bring some more peace and stability to Afghanistan. But I think they badly underestimated what that would take earlier on.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SALAM: And what they're seeing now is that among Democrats and also to a lesser degree among Republicans support for the war in Afghanistan is plummeting and they're scrambling to figure out how to make this work.

SIMON: Now, a lot of people have invoked the specter of Vietnam, quagmire. But would opting for what's called a lighter footprint of troops and resources be invoking the specter of the Rumsfeld Doctrine, as it once was in Iraq?

Mr. SALAM: I think it absolutely will. I think when you're thinking about the Rumsfeld Doctrine, it was yet again a kind of set of easy answers - oh, we can do it; it'll be a cakewalk without very many troops.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SALAM: And that's an easier way of selling something to the public because, hey, you know, its war, but its war on the cheap. And I think that President Obama as a candidate emphasized that we have to make trade-offs, we have to make sacrifices. And I think that's what he has to do now.

SIMON: Let me ask you, this week Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out about the ongoing investigation into the terrorist plot involving - he's identified as a Denver shuttle bus driver, but that might be parenthetical to his true vocation - Najibullah Zazi, allegedly to set - plot to set off hydrogen peroxide bombs.

The attorney general says this is the most - most serious terror plot since 9/11. Now, intelligence people say to us, you publicize our failures but not enough our successes. Has this story been overlooked?

Mr. SALAM: I think that this story has been handled very appropriately. Because again, this is a domestic terror plot involving Muslim immigrants. It's a very sensitive issue, and I think that, you know, you definitely want to make note of this as a success, but at the same time you don't want to trample on the local police and the FBI and the other authorities who are still involved in a very sensitive investigation where we don't have all the answers. So I actually think that the Obama White House has handled this very well.

SIMON: What do you make of Attorney General Holder saying that there were some - there were some features in what's now called the Patriot Act that assisted the investigation?

Mr. SALAM: Well, I don't know quite what to make of it, because in my view any president is going to want to amass as much power as they can. And lot of folks on the civil libertarian side who hoped that President Obama would try to curb some of the powers of the Patriot Act have been very disappointed. And when Attorney General Holder makes a statement, it's hard to tell what he means exactly.

Let's be a bit more specific. Because what's really happened with the Patriot Act is that a lot of the powers for sneak and peak have been used in drug cases rather than on terrorism cases. And so I'm a little worried about how much we've expanded this authority.

SIMON: Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New American Foundation. He contributes to a number of publications, including the Washington Post, National Review, Foreign Policy, Slate; Daily Beast too, right?

Mr. SALAM: Yes indeed.

SIMON: Okay. Well, thanks very much. Hope to see you again.

Mr. SALAM: Thank you.

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