Fallows On The News

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President Obama called himself the first "Pacific president" while on his trip to Asia; suspects from the Sept. 11 attacks will go on trial in New York City, and a U.S. ambassador opposes Obama's plans for more troops in Afghanistan. Guy Raz reviews this weeks news with the Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows.

GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

With President Obama in Asia, there's only one man to turn to for a deeper look, and that would the Atlantic's James Fallows, our news analyst.

Jim, Ni Hao.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Ni Hao, Guy. Nice to talk to you.

RAZ: Now, in the old days, U.S. officials would come to China. They'd give them a bit of a scolding on human rights; they would sign a trade deal, smile and then move on. Nowadays, it's different. The U.S. has largely dispensed with trying to publicly talk human rights with the Chinese and presumably because of the country's economic leverage with the U.S.

Mr. FALLOWS: It's different, but it's not night and day different. And I think in the 30 years that the U.S. and China have had this relationship, since Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping had their first real agreement, it's always been complicated from the U.S. point of view, because there always have been cooperative elements that the U.S. want to pursue with the Chinese on economic fronts and others and they've always, of course, been areas where the two countries have disagreed.

And so the question has been maintaining the balance of having both the cooperative and the contentious issues. And I think the recent tone was set by Secretary Clinton, when she was in Beijing early this year when I was living there, when she was saying, yes, we have areas where we disagree and they're in liberties, in Tibet and all the rest, but we also have very important business we have to do together, where it's the global financial meltdown or environmental issues or whatever.

And so I think it's not just this sort of shift of financial leverage, but also the fact that it's been an ongoing balance the U.S. has always tried to work out.

RAZ: Jim, what is the president really after here on this visit? He's calling himself the first Pacific American president. What's behind this?

Mr. FALLOWS: I wonder how the shades of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon think about the first Pacific president since California looks out of the ocean too. I think that it's likely at the end of this trip. There's not going to be any tangible thing where you say oh, the world is different because Barack Obama went to Beijing and Singapore and the rest in 2009.

But I think it's important that he do it for sort of negative and positive symbolic ways. The negative reason is there's always a tendency - or the last, say 20 years, a tendency in Japan and China and Southeast Asia to think, oh, the U.S. is retreating. Oh, the U.S. doesn't care about the Pacific anymore. So simply going there and saying we care about the Pacific, we're here for the long run, we are vital et cetera, that's avoiding the negative.

The positive is pursuing, I think in particular with the Chinese, some areas where if the two countries work together, the world is going to be a lot better off than if they don't work together. Number one, the list in my view, would be environmental and climate issues but also dealing with the North Koreans, dealing with the Burmese, perhaps dealing with the Iranians. So avoiding a negative and perhaps promoting a positive - is I think the real agenda the president has.

RAZ: Jim, moving on now to matters domestically, the administration decided it would try the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, here in the U.S. in a federal court, how much of a gamble is that?

Mr. FALLOWS: It's a political gamble because, of course, there's going to be criticism of this and a logistic complication - because obviously, there's going to be question about rules of evidence. What can you do for - how can evidence that perhaps was extracted by torture be used in American courtroom? And what about the death penalty, which is not applied in New York state, et cetera?

But I think that as we hear of those complications, it's worth bearing in mind sort of two historical markers that this decision in my view represents. One is it's the Obama administration's answer to one of the basic questions about the so-called global war on terror, which is whether existing American institutions were capable of handling it on their own, whether the court system could handle it et cetera, et cetera.

The Bush administration explicitly answered that existing rules sort of like couldn't apply, which is how we had Guantanamo and the rest and this is a very powerful marker by the Obama administration saying, yes, our normal system can handle these.

The other is a kind of time limit. There have been times in American history where rules have been suspended in the past, by Lincoln in the Civil War, by Woodrow Wilson in World War I, by Franklin Roosevelt with his internment camps in World War II, but they all ended in two or three or four years, and now, it's been eight years that sort of suspended rules since 9/11. So I think it also is significant as a mark element in that way.

RAZ: Jim, we found out this week that the top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry who also happens to be the former top U.S. military official there, is opposing any troop increases - will oppose them. And then, at the same time, the top White House lawyer, Greg Craig, stepped down or was pushed out, depending on which story is accurate. Up until now, the administration's been pretty disciplined about avoiding the appearance of disunity.

Mr. FALLOWS: We can also have this as kind of a welcome to the big leagues moment for the administration. You know, I've been reading this past week David Plouffe's memoir of the campaign which is remarkable in many ways, including for how much the Obama campaign was able to keep a lid on leaks and sort of unauthorized disclosures and to keep the team going in one direction, which is often possible in a campaign, especially a winning one.

But it simply is the way of nature that as an administration goes on, factions evolve. The issues are so important that people begin taking their arguments outside the authorized channels. And so this is something the administration doesn't like but is a part of any governing process. And so we'll see whether the administration is able to cope with this disruption of having some of the arguments go public.

RAZ: That's our news analyst James Fallows. You can follow more of his insights on his blog. That's jamesfallows.theatlantic.com and we'll be talking more about the president's visit to China on this program tomorrow.

Jim, thanks so much.

Mr. FALLOWS: Thank you, guy. Zaijian.

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