Fallows On The News: The Death Of Alexander Haig

Alexander Haig, the four-star general who advised three presidents and had presidential ambitions of his own, passed away this week. Host Guy Raz talks with news analyst James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine about that and other big stories from the past week.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Guy Raz.

A meeting this past week between the president and the Dalai Lama may have had more than just a symbolic meaning.

Mr. LODI GYARI (Envoy for Dalai Lama, Washington): It was a wonderful meeting. There was a very strong this sort of chemistry between the two.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): Chinese officials have known about this. And, you know, their reaction is their reaction.

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RAZ: The voices of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Lodi Gyari, the Washington envoy for the Dalai Lama.

A Chinese government spokesman called the meeting seriously damaging to Sino-U.S. relations. But does this suggest a new approach by the Obama administration towards Beijing?

Well, for that story and others, Im joined by our regular news analyst James Fallows from California this week.

Hi, Jim.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Hi, Guy. Nice to speak with you.

RAZ: Jim, I want to ask, of course, about that meeting with the Dalai Lama. But, as we just heard from Dan Schorr in his personal essay, Alexander Haig was probably one of the most forceful figures here in Washington in the 1970s into the early 1980s.

What are your thoughts about Alexander Haig?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think because of the way that General Haig's public career ended up with his apparent overreach during the early Reagan administration and his failed campaign for the presidency, he has a worst reputation than he certainly did before that. And, as Daniel Schorr alluded to, during the Nixon administration, he played an important role in the saving the nation from some real constitutional problems.

And when we think now of really luminous political generals, of which David Petraeus is probably the current incumbent and Colin Powell was in the past, there was a time when Alexander Haig had that same kind of luster, which is I think worth remembering to this point.

RAZ: Hmm. Jim, moving on to the story about that meeting between the president and the Dalai Lama, every time the Dalai Lama meets with the president at the White House, the Chinese government protests.

Is it in America's interest to keep having these meetings with him?

Mr. FALLOWS: In my view, it is. Americans presidents have always received the Dalai Lama and sometimes it's been with great pomp, where he's addressed joint sessions of Congress in the past. And the Chinese always complain about this.

But in my view, it's very important that President Obama did this because it conveys the dual message of U.S. policy towards China - that we recognize the importance and the value of working with China as a partner. But there are certain areas where we disagree, including the Dalai Lama's role as a spiritual leader and the importance of religious toleration within China.

RAZ: My understanding is that the Dalai Lama does not publicly support self-determination independence for Tibet. Yet he is called, and this is a quote, "a jackal in a Buddhist monk's robes," by Chinese government officials who are worried about this movement - this secessionist movement in Tibet.

Why is there such a disconnect between the way they see the Dalai Lama and the rest of the world sees him?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think that from the Chinese government's point of view, a fundamental issue of regime survival and national survival is what they call combating Splitism, which is what they mean as separatist movements from Tibet, or Xinjiang where the Uighurs live, or Taiwan.

And thats why the Dalai Lama shrewdly has been careful to say he's not talking about formal independence, he's just talking about religious autonomy.

At the next level down, about the Dalai Lama himself, that quote you read about "a jackal in a Buddhist monk's robe," which remarkably was issued in English by a Chinese official, reflects the fact that they think the outside world has been duped by the Dalai Lama.

They view him as just kind of a covert operator for sedition, and they think we're all patsies for being taken in.

RAZ: Jim the Justice Department has now wrapped up an investigation looking into whether lawyers, working under the Bush administration, violated the law when, of course, they offered legal justifications for using brutal interrogation tactics on terror suspects.

This investigation, as you know, has concluded that neither John Yoo nor Jay Bybee, two of these lawyers, should be sanctioned in any way.

Reading through this report, did any of it surprise you?

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. Whats so striking about it is essentially being argued in a this was 9/11, conditions were different type of rationale. And one will note that the main memos in question were from the summer of 2002. But that is very powerfully his argument that it would be wrong to go back with complete retrospective vision and punish them for what we now know.

I think that the issue worth reflecting on - I think from an American point of view - is we do often have difficulty rendering accountability for things that in the long run look like real mistakes.

It took decades after World War II to have some kind of recognition of the internment of Japanese Americans. So this is in a way in keeping with our tradition, but the reputations of these men will always be affected.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can follow his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thanks so much.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you, Guy.

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