Obama Inherits Wars, Poverty and Crises Abroad In his new book, The Inheritance, David Sanger writes about the multiple foreign policy challenges President-elect Obama will face when he takes office. Also, he reports on the top threats Obama will likely contend with during his presidency.
NPR logo

Obama Inherits Wars, Poverty and Crises Abroad

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99297736/99297731" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Obama Inherits Wars, Poverty and Crises Abroad

Obama Inherits Wars, Poverty and Crises Abroad

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99297736/99297731" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. It's clear that President-elect Obama would prefer to focus on the country's considerable economic problems when he takes office a week from today. But the world is unlikely to cooperate.

He faces unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza, big questions about Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea, crises in Darfur, Somalia, Congo, and Zimbabwe, economic and political challenges from Russia and China, and all with many fewer military, political, diplomatic, and financial resources than his predecessor began with eight years ago.

That and more are the subject of a book out today by the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, David Sanger, called "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power." Senior news analyst Ted Koppel joins us to talk with him.

And we want to hear from you. What do you think the new president's top priority ought to be in foreign policy from day one? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, just click on Talk of the Nation.

Later in the program, are Americans really going to want to drive electric cars? Are you? That e-mail address again is talk@npr.org. But first, Ted Koppel joins us from his home in Potomac, Maryland. Happy New Year, Ted. Nice to have you back.

TED KOPPEL: And the same to you, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And David Sanger joins us from our bureau in New York. David, thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. DAVID SANGER (Chief Washington Correspondent, New York Times): Great to be back with you, Neal, and with you, Ted.

KOPPEL: Thank you.

CONAN: And, David, many believe that President Bush and Vice President Cheney wanted to attack Iran's nuclear facilities before they left office. On Sunday, you broke a story that said they rebuffed Israeli requests for the equipment and overflight rights they needed so they could attack those facilities. Why did the administration turn them down?

Mr. SANGER: Well, you know, I think the common wisdom about what President Bush and maybe Vice President Cheney and certainly Defense Secretary Robert Gates had in mind for Iran was pretty backward.

Once we were in Iraq, I think it became clear to this White House that going after the Iranians would not only overstress a military that was already stretched to the limit, it would create 140,000 virtual hostages to Iranian retaliation, and it would probably drive the Iranian nuclear program further underground because they would throw out inspectors, maybe leave the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

And our chances of actually hitting most of the Iranian sites were fairly low because when you talk to intelligence officials - and in the 14 months I took off from the Times to go work on this book, I've talked to many of them - they don't know where all of it is.

So what happened in the spring of last year is that the Israelis, having read the national intelligence estimate that I think, Neal, we've talked about on this show before, which said that Iran had stopped the weapons development in 2003, which just means the design for the warhead, even while speeding ahead with the enrichment of uranium.

The Israelis read this, and they said to themselves, you know, George Bush has always said to us, don't worry, I'll take care of this before the end of my administration. They suddenly realized he wasn't.

So they came to the White House, and they said, we want four things. We want very high-end bunker-busting bombs. These are not the bunker-busters you are seeing being used in the Gaza. These are not for small tunnels and small underground installations. These are big weapons for going hundreds of feet underground.

CONAN: 5,000 pounds.

Mr. SANGER: They are 5,000 pounds and some experimental ones that are bigger. They wanted over-flight rights over Iraq, which was probably the most problematic part for the White House. We can come back to that. They wanted refueling capability because this is a long run for Israeli jets. And finally, they wanted defensive radar, a special kind of radar called X band, in case the Iranians retaliated with missile attacks.

To the first requests, the bunker-busters and to the refueling, President Bush just deflected the request. He said, you know, we'll consider it, but he basically made it clear he was pushing it off. On the over-flight right over Iraq, they said no way. They actually put it a little more vividly than that, but we are on public radio. And their concern was that the Iraqi reaction would be so strong that our troops could be invited to leave Iraq immediately. And then on the defensive radar, they said fine, we have to able to give you something, and they installed in September the beginnings of this radar system.

By that time, the Israelis had other problems. Prime Minister Olmert was involved in a corruption scandal that ultimately led him to announce he would resign. The situation in the Gaza was beginning heat up, and we've all seen what's happened there.

But I think we came pretty close, no one knows exactly how close last spring or summer, to an Israeli action, and you could tell that in part because the Israelis ran a military exercise in part made, I think, designed to spook the United States over the Mediterranean where they ran their jets just about the same distance that they would have to run to hit Natanz, which is the main enrichment facility.

KOPPEL: There's a great quote in your book. You quote an unnamed Bush administration official saying, there's a lot of people in Iran who worry that we're going to bomb their nuclear facilities, and there's a lot of people in the region who worry that we won't.

Mr. SANGER: That's right. And his point was not just that the Israelis worry that we won't, but that the Saudis and the Egyptians and others would love for us to take care of this problem so they don't have to.

CONAN: It does not, however, leave the incoming president with - may not leave him with a smoldering war going on, but nevertheless, he's still got a lot of problems with Iran. Interesting today that as the designate secretary of state, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton from New York, was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and asked how the Obama administration would deal with Iran.

Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Secretary Appointee, Department of State): We are not taking any option off the table at all. But we will pursue a new perhaps different approach that will become a cornerstone of what the Obama administration believes is an attitude toward engagement that might bear fruit.

CONAN: And Senator Clinton went on to say that a different approach is necessary because what we've been doing thus far isn't working.

Mr. SANGER: That's right. And, you know, I think to many people who have been concerned that the Bush administration was far too reluctant to engage the Iranians, that was welcome news.

In the book, I lay out a number of moments starting really in 2002 when the Iranians were quite helpful during our - in the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan, where George Bush had some real opportunities to engage Iran, and he turned them down. There was an offer from Iran, who knows how serious - it came in for remaking the relationship that actually arrived on fax machines at the State department the week of the mission accomplished speech.

Who knows if any of these would have born fruit? But the fact of the matter is, if we are headed to a confrontation, and there are many people who think that we are - we owe it to everybody to try every alternative first, and that means serious diplomacy.

That said, I guess coming out of the reporting from this book, the conclusion I have come to is that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don't have much time to get this solved. Diplomacy is a wonderful solution, but it takes a lot of time, and the centrifuges are spinning. The Iranians already have roughly enough uranium to build one nuclear weapon.

You don't break out and declare yourself a nuclear state with that small of an amount. But if the negotiations went on for one or two years at the pace at which they are adding onto their program, they could at the end of that say, you know, we don't really like how these negotiations are going, and we have enough for three or four weapons.


KOPPEL: One of the ironies, I'm sure David will agree, is that the United States for so many years supported Iraq and overlooked many of Saddam Hussein's more objectionable qualities, including the fact that he killed so many of his own people, in large measure because Iraq in those days was a counterweight to Iran.

And one of the reasons that we are in the mess with Iran today is precisely because we invaded Iraq. It barely even gets mentioned anymore these days, but when you're looking for counterweights in that region, there aren't many of them.

Mr. SANGER: Ted, you're exactly right. And, you know, this book, "The Inheritance," is about opportunity cost and the cost of strategic distraction. Its central argument is that we had many costs to the Iraq war, and this sets aside the question of whether going into Iraq was a good idea, a bad idea, or something in between.

The fact of the matter is that in addition to the 4,000 American killed and the $800 billion spent and the tens of thousands of Iraqis and Americans previously wounded, one of the real costs was that the senior leadership of the United States took its eye off the ball on many different issues.

Iran became number one because we simply could not confront the Iranians when we had our troops next door and particularly when we were in a position where the intelligence in Iraq had been so discredited that the president of United States, as he admitted to me during one press conference, couldn't stand up and say, we have a big nuclear problem going on in Iran. I mean that - he just didn't sound credible doing this in public.

But the same story is told in North Korea, which added its fuel for eight nuclear weapons in the weeks that we were invading Iraq, knowing that we were distracted on the other side of the world. It's true in Afghanistan, where we moved troops from one part - from one battle to the other, and we moved intelligence resources.

And it's true for the Chinese. And, Ted, you and I have discussed this in other contexts, where the Chinese saw that we were tied up in the Middle East, and they thought if ever they had an opportunity to spread their wings and their influence, this was it. And I think, you know, Ted documented that pretty well in your China series for Discovery.

KOPPEL: Well, one of the interesting things about China is that the Chinese in large measure have been underwriting the wars both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. This is the first time in American history that an administration has not raised additional taxes to fight a war.

Now, you have to find the money somewhere, and that $800 billion - we're coming close to a trillion dollars that's been spent on Iraq now - had to come from somewhere, and it came in some large measure from Treasury notes that we have sold to the Chinese and the Japanese and to some of the Persian Gulf states. So you have the ultimate irony of the Chinese in a very real respect underwriting our war in Iraq.

CONAN: More with senior news analyst Ted Koppel and with David Sanger about his new book "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to America's Power." What do you think his priority in foreign policy ought to be on day one a week from today? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Stay with us, I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today, we're talking about the challenges in foreign policy that then President Obama will face a week from today when he takes office.

Our guests, NPR analyst Ted Koppel and David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times whose new book is called "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to America's Power." If you'd like to read the President-elect Obama's September briefing in the bubble in the FBI building, you can find that excerpt on our Web site at npr.org, just click on Talk of the Nation.

And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. And this is Amir(ph), Amir with us calling from Tehran, the capital of Iran.

AMIR (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Amir.

AMIR: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

AMIR: Well, as an Iranian and in line with what your guest, David, said, I also believe that the number one or the first and foremost priority should be Iran. But now that we have Gaza, it is difficult to say that President Obama should start with Iran. I'd like to know what your guest, David, says about this.

CONAN: David, new president, as you note, can come into office with all kinds of plans and expectations about his - what his term or maybe two terms in office are going to be. And well, events can overtake that.

Mr. SANGER: They sure can, Ted - I mean Neal. I'm reminded that eight years ago just about last weekend, I was down interviewing President-elect Bush on his ranch, and he described a great domestic agenda, told me he planned to have a very humble foreign policy in which we didn't try to influence other countries very much, and look where we've ended up.

The question is, is Gaza going to be the number-one challenge? And it - yes, it will be the number-one short-term challenge. But let's remember what's the sideshow here and what's the big game for the Israelis. Gaza is vitally important to them not only because of the rocket attacks but because of the history of how you make this work and whether or not we can get to a two-state solution.

But to the Israelis, the longer-term threat is an Iran that is nuclear capable and trying to become the largest power within the Middle East. And to the Saudis and to the Egyptians and, you know, to the Sunni-Arab states, that's also the biggest issue. So while I'm sure that Gaza is going to occupy a lot of time and energy, as it should, I think over time, Iran is going to look in that region to be the much bigger issue.

KOPPEL: And we'll I think, Neal, if I can jump in just for one moment. We make a mistake when we fragment all these foreign policy issues. They are - not all of them perhaps, but most of them related. We cannot forget that the Iranians are providing the very missiles, the rockets that the Palestinians in Gaza are firing across the border into Israel.

And one of the reasons that the Iranians are providing them just as they provided support in Lebanon a couple of summers ago is because this is the way that they can counterbalance what is indisputably the greater U.S. military power. The Iranians have become masters at using their ability with these smaller groups like Hezbollah, like Hamas, and by helping and supporting those groups, they are distracting the United States not by accident, but very deliberately.

CONAN: It's also interesting to point out that the United States and Israel working on the American political calendar, perhaps trying to start this conflict before a new and unknown quantity arrives in the White House while the known quantity was there.

They're also working on their own political calendar. They have elections coming up in February, but the Iranians have elections coming up, too. And there are elections in Lebanon. Those calculations have to be made as well, and everybody is playing to the domestic political audience. Thank you very much for the call, Amir. Appreciate it.

AMIR: Oh, my pleasure.

CONAN: OK. David, I wanted to ask you, we mentioned the briefing. And this was a session that the then candidate Obama had in September with the director of national intelligence, Mike Mullen, in a very carefully guarded room at the FBI.

And the director of national intelligence told the then Democratic Party candidate about the threats to the United States. And he said, look, you can probably name the top five out of the six. But the sixth was quite interesting. You said it's the thing that Mullen is most concerned about and his pet issue, and that is cyber-terrorism.

Mr. SANGER: That's right. And, you know, they actually prepared this year much fuller briefings for both candidates than I think have been done before, although they didn't have as many times for briefing because of the financial crisis.

So the director of national intelligence put together with the help of the CIA and other intelligence agencies about 12 or 13 different reports on major issues. And as he said to me, you know, you could pretty well guess what most of the subjects were. And some of them were easy to guess, but there was also one on global warming and its potential national security effects.

And there was a really interesting one on cyber-terrorism. And the last chapter of the book is about cyber attacks. Just about a year ago this week, President Bush signed a national security order that for the first time placed in different parts of the government responsibility for taking care of cyber-attack issues.

Unfortunately, he classified the entire order, and most of the targets in the United States are in the private sector. There are banks. There are big brokerages. If you were going to try to bring the United States to its knees, you know, you'd start with the electrical systems, and you'd move on to the financial system. And, you know, we just about brought it to our knees without a cyber attack.

CONAN: I was going to say, who could possibly take out Lehman Brothers?

Mr. SANGER: That's right. In fact, at the time I was doing the interviews for this, Bear Stearns had just gone under, and it was being cited to me by many as an example of just this.

But here's the really interesting issue that I sort of came across in the course of doing this. One of the big questions in cyber attacks is the question of preemption. And you'll remember that after 9/11, the president issued a new doctrine that says, if we see a threat gathering, we can preempt it.

So apply that principle to cyber attacks, and one of the big debates going on just under the surface at the end of the Bush administration was, if you see through Chinese computers or through Russian computers or computers in Romania or any place - if you see a cyber attack gathering, a virus that would be spread through the American system or intended to bring down American computers, it's one thing to monitor it. Could you go in and wipe it out preemptively, and is that wise since we have so many more targets for foreign attack on us than they have for us to attack?

And this was never really resolved. I only found one case in which President Bush had issued an authorization for a cyber attack, and it involved an al-Qaeda cell, fairly small one in Iraq, where they went into the computers and tried to get a bunch of al-Qaeda to show up in the wrong place where there was a greeting party waiting for them. But the issue has certainly also come up, I think, in the case of Iran and other places where we could do preempt a cyber attacks. And the question is, is it wise to do so?

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. And let's go to Harold, Harold with us from Louisville in Kentucky.

HAROLD (Caller): Yeah, thank you very much. Yeah, the number one priority for President Obama (unintelligible) voted for history, get out of Iraq as he promised and leave virtually no troops there. I mean, other than what's absolutely necessarily for protection of the Embassy and some other things in it and to get us out of Afghanistan right away. It has all the earmarking space on it.

It's basically (unintelligible) like with Russia probably becoming our next Vietnam. We're pretty much surrounded there. And the only way we're going to solve that problem is to put in a large number of resources in troops and, which is going out turn into the Vietnam.

I am a Vietnam veteran anyway, retired Air Force officer. And war is - it's just not the answer. Only as a - that's our last resort, and we can use (unintelligible) other instruments of national power, financial, economic, and diplomacy in order to affect our national goals in that area of the world. And thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Harold, thanks for the call. And the United States has signed a status of forces agreement with Iraq which requires United States to withdraw all its forces by the end of 2011. But David, it seems like it's headed the other way in Afghanistan.

Mr. SANGER: It is. And, you know, the point that Harold made is one you hear often. I think many of people who supported Barack Obama were enthused by his declaration that he would get us out of Iraq. They are a little less enthused by his declaration that he's going to commit new forces to Afghanistan. Harold made the point that what you need here is all of the elements of national power.

And when you go through "The Inheritance," and you get to a chapter that I - or the set of chapters that I entitled "How the Good War Went Bad," it starts off with a fabulous speech that President Bush gave in 2002 at the Virginia Military Institute, which was the place that graduated George Marshall, the secretary of state from whom the Marshall Plan is named, and, of course, that was the plan that rebuilt Europe at the end of World War II.

And President Bush showed up and announced that this was a moment for a Marshall Plan in Afghanistan so that we could bring Afghanistan to the 20th century, stabilize it, give its people hope. And it was a classic example of giving a speech and having no program. And seven years later, we're still talking about how you get aid on the ground in Afghanistan. Senator Clinton was talking about it today at her confirmation hearing.

CONAN: Hmm hmm.

Mr. SANGER: And, you know, it's quite remarkable, but the result is that we ignored Afghanistan, and one of the reasons we are having to move troops back into it is because we never did the aid part, and we pulled our troops out prematurely.

CONAN: And, Ted, this bears on the question of Pakistan, which we have discussed at length on this program as well, and the difficulties of, well, what does the administration do? There's a policy now of bombing Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan which has apparently hit some important targets in recent days. Nevertheless, this is a policy president - the candidate Obama said he would follow, but this raises a lot of questions about what you're doing with Pakistan.

KOPPEL: It sure do - it certainly does, Neal. And one of the things that was a major story - I think it was in the Times this morning - David, you would know, either the Times or the Post. The story being that the Obama administration has pretty much decided that it has to go ahead with sending in an additional 30,000-plus U.S. troops. The purpose, however, being to buy enough time to figure out exactly what to do next.

And it underscores the point that David Sanger was making just a moment ago, and that is, it's not quite clear what the policy is to be in Afghanistan. But I will - just to come back to Iraq for a moment, I'll bet you a quarter, Neal, that we'll still be sitting here a year from now, and we will still have troops in Iraq, and we will still have troops in Iraq despite the status of forces agreement. We'll have U.S. troops in Iraq two, three, four years down the road.

Mr. SANGER: In the book, Ted, I have to say - not to sound too pessimistic for you - I agree completely with what you say. But in Afghanistan, I think we're probably going to have troops 20 or 30 years down the road.

KOPPEL: You're exactly right. I mean, there is - the Pentagon for years was calling this the long war. And they weren't just referring to Afghanistan. They weren't just referring to Iraq. They really were referring to the war against terrorism. And when they talk about the long war - and for some reason or another they stopped using that phrase - but when they talk about the long war, they're talking about a generational war.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, NPR senior news analyst. Also with us, David Sanger. We're talking about his new book, "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power." And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Marty(ph) on the line, Marty with us from Green Bay.

MARTY (Caller): Oh, hi. I have a son that just - is back from Iraq for a year now, and I so agree with the last caller that called in about war is not the answer. I hear from so many Quakers lately about why- and this is my question. Barack Obama had written that wonderful book about - "The Audacity of Hope" and saying that going to war in Iraq was not the answer.

I still don't understand why we need to go into Afghanistan in a war that has never been won by any civilization. Why do we not get the idea that war is not the answer? And when are we going to get out of this military industrial complex idea that that's the way to prosperity? It's not. How do we get that across? Stop killing.

CONAN: David Sanger, in your book, you at the end cite several illusions that President Obama will have to confront. Among them, I think exactly what Marty is talking about, and you describe it as an illusion that many of his supporters, many of the people who voted for him believe that he should adopt a policy similar to the one that Marty is talking about, that the use of force should not be resorted to by the United States.

Mr. SANGER: It's not that we don't all agree with Marty that we would love to be able to resolve all of these issues peacefully because of course we would. But what we've learned is that just as you can go in with too much force and not enough aid, you can also go into a problem with diplomacy that isn't backed up by the threat of force that is credible.

And I think one of the lessons that it may be difficult for many who supported Senator Obama to come to terms with - and this takes us back to our opening discussion about Iran - is that with some of the states we are dealing with, if there isn't lurking in the background the possibility that we would use overwhelming force, the diplomacy isn't going to work. And that's why you...

KOPPEL: Let me just jump in...

Mr. SANGER: That's why you heard Hilary Clinton say all options are on the table. I'm sorry, Ted.

KOPPEL: No, no, no, that's quite all right. There's one other point that I think needs to be made, and this is where I think people have been a little bit intolerant of what was motivating the Bush administration over these past eight years since 9/11.

Their great fear has always been a terrorist attack that would be married to a weapon of mass destruction. Whether that's a chemical weapon or a biological weapon or God forbid even a nuclear weapon, that is what is scaring the hell of out this administration, and I guarantee you, it's going to scare the hell out of the Obama administration, too.

And when you talk about putting all of those forces into Afghanistan, what you're really talking about is trying to create some kind of a counterweight to what is now going on inside Pakistan, a Muslim country that does have a number of nuclear weapons already.

Mr. SANGER: 100, and if I can just leap in for a sec, Neal, there are two parts of "The Inheritance" where I go deal with this. I spent a fair bit of time in Pakistan exploring...

CONAN: And we're going to give you 30 seconds to summarize it.

Mr. SANGER: OK. And, you know, that's a lot to be worried about, but at the end of the book, I discussed three vulnerabilities, and one of them is nuclear and one of them is bio and the other is cyber. What I was struck by, Neal, is how little work we have done on nuclear protection and detection in the United States.

CONAN: And should be pointed out in his book, David Sanger concludes that the insurgency in Pakistan today is an Islamic effort to overthrow the very weak government there and seize control of a regime which has 100 nuclear weapons. Marty, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

MARTY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. David Sanger, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. SANGER: Thank you.

CONAN: David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, the author most recently of "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power," and that book is out today. And Ted Koppel joined us from his home in Potomac, Maryland. Nice to have you back with us, Ted.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up, it's electric. We're talking about the future of the green car. What would make you want to drive an electric car? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.