ALLISON CURAZIO: Hi. This is Allison Curazio (ph) from Durango, Colo. I'm tracking my brother, sister-in-law and two nephews as they sail across the ocean from Hawaii to Oregon. This podcast was recorded at...
MILES PARKS, HOST:
1:06 p.m. on August 2, 2022.
CURAZIO: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. OK, here's the show.
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PARKS: Wow. How long do you think that takes, weeks?
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: (Laughter) By the time this airs, hopefully they will be a little closer to Oregon.
PARKS: (Laughter) Hopefully so if they've got the navigation going well.
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.
ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.
PARKS: And I just want to start with some news that happened last night. President Biden announced the U.S. killed a top al-Qaida leader and 9/11 organizer Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in Afghanistan.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats and American interests.
PARKS: Biden said that no one else was hurt in the strike, including al-Zawahiri's family, who were elsewhere in a safe house. He said there were no civilian casualties. And, Franco, let's just start with this. I mean, how big of a deal is this?
ORDOÑEZ: It's a real big deal. Al-Zawahiri was Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, and, as you said, dating all the way back to 911. And he took over leadership of the terrorist organization after bin Laden was killed in 2011 - during the Obama administration, obviously. And, of course, al-Qaida doesn't have the same kind of power that it once had back then, in 9/11 days, of course. And ISIS is a much bigger threat. But, you know, it's not only symbolism here. You know, the White House made clear that al-Zawahiri was still very active, creating videos and propaganda against the United States.
PARKS: Is this sort of a vindication of the president's message last year? At the time of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, he said that the military would continue to pursue members of terror groups without having the U.S. military so involved there.
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I'd say so. I mean, he said repeatedly that the United States needed to get out of the forever war. He argued that the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect American interests from terrorists. And he made clear that the United States needed to do more in other parts of the world, particularly competition with China, but also, frankly, interests domestically and foreign interests that would have a direct impact on the home front. And he said the United States could do all that while also keeping a close eye on Afghanistan, as well as other parts of the world where terrorists reside.
PARKS: So it does seem remarkable that considering all of the resources spent over the last two decades in Afghanistan that this happened after the withdrawal. Did the president or any other national security officials give any more details over the last few hours about how this came to be?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, they'd been tracking al-Zawahiri for months. I mean, dating back to earlier in the year, they noticed that some of his family had moved to Kabul, to Afghanistan. You know, obviously, months after the U.S. pull troops out, they later realized that al-Zawahiri himself had moved to this safe house in downtown Kabul.
And it's a big deal because, you know, one of the critiques against the administration, against Biden, for pulling out of Afghanistan was that this could become another safe haven for terrorist organizations. And that's a point that Biden made last night - that this shows, in his words, that the United States can do this in a different way, that it doesn't need the troops on the ground, and that by doing it this way, you can fulfill his promise that the United States could monitor and address any threat from groups like al-Qaida, like ISIS, wherever they may be.
PARKS: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we're back, we're going to talk about Nancy Pelosi landing in Taiwan today and the tension that's creating with China.
And we are back. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is visiting Taiwan today. She's the highest-ranking U.S. lawmaker to visit the country in more than 25 years. Joining me now to talk about that is Claudia Grisales, who covers Congress for NPR. Hey, Claudia.
CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hey there.
PARKS: And Emily Feng, who covers China. Hey, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Miles.
PARKS: So, Claudia, I want to start with you. This is part of a bigger Asia trip that Pelosi is on. Can you talk to us a little bit about where she's been and kind of her goals here?
GRISALES: Right. This is part of this broader trip to the Indo-Pacific. It began this past weekend. It's included stops to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. And there's been a small Democratic congressional delegation of members, including chairs of various committees. And at the start of this trip, she said it's part of a focus on mutual security, economic partnership and democratic governance in the region and to reaffirm America's strong and unshakable commitment to its allies and friends in the region.
PARKS: OK. So I want to zero in on Taiwan here, Emily. Can you give us, you know, as quickly as you can, kind of an update? This visit here is causing some tension with China. Can you explain to us exactly why that is?
FENG: Yeah, I'll try to be quick. In the 1940, China fought this devastating civil war, and the losing army fled to Taiwan in 1949, where they set up a rival government. And since then, for the last seven decades, these two governments, Taiwan - or as it confusingly calls itself, the Republic of China - and China - the People's Republic of China - have dueled over who gets to represent China as a country. Beijing has been trying to isolate Taiwan from a diplomatic stage for decades. And now, with Pelosi's visit, this is a pretty strong sign, the strongest in the last 25 years, that the U.S. is kind of treating Taiwan as if it's its own diplomatic entity. And that's why China is so angry.
PARKS: And how, exactly, has China responded to the news of this visit?
FENG: Well, it held military exercises in the days before - right across from the coast of Taiwan. Minutes after Pelosi landed, they announced they were going to do new military exercises in airspace and sea in a ring right around Taiwan. Some of those exercises are in areas that Taiwan technically controlled. So this is an escalation. But the ball is still in Beijing's court. They could escalate this even further. They could, for example, send fighter jets or ships directly towards Taiwan or in the airspace over it. They could, like China did in 1996, do missile tests in the direction of Taiwan. There have been active military battles throughout the 1950s and then something called the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in the '90s between China and Taiwan. So there's a history of military tension, and people are wondering if we're headed towards a Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis if this visit and the aftermath is not managed well.
PARKS: Franco, can you talk a little bit about the politics on the U.S. side of this - how politicians in the U.S. have traditionally thought of Taiwan? And has that been shifting, or has that kind of stayed the same over the last few decades?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, Emily was kind of getting at this. You know, it's a policy of strategic ambiguity where, you know, where the U.S. maintains official diplomatic relations with China, but unofficial relations with Taiwan. But, you know, as Emily said, the United States has kind of been raising these questions over and over again whether it was dropping the ambiguity part. Biden, for example, has said multiple times that the U.S. would protect Taiwan if China attacked - you know, really only to have his staff quickly to kind of walk back those comments, insisting that there was no change. And this is kind of in that kind of vein, you know? The White House is basically doing a very similar thing about Pelosi's visit. They're making all these statements that nothing is changing, that the strategic ambiguity policy is still intact. Yet, at the same time, obviously Pelosi's visit, you know, sends a strong message, and it's a message that China does not like.
PARKS: And, Claudia, how has Pelosi been talking about this visit? And then also, has there been any response from other members of Congress to this visit?
GRISALES: So Pelosi said in her statement that it is important to show solidarity here with Taiwan. For example, this is a full-circle moment for her. As our colleague Barbara Sprunt reported, this is part of a decades-long record of Pelosi's hawkish stance on China. And this followed a 1991 visit to Tiananmen Square, where protests took place there, where she and these other members unfurled a banner. It read - to those who died for democracy in China. It was a very tense moment. It was captured by various news outlets. But it revisits that moment, if you will. And she talked about the importance of being there further in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. She said that the Taiwan Relations Act set out America's commitment to a democratic Taiwan; it's time to revisit that vow. And she noted that Beijing has intensified tension with Taiwan. She said it's important to send a message to Beijing that Americans are watching. And she noted that this brutal crackdown in Hong Kong, for example, is all part of this - so sending a message that America is watching it. And we should note, too, Pelosi could be nearing - she could be in her final term as speaker. She made a commitment to leave as speaker after this term. So, again, it's just one of these full-circle moments.
PARKS: So, Franco, American policy around Taiwan has traditionally been fairly bipartisan, but I do wonder how complicated this is going to get from a geopolitical perspective and how this affects Biden's policies with respect to Russia and Ukraine, for instance?
ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it's a big deal. I mean, Biden acknowledged recently his concerns, or the military's concerns, about Pelosi going over there, and part of the reason is likely because of concerns about Russia and how it could impact, you know, the - Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Russia and China are already getting closer together, and this could throw them even closer together. You know, our colleague Barbara Sprunt spoke with Bonny Lin over at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and said that's a real threat.
BONNY LIN: You know, we should ask a question, is it possible one potential form of Chinese escalation could be to provide more geopolitical support to Russia? And if that's even on the table, then there's a lot of potential impact that the Pelosi visit might have.
ORDOÑEZ: I mean, Russia and China are now doing some military exercises together. At this point, you know, China has not gone full-fledged support with Russia over Ukraine, and there is big concern that this could drive China to be even more forceful. And that is absolutely not something that the White House, that President Biden wants.
PARKS: All right. Well, we're going to leave it there for today. We're going to watch as the story unfolds over the next couple of days and weeks. Emily Feng, thank you so much for joining us.
FENG: Thanks for having me.
PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.
GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.
ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.
PARKS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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