NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
After almost a quarter century as a Middle East specialist in the State Department, Aaron David Miller asked a pointed question in a new book: Why has the world's greatest super power failed to broker or impose a solution in the Middle East?
He concludes that at least part of the problem is that small powers in the region are much more deeply invested than the distant super power. Quote, "sometimes, we succeed," he writes. "But more often than not, we are distracted, hoodwinked, sidetracked or just plain screwed by small powers who want to befriend and use us at the same time."
Aaron David Miller believes that both peace is possible, and that the United States has an essential role, not, he says, because it's neutral, but precisely because of its unwavering support of Israel. He also argues that the next president would be well advised to take a position that better reflects Arab and Palestinian views.
What is the U.S. interest in the Middle East? Why is it important to try to broker agreements when conditions seem so unpromising and so many factions unwilling to take risks?
Our number: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Later in the hour, hundreds of flights are grounded for safety inspections right in the middle of a busy spring vacation season. If you're worried about how safe your plane is, you can ask the experts a little later.
But first, Aaron David Miller joins us here on Studio 3A. His new book is called "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace." Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Author, "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace"): It's a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And part of the book is advice to the next president, as I mentioned. Obviously, the current president has several months left in office, and says he believes there's plenty of time to reach an agreement before he leaves. Do you think he's right?
Mr. MILLER: I think it's possible. I mean, the reality is that the most important thing to come out of the Annapolis process is not a more robust American role. In fact, we're still on the sidelines.
The reality is that for the first time in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you got two guys - a Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and an Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert - who are having hours of serious conversation on the four core issues that drive and divide Israelis and Palestinian. And, yes, it is conceivable that by year's end, the two of them could reach agreement on a piece of paper. Whether that paper, the text, can be reconciled with the context, that's the real question.
CONAN: Yeah. You have, obviously, a very divide Palestinian polity, if you will, with Hamas in control in Gaza and, well, challenging for control in the West Bank as well. And Ehud Olmert - nobody really compares him much to Ariel Sharon or Yitzhak Rabin.
Mr. MILLER: Well, I think when Arabs and Israelis have succeeded, they've had leaders who had a historic legitimacy and were prepared to take risks. Right now, you don't have statesmen so much as very smart politicians who may in fact be interested in accomplishing something in order to maintain or retain their relevance with respect to their respective constituencies.
CONAN: What did you mean by the title, "The Much Too Promised Land"?
Mr. MILLER: Well, the conceit of the book, basically, is that Palestine was promised four times to its inhabitants, the first time, by a Muslim, Christian and Jewish god, who made overlapping promises to any innocent soul that was prepared to follow along; the second time, by the British in the wake of the First World War, in an effort to protect their empire from Suez to India; third time, by the U.N. general assembly in November '47, when they promised partition.
But it's the fourth promise that is really the focus of this book, and that is the American promise. And the American promise went something like this. If you're reasonable and if you agree with our optimistic and practical split-the-difference mentality, we will be there to help you. We can't do it for you, but we'll be there to help you deliver what neither god, the Brits, nor the U.N. could.
CONAN: And the United States, in many ways, was the successor to the British Empire, in a lot of ways, in terms of its military dominance of at least part of the world until the end of the Cold War and then much of the rest of the world. But nevertheless, the United States doesn't have to worry about its route through Suez to India. What's the United States' interest in this conflict?
Mr. MILLER: Well, I think there are several interests. It used to be that we're interested in increasing our influence at the expense of the Soviet Union. We're interested in maintaining access to oil at fair and reasonable prices. We are interested in avoiding an Arab-Israeli war. And we're also interested in supporting a very close ally, the state of Israel. So, all four of these things combined to create, not just an interest, but a role for the United States to play. And when we're smart and tough, we can actually get something done.
CONAN: Tough is a position the United States does not often take in the Middle East.
Mr. MILLER: No, it doesn't. In fact, toughness has to be accompanied by reassurance and empathy. Bill Clinton, for example, had tremendous empathy. I don't think there was a president that tried to do more, that cared more. But he wasn't tough enough. The three guys who, in my judgment, really accomplished the most - I call them the bad boys of American diplomacy, and after two pretty bad movies that were made in the 1990s, about two tough and irreverent Miami narcotics cops - Kissinger, Carter and Baker: Kissinger, for his disengagement agreements in the wake of the October war; Carter, for the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; and Jim Baker, for putting together the Madrid peace conference.
Both were empathetic, both gained the trust of Israeli and Arab leaders, but both were prepared to be very firm and tough when necessary.
CONAN: The United States - you quote, at one point, Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian negotiator and a wonderful woman, who says, you know, we don't ever get any of the carrots and all we get are sticks from the Americans.
Mr. MILLER: I think, by and large, that that has probably been the case. I don't look at the United States as an honest broker. The reality is what we want to be is an effective broker. We want to use what is a very close and special relationship with the state of Israel, powered largely by value affinity and to a certain degree by domestic politics.
We want to use that special relationship in which we have the trust and confidence of the Israelis to try to broker and mediate an agreement. And when we use the special relationship and not allow it to become an exclusive relationship, we can have a fair measure of success.
CONAN: Now, you point out the United States has unwaveringly supported the state of Israel. This is not a partisan issue. It's a bipartisan, nonpartisan issue for that matter. Nevertheless, given that, how can the United States be seen by the other side in this negotiations, the Arabs and Palestinians, as being an effective broker.
Mr. MILLER: Well, so that was the first Arab leader to figure out the virtues of the partial mediator, and it's a paradox. The fact is only when the United States has influence and leverage with both sides - particularly the Israelis, because the Arabs clearly want territory - can any mediator be effective. And we are the only third party that has this kind of relationship with both sides. And when we apply it wisely - Kissinger, Carter and Baker - we succeed.
CONAN: Yet, to one degree or another, those were all moments of crisis, moments of opportunity in the case of the Egyptian peace treaty. We're in a situation now, I guess, crisis is as good a description as any, yet what's the motivation?
Mr. MILLER: It's beyond crisis. The reality is that - and let's use a biblical metaphor here - you can't make bricks without straw. The fact is you need a crisis and/or an opportunity in order to impel the Arabs and the Israelis to take the kinds of excruciatingly painful steps that are required. It is then and only then that the Americans can come in and play the role of effective mediator. It is no coincidence that all three breakthroughs - Egyptian-Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian, and Israeli-Jordanian - occurred as a consequence of processes about which we are not aware.
CONAN: We're talking with Aaron David Miller about his new book "The Much Too Promised Land." If you'd like to join the conversation, our phone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is email@example.com.
Let's begin with Freddie(ph). Freddie, with us from West Lake in Ohio.
FREDDIE (Caller): Thank you very kindly for taking my call.
I agree totally with your guest there. If you are going to have peace in the Middle East, and you want to save the $10 billion that you give annually to Israel, you have to involve all the parties, especially Hamas. Hamas is liked by the Palestinian, not because of their terrorism. They are liked by their social program. And if America doesn't realize this, you will never, never - you know, get peace to the Middle East.
Furthermore, as a Palestinian, I do not like (unintelligible) to go to all corrupt. Hamas, there is some corruption but it's way, way less. Third of all, sir, and it's oddly brief, is if you - if America does not condemn actions like the Gaza people are living in sardines. They limit every - they live like a puck in a bottle. How can America justify its sense and be the sole broker in the Middle East for the peace process there?
CONAN: Well, there's a lot in there, but Aaron David Miller, do you have any…
Mr. MILLER: Well, first of all, we don't give $10 billion to the Israelis every year. But the caller has identified a very important point, and that is this that it is virtually impossible to try to make peace with a divided Palestinian polity - for one practical reason: Mahmoud Abbas does not have the stature, the legitimacy or the scope of control to deliver the entire Palestinian constituency to an agreement. And if you are an Israeli prime minister - let's just look at the Israeli side for a minute - you are not going to make existential concessions to a Palestinian partner that doesn't control all of the guns.
Whether it's the District of Columbia, the government of Sweden, the government of Egypt, a state must maintain the monopoly over the forces of violence within its society. Otherwise, it will not be respected by its neighbors or its constituents.
CONAN: Now, there have been other processes - and you go through a lot of diplomatic history in your book. For example, the PLO was once considered to be on the outside, unacceptable as anybody, that either the Israelis or the Americans could talk to. This was largely ended by the Oslo process, and it was a process of bringing in people regarded at that time as terrorists.
Mr. MILLER: Exactly, but the key to Oslo is not a U.S.-PLO dialogue. The key to Oslo was that Vienna Norwegians, senior Israeli and PLO negotiators came to this reconciliation, this sense of mutual recognition on their own. And if in fact Hamas is going to be brought into the process, it will not be as a consequence of America talking to Hamas. It will be a consequence of the Israelis acquiescing, at least initially, perhaps in some sort of informal accommodation.
We are like Gulliver. We're a great power wondering around in a world of small tribes that most of the time I'm not sure we understand.
CONAN: There's a moment you described at the beginning of the book, where you find yourself with a tape measure out on the asphalt and trying to - what were you doing and what do they have to do with that point you were just making?
Mr. MILLER: As part of the Hebron negotiations in 1996, one - and it shows you just how much great powers can be reduced to the travails and the intricacies of small tribes. A piece of road in the city of Hebron, the Shuhada road, became a central sticking point in negotiations. I was charged with literally going with USAID to measure the width of this road.
And there I was - it was raining - under the guise of hostile Israeli settlers and dour and extremely curious Palestinians, on my hands and knees with a measure, trying to measure the width of this road. And frankly, I felt ridiculous. This was a representative of the greatest power on the face of the Earth, on his hands and knees in the market in Hebron, trying to take the measure of a road.
When you involve yourself with small tribes, you have to get into part of their business. But you also have to remain a certain sense of detachment and let them know at all times that you are the great power.
CONAN: We're talking with Aaron David Miller, 24 years in the State Department, about the long search for Arab-Israeli peace and his book "The Much Too Promised Land." 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
The path to peace in the Middle East has been filled with roadblocks, literal and figurative. We're talking about America's role in that process with Aaron David Miller. His new book is called "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."
For more than two decades, he has worked on solving the policy puzzle. You can read about how he got in to foreign affairs in an excerpt at our Web site at npr.org/talk. And there, you can also find a link to his Web site.
If you have questions about the role of the United States in brokering an Arab-Israeli peace, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: email@example.com. You can also check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Here's an e-mail from James(ph) in Denver. I highly doubt that in our current political atmosphere, there's any hope of a president willing to support or even appear to support the Arab or Palestinian cause over the Israelis. Perhaps, our best course of action, were it politically feasible, would be to just stay out of these issues altogether and allow them to attempt to resolve their own issues.
Mr. MILLER: It'd be nice, but I don't think we can afford it. The fact is in the wake of 9/11, one reality should have imposed itself on most Americans, and that is this: that the treat that we will face for the next generation will not come from an ascended China, it's not going to come from an economically powerful and united Europe, it's not even going to come from a former Soviet Union seeking to regain its past glory, it's going to come from a highly dysfunctional Middle East in which there is tremendous rage and humiliation, unresolved conflicts. And if in fact the organizing principle of the nation's foreign policy is to protect the homeland, we have to be involved in that part of the world. We absolutely have to be involved.
You know, I'm a baseball fan, and Casey Stengel, the great Yankees manager, once said that the key to good management is keeping the nine guys who hate your guts away from the nine guys who haven't made up their minds. And there are a lot of people out in that region who want to look at the United States as a force for positive change.
One of the issues that continues to resonate out there is an unresolved Arab-Israeli issue. And America has a capacity, demonstrated in the past, not to impose but to help both sides manage this conflict with a view toward resolving it.
CONAN: Let's talk now with Paul(ph). Paul, with us from San Jose in California.
PAUL (Caller): How are you today?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
PAUL: Good. You know, I would just - my opinion is that neither side really wants peace. Every time any kind of settlement gets close, one side will do something to mess it up. And frankly, I think the only thing we should be doing is just supporting Israel because they are the watchdogs of their area, and they're the only ones who really are rational, and just leave everybody else to their own devices.
CONAN: Is that an accurate description?
Mr. MILLER: I don't think so. But Paul raises, I think, a very important point, and that is until the parties are persuaded, that there is enough urgency - and sadly, and I don't mean to be callous here, enough pain to impel them to act, we're going to see this conflict continue. Great powers, historically, just don't have the capacity to resolve conflicts that are based on historical trauma, on identity, on religious affiliation and on memory.
I don't think there's a precedent in the international system for a great power actually resolving on its own, certainly, that kind of conflict.
PAUL: There isn't a precedent even from the - biblical days to now, where a great power has been able to do anything to - except for just try to contain this kind of a situation, you know, in any means at all, with any means.
Mr. MILLER: Paul raises a very important point, and Americans need to understand it. The history of the Middle East is literally littered, with the remains of great powers who thought they could somehow follow their own interests and impose their will on smaller powers. And the reality is it's never happened. And it can't happen, in part, because of who we are.
We are the greatest power on the face of the Earth, and yet our unique geographic situation - the fact that we have non-predatory neighbors to our north and south, and literally fish to our east and west - has made us, in some respects, practical, optimistic, but also very naive. We do not know what it's like to live on the knife's edge. And yet, this is exactly where these people live, on the knife's edge.
CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call.
PAUL: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: And you've talked a moment ago about the humiliation and rage that a lot of Palestinians and Arabs feel because of who the United States supports in the region. And that's not just Israel but it's regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that are autocratic, monarchical, that limit the rights of their people in very important ways, that these regimes are hated by many of their people.
Mr. MILLER: It's a critical point. The sources of Arab and Muslim anger toward the West and particularly toward the United States are multifaceted and they run very deep. It's not just because of our special relationship with the Israelis. It's, in large part, because of our policies across the board, including our support for authoritarian regimes even while we espouse - as this administration has - with some legitimacy, it seems to me, unlike any of its predecessors the importance of pluralism, of rule of law and democracy. But that anger is not going away.
And if in fact we want to find a way to moderate it, we can't just placate and surrender, but we have to be a lot smarter in the way we conduct our public diplomacy and a lot smarter in the way we conduct our private diplomacy. We have to protect American interest, and I have to make it clear what it is we stand for.
You know, there's this notion out there of hearts and minds. We have to win hearts and minds. The truth is it's the reverse. It's not hearts and minds, it's minds and hearts. You don't appeal to somebody by changing the pretty bow on the package while the contents were the same. You basically appeal to what they perceive to be. And once there is a fair meeting of interests and mutual requirements are met, then the hearts follow.
CONAN: But how does the United States change its policy towards Egypt, which is a lynchpin of U.S. policy in the Middle East?
Mr. MILLER: I think there are limitations, frankly, right now on what we can do out there. We have dug ourselves, in the wake of 9/11, a very big hole. And - I'm not offering advice to a new Republican or Democratic president, but if I would offer advice, the first piece of advice would be stop digging. And the second piece of advice would be don't measure your policies in terms of administrations.
I measure my entire life in terms of administrations. That's not how our adversaries think. That's not how our friends think. We need a longer-term policy that makes sense for America, a smarter public diplomacy, a better balanced policy with respect to the Arab-Israeli issue. Yes, we need a good intelligence, and at times maybe even preemptive military action. But we need a robust diplomacy to associate the United States, not just with occupation and invasion and Abu Ghraib, but something that makes sense to the rest of the world. And, frankly, I would argue to most Americans.
CONAN: Let's talk with Clarence(ph). Clarence, calling us from Aaron David Miller's hometown in Cleveland, Ohio.
CLARENCE (Caller): Hi, Aaron. How are you?
Mr. MILLER: I'm fine. How are you?
CLARENCE: I heard you speak at the Cleveland Council on World Affairs many times.
Mr. MILLER: Thank you very much.
CLARENCE: My question is what is it that we haven't done and we need to do that can really change the whole fabric of the Middle East situation? I'll take my question off - my answer off the air.
CONAN: Clarence, thanks very much for the call.
Mr. MILLER: You know, Clarence, I wish there were a magic bullet or some sort of amulet or magic elixir that we could somehow mix up that would protect our interests across the border. But the truth is there really isn't.
Great powers, frankly, are never going to be loved. But they should at least be respected. And there are so many problems out there, so many problems, that first and foremost, I think we have to figure out a way to determine what makes sense for American interests, and fashion a strategy which follows that.
This administration - and I worked for Collin Powell for two years, a fine man - made a decision, made a choice in the wake of 9/11 to pursue a set of policies, which has dug a very, very deep hole for the United States and has cost us deeply and broadly throughout the entire region. We've got to figure out a way, certainly in the next administration, to extricate ourselves from Iraq, to figure out a way to deal with the problem of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear proliferation, and figure out a way to have a sensible Arab-Israeli diplomacy.
I wouldn't even presume right now because the truth is I don't know how we're going to do any of these things, but we have to do them, keeping two things in mind. Number one, we have to pay attention to the past. We can't simply willfully ignore history. And second, we have to look at the world, not the way we want it to be, through our ideology or through our domestic politics. We have to look at the world the way it is, and we have to do a lot more listening to the rest of the world and not as much talking.
CONAN: You write about - we were talking about earlier the difference between big powers and smaller powers and how sometimes the - well, often, the major powers are subject to the wins of the smaller powers or - nevertheless, Israel, in that region, is not a small power, and Egypt is certainly not a small power. And there are smaller powers in that region - Hamas, Hezbollah - who are, in fact, using the tactics of the weak against them and against people like the government in Lebanon, certainly not a strong power.
Mr. MILLER: It's an excellent point. And what you see is a certain measure of asymmetry. Everyday in the Middle East now, small ends up besting Gulliver. It happens with Hamas, where Qassam rockets have - will, over time, increase their range against the Middle East's most preeminent military power. It happens in Lebanon with Hezbollah, where for 38 days, Hezbollah, as a consequence of being supplied with relatively low-technology rocketry from Iran and Syria, managed to shut down the northern half of Israel. And it happens in Iraq despite the surge, where and insurgency, a determined insurgency, continues to wreak havoc, not only with the American military despite reduced casualties, but with Iraqi central authority.
So, you're dealing with a part of the world in which small is meaner, more determined and will, in the end, have a greater stake in the outcome of these problems than big and distant will ever have.
CONAN: E-mail from David(ph) in Salt Lake City. Is there a third party other than the U.S. both the Israelis and Palestinians could agree on to mediate and be effective?
Mr. MILLER: I wish there were because America could then get out of the luxury of being a mediator, which is not a happy position to be in, because in the end, no one's going to plant a tree in your honor if you succeeded brokering Arab-Israeli peace. Just ask Jimmy Carter. Just ask Jimmy Carter.
The reality is that until another party has a close relationship with both sides of the conflict, we become the indispensable mediator, because no one in the international system enjoys the trust and confidence of the Israelis. And when we use that special relationship wisely with firmness and with empathy, we can succeed.
CONAN: Interestingly, a Russian proposal floated to host a peace conference was received in Israel yesterday and rejected in Israel yesterday.
Mr. MILLER: I mean, I'm not in favor - even though the Russians certainly should be involved as they are as part of the quartet, together with the European Union, the U.N. and the United States. I'm not really not in favor these days of a vent-driven diplomacy. We don't need another peace conference. What we need is a serious negotiating process driven by the Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps brokered by the United States that gets at the core needs and mutual requirements of each side.
CONAN: We're talking with Aaron David Miller. Again, his book is "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go to John(ph). John, with us from Charlottesville, Virginia.
JOHN (Caller): How are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
JOHN: Hey, I just lived over the Middle East as a kid and I kind of watched how things worked. And I wonder, is it possible to have a peace broker, you know, broker between the two (unintelligible). In order to get anything done, you have to let the other side feel they are getting won over on you. And if both sides are negotiating like that, how could anything get done?
CONAN: Mm-hmm. What, at this point, do - would you decide to have to give up to reach an agreement?
JOHN: Well, at least from halfway.
JOHN: It doesn't seem like either one of them are truly willing to go halfway and acknowledge the fact that you're going to have to feel a little bit of pain for, you know, for the peace.
CONAN: Well, not more. Just a little bit of pain. But anyway, Aaron David Miller?
Mr. MILLER: I mean, the caller is absolutely right. You know, nobody in life, whether it's in your personal relationships or your career or certainly not in diplomacy, gets 100 percent. I mean, in this side of heaven, there's no perfect justice.
Mr. MILLER: I think what needs to be emblazoned over the portal of every negotiating room in the world is a wonderful expression: You shall not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. And that's the real problem here. Neither side is yet prepared to acknowledge what the core needs and mutual requirements of the other side are. The only real precedent for that was an Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and an Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty, which was a lot less complicated.
Right now, you've got a problem - you've got an established state involved in a peace process with half of a national movement seeking to become a state and the other half in conflict with the Israelis. So, right now, it's dysfunctional and frankly, if I was back in government - and I'm glad I'm not - I'm not sure I'd have any real practical advice for how to proceed.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.
I did want to say, your former colleague, Dennis Ross, has been on this program and many others, of course, but, basically, to say, look, we know what the outlines of an eventual agreement are. It's going to be very close to what was realized at Taba, the last round of the Camp David talks. Nevertheless, we're not close to being there.
Mr. MILLER: I think that's exactly right. And the problem is not the absence of clever, diplomatic formula invented by midlevel negotiators. The problem now is the absence of political will and the necessity of each side psychologically coming to the conclusion that to do a conflict-ending agreement, to literally end the conflict once and for all, each side is going to have to meet the needs and requirements of the other in a way that makes it possible for an agreement to endure. And right now, that's - the chances of that happening are slim to none.
CONAN: And indeed, the perception that a lot of people had was that we were just a (unintelligible) away from an agreement at Camp David with - in the Clinton administration. You say that's a fundamental mistake.
Mr. MILLER: You know, it really is. You know, there are basically three schools about Camp David: The orthodox school, which said Barak laid out the best offer ever, Palestinians should have taken it, Arafat rejected it and went to violence; the revisionists, who argue that it was everybody's fault. There's another school. I would argue it's the determinists. It's my school. There was no chance in July of 2000, zero chance, that Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, under the auspices of Bill Clinton, could have reached a conflict and an agreement on these four core issues: Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security - no chance.
Our mistake was to listen too carefully to the Israelis who wanted the summit, not to take charge of the summit and not to have a effective plan B in the event the summit failed.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller, do you think there's any prospect in your lifetime that this is going to be resolved?
Mr. MILLER: You know, Neal, the last president to have an impact on me was Jack Kennedy. I was 13 years old when he was assassinated. And Kennedy described himself - and by the way, I'm no Jack Kennedy. Kennedy described himself as an idealist without illusion. That's what we need to be. We need to be idealistic, never stop trying, but as we go through this process, we really have to do so with our eyes open.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar and author of "The Much Too Promised Land." He joined us here in Studio 3A.
Thanks very much for your time.
Mr. MILLER: You're welcome.
CONAN: Coming up, hundreds of flights are grounded for safety inspections. Nervous? We've got answers for you on airplane safety just in time for your spring vacation, so stay with us. If you'd like to join that conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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