GWEN IFILL, "WASHINGTON WEEK" MODERATOR: On the foreign policy front, we go to Syria, Jordan, Ukraine and Russia. On the domestic front, we explore economic breakthroughs in 2015 trip-ups -- tonight on WASHINGTON WEEK.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives.
IFILL (voice-over): But another innocent life reportedly taken today, this time of an American hostage, races the ante for American involvement abroad against Islamic state terrorists.
Plus, in Eastern Ukraine --
JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The president is reviewing all of his options. Among those is options, obviously, is the possibility of providing defensive -- defensive assistance to Ukraine.
IFILL: Back home, wages are up, employers are adding workers, and more Americans are looking for jobs -- actual good economic news.
And 2016 presidential hopefuls running to the campaign cycle's first full-scale distraction: the vaccine debate.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Apparently to have some measure of choice as well. So, that's the balance that the government has to decide.
IFILL: As the measles outbreak intensifies, what do the candidates' answers tell us about what kind of president they would make?
Covering the week: Doyle McManus, Washington columnist for "The Los Angeles Times", Michael Crowley, senior foreign policy reporter for "Politico", Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC, and Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for "The Washington Post."
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is WASHINGTON WEEK with Gwen Ifill.
Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
IFILL: Good evening.
Tonight two, huge simmering foreign policy challenges top Washington's agenda. In each case, the front-burner question is the same -- how far will or can the U.S. go to come to the aid of its allies?
Ally number one, Jordan. King Abdullah was in Washington this week when a Jordanian pilot was executed, burned alive. He met with President Obama and then rushed home, leaving behind a rare bipartisan agreement that the U.S. should step up to defeat ISIS.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: There's an awful lot of things already in the pipeline, but speeding that process up through the bureaucracy would certainly help the Jordanians in a time of significant need.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: I believe that the administration should move quickly to give more capacity to the Jordanians.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: Ally number two, Ukraine, where everyone does not agree on the U.S. role. Should we arm the Ukraine government against a Russian-backed incursion or stick with the hope of a diplomatic solution?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It's up to those who believe in struggling democracies to stand up and be counted and do the very basic thing that's required of a friend, give you the tools to help yourself.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: But so far, the White House has resisted sending lethal aid.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: We cannot afford to be guarded by alarmism and nearly instantaneous news cycle.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: Starting with the rise of the Islamic State and today's report of a death of an American hostage, Doyle, where do things stand tonight?
DOYLE MCMANUS, LOS ANGELES TIMES: Well, Gwen, things at the end of the week are rather sobering and sad, because that young woman, her name was Kayla Mueller. She was 26 years old from Prescott, Arizona.
Here's the heartbreaking thing, she went to Syria as a volunteer aid worker. She was kidnapped about 18 months ago. Now, there’s no confirmation that she was killed.
IFILL: I was going to make that point.
MCMANUS: ISIS usually releases a videotape. In this case, they claim she was killed in a Jordanian air strike. Speculation is she may have been killed, but they usually release a videotape. They didn't have a videotape because she wasn't really killed in the Jordanian air strike.
The Jordan airstrikes, of course, were a consequence of horrifying and barbaric execution of that Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kaseasbeh, killed at the beginning of the week. And a lot of people looked at this news and thought, why on earth did they do this? Why such further?
IFILL: But does this change, what, the U.S. policy about hostage-taking, which is they don’t -- they won't deal with it, or does it change Jordan's role in the regional conflict against ISIS?
MCMANUS: It doesn't change either of those policies and, OK, in a sense that's kind of a bittersweet victory out of this, because ISIS was clearly trying to change Jordanian policy. The whole point of what they're doing, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone watch the videotape. But if you watch the whole videotape after the execution, they issue a call to their supporters to kill other Jordanian pilots and actually post purportedly the pictures, names and home addresses of Jordanian pilots.
So, this was supposed to do two things. It was supposed to shake Jordanians' faith in the war in their regime. It was supposed to shake faith particularly in the air force and Jordanian armed forces. That didn't happen.
Jordanians reacted in a sense normally -- asked, demanded revenge. The king ordered the execution of two prisoners who were already on death row, al Qaeda prisoners, and then carried out a series of air strikes.
IFILL: OK, Michael, let's go to Ukraine where there were also efforts under way to change U.S. policy, in this case get the U.S. more directly involved in providing lethal aid to prop up the Ukrainian government as the incursions in the eastern part of the country continue and actually build.
MICHAEL CROWLEY, POLITICO: Yes, in fact things are worse. So, we're about a year into this conflict. First, you had the annexation of Crimea, which was bloodless and basically peaceful. There were some low-level violence. Now, what we have is a low intensity conflict, some would call it an outright war in Eastern Europe, in Eastern Ukraine, 5,000 dead now, hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
And there is a debate in the Obama administration to the effect of we have applied all of these sanctions, U.S. sanctions, European sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and it's not changing Vladimir Putin's behavior, nor is the fact that Putin's economy is in deep trouble, Russia is really feeling the economic pain, and if anything, he's escalating. There was a cease-fire agreement in September, which is now basically in tatters.
Today, French President Hollande and German Chancellor Merkel went on an extraordinary trip to Moscow after stopping in Kiev to meet with Putin. There was hope that they had some kind of skeleton key here, some plan, some deal that would unlock this all and deescalate from this moment we're at where there's talk of military escalation from the West, from the United States.
They've left Moscow, it appears basically empty-handed. They're going to keep talking but we have no breakthrough.
IFILL: So, the U.S. obviously is not part of these discussions. And was the dearest hope of the administration that this would get sorted out without their involvement?
CROWLEY: Not only the administration but Europeans. The Europeans by and large don't want to see an escalation here. In fact, Hollande a few weeks ago said we should start thinking about reducing the sanctions as a carrot to try to get Putin to back off.
The Europeans don't like the sanctions. They're trying to get their economies out of the mud.
And President Obama does not want to send lethal aid. It would be defensive. It's anti-tank missiles, its surveillance drones, it's radar. But -- so, it's not offensive weapons, it's defensive. But Obama does not, I think, want to get into a more intense confrontation with Putin in which many people worry Putin will simply double down, respond to the challenge by escalating, and then the violence spirals and who knows what happens.
EAMON JAVERS, CNBC: Michael, where are the Europeans now on sanctions? Remember, the Obama administration was very careful as they worked with the European allies on economic sanctions against Russia because they wanted to bring those Europeans along and present the united front. Is that united front starting to fracture now?
CROWLEY: Yes. So, as I said, President Hollande raised this idea of dialing back the sanctions. The Greeks have also expressed some skepticism about the sanctions regime. And I don't have to tell you, the European economy has been in deep pain and this doesn't help.
In addition, Europe really depends on Russia for energy. The Germans are concerned about that. That said, the Europeans by and large would prefer the sanctions route to the military route.
I spoke to a German diplomat this week who was saying, you Americans are talking about sending arms. Do you know where this is headed? Do you know what he's likely to do next? It's really dangerous. So, they may prefer sanctions, even if they don't like them, to escalation of military aid.
KAREN TUMULTY, THE WASHINGTON POST: But, Doyle, speaking united fronts, back to ISIS, there's an international coalition that's been assembled to push ISIS back. What is the big picture here? I mean, are they making progress?
MCMANUS: Well, if you -- if you wanted to look for anything in common between these two crises we're talking about, I think it's in that question. First, you've got a coalition that's under strain. In the case of ISIS, of course, they were trying to get Jordan out but also the other Arab countries.
We only learned this week that the United Arab Emirates, who had been very enthusiastic at the outset in terms of air strikes, pulled their pilots out of this after that Jordanian was shot down because they didn't think the search and rescue, or their excuse was they didn't think their search and rescue, the American search and rescue preparations were forward enough and quick enough.
Now, here's a small, little detail -- in those Middle Eastern countries, pilots in the air force are usually from the elite. These are people from very good and very influential families. So, that's a real pressure point.
Now, how do you measure progress in either one of these cases? That's very, very tough and --
IFILL: And diplomacy is not on the table when you're dealing with ISIS.
MCMANUS: No. And they're you're looking at a military struggle in Iraq which, number one, which is making some progress but it's agonizingly slow. They're still talking about hopefully retaking Mosul, the second largest city, later this -- some time later this year.
In Syria, there's still no clear strategy, and in fact if you look at the way the territory has moved, some people are arguing ISIS is moving ahead and some people are arguing it's moving behind.
IFILL: Let me ask you both, is -- don't know whether it's just perception are reality but is the U.S. basically on the sidelines in a lot of this, waiting to hope other circumstances on the ground change? Or they behind the scenes really pushing an outcome but they realize that their heavy handprint may not be helpful starting in Ukraine?
CROWLEY: Well, I think in Ukraine, there's a degree to which Putin is encouraging this diplomacy with the Europeans, who do not support military escalation. And I think Putin likes to keep the Americans out of it as much as he can. I think he thinks he can probably get a better deal with the Europeans.
So, in that regard, for instance, this diplomacy happening today that was quite that dramatic, we were not a central part of. However, the minute we start sending those defensive weapons into Ukraine, that will turn on a dime. So -- and America's ability to impose sanctions remains powerful. There are cards we have not played, including cutting Russia off from the so-called SWIFT banking system, which would be major escalation.
So, we still have a lot of cards to play.
IFILL: Cards to play on the other one?
MCMANUS: And in terms of ISIS, well, the United States is front and center. There's nobody is else in that region who is both able and willing to organize the military and the diplomacy side of this. Really what ISIS is trying to do is get the Arab countries out of it and turn it into an Arab versus American war. And that's why it's so important to keep, especially those Sunni Arab countries, in this fight.
IFILL: OK, thanks both of you.
Well, the bad headlines from around the world tend to overwhelm good ones at home but today's news about the economy was indisputably good -- more jobs, higher wages and more people looking for work.
The president took a moment out of his day traveling in Indiana to cheer the news.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: America is poised for another good year. Indianapolis is poised for another good year, as long as Washington works to keep this progress going.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: The remarkable thing about the number is that today's good news extended backward, too, didn't it, Eamon? It wasn't just today?
JAVERS: Yes, that's right, Gwen. This was a big-time jobs report today.
We had 257,000 jobs created just in month of January in the United States. That's well above expectations. And the revisions, as you say, going back. They always look back a couple months and scooch their numbers a little bit. Those were up as well for the previous two months.
So, a very good trend line now. We’ve got about 11 months of 200,000-plus job growth in this country and some good news for middle class Americans, wages were up a scooch but earnings were up a lot.
And also, we saw this whole issue of hours coming into picture -- into focus. Hours were up. That means people who are working part time are getting more work. They're able to get the kind of work that they want, and that means earnings are good. And that's good for middle class Americans.
IFILL: Why? Was it a result of policies or was it a result of a natural rebound?
JAVERS: A natural rebound. I mean, you see Republicans saying that it's because of Republican policies, Democrats saying because of Democratic policies. But what we are seeing is a virtual cycle in the U.S. economy right now, where things are really moving along. And if anybody in Washington is going to get any credit for any of this, it's going to be the folks over at the Fed.
TUMULTY: One of the things that seems to be driving the economic rebound is the dip it in oil prices. And -- but at the same time, one of the reasons that in states like North Dakota and Texas, they have had such low unemployment is because of the boom in fracking.
And what happens when oil prices drop? Is that going to affect jobs numbers?
JAVERS: On a macro level, it's going to affect the U.S. economy because it's going to put more money in the wallets of American consumers. And so, they’re going to go out and buy things. That's good for jobs, net-net. It’s bad for jobs in the oil patch.
And we have seen U.S. oil producers signaling that they’re going to start to slow down or stop production because they’ve got a real supply and demand problem right now. There is a glut of oil out there. It's driving prices down. They can't afford that.
And in North Dakota, they've got to watch to see when those oil fields become noncompetitive economically. That’s a danger for that.
IFILL: The president made a little aside today, his appearance in Indiana in which he said, I know your gas prices are low and you're happy about that. But don't get used to it, go and start buying, you know, road hogs, because they’re going to back up again.
JAVERS: Yes, and the old saying about gas prices is they go up like rocket and down like a feather. They go up fast.
MCMANUS: Two quick economic questions. If this number for job creation was so good, how come the unemployment rate went up and how come the stock market went down?
JAVERS: Well, the stock market went down -- it’s a fascinating question, because we did see the Dow closed lower.
The Dow futures initially on the news at 8:30:001 this morning popped nicely like you’d expect. But over the recourse of the day we saw a retreat in the Dow. And the reason for that is that Wall Street traders worry very much about what the Fed is going to do as a result of this signal from the U.S. economy. They worry that the Fed is going to pull back on the stimulus that's been injecting into the U.S. economy, that they might turn the corner and raise interest rates at some point in the future, six months or a year from now.
So, that fear is what drove the Dow to trend down during the course of the day. Things that are great for American middle class workers are not necessarily great for guys on trading floors in Wall Street.
CROWLEY: You know, for last couple of years, President Obama has been trying to talk up the economy, take credit for the fact there's been steady growth, while not seeming to celebrate prematurely because a lot of people are still hurting. But are we kind of crossing the line into that gloating phase yet? Is he spiking the football yet?
JAVERS: You can tell the Obama White House wants to get more credit for the U.S. economy. They want people to say, hey, wait a second, we are creating 200,000 jobs --
IFILL: Well, don't they deserve a little bit of the credit?
JAVERS: Well, presidents traditionally get credit and they get the blame.
IFILL: Yes, they certainly got the blame. Yes.
JAVERS: They definitely got the blame. But what this White House has been careful about and you always see this on the day of the jobs report in particular. They come out with a statement. They put officials on the White House lawn to talk to CNBC and the other networks, and they all say, it's really good but we can do more. It's really good but here's what we’re going to do to fix the rest of the problem.
And the reason is they don't want that mission accomplished moment where they are taking credit for everything being fixed, and there are Americans out there who are still feeling pain and look at that and say, these people don't get it.
IFILL: Briefly, are they also worried about the things we were talking about the first half of the show, which is these global issues which could destabilize everything?
JAVERS: Yes, absolutely. I mean, you are seeing weirdness in Greek elections. You’re seeing ISIS, you’re seeing Ukraine. All of that can disrupt global markets. So, there's always an uncertainty factor. They tend to stay away from talking about the stock market and they tend to stay away from taking absolute full credit, although secretly, they want it and they are asking for it.
IFILL: Funny. It's like saying hello, no, stop.
IFILL: So, we reached the point in the early stage of the 2016 presidential context where we begin to gauge candidates by how well they negotiate the unanticipated. In this case, the sudden and fierce debate over measles, vaccines, and who gets to protect our children.
This is in part how Senator Rand Paul handled it:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines. I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they're a good thing.
But I think the parents should have some input. The state doesn't own your children. Parents own the children. And it is an issue of freedom.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: Contrast that for how Jeb Bush weighed in.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEB BUSH (R), FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR: Parents ought to make sure their children are vaccinated. Parents have a responsibility to make sure their children are protected, over and out.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
IFILL: Over and out.
Hillary Clinton, though, wisely not in front of a camera said much the same thing.
But how did this issue bubble up to this level in the first place? Why are we talking about this, Karen?
TUMULTY: We are talking about this, first of all, because measles is an extremely contagious disease. If you are not immune and you are exposed to this virus, chances are 90 percent that you are going to come down with measles. Somebody who has it leaves a room, that virus is still active for hours after they are gone.
So, we have seen a real spike in measles incidents in this country. There were something -- there were over 100 new cases in January. Many of them in California where there has been something of a movement, among upscale people, sort of the organic grocery demographic, not to vaccinate their children.
And so, all of this has now come -- you would think it's a public health debate. I mean, how -- what can be less political? But --
IFILL: But it's been proven, in many reports, debunked that there's a link to autism. Yet, somehow this issue jumped -- didn't jump the shark. In fact, it still seems very much alive, it jumped from just being obscure, esoteric debate to somebody being a very hot political debate this week. And I don’t -- I missed when it made that leap.
TUMULTY: Well, it has in part because there is an increase in the incidence of autism. And even though this link supposedly between vaccines has been completely debunked, there's no other explanation for it.
I think it goes much, much deeper and emotionally when you talk about vaccines. It's about the role of government. It's about parental prerogative. And so, you put a medical mystery on top of that, and it really is kind of, you know, dry tinder for politics.
MCMANUS: So, we just saw a huge contrast between Rand Paul and Jeb Bush, both of whom appear to be running for president. Did any other candidates weigh or pre-candidates weigh in? What did we learn about the shape of the race out of that?
TUMULTY: Well, the one who seems to have started this whole thing was Chris Christie, who is over in London supposedly, you know, showing off his foreign policy chops. And, instead, he talked about how there has to be a measure of choice for parents. So, that is really what got this started.
It was interesting, though, because the backlash was so swift that Chris Christie's office was trying to backtrack. And then Rand Paul had this sort of odd statement about his comments that we saw in that earlier clip, that he was saying that they were -- two factors of vaccines and disabilities were temporally related and not -- he was not trying to suggest that there was any --
IFILL: And he tried to backtrack by going out and getting a booster shot for hepatitis A the next day.
TUMULTY: Exactly. I mean, I think the candidates, they -- again, the -- in part because the other Republican candidates were jumping on them as well. It wasn't just Jeb Bush. It was Bobby Jindal. It was John Boehner saying -- just get your kids vaccinated.
JAVERS: So, my question on this, looking at particularly Chris Christie and Rand Paul's statements here, are these core convictions for these guys as American politicians, or is this just campaign trail in discipline when they were asked a question and they sort of give top of the head answer that their campaign staffs in the backroom would never have come up with that as a policy position for their campaign?
TUMULTY: It is -- it's interesting. I think they sort of sensed there was this role of government line here that --
TUMULTY: -- they did not want to step over.
But, again, the efforts to immediately backtrack on what they say suggests that, all of a sudden, they realized they had either -- that, you know, this I think comes under the heading of gaffes that come from people who are may be not quite ready for this big of a stage.
CROWLEY: Well, I just want to say I’m so glad we're talking about measles and not Ebola anymore, similar issues. But it’s a little bit of a microcosm of the campaign to come, where Republicans are kind of -- they’re coming at it from different directions and there’s controversy and they’re saying dumb things. And Hillary sits back, sends out a tweet that seems to go over nicely and just lets the fire burn on the other side of the aisle.
I mean, is that kind of a preview of the campaign?
TUMULTY: You know, there is probably no one in public life today who is as experienced in these sort of treacherous politics of vaccines as Hillary Clinton. When she was first lady in 1993, she spearheaded an initiative to expand vaccines and got a lot of heat for it, in part from conservatives saying she was interfering with the market, and again in part from these -- what they call "anti-vaxxers".
IFILL: But in the end, she gets to sit back and watch because she's been there before and that’s where experience --
IFILL: All right. Thanks, everybody.
As usual we’ve just scratched the week's surface, so we plan to dig in some more right after we're done here online, on the WASHINGTON WEEK Webcast Extra. Among other things, we’ll talk cyber breaches, the coup in Yemen and senator who says governments shouldn't be the one to make you wash your hands. You can find that at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Stay up-to-date every night with me and Judy Woodruff on "THE PBS NEWSHOUR".
And we’ll see you right here next week on WASHINGTON WEEK. Good night.