Full Episode: Global Flashpoints and U.S. Foreign Policy Dilemma

Jul. 24, 2014 AT 12:53 p.m. EDT

The multiple foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration including the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. Also, the latest on the investigation into the Malaysian Airlines crash. Joining Gwen Ifill: John Harwood, CNBC and New York Times, Alexis Simendinger, Real Clear Politics; Yochi Dreazen, Foreign Policy; Michael Crowley, TIME

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: The world seems to be in uproar. We explain what we know and what we don’t, tonight on “Washington Week.”

(Clips play.)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ll point out the obvious. We live in a complex world, and at a challenging time.

MS. IFILL: And that was before this happened.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Shot down, not an accident. Blown out of the sky.

MS. IFILL: And before this happened: A ground war in Gaza.

AMBASSADOR RON DERMER: Now we have rockets, and we have to defend ourselves.

MS. IFILL: As the crisis in Ukraine continued to build, the president and his U.N. ambassador pointed the finger squarely at Russia.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We know that they are heavily armed and that they are trained, and we know that that’s not an accident. That is happening because of Russian support.

AMBASSADOR SUSAN POWER: Russia can end this war. Russia must end this war.

MS. IFILL: Amid the tragedy in Ukraine, casualties in Gaza, rockets in Israel and uncertainty everywhere, we examine U.S. options. Covering the week’s dramatic and rapidly unfolding developments, Michael Crowley, chief foreign affairs correspondent for Time magazine; Yochi Dreazen, managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine; John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC; and Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for Real Clear Politics.

(Clips end.)

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.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. Families around the world are in mourning tonight as conflict claims innocent lives from The Netherlands, in Ukraine, in Israel, in Gaza. The wars – it’s hard to call them anything but that – have sprung from deep-seated disagreement, the fruit of failed cease-fires, collapsed negotiations, lack of political will and perhaps simple misjudgment. In any case, it has plunged the United States into not one but multiple foreign policy standoffs abroad. After nearly 300 people died when an airliner was shot down over Ukraine, President Obama warned today about jumping to conclusions. But both he and his United Nations ambassador suggested Russian President Vladimir Putin was complicit in the tragedy.

(Clips play.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It is not possible for these separatists to function the way they’re functioning, to have the equipment that they have – set aside what’s happened with respect to the Malaysian Airlines, a group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes, or they claim, shoot down fighter jets, without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia.

AMB. POWER: Most members of the international community have been warning for months about the devastation that would come if Russia did not stop what it started, if it did not rein in what it unleashed.

(Clips end.)

MS. IFILL: For the president, that was relatively tough talk, and for Samantha Power it was certainly tough talk. Does that get us past sanctions as a solution now, Michael?

MICHAEL CROWLEY: I’m not sure, and I’m not even sure how much more sanctions we’re going to see. We’ll probably see more action. But, you know, the question is, will the revulsion lead to real action that Europe has been very hesitant to take? Even though, you know, before this tragedy the death toll was mounting, we were close to 500 people and – well over killed and well over a thousand injured in this conflict, the Europeans still feel like their economies are extremely fragile, and they’re very wary of taking action that could knock them back into a recession. So it’s possible. I don’t think you’re going to see anything more than sanctions. There are increasing calls from Congress, as there have been for some time now, from Republicans in particular that we should start arming the Ukrainians to fight off these separatists. I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s just a tough problem to solve. And again, a lot of revulsion right now. I’m not sure what the real follow-up action is going to be.

MS. IFILL: Alexis, at the White House, are they thinking to themselves we have a – we have an opening now – a tragic opening but an opening to get the world’s attention on something that they had turned away from?

MS. SIMENDINGER: The rhetoric last night started to be in that direction: Can we find opportunity out of tragedy in this case? And you could hear in the president’s remarks, as tough as they were, he was also talking about the only way out of this is a diplomatic solution, and coming back to that message. And I also thought it was interesting that he was emphasizing almost as if he wanted European allies to pay attention. He talked about head-snapping wake-up call, that they cannot be walled off or in some way ignore the idea that this can be contained. He used the word contained. And he talked about the repercussions. He ended up today talking to some of his European compatriots, including Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, and Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom. And Cameron’s statement was, we need to find justice. We need to seek justice for this. And the statement that the United States put out about the conversation with Merkel was still that there’s a difference, maybe a gap still there in how to pursue the result.

MS. IFILL: The president’s instinct, John, always seems to be to go for international action, to find some way to make sure that the United States is maybe leading the charge but not leading it by itself. Is there any evidence that that is where they are and that this moment calls for that? Even control of the crash site seems to be an open question.

JOHN HARWOOD : Look, I think the event itself is what’s going to drive the change. And I’m a little more optimistic, I think, than Michael that this is going to change the game. A shock-the-conscience event like this is something that I think even for Vladimir Putin and Russians who have rewarded him and some of his truculence with respect to Ukraine with pretty robust popular ratings, everybody’s got to take a second look when you look at a civilian airliner full of 300 innocent people being shot down in this manner. I think it – I think it changes everybody’s calculation. And, yes, it may take time. It may take an investigation. It may take some rock-solid proof of exactly what happened. But I think once that happened – and if it confirms what we suspect, which is that separatists armed and trained by Russia shot this plane down, perhaps by accident if not on purpose, I think it will change the calculus and perhaps make even Vladimir Putin reconsider the cost and benefits of being in Ukraine.

MS. IFILL: Well, Yochi, let’s talk about that, because in Russia the reaction so far has been, this is Ukraine’s fault. This was over their territory. And everyone is jumping to conclusions and even suggesting that we are responsible. But what do the facts tell us?

YOCHI DREAZEN: You know, the facts seem very hard to dispute. I mean, this was an extraordinarily sophisticated rocket of a type that comes straight from the Russians’ Soviet armories. It’s difficult to fire. It’s difficult to track a plane with this kind of system. So the notion that this was just random thugs who happened to get their hands on a hypersophisticated weapon, it strains credulity.

It is interesting, though. Vladimir Putin up until now has been very careful in what he’s said and what he’s done. He’s sort of turned the dial up, he’s turned the dial down. I tend to agree a little bit with John. The question now is, if he decides to turn it down, he does not like to be seen as doing things in response to Western pressure. So he may want to be out of this corner. He may want to be doing, as John suggested, reacting to the revulsion. He may himself feel like he’s allied himself with thugs, which he kind of – (inaudible) – does. But he never wants to appear weak. And so in a weird way, the more the West, the more the U.S. says you have to stop this, you have to stop this, the less likely he may be to do that, even if he wants to.

MS. IFILL: Michael, you’ve spent a fair amount of time on the ground in Ukraine. Where is the Kiev government in all of this? We are spending a lot of time talking about the pro-Russian separatists, the People’s Republic of Donetsk, but where in all of this is the new president?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, what the president would like is to negotiate some kind of a solution. You know, the – what the Ukrainians got in their last election was a man in Poroshenko who has a decent relationship with Putin and Moscow. He’s not really, you know, fully in the Western camp or in the Eastern camp, so to speak. He’s a guy who is kind of a bridge between these two worlds, and I think there was a feeling he might actually be able to have a dialogue with Putin, that it didn’t have to be completely adversarial. And when he came into office, right away he said that he was willing to talk, but it just – there’s been very little sign that Moscow – that Vladimir Putin has a real interest in a diplomatic, negotiated solution of this and talking it out. Putin seems to be seeking and enjoying a certain degree of instability, anarchy, intimidation. He’ just doesn’t really appear to be looking for a sit-down around a table and negotiate kind of situation.

Now, to the extent as that has become clear, what the government in Kiev has done is responded with force, and essentially called off a cease-fire – I think maybe 10 days or two weeks ago – and went in and started going after these separatists. And that’s where you really saw these rising levels of violence.

And what’s interesting to me – and we had an exchange about this earlier today – is the way in which this really fell off the radar of a lot of the world because we had all these other crises and we had ISIS marching in Iraq and we had situation in Gaza. But really this plane shoot-down is a freak, horrible event, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. You – things – the violence has really risen, the instability has gotten much worse over the last couple of weeks.

MS. IFILL: And in fact, Samantha Power said today at the U.N. there have been four downed planes since June: a downed transfer plane June 13th, a downed helicopter, a cargo plane and now this downed jet. So this is something that’s been playing out while we were looking elsewhere?

MR. CROWLEY: It’s been playing out. It’s like a drum beating louder and louder, but we have this music blaring from the Middle East and we can’t even hear it. But this – so the crisis we’re focused on right now, it’s not kind of popping back up out of nowhere. It’s really been a slow burn.

MS. IFILL: So what are the options here? We have to – the way the president seemed to lay it out today is there has to be an investigation and that at some point once we’ve made an investigation, then we can decide what the action would be, whether it’s just hoping that Putin backs down or something that we can do to force that?

MR. DREAZEN: You know, the sanctions issue is an interesting one. You know, the Germans are not with us. The Europeans are not with us. Their financial systems are intertwined with Russia. They don’t want to take the pain of what a full cutoff would do. They’re nowhere near it.

With Russia, they make so much money from energy. They just signed a 20-year, 20 (billion dollar) or $30 billion deal with China. Even by some miracle, if the U.S. and Europe were to say we are not buying Russian gas – which would never happen – Russia would say, OK, we’ll sell it to the Chinese. So you have this difference of opinion about what to do, a difference of opinion about how far to go. And even if that was all resolved – and it won’t be – Russia’s still immune because it has these dealings with China and other countries.

MS. IFILL: Well – go ahead.

MR. HARWOOD: I think there’s an interplay, though, Gwen, between three things. One is the investigation that takes place and what that yields. The second is a different calculation by Europeans in light of an event like this.

MS. IFILL: That’s exactly where I was going to go, yeah.

MR. HARWOOD: And a third, you also have, of course, Asia implicated in this because it’s a Malaysian Airline, which makes it more of a global story.

MS. IFILL: And Malaysian citizens on board, yes.

MR. HARWOOD: Yeah, absolutely. And then the third being Putin’s desire, potentially, to take the sort of off-ramp that Yochi referred to. I think all of those things will interact with each other and may change the equation.

MS. IFILL: Is it possible that the White House will keep all those balls on there – on this particular issue, nothing else for now?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, the president was today almost wearily talking about the patience and America leading and having a place in the world to lead, and in some ways it’s as if if he says it, he hopes it will be the case. But he certainly, in all of these situations we’re talking about, seems to be urging patience. He talked today about months of trying to work this out. He talked about how President Putin has – his words have not been his deeds all the way through. And he didn’t offer any suggestion today that he expected that to be different, but he certainly did describe, as John is saying, that the circumstances around it could be different.

MS. IFILL: Urging patience or perhaps lowering expectations at the same time.

Well, it’s fair to say that were it not for the shock of bodies falling from the sky, the ground war along Israel’s border with Gaza would have been the week’s most unsettling development. And tonight, that too is an open-ended conflict.

This was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday before the incursion began.

(Clip plays.)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I believe that all members of the international community should unequivocally condemn Hamas for these crimes. I believe that all members of the international community should unequivocally support Israel’s right to defend itself.

(Clip ends.)

MS. IFILL: The next day the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner spoke to Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian ambassador to the U.S.

(Clip plays.)

AMB. : Listen, this is not an issue of who started first, who fired first and who retaliated. I think now the most important task is to reach a formula that will be acceptable to both sides for a cease-fire.

(Clip ends.)

MS. IFILL: An hour after that interview ended, the ground war began. Once again, the president is tip-toeing through land mines.

(Clip begins.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We are hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this process in a way that minimizes civilian casualties, and that all of us are working hard to return to the cease-fire that was reached in November of 2012.

(Clip ends.)

MS. IFILL: The cease-fire of 2012, what is – is that wishful thinking, or is that possible, Yochi?

MR. DREAZEN: I think it is possible. This is not a war that either side wanted, which is interesting. Israel fought – has fought wars with its enemies in Gaza, in Lebanon, where it actually did want to go in. That wasn’t the case here. Israel had no desire to, Hamas had no desire to. In some ways, they’re now sort of locked in like two actors who are in roles that they don’t want to play anymore, and they really don’t want this.

For Hamas, they have to get something. The reason why they turned down a cease-fire offer from Egypt was they felt they didn’t get anything out of it, so Hamas now is locked into a situation where they need a win. They may not get it.

Israel needs something and they may not get it either. So it’s this clash of people who don’t want to be clashing.

MS. IFILL: Much in the way that Michael spent a lot of the time on the ground in Ukraine, you’ve spent a lot of the time on the ground in the Middle East, and I wonder if this feels different to you.

MR. DREAZEN: This unfortunately feels kind of grimly the same. You know, with Israel and with the Palestinians, it’s sort of peak, valley, peak, valley, peak, valley but fundamentally nothing ever changes. And it’s almost like a script. You know, you could see the Israeli bombs. You could seek the Hamas rockets. You could see the death on both sides. As usual, unfortunately, we’ve had 250, roughly, Palestinians killed. We’ve had a few Israelis killed. So you just see the numbers rise, but nothing fundamental, nothing underlying changes.

MS. IFILL: How much is this, Michael – well, go ahead.

MR. CROWLEY : Well, I was just going to – I’m thinking back to what we were saying about Vladimir Putin not necessarily wanting to be seen as backing down, showing weakness, and I think that dynamic is very much in play here, where both sides just don’t want to be the one that’s conceding, that’s stepping back. Now, that’s both for – a lot of that has to do with domestic pressures, not showing weakness to constituencies and being overtaken by more aggressive or militant factions, for instance, in Gaza. Or Bibi Netanyahu was under a lot of pressure to mount a ground invasion, was being criticized for not doing so before he did. So no one wants to lose face.

And Hillary Clinton actually writes about the way she brokered that cease-fire in 2012. And it was very interesting. She said that our analysis was that Bibi was being pushed into a ground invasion that he didn’t want and needed an exit ramp, and that was actually why the president, after some hesitation, decided to really send her in and stick his neck out a little bit and have an America-brokered truce, to try to give him that ramp. And that doesn’t seem to be there right now.

MS. IFILL: That’s what I was going to say. If that’s true, then wasn’t there a failure in this administration to provide an exit ramp, or was this something that was unavoidable?

MS. SIMENDINGER: In this particular case, what you hear the president talking about is that he wants the administration to be able to provide that off-ramp, whether it’s the situation with Putin. He’s used that term “off-ramp” and been talking about it for months.

It seems that it – he understands or has recognized reluctantly that with Netanyahu, it’s just not there. It’s not going to be there. And so the way he was talking about it today was almost a secondary caution. You know, we understand that you are going to do this and this is what you want to do and you want to focus on the tunnels, but – but – but – but – and hoping that Netanyahu and the government is going to exercise a level of self-control on their own without the off-ramp.

MS. IFILL: There were a lot of questions raised about John Kerry’s efforts to broker what is now widely considered to be a collapsed peace negotiation. Is that dead or does this give it new life, or does this put a nail in that coffin?

MR. HARWOOD: I think it’s pretty hard to be optimistic about that process at this point. You never know what a new turn in the road and a resumption of the violence could ultimately lead to, but I wouldn’t be optimistic about that.

I don’t know. It’s difficult for me to blame the administration given the current pattern that Yochi mentioned has been going on for a very, very long time.

MS. IFILL: Does – is there a way, though – does the U.S. have a role in this, or is it just a you guys really ought to figure out among yourselves at this point? At what point does the White House have to play a role whether it’s, once again, assembling an international coalition, or not, or just step back and let it play out because there’s nothing to be done?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, Israel doesn’t seem to want the U.S. to be particularly involved right now. And I think one hope of the administration is that as the Israeli ambassador told me the other day and as Bibi Netanyahu has said, we may expand this. I think the hope of the administration is that it is limited, contained to taking out some of the missile sites and taking out the tunnels that have fueled weaponry and goods into Gaza.

MS. IFILL: There are also dilemmas within dilemmas, and that’s to say that the Egyptians were not able to broker a deal because of their own internal Middle East politics, not because of the U.S. at all.

MR. DREAZEN: Which is fascinating, and I think is not remotely as appreciated as it should be. If we think back to 2012, you had Mohammed Morsi, now of course deposed, in prison, who was very close to Hamas politically, extraordinarily so. So he had the credibility to say to them, you have to stop. There has to be a deal. And he did that.

Now you have Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, hates Hamas, frankly, as much as the Israelis do, has been battling Hamas in Sinai. So you have Hamas engaged in a military war with Egypt as well as with Israel. So he doesn’t have the relationship nor the interest to say to Hamas “stop.” So you had a mediator in 2012. You don’t have one now. So the Obama administration, who loves to talk about leading from behind using proxies, using allies – the allies that we’ve used in the past, the allies that could have been proxies in the past, are not there anymore.

MR. CROWLEY : And Gwen, one other outgrowth of that change in the Egypt context is that Israel sees a chance to really nail Hamas here in a way that they hope Hamas may not be able to rebound from. Because those tunnels have been cut off, because the Egyptian regime is not allowing the flow of arms into Gaza like you saw under the Morsi government –

MS. IFILL: Because not all Palestinians are crazy about what Hamas is doing, either.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, that’s right. But really the issue here is the Egyptians not allowing the resupply of Hamas. And I think the hope among the Israelis is that if you can really take out a lot of these rockets, they’re not going to be able to replenish them. Hamas faces some other problems, including some more difficult relations with Iran right now. So I think there’s a sense that we got them – we’ve kind of got them in where we want them and let’s not let up.

MS. IFILL: Is there a back channel way, however, that exists, whether it was – we saw Martin Indyk, who was the lead negotiator trying to get people back to the table, throw his hands up in the air and say never mind. Is there a back channel way that the White House is counting on to force outcomes, or does this just have to play its way out?

MR. DREAZEN: You know, we keep coming back weirdly to this tiny country Qatar –

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

MR. DREAZEN: -- a country that at best is a quasi-ally of ours, at worst is funding enemies of the U.S. across the region. Qatar has close ties to Hamas. They have close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. They have ties to Egypt. They have ties to us. So if there is going to be a proxy, if there will be somebody that the U.S. can work with, it will be Qatar. They were the same people, as you remember, who brokered the deal to get back Bowe Bergdahl. They’ve been brokering negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. If there is going to be anyone, it will be Qatar.

MR. HARWOOD: Yochi, I was talking today to a former Obama administration foreign policy official who said we can lean a little bit on the Qataris and on the Turks. What is the roles the Turks can play on this?

MR. DREAZEN: You know, the Turks – it’s interesting. The condemnation of Israel that you almost always hear when the strike starts from the Arab world has been silent. The Turks have been condemning Israel harshly. So the feeling might be that Turkey has military ties to Israel. They have economic ties. They do have trade ties to Hamas, that they could be the proxy because despite the rhetoric with Israel, the economies are still lined up and the militaries are still lined up.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s just a tough problem. And, you know, it looked tough in 2012 when you did have these actors who all seemed to have incentives to step in, and you just don’t have that now. So I wish I could say something pithy about how it’s going to wrap up, but I don’t see it.

And, you know, it could be one of those situations – think about the case of this Malaysian jet over Ukraine. The storyline was dominated by a kind of freak, horrible thing that happened that mobilized public opinion. And one way to think about it is, will something happen? Will one of these rockets land somewhere in Israel or will an Israeli airstrike inflict some kind of damage that just rivets the world and sort of changes the narrative, so to speak? I mean, the narrative in a conflict like this is – it sounds glib, but it’s just as important as a campaign narrative.

MS. IFILL: Except that the way you discuss it, it sounds like the White House has no control over this narrative, as if they’re just sitting there letting events happen to them. And the president’s critics say that he seems too passive in all of this. How, then, does the White House, Alexis, prioritize what’s important other than what’s just coming over the – (inaudible)?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, they haven’t – they haven’t looked like they know the answer to that themselves. I guess that’s the best way I can put it. They seem to be tackling each issue, trying to juggle – as you were saying, juggle all at once. I think there’s some indication when you watch where their attention is going, what they put aside for the moment. The president is certainly talking and talking, which is his natural inclination, to keep the dialogue open to our allies and our friends and the U.S. allies. But the actual answer doesn’t seem to be any clearer, I would argue, to President Obama or even Secretary of State Kerry, in the situation in Israel.

MS. IFILL: John, the White House said – or Alexis mentioned that the president said earlier today that this has been head-snapping moment I think was the term he used. I wonder if it’s a head-snapping moment for the White House as well as for the rest of us who are citizens of the world watching planes fall from the sky, watching tanks and little boys being, you know, killed on beaches, and all of these horrible things we’ve seen unfold just this week. Is it a head-snapping moment for the White House as well?

MR. HARWOOD: There’s no question about it. And, you know, in all this, we haven’t talked about the young children from Central America coming to the American border and what happens to those people. It is an extraordinary moment that you have so much chaos and disorder in the world. You have a president whose committed as a matter of policy to not intervening militarily abroad, and so it is – how he reasserts control and manages this set of crises isn’t exactly clear.

MS. IFILL: Well, I think – I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface, but I get the feeling we’re going to be talking about this for some time to come. Thank you, everybody. We have to go for now. But as always, we’ll continue this very conversation online on the “Washington Week” webcast extra. It streams live right after we go off the air at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, and you can find it all week long at pbs.org/washingtonweek. There is so much more to say. Plus you can keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff every night on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.


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