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tv   Overheard With Evan Smith  PBS  September 3, 2016 4:30pm-5:01pm PDT

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- [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community, also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. - i'm evan smith, he's a national magazine award winning journalist with expertise in foreign affairs, a national correspondent for the atlantic, a former middle east and washington correspondent for the new yorker and the author of prisoners a muslim and jew across the middle east divide. he's jeffrey goldberg, this is overheard. (light music) let's be honest, is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? i mean how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa. you could say that he's made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. you know, you saw a problem and over time took it on. let's start with the sizzle before we get to the state.
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are you gonna run for president? i think i just got an f from you actually. this is over. (crowd applauding) - [evan] jeff goldberg welcome. - [jeff] thank you. - thank you very much for being here. we're sitting here at the end of march, brussels has just happened, what in the hell is going on with our world? it's impossible to feel good about things. i'm, i just wanna lock myself in my house at the moment and never come out. - you're fairly safe in austin, so don't worry. - is that right, seriously? - i believe so. i think you're, not to be too spokean about this and we'll talk about obama's reaction to terrorism and how it's controversial, but yeah, you're pretty safe and the world is actually a pretty safe place. it doesn't feel that way, but the world is actually a fairly safe place. - what makes you so placid about what's going on? - i'm not, believe me i'm not placid about anything. - okay. - i'm roiling inside. - so this is not a moment to think we really have changed as a society? it does seem now like what happened in brussels,
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what happened in paris, what happened in san bernadino is happening more frequently and with less risk to the perpetrators. - well less risk to the perpetrators in the sense that they blow themselves up during these things. so i guess that's maximum risk though. - well but except no one who is in the business of perpetrating acts of terror seems particularly concerned about our reaction or anybody else's. it seems particularly put off. - [jeff] oh no, no, no, i mean i think this is off the charts in terms of its sociopathy, obviously. but i would say this and this is something that we forget because we focus in on the scene in the brussels airport, but you know there's new reporting that shows that the us is killing one isis leader every three days in syria, syria's senior leadership. - in fact as we sit here overnight a major leader in isis will-- - and you know the joke, i mean it's a sick joke, but the joke is that the worst job in the world is to be al qaeda's number three, you know, because it seems like we've killed a hundred of them and yet they still get replaced. so i take that both as a kind of oh good,
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they're knocking off some isis guys, but there always seems to be a replacement for it. that said they're actually losing territory, which is a good thing. the downside of them losing territory right now is that the more they're under pressure in iraq and syria, the more they have a tendency to act out in the european battlefield. and it is a battlefield. i'm not downplaying this, i just don't like panic because panic leads people to do stupid things. and so the best way to make policy is to imagine the thing that you would do if you're panicked and then don't do it, and then go to the thing that you would do right after you overcome your panic. - right but the over correction to panic is often to sort of look away, right. we read this week, here reporting this week that isis has dispatched hundreds of people all over europe. - yeah 400 is the number. - to plan and execute upon these acts. and you know it's possible to over react, but it's also possible to under react. - right, right and that's the problem is that we never calibrate this correctly. and if you look at the divide between obama
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and trump, let's say just as an example, and the way they deal with it. you know, the critique of obama, which i don't really think much of this particular critique is that he's too cold eyed, he discounts too much in terms of terrorism. in fact he's been spending the last seven years killing terrorists almost every day. - right, and doesn't get much credit for it. - and doesn't get much credit in part because he doesn't present as an emotionally satisfying way. and you know and he understands that critique. before you and somebody very smart near him told me recently, he said, you know, the problem with the president is that before you castigate the fear mongers, you have to acknowledge the legitimacy of the fear. and so there is this kind of middle lane that you can go down where you without creating panic, acknowledge this is a serious problem. and there is a serious problem within islam. there is a part of islam that has gone off the rails. and to say that is not to castigate islam itself. - but isn't this the critique, haven't we heard presidential candidate after presidential candidate on the republican side criticize the president for among other things
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and maybe chiefly, he won't even say the words islamic fundamentalism or islamic terrorism. - right, right, well the reason he doesn't do that and the reason that this is a, it's not a really fair critique is what he's trying to do, and i'm not here to apologize for the president's tactics, but what he's trying to do is not enlarge the battlefield. okay, you know, he understands that you cannot defeat a billion and a half muslims. if we start to turn this into a civilizational struggle between the west and islam, you are going to take muslims who are otherwise not predisposed to isis or that kind of thinking but are devote muslims and proud of being muslim and you are going to convince them, and this is what i think donald trump and ted cruz are inadvertently doing at the moment, is they are convincing muslims who are on the sidelines that the west actually doesn't like their religion. you know, and what obama's trying to do is no, no, no, no we're fine with islam, what we're not fine with is - is terrorism. - is terrorism, is isis and it's variant,
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this interpretation of islam. - you say i'm not here to defend obama piece, however is there more that we could have done? would you acknowledge that there's more we could have done? - i suppose there's always more that you can do. the problem with president obama as you know is that following his predecessor, he came into office with a unspoken, but very clear mandate from the american people, not to do more stuff in the middle east, right. he's also a tragic realist in the sense that he understands in a way that a lot of americans don't, american politicians don't, that action has consequences that are greater than the consequences of inaction. this is a point we could debate. no one will ever come to a conclusion on that. i think the argument right now in washington is no, inaction has profound consequences and if you had intervened in syria in 2011 in a more drastic way, we wouldn't be here. the wonderful thing about-- - would we be better or worse? - yes. - [evan] yes, both, right.
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who knows. - we'd be better or we'd be worse, one or the other, or we'd be the same. i mean and this is the problem of counterfactuals and this is why these debates are so fruitless because i can propose a counterfactual that comes out of my biases that proves that if we had just done x then y would happen. and you would say, no it wouldn't because look at history. and i would say no look at this history and we wouldn't get anywhere. and so he's making bets that at certain points non-intervention is better than intervention. - what is the obama doctrine? you have just recently had a cover story in the atlantic, you've interviewed the president half a dozen times, right? - for this piece yeah. - but i mean but over the years. - but going back yeah. - on different occasions you had an opportunity to sit with him, you probably know him on this subject as well as any journalist knows him because you've had the opportunity to-- - i hope so 'cause i just wrote 20,000 words. - 20,000 words yeah, just this one time. - just ripped off the readers in the atlantic. - so give us the sparknotes version of this. - oh so the joke and you're a magazine guy so you'll understand this, is that we needed a short headline so we come up with the obama doctrine. but there's a chance that the obama doctrine
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is a doctrine of no doctrine, right. which is a way of saying that, you know, it's a, take it as it comes kind of doctrine. i would say that there are two or three salient points that you could make. one part of the doctrine, obviously, is that, and this is the tragic realism part, is that america has the ability to make things better, it can also through its actions make things worse. and that's where the don't do stupid stuff thing comes in. when you're looking at geography, i'll give you, i'll break it down by five regions of the world 'cause it's easier to understand this this way. the obama doctrine is asia is the future and therefore all of our attention should be focused on asia. it's where our economy, you know he came into office in 2009 with a broken economy and he looked around the world and he said, asia's where we could sell a lot of stuff. so we gotta focus on asia. he's a child of the pacific anyway, he's not, he has no romance about europe, no romance about the cross-atlantic relationship, he's a guy, he's pacific oriented. so asia is the future and we need to spend much more time
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on that. and there are challenges there too, the rise of china is a much more serious problem to him than the rise of isis. - but you perceive that to be all things in legitimate as a principle? - you know i say and you know, and they were clever, they brought me on their last trip to asia. and you know when you realize just as an example that all of the gulf countries combined, you add the populations of all the persian gulf countries, they're half the population of vietnam, which is a relatively small asian country. - in the realm of asian countries. - vietnam is bigger than germany, right. so if you're looking at raw numbers and raw economic potential, asia is the place. so latin america and africa, places that we should pay more attention do but don't. europe, a place that we have to manage. very important for world stability but no romance associated with it and no huge, you know, opportunities. the middle east he's come to, and this has been, there's been an arc of disillusionment on this question. he started off being hopeful about his ability to change it. the middle east, something to be avoided at all costs. and so that's an aspect of the doctrine.
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one the middle east specifically, two more quick points, on the middle east specifically he's come to the conclusion that america can't fix the middle east. which is a very, i use this word advisedly, but un-american view, you know. every president comes in thinking i could fix x, i could fix y, i could fix z. he's said, this is generational, this is problems of tribalism and fundamentalism, no american president can actually fix this. so you can't fix it and the second conclusion, and you can see this as possibly a rationalization for the first conclusion is that it's not that important anymore anyway, anyway. because we're growing energy independent. - but isn't the problem with not being able to fix or thinking that you can't fix the middle east sort of on two fronts, one is that public doesn't buy that necessarily, they think that you're just not doing something. - i disagree, i think the public, i think he knows exactly where the public is. the american public is tired of the middle east, right. we've had two disastrous two ambivalent, two ambiguous wars.
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the afghanistan you could call more ambiguous than iraq. people understand that thousands of americans died and a trillion dollars are spent or more on something that actually didn't get fixed. we've been fighting in iraq for 25 years to no good effect ultimately. and i'll give you a perfect example. so he gathered, right after the iran deal was announced, he gathered the leaders of the gulf states, saudi arabia and uae at camp david to, you know, kind of, it was like kind of a it's okay, don't worry, we got this. here's some nice new planes for you, have a nice ship, and, you know, buy some stuff. and he gathered everybody together, right, and they started complaining about american policy. and he told them, he told the leaders of the gulf states, he says, you have to understand guys that there is zero pressure on me from the american public to become more involved in the middle east. this will change by the way. i mean the reason that rand paul's candidacy died was the beheading of three american hostages by isis.
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this will change and so we're, right, we are, i mean i guess, let me now contradict my first assertion to you that things are okay. things are okay, but-- - [evan] until they're not. - we are one major terrorist attack, god forbid, we are one major terrorist attack, one brussels-style attack or paris. - [evan] here. - [jeff] here and among other things-- - even worse than san bernadino? - yes, i mean, you know think about paris, think about what happened in paris happening in new york. - [evan] grand central, bomb goes off in grand central station or laguardia airport. - right or all of them at once. i mean paris was six or seven locations. - brussels was multiple locations. - brussels was multiple locations. think about that, the obama legacy is in doubt, obama is excoriated for not doing enough. donald trump is on a roll. - but this is my point, this is the second part of my challenge to you about the middle east not being that important because on the one hand, i actually think the american people care a little bit more than, but i'll stipulate what you're saying. but the second part is-- - i tend to lean on that obama side right now. - but if you don't do anything and then something happens, then you are seen as having not,
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what couldn't you have done something to prevent this. if you're reactive as opposed to proactive, then everybody gets on you for not having paid sufficient attention. - this is why it's impossible to be president. you've just put your finger on something. no, no, no you put your finger on something because what he knows is, all these republicans, a lot of democratic hawks are saying, get more involved in syria. go take on assad at the same time you're taking on isis. and so let's say he does that and let's say we wake up in the morning we find out that 20 american soldiers have been killed in some debacle in syria. think the people on the hill are then gonna say, oh it's okay president obama, we know that there are risks associated with doing the thing that we said. or they, what are you doing, american troops are coming back in body bags. - you can't satisfy anybody. - but you can't satisfy anybody, so and then you don't do it and then something bad happens and they say, why didn't you do this thing? so it really is by the way impossible, this is not to excuse bad decision making on the part of the white, this white house or other white houses, but everything has a consequences and nobody cuts you slack. - right, the idea that europe is ultimately in,
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you know, we don't really, we have to manage, your phrase was manage, we have to manage europe. maybe because so many people from america travel to europe, europe has this elevated place in our imagination as being so strategically consequential. - no it is, look it is strategically consequential. - more people have been to france and england than have been to vietnam and, you know korea, or you know china. but maybe we're just overstating the importance of europe on the grand scheme of things? - it's important, europe is the stable platform from which we do a lot of the good things we do in the world and they are, they are like-minded democrats, small d democrats, and this is very important. and by the way, we have treaty relationships that are inviolate. i mean the post-world war ii order that we have lead is built on a european platform. and so worrying about putin's activities is very, very important for us. what i'm saying about obama is that he doesn't have a lot of romance about that relation, those relationships.
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and he has resentments about those relationships 'cause he thinks we've spent the last 70 or 80 years spending our money and our resources in their defense and they, you know, have seven week, you know, summer holidays and better healthcare and-- - and they complain. - and then they complain about our imperialism but they expect us to protect them. so i mean i, when he complained to me and this was a part of the story that caused some controversy, the atlantic story i just wrote when he complained about free riders. you know, he refers to some of allies in the middle east and europe as free riders, people who just basically want us to do all the heavy lifting. we'll hold your coat mr. obama while you go kill the bad guys. i think he's expressing another sort of ambient american dissatisfaction about the way the world is working. - and it's a gap in the political sense in that it's not that he said something that wasn't true, it said something that was clearly true. - i would hope that at this point and i mean you know, i think of these last months as the yolo portion
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of his presidency in a kind of way, you know. this is the i'm just gonna say what's on my mind part of the presidency. i was hoping that he would keep pushing this stuff. but you know-- - he's like two days from flicking a lit cigarette at something. - well you know i think by let's say december 15th it's gonna be, you know, god knows what he's gonna be saying you know as he's packing his boxes in the white house and heading out the door. - he's gonna be blasting kendrick lamar across the rose garden, right yeah. - you know and the, you know, who knows but at the moment he still feels the need to maintain some of these relationships even though he's not particular fond of these relationships. - i'm interested to hear you say the president acknowledges we can't fix, if it's private or public right whichever way, that we can't fix everything in the middle east. an area of the world that you know, again, as much about or more about than anybody is israel. right, do you think he used the situation in israel as not fixable by us and thinks that we maybe should hit the breaks a little bit, pump the breaks on what we're doing there? - no he thinks that peace is possible,
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but he thinks that peace is not available at the moment. - [evan] what do you mean? - i mean that peace of course is possible as a goal and it's a man-made problem like all of the problems that you deal with so there is a fix somewhere. but it's not, you know he's a ruthless pragmatist in the sense that he look at his calendar, he looks at when he's stopping to be president, right, and says, i can do x, y, and z in this period of time and i can't get this other thing done so he pushes that off the table. - did he not think that this was an important enough strategic interest of our from the very beginning to have started earlier? - i'll tell you this though, he thought it was very important at the beginning and what the arab spring proved and then the rise of isis proved is that it turns out that the israeli palestinian dispute is not actually that important. it's right now, it's the fourth or fifth most important conflict going on in the middle east. - [evan] it's down the list. - [jeff] it's way down the list. he believed coming into office that you solve this, you solve a lot of the problems in the middle east. now he realizes that what the arabs were focused on the whole was not israel, they were focused on
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their own crappy leadership and their own religious disputes and their own sort of working through some of the basic endemic problems of their society. - is netanyahu the problem? if netanyahu had not been the leader of israel during so much of the obama presidency could more have been done? - right it was a tragic misalignment of essentially a republican israeli prime minister and a liberal, democratic american president. that said, i mean, let me answer the way i think of it, i think netanyahu was certainly a problem, obas was certainly a problem, the arab states unwillingness to actually put their money where their mouth is was a problem, rising religious fundamentalism, particularly in the muslim world, but also in israel a big problem. all of these things were surmountable separately but together i think it created a situation in which. and by the way the obama administration made some serious mistakes early on in the way it managed this problem, both on the israeli side and the palestinian side. - avoidable mistakes? - well yeah, mistakes born of inexperience and not listening to all, remember there's 30 years
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of people who made mistakes. so you know, one of the first things you think you would do if you're trying to go make middle east peace is go to all the people who tried, from henry kissinger up and say, so why didn't it work? - what would you have done differently? - what would you have done differently? and here's what i think i wanna do and tell me if i'm write or tell me if i'm wrong. but they came in, you know any new president comes in gang busters, right, and they're like we're gonna do the opposite of what bush did. i mean that was their, like he did this we're gonna do that. - pendulum swing. - [jeff] and it didn't actually, doesn't actually work that way. - we're sitting here again in the shadow not only of brussels but of the apec conference. right, the apec conference that happened-- - or the trump apec conference. - trump apec conference for which apec then subsequently apologized for. - you know i was there with, i brought my 15 year old son 'cause he really wanted to see trump. and five minutes into his speech he says, he's good at this. and i said, yeah he's good at this. - right, he didn't get to where he is for no reason, he got to where he is - [jeff] yeah no i mean, for a reason. - [jeff] it is revelatory to actually watch a guy, a populist whip up a crowd of people who are not necessarily predisposed to like him. - my question is why after all this time, and maybe there's a fundamental answer,
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maybe i'm just an idiot for even asking the question, why do we genuflect so before israel in this country? - i don't think we genuflect. - israel gets attention from the political system here disproportionately-- - to it's importance. - yeah. - no but that, what happened is in recent years. first of all there are deep bonds that run across-- - [evan] legitimately. - deep cultural, religious, ideological bonds that connect not only american jews to israel but american christians to israel. and you know there's a very interesting thing, there is one constant and it's a poll, gallup has been polling this question for 40 years asking americans who do you side with in this dispute, the israelis or the arabs? and it's always basically breaks down 60, 15. 60 israel, 15 or less palestinian side. so one of the reasons that apec is effective to the degree that it's effective is that, like any lobby, like any effective lobby is pushing on an open door. it's easy to support israel in american still,
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despite all of the controversies. i would say this, this is, and i, watching the republican debates in particular, it's actually made me sort of queasy in a kind of way. like they're using israel as a stand-in, right. it's not even a country anymore, it's symbolizing stalwart, plucky israel being persecuted by this democratic president stands for everything that we don't like about this president, and it's the strangest thing in the world. i mean this is the, i think what you're observing, you know when you have a republican debate and remember when the stage was even more crowded, to the extent that there was any foreign policy discussion you would think it would be about the power of china or putin and ukraine or asia or climate change, or whatever. you know and it's like, and most of the conversation is what are we doing, you know, why is obama messing with israel and what are we doing about israel. it's again it's not even treated as a real place, it's treated as this shorthand for an idea about the way
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the world should organized - [evan] and to your point, if it's legitimately fourth or fifth on the list of priorities - doesn't even matter that much. - from a foreign affairs standpoint, why are we spending. i guess this is really what i'm asking, we seem to spend a lot of our productive time about talking about the world - [jeff] thinking about this. - [evan] focused on an area of the world which is significant strategically in which there is a legitimate conflict going on. but doesn't seem as immediate or present compared to other issues. - so i'm arguing against my interests here because i'm a quote unquote middle east expert or i've spent a lot of time on the middle east, but i would say this, the middle east, this is where i do agree with the president. the middle east is not important as we've been lead to believe over the past 40 years by a bipartisan foreign policy elite, right. and within the context of the middle east, the israeli palestinian dispute is not that important anymore. but you know but it takes a lot of lag time and it takes a lot of time to catch up. and by the way 9/11 was a middle east event and it changed our world. - and the public doesn't pay attention except at moments of crisis and because of that they often don't have the nuance or the sophistication
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to understand this hierarchy. - look there are deeper currents why israel is an important issue in america. because every state has towns named bethlehem and hebron and because our super-narrative, a biblical narrative of religious pilgrims seeking a promised land is that narrative. i mean there's an overlay. americans can relate to the story of israel and relate to the morality play that's going on in a way that they, you know they look at yemen and they go, what's yemen, you know, and why do i care about yemen? but this is something that they can relate to. - we have two minutes left i wanna ask from the perspective of your 15 year old son going to see trump in apec. we are, as we sit here, still confronted in this country with a choice, republicans and democrats and within the parties in essence trump and cruz or clinton and sanders. give me your very shorthand kind of guide to what we're looking at from a foreign affairs
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standpoint in the case of each of those four outcomes. - so you've asked an impossible question. it's usually not an impossible question at this point in the four year cycle because we understand generally what the foreign policies of the democrats are. i mean i think sanders is not going to be the candidate, i think hillary's the candidate, and she is sort of obama plus obama with a little bit more of a bias toward action, you know, and a little bit more of an old fashioned sense of american idealism and notions of indispensability. - that's a fine answer. - on the republican side, i have no idea what donald trump's foreign policy is because he has no idea. - does donald trump now what-- - no he doesn't know what his foreign policy is. build walls and make china pay for stuff. and, you know, he's an american populist, he's an american nationalist, he has no actual foreign. he doesn't, this is the dangerous part to me is that it's not his ideas about nato it's that he has no idea what nato is and what it does and why it exists. and so it's impossible for me to tell you if donald trump became president what the world would be like.
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i assume the structures of our democracy are in place in such a that they, it's like, you know, bowling with kids, you put up those-- - guardrails. - put up the guardrails and you know, and he rolls the ball and you know it goes off to the, it veers off to the side and some guardrail like the pentagon or the state department says, actually we can't do that because that's, we have a treaty and a treat is this, you know. - and he says, you're fired. - and he says you're fired and then we have crises and then this is why a lot of people would like to avoid this scenario that we're discussing. but again it's, we're in an original situation. i think we're in a wholly original situation because we've never had someone this close to the presidency at least in the modern era, who knows so little about what presidents do. - okay so we started a half hour ago with you, my being crap scared out of me, and now at the end you've scared the crap out of me. (crowd laughing) we're ending where we began. - it's the circle of life. - the circle of life, yeah. jeffery goldberg thank you very much. - thanks very much. - [evan] good to be with you. - thanks, thanks very much. (crowd applauding)
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- [voiceover] we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our website at to find invitations to interviews, q and a's with our audience and guests and an archive of past episodes. - the american civic religion is solutionism, you know, there's a problem and every problem comes with a solution. that's why, in my humble opinion, test there's a problem and every probnation on eartha solution. because we just fix things, we just tackle them. - [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community, also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. (light music)
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