Or read the transcript below:
(Transcription by J. C. Hendershot)
Interview with Claudia Rosett by Roger Aronoff
The “Take AIM” show on BlogTalkRadio, Thursday, September 2, 2010
I am Roger Aronoff, a media analyst with AIM, and our show is going to go at a pretty fast clip today as we talk to our guest, Claudia Rosett, the director of the Investigative Reporting Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Got several issues in the news today: President Obama’s speech of this past Tuesday—we’re going to be getting into a number of things—Iraq, Afghanistan, the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Claudia, good morning, and welcome to Take AIM!
ROSETT: Good morning. Thank you, Roger.
ARONOFF: I want to give further introduction about your very impressive career. Besides her involvement with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, she can also be read at The Rosett Report at pajamasmedia.com, and at forbes.com, where she writes a weekly column. Claudia writes on international affairs, drawing on 27 years of experience as a journalist and editor, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, and the Middle East. Since 2002, she has exposed the U.N. Oil for Food scandal, the largest financial fraud in history; as a result of her investigation, the U.S. House and Senate launched inquiries into the program, and she appeared before four U.S. House Committees and Sub-Committees to testify on U.N.-related corruption. Her work on Oil for Food earned Claudia the 2005 Eric Breindel Award. From 1984 to 2002, Ms. Rosett was a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, serving as a member of the Journal’s editorial board in New York from ’97 to 2002; as a reporter, and then bureau chief, of The Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau, covering the former Soviet Union; and as an editorial page editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal from 1986 to 1993. Her on-site coverage of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising won Ms. Rosett an Overseas Press Club Citation for Excellence. In 1994, she broke the full story of North Korean labor camps in the Russian far east—reporting from the camps! She holds degrees from Yale, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. And, again, welcome back to Take AIM! It’s great to have you back on!
ROSETT: Thank you. Great to be here.
ARONOFF: First: President Obama spoke this past Tuesday night about Operation New Dawn in Iraq. What was he trying to accomplish with only his second speech from the Oval Office? Did he succeed?
ROSETT: Well, I think what he was trying to accomplish was to, as he said, “turn the page.” But did he succeed . . . ? What does that actually mean? It’s something, I think, a lot of people are going to define in different ways. Perhaps, by his lights, he succeeded. But it was, frankly, an odd, mean, sort of stingy speech in which he really missed the big picture. I’m glad he gave credit to the troops, and he made a point of saying that he spoke with President Bush, but he really seems to have missed the real point of that war, of what’s going on now in the Middle East—there’s been a lot of commentary since he gave that speech Tuesday night, but no mention of Iran. No mention of the fact that this is actually a larger war that we’re fighting. He was declaring that over, but it’s not actually over. There are tremendously dangerous things going on right next door, just across the way in Iran, in Syria. There are the connections between that and what’s going on in Afghanistan right now. The troubles with Pakistan are clear. All of this sort of went by the board, and he continues to cast the Iraq War as this sort of real inconvenience, this gratuitous thing that he got stuck with, and now he’s done. I think, to his mind—I’m guessing, I can’t read his mind— but what the 19-minute speech, more or less, tried to cover, he was saying, “Okay. Done with that. Move on! We’re going to keep some soldiers there, but it’s no longer a combat mission. We’re out.” And then he turned to the economy, which, actually—he put out a disastrous course. And this is supposed to be this thing that brings us all ahead! It was actually very strange. When you think of what America accomplished in Iraq—which was enormous—and the sacrifices were made—which were huge—it was just a strange speech. My impression—how to sum this up?—was, this President doesn’t—he’s sitting at that desk, with its huge symbolism and responsibilities—he doesn’t understand what his job is really all about!
ARONOFF: Right. Even The Washington Post, this morning, comments on his adherence to these deadlines. In other words, this deadline was really one that was created by Bush’s Status of Forces agreement, done before Obama ever came into office, and, I think, as Krauthammer and others have pointed out, the one thing that they really had to do here was diplomatic, and it’s been now six months since the election in Iraq, and they haven’t been able to sort of bring the parties together to at least have a stable government in place before “turning this page.”
ROSETT: Yes. And the net effect here is, it sort of calls into question—what is the real U.S. commitment here? What is it that this President is trying to do? He began with this sort of—something that, I think, may seem that we’re never going to get to—this wonderful world of peace and prosperity. Well, he’s supposed to be formulating policies that lead us in the direction of that, and, actually, of what I see is, he’s got a country where terrible economic policies are being jammed down people’s throats, all in the name of this sort of juvenile, this adolescent vision of social justice he picked up somewhere back around Columbia and the Bill Ayers dinner table. And this very important fight that’s been going on in the Middle East, he’s kind of just saying, “Well, done with that. It’s too bad I had to deal with it at all, but we’ve closed it.” He didn’t—he mentioned Bush, he didn’t give Bush credit for the fact that this war, that American troops are leaving right now, are leaving having won, not in the middle of defeat. Again, people kept waiting for him to mention the surge. Remember the surge? Which President Obama, as a Senator, opposed? That’s what put this over, and made it a scene in which he could say, “All right, there has been real progress since the overthrow of Saddam.”
But here’s something else that President Obama just left completely—he didn’t mention, because I’m not sure he even understands—and that is, it wasn’t just sort of a gratuitous war—“Oops! Let’s just take somebody else out next!” Saddam Hussein was an incredible threat. He had started two wars already, and if you actually read the Duelfer Report—Dan Henninger has a good column on this in The Wall Street Journal today, and I’ve been writing about this, off-and-on, at this point, for years—if you actually read the Duelfer Report, which groups said, “Oh, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” most of the Duelfer Report is about Saddam’s programs for reviving the production of weapons of mass destruction as soon as he is finished completely—he was breaking out, through Oil for Food, from under sanctions, and he was a very, very toxic force in that region. He was a war-making dictator who didn’t just brutalize his own people. He threatened others. And it made, I think, a considerable impression on the world when the U.S. actually overthrew him. That’s why Muammar Gaddafi, in Libya, handed over his nuclear program, which was far more advanced than had been suspected. And what we have now is a scene in which that message, that effect, has really worn off. When President Bush led that Coalition of the Willing—and it was a Coalition—to overthrow Saddam Hussein, other dictators really did take note—“Oops!” They didn’t want to be at the top of the list for something like that. There’s no credibility for something like that right now. Iran is looking at the United States, and that man who sat and spoke for 19 minutes about a war in which 4,000 American troops have died, and enormous change, actually, has been brought to the Middle East—if the Iraqis can keep it—and the actual establishment of a government that is not a horrible dictatorship! And, right now, the message is, he doesn’t understand why that’s important. He doesn’t really care about it that much. He wants to get back to stuffing Obamacare down your throat.
ARONOFF: So why do you think they are having such a difficult time coming to form a government there in Iraq? Do you see that being helped by what he’s doing now, pulling our troops back? What do you think’s going on there? Do you see—are you hopeful that they’ll be able to come to a peaceful coalition government any time soon?
ROSETT: Well, I’m certainly hopeful that they will. Is President Obama helping? I don’t think so. It’s a funny inversion here: Back home, he seems to have no grasp of the terrible effects of welfare policies and becoming somebody else’s patron and sugar-daddy. With some of the dealings abroad, his message, basically, has been, in Iraq, “Well, the Iraqis should have to do it for themselves. It’s just their problem now.” I wish he’d do that with health care in the United States. Where we have a system in place, and a long understanding of how to negotiate with each other through a marketplace to make things work out well—that’s how we got computers, first, in everybody’s home. But the problem here is, Iraq isn’t a long-established democracy. It still, in the long scheme of things, quite recent, that they began to hold real elections, that they began to have any real freedom to form political coalitions. Remember, for decades it had all been shaped by Saddam, and any sort of vibrant or enterprising political culture had just been snuffed out. People had their tongues ripped out, and were thrown off buildings, for daring to speak up. And the expectation now, that this is all just going to work smoothly, as if it were the United States—that’s unrealistic and, add in that you have a very, very troublesome, meddling neighbor next door—Iran—has designs and interests there, and you’re leaving—you’re sort of looking now to a country that’s still really kind of getting its act together, and in a neighborhood where President Obama has been doing nothing—I mean, we’ve got sanctions on Iran, but they’re not going to stop the nuclear program—to send the message that you don’t mess with America or its allies. So you’re leaving this exposed country where they’ve come far but there’s still all sorts of political complexities that have yet to be worked out. So let me make that simpler: I think there would be a better chance if, instead of treating it as a page that must be turned, President Obama had presented it as a victory that we will go to enormous lengths, and we are absolutely determined, to preserve. That’s the message he should have sent.
ARONOFF: Talk a minute about Afghanistan. Now there we have another sort of deadline, a soft deadline, of July, next year, to start “turning the page” there, and in the meantime, we have these really troubled relationships with Karzai, the current government, questions about whether we’re going to negotiate with the Taliban to put them in power. How do you see Obama’s commitment, America’s commitment, to Afghanistan at this point, and the likelihood of how that’s going to play out?
ROSETT: Again, he seems to think that one of the most important things is to set a deadline for when you’re going to end the war. Wars don’t work that way, okay? You end the war when you win the war. That’s when you end the war. Or you lose the war. But that’s how wars end. And in Afghanistan, credit him that he is staying there, that he has made some effort to try and figure out, “Okay, how can we deal with this thing?” But he doesn’t really talk about “victory.” He doesn’t talk about “winning.” I found it astounding, last December, when President Obama gave a speech at West Point, announcing his new strategy in Afghanistan, the one he spent months—talk about deadlines!—the one where he delayed and delayed and delayed the announcement, and he finally spoke about it at West Point, and put one of the cadets asleep. That’s really not a good sign.
And he wasn’t talking about “winning.” He was talking about “ending this war.” Again—wars, in the main, are not easy things to win. If it were easy, you’d be discussing it over a diplomatic table. He’s simultaneously saying, “We’re committing troops,” and so on, and at the same time, broadcasting the message “We’re going to be turning this page pretty soon.” A certain ambiguity is useful, in strategies of war, but not when it entails questions over, “So, are you just going to walk away and leave it?” What’s he talking about—2011 is next year, right? It’s not that far off. And there’s still an enormous amount that remains to be done before anyone can say, “We have won in Afghanistan.” And, again, he was talking about this as the “war of necessity” back when he was running for office. Now, it’s sort of more and more being treated as this thing that was sort of foisted upon him, this mess that was left on his desk. Well, the war in Afghanistan, for the United States, began when 19 hijackers, dispatched by al-Qaeda, hosted by the Taliban in Afghanistan, slammed into the World Trade Center on September 11th and brought down two enormous buildings in lower Manhattan, killing almost 3,000 people. As well as slamming into the Pentagon, and a field of Pennsylvania. So, yeah: An act of—an atrocious, enormous act of war was committed against this country, launched out of Afghanistan. That’s why we went to war in Afghanistan.
ARONOFF: And there seems to be some disconnect between General Petraeus’s commitment and President Obama’s commitment, and you wonder where those two may collide at some point along the way here.
ROSETT: They come from completely different worlds. General Petraeus is the man we can thank for leading—along with thanking President Bush for having the will to stick with the surge in Iraq—we can thank General Petraeus for being the man who really carried that out, who was vital in designing it, making it happen, making it work. He knows war, he knows the field, he understands that, and, on the other hand, you have this sort of—I’m sorry to say it, but this is true, and it concerns me greatly—you have this kind of precious product of Occidental College, Columbia, Harvard Law School, community organizing. He has never really dealt with war, he doesn’t really know much about the military. What, I think, he did know, largely consisted of resenting the things they have done, and questioning the missions they were sent on. Again, over and over, we get this sort of distinction: “Okay, we’re going to honor the troops, but disparage the wars in which they are giving up their lives.” These are two different worlds that they come from. One can hope that President Obama will figure it out, but it’s very late in the day, and the cost of a public education for a President of the United States is very, very high.
ARONOFF: This, week, in Washington, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and President Abbas, of the Palestinian Authority, are here in Washington to try to get some direct negotiations going. What do you think of the way Obama is handling this? Do you think there’s any realistic chance of “This time, it’s going to succeed”?
ROSETT: No, of course it won’t! Look: Abbas—the Palestinians’ leadership doesn’t want it. They would be out of business if all the misery and trouble ceased. They’ve fed off it for years. I’m sorry to be this blunt, but there’s this huge shakedown racket that goes on here, and Palestinian leaders have done well out of it—actually, I wouldn’t call them leaders. Palestinian rulers—okay—have done well out of it for a long, long time. The Palestinians themselves have not done so well out of it. And we’re going through this again. President Obama seems to be operating on this premise that if he just shows that he wants to make everybody talk, and he’s just sort of open to everybody having one great collective group hug, and if the Israelis don’t like that—because their real problem right now is, they’re being threatened by the Iranian nuclear program, the Iranian government, and Iran’s pet mascot terrorists in Gaza, and out of Lebanon, Hamas and Hezbollah—that’s really not President Obama’s problem. That seems to be how he looks at it.
He wants the world to love us because he’s going to convene people, and everyone’s going to have talks, and that, of course, will make the world better. Right? That’s where this is. And the last thing that we ought to be concerned about right now is whether or not the Israelis and the Palestinians are talking. The big problem that’s looming right now is that Iran is closing in on the Bomb. Okay? That’s the big problem. And the focus on Israeli-Palestinian dealings—that really is something he ought to be leaving to the Israelis and Palestinians right now. He should be focusing on an enormous threat that’s really going to have a significant effect on what we call “the world order,” that being Iran.
ARONOFF: And what do you see happening there? In other words, it seems at this point, to many that the U.S., and the West, has decided “Maybe we can live with an Iranian nuclear weapon out there. We still have mutually assured destruction, that sort of thing!” But it’s a totally different perspective for Israel. So what do you see happening here?
ROSETT: Actually, it’s a very up-close perspective for Israel, but we ought to be taking it a lot more seriously ourselves. Mutually assured destruction, remember, was the U.S. versus the U.S.S.R. There were two countries in that equation, and it had its very touch-and-go moments. It now looks like, “Oh, that all worked out.” There were times, during the Cold War, when it really didn’t look good at all, okay?
ROSETT: You remember duck-and-cover under your school desk? But this is no longer that bi-polar arrangement. North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and they’re working on systems to deliver them. And while it may sound ridiculous—who cares about North Korea?—if North Korea actually does have the ability to land a nuclear-tipped missile on Los Angeles, that gives them a certain leverage you really don’t want them to have. And Iran is working on long-range delivery systems, Iran is working on nuclear weapons, and Iran is a country with a network of terror organizations around the world who have killed Americans, among others, over the years, and have been an enormous source of trouble. And the idea—they sit right in this oil rich area in the Middle East, where they’re in a position to make a lot of trouble over oil coming out of the Gulf, and to take that as something where we’re just going to let them go ahead on the premise that this can be contained—no. Actually, it won’t be contained. Think nuclear arms race, because other countries are going to look at that and say a combination of “If they can have it, why not us?” and “If they have it, we’d better get nuclear weapons, too!” At some point in this, the old mutually assured destruction—that’s a game where the more players there are, the risks rise faster than the number of players. All you need is something to slip in there. And the more immediate problem, Roger, is, the blackmail potential of that is just enormous. You don’t want Iran to have that kind of leverage. Of course, for the Israelis, it really is a matter of life and death. Iran has said—its leaders have repeatedly said—they wish to “wipe Israel off the map.” Their media is full of propaganda about hating Jews, getting rid of Israel—they don’t draw a distinction, really, between anti-Semitism, anti-Israeli sentiments, all that. They just want it gone. You can argue, “Well, they would prefer to have that enemy out there”—like the Collective Hate in George Orwell’s 1984. But, again, what a perilous, terrible time for the democratic state of Israel. And it would be a great mistake for Americans, especially the President, to read this as some distant threat that is of no great concern to us. It’s a terrible danger to everybody.
ARONOFF: We just have a few minutes left, and I want to get into—you have written this great series of articles about Imam Rauf; and the Ground Zero Mosque; and his wife, Daisy Khan. Supporters like Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama are saying this is all about the First Amendment and freedom of religion, and forcing this project to be moved would be a victory for “mob rule” and “bigotry.” Tell us what you found, in your reporting, that people can find on forbes.com, and your weekly columns. Talk about that, please.
ROSETT: Sure. Look: this is not about, actually, religious freedom, or anything of the kind. There is plenty of freedom for the folks behind this mosque to practice their religion. They’ve got other mosques at which they already do that. There’s basically a trio that has become the public face of this: a husband-wife team—Daisy Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf—and their real estate developer/partner, Sharif El-Gamal. The three of them pitched this project to a Manhattan community board, this spring, for something they called “Cordoba House,” a 100 million dollar, fifteen story mosque and Islamic center. Fifteen stories—two below ground, thirteen above, okay? The reaction to this—and the thing about the site, the whole thing they pitched, in fact, was, this was to be a “bridge building” effort right by Ground Zero, and the imam himself, Rauf, made a point of saying, to The New York Times, last December, in an interview, that he really liked the building they had picked, and their developer had bought—as it turned out—because part of the wreckage of one of the airplanes in the September 11th attack fell through the roof of this building on September 11th. That’s how close it is to Ground Zero, okay? As the plane slammed into the tower, igniting this fireball, incinerating people inside, part of the plane went on and went through the roof of this building. So the Imam judged it a really ideal place to make a bridge-building effort, and build a mosque. Okay?
ROSETT: A lot of Americans just feel that’s inappropriate. That’s perfectly within their prerogative. That’s not bigotry—that’s just a sense of decency. And free speech says they’re perfectly within their rights to voice that opinion, to protest the idea that a mosque would be built there. The name given to this project by Imam Feisal and his wife, Daisy Khan, was “Cordoba House,” which they pitched as an era in which there was great harmony between religions in ancient Spain. Actually, it was the period of the Cordoba Caliphate, the Muslim conquest, when Islam ruled in that part of the world. Okay? When people began pointing this out, they changed the name of the project to “Park51,” which sounds more like a real estate project. And they began saying, “It’s not really a ‘mosque,’ it’s a ‘community center.’” Well, it will have a mosque—and there, too, you can look at it either as a community center with a mosque, or a mosque with a community center attached—but it’s definitely a mosque, right near Ground Zero, with this triumphalist name that they picked.
And, Roger, what’s been going on since then is, their story—a majority of Americans, polls show, think it’s just a bad place to build something like that. And people aren’t saying, “Don’t build this center at all,” they’re saying, “Don’t do it so close to Ground Zero that it becomes a major item or event right on the edge of that site.” Which is exactly what’s going on right now. The imam himself has been preaching at a mosque twelve blocks away. People have been fine with that for years. He’s got this huge Islamic community center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he sits on the Board of Trustees. His father was involved in setting it up. There are hundreds of mosques within the area that they can go to. This has become—the perversion at the core of this, Roger, is that, in the name of “harmony” and “bridge building,” they are insisting that they must have their mosque and center specifically on this site, so close to Ground Zero, that the reason people will notice it is exactly because of its proximity. And, Roger, it’s starting to look to me like this kind of arrangement—in a way, it’s fascinating—this is an iconic piece of hucksterism for our time. More and more has been coming out about this imam and his wife, who have rather tangled, complicated pasts. The Bergen Record, in New Jersey, was reporting on his record as, quote, “an alleged slum lord.” Their real estate partner appears to owe hundreds of thousands in back taxes. The imam himself simply left the country in July, and didn’t bother to take any questions at all from the American press until he began on a State Department-funded tour of petrodollar capitals of the Middle East. And I believe he’s due back right about now and this show is likely to roll on. But, Roger, at the bottom, with no regard—in the name of “bridge building,” “harmony,” and so on, these people are, with no regard, no regard whatsoever to the sensitivities of the average American, just sort of trampling all over anything that would actually qualify as “bridge building” and demanding, now, they have a right—and, strictly speaking, they do—they have a right to build this enormous, in-your-face, deliberately-close-to-Ground-Zero mosque and Islamic center, and nobody’s going to stop them. The incredible scene that’s been unfolding is, a politically correct New York and Washington establishment has just been applauding a lot—Mayor Bloomberg has said he doesn’t care where the money comes from. Well, I don’t know—a lot of us do care where the money comes from, because a lot of money out of places like the Middle East has funded some very bad things, especially at mosques and community centers, in very recent times.
ARONOFF: There’s one final thing—it seems the conundrum for these people, who try to make the point that “Oh, he’s really a moderate, and this is about bridge building”—if it’s really about freedom of religion, they shouldn’t really have any say, or any care about whether he’s a moderate or not, because if it’s within his religion, and he wants to say radical things, who are they, who are talking about freedom of religion, in this case, to criticize that? So it seems to me this big effort in the media to make him appear to be a moderate and a bridge builder, as more and more quotes keep appearing to show that, in fact, he’s really not.
ROSETT: We’ve heard now that he’s refused to condemn Hamas. But the thing that this whole issue has done, and what Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and their real estate partner, Sharif El-Gamal, have done with this is push right into the most sensitive place in the United States, Ground Zero, this enormous, complicated issue. There is a real question here: What, exactly, do you do about the problem that America was founded based on ideas of freedom of religion, and freedom of speech is central to who we are—these are two issues which are colliding—no, they’re not colliding here, when you exercise those rights you get people who are colliding—and within Islam there’s a huge problem that still needs to be hashed out.
This is the only religion I’m aware of that is currently engendering people who are interested in blowing up airplanes and bringing down bridges and murdering innocents and blowing up trains, buses, who are constantly being—who are the reason you’re being searched for your manicure scissors, to this day, in the airport lines. It’s a very complicated problem: How do you actually sort out people who are simply Muslims who are just trying to practice their religion and have a decent life for themselves and their kids, from mosques that are busy breeding really violent terrorist stuff, or busy trying to subvert the freedoms that America is built on? How do you separate that? That’s a complicated question, and what this group, what this trio, has done, Mr. Rauf and his wife, Mrs. Khan, is plant that debate right next to Ground Zero. This is a debate that should be going on a respectful distance away from the place where those Twin Towers came down. It shouldn’t be carried right to the edge. What they’ve done is, force it into the hottest spot it could be, and then Daisy Khan was on TV, a week ago Sunday, calling America a place “beyond Islamophobia,” a place that hates Muslims, a place of bigots.
Ms. Khan, by the way, has immigrated to the United States. She was born in Kashmir, India, and this country has been more than kind to her and her husband. They live a very nice lifestyle. He drives a Lexus. They have properties, multiple homes, but now they want this, and if Americans disagree, if a majority of Americans exercise their right of free speech to disagree, she’s on TV calling them bigots. This is a ginned-up controversy that never had to be. It’s caused huge anguish to some of the families of September 11th victims, and, frankly, I think it’s an affront to Americans, generally, that this issue should be pushed right there. If they wished to test and debate and discuss and build bridges and all the rest of it, they’ve got facilities to do that already. They can build more some distance away. But to pick a building that, specifically, they first praised because it’s so close to Ground Zero, they think it’s the ideal place for this debate to go on—which is exactly why it’s not the place for this debate to go on, the debate should go on somewhere else—and then to start backtracking—at this point, they’re now saying, “It’s not that close to Ground Zero. Look: it’s around, you know. It’s down the block.” Actually, it is that close. And it was picked for exactly that reason. And it was called the Cordoba House when they conceived it. And it would still be—I think it’s still important that, if they go ahead with this, the law may not require them to disclose where every penny of their money comes from—and they’ve been quite elusive about that, we have yet to hear about Imam Feisal’s offshore doings in Malaysia, where he has an office and longstanding ties—but the least they owe Americans, I think, as a gesture of good faith, is complete transparency about where the money will come from, and how, exactly, they’re spending it. What we’ve seen so far are people who hang up the phone if you ask questions about that.
ARONOFF: Our guest has been Claudia Rosett. Her work can be found at forbes.com, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which is defenddemocracy.org, and Pajamas Media, which is at pajamasmedia.com/claudiarosett. That’s R-O-S-E-T-T. Claudia, thanks so much for being with us again on Take AIM!
ROSETT: Thank you, Roger.