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Will the Levees Hold?; War in Syria; `Legitimate Rape'

Aired August 29, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET



ALI VELSHI, CNN HOST: Good evening, and welcome to the program. I'm Ali Velshi, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Well, will the levees hold? That is the life and death question hanging over the American city of New Orleans tonight, as Hurricane Isaac lashes the area and all of the U.S. Gulf Coast with wind and torrential rain. It's a terrifying replay of a drama that played out exactly seven years ago when Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed one of America's great cities.

Now Hurricane Isaac is a category 1 . That's not as powerful as Katrina was, but it's a monster size, as you can see on the radar. Floods have already begun and up to 2 feet of rain is forecast. Already the floodwaters are trapping people in their homes just south of New Orleans.

Take a look at this subdivision of homes in Braithwaite, Louisiana. Rescue crews are going house to house at this hour, trying to pull people out of the second stories of their houses. One woman barely made it out alive.


SHARON SYLVIA, FLOOD VICTIM: First, we were going to try to leave and then we didn't because we had nowhere to go. Then (inaudible) television and that the (inaudible) in the levee. But then we were trying to leave but trying to drive in the car, it was -- you couldn't see your hand in front of your face.


VELSHI: Now the storm walls protecting some areas south of the city are not much stronger than they were seven years ago. In the city of New Orleans, the levees have been rebuilt by the Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of billions of dollars.

But given the volume of water involved, no one is certain that they will hold. You can't help but think back to when the levees broke seven years ago today, and the devastating floods overtook the city. The images of thousands of desperate people begging for help at the city's Superdome, some even dying without any assistance.

Many in the area are living with the same fears right now, and in one town just south of the city the floodwaters have come over the barrier walls. Now in a moment, I'll speak with CNN's Ed Lavandera, who is himself right now in a house surrounded by floodwater in Grand Isle, Louisiana. But first, a look at what's coming up a little later in the program.



VELSHI (voice-over): In Syria, the defection and the dying go on. But President Assad says everything is just fine. A dictator in denial.

And a Republican who fights for abortion. She's attending the party in Tampa, but there are threats against her life.

Then in Africa, another leader some have called a dictator clings to power. But the women of Togo have a power of their own. Not tonight, Mr. President. I have a headache.


VELSHI: All right. We'll get to that in a bit, but first, Ed Lavandera in Grand Isle, Louisiana, which is an island just south of New Orleans, Ed, where are you and why are you there?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ali, as you well know, this is an area at a place in a house you are well familiar with, with this, the small barrier island, which is about 11 kilometers long at its widest point and a little under a kilometer wide.

This is a barrier island that separates the Gulf of Mexico in front of me from the rest of Louisiana and the bay goes straight from where we are here through the bay waters, you start making your way to the internationally famous city of New Orleans.

So we came here because we knew this was going to be one of the initial points where Hurricane Isaac made its landfall, and sure enough, this storm, the eye of the storm came right over us late last night and into the overnight hours.

And what is incredibly dramatic about this storm is just how slow- moving it is, just almost like 10 kph, which is dreadfully slow for a tropical storm and causes a whole new wave of problems for people. You know, they name these storms, and people around here in the hurricane regions talk about these storms as if they have their own personality.

Isaac has been compared to Katrina in many ways, but in far more ways, it is very different just because of how slow-moving and the way it has reacted and the way the winds have reacted here as it's come ashore, has really surprised a lot of the people who live along the Louisiana coastline, Ali.

VELSHI: They're hardened folk. You're staying at a guy's house, he's a shrimper. He's seen this happen. He's -- you're there because he's built a house that can withstand a hurricane. This is not the case all over. We move a little north of you to New Orleans, they've spent a lot of money fixing those levees, but they are still scared. You'd think it'd be over now, but because it's moving so slowly, they're still waiting to see if their levees will hold and their city will flood.

LAVANDERA: Right. And there's a little community just south of New Orleans, where a lot of people are playing close attention because a levee there, the water came over the top. There have been more than 100 people who have been calling in for rescues in that area. So all of that has been playing out dramatically throughout the morning here.

Ali, this is incredible, because this storm, usually when a hurricane comes ashore, it blows through relatively quickly in many cases. We have been experiencing these kinds of conditions for 24 hours now. It is absolutely exhausting. And you can imagine what it's like also for the amount of pressure and intensity that puts on that levee system. So this is a true test.

VELSHI: Ed, you are, as we said, you are further south. We've just been told by our weather center that it has now been downgraded to a tropical storm. That often happens once it starts to get over land. Bottom line, though, is it's not the just the winds.

The winds in this storm didn't get as high as they did during Katrina. But this slow-moving storm means you're getting a lot more water. And the water is the stuff that ends up trapping people.

LAVANDERA: Yes, exactly. If you look at, you know, we had an interview with Dean Blanchard is the name of the man who we're staying with here. He's a famous shrimper here. He's got a shrimping empire here in Grand Isle, and he has an incredible home here. Let's move, we can show you a portion of it here.

This is a house that was built, he told me, by a man who used to design offshore platforms for Exxon, the oil company. And so he -- this is a strong, strong house and is well built and has withstood these winds very well.

But it has taken in water, if you talked to him a little while ago, down on the first floor -- we're on the second floor of the house -- we talked to him a little while ago down on the first floor. And we were standing in about 6 inches of water as -- oh, excuse me. The water's started coming in here, into the house.

And overnight, we woke up this morning, we could hear the water sloshing around on the first floor. Listen to a little bit of our conversation with Dean earlier.


LAVANDERA: What's it like being trapped here, seeing all this water?

DEAN BLANCHARD, GRAND ISLE RESIDENT: Oh, it's aggravating. I feel like being in my truck and garage, but we took on the water a while ago. So we'll let it go down another few inches.

LAVANDERA: It's gone down a little bit. I mean --

BLANCHARD: Probably dropped about 5-6 inches in the last hour, but it looks like it's stopped, you know. That's what's worrying . I was hoping it would continue to drop.

LAVANDERA: But this is -- this is the sight that I just find amazing, when you see here and you look out your side door.

BLANCHARD: Yes, yes.

LAVANDERA: And you see water --

BLANCHARD: Well, everybody wants waterfront property.



LAVANDERA: So you know, throughout all of this, the couple days we've been here already, Dean has an amazing sense of humor through all of this.

On a serious note, we talked to the mayor here just a little while ago, and he says basically the entire island has been covered with water. They're trying to make their way to as many places as possible. But unfortunately, they haven't been able to make it.

This is -- island normally has about 1,500 people living on it. The mayor estimated that somewhere between 30 and maybe up to 50 people stayed behind. So they're trying to check on all of those people. They just haven't been able to get everywhere at this point to see and make sure everyone's doing OK.

VELSHI: All right. Ed, stay safe. Give my best to Dean. He took good care of us during Hurricane Gustav, and we'll check in with you a little later. Ed Lavandera for us in Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Let's turn to Syria now. Everything's just fine there. That's at least according to President Bashar al-Assad, who just moments ago appeared in an extensive interview on Syrian television. Now he was relaxed and happy looking.

He sat down with a reporter from a pro-regime network named Al Dounia, which means "the world," and gave the impression that despite the ongoing violence, he's got everything under control.


BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator); We are engaged in a regional and global battle, so we need time to win it. But I can sum it up in one sentence: we are progressing. The situation on the ground is better, but we have not yet won. This will take more time.


VELSHI: So, he says he's making progress.

With me now is Fawaz Gerges. He's the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

Fawaz, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us. You've had some sense of what al-Assad has said. What an interesting take. He is not -- he was not defensive. He was not talking about settling or negotiating. As far as he's concerned, they are making progress toward the goal of eliminating the opposition to his regime.

FAWAZ GERGES, DIRECTOR, MIDDLE EAST CENTER, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: I think you're absolutely correct, Ali. I think the interview has given us a glance into the psychology of the Syrian president, his state of mind. He seemed to be very confident.

He addressed very sensitive topics like the defection of the prime minister and other officials like the fact why the Syrian government has not really delivered a decisive blow against the opposition so far. I think if there is one particular lesson that you take for your viewers, take out of this interview, is that the Syrian president believes this is all-out war.

This is a long, drawn-out war and he is hunkering down for the long haul, even though he acknowledged that he has not been able to deliver a decisive blow against the opposition, he says we are making progress. We need some time.

But basically he did not seem to be to basically doubt the fact that ultimately Syria will be able not only to defeat this particular -- his internal opposition opponents, but also his regional and international -- the international conspiracies as well. One of the major points, too, that we've taken out of this interview again, to him, this is not just an internal conflict --


GERGES: -- between his government and the opposition. This is a conflict both regional powers and international powers are conspiring against Syria. And that's why he says Syria is fighting not only an internal war, Syria is fighting a regional and international war as well.

VELSHI: In fact, he goes out of his way, Fawaz, to say this is not the Arab Spring. This is not an internal movement. He says that it is an international movement, that they chose to support the Palestinians.

They -- that this is about Iran, that the West is after Iran and they've gotten involved in this because they have not forsaken Iran. He even talked about Turkey, a country with which Syria and al-Assad himself had friendships as the enemy. He is drawing this out as the world versus Syria.

GERGES: Remember, Ali, if there is one particular point that is really consistent throughout from day one, the President Assad and the inner circle do not see this conflict as internal. It's not part of the Arab Spring uprisings. This is not an internal, political crisis. This is part and parcel of a regional and international conspiracy hatched against Syria.

In fact, one of the lines today in the interview, he said, it is Syria's fate to face and overcome conspiracies from colonial days, from the 1920s, up till the present. He drew a consistent, straightforward line from the 1920s to the present.

And this tells you a great deal about his state of mind. He has convinced himself and the inner circle around him believe that Syria is facing a regional and international conspiracies by the United States, by Israel, by Turkey, by Saudi Arabia and what Syria is doing, it's fighting the Arabs' basically struggle for independence and for (inaudible) --


GERGES: He's turned the table on its head.

VELSHI: Yes, but this usually a language and a philosophy used by far more isolationist countries than Syria. Syria, until recently, has not been entirely isolated from the world. Al-Assad is Western educated.

Why would he -- why would he think that Syrians would believe this? He was on a pro-Syrian regime network, but he was jovial. He was laughing. Do you think he believes this? Or is this a propaganda strategy to convince other Syrians of it?

GERGES: Ali, I have no doubt in my mind that he and his inner circle deeply subscribe to this whole notion of conspiracy against Syria, deeply entrenched. And the fact is, this has been a consistent line. And you ask me why would a president who was educated in the West -- I mean, this has been the dominant narrative that he is Western educated; he is a modernist.

The reality is, you cannot understand his mind, his state of mind without understanding his background. He's the son of President Hafez al- Assad, that his father's system, a system that subscribes to the fact that Syria is part of the so-called, the axis of resistance. Syria is part of the Iran and Hezbollah axis of resistance.

And what Syria is facing today is not an internal struggle, but rather an integral part of a regional and international war that Syria really now is facing. This is the battlefield in Syria.

VELSHI: You know --

GERGES: And, yes, Ali, to -- please.

VELSHI: In a word, do you feel, as a result of watching this thing, more hopeful, less hopeful or has anything changed as a result of this interview?

GERGES: I have no doubt some in my mind that basically President Assad and the opposition are hunkering down for the long term. Far from really the beginning of the end, in fact, I would argue this is a long, drawn-out conflict.

And it -- we -- nobody knows, Ali, how long it will take and what the consequences be for Syria and its neighbors as well. And what we have seen today, the interview itself, it really reinforces and reaffirms his state of mind and his set of beliefs about the internal enemies being an extension of regional and international enemies as well.

VELSHI: Fawaz, thanks for your analysis, always a pleasure to see you.

Fawaz Gerges from the London School of Economics.

All right. When we come back, we'll turn to the American political scene. The Republican meeting in Tampa, Florida, they say they're trying to be more inclusive, but is there room for a Republican woman who is pro- choice? I'll talk to her in a moment.


VELSHI: Welcome back to the program. I'm Ali Velshi, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Last week, Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin blew the doors off the presidential race when he laid out his thoughts about abortion in the case of rape.


REP. TODD AKIN (R), MO.: It seems to me first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume that maybe that didn't work, or something.

You know, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.


VELSHI: Yes, he really said that. He really said "legitimate rape," and he really said that the female body has the ability to shut that down.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney even called for Akin to quit the Senate race. But his position that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances is, in fact, written into the Republican platform.

Ann Stone is a Republican. She is a pro-abortion advocate. She is the chairman of a group called Republicans for Choice, and that may all sound like an oxymoron to you, but Ann is in the trenches at the Republican Convention in Tampa this week, making her case.

Ann, welcome to you. I have heard you say that in prior years, you have had to go to these events with a bodyguard.

ANN STONE, REPUBLICANS FOR CHOICE: Absolutely. That's one of the ways I measure our progress. This year I didn't need a bodyguard.

VELSHI: Why do you want to measure that sort of progress? Why do you want to be in a party where there's another big party that has no problem with this position?

STONE: Well, frankly, because it was my party first. And I'm the consistent Republican and they're not, because Republicans are for getting government out of the board room, so they should be for getting the government out of the bedroom. If we really, truly believe individual rights, this is a position that is totally antithetical to everything else the Republican Party stands for.

And in fact, if you ask Republicans if government should be involved in this decision, they say, no, it should be the woman. Well, that's pro- choice.

VELSHI: Ann, you've been a Republican. You've been a conservative for a long time, in fact, I read that this happened when you were -- when you were a kid, really, and you really supported conservative values for a long time.

But this has been this way for a long time. There have been conservatives and Republicans who have been against abortion, and not just that they demonize it. So there are groups like Log Cabin Republicans, gay Republicans and from the outside, people wonder, why are you part of this group that demonizes you?

STONE: Well, let's put it this way: people who believe in women's rights, people who cherish this right to choose, want me to stay in the party. You want me where the fight is. In fact, I've invited more people to come and join me. One of the problems is a lot of people who think like me have left out of disgust. Well, that was the wrong thing to do. They've ceded territory to the other side.

Now I need to also tell you that one of the things the party leadership does is they give -- I guess I could call them the crazies -- they give the crazies the platform in order to make them feel that they have some control.

And they say, oh, well, yes, our candidates can just run from the platform. But the problem is it does set a tone and it makes people all over the world think the Republican Party is crazy. I mean, they all think we're like Todd Akin, which that is not true.

VELSHI: OK, and --

STONE: That man is a class unto himself.

VELSHI: And you know, I was overseas when this news first came out. Here's what Mitt Romney said about it when he was asked about this position about abortion. Here's what he said to CBS. Listen.


FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My position has been clear throughout this campaign. I'm in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest and the health and life of the mother.


VELSHI: All right. He said that on Monday. Well, I'm going to ask you in a second whether you agree with his position.

But what happened, you see, he said this after Todd Akin had made his comment. And Todd Akin, when he was asked, said, "Well, Paul Ryan shares my view."

Paul Ryan is now the vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party. What do you think of that?

STONE: Well, Ryan very quickly said, no, I'm going to take Mitt Romney's view. He is the leader of our ticket. And that will be my view. That's what I'm running on.

So who knows. We may get Ryan to moderate his view.

Certainly, Akin may, in fact, do more for my side than anybody else has, where it's going to make them come back a little towards the center, realizing that he represents the real right-wing crazy fringe.

VELSHI: Ann, even Mitt Romney's position, which is much more moderate than Todd Akin's, is fundamentally not where you stand.

Are you going to vote for Mitt Romney?

STONE: Let's put it this way. Mitt Romney says he's for abortion only in the case of rape, incest, life of the mother. But is that a personal position or is that one he would legislate on? That's the question that we're trying to determine. There's so many people that call themselves pro-life that say they're against abortion.

But if you ask them, will they legislate on it or is this something women should decide or government, overwhelmingly they say it should be the woman.

VELSHI: But part of the platform -- part of that platform that you don't agree with, also says that they want judges in place who will -- who will protect the rights of unborn children.

STONE: And saying that -- and they said things like that before Ronald Reagan put Sandra Day O'Connor in, before they -- before Bush put Souter in, saying it and doing it, I'll tell you, more than one candidate has said the platform represents who the party is. This is where I am and that's how that deal with.

VELSHI: So you think -- you think --

STONE: Whether or not the voters will get that message this time is another thing.

VELSHI: What is the message, though? It's not clear from you what you think. Do you think Mitt Romney -- would you vote for Mitt Romney, based on what you heard him say? Because he said clearly where he stands on abortion.

STONE: Right now, we're still assessing whether or not myself (sic) or my group is going to work for Mitt Romney. I don't see us endorsing him. Whether or not our members choose to vote, we're telling them to vote their conscience.

There's some that will and there's some that won't. I will say this, Obama has been a great unifier for the Republican Party. You have a lot of people that are pro-choice. They told me this time, please don't make a lot of trouble because it's more important to get rid of Barack Obama. We'll deal with Romney and his people afterwards.

VELSHI: I still haven't heard whether you're going to vote for Mitt Romney.


STONE: That's my personal choice.


STONE: At this point, the question is still open.

VELSHI: Ann Stone, thanks very much. Good to talk to you.

STONE: Thank you.


VELSHI: After a break, a different view of women's rights, a unique way to fight for change when the battlefield is the bedroom, when we come back.



VELSHI: A final thought, imagine a world where saying no to sex can bring down a government. In the small African nation of Togo, President Faure Gnassingbe and his father before him have held power for four decades. But on Saturday, Isabelle Ameganvi, a leader of the opposition, called on Togolese women to, quote, "keep the gate of your motherland locked up," end quote, for a week.

Well, that's one way to put it. If it isn't the first time -- it isn't the first time women have used sex to bring about social change. The women of Togo were inspired by the Nobel laureate, Leymah Gbowee, who led - - Leymah Gbowee, who led Liberian women in a sex strike in 2008 -- 2003, I'm sorry. It ended years of civil war and led to the election of current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Well, the whole practice started 2,500 years ago, when the Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote a comedy about the women of Athens who withheld sex to end the Peloponnesian War. The comedy is still fresh and so is the idea that in places where men hold all the power, withholding something has a power of its own. That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.