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What Will Morsi's Influence Be?; Assad Regime Targets Bread Lines; Alan Simpson Fires Back

Aired August 30, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


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

Tonight the question: is Egypt's new president the one-time Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, Mohammed Morsi, emerging as a powerful and influential figure in the Middle East? The Arab Spring has changed everything, old alliances are dissolving, new leaders are emerging and all of it has brought the entire region to a turning point.

Today, Mohammed Morsi lashed out at Syria and he didn't just do it anywhere; he made the scathing remarks in Tehran, while sitting next to Bashar al-Assad's biggest ally, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Morsi, who's in Iran for the Non-Alliance Summit, called the Syrian government an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy. He urged the world to stand by the Syrian people, calling it both a strategic necessity and an ethical duty.

Meanwhile in Damascus, fiery demonstrations erupted yesterday after Bashar al-Assad's extensive interview on a pro-regime network.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

VELSHI (voice-over): The protesters are chanting, "No matter what you say or do, we will triumph."

One person held up a sign that read, quote, "It's been a while since we laughed. Go on and let us hear your nonsense."

Meanwhile, in Tehran, the Syrian delegates who were listening to Morsi's comments were so outraged that they walked out mid-speech. And Syria's foreign minister accused the Egyptian president of instigating bloodshed.

Back in Iran, local media reportedly ignored Morsi's comment entirely. Morsi's trip to Iran was the first one for an Egyptian president since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Sunni leader's visit to the Shiite country was heralded as a possible step to warming relations between those two countries.

Morsi and Ahmadinejad did meet privately today, but after Morsi's comments, the direction of the relationship is now in question. In a moment, I'll speak to James Traub, a contributing writer for "The New York Times Magazine". But first, a look at what's coming up a little later in the program.


VELSHI (voice-over): President Obama asked Alan Simpson to get America out of debt. Then he ignored his recommendations. But the cowboy from Wyoming isn't backing down or backing off.

FORMER SEN. ALAN SIMPSON (R), WYOMING: We don't B.S. them. We tell them the truth.

VELSHI (voice-over): And fighting a civil war with bread and bullets, in Syria the Assad regime is targeting bread lines but the rebel bakers of Aleppo are fighting back.


VELSHI: It's a good story. We'll get to that in a bit, but first, James Traub, contributing writer for "The New York Times Magazine," James, good to have you here, thanks so much.


VELSHI: What is this interesting -- the scenario here of Mohammed Morsi, a man who was not expected to win the elections in Egypt in the first place. He was not that prominent a man. Now all of a sudden, going into Iran and basically sticking it to them, basically talking about Syria, a country with which Iran is allied.

TRAUB: I think Morsi's been amazingly surefooted, given especially the low expectations people had for him. You know, in the United States, people didn't want him to go to Iran for understandable reasons. But the fact is it has been mortifying for Egypt in recent years to feel as if they're an insignificant player in the Middle East.

And Egyptians yearn to matter, they way they feel they should matter. So of course, Morsi had to go there. And not only did he have to go there, he had to show that the Egyptian voice is important. So I think what he succeeded in doing is gratifying his own public by making Egypt the player that it is and then also not disappointing those in the West who felt that he would legitimize Iran by going there.


VELSHI: (Inaudible) -- by actually showing up at this meeting.

He did say -- and everybody does realize that, whatever you think of Iran, they probably will have to have some role in whatever ends up happening in Syria, because they're helping the Syrian regime stay alive.

TRAUB: Yes. Well, Morsi would like to be a peacemaker in Syria. He went to China. He want to China for economic reasons, but he said I'm going to talk about Syria. Now he probably won't be. He probably won't play a role there. But the fact is clearly Sunni powers in the region are going to play a role there, Saudi Arabia's playing a role. And so Egypt wants to be and should be a part of that.

VELSHI: All right. Let's talk about the relationship between Iran and Egypt. This has not been a good relationship for many years, as we mentioned.

This is the first time an Egyptian leader has gone to Iran since the revolution in 1979, and some people thought that would -- that would help relations between the two countries. Do you think this materially changes anything that goes on between Egypt and Iran?

TRAUB: A couple things. One is, yes, Egypt has seen Iran as a revolutionary power seeking to destabilize the existing order, of which they're a part. They see Iran as a supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Hamas (inaudible) they also have a lot of trouble with. And so that's not going to change. At the same time, I think Egyptian foreign policy was so deeply supportive of American policy and was seen by the public as being so much -- shots called by the puppet master in Washington.

VELSHI: Right.

TRAUB: So in a lot of ways, Egyptian foreign policy -- because it's democratic now, because Egypt is a democracy and responds to the will of the people -- is going to feel more independent and to Americans, that's probably going to sometimes feel like more anti-American.

Then again, look what he did here. Goes to Iran. Supposedly bad. Stands up for Syria. That's good. So the old, familiar alignments (ph) are being scrambled out and will continue to be scrambled.

VELSHI: Does Egypt emerge from what you can see so far as the major player that it was? As these alignments and as these regional changes occur? Where do you see Egypt?

TRAUB: Well, look, Ali, it's already a different world, right? Qatar, a teeny-tiny country, has emerged as a major diplomatic pivot and a peacemaker. Well, that wasn't true even five or 10 years ago. So the nature of the Middle East has changed. Saudi Arabia, for long, a very passive player, has become a much more active player.

And so the question of who matters in that world is really different from what it was 10-15 years ago. But it means Egypt, which has a natural leadership role, not only because it's the biggest country in the Middle East, but because people look to Egypt as the historic center of the Arab world.

Egypt is going to inevitably reassert itself, as for example, Turkey has reasserted itself since it became both a democracy and a quickly growing, emerging nation.

VELSHI: Assad very specifically went out of his way in this interview that he gave yesterday, to say that Syria is not the Arab Spring. This is entirely different. This is the outside world. It's terrorism. But when you're Morsi and you look at Syria, you see a lot of similarities.

TRAUB: Well, remember there's a couple things in play. One is this has now become at last a sectarian conflict. So Syria is controlled by an Alawite minority. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiism, the majority is Sunni. So there's a deep identification in the Arab world with the oppressed Sunni minority.

You don't hear, for example, that identification with the Bahraini dissidents, because those are Shiites. So there's a religious legitimacy, but of course it's the Arab Spring. I mean, only Assad and those around him think this is anything but the same wave which has washed over the Arab world arriving on the shores of Damascus.

VELSHI: Right. And Morsi has got to see it as that same wave. He sees the ability to have stood up to a strong military in Egypt, which he did. He sees a country with a leadership that seemed entrenched, and one that was overthrown. So to Morsi, is this more sectarian or is this more - - Syria can do what Egypt did?

TRAUB: Well, I don't want to make a distinction between those two --


TRAUB: -- because I would have liked Morsi to say something about Bahrain, which he did not do, and that --


VELSHI: Which makes you think that there's a little (inaudible)?

TRAUB: Well, I think it's very deep-seated. When I talk to folks in the -- I spent a lot of time, for example, in the Emirates, and when I talked to people there, they were terribly supportive of the Arab Spring, though not at home, but also not in Bahrain. It just doesn't count. They don't see it. And so I think this is a blind spot that's widely shared in the region.

But, no, I think that Morsi very much feels like he is the representative of people power in Egypt. Now you can argue if that's legitimate.

There are a lot of secular Egyptians who don't want to have that mantle. But he is the democratically elected president of a country that has never had a democratically elected president in a region which has never had them. So, yes, he is a symbol of what is new in this world.

VELSHI: Can they -- is the Syrian opposition -- are the Syrian rebels, the free Syrians as organized as the -- as the Egyptian rebels?

TRAUB: No, it's a radically different situation and this is a huge problem. In fact, I'm writing about this right now. I write a weekly column in and I'll have something about this tomorrow, that when Americans, the Turks and others think how are we going to help the Syrian rebels, they run up against two big obstacles.

One is the military wing, by its nature, is fragmented because it's really controlled by local commanders. There's 240 different entities in Syria that are different battalions, in effect. A more serious problem even is that unlike in Egypt but also unlike in Libya, unlike in Tunisia, there was a deeply fragmented, political leadership. You can't even call it a leadership.

One of the principal figures just quit in disgust yesterday. And so that has frustrated outsiders who were trying to help them.

VELSHI: Francois Hollande has called on them to form a provisional government that can be supported by the West. Mitt Romney has said he would like to arm the rebels. And why I ask you this is, is it -- is it that simple? Is there someone the West can arm? Is there someone who it is likely would form a provisional government in Syria?

TRAUB: That's a very good question and that's a big problem. And in fact, I'm wrestling with that one right now, because if -- even the French, who by the way did arm -- you'll remember, they armed Libyan rebels and were criticized for it, but they stood up for their moral principle.

Well, yesterday, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said, you know what, some of those missiles wound up in the hands of those jihadists who have taken over northern Mali. Maybe it wasn't such a great idea. The United States armed the Afghan jihadists with Stinger missiles in the 1980s. Those wound up in the hands of Al Qaeda.

So I'm nervous about -- I would prefer some kind of no-fly zone, which I now -- which I think I had opposed for a while but I now see the logic of, and in fact, will come out supporting tomorrow. That makes me less uncomfortable arming people when I know that once you've given them weapons, you've relinquished them. They're out of your control.

VELSHI: You're not entirely sure you're giving them to at this point.

All right, James, good to talk to you.

TRAUB: All right.

VELSHI: Thanks so much for being with us.

TRAUB: Thank you.

VELSHI: James Traub.

We'll have more about Syria later in the program, but when we come back, we'll meet Alan Simpson, the straight-talking cowboy who came up with the plan to rescue the U.S. economy. So far, nobody's willing to try it out. I'll ask him why.

But first, take a look at these extraordinary pictures. These are rebel fighters in Aleppo, where the battlefield can be as personal as someone's living room or even a living room sofa. We'll be right back.




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

Austerity, debt, taxes, growth, the size of government, these are the critical issues in the United States presidential campaign. They're the same issues, by the way, that have Europe wrapped around the axle.

President Obama tried an age-old Washington trick to break the political logjam. He appointed a blue-ribbon commission called Simpson- Bowles, after its bipartisan chairmen, to come up with a plan to balance the budget and cut the debt. They probably -- well, they did the best plan -- they came up with the best plan they could. But it went nowhere.

And the only thing both sides agree on is that it's the other guy's fault. Here's Paul Ryan, Republican vice presidential candidate, at his party's convention last night.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: One president, one term, $5 trillion in new debt. He created a new bipartisan debt commission. They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way and then did exactly nothing.


VELSHI: Now this is probably a good time to mention that Paul Ryan served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission and voted against the plan. The failure to act on Simpson-Bowles is a symbol of everything that is wrong with Washington today. Alan Simpson is the Simpson in Simpson-Bowles. He is a widely respected former Republican senator from Wyoming. He joins us from there now.

Senator Simpson, a pleasure to see you again. Thank you for being with us. Answer the simple question for the viewers around the world: why is your plan widely lauded by everybody as at least a good starting point to getting things on the right track still on the shelf?

SIMPSON: Well, because we were very effective in a 67-page report. We talked about shared sacrifice. We talked about going broke, skin in the game. So effectively, we achieved a noble goal. We irritated and P.O.d everybody in the United States, which, of course, is -- was the intent.

VELSHI: But people keep talking about it. People talk about Simpson- Bowles as the solution. There are these basic things that get said around the United States. We need tax reform. We need to deal with the deficit, Simpson-Bowles, we need to do that. Who doesn't want your program?

SIMPSON: Well, everybody will speak on it. I think the Speaker or the former Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said she favored it; Boehner said that once. I think McConnell. And don't forget, Dick Durbin, the assistant leader of the Senate, voted for it. I mean, that was tough.

You can imagine what Harry Reid might have put on him, saying, you know, you vote for that, you're talking about entitlement reform and, you know, putting toenails off people in the hospice and all that stuff that goes on. But the issue is really health care. It doesn't matter what you call it, and Ryan has put his finger on that.

Ryan didn't vote for it. We went to see him and Camp and Hensarling, all three of them could have voted for it. And I said to them, look, if you didn't vote for this package because you're afraid of Grover Norquist, I said, I've lost all respect for you in every single way.

And they said, no, wait a minute. We just think that if you get rid of the employer deduction on employee health care premiums, all the employers will just stand and blink and they'll take their employers to bloat ObamaCare or Medicare. And that's a fair answer.

VELSHI: So for my global viewers, I'll just --

SIMPSON: It's not going to go away.

VELSHI: Grover Norquist is a guy who made a lot of Republicans sign a pledge to say they will never support an increase in taxes. And Simpson- Bowles does increase some taxes, by your calculation, it's 3:1, three cuts to one tax increase.

The bottom line is you, after studying this with your commission for a long time, have said that in order to deal with the deficit in the United States, you have to cut spending and you do have to increase taxes. That is anathema to a lot of conservatives in the United States.

SIMPSON: Yes, but it's also a deception when you talk about it, because not you, but them, because what we said is you don't have to, quote, "raise taxes," so that the zombie will rise from the dead or Dr. Frankenstein will pack you back. You don't have to do that.

You go into those tax expenditures, which are spending by any other name, which are earmarks, and you start rooting those babies out and that's not a tax increase. Coburn, courageous guy, throws in an amendment to get rid of $6 billion in ethanol subsidies, and Grover calls that a tax increase, to which -- to which Coburn said that's ludicrous, to which I say it's also deceptive.

So they -- if they don't know Grover overseas, know that how do you get -- how do you ever, as a legislator, sign something when you haven't heard the debate? And a year, a year and a half later, you're asked to stick with something? That isn't legislating. That's boneheadedness.

VELSHI: But this is the problem that the world is wrestling with right now, because we see this as black-and-white. We see austerity, tightening the belt, less government spending, or we see massive stimulus, lots of government spending and no cuts.

And what your commission has done is probably something that leaders around the world are struggling with right now, is a middle ground. Why do -- why can we not accept this in the United States? Why are we going into corners about dealing with spending and taxes?

SIMPSON: We'll, you've got the situation where the lefties can go back to their base and stand up and say, look, I've lost sleep. I'm trying to work on this thing. I don't want to see this sequester. I know what we have to do before December 31st. I'm working my head off, but then I was in this room and somebody mentioned entitlement reform and doing something to poor old seniors. And then everybody will clap.

And the right wing nut goes back to his or her chamber of horrors and says, well, I've lost 22 pounds, haven't slept at all, working like a dog so we don't off the fiscal cliff and then somebody brought up the phrase, "tax increase," and I walked out of the room. Well, isn't that wonderful. Now that's where you are. What a -- what a nut house.

VELSHI: Well, how do we get to that, Bill, because when you were in the Senate -- and there were many like you. You're a Republican. But there were many Democrats. You worked together on things, routinely.

It wasn't some kind of a weird dropping out of space that a Republican and a Democrat would actually work on difficult legislation that might offend the nuts in each corner. Why are we so far away from that today?

SIMPSON: Erskine and I found in our commission for the first three months of our work in eight months there's no trust. There's no trust at all. There are people within their own parties that don't trust their own leadership. They -- their trust was the coin of the realm. And now that coin is severely tarnished.

And that's where all legislating starts. And then the other one is you mentioned the word compromise, and some leader of the party -- either one -- said that's a word we don't know. Well, if you can't compromise an issue without compromising yourself, you should never be in a legislative body or a marriage or anywhere unless you're compromising, which is negotiating, which is the reality of life.

VELSHI: Why, though, because you were able to represent your constituency as a conservative, as a Republican. And yet your constituents would trust you to say deals have to be made. We elect congressmen. We elect senators to get things done. The basic business of government is not getting done right now, are we are in great danger.

The United States is not in recession. We grew in the second quarter at 1.7 percent. But what's going on in Europe is a storm whose outer bands are hitting us. There is danger that if we don't look at the fiscal cliff in the United States and we don't deal with the budget and we don't deal with the new debt limit that we will actually get into more trouble. Don't legislators see this?

SIMPSON: No, I think they see it, but there's -- we're at the crossroads now between cowardice and greed, greed in the money guys who are going to call the shots. The market's going to call the shots here. They don't care about Republicans or Democrats or presidents. They care about their money.

And so you've got a situation where these guys are so distrustful -- they were sent to Washington. I mean, you have 82 guys in the House who didn't go there to limit government. They got there to get rid of government. Now how do you function in a legislative body like that? You have rigidity. You have suspicion. You have power struggles within your own party.

And the worse one is the leaders, they'll say, you know, you keep working with Baucus or you keep working with Grassley and we're going to make you the chairman of the journal committee.


SIMPSON: I mean, that's what --


VELSHI: They've done worse to some of your former colleagues. They have run uncompromising candidates against them and unseated congressmen and unseated senators so they cannot run in another election.

We are in an election season right now in the United States. What are your wizened (ph) words to those people running right now, including Paul Ryan, who served on your committee, or Barack Obama, who didn't, you know, didn't all the way go to the -- you know, defend the work that you've done? What are your words to them now to get a deal done?

SIMPSON: Well, I think very naively that people who run on some kind of basis that you have to do something whether Bowles-Simpson or Domenici- Rivlin or the Gang of Six, the people who ignore that and then the markets do call the shots and things go into troublesome times next year, their constituents are going to go to them and said, where were you?

You had a chance to avoid this cliff, and you just sat on your thumbs and, buddy, we're going to take you out the next time. Now I think that -- I really do think that can happen. And that, of course, would be a great cleansing effect in this country. And as I say, that's a naive wish of wishes.

VELSHI: I just hope it's not too late by the time the voters have to do that, because markets do something bad or we go into a recession. It would be so much better if they would deal with these tough issues right now.

Alan Simpson, you did deal with the tough issues.

SIMPSON: You know, Erskine said -- Erskine said we're the healthiest horse in the glue factory.


SIMPSON: That's it.

VELSHI: Well said.

SIMPSON: We are.

VELSHI: Let's hope you stay healthy as a horse in a glue factory and don't become glue. Alan Simpson --

SIMPSON: Thank you.

VELSHI: -- always a pleasure to talk to you.

Alan Simpson is the former senator from Wyoming, and he's the Simpson in Simpson-Bowles. After a break, we'll return to Syria, where the civil war is being fought, not with guns and butter, but with bullets and bread. We'll be right back.



VELSHI: Well, a final thought tonight, imagine a world where a civil war is fought with bread, not just bullets. In Syria, hungry people have been risking their lives -- literally -- to line up for pita bread, the staple of every Syrian meal.

The Assad regime is trying to deny the rebels and their supporters basic supplies, like food and water, even using the price of bread as a weapon. In response, the rebels have taken control of their own bakeries, charging only what's needed to cover expenses and offering protection.

But according to Human Rights Watch, in the last three weeks, government forces have attacked at least 10 bakeries in the commercial capital of Aleppo, killing dozens of people. Despite the attacks, the rebel bakers of Aleppo continue to keep the ovens burning and Syria's civil war may hinge on something as commonplace and crucial as a loaf of bread.

That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching and good night from New York.