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Zeroing In on Syria's Humanitarian Crisis; History of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Aired September 6, 2012 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. And tonight, we zero in on the humanitarian crisis that is exploding in Syria and spilling out across every one of its borders.

Record numbers of terrified people are running for their lives now, pouring into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. The flood has gotten so fast and furious because the Assad regime is now using planes and helicopter gunships on its own people. Twice as many people are dying every day now.

The United Nations reports that 100,000 refugees fled Syria in August alone, and to put that into perspective, there are now as many registered Syrian refugees as there are people living in the American city of Orlando, Florida.

The majority of them are women and children, who often turn up orphaned and alone. The United States is promising more humanitarian assistance and, in a moment, I'll speak with the head of USAID, Dr. Rajiv Shah, who's just back from one of the worst refugee camps in Jordan.

But first, here's a look at what's coming up later in the program.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): A nuclear standoff that threatens the world. Fifty years ago, it was the Cuban missile crisis. Today, are there lessons to be learned for Israel and Iran?

And imagine if the world had been on the brink of Armageddon. For President John F. Kennedy in October of 1962, the threat was real, the choices few. How did he make the right call? We'll hear the answer from his own lips.


AMANPOUR: And we'll get to that in a bit, but first, if you need any more evidence of the horrors inflicted on the Syrian people, our Nick Paton Walsh has just sent us his report that tragically illustrates what they're running from.

Nick had spent the day at a field hospital in Aleppo, which is the epicenter of the battles being fought right now. It's packed with the injured and the dying. Many of them are children. The story is hard to bear, but it's real and it's what happening every day.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dar al-Shifa Hospital is where many in Aleppo run when they're caught by the constant shelling.

Even though the hospital and the area around it have also been fired upon.

WALSH: The shells hit this part of the hospital. Still, on this day, we see many civilians flooding here for treatment, some of them very young, doctors telling us the children's hospital has been closed by the government.

WALSH (voice-over): Some terrified. Some starving. Mohammed (ph), aged 8, was hit by shrapnel fired from Syrian regime mortars. He is quiet, brave, but this hospital isn't equipped for the surgery he needs.

His thighbone is shattered. So the doctors have no choice but to exacerbate his ordeal and send him across the front lines to the government hospital, hoping perversely that those who hurt him can also heal him.

President Bashar al-Assad is history in the minds of locals, but his regime still has the best hospitals where one doctor works during the day before sneaking here to help this rebel hospital in the evening.

He tells me, wanting even his voice hidden, that in the regime hospitals, 50 soldiers are brought in every day, but sometimes doctors mercy kill by injection those they can't treat effectively and that if they found he was working in the rebel hospital, they'd kill him.

Akmad's (ph) head has been hit by shrapnel from shelling, his ear almost blown off. They struggle to clean the wound and to find enough anesthetic. At any point the power could cut.

Still, the doctors carry on. "It hurts," he cries. But he's yet to learn the worst about what the shelling did.

They killed his father, who's mourned just outside the hospital. The dead here, so many the doctors must leave them on the street. His brother arrives. There's no room for privacy or dignity here.

They remove the body before Akmad (ph) can learn what happened.

The blood remains on the street unnoticed by some. The people of Aleppo are numb, looking to the skies, checking what next may befall them - - Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Aleppo.


AMANPOUR: And now we turn to my guest, Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. And he returned just hours ago from visiting one of region's worst refugee camps in Jordan.

Dr. Shah, thank you for being here, firstly. But let me ask you, as a medical professional yourself, as a doctor, you must feel overwhelmed seeing the report as we've just seen just now.

DR. RAJIV SHAH, ADMINISTRATOR, USAID: Well, it is tragic and it's overwhelming and it's an accurate report of what is happening inside of Syria. That's why I visited the Zaatari refugee camp to hear directly from the now-27,000 Syrian refugees who populate that camp.

More than 52 percent of them are children. And the stories were very similar. Their homes had been attacked. Their schools had been attacked. They finally left their communities when they had no other place to go for the safety of their children.

And you know, they want the things that all families want, peace, security, the ability to go to school. And so we're working and doing absolutely everything we can as President Obama has directed us, to support the 240,000 Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, and to reach Syrians inside of Syria --


AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you --

SHAH: -- critical humanitarian support.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you that. It seems -- and I know you're announcing a multimillion aid for this crisis. It seems a bit like a drop in the ocean. What can you really do with this money when this killing is happening at a much faster pace?

SHAH: Look, the answer is we're going to do absolutely everything we can. The United States, with my announcement yesterday, we announced an additional $21 million of support in particular for food assistance, for families that are displaced inside of Syria and for refugees. That brings us to more than $100 million of humanitarian aid for Syrians in and outside of Syria.

And we know that that aid is reaching people. We know that we've reached more than 530,000 Syrians with a three-month basket of food commodities so they have enough food when they've been displaced from their communities.

We know that we're reaching Syrians inside in some of the hospitals that you showed in the show, with critically needed infrastructure, critically needed supplies. It's never going to be enough.

When you meet with the people who are victims -- I met with a young girl, who was 15 years old; she lost her parents in the tragedy and was now responsible for her younger children, she wants to be a child again.

When you meet those children, you'll never believe that this is enough. But we will stand with the people of Syria and do everything we can. And there are humanitarian groups that are getting access inside of Syria and certainly with refugees to try to alleviate the suffering.

AMANPOUR: We've seen; we've heard what you've been doing. You just explained. I've been talking to the Turkish prime minister, we've heard what the Turks are doing. And they're housing the majority of these refugees and, frankly, doing a lot of that work on their own without international assistance.

But they're also saying that there should be more assistance to Syrians inside Syria. The foreign minister has called for internally displaced camps, in other words, camps for those who've been internally displaced. Is that a starter? I mean, I don't see anybody, not the United States, not anybody even trying to do that.

SHAH: Well, we're actually working on all of those options with the Turks, with the Turks, Turkish government and with the Jordanian government and other governments that are taking on huge responsibilities. I want to first commend them for their responsibilities they're taking on, by maintaining these open borders.

I met families yesterday that were getting shot at as they were crossing the border into Jordan until they were with the Jordanian armed forces, that then delivered them safely to the camps. So we recognize that this is a crisis.

But we need to look at the options that will work. Right now, our goal is to provide as much medical and trauma support as is possible. We know in communities like Daraa in the south, our aid and assistance is -- accounts for almost 90 percent of all medical supplies that are getting in there. So we need to continue to do all of those things, even as we explore other options.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you one other option, of course, is a no-fly zone which, again, the Turkish prime minister said that that is what they would want. And you know that that has worked in the past. We saw what happened when the U.S. put up a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds after the first Gulf War. Is that something that you would support?

SHAH: Well, our -- the Obama administration is working very closely with the Turkish government and all of the regional governments to explore a range of options. My priority has been heeding President Obama's call to make sure we do everything we can to provide immediate humanitarian assistance, and that's what we're doing.

So that's why we are working with a range of partners inside of Syria, including some networks of NGOs that are private NGOs inside of Syria that are, in fact, reaching more than half of the displaced families.

And I met families yesterday that got food rations, water rations, other support, medical support from these NGOs in the communities where their hospitals and schools and homes had been attacked.

And that support allowed them to keep hope and it allowed them to protect their children and provide for their families for months and months and months before they ended up crossing the border.

AMANPOUR: Dr. Shah, there is no doubt that whatever help they can get is obviously going to be gratefully received. But there is a mounting sense of anger from people inside Syria and a lot of it is actually directed at the United States, basically, saying -- and I remember this happening in Bosnia as well. You're giving us aid, but are you just fattening us up for the slaughter?

In other words, nothing is being done to attack the root cause, and that is the conflict. Certainly, the Turkish foreign minister has given voice to that concern, that just aid and allowing them to come across is inadvertently perhaps being complicit in what's going on. Does that concern you?

SHAH: Well, of course, of course it's very concerning. You know, I met with these families. We are providing assistance because the American people want to stand with the people of Syria at this critical time.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been very clear. They have called the Bashar Assad regime illegitimate, have asked it to transition power, have drawn lines and are working aggressively to effect that kind of a political transition that is Syrian-led and supported by the international community.

At the same time, we're not waiting to provide critical lifesaving assistance that's necessary inside of Syria and around Syria. The specific announcement I made yesterday will reach another 186,000 people with food and water and critical commodities. That's never going to be enough, but we have to work on all fronts simultaneously and the humanitarian front is a critical one.

AMANPOUR: Dr. Rajiv Shah, head of USAID, thank you so much for joining me.

SHAH: Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: And the situation in Syria is made much more difficult by U.S. reports that Iran is flying in arms and other support to the Assad regime.

And as President Obama prepares to accept the nomination for president for a second term at the Democratic convention, it's clear that his biggest international headache remains Iran. Nuclear talks are going nowhere and Israel threatens to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. We'll talk about navigating that minefield when we return.

But first, take a look at this picture. That's a glimpse of life in a Syrian refugee camp in northern Jordan, as you heard Dr. Shah talk about, where some 20,000 people call home. To see an incredibly moving photo gallery of these camps, log on to We'll be right back.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. The scariest and most confusing guessing game in the Middle East right now is if and when Israel will attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Yesterday on this program, Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan told me that he didn't think it would be likely. But the ebb and flow of war talk from Israel has the world on edge.

And there is a stalemate in the so-called last-ditch negotiations between the United States and its allies with Iran. The truth is that negotiations barely have a chance in this highly charged political atmosphere, not to mention the warp speed of our highly public digital world. But let's pull back our lens to 1962.

Fifty years ago this October, the world stood on the brink of an all- out nuclear war. The Soviet Union had moved nuclear weapons into Cuba, which is just 90 miles off the United States. This is what President John F. Kennedy told his nation at that time.


JOHN F. KENNEDY, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.


AMANPOUR: That was the Cuban missile crisis, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union were eyeball to eyeball until Kennedy and Khrushchev managed to defuse the crisis. Would that even be possible today?

For that, we turn to Graham Allison of Harvard University and a former adviser on national security to numerous U.S. presidents. He's just written an important article, "The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50," and he joins me now from Harvard.

Professor, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

Just quickly, what would have happened if President Kennedy had not stepped back from the brink?

GRAHAM ALLISON, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Well, in this case, both Kennedy and Khrushchev stepped back, just as you suggested earlier. But had that not occurred, we could have had a nuclear war in which 100 million or several hundred million people could have died instantly.

During the crisis, Kennedy said to his brother, Robert Kennedy, that he thought the chances were something between 1 in 3 and even that it would end up in a war including a nuclear war. And nothing that I've found subsequently or that other scholars have found looking at the record since then suggest that that's an exaggeration.

AMANPOUR: Before we continue with this fascinating story, I want to prove your expertise on Iran.

You know, we're talking about appeasement or attack, as usual. Is there a third option, some kind of Kennedyesque, Khrushchevesque option that could lead the world out of this current stalemate?

ALLISON: Well, in the foreign affairs article that you mentioned, I say that we can think about the current Iranian confrontation as a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion. In 1962, in a condensed 13 days, the U.S. and the Soviet Union stood eyeball to eyeball, and the crisis was over.

This is developing in much slower timeline (ph), but you can see the parties moving inexorably to a crossroad at which the president's going to have to choose between attack and acquiesce. Attack Iran to prevent it becoming a nuclear weapon state or acquiesce in it becoming a state.

And whichever of these two options you've drilled down on, most thoroughly, most recently, lead to believe the other one may be better than you thought. So these are two lousy options.

AMANPOUR: Is there a third?

ALLISON: These are precisely the options Kennedy had at the end of the game in 1962. His advisers told him on the final Saturday, you've got only two choices, either attack or else the Soviet Union's going to have a nuclear armed base in Cuba.

That -- at that moment then he rejected both options and intensified a search for finding some middle way. And that seems to me that's the appropriate lesson for the Iranian case today.

AMANPOUR: Is there the opportunity to find a middle way or a third way? And I ask you that because obviously -- and you lay it out very concisely, but it'd be great to have you explain it -- in the Cuban missile crisis, you had two actors.

You had the Soviet Union, you had the United States. Castro, who housed these missiles, was not allowed to the table.

Here, you have Iran, the United States, but you also have Israel. How does that affect the dynamic?

ALLISON: Well, that's a terrific question, and actually it makes it a three-sided game in which just precisely as you say, there are three independent actors, each doing his own calculation. Now and that makes the game much more difficult than in 1962.

Nonetheless, it seems to me in this case, if the parties look at the outcome of attack, I think if they think about their interests, play that out and each of them will be worse off than they could have been with an alternative.

If they think about acquiesce, again, I believe each of the parties will be worse off or at least certainly the U.S. and Israel, than they would have been otherwise.

So I think if we look in this space in between, what Kennedy found was that there were very ugly options, which he would have rejected at the beginning of the week of consultation, that he thought were unacceptable, except for the fact that they were better than the two other feasible alternatives that seemed to him even worse.

And it seems to me in the case of Iran, I am hopeful that after the election, the U.S. will mount a major diplomatic initiative that will be into the zone of something that an Iranian government might conceivably accept.

And then an Iranian government, fearing the possibility of an attack, which would be terrible for Iran as well as for the rest of us, would find this close enough to their zone of agreement that we might find an agreement.


ALLISON: But I think that's going to be the test, yes.

AMANPOUR: And you say that has to happen after the election. Of course, everybody's worried that there might be an attack before the election. But as I talked about and you mentioned, the idea of this all happening in public, in real time, you know, warp speed, what would have happened -- or lay out the, if you like, luxury of time and privacy that President Kennedy had over the Cuban missile standoff.

ALLISON: Well, that's an extremely interesting question, then, as it gets to the way in which the press that you are so familiar with has become a pervasive, even an invasive factor in the 24/7 world that's totally penetrated.

But in any case, in the missile crisis, after Kennedy's intelligence community told him they had discovered the Soviets secretly building missiles in Cuba, he took a week in private to deliberate with his closest advisers in which they candidly discussed all the options. Everybody changed his mind two or three times.

People disagreed sharply, but nonetheless continued the conversation. And in the course of it, clarified the options. As Kennedy said after and it seems to me, again, this is correct in terms of the record, if he had had to choose within 48 hours what to do, he would have chosen an airstrike.

And now we know that the Soviet Union had not only these missiles they were constructing, but had brought in 100 tactical nuclear weapons into Cuba, and that the local commander had the authority to use these weapons and the physical capability to use them, you know, on his own (inaudible).

So if we had attacked, it's quite likely that that attack, followed by an invasion, would have been met by a Soviet nuclear response locally and would have escalated to a nuclear war. So the idea that time compressed in part because the bubble is now a 24/7 news bubble is a great constraint on thoughtful, serious deliberation for the purposes of decision-making.

AMANPOUR: Professor Allison, those are really sobering thoughts and we thank you very much indeed and hope that this current crisis somehow will be resolved without the worst alternatives being chosen. Thank you very much indeed for joining me.

ALLISON: Thank you very much. This is a good set of questions and remain fascinating.

AMANPOUR: Great. We'll continue to pay close attention. Thank you, Professor.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union exchanged threatening messages throughout the Cuban missile crisis, as you've heard. But it's the message that President Kennedy ignored that made all the difference. That story when we come back.



AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, we've heard how the world narrowly avoided a nuclear war 50 years ago during the Cuban missile crisis. But how? Imagine a world where letting your enemy retreat is the key to victory and even peace.

Back in 1962, President Kennedy received a message from the Soviet leader himself, Nikita Khrushchev, offering to negotiate. But then came another message, this one from the Kremlin hardliners, threatening war. Here's the actual tape of Kennedy discussing his choices with former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Tommy Thompson.


KENNEDY (from captions): We're not going to get these weapons out of Cuba, probably, anyway, by negotiation.

LLEWELLYN "TOMMY" THOMPSON, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO MOSCOW (from captions): I don't agree, Mr. President. I think there's still a chance.

KENNEDY (from captions): That he'll back down?

THOMPSON (from captions): The important thing for Khrushchev, it seems to me, is to be able to say, "I saved Cuba. I stopped an invasion."


AMANPOUR: Kennedy chose to answer the first message and ignore the second, giving Khrushchev a graceful way out of the crisis. Behavioral science calls that "flight distance." It's how an army can win a battle by letting the enemy escape and avoid greater bloodshed.

Is there a face-saving way for the U.S., Israel and Iran to find a way out of their dilemma?

That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, our inbox is always open, Thanks for watching. Goodbye from New York.