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Gun Sales Background Check Legislation Fails in US Senate; Discussing the Efficacy of US Foreign Policy

Aired April 18, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Ever since December, I've been showing you these faces, these 20 young children and their teachers, all slaughtered by a madman with an assault weapon at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Even in a country with a dangerous gun culture and many massacres, this one was supposed to be different. It seemed to promise a turning point for many who hoped that the ultra-loose gun laws would finally be tightened up.

Yesterday, those hopes suffered a major setback, a law that would require expanded background checks for gun buyers intended to keep the mentally ill and the criminally insane from buying guns failed in the United States Senate. It was a watered-down law, a compromise. Even that was defeated.

Those leading the fight for change were the very parents who had lost their children. President Obama had invited mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, to come to Washington. And they went from office to office on Capitol Hill, looking each wavering lawmaker in the eye, reliving their personal anguish for each in an effort to change the law.

After they were defeated, an angry president accused the gun industry lobby of willfully lying to the American people. And he also defended his alliance with the Newtown families to push the bill forward.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've heard folks say that having the families of victims lobby for this legislation was somehow misplaced.

"A prop," somebody called them.

"Emotional blackmail," some outlet said.

Are they serious? Do we really think that thousands of families whose lives have been shattered by gun violence don't have a right to weigh in on this issue?

So all in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington.


AMANPOUR: And in fact, since the school shooting, polls have shown that a whopping 91 percent of Americans support background checks. Last month, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy told me that he had no idea how he or the bereaved families would handle a defeat of such a common-sense law.


CONNECTICUT SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY: Many of them are able to get up in the morning because they believe that this world is going to change as a consequence of this tragedy.

And I do shudder to think what I'm going to tell some of these families if we can't even get background checks passed.


AMANPOUR: Well, that day has come. And a furious Gabrielle Giffords, who was standing there with the president, the former U.S. congresswoman who was shot in the head in a gun rampage in Tucson, Arizona, wrote in "The New York Times" today that "A minority of senators gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation -- shame on them."

People here and around the world want to know how such a bill can be defeated when, in fact, a majority of senators did vote for it. We'll tackle this issue and America's undemocratic democracy in a moment with our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

But first, a look at the other stories we're covering tonight.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): "The Dispensable Nation," an explosive new book looks at America's foreign policy and warns that President Obama is sounding the retreat.

Then imagine the true spirit of democracy, not in the divided aisles of Congress, but in marathons and its 26 grueling miles.


AMANPOUR: We'll get to that in a bit. But first to our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, who's with me now to discuss the defeat of that bill that would have required background checks for gun buyers.

Jeffrey, welcome.


AMANPOUR: I welcome you again -- and I have to point out that the last time I had you on shortly after Newtown you told me -- and you predicted that media attention would fade and nothing would pass.

Well, we know that the media attention has stayed, but nothing has passed.

How is this possible?

TOOBIN: You know, this is really a great defining moment about American democracy, because so many factors came together to defeat this bill. You have the power of state as opposed to the power of individuals, the structure of the United States Senate and the power of the filibuster and, above all, the enduring appeal of guns in the United States.

AMANPOUR: And yet everybody's doing the math, abroad and here, and they're saying, hang on a second. There are 100 senators; 54 of them voted yes to this, and it was still defeated. How does that work?

TOOBIN: Well, let's talk about the structure of the United States Senate. This is a recent change. It used to be that in certain, extraordinary circumstances, there was something called the filibuster, which was the individual senator's ability to bring the Senate to a stop while he -- and it was usually a he -- kept talking and talking and talking.

And that could only be overridden by a supermajority, by 60 senators.

What -- how the Senate has evolved in recent years, particularly since President Obama has taken office, is that essentially everything is filibustered so that it takes 60 senators to accomplish anything in the United States Senate.


AMANPOUR: This is a distortion, though.

TOOBIN: It is -- well, it is a change in how the Senate works traditionally. And since there are only 53 Democrats and only 54 senators voted for these background checks, even though that's a majority, it didn't get to the magic number of 60. And 60 is what it takes now.

AMANPOUR: Again, everybody's looking around at this. And we mentioned, what about these families who had to take their anguish and their tragedy and tromp all over Capitol Hill, trying to convince these people -- I spoke to Erica Lafferty.

And she's the daughter of the principal from Sandy Hook, the wonderful, heroic woman, who ran towards Adam Lanza and was killed trying to stop him from doing more damage. This is what she told me about this.


ERICA LAFFERTY, DAUGHTER OF DAWN HOCKSPRUNG: I know we're not going to stop so people are going to get really sick of us if they don't at least bring it to the table, because it absolutely is something that needs to be addressed.




TOOBIN: Ninety percent of Americans agree. Ninety percent of Americans don't agree on much, yet the extraordinary power of the gun lobby, particularly in rural states, is such that even Democratic senators voted against this reform -- a handful did.

AMANPOUR: So 90 percent, as you said, it's an extraordinary number. And everybody's quoting it. And that's, again, why nobody can believe that this actually happened. And including the NRA previously supported background checks.

And let me actually read you, even now, a certain poll found that 74 percent of NRA gun owners support background checks today. And yet it still didn't happen.

TOOBIN: Because the institution of the National Rifle Association -- not its members, the leadership -- has made this a defining choice. And they have the power, or at least they are perceived to have the power to vote senators out of office, especially in the smaller rural states that have -- well, just for international viewers, every state in the union has two senators.

Wyoming, which has less than half a million people, has two senators. California, with 20 million people, has two senators. So the senators from the smaller states have disproportionate influence.

AMANPOUR: But, again, if you're talking about votes and 90 percent of the people have said, yes, are they going to, you know, what are they going to (inaudible) election time?

TOOBIN: But the wisdom in American politics, whether it's true or not -- perhaps we'll see -- is that the people who support gun control, they can support it casually. If you ask them in a poll, they will say they support it. But that's not a voting issue for them.

People who believe in gun rights, who care deeply about keeping their guns, it -- they are single-issue voters. They will vote people out of office on that issue alone. And that fear and that belief drives a lot of (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: So let's again state that this is not about them keeping their guns, but they have decided to think of it like that.

Do you think that what Erica Lafferty told me is going to make a difference in the intervening months? They're going to keep coming back. They're going to keep pushing it. President Obama, you know, many say did the right thing. He really marshaled his forces, marshaled the families, did the compromise. What more could have been done?

TOOBIN: Can I be unkind and just say I think it's over. I think gun control is over for the foreseeable future in the United States Congress. Remember, we're heading into the 2014 midterm elections.

I mean, they're a ways off yet, but almost certainly the president's party, the party that supports gun regulations, is probably going to lose. This is a peak moment. The Newtown killings will only fade in memory. This was the chance. President Obama, as far as I can tell, did everything he possibly could and he still failed.

And by the way, he didn't fail by a narrow margin. He failed by a fairly substantial margin. He didn't even get 60 votes in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. He would have to get something through the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans. So this moment has passed. And I think gun control is not coming back until the next president takes office, if then.

AMANPOUR: You saw and you heard me quote from Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who so heroically covered to take on this battle.

And today, in light of what you're talking about, she additionally asked people, "I'm asking for every reasonably American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice of these senators, the cowardice they demonstrated. I'm asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery and tell them, 'You've lost my vote.'"

Are you saying that's not going to work?

TOOBIN: I think if you look, particularly at the contemporary Republican Party, which is the party against gun control -- there were a handful of Democrats who voted against it, but it was a more or less unified Republican Party -- they are allied with the National Rifle Association. They are one unit --

AMANPOUR: Which is about the industry, right? It's not about the gun owners.

TOOBIN: Well, you'll get a dispute on that. And certainly the National Rifle Association is mostly financed by the industry, but it has enormous numbers of members and they are the ones who vote based on guns. The people who support gun legislation, they have a lot of other issues on their minds. But anti-gun control people are often single-issue voters and they control a lot of seats.

AMANPOUR: Thank you for that explanation. It is pretty dark.

Jeffrey Toobin, thank you very much indeed.

And America's failure to pass meaningful gun legislation has had a ripple effect across the globe. Secretary of State John Kerry was recently in Tokyo, and he heard there that gun violence is prompting fewer students to come here to study in the United States.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: One of the responses I got from our officials, from conversations with parents here, is that they're actually scared -- they think they're not safe in the United States. And so they don't come.


AMANPOUR: It really is an incredible situation. And after we go to a break, we'll go deeper into America's foreign policy with a consummate insider, Vali Nasr. He says foreign policy is in retreat.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

Vice President Joe Biden boiled the Obama reelection campaign down to a bumper sticker, "Osama bin Laden is dead. And General Motors is alive." In other words, Obama was reelected, at least in part, because of his foreign policy and national security credentials.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): But in his new book, "The Dispensable Nation," Vali Nasr, a former member of President Obama's foreign policy team, offers a sharp indictment. He is dean of the Nitze School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of many books, including "The Shia Revival."

He served as special adviser to Richard Holbrook, who was the president's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, an experience that Nasr now calls "deeply disillusioning."

Welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: In a sea of bad news, your book is bad news for those who believe in foreign policy. You have said that America's -- under President Obama -- is in retreat.

What do you mean?

NASR: I mean that our administration's narrative has been that we need to do less in the world. We don't need to take leadership on varieties of issues around the world, that American leadership is no longer necessary and that critical areas of the world, such as the Middle East, are not as important as they were. And we need to focus on things at home.

AMANPOUR: So focus on things at home; obviously, many Americans will say that is what we need to do, focus on things at home, focus on coming out of the wars.

But they are doing something. They're pivoting to China. Is that -- how do you assess that in your retreat?

NASR: Well, there's no doubt that we were over focused on the Middle East, and particularly we were over focused militarily in the Middle East, with actually having ignored the Middle East in terms of economic, diplomatic, political engagement. The administration thinks that we should focus a lot more on Asia because that's where China is; that's where money is. That's where trade is. That's all correct.

But where they're wrong is that we cannot pick and choose and say today we're in the Middle East, tomorrow we're going to be in Asia. First of all, these regions are connected. China's coming to the Middle East.

AMANPOUR: You mean taking over in terms of economic and --

NASR: Exactly.

AMANPOUR: -- strategic partnerships.

NASR: Exactly. They need energy; they need markets. They look at the Middle East as a place that impacts the political stability of Western China, just like as we are pivoting East, China is pivoting West.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about that, because do you believe that pivot has affected America's desire to have China, the very country that it's facing off against, help resolve the North Korea crisis?

NASR: Well, again, these things are connected. North Korea crisis, in some ways, is related to our behavior in the Middle East. Kim Jong-un is watching what we do on Syria, what we did in Afghanistan.

He sees an American foreign policy that is very loud and clear saying we don't want conflict. We're risk-averse. We don't want to take (ph) leadership. We don't want to get engaged in people's troubles. So he thinks he has a lot of room to push.

And the Chinese and other Asian countries are looking at the way in which we, all of a sudden, are abandoning the Middle East and are wondering, are we for real when we say we're going to be focusing on Asia?

AMANPOUR: And how do you encapsulate abandoning the Middle East? I mean, you've written just recently about the dangers of letting Syria go on.

What are the dangers?

NASR: The dangers are that, first of all, this is a very volatile region. The United States, even despite all the criticism, played a stabilizing role in this region, giving varieties of governments in the region certain predictability in terms of what America will and will not do.

When all of a sudden, our message constantly to the region is we're going to be leaving this region. We don't want to be involved in your affairs. To us, Syria is no different than Congo. That --


AMANPOUR: You're quoting now President Obama, who said, in a national -- in a "New Republic" interview, he said, "How do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?"

What was your takeaway from that?

NASR: I thought, this is a new Obama doctrine, which to Middle East, that's the way it looks, is telling them very loud and clear that you're no longer a critical region of the world; you're not as important to global policy as you think or as we thought in the past. And we're going to give you the same amount of attention and engagement that we give Central Africa. Now --

AMANPOUR: Which is very little.

NASR: Which is very little. But it's also highly destabilizing sentiment, because you can't go from being everything to all of a sudden being nothing. That creates turbulence. Even if we are going to reduce our footprint in the Middle East, we should do it in a right way and we should do it gradually in a way that it doesn't actually cause problems.

And I think the difficulty for the president is that the way he's handling the Middle East is making the region more unstable which would make it more difficult for him to pivot to Asia.

AMANPOUR: I mean, Vali, you're basically saying, in fact, that there really isn't a foreign policy; you've written a really damning indictment from your insider vantage point when you were the -- Richard Holbrook's special assistant.

And you write about AfPak policy. It's not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations. The goal of the foreign policy makers was, quote, "to make" -- "not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion."

How did you -- how did -- how did you come to that conclusion?

NASR: Well, largely because our approach to Afghanistan was driven by American attitudes towards the Iraq War and then the president's reading of American attitudes towards economic issues at home.

So we were not approaching what we're going to do in Afghanistan in its entirety as to what's good for Afghanistan, what's good for our national security. But what is good for the president's reelection campaign, what's good for giving the image of a president that is managing an aftermath of the Iraq War.

AMANPOUR: And you saw that from your perch at the State Department with Richard Holbrook?

NASR: That's right. In other words, the very decision to put more troops into Afghanistan and then turn around and take those troops out the following year was largely driven by the tempo of domestic policy. It had nothing to do with whether we were winning the war or not winning the war.

AMANPOUR: So what is your assessment? Is the war going to be won? Are the principles that the United States has said it's fighting for, whether it's human rights, whether it's women's rights, whether it's to defeat the Taliban and allow Afghanistan to stand on its own two feet?

NASR: No. We have not won the war. But we no longer think it's necessary to win the war. We have arrived at the point where we think we can just abandon the place without any domestic American political repercussion.

So the administration played a very good narrative to say that the Americans don't care about foreign policy. And because they don't care about foreign policy, we can hide behind that sentiment and don't do anything in foreign policy.

So rather than argue with the American public that we have vital interest in that region -- we spent trillions of dollars; we need to get out in a way that would protect our equities, we basically are saying that the American public may not care about Afghanistan. This is good enough.

We didn't win the war. We don't need to arrive at a political settlement. We could just leave it and leave it to the Afghans to manage.

AMANPOUR: Let me quickly switch to Iran, because obviously that's all consuming. The president was very clear in his initial campaign, when he said, "We will engage even with adversaries not as naive, but to have the courage to settle and resolve our issues peacefully."

That doesn't seem to have happened, full engagement doesn't seem to have happened. I want to know whether you agree with me; I'm just observing. And what is the way to get some kind of settlement with Iran or is war going to be inevitable?

NASR: I think the Iranians don't think there's going to be war because, as I mentioned with the case of North Korea, this administration has made it clear -- very clear -- that it does not want to get into the Middle East any more. It does not want wars; it does not want to be there. It wants to pack up and leave.

So the Iranians also think that war is not around the corner. The sanctions are working on Iran. But I don't think the administration has ever been serious about negotiations. There is a difference between talking about talking and actually talking. Actually talking means getting serious about a give-and-take, whether it's with the Taliban or whether it's with Iran.

With your adversary, with your enemy, if you want to arrive at a deal, you have to pressure them. You have to show them that you're really serious, that the consequences are serious.

But then you have to show them a path to a deal, which means that the administration has to be serious about negotiating with Iran specifically as to what sanctions will be lifted if Iran takes the steps that is required of it.

Currently, that's not on the table. The demands on Iran are very clear. But the administration has not offered anything in return.

AMANPOUR: This is practically the beginning of the second administration. Do you see any, you know, any progress in these issues in the second administration?

NASR: Well, that was partly why I wrote this book after the elections. I was hoping to generate a debate and get the American public to sort of look at this in a fresh way. I think the situation is very different from 2009 to 2012, for the reason that then you had certain stability internationally.

So the administration could hide behind the fact that, well, there are no foreign policy issues. And if Osama bin Laden's killed, well, what's the -- you know, what's the issue?

But Syria, proliferation of Al Qaeda, North Korea, China's saber- rattling in Southeast Asia, Bahrain, you know, Iran -- these are all making it very difficult for the administration to continue to hide behind the same narrative, that we can manage the world very well by doing -- by basically not engaging with it and the less foreign policy, the better.

And good foreign policy is really a minimalist foreign policy.

AMANPOUR: The world seems to be spinning apart. And this is a pretty bleak prognosis. Vali Nasr, thank you very much, a fascinating read.

NASR: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And we'll be right back with a final thought after a break.



AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, it's been an incredible difficult week here in the United States. President Obama was in Boston today for an emotional interfaith service and spoke movingly of courage in the face of terror.


OBAMA: Like Bill Iffrig, 78 years old - the runner in the orange tank top who we all saw get knocked down by the blast. We may be momentarily knocked off our feet, but we'll pick ourselves up. We'll keep going. We will finish the race.



AMANPOUR: Imagine a world where the marathon keeps the spirit of democracy alive, the most democratic of sporting events, with runners of all ages and abilities representing a mosaic of nations, actually began in the cradle of democracy.

The year was 490 B.C., when a Greek runner named Pheidippides ran 26 miles from the plains of Marathon to the city of Athens, bringing news of victory over the Persian invaders. His duty done, Pheidippides collapsed and died.

But democratic Athens lived on and so did the legend of the marathon. In 1896, the Olympic flame was rekindled in Athens and the marathon was the marquee event of those first modern games.

And a year later, the Boston Marathon was launched, with 18 runners. Fast forward to this year's race with 20,000 entrants, from Kenya to Canada and China, and a half-million spectators lining the streets cheering them on.

The marathon will continue to run in London on Sunday, in New York next fall and, yes, next year in Boston. And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us at our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.