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Reset on the World Stage; Tensions in South China Sea; Imagine a World

Aired May 28, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


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

President Obama gave a major foreign policy address today. It was billed as a reset, pushing back on the drumbeat of criticism that this administration is adrift with crises from Syria to Ukraine, spiraling out of control. And even war-weary Americans have lost faith in President Obama's global leadership. Just 38 percent approve of his foreign policy according to the most recent polls.

The president was quick to assert his case for a strong America.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Here's my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don't, no one else will.


AMANPOUR: But on the other hand, the president was also quick to pull his punches.


OBAMA: The U.S. military action cannot be the only or even primary component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.


AMANPOUR: So the speech comes just after the president visited U.S. troops in Afghanistan and announced plans to bring them all home by 2016.

Now as he spoke, in Syria Bashar al-Assad's fighters were again dropping barrel bombs on Syrian civilians, three years after Obama said Assad must go. The president's key regional allies from Turkey to Qatar voiced their frustration with the lack of American leadership in Syria.

Michele Flournoy was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy under President Obama. She's the highest ranking woman in Pentagon history and she's often cited as a possible future Deputy Secretary and she joins me now from Washington.

Undersecretary Flournoy, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

MICHELE FLOURNOY, FORMER U.S. UNDERSECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Very happy to be with you, thank you.

AMANPOUR: Now you heard the president's speech.

Did it suffer from overhyped expectations? Was this a reset?

FLOURNOY: Well, I think it was certainly an attempt by the administration to reset the narrative to get off the defensive back foot and to state a proactive vision of the U.S. role in the world, the U.S. leadership, make of a case for continued engagement.

But I think the real challenge is how does this speech, which is important, translate into new policies and actions? I think that's what people will judge it by ultimately.

AMANPOUR: Precisely. And I want to get to Syria in a second, but it just does seem that there are a lot of mixed messages there or a lot of sort of, you know, don't criticize me for wanting not to go to war. It's almost as if the president frames it in war or nothing.

FLOURNOY: It's a very nuanced message and it's hard to communicate because on the one hand, he's saying now is a time to end more than a decade of war and refocus on our economy here at home. But the United States, to protect its interests, has to remain engaged, has to be a leader. But leadership doesn't always mean military intervention.

So it's the subtle message and it -- there is a sort of push-and-tug within the message. And so I think different people will hear it in different ways.

AMANPOUR: All right. Now a lot of regional leaders will say to us off the record, they often obviously don't go public with this, but they do express frustration with one of the key issues and that is with Syria. You know, there is a group of people who say we want to do more, but we can't do it without President Obama's leadership. And nothing that was said in this speech -- to my ears, anyway -- indicated anything different.

Did you hear anything different? And do you expect some new details to emerge?

FLOURNOY: The one thing that I heard slightly differently in the speech about Syria was what the president called for stepped-up efforts to work with all of the countries on the borders of Syria -- Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and so forth -- trying to work with them to try to deal with the refugee problems coming across their border but also try to contain the conflict and its spillover.

But he wasn't specific about exactly what that means. So we'll have to see whether there are any new initiatives there to bolster, you know, what the policy's been so far.

AMANPOUR: I want to show you and show our audience a tweet that the U.S. mission to the U.N. put out not so long ago, basically it's saying that, look, our multilateral action at the United Nations, every single resolution that's been vetoed has led to more and more deaths, up to now -- sorry; 160,000-plus deaths in Syria.

And there just does seem to be this frustration with nothing that seems to be done.

I want to ask you specifically about what the president said regarding the main American objective, his main objective was to make sure that terrorism didn't ride and threaten the United States. He said that in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Al Qaeda had been defeated. But he didn't really talk about what everybody else is talking about and that the inaction is -- in Syria is allowing the rise of Al Qaeda-like organizations there.

Don't you think that U.S. intelligence and Western intelligence is incredibly worried about that?

FLOURNOY: There is a lot of concern about the number of foreign fighters that are going to Syria for training and experience and a number of them are jihadists and have aspirations to take terrorism outside of Syria back home or to the West.

And so there's a huge amount of concern about that. I do think the president's emphasis on a refreshed counterterrorism strategy that focused on building the capacity of partner countries to deal with the threat, you know, on their own soil, I do think that's an important step forward, something we have been doing, but we need to do more of, going forward.

But I think the Syrian problem really is going to be increasingly troubling going forward.

AMANPOUR: You said about Afghanistan, because obviously Afghanistan was one of the big issues this week; the president announced that somewhere in the region of 10,000 U.S. troops would remain over the next year and then they would, in turn, get halved and by the end of 2016, there would be a negligible force just protecting the U.S. embassy as is the case in every country.

Now you said just a couple of months ago that if we withdraw and the international community withdraws its aid, you'll see the potential for the Afghan government to collapse, the insurgency to gain momentum and territory taken over Eastern Afghanistan, basically recreating a safe haven for terrorist elements that still harbor an anti-U.S. agenda.

And all that effort and all that sacrifice and all of the progress you're back to new safe haven for terrorists is like it just makes no sense.

Has your view changed? Has President Obama done anything and said anything to change that opinion?

FLOURNOY: Well, I think the risk of managing any drawdown is that you lose the gains you fought and sacrificed so much to put in place. And I think here the positive thing about the president's statement is that we're not going to zero immediately; we're keeping a relatively robust force in.

I think the challenge is the timeline he put in place, which basically says that force will come down half the first year and then close to zero or several hundred by the very end. And the question is whether conditions on the ground will support that, whether that's too ambitious a timeline for the Afghan National Security Forces or for dealing with the remnants of the insurgency that's still there.

And so I would have preferred an approach that really derives from progress on the ground, you know, gradual adjustments in our posture over time.


FLOURNOY: We do want to lock in the gains we've sacrificed for.

AMANPOUR: Well, there you go and so do the Afghan people, of course, as they tell us all the time.

Let me ask you about this inherent dilemma between a war-weary nation and the polls basically show the latest Pew poll shows that America should frankly mind its own business, 52 percent said that in 2013, where it's 30 percent said that in 2002.

So people are getting war-weary in the United States.

But by contrast, as you've seen, all the Afghan presidential candidates have wanted to have the U.S. troops stay, you know, as long as it takes and the Afghan people want that as well.

So where -- how does one resolve this dilemma?

FLOURNOY: You know, I think the American people are war-weary. But I think when the case is made to them that lays out why engagement or how a particular form of engagement will protect their interests, for example, why residual presence in Afghanistan carefully managed will actually prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States again, when you make the case to them, when that leadership is shown, more often than not they're willing to support a president or give them the benefit of the doubt.

So I think it is -- it takes a lot of explaining and making the case and bringing people along.

AMANPOUR: Ms. Flournoy, that case has not been made in public. That case that you're putting has not been made. In fact, the reverse case is being made, as President Obama has done, the case for leaving.

Again, Robert Kagan, who is also, you know, formally in the policy establishment and now with Brookings Institution, has just written, "There is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters."

Do you agree with that and what he's basically saying?

FLOURNOY: I do believe that we play a unique role in the world and I actually think President Obama believes that. He used the term "American exceptionalism" in his speech. He talked about the U.S. being the indispensable nation.

So I don't think there's any disagreement there. The disagreement and the discussion is over what does that mean in action? What kind of action between the all or nothing of total complete military intervention and occupation in a country, which I don't think anyone's calling for in Syria, and you know, complete hands off, you know, what is the right blend of diplomatic and economic and military or military assistance tools that should be used?

And I think that's where the useful debate has to be. The president has set some expectations with this speech that he'll be refining our policies in a number of areas. And I look forward to seeing what actions that those refinements bring.

AMANPOUR: Former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, thank you for joining me from Washington tonight.

FLOURNOY: Thank you very much.


AMANPOUR: And President Obama's main policy declaration this week, as we said, was about bringing all those troops out of Afghanistan by the time he leaves office at the end of 2016, thereby ending America's longest war. And yet the impact of America's second longest war, the one in Vietnam, is still being felt four decades after the last U.S. soldier left Saigon.

Fifty-nine thousand Americans were killed there, far more than those lost in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. And by the way, nearly half a million Vietnamese died, too. However, the legacy of Vietnam isn't just the names carved in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington; today American foreign policy is guided by two Vietnam veterans, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. And what was once an implacable foe is now part of President Obama's pivot to Asia.

Even so, can Vietnam now shelter under America's security umbrella? I talk to the country's ambassador to the United States, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. Does China rule the seas? That is the South China Sea. Many countries are asking whether anything can stop China as the Asian giant flexes its muscle in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors, from Japan to the Philippines to Vietnam.

The latest incident is with Vietnam over a Chinese oil rig that's based near the disputed Paracel Islands. This week a Chinese boat rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near the oil rig. And in Vietnam, violent riots against the Chinese have forced Beijing to evacuate thousands of its workers.

So is Asia on a short fuse to war? Joining me now from Washington is Vietnam's ambassador to the United States, Nguyen Quoc Cuong.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome to the program. And thank you for joining me.

NGUYEN QUOC CUONG, VIETNAMESE AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Thank you for inviting me to the program.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask you first, recently you all said China and Vietnam, that your relations were onto a much better foot, that things were going much better between you.

What has happened? And can it be rebuilt, this relationship?

CUONG: Yes, Vietnam-China relations in the last year have been improved but all of a sudden, China has sent its high rank (ph) and a last contingent of missiles to escort our week (ph) into Vietnam's for us. And it's a serious violation of Vietnam sovereignty and sovereign rights.

And the Vietnamese people, we have no other way but to respond peacefully but resolutely.

AMANPOUR: But do you think, even if you respond peacefully and resolutely, do you worry that this could trigger an armed conflict?

CUONG: Yes. You see that by first talk about the Chinese action, the unilateral action of China, by sending its oil rig and missiles into Vietnamese waters is a violation not only of Vietnamese sovereignty and sovereign rights, it's also a violation of international law, especially the unclose (ph) of 1982 and a violation of the commitments that the Chinese leaders made -- themselves made with the ASEAN (ph) leaders when they signed together with ASEAN (ph) leaders in 2002 the declaration on the conduct of the parties in the South China Sea which is called the South and the East Sea.

AMANPOUR: All right.

CUONG: So -- yes.

AMANPOUR: OK, well, let me just play you something, because I spoke to China's ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Cui Tiankai. I spoke to him last week about this whole issue and he said this about the oil rig and the islands that you came -- that disputed territory there.


CUI TIANKAI, CHINA'S AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: We don't want to see any conflicts in our neighborhood. But it will not entirely -- it will not be entirely up to us, you see. Other people have to have the same constructive attitude and policy.


AMANPOUR: Well, so that was the -- that was the ambassador. But he also went on to tell me that China only has one rig here; he called them undisputed waters and he said Vietnam has 30.

How do you respond to that?

CUONG: Can you repeat it? I can't hear you.

AMANPOUR: Basically he says they don't want a conflict with Vietnam but that China only has one rig, that these are undisputed waters, their international waters. And he says you actually, Vietnam, has 30 oil rigs.

CUONG: Yes. You see that now China is creating facts on the ground by changing the status quo. It's in the Continental Shelf, exclusive zone of Vietnam, not in the disputed area. So China, by doing so, is China is trying to turn an undisputed area into a disputed area. And that is unacceptable.

And talking about Vietnam's oil and gas exploration, exploitation activities, we've been doing it for decades. But it's in the Continental Shelf in the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam, not in the disputed waters.

So -- and foreign companies, so many foreign companies cooperating, doing business with Vietnam in the oil and gas exploration, do they -- do we believe that they do it, if they think it's in the disputed area? I don't think so.

AMANPOUR: All right, Mr. --


CUONG: And in 2,000-year (INAUDIBLE), you know, China also offered some meeting (ph), international meeting (ph), so some oil drops (ph) in the Continental Shelf Vietnam and no foreign country accepted their bidding, the offer.

AMANPOUR: I see. Well, let me ask you this, then, react to what the Chinese foreign minister said back in 2010. He was speaking to his counterpart in Singapore.

He said that "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact." That is China's then-foreign minister.

How do you react to that?

And isn't that just a fact?

They're so big and you're so relatively small.

CUONG: Yes, it's unjustifiable, no argument. You know, in foreign relations, every country, no matter because more are equal on the equal footing. It's international law, now on equal footing. And you cannot say small countries bullying bigger countries or vice versa. Every country is equal on the international relations.

AMANPOUR: But you're seeing the way China is making these claims in, for instance, the disputed islands with Japan and also with various territorial issues with the Philippines. Now your issue has caused a lot of protest in your country and there have been violent protests against Chinese workers.

But I want to ask you, as you deal with those protests and now those people have been evacuated, how do you expect to get protection from China because America, while you've got relations, you're not under America's security or treaty umbrella in this regard.

CUONG: Yes, you see that now Vietnam is following an independent foreign policy. You want good relations with China; you want good relations with United States and other countries. And you know, but we cannot accept the coercion; we cannot accept threats. And when the issue of sovereignty and national integrity is concerned, the Vietnamese people are very determined to defend our sovereignty rights. And no country should underestimate the Vietnamese people's determination to defend our sovereignty and sovereignty rights.

For Vietnamese, 100 percent Vietnamese, no matter where they live, in Vietnam, in United States or in other countries, we all believe that for Vietnamese, nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.

AMANPOUR: Well, we'll continue to watch, Ambassador Nguyen Quoc Cuong, thank you very much indeed for joining me from Washington.

CUONG: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And while American foreign policy focuses on hot spots from Ukraine to the South China Sea, the specter of a new genocidal disaster reawakening memories of Rwanda in 1994 is taking place in one of those marginalized nations that President Obama mentioned in his West Point speech, and that is the Central African Republic.

After 18 months of sectarian violence, more than a million people have been displaced and some 60,000 have sought shelter at the international airport in Bangui, the nation's capital, turning abandoned planes and hangars into makeshift housing. These dramatic photos by Peter Birro of the International Rescue Committee show that. And malnutrition is soaring with the threat of famine on the horizon.

An estimated 2.5 million people, more than half the population, are in urgent need of humanitarian aid in what is one of the world's poorest countries.

And after a break, we'll remember a poet laureate of the poor and the underprivileged in Africa, in American and around the world. Our tribute to Maya Angelou when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world without Maya Angelou. Hers was a voice for the voiceless, a stirring, reverberating sound that could speak to the powerful as she did at President Bill Clinton's inauguration on a cold January day back in 1993.


MAYA ANGELOU, POET: Lift up your hearts. Each new hour holds new chances For new beginnings. Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness. The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day You may have the courage To look up and out upon me, The rock, the river, the tree, your country.


AMANPOUR: What couldn't she do? Writer, actress, singer, dancer, civil rights activist, teacher and three-time Grammy winner.

But she was more than a performer and a public personality. The world was her stage, whether it was for writing a news magazine in Cairo or helping run a school of music and drama at the University of Ghana, or marching side-by-side with fellow feminist, Gloria Steinem, to mark the 20th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's iconic March on Washington.

Back in 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama presented her with the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, acknowledging her painful childhood and her improbable rise from those ashes of violence and racism to educate herself and engage the world in six languages, inspiring others around the globe.

Two hundred years ago, another poet, Percy Shelley, wrote, that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

There could be no finer example than Maya Angelou, who has died at the age of 86.

And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you for watching and goodbye from London.