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Obama Administration Lost Overseas?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to start the day talking about politics. Obama is back home after a trip to Asia. And Secretary of State John Kerry is on an overseas tour of his own now. He's in Africa meeting with heads of state. Yesterday, he warned African union officials in Ethiopia about the threat of possible genocide in South Sudan.


SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: There are very disturbing leading indicators of the kind of ethnic, tribal, targeted, nationalistic killings taking place that raise serious questions. And were they to continue in the way that they have been going could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide.

And were they to continue in the way they had been going would really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide.

MARTIN: We wanted to know more about the politics, the decision making and the possible results of these trips, so we've called two former White House insiders. Corey Ealons is a former communications advisor to the Obama administration. He's now a senior vice president at VOX Global. Also joining us is Ron Christie. He is a former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's now a Republican strategist and communications advisor. Welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us.

COREY EALONS: Good to be here.

RON CHRISTIE: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So we just heard Secretary of State John Kerry's comments on South Sudan. So, Corey Ealons, I want to start with you. The secretary of state made a stop in South Sudan today. It was not on his official itinerary. But many people were hoping he would go there to lend whatever help he could to the situation - this terrible, you know, spasm of violence that, you know, we've covered on this program.

So - but you could also see where a lot of Americans are saying, you know, what does this have to do with us? What does this have to do with U.S. interest? So I'd like to ask you, how does the White House decide how much priority to give to a situation like this? And what role can the secretary of state of the United States really play in a situation like this?

EALONS: Well, what you saw with Secretary Clinton and now Secretary Kerry is that they really are - they really do have their own portfolio that they developed. The White House weighs in and offers some sense of where they need to go and what they need to be focused on. But for Secretary Kerry, this was obviously a priority. As you said, it was not on his agenda.

But even in the short time that he's been there, he's already been able to make extraordinary progress. He's been able to bring the two sides together. They finally decided that the cease-fire that they put in place in January that they're actually going to go forward with that cease-fire bringing the two sides together. It's going to be monitored by the government of Ethiopia who's going to monitor that situation along with the U.N. So that's a very positive thing.

And whenever we have a situation around the world when there is a potential tragic loss of life and the numbers that we were beginning to see over a million people have been displaced, thousands of people have been killed, it's important that the United States weigh in and ensure that the loss of life is not astronomical. And so I think it's very important that Secretary Kerry made his presence there today.

MARTIN: So while we're talking about foreign-policy, Ron, President Obama wrapped up his tour of Asia this week visiting Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. So, Ron, tell me about, you know, what is the purpose of a trip like this? What is accomplished on something like this?

CHRISTIE: On something like this, Michel, the president of the United States, in this particular instance, went over to reassure our Asian allies that the United States is still going to have a role and still has a very strong presence in the region. We've seen the Chinese act out a little bit of a belligerent fashion as it relates to some islands that they dispute with Japan. We've seen a little bit of uncertainty with our friends in South Korea about what the Chinese might do. And of course, they've not only developed one but now two aircraft carriers.

So I think it was important for the president of the United States to go over to still insist that we're there to protect our friends and protect our allies. And the agreement that he was able to sign with the Philippines president to allow U.S. personnel to remain in the Philippines I think is very important. And, you know, this is something where I think Corey and I would both agree that when the president goes abroad, that you leave your partisan differences behind and you support the president for trying to make sure that we can not only project a sense of stability and strength in the region, but also that we are a strong friend to these countries very, very far away from us.

MARTIN: Does it matter if there's no big agreement or document that comes out of a trip like this? Ron, as I was - I understand that there was a trade agreement the president was hoping to finalize, but that didn't happen. Does it matter? Do you have to walk away with something like that for a trip to be considered a success?

CHRISTIE: I don't think so. I mean, many of my Republican colleagues have been very critical of the president saying that he didn't accomplish anything in this trip and, you know, it was a waste of time and a waste of money. But I strongly believe, regardless of the party affiliation of the president, that going abroad, having face-to-face sit-downs with world leaders is very important. And I'm glad he went. I think it was very important that he went, and I'm glad he did.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk then about the Ukraine 'cause this is a situation where I think there are a lot of - a lot of differences of opinion. Two Ukrainian helicopters were reportedly shot down just this morning in the eastern part of that country. And it seems as though the kind of the Russian separatists are very much asserting themselves. There have been these street clashes with Ukrainian forces.

Ron, why don't we start with you because a lot of people have been very critical of the president's handling of the situation. And when he was asked about this overseas got seemingly a bit annoyed. Ron, what's your assessment of it?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think the president really had a great opportunity to lead, Michel, and I think he failed to do it. I think the failure to lead, as it related to drawing a red line in Syria, gave folks like Vladimir Putin the opportunity to think that maybe the president didn't really mean what he said. Maybe the president really wouldn't use military force or the president wouldn't impose sanctions on Russia in the region.

Remember, Russia has a significant portion of their exports going in gas to the Western European allies of the United States. And for all that the president could have done to really have tried to corral Putin, I think he failed to do so, and Europe is failing to impose sanctions because it's in their economic interests to continue to trade with Russia. So I think this is a failed opportunity for the United States.

MARTIN: Corey Ealons, what do you think? I mean, the president has announced - the U.S. has announced new sanctions against Russia for its continuing threats to Ukraine. What's your assessment of this situation - the president's handling of it?

EALONS: I think the pace of what he's doing now is very important and is very similar to the pace that we engaged in in years past when we were - had issues with the Soviet Union and with Russia. This week the president engaged in more sanctions against Russia. Seven people who were very close to Putin are now being sanctioned along with 17 different companies. And Ron makes the point about the gas reserves that are basically supporting Western Europe - or Eastern Europe. That's a very important point.

But if you were to put more sanctions in place to clamp down on that distribution, it would have collateral damage in Europe. And so right now the administration has basically decided we're going to hold on to one more stick. And that stick is sanctions associated with financial services institutions, big banks as well as energy issues in Russia. That way if they cross the border, they can put those in place and that will really - but the unfortunate thing is that will have a direct impact on the Russian people.

MARTIN: Let me just ask Ron one more question, which is, part of the, I think - it's interesting that the president seemed kind of annoyed overseas. You know, I personally have a theory that part of the reason that presidents and other high officials tend to blow a gasket overseas is, you know, they're jet lagged. I don't know. But they tend to - people who are otherwise very calm and cool here, and then go over there and kind of show you how they really feel - it's always interesting to me when that happens.

But part of the president and his supporters' pushback against the Republicans is that the Republicans and the previous administration depleted this country's ability on a war - ability to respond to militarily on a war - that at the end of the day made no sense. I mean, the president's quote was why is it that everybody's so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and our budget and what exactly is it that these critics think would have been accomplished? What's your take on that, Ron Christie?

CHRISTIE: Well, this from a president who wants to reduce our military projection of power to pre-World War II levels is really not the one to say that the previous administration has depleted our military. I think you can have an honest assessment, an honest argument about the viability of having gone into Iraq and Afghanistan. But the fact remains - it is very important for the president of United States to recognize in his role as commander-in-chief that he needs to do everything he can, not only to support our men and women in uniform now, but also our veterans who have come home.

I mean, the unreported story - NPR, I know, has been reporting this - but the backlog at the VA I think is a disgrace of the number of veterans who are waiting around the country to receive treatment. And I think the president could've done a lot more to fund our fighting men and women in uniform as well as those who have come home.

MARTIN: Well, we have a couple minutes left. So I did want to talk a little bit more about two domestic stories - I don't know if we have time to get them both - that are of interest. And we're talking with Republican strategist Ron Christie, former Obama administration advisor Corey Ealons. Ron Christie, of course, worked for the administration of George W. Bush and also worked with Vice President Dick Cheney very closely.

So a few weeks ago, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan was in hot water over comments he made about poverty on the radio show Bill Bennett's Morning in America. Let me just play it really quickly.


REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: We have got this tailspin of culture in our inner cities in particular of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. And so there's a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

MARTIN: So very briefly - there are a lot of people who felt that inner city was code for black and brown minorities. And this was, you know, more dog whistling to people - to kind of conservative critics on social policy. This week Paul Ryan sat down with the Congressional Black Caucus to talk about those comments. So Ron Christie, you've met with Representative Ryan about this. What's the way forward for him here?

CHRISTIE: The way forward - I had a great chance to talk with Chairman Ryan on Wednesday, and he said poverty is not a Republican issue. It's not a Democratic issue. It's a humanitarian issue. And I am so encouraged that he had the ability to sit down with the Congressional Black Caucus, agree to disagree, but try to find a bipartisan way moving forward.

And I think that's really the kernel, the seed of what we're going to see in the days to come. He's just come off a 12 visit - 12 different opportunities to visit with people around the country, faith-based institutions over the past year. And I think this gives a great opportunity for Republicans, Democrats to finally find consensus in a fractured Congress.

MARTIN: Corey Ealons, some other good news that the president had here that unemployment rate is down to 6.3 percent but the labor force shrank. You know, a final thought from you on either of those stories?

EALONS: Oh, I think it's extraordinary that the unemployment rate is where it is right now, 288,000 jobs created last month. We got the first real jobs report in several months because, as you know, we had the government shutdown last year, then we had this awful winter. Now we're in to the spring, people having confidence. And so they're out buying more things.

As far as the participation rate being down, if we had a jobs bill that was going through, if we had an infrastructure bank that was working, even if we had an agreement on the Keystone pipeline, I think we would be in a position to talk about more people being interested in looking for jobs and having confidence that they would find them. So again we continue to make great progress, but we have a bit more to go.

MARTIN: Corey Ealons is a senior vice president at VOX Global with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Ron Christie is a Republican strategist with us from our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

EALONS: Pleasure to join you.

CHRISTIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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