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NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel On The Election Perception Abroad

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I was joined from Istanbul this morning by Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent of NBC News, whose commentary on the Monday night debate from Turkey struck me as unique in the ocean of chattering heads coming as it did from a correspondent abroad. Here is that conversation:




HH: I am so pleased to welcome for the first time to the Hugh Hewitt Show Richard Engel. He is chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, and he joins us this morning from Istanbul. Richard, thank you for joining me and making time in the middle of a busy day. I greatly appreciate it.

RE: Well, it’s a pleasure, and yes, it is the first time I’ve been on your show. So I’ve been watching you on MSNBC when you’ve been talking with Rachel and Brian about the coverage, and it’s good to talk to you directly.

HH: Well, that’s why I was provoked to try and reach out to you. I usually, and now will complement as often as you are available, my conversations with John Fisher Burns about matters abroad. But I saw you from Turkey on the night of the debate. And you made a point that very few people made, and it actually hadn’t occurred to me, despite the fact I begin every morning reading the Times of London and Ha’aretz. And you know, this morning, it’s about the fact that Peres’ notes have come out and they’re pretty interesting. But I always want to know what’s going on in our key allies. And you made the point that this debate the other night was watched around the world, and that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing for the image of America. And expand on what you saw from Turkey as the mudfest in St. Louis went down.

RE: Well, it wasn’t just that. It’s been this entire election campaign, frankly, although I think what happened just a few days ago was the culmination of it, the worst of the worst. But the world has been watching this election, and I think it looked very badly, reflected very poorly on the United States and our system of government, frankly. And that is a strategic weakness for, well, decades at least, but probably a lot longer, the main selling point of the United States abroad. When diplomats go, or even when businesses go and try and establish relationships and friendships with foreign countries, was that the United States was different, that we had a different political system, that it was a political system that should be emulated. It’s not a dictatorship, it’s not a reformed colonial government. It’s a new, clean political system where everybody got a shot, and it was, you know, democracy on display. Well, the democracy that has been on display recently is not an appealing thing. It is not really something that anyone would want to emulate, and frankly it looks a lot like the kind of political systems they have in, at times, repressive political systems like where I am in Turkey right now, or in oligarchies that you find all over the world, or in African countries where you have one candidate, you know, threatening to have the other one arrested, and political scandals, and one of the candidates coming from a family of politicians, and who seems to just be the same recycled candidate. So all in all, no, it’s been, it’s looked upon as quite weak, frankly.

HH: Early in the campaign, I asked Governor Bush when he was in my studio in California look, if it ends up being Bush-Clinton, how are we going to tell nations around the world that you can’t have dynasties?

RE: Exactly.

HH: And he talked about that, and it didn’t come across very well. Does it still feel like that combined with the Chavista kind of politics of nastiness that are around now? Or is, or you can focus on Kelly Ayotte and Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, where they are having a brass knuckled, but civilized campaign, or John McCain and Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona, where the same thing is going on, or Rob Portman and former Governor Strickland in Ohio. Do those lower level campaigns in which…

RE: No.

HH: …the traditional norms get through?

RE: The lower levels mean nothing here.

HH: It doesn’t?

RE: No, they haven’t, people aren’t following it. They’re just following it, and the way it’s seen, and to go back to the point you just made, you have on one side the option of a man who’s perceived to be a populist and a vulgarian, who’s seen as something of a carnival clown, frankly, and is seen with great trepidation, because people are worried can he be trusted? Do we make a deal with the United States? Is this guy going to tear up the deal? Is he a serious negotiating partner? And on the other side, you see a dynasty. You see someone who is the wife of a former president following an era in which you had the son of a former president. So how can you tell an African country or even Beirut, where I lived for many years, that has a similar kind of situation where you have one political dynasty just rotating after the other one, that our system is different, that our system is better, that our system doesn’t allow the kind of extremist populism or the kind of dynastic traditions that aren’t necessarily conducive to a great democracy?

HH: It was such an amazing point. I quoted it back to Chris Matthews. I’m glad you could come on just to remind my audience that there is an audience beyond the American television audience. While I have you, Richard, I want to talk to you about Turkey and find out, I read of massive numbers of arrests, of police chiefs now going down. Has Erdogan used the attempted coup, that’s the prime minister of Turkey for the benefit of the Steelers fans, to completely eliminate the opposition? Is it now in essence a Mubarak-like Turkey? Is he as to Turkey as Mubarak was to Egypt now?

RE: In a certain sense, he’s like Mubarak, but he’s more of an Islamist. I mean, Mubarak in the sense that he has now consolidated his rule, but I wouldn’t make the Mubarak analogy. One, Mubarak relied on his military. Mubarak was a secular leader. Mubarak, even though the U.S. turned its back on him in the end was profoundly pro-American throughout and was a reliable American ally. This president here has used the failed coup attempt to purge the military, to purge his own party, to purge all of the civil society here. And he’s emerged as more of a one-man rule who doesn’t have a lot of institutional support with him. And I think that’s what he’s trying to build by breaking down, by eliminating all of the potential rivals in the other institutions. The people who are left standing are running scared and are running to show their loyalty to him. And I think he’s been successful. I think right now, he’s in a very, very strong position. The only voices that are speaking out against him are quickly being silenced. And Europe isn’t saying anything, the United States isn’t saying anything. So I think he feels like he not only got away with it, but that he got away with it and emerged stronger.

HH: Secretary Clinton in the debate mentioned arming the Kurds, which is shorthand for not the light weaponry we send, but the serious weaponry, maybe including older versions of aircraft, advanced tanks, etc. How would Erdogan respond to that? And do we care?

RE: Yeah, I think we care a great deal. And I think he would respond very badly. We care a great deal, because we have dozens of nuclear weapons here. This is a major NATO ally. We care, because it is the main logistics hub that we use for the counter-ISIS campaign. We also care because Europe cares. Turkey is the valve. Turkey is, controls the spigot for the refugees. If Turkey is unhappy, it has made it clear that it can open that spigot and send hundreds of thousands, if not millions of refugees streaming toward Europe. So that’s why you’ve seen the EU falling over itself to send money to Turkey in order to keep the tide of refugees here. And I think when you combine, when you look at these two factors, Turkey is incredibly important. And Turkey has responded very badly to U.S. support to the Kurds. So when you, you make a statement like that, sure, we’ll arm the Kurds, we’ll arm our friends. And Secretary Clinton knows this probably better than anyone from her experience dealing in foreign policy and dealing with Turkey and other world leaders. They are knock-on effects. So you arm the Kurds, great, that sounds good. But then what to the Kurds do? How does Europe react? Who’s, what happens with the nuclear weapons? What happens with Fethullah Gulen, the cleric who’s in the United States who Turkey desperately wants to extradite? So it is a little bit like a sweater. You pull on one string, and things start to unravel.

HH: I’m talking with Richard Engel. He is the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News. You ought to follow him on Twitter, @RichardEngel. Richard, I often am asked about how I judge whether or not progress is being made in the world, and I borrow from my years as a young writer for Richard Nixon back in ’78-’80, and again in ’89-’91. The ongoing incremental expansion of liberty and literacy in a growing number of stable regimes around the world, and that has always seemed to me to sum it up, whether or not…

RE: If more people can read, more people can do business, the more people feel safe.

HH: Yeah, that’s a shorter version, but I like the stable regimes part, because that tells you we want regimes around the world that aren’t going to suddenly shatter what we’ve built.

RE: Now you’re moving into a…

HH: If you judge that…

RE: You’re moving into a subject I’ve thought a lot about, but go on.

HH: Okay, where are we on that scale of the ongoing expansion of liberty and literacy in a growing number of stable regimes?

RE: Ah, okay. Here’s an interesting point. And I just wrote a book, and one of the key elements was exactly this subject. Right now, we’re in a period of turmoil internationally. And I think we’re at a phase of world politics where the kaleidoscope hasn’t quite settled. And that makes people very nervous. And we have ISIS, you have collapse of at least three states in the Middle East – Iraq, Libya and Syria, and that has been profoundly unsettling to the world. That has been profoundly unsettling for Europe. I mean, the fact that you had these rise of the right wing groups in Europe, and the fear that the migrant crisis is going to return is all related to this tumult which I think is based in the Middle East. So how does this relate to the question you’re asking? I think when there are periods of profound international instability, there is a tendency to reach for strongmen. There is a tendency toward isolationism. And I think there is, over the next five, six years, maybe even a decade, we’re going to see the return of strong regimes, the return of the strongmen. So that’s on the stability part. But to get there, I think they’re going to be rolling back civil liberties. They’re going to be rolling back human rights, the ability to protest, the ability to speak out. So I think we’re going to have, of those three things – economic prosperity you’re talking about, literacy and education, stability and freedom, I think we’re going to see uneven results…

HH: Troubling.

RE: More tendency to reach out toward stability, but at the expense of some civil liberty.

HH: Now I know about A Fist In The Hornet’s Nest and War Journal. What’s the new book?

RE: The new book was about the, it says And Then All Hell Broke Loose.

HH: Oh.

RE: And it’s about the Middle East, and you know, and what it is, is it tracked, you mentioned Mubarak. So use Mubarak as an example for what’s happened in the Middle East. So Mubarak was a pro-American, secular, military-lite dictator. You know, he was harsh on his enemies, and sent them to jail, and these jails were rife with torture and terrible things. But he wasn’t, say, Saddam Hussein. He didn’t have a sadistic streak in him. So this was the setup that was in place in the Middle East, really, since World War II, and more specifically, since 1967. You had these big men who controlled all of the Middle East – Mubarak and the Assad family and Ben Ali in Tunisia.

HH: And coming up on a break, Richard. I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell people about And Then All Hell Broke Loose and then get you back to talk about that book, because I need to follow this. People need to follow this going on. But I appreciate you joining us. It just came out. I’m going to read it, and then I’m going to get you back and talk about that soon. Thank you, Richard.

End of interview.


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