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New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Hugh debate humanitarian hotspots around the world, and when it’s time to intervene.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

HH: Pleased to welcome now to the Hugh Hewitt Show Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist, author of many fine books, Pulitzer Prize winner. And when does Half The Sky come out, Nicholas Kristof?

NK: It comes out in September. I’m looking forward to it.

HH: Tell people what the premise of that is.

NK: Sure, the idea is that you know, we focus on women and girls around the world as victims. And indeed, there are a lot of really terrible things that happen from sex trafficking to maternal mortality. But the reality is there’s also an incredible opportunity there, and if you want to figure out how to fight global poverty, for example, then you have to do it by education and empowering girls, and bringing them into the economy. So at the end of the day, I guess we argue that girls aren’t the problem, they’re the solution.

HH: Now in terms of that, though, you’ve got so many countries around the world locked in patriarchal systems. And obviously, the fundamentalist Islamic countries come to mind. Can they ever advance if they don’t extend at least basic human rights towards their women population?

NK: I don’t think so. I mean, if you have one hand tied behind your back, which is what you end up doing if you have an all-male economy, then you’re never going to get very far or compete with other countries. And what’s more, if you look around the countries that disproportionately produce terrorism, and that have a lot of internal instability, then they tend to be those where women have no role at all. And I think that one can make an argument that that’s because those countries kind of turn into one big, huge, you know, high school locker room, and kind of incorporate those high school locker room values into the government of those countries. So it’s not just a question of justice, but it’s really a question of security, and trying to bring some stability to these places.

HH: Well, when Half The Sky comes out, I look forward to a longer conversation about that. It’s fascinating. I wanted to have you on today because you’ve been writing about and from Haiti. And we have a shared interest in the island. I spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic last year, I’ve been doing a lot of time trying to bring attention and fundraising to the Dominican Republic. Why were you in Haiti? What did you find there?

NK: I was in Haiti because I wanted to take a look at the impact of this economic downturn. And obviously, there is tremendous suffering within the U.S., but I think that the greatest cost is actually born not within our borders but in places like Haiti, because every Haitian working in the U.S. is supporting 20-25 people back in Haiti. And so when a Haitian-American loses his job in this country, then his family members back home, they don’t just miss new clothes or lose their home, they lose everything and indeed, in some cases, they starve to death.

HH: That’s in your March 29th column. It’s very bracing. A woman named Chantal Dorlis told me that her 5 year old daughter Nasson starved to death last month and neighbors confirmed the account. How prevalent is starvation hunger in Haiti?

NK: It’s hard to tell, because there’s not a lot of good data there. There’s always malnutrition. And when you have societies where there’s already a certain amount of malnutrition, and the floor falls out, it gets substantially worse. And how many people are actually dying is hard to know. One of the hospitals that I visited said the cases of severe malnutrition that that hospital was dealing with had doubled since last September. One school that I visited had, if I remember right, the number of kids in the school had fallen very dramatically, I forget the numbers now, since September because the families couldn’t pay their school tuition. And of course, one of the problems of malnutrition is that when you get young infants that are severely malnourished, then their brains cannot form the kind of cognitive capacities that they should, and there will be a lifetime deficit, intellectual deficit there that will affect their ability to hold jobs and work for many decades to come.

HH: Sure, that listlessness that comes with hunger, when I was in the DR in their worst slums in July, they’re mostly Haitians in the very worst parts of the DR. They fled Haiti and they’re happy to get to the DR. But that listlessness is, you know, if you don’t have any calories, you can’t have any energy. You can’t do anything.

NK: Yeah, and this is scary to look at these little kids who are severely malnourished, and really in danger of death, because they look at you and there’s no emotion. They don’t cry…

HH: Right.

NK: They don’t waste their breath looking upset. They don’t respond at all. They’re just sort of turned off. And it’s a natural mechanism of the body to preserve every bit of energy to stay alive. But it’s very strange to look at.

HH: So what to do? You’ve just been to Haiti, I encourage people through Children’s International to get directly involved with lifting people up out of the worst sorts of poverty directly. What, having been to Haiti, I mean, Haiti’s been Haiti forever. I don’t know what to do about Haiti. I’ve no idea what to begin to do about Haiti.

NK: Yeah, Haiti actually, in the last few years, is showing some signs of progress. I mean now it does have a better government than it has had in the past. And they’re, I think Haiti does kind of inspire a certain amount of passion fatigue, because it always does seem to be in such desperate trouble. But whatever one thinks about grand issues of foreign aid, you know, you and I know that when you go and visit groups that are working on the ground there, then they truly do make a difference.

HH: Huge.

NK: And they’re not going to solve the vast problems of all of Haiti, but for one particular family, boy, they can help solve that family’s problems. They can keep kids in school. They can make sure they’re nourished. They can keep children alive. And your money never goes farther than in a place like Haiti.

HH: I try and make an argument that although the DR and Haiti do not get much attention in the international press, that they matter a lot to the United States if only because of the connectedness between the communities there and here, illegal and both legal immigration. How do you answer that? You know, we’ve got lots of places to worry about in the world, many of them have strategic implications far more important than Hispaniola will ever have. How do you respond to that argument?

NK: I think that one of the things that we’ve learned is that a failed state, and Haiti at times really is perilously close to becoming that, that we end up paying for it one way or another. And we may pay for it in terms of illegal immigration, we may pay for it in terms of diseases that are incubated in that country, but that at the end of the day, it’s also kind of our neighborhood, and I think that countries, wealthier countries, larger countries, should have some kind of greater responsibility for those countries in their neighborhood. And just as, whatever, Australia is looking after Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands to some degree, East Timor, then you know, I think that Haiti is so close, so needy, so modest sized that it should be high on our priorities.

HH: All right, the second thing I want to talk to you about is Darfur and Africa. You’re very well known for your reporting on Darfur. Of course you are not welcome there by the repressive government, and I don’t even know if the southern rebels would welcome you anymore.

NK: Oh, they welcome me.

HH: Okay.

NK: They…and the south is, it’s, I mean, they’re…I guess my fear is that Darfur maybe remembered for all of its horrors as simply a prologue to an even messier resumption of the north-south war in Sudan, which would be even more horrific than Darfur has been.

HH: Well, give the audience who has seen a million signs of Darfur, and know generally that it’s a hellhole and it’s been labeled a genocide, and Richard Armitage called it a genocide on this program six years ago and nothing happened. I thought that was the magic word that obliged us to act. What is going on right now in the country at large?

NK: There’s not a lot of killing still in the rural villages in Darfur, because the Africans have been driven out of those villages. There are not a lot of villages left to burn. So most of the African population is now in these big, huge camps. Some of those camps still do have aid workers, and they’re getting some help. But there are other camps where the government has kicked out those aid workers, and in particular in West Darfur, you have camps that just have nothing. And so they’re running out of water, which tends to be, comes from electric generators that the aid workers need to support, they’re running out of food, and sanitation is going to fall apart, and then you’re going to have disease spread in epidemics. There is some rumors that the Sudanese government is going to relent and let some of those aid workers back in, but you know, it’s just so dispiriting after six years of this to see President Bashir get away with this.

HH: Nicholas Kristof, what do you want the United States to do?

NK: I don’t think that there’s any magic bullet, but I think there is in a sense magic buckshot. There are a lot of little things we can do that will make a difference. Now I think we need to work more with China and Arab countries. It was just horrific that the Arab League welcomed President Bashir to its summit meeting. I think that we can put more pressure on those governments. You’re beginning to see some of the Arab media be embarrassed by President Bashir. I think we can put more pressure on China and embarrass it by the degree to which it is providing the arms that sustain that genocide. I would favor a no-fly zone imposed from our base in Djibouti, although that’s somewhat controversial within, among Darfur watchers. And above all, I think it’s important for the President and the secretary of state periodically just to talk about it, to keep a spotlight on it. And it may not solve the problem, but as long as it is in the spotlight, there are fewer kids being killed, fewer women being raped.

HH: If we’re willing to use, and I support the no-fly zone, I’ve seen you say that before, why not more military force than just a no-fly zone?

NK: I think that if we were to send U.S….well, there are two reasons. One is just politically within the U.S., I’m afraid that if one talks about sending ground troops in, then I think that just scares people and makes them unwilling to do anything. I just don’t think that politically it’s feasible. But secondly, I do think that there is a risk that if we were to send American ground troops into Sudan, that that would rally the population behind the government that then President Bashir would say oh, those Americans, they are invading to steal our oil, and that there would be a nationalist backlash that would perhaps help the government. And so I think that there are other steps that we can take, including the no-fly zone. And maybe at some point, it’ll take more than that. Maybe it’ll take, I mean, there’s periodically talk about mining Port Sudan, from which it exports oil. Maybe there are other things like that. But I don’t think that sending in ground troops is a good idea.

HH: But you know, President Obama has in front of him obviously an opportunity that President Bush couldn’t. For political reasons, President Bush could not have dispatched ground troops because of the war weariness his administration provoked, and the opposition he would have faced. But President Obama has the ability to do something like that, and the moral standing, certainly, in other parts of the world to make it clear that we’re going in and we’re getting out after we’ve had a regime change. Isn’t that morally what we ought to…this is a horrific situation that’s gone on for so many years, with so many dead people, and the United States can stop it. Don’t we have a moral obligation to do so?

NK: Well, I am afraid that if we were to send ground troops in right now, that that would indeed, that it might well make the problem harder to solve. It might lead the government to become more popular. There’s a lot of indications that other elements of the Sudanese leadership want to dump President Bashir, and I’m afraid that that would make that less likely. So I think we at least need to try other methods that are going to raise the cost for the Sudanese government, and hopefully encourage them to dump Bashir. I mean, for example, I think that’s one of the attractions of the no-fly zone. It’s not just a question of preventing them from using airplanes to strafe villages. It’s also a question that it embarrasses the government, makes them pay a political price, and I think leads the other leaders in the Sudanese regime to be more likely to dump Bashir, and kind of the same for trying to reduce the arms that they’re getting from China, and so on. So I think we should try other steps that we haven’t so far, and you know, let’s see whether those work. And you know, I do think that there is a real possibility that they would. When we have put pressure on Sudan periodically, when we really made them pay a price, then we have gotten results in the past.

HH: If that north-south conflict comes back in the way that you’re afraid that it would, and the killing resumes, and the devastation of the south begins because of the Sudanese superiority in the north, at that point do you think the United States has a moral obligation to intervene militarily?

NK: Yes, maybe. Now I think that what we need to do right now is to transfer an anti-aircraft capacity to South Sudan.

HH: Oh, interesting.

NK: …because the north’s army is not is really not very reliable, its ground forces. And so it depends on air power. And in the last war, it really used that air power to bomb these villages in the south and towns. Now if the south had an anti-aircraft capacity, then the north’s air power would be neutralized, and I think it would be less likely to attack the south. So that’s one thing we can do right now. There have been discussions about that in the American government. I think we should go ahead with it, and I think that would reduce the prospect of a really terrible war.

HH: If you’ve read Robert Kaplan’s assessment of what we’ve got in Djibouti and the kind of forces we have around the world, and I’m certain you have, then we also have the sorts of advisors we could put into the south in a very low profile, low footprint way to teach them how to use that weaponry. Would you support that kind of thing?

NK: Absolutely. More training and more intelligence sharing with the south, and…but I think the single thing that would make the biggest difference would be this anti-aircraft capacity, and a strong warning to Sudan that if it does try to resume that war, then this is one that it is not going to win.

HH: Let’s move further down the continent to Zimbabwe. Most mornings when I listen to my BBC, I’ll get some report from Africa. And whenever it’s about Zimbabwe on their podcast, it’s another tale of hideous brutality, thuggishness on a par with any fascist state that’s ever existed, and terrible, terrible suffering. Shouldn’t we take him out, Nicholas Kristof? We can do that. That’s not even as complicated as the Sudan. No one will be upset with us.

NK: Again, it’s something that I just don’t think is ever going to happen, so I’m not sure that it’s worth…I mean, I think I’d rather we use our political capital debating things that we might actually do. But I mean, if you push me about whether we should, apart from the question of is it feasible, I guess I’m not quite at that level. But you know, you’re right, it is certainly horrific, and I think South Africa in particular has been disgraceful in the degree to which it has been unwilling to put pressure on Zimbabwe. But I just get a little nervous that when we talk about military interventions, then it just ends up, we end up being paralyzed and not doing anything at all.

HH: Well, this is what, this is what confounds me, is that you wrote recently about the fifteenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, and you’ve got a couple of columns in March on watching Darfuris die, and the Obama challenge here. And I don’t know that we’re helping the Obama administration prepare for the moment that the Clinton administration punted on, which is when genocide, unmistakable, as obvious as the world could agree on it, breaks out again in some corner of the most tortured continent. I don’t know that we’re giving them the intellectual analytical tools, and you’d be one to be able to do that, on when they have to act. Do you think we have those outlined?

NK: No, I don’t, and I think, I mean, I am afraid that the, that Obama supporters, because they basically believe that he’s a good guy, and you know, because he had been active on Darfur, that they may not be as aggressive in holding his feet to the fire as they were, for example, under Bush. And my basic take is that when presidents see the national interest at stake, then you can pretty much depend on them to go ahead and take action. But where our national values are at stake, but without such clear interests, and Rwanda was an example of that, Darfur is an example of that, all kinds of humanitarian issues are at stake, in that kind of situation, the only case where a leader will truly lead is when he sees the public are really pushing him to do that. And any other situation it’s always easier on any given day to say well, none of the options are very good, let’s wait and see how things look tomorrow.

HH: But let’s be clear, do you agree with me that Bill Clinton made a mistake, though an understandable one, in not acting in Rwanda?

NK: Absolutely.

HH: And so…

NK: Absolutely.

HH: What is that set of circumstances that ought to be public and acknowledged and understood and internalized by Obama and all of his people that they know they will act if the following situation arises? What is that trip wire? Is it a body count?

NK: No, I mean, there are a few things we can do. There’s some work looking at early warnings on genocide, because in general, there have been rumblings in various situations, and it’s keeping an eye on them, it’s sending a warning to leaders that they’re not going to benefit. I think that in Eastern Congo, for example, there has been more pressure on Rwanda, and more embarrassment about Rwanda supporting warlords in Eastern Congo, and that that was one reason why Rwanda has backed off a little bit there. But at the end of the day, President Clinton didn’t do anything about Rwanda on his watch, because he thought that politically, it was in his interest not to get involved. And I think that what fundamentally has to change isn’t so much a technical question of a trip wire to lead to action, but it’s political. It’s a sense that Americans want their leaders to show some true moral leadership, and that when people are being slaughtered, and we can intervene without some enormous cost, then we want our leaders to do that. And I mean, that was why, and Clinton did intervene in Kosovo, because it wasn’t that he thought this was so much the right thing to do, it was because he was being savaged in the news media, and by the public for not intervening. And finally, he was pushed to do it. And we saved a lot of lives there.

HH: Now are people being slaughtered in Zimbabwe in your understanding of the term slaughter, Nicholas Kristof?

NK: I don’t think they’re being slaughtered in the sense of large scale violence at the moment. Now during the election season, there were a lot of really violent killings.

HH: Right.

NK: But not so much right now. There are still some kidnappings, some killings, but not so many. But you are seeing a hugely elevated death rate because of the incredible economic mismanagement of the government, and not just mismanagement in the sense of incompetence, but because the government simply doesn’t care about some tribes, and doesn’t provide any medical supplies to clinics in come areas like the south, for example. And so you have people being killed not with bullets, but by having food and medical provisions withheld.

HH: Yeah, that’s my understanding, is that there is a slaughter. It might not be a machete kind of slaughter, but that it’s a devastation and a death toll that is much, much higher than it would be if Mugabe were removed and regime change occurred there.

NK: Yeah, I think that is fair to say.

HH: And so I guess, I’m not going to be able to pin you down. I don’t want to pin you down. I just want to sort of engage on when is it…because I read Madeleine Albright in your column talking to you about Darfur saying you can’t watch this and not feel that there has to be something done. And I was left, as I always am, saying well, what needs to be done and when? Advocate for something, as opposed to the hand-wringing on the sidelines, otherwise we’re as complicit, people who wring their hands are as complicit as those who say don’t do anything, aren’t they?

NK: Yeah. Now you know, in general I do think that military intervention is such an extreme step that it should be the last option. And I think that in the case in Zimbabwe, there is more that we could do, that we could especially work with some of the surrounding countries to really sort of pull the rug out from under Mugabe. And South Africa is the obvious one. Back in the days of Rhodesia, it was South Africa pulling out the plug from Ian Smith…

HH: Right.

NK: …that led to the collapse of Rhodesia. And you know, there has to be the same kind of pressure from the U.S. and other countries on South Africa to do the same toward Zimbabwe today, and other countries in the region, Zambia, Botswana, and others. And I think we can do more there. I think there is some chance that it will indeed make a difference.

HH: All right, second to last subject. Great Powers: America And The World After Bush by Thomas P.M. Barnett, have you had a chance to read it yet?

NK: I haven’t. I’ve leafed, I’ve looked through it, I’ve leafed through it, but I haven’t really read it.

HH: Well, it’s a theory of development which is very radical in its expected optimistic turnout. One of the things he talks about is, this organization that matches people…

NK: Right.

HH: What do you think of Kiva?

NK: I think it’s great. There are a few…I lend on Kiva. I have a portfolio on Kiva.

HH: Oh.

NK: And for those who don’t know, it’s a way to do micro-lending. You start your own portfolio, and then you choose people you want to lend to, and then…so I lend to a bunch of people there. There’s another similar organization called, that lets you choose who you want to donate to. I think those kind of grass roots empowerment mechanisms to encourage business are really useful. And the success of Kiva, I think, is a sense of how much hunger there is for people who really want to help.

HH: Yeah, that’s half of the prescription. The other half that Barnett puts forward is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure – clean water, roads, electricity, nothing else. Do you agree with that assessment?

NK: You know, I think that’s a little bit simplistic. I mean, you have to have infrastructure, for example, if you want to encourage business, then you need to have a port that works. But a lot of having a port that works isn’t just a question of dredging it and having roads leading to it. It’s a question of having good governance of that port, and having people who aren’t taking bribes at every level. And there is a risk in building infrastructure projects that the money just ends up going in the pockets of the finance minister and everything else. So I don’t think there is a clear answer to that. I think education is one of the things that has one of the best records of any kind of aid program, that when you educate people, that it dramatically improves their ability to earn a living. When you educate girls, it dramatically reduces the number of kids that they’re going to have and helps to address the population issues in poor countries. And girls in particular, it also brings them into the economy, which tends to be good for the whole country.

HH: I was probably unfair. I simplistically summarized him, although I don’t think he’s high on education, but obviously transparency and rule of law issues are very important to him as well.

NK: Yeah.

HH: Last question for you, Nicholas Kristof, you’ve been generous with your time, it goes to your March 19th column, the Daily Me, about how Americans especially, but other people on the planet, are beginning to select their information flows so as to make sure they’re the ones they agree with. How prevalent is this on the left and the right? And do you think one or the other of them is guiltier?

NK: I think that it’s a huge problem on left and right, I think, alike. I think that we all have a just a deep and really unfortunate desire to get news that will confirm our prejudices. And you know, we may all think that we want good, solid information. But there have been a lot of studies that show that we really aren’t that eager to get information that is going to challenge our assumptions, challenge the way we look at the world, and that what we really tend to want is kind of good, solid information that buttresses our prejudices. And I think that’s really unfortunate. I think that the solution has to be for us to know about this problem, just as I know that I have a tendency to eat too many Cheetos, and I have to sort of consciously try to resist it and eat asparagus spears, that you know, in the same way, we all have to kind of realize that we have this unfortunate desire to self-select just half of the story, and really consciously go out and seek out information sources that are going to make us really uneasy, and try to have a very full diet of information.

HH: Where do you find those in the center-right?

NK: The Wall Street Journal editorial page is one of the, one place that tends to infuriate me every morning, but that I do read very carefully, very religiously. And that would be the main one in terms of the national media. Periodically, on a more selective issue, I’ll go to books or go to a blog.

HH: Do you read any of the blogs like Powerline?

NK: Yeah, sometimes, although not…I tend to graze blogs, and so there isn’t any one that I go to all the time, but I tend to bounce around.

HH: Last question.

NK: Yeah.

HH: Tea parties are tomorrow. Your colleague, Paul Krugman, doesn’t think much of them. What do you think is going on out there? Hundreds, and maybe thousands of these things happening with tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of participants, what’s that stand for?

NK: I, you know, it’s just something that I haven’t, I haven’t reported on, and I really, I’m hesitant to offer some kind of a…

HH: That’s fine. Take a pass. I have law students take a pass all the time. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, I appreciate it. I look forward to another one down the road, and thanks for your time.

NK: Hey, thanks so much, Hugh. Take care.

End of interview.

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