Video: ‘Delicate’ Gaza situation awaits Obama

  1. Transcript of: ‘Delicate’ Gaza situation awaits Obama

    MR. GREGORY: ... Katty 's speaking to the issue of ownership. Here Barack Obama ran on a platform of change -- and this goes to your book -- but he's going to own these problems after a year's time. And, and your new book, " The Inheritance ," you write the following about Obama 's problems:"In a year's time, [ Obama ] will not be able to blame problems on the mess he found when he walked into the Oval Office . While Obama could order sped-up withdrawals of American troops from Iraq , his advisers know that if they leave too rapidly and sectarian violence flares anew, it will be blamed on the new president's overeagerness and inexperience. ... If Obama honors his pledge to commit more forces to stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan ... he risks getting bogged down in a country ... more ungovernable than Iraq . If he authorizes more raids over the Pakistan border to root out al-Qaeda -- as he vowed he would -- he will be charged with acting as unilaterally as Bush did, in violation of Pakistani sovereignty. If he fails to warn the Iranians that the price" of -- "for refusing to dismantle their nuclear program will be high -- and that `all options are on the table' -- he runs the risk of looking like an easy mark." Andrea :

    MS. MITCHELL: Well, not only does it limit his options, but he is now going to be under enormous pressure to do something to restrain Israel . And that is an -- a very difficult position for Barack Obama to take. Hillary Clinton can give him some cover on that because of her staunch support for Israel along the way, but there's going to be almost universal pressure on him to do that. Now, there was a very promising negotiating track through Turkey and Damascus that -- even days before this engagement began, before the air attacks began. They were very close, it was believed, to signing an agreement between Damascus and Israel , and Turkey was the broker there. Turkey could become the broker through Damascus , again, to reach out to Hamas , to the Hamas leaders who are in, in Syria .

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    MS. MITCHELL: So there are negotiating strategies. But before that can take place, Israel has to achieve some sort of exit strategy that gives it respectability, and Hamas has to feel that it has some sort of exit strategy . What the U.S. is hoping is that they can restore the 2005 agreements where Hamas will agree not to rocket Israel , Israel will agree to open the borders. And there are U.S. Army Corps of Engineer personnel on the ground right now on the Egypt side looking at the tunnels to see how Egypt could be reassured that there won't be continued smuggling through on that...

    MR. GREGORY: And yet...

    MS. MITCHELL: So this, this is a very delicate three...

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    MS. MITCHELL: ...three bank shot , though.

    MR. GREGORY: But that answer, David Sanger , from your book speaks to some of the larger challenges that the president-elect faces.

    MR. SANGER: David , we're beyond the point of saying that Barack Obama inherits a lot of messes around the world. He also inherits a lot of activities that President Bush began, and he's going to have to make some very difficult decisions about whether to continue them. One of his intelligence chiefs said to me that President Bush wrote a lot of checks that Barack Obama is going to have to cash.

    MR. GREGORY: Hm.

    MR. SANGER: And I think what he means by that is there are covert actions that have begun that Obama 's going to have to look at even before he fully understands them. Another one of Obama 's aides said to me, "You know, in many ways we have a Bay of Pigs problem," which is the action that President Kennedy inherited from Dwight Eisenhower , and he didn't fully understand it. Pakistan 's a great example of this. President Bush last summer authorized a series of ground actions that included going after non- al-Qaeda members, and Barack Obama 's going to have to decide, do you do that or not?

    MR. GREGORY: Hisham:

    MR. MELHEM: Look, I mean, he has to come up with a different paradigm. He cannot do what George Bush did. What George Bush was -- did was disastrous. He really ignored the Arab- Israeli conflict until last year. And even then, it was driving by Condi Rice 's push for, for, for resolution.

    MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    MR. MELHEM: He has to come up with a paradigm that says our approach should be regional- centric, not Israel -centric.

    MR. GREGORY: Right.

    MR. MELHEM: There is an Arab peace, peace initiative, and if everybody's interested in isolating Iran , there has to be a revival of all the peace tracks, including Syria , Lebanon , as well as the Palestinians.

    MR. GREGORY: All right.

    MR. MELHEM: But he has to push very hard and show the Israelis some tough love, as well as showing the Muslim world tough love...

    MR. GREGORY: Thirty...

    MR. MELHEM: ...because he's working on, on an initiative towards the Muslim world .

    MR. GREGORY: Thirty seconds, Jeffrey .

    MR. GOLDBERG: But let, let me, let me just point out a possible opportunity for Barack Obama in this. And I don't mean to be Pollyanna -ish, and it's always safe to be pessimistic about the Middle East . But if we come out of this with a weakened Hamas , that actually helps Barack Obama , because who is going to ultimately negotiate with Israel ? It's not Hamas , it's the Palestinian Authority , it's Fatah on the West Bank . If Hamas is weakened, that gives them a chance to actually speak for the Palestinians and there might be a negotiation opportunity.

updated 1/4/2009 2:02:51 PM ET 2009-01-04T19:02:51

The following excerpt is from the introduction of “The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power,’’ By David E. Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. The book is scheduled to be published by Harmony Books on Jan. 13, 2009. All material is Copyright 2009 by David E. Sanger.

Introduction: The Briefing
The motorcade pulled up to the side of the gleaming new FBI building on Chicago’s west side at midmorning on the first Tuesday in September, just as the 2008 presidential campaign was shifting into its final, most brutal phase. There was a brief pause as Secret Service agents made one last check of the surroundings and radioed backed to their headquarters that the man they had codenamed “Renegade’’ had arrived. Barack Obama emerged silently, a few foreign policy advisers in tow, and quickly took a waiting elevator to the tenth floor. The candidate strode past the long corridor lined with identically framed portraits of the special agents-in-charge who have run the FBI’s operations there since the era when bank robbers such as John Dillinger were still considered Public Enemy Number 1. Obama and his team were headed for the FBI’s secure conference room—a “bubble” that deflects any electronic intercepts—for one of the quietest rituals of the quadrennial presidential campaign season: a ninety-minute, classified briefing about the world that the winner of the 2008 presidential election will confront.

Waiting for him in the windowless room was a man who, unlike Obama, had been able to walk into the FBI building almost completely unnoticed. At sixty-five, J. Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, was pale, a bit stooped because of a bad back, and wearing wire-rim glasses that made him look like a well-heeled consultant—the job he held until President Bush convinced him to return to government at the lowest point of Bush’s presidency, as Iraq was dissolving into chaos in the fall of 2006….

The spy chief [had] commissioned a stack of digestible reports for Obama and his rival, Senator John McCain, as a sort of field guide to American vulnerabilities at the end of the Bush era. “We came up with thirteen topics,” McConnell said. He would not reveal the subject matter of the reports, but acknowledged, “if you made a list, you’d probably get eleven or twelve of the thirteen.”

Among the reports was a grim assessment that Al Qaeda—the terror group whose middle ranks Bush used to claim were being decimated—had not only reconstituted but had more allies and associates than ever along the forbidding border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. There was a description of how the Taliban were making huge inroads into Afghanistan and how other militants saw an opportunity over the next two years to attempt the first violent overthrow of a nuclear-armed state: Pakistan. The country was ripe for the picking: Its weak, corrupt government faced national bankruptcy, an insurgency was at the doorstep of the capital, and the Pakistani government had no comprehensive strategy to confront either threat. Nor did it seem to want one. McConnell himself had come to the conclusion months before that Pakistan’s aid to the Taliban was no act of rogue Pakistani intelligence agents, but instead was government policy. Nonetheless, Washington kept paying billions in “reimbursements’’ for counterterrorism operations to the Pakistani military.

Another report summarized the huge strides Iran had made in its nuclear program made while America was focused on its elections: By Inauguration Day, Iran was estimated to have amassed enough partially enriched uranium to manufacture a single bomb—if the Iranians could find a covert way to finish the enrichment process. The report’s timeline made it clear that in his first term, the new president will have to decide whether to live with a nuclear Iran or attempt—by diplomacy, stealth, or force—to disarm it.

There was a study of the economic and military implications of China’s rise, and another detailed Russia’s angry mix of nationalism and its perpetual sense of victimization—a dangerous brew on display just weeks before, during Russia’s invasion of parts of Georgia. Yet another report focused on a recent analysis of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, which had expanded dramatically on Bush’s watch. There was even a report on the national security implications of global climate change—not the usual fare for the intelligence community.

For ninety minutes Obama listened, sometimes tipping back his chair as he sat at the long, beechwood-toned conference table. His aides were largely silent as they looked around the room that was decorated in government-issue flags at one end and screens for secure video links at the other.

Obama wanted to know more—much more—about Iran’s race for the bomb, the subject of a confusing, internally contradictory “National Intelligence Estimate” that he had read in its full, classified version in late 2007. How much time would the next president have to conduct talks with Iran —negotiations Obama promised during the campaign—before the Iranians get the bomb?

Obama also had questions about Afghanistan, to which he had committed to send more troops while accelerating the American exit from Iraq. He had already publicly argued that the Afghanistan–Pakistan border was the real “central front” in the war on terrorism—rejecting Bush’s insistence that the true battle was in Iraq. Everything in the reports McConnell provided backed up Obama’s assertion. As Michael V. Hayden, the direcdtor of the CIA, put it a few months later, “Today, virtually every major terrorist threat my agency is aware of had threads back to the tribal areas.’’

Over the course of their discussion the two men wandered onto McConnell’s favorite subject: America’s huge, unaddressed exposure to cyber threats that could paralyze the country’s banks, its power stations, and its financial markets.  “They spent a fair bit of time on that,” one of the participants said. “More than you might expect.” (It was a subject that struck close to home: Both the Obama and McCain campaigns’ computer systems were hacked during the race, the kinds of attacks the federal government and American business face each day. The intrusions appeared to have come from abroad.)

It was a daunting set of conflicts as broad and complex as those that Britain faced a century ago or that Franklin Roosevelt faced in 1933. It was a lot to digest. Obama and McConnell vaguely agreed to try to meet again before the election for another “deep dive”—McConnell’s phrase for a plunge into specific subjects, something he did frequently with Bush....

Obama knew that while parts of the world would welcome him as the anti-Bush, it would not be long before he would be tested. Something in McConnell’s thirteen briefing papers—or something that the intelligence apparatus did not anticipate—would soon erupt. Then would come the moment to show that he, like another young senator propelled into the presidency on soaring oratory and a nation’s hope for a fresh start, had a spine of steel…

[So on an election night that shimmered in history, Obama claimed the presidency in a speech] crafted to sound less like a victory celebration and more like an inaugural address, [and] he added some Kennedy-esque lines that suggested that while an Obama administration would be about diplomacy and dialogue—with enemies as well as friends—it would not be about weakness.

“To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you,” he told the throng. “To those who seek peace and security: We will support you.”

It was an inspiring declaration, aimed at an audience far beyond America’s shores. But Obama’s neat separation of the world into builders and destroyers had echoes of the man leaving the White House, the president who had famously declared early in his first term that all nations of the world must decide “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Bush quickly discovered that the world refused to choose sides quite that clearly and that some of the nations he needed most, starting with Pakistan, would be with him on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but against him on Mondays and Fridays. Many things might change with the arrival of a new president. This fact of geopolitics would not.

Thirty-six hours after Obama’s victory, McConnell slipped back into Chicago and the two men met in the same FBI conference room. This time the director came with the day’s “PDB,” the President’s Daily Brief, the summary of the new intelligence that always occupies the first hour of the president’s day. This briefing, Obama’s first as president-elect, was unlike the one before. At Bush’s orders, the candidates’ previous briefings had been restricted to the problems America faced around the world. This time, McConnell came armed with the PDB’s descriptions of covert actions, classified “special action programs,” and other steps that the nation’s intelligence agencies, sometimes in concert with the Pentagon, were taking at a moment when most Americans were understandably focused on the crumbling of the American economy. It would be weeks—maybe months—before Obama would be able to get a full sense of the secret efforts that Bush had launched, the legal authorities that justified them, and what political land mines Obama was about to inherit.

“Bush wrote a lot of checks,” one senior intelligence official told me in the early summer of 2008, “that the next president is going to have to cash.”

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