Meet the Press   |  December 29, 2013

3: Panel debates America’s role going forward

The Meet The Press roundtable recaps 2013 and debates what America’s role in the world should be going forward.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we are back. we have a special roundtable we put together to talk about the u.s. and the state of the world . back with me is u.s. chief foreign affairs andrea mitchell , also eugene robinson , robin wright , elliott abrams , former policy adviser to presidents reagan and george w. bush , and dr. peter starns, first time on the program. he's here because i spent more than a month with you listening to your great courses on the brief history of the world . it made me sound very smart in front of my kids, even though they weren't as interested. welcome. welcome, all of you. eugene robinson , as we think about the u.s. and the state of the world , it's still my big question. what is the big story in the u.s., about the u.s., that dominates 2014 ?

>> well, number one, this continuing conflict between two visions of government which paralyzes our government, and in turn, paralyzes the world in that the u.s. is the center of the world economy and the world political system . more government, less government, big government , small government . this whole approach is -- this conflict is going to continue. that's one thing. other big stories, we saw, of course, our domestic surveillance, the snowden story, you've covered that in the last segment. and one story, huge story in 2013 that we kind of don't mention was the acquittal of george zimmerman and the racial issues and conflict that remain just under the surface that bubble up from time to time, that erupt. and i think you can predict we'll have more eruptions in 2014 . we've come to big anniversaries of the civil war , big anniversaries of the emancipation, this and that, and we'll see more of that.

>> and our historical context, the rest of the world looks at us and looks how healthy the united states is to be a world leader. and that becomes a lot about our domestic disputes, about idealogy, about world government , health care and the like.

>> absolutely. obviously, the current paralysis in washington is an international embarrassment. hardly a signal advertisement for democracy, but i do think there was one other, if not story, process that's a little more encouraging, and that was however weak the economy is still, the fact is economic improvement in the united states has arguably improved our global position.

>> i think one story that is sort of connected to that in a p perverse way is the growing income inequality . we're seeing, as we speak today, the continuing surge on wall street , but the fact that companies are not investing, they're sitting on their profits, and that the people at the lowest end of the income ladder are becoming more and more disadvantaged. that gap is connected to what gene was talking about, the role of government, which is perhaps best identified and msymbolized by obamacare.

>> if we throw this out there, the world leader compared to ten years ago, and it's fallen. you now have 53% saying the united states is less important and less powerful.

>> i think this reflects something happening globally. we're seeing not only demands between countries but also among countries. there is no post- cold war world , there is no major power . we are the biggest power because of our economy, because of our military, but there are other countries, whether they are upcoming countries like india and brazil who want to have a place in the decision making, whether it's the united nations or deciding the big questions . we're seeing the rise of china not just because of its economy but because of its growing kind of claim to territory, whether it's in the three seas, the south sea , the yellow sea , the east china sea , in a rivalry with japan that there are kind of a set of conflicts that are redefining our ability to influence. we're seeing what's happening in the middle east that's quite extraordinary with our alliances. a year ago saudi arabia and egypt were our close friends and now saudi arabia says it's moving away and egypt has gone through a military coup .

>> what links the internal to the external is president obama . 2013 is generally thought not to have been a good year for him. 2014 he has an off-year election. if he loses the senate, a lot of people will say, okay, he really is a lame duck. it's partly fundamental issues like the economy, it's partly a economy of national leadership. if you look to people in the middle east , arabs, israelis, they think the united states is receding.

>> and the question is -- whether the issue is whether the united states chooses to use its influence, not whether it's lost its influence. something the economist wrote about in its "the world in 2014 " issue which i enjoy every year. one of the leaders says this. obama has seemed a defensive president, retreating from iraq and afghanistan , unwilling to guide the arab awakening and keen to outsource responsibility in other regions to local powers. the question is whether the cautious mr. obama will use this to looefreave a mark on the world . like many second term presidents, he will choose to focus on abroad. now that the nation is a little stronger, might he be a little bolder? what has come to define this era of world history and how obama plays in it?

>> one point has already been mentioned. no matter what obama does, the world is becoming more multi-polar. it's not only democratization, it's industrialization. we won't have the vote we thought we would have 10 or 11 years ago. that's not going to happen. at the same time, we're dealing with the winding down of a second inconclusive war that probably did us no good in the world , and that's an area where obama can display leadership in helping us define, what's our mission after this? not to reclaim sole super power status.

>> where is he bolder, elliott abrams ? how does he make a difference?

>> i don't think he's going to be bolder. i think his main concerns are still domestic. and i do think there is a leadership gap here. if we look at what our middle eastern friends are saying, and some of those who are surrounded, really, by china, they're saying, where are you guys? you used to be the biggest power here. what are you doing? i say we see this in syria . in the middle east that's the thing they point to. the president stepped up and then he stepped back.

>> the question, though, how well did that work out? how well did it work out for the united states to essentially believe it had the right to try to direct events in the middle east ? i would argue that there is at best a mixed record, and i think president obama would argue that it didn't work out that well, that, in fact, we have to find a different road that doesn't, you know, make us the boss of everybody.

>> two-thirds of americans in three recent polls indicate that they thought the afghan war was the wrong war to engage in, or it's gone on too long, that this has been a failure. but the exertion of power or presence in the region, in the world generally, doesn't mean the use of military force . it often means the use of diplomacy. and that's where i think president obama actually scores points, that in dealing with iran , which is likely to be the big story of 2014 , that he has tried a diplomatic initiative that has borne a little bit of fruit, and maybe the only way we can avoid another war in the middle east . and that on syria , there are some really ugly choices. there is nothing that is particularly attractive. and the story on benghazi this morning illustrates because some of the people who are responsible for the attack on the benghazi mission were those who have benefited from the u.s. nato strikes on libya. so our intervention in syria doesn't necessarily mean that those we like are going to win, and frankly, there aren't that many to like in syria on either side anymore.

>> in syria , the main criticism you hear on multiple sides, not just from elliott abrams , is we waited too long to decide who to back, and now that vacuum is filled by islamists and the people we want to train have fled. you can't make a statement assad must go and not take some action. one quick point is the israeli palestinian gambit. i think it shows, as robert was just saying, there is a boldness to the diplomacy of this second-term president that many may not have expected that comes from john kerry who is leaving again on new year's day for the middle east .

>> the question i have is whether -- you see this after the armistice in world war i. churchill was a lone voice in arguing there were still threats that had to be confronted and the british society wanted nothing to do with it. that's a bit of what we're going through. we still face terror threats, terror safe havens in some of the familiar places, the border of afghanistan . the president said we are committed to rooting out al qaeda , and yet we're in such a period of entrenchment on the left and the right, it makes it difficult for any american president to be bold in a way i think you would like to be bold.

>> the problem is there is a huge price to be paid. if we pull out completely from afghanistan in 2014 , you can see during this president's term a rebuilding of al qaeda there. look at the price in syria . we stood back and didn't do much in syria . 200,000 people dead, 6 million refugees threatening all the countries around them and 10,000 jih jihadis gathered there in the middle east . it's very dangerous, and what i fear is during this period of entrenchment, we'll see the threats go and you hand them off to the next president. that's not going to work.

>> professor starns? how do you see the period?

>> hard to say. i would like to make one other point, though. boldness is not just boldness in some of the conventional diplomatic areas, and i'm not trying to downplay the seriousness of terrorist threats . there are bold opportunities, for example, in leadership on environmental policy . i'm not trying to play political correctness . but a nation that works, for example, with china that's eager to collaborate on environmental issues for very selfish reasons. there are opportunities to develop new kinds of alignments and collaborations that don't ignore the more conventional operations but strike out in new ways that could be very fruitful. i think that's an area where bold leadership is possible.

>> if we have a deal -- we'll look at the big calendar for next year coming up in a few minutes -- if there were to be a deal with iran in the middle of next year, how does that impact diplomacy around the regions? does that help to burn out the syrian civil war ? does it have impacts beyond that?

>> i think actually the iranians, having just come back from iran , are quite interested in seeing a settlement in syria , that they understand the damage and the dangers to the region because of all the factors that elliott mentioned. this is terribly destabilizing in a way far in excess of what afghanistan and its conflict did so that i think they're prepared at this point to lob off the head, in other words, assad, but to keep the body. to see him go but to see whether it's a bath party remain or a coalition of the bath party and the coalition, that they have to work. but they also have to feel they're being participants in the political process. the stakes on this issue in iran are in many ways not just the nuclear issue but they're really the kind of things we want to in iran , whether it is the opening up of a political system , the inclusion of a wider array of political players, women's rights. when i talk to people in iran , they were all saying, everything depends on the nuclear deal. the women's rights people saying, if there is a nuclear deal, we believe the current new president, rouhani, will have more say dealing with reforms in the political process, dealing with the united states and the gulf countries that are important allies to us.

>> let me get a break in here. there is a lingering question on the state of world peace i want to ask you about, but i also want to ask about our place politically in 2016 .

>>> plus, he's been a spiritual leader to millions for more than half a century. we're looking at the life and legacy of billy graham during the close of our holiday season , coming up after [