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After This Week, Is Trump's Message Still America First?


Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we sit down with a group of interesting folks to talk about the news of the week and whatever else is on their minds. Joining us for a shape-up this week are Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She's a journalist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I also want to mention she's written two books set in Afghanistan. She's with us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Gayle, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Glad to join you, Michel.

MARTIN: Lenny McAllister is a conservative commentator, former candidate for Congress. He's a writer and a radio host. He's with us from member station WESA in Pittsburgh. Lenny, welcome back.

LENNY MCALLISTER: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And last, but certainly not least, Arsalan Iftikhar, founder of the blog themuslimguy.com. He's the author most recently of "Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies And Threatens Our Freedoms." He's here with me in our studios in Washington, D.C. Arsalan, welcome back to you as well.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: It's always good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, you know, it just seems like this week's news was dominated by U.S. foreign policy. The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow. He met with his counterpart and also with President Putin. I'm imagining they spoke about the U.S. missile strikes in Syria and then Afghanistan, the U.S. dropped what's been called the mother of all bombs. We're told the strike was aimed at an ISIS stronghold.

You know, we've already spoken in the program today about the U.S. Navy strike group that was ordered to the waters off of North Korea. Now so it's not just that all of this happened at once, but it's also that Donald Trump ran on an America-first message. And I think a lot of people heard that as a message of kind of non-involvement in conflicts that were even those ongoing.

So, Gayle, I'm going to start with you because you've been writing quite a bit about this. I'm just going to ask you to, you know, take a - just tell us what's your perspective on all of this. Have we learned something new about Donald Trump? What perspective would you like us to take about this?

LEMMON: You know, I think the world has a way of having its way with leaders, especially new ones in office. And, listen, we all know of another president who felt he was elected to take America out of foreign involvements and to pursue nation building here at home. And he said in 2011 that the tide of war is receding and left office with Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and the challenges of North Korea all still pending. So I do think that this is the world having its say on American foreign policy.

MARTIN: Lenny, what about you?

MCALLISTER: I think that there's one level of consistency with this, and, yes, Donald Trump ran as somebody that was going to pull America out and be America first from a domestic standpoint economically. But he also talked from a military might perspective that America is going to be mighty and respected once again.

It is not a coincidence that that candidate then as president dropped the mother of all bombs this week. In that regard, it's extremely consistent. Now, from a policy standpoint, he's all over the board. But from a tone perspective, that was a consistent move with what you've heard since 2015.

MARTIN: Lenny, let me just ask you about this because as we know that, you know, the Republican Party right now has a lot of different very strongly held opinions - opposite ones about this whole question about the level of involvement that America should have here. I mean, you have some people who - maybe not elected office-holders, but certainly people who are prominent commentators who say that, you know, they feel very disappointed, betrayed even by this kind of level of involvement so far. Can I just ask you as our Republican voice here how do you feel about it?

MCALLISTER: I'm not surprised by Donald Trump. It's very hard to be betrayed by somebody that you didn't have much trust or faith in first place.

MARTIN: OK. There it is. All right. Arsalan, what about you? What's your take on all this?

IFTIKHAR: Well, my take on all this, Michel, is that, you know, there's no consistency at all to Donald Trump's foreign policy. You know, first we had his targeted airstrikes in Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own civilians which many people both on the right and the left, you know, applauded because of, you know, President Obama's previous hand-wringing in terms of having that humanitarian interventionist policy.

However, we soon learned thereafter that according to a Pentagon spokesperson that Russia had been notified beforehand, and we all know that Russia has been Bashar al-Assad's sugar daddy from the beginning of this. And so, you know, I don't want to give Donald Trump too much credit. It's like, you know, raiding a drug kingpins compound, but letting his conciliar know beforehand that you're going to come, you know, with your SWAT team. Secondly, with the Afghanistan thing and the mother of all bombs - as an international lawyer, you know, there are two doctrines of international law that really resonate for me in this debate. And first is obviously the doctrine of proportionality, right? You can't use a sledgehammer for something that a hammer would suffice.

And number two, a lesser known doctrine is the doctrine of distinction and the doctrine of distinction in international law means that you have to know what you're hitting. You can't, you know - if you know that bad guys are hiding in California, that doesn't mean that you're allowed to bomb all of California. And so using the largest non-nuclear bomb ever, you know - and we have no reports yet in terms of the civilian casualties. And so I think it's really important for us to take a few steps back and analyze all these foreign policy theaters in distinct and unique ways.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go on that, Arsalan, I do have to ask, you know, there were a number of members of the Obama administration who spoke out in support of the strike in Syria.

IFTIKHAR: They did.

MARTIN: And they weren't being disloyal. They were saying that they had an honest disagreement with the course of action the administration took. They felt this was the right course of action. And I have to ask you personally what do you think?

IFTIKHAR: Again, I think that it was the right course of action had they not given the Russians and by default the Syrians, you know, notice that they were going to do this attack.

MARTIN: OK. Gayle, before we let - we move this topic I just want to ask you about this because you've written so much about, you know, Afghanistan. I know you wrote one piece saying that, you know, most Americans probably don't think a lot about Afghanistan anymore. You know, just your thoughts about this.


MARTIN: I mean, is it - does it offer you some sense of - I don't know. I don't even - I'm not sure even what word to use. Are you at least glad that Afghanistan is back in the news? I don't really know quite how to frame that appropriate but...

LEMMON: Yeah. I mean, it's a funny question - right? - because America's longest war has been largely forgotten. And I think for an afternoon it was trending - right? - after 16 years. And I think part of the challenge is that - listen, I mean, you know, Michel, in 2014, 2015, I got emails from Afghan women activists who were saying, listen, ISIS - especially - think it was toward the end of '15 people were saying not only is ISIS here, but they're leafleting. They're dropping leaflets, and women we know are telling us about what's happening.

And we really need to get this extremism under control, and we need a national plan. This was Afghan activists, and, you know, most of them would say, listen, we are not for this kind of bomb falling from the sky, but we also know that this ISIS fight is really difficult and particularly in that terrain in Nangarhar where they were - I mean, they had tried a lot of other options. And I think actually the fact that they used this bomb was a sign that things aren't going so well, right?

And military leaders trying to figure out how do we bring this fight under control? And you really see some big decisions up ahead for the Trump administration, right? Because I think the big news isn't really what is falling from the sky. It's what is America's commitment on the ground to this country?

MARTIN: Well, let me switch gears here because I really want to talk about another big story that very much caught the attention of the flying public. And all of you fly.

LEMMON: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: I think all of us fly. I should - I have to say. I don't even really, really need to say very much at this point - do I? - about the video of the United Airlines passenger being dragged out of the plane? An instant PR nightmare for - a public relations nightmare for United. Delta reportedly says it can now offer people up to $10,000 to give up their seats.

United says it's going to change its policies, but, you know, United also says they're going to change their overbooking policy saying that if you have your seat, you're not going to have to give it up. But, you know, all right, Gayle, I'll start with you because I know you put in a lot of miles.

LEMMON: A lot on United.

MARTIN: Yeah. What do you have to say about this?

LEMMON: Listen, I say everyone has a price. You can't take people off a plane. Everyone has a price and number - right? - as they say in Wall Street. Everybody has a number. I wish they would have taken this offer, right? I mean, the more you offer, the more they sweeten the pot, the more people are going to say, you know what? Maybe this flight to wherever could be taken in a couple hours.

And I think the fact that they didn't do that - I mean, look, United has had a rough couple of years. And, you know, talk to flight attendants there. People have been furloughed and brought back, some have lost their retirements, morale is not tremendously high. And so, you know, I think we really have to both look at the management and also look at what are the policies, the way we treat people because it really feels like a bus in the clouds most of the time now.

MARTIN: Oh, true that. Lenny, you know what? There was some, not a lot but some pushback against the passenger. I mean, there was digging into his background and all of this - I'm sorry. Arsalan wants to talk about this. What do you think?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, Michel, for me as a human rights lawyer, it's really fascinating that when people of color are the victim in a certain news story, we automatically somehow start to dig into their past and talk about their troubled past where, you know, oftentimes if it's a young, white kid who does something wrong, you talk about how he was an all-state swimmer or you use his prom photo. you know as that picture.

And I think that had the passenger been a white man, I don't think that they would have dug into his past because it's irrelevant when you're getting concussed, and, you know, bloodied when you're being dragged out of an airplane

MARTIN: Lenny, what do you think? You think that's true?

MCALLISTER: Well, I think that - well, it's definitely true. I mean, we've seen that before if you remember the guy that was yelling on the plane about Trump, and, you know, it's going to be a different America, and it was all caught on video and that was handled completely differently. He was at the point of threatening folks. But I think this is a larger issue.

We have gotten to a point in time of dehumanizing each other in America. And I think this is another example where people can come on and drag somebody out of a seat that they paid for - they entered a financial obligation in contract that they fulfilled and they can involuntarily be removed in such a fashion. I think it's more reflective of where we are as a society, and it's one of many stories where you see this type of behavior being status quo. And it's going in a very, very, very scary direction.

MARTIN: Makes you want to drive, huh, Lenny?


MARTIN: Next time I see you, you'll be driving. All right. OK before we go - you don't have to sneak some sports in. I'm sorry. I have to do it. The NBA playoffs are underway. Two debates happening right now. One who - one is who wins the title? The other is who wins MVP - most valuable player. There's James Harden of the Houston Rockets, and then there's this guy Russell Westbrook.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: He's the stuff of legends right there with his 42nd triple-double. Russell Westbrook has broken the single season record established more than a half century ago by Oscar Robertson. History rewritten in Denver.

MARTIN: All right. So, Lenny, I'll let you go first on this one.

MCALLISTER: As a Davidson College Wildcat, there's no other team I'm going to pick other than the Golden State Warriors. And there's no doubt about it that Russell Westbrook should be the MVP of the season.

MARTIN: All right. Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I mean, the most fascinating first round matchup is Russell Westbrook versus James Harden. Russell Westbrook pulling an Oscar Robertson averaging a triple-double - that's like batting 400 for a season or throwing for 5,000 yards in the NFL. There's absolutely no doubt that Russ deserves the MVP.

And in terms of the NBA finals, you know, it's going to be Golden State from the West, but, you know, as a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, we've got the number one seed in the East. And it's going to be an interesting battle in the East to see who plays the Dubs. But I think Steph Curry and the Dubs do win it all.

MARTIN: All right. Gayle, what about you? You're on the West Coast, but you started out here.

LEMMON: Oh, come on. It's the Wizards.

MARTIN: Oh, that's right.

LEMMON: Yeah. I'm a PG County native, right? We have to say. The Wizards have had their most winning season since the Carter years.

MCALLISTER: It's true.

LEMMON: Right? So we have to get behind them. Scott Brooks definitely is my nominee for MVP of everything. And listen...


MARTIN: That's what I'm talking about. That is a true fan. Loyalty. Yes.

LEMMON: Absolutely, right? And we have the Caps playing. So this is actually a good week for Washington Sports which we have not had given our long suffering fandom of our football team for a while.

MARTIN: You know, I'm not mad at anybody, but James Harden. That's all I'm going to say. I'm sorry, James.

MCALLISTER: Aw, come on...

MARTIN: You've got to go with the beard - got to go with the beard. That awesome beard. All right. That was Gayle Tzemach Lemmon at the Council on Foreign Relations, Lenny McAllister who's a conservative commentator, Arsalan Iftikhar, human rights lawyer and author. Thank you all so much for joining us.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you, Michel.

LEMMON: Thank you.

MCALLISTER: God bless. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.