NOW with Alex Wagner | March 06, 2013
>>> diplomacy with venezuela , north korea , syria, and iran? it makes dinner with republicans downright enjoy. it's wednesday, march 6th , and this is "now."
>>> joining me today on this power wednesday, new york city deputy mayor howard wolfson , nbc news foreign correspondent ayman mohyeldin fresh from cairo, msnbc contributor and former white house press secretary fresh from washington , robert gibbs , and msnbc political analyst and former rnc chairman, the notorious michael steele . earlier today, venezuelans flooded the streets to mourn the death of hugo chavez . the accusations over his death have already begun. namely, blame someone else , preferably, the united states . yesterday vice president nicolas maduro took to the air waves to accuse two american diplomats to destabilize. also the cancer that killed chavez was an assassination plot by his enemies. absurd, we definitely, definitively, reject it. the accusations would have made chavez proud. he was expert at rallying support for his political objectives. here is chavez speaking before the u.n. in 2006 following an address made by george w. bush .
>> translator: yesterday, the devil came here. right here. right here. and it smells of sulfur still today. the president of the united states , the gentleman to whom i refer to as the devil, came here.
>> chavez literally demonized america , moammar gadhafi , mahmoud ahmadinejad . despite the news today is one man down, their work continues. yesterday, north korea threatened to break its 50-year truce with south korea after the u.s. and china proposed strict new sanctions on pyongyang. secretary kerry responded to the threat.
>> rather to threaten to abrogate and threaten to move in another direction, the world would be better served if he would direct his people and make a decision himself to engage in a legitimate dialogue and legitimate negotiations.
>> but if the past is any precedent, sane dialogue and earnest negotiations are tough things to come by when you're a dictator in troubled waters . robert , we have seen dramatic changes around the world in terms of dictators and dictatorships falling. but i guess my question is, as someone who's worked inside the white house , which is worse, the dictator or the void that is left after he or, i guess, she falls?
>> i think it's a bit of both. i mean, look, incidentally, i'm riding up on the train yesterday and sitting next to a reporter who says this statement came out about them kicking these two diplomats out and blaming the united states for causing cancer. i literally said, it must mean they will soon announce his death. five minutes later, she says, oh, my god, hugo chavez died. you've got this well-worn, tired, tattered dictator in south america playbook that really keeps the entire region, or i should say most of the region, back from enjoying the growth in the global economy , except for places like columbia or brazil, fast moving, fast growing. the rest of these countries are held back by dictators that seem more stuck in the '50s or '60s than they do ready to bring their populations into the 21st century .
>> incidentally, if the u.s. could give people cancer, back when they were trying out exploding cigars on fidel castro in the '60s, one would think they'd work that too. as our resident foreign scholar here, the question is how much can america get rid of ties, given who is sort of second in command here, but in terms of making better or more effective outreach to the venezuelan people, and i would say this broadly speaking, america is in a tough place now, the world is in flux, there's an anti-american sentiment, especially in the middle east , what's the most important thing for america to do now given the changing sands in foreign policy ?
>> that's a tough question. i'm not sure if i'm in a position to advise on that part of the world , but in a place like venezuela , when you have a person who dominates the political landscape, it's hard for the u.s. to play with other players. venezuela is a divided country right now, there is an opposition, but they've been sup suppressed and oppressed. on the one hand, it reaches out to the opposition, sometimes called the kiss of death . as soon as the opposition reaches out and meets with the u.s., it becomes exactly what the main party wants, which is to project the opposition as somehow collaborating with the u.s., chavez and his supporters. it's a very difficult position. however, it's a principle issue, which is to promote the values the u.s. wants to promote over the individuals, over the parties, that may emerge on the political scene. they are going to have elections in 30 days . chavez won by a significant margin.
>> through some arm twisting.
>> not free and fair elections, but there is an opposition there the u.s. can certainly foster, if not at least encourage and support from a distance.
>> we've seen -- the president has approached, or embraced, something that is, i think, euphemistically turned -- i won't say leading from behind, but not going it alone, as it were. what's happening on north korea is remarkable, given the fact the chinese is signing off on these sanctions, howard . we have a lot of ties economically on how much debt they own, but the question of human rights and global stability is often a place where we are at odds with the chinese. i think what we're seeing today is fairly remarkable, given china 's, you know, previous intransigence on the issue. what do you make of that in terms of the broader sort of american interests with china moving forward?
>> well, china clearly has a threshold with regard to north korea and that threshold is being reached. even they probably understand this is not a good situation. the situation is destabilizing and something needs to be done about it. china is tricky. the administration has tried to walk a fine line between understanding they are both a strategic competitor but also an economic, not quite an ally, but a country with an enormous amount of business with the united states , and frankly, the president gets a lot of credit for having understood that, not alienated china to the extent we have worsened relationships with them, but also tried to push them with regard to trade and human rights and other issues. the biggest question, of course, in many respects is this issue of cyber attacks or cyber security and what the administration does to push them in the right direction there remains to be seen.
>> robert , feels like -- i won't say two steps forward, two steps back, but moving -- these countries are so -- their heels have been dug in for so long. there's so much isolation and other bad actors that have been in ka hoots. it's hard to break apart this jigsaw puzzle. the new york times didn't mince words this morning. they write, the editorial board writes, there is no reason to believe the sanctions on north korea will persuade pyongyang. the international community has failed to devise a coherent policy that might reverse or slow the north's efforts to become a full-fledged nuclear state . president obama 's efforts have been no more successful than those of president george w. bush . what do you make of that?
>> look, there are certain things you can do. there's certain pressure you can put on people, but look, there's the great maps of the korean peninsula at night, right? and lit up is the wonderful city of seoul, korea, and the south. and then the north is completely dark, because they've stepped so far away from anything relating to a civil society that there's a limit, quite frankly , to what you can do. howard is exactly right. when the chinese understand instability most of all in their own neighborhood and when they take that step, it shows you, and i think the chinese can have a big impact if anybody can, on the actions of north korea , because they are the big actor over there, and if they say, look, now there's instability that threatens us, that threatens the region as a whole and can spread with the proliferation of long-range missiles all over the world , that gets their attention and, look, that is -- that's what is really important about maintaining that strategic dialogue with china , even as you're pushing them on other issues.
>> north korea is not good for business . china is in the business of business .
>> doing business with north korea and doing business with bad actors, whether they are in africa, southeast asia , it's a tenuous position given the fact these are very unstable regimes. in north korea , you have refugees flooding across the border.
>> china does enormous business in africa. they are willing, clearly, to do business with some pretty bad actors. north korea , as robert just said, you know, at night there are no lights there. yes, are they a major trading partner of north korea ? absolutely. is it a place they see a lot of opportunity for business ? not really. many of the other places they are doing business around the world are much more beneficial to them.
>> it's a stability question, i think, more than anything. chinese do not want to be destabilized. michael steele , in terms of the political optics on all this, we have talked about foreign policy and it's not exactly an area of bipartisan agreement, but there's not a huge amount of bipartisan strife, if you will, over foreign policy . i think, a, given the fact the region, there is no obama doctrine, and i think to some degree, there's not a lot of complaint about that, because each actor has to be treated differently. the republicans in the last campaign did not sort of articulate any sort of architecture for foreign policy that was different from that of the president.
>> which was not measurably different from his predecessor.
>> in the new york city times editorial board .
>> status quo, all right. i think that's part of this narrative politically that i think gives people, not comfort, but they are not as high level of anxiety, because they are with all the regimes and political players that we've talked about from china to washington , from beijing to washington . there is this consensus of how we move forward together, which is why on this nuclear piece you see china , washington , kind of holding hands , tepidly, but holding hands .
>> pinky link is more effective.
>> that works, too. that works, too. but to howard 's point, the broader reality is this nuclear umbrella which they do not want to see unfold over north korea . so that's a common interest. the economic interest is another common interest. so, these are the threads that kind of bind washington and beijing together as they deal with all these other actors, whether it's in the middle east or else where.
>> i will say, though, some part of me is not, you know, trying to gun for more ranker in washington , but i do feel like foreign policy has taken a back seat to domestic policy , and that's not to say we don't have big-ticket items on the table.
>> when you have no job, you're not worried about another country. you're worried about your own.
>> we write the script for one of these segments and you can't talk about all the countries because the list is too long. the president has a mountain of foreign policy on his desk right now, and his ability -- look, everybody's ability to focus on this in a kind of measurable way, which is to say to maybe stop the bloodshed in syria, which has taken tens of thousands of lives is not a priority.
>> i thought everything was going to be right for the world when we elected obama. at least that's what i was told. the president's foreign policy doesn't have to go through congress. quite frankly , if it did, we would have foreign policy by sequestration and if you thought the problems mounted on the president or any president's desk, try having it all go through congress, what a mess.
>> we're going to have much more on the mess at