This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," January 31, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," after years of saying that Bashar al Assad must go, is the Obama administration now set to cut a deal with the Syrian dictator?
Plus, the Senate passes a Keystone Pipeline bill as the president sets his sights on the new fossil fuel target. Is Alaska ground zero for the next energy showdown?
And Mitt Romney bows out as two GOP governors inch closer to a 2016 run, so who is most likely to benefit from his exit?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: -- so Syria's future can begin.
The only way to bring stability and peace to Syria is going to be for Assad to step down.
Assad needs to go. He needs to transfer power to a transitional body. That is the only way that we'll resolve this crisis.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GIGOT: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.
Well, after repeatedly calling for the ouster of Syrian president Bashar al Assad, is President Obama changing his policy? The administration sources are leaking that the president now thinks Assad and his regime may be part of the solution as the priorities shifts to defeating Islamic State. This, as moderate Syrian rebels claim that U.S. money and supplies have all but dried up over the past several months, even as the president touted American support for the opposition, in his State of the Union address. So has the administration quietly changed its Syria policy and what does it mean for the fight against ISIS and our allies in the Middle East?
Let's ask Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; and foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens.
No official announcement about this but lots of leaks behind the scenes and newspaper stories. Is he changing the policy and why would he do it?
BRET STEPHENS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST: Well, I would argue that this administration always had a bias in favor of Assad. You have to remember that when he came to power --
GIGOT: Despite all the public comments?
STEPHENS: Right. When he came to power in 2009, the administration was keen to treat Assad as a reformer, as a potential partner. They were very late in calling for him to go when the uprising began. We never took the steps against Assad that we said we would, when it came to his use of chemical weapons. We never armed the moderate Syrian rebels in any -- in any sufficient way.
GIGOT: OK. All right.
STEPHENS: And now here we are and we have essentially a de facto pro Assad policy.
GIGOT: OK. Why?
GIGOT: What's the thinking? What's the administration's logic for doing this? Is it to defeat, saying -- look, I guess the unofficial argument would be we need them to defeat Islamic State. Not that we can't do that.
STEPHENS: Right. There's two points. "A," the one you mentioned, but "B," it's part of the administration's broader effort at a (INAUDIBLE) with Iran. Remember that Assad is Iran's man in Damascus.
STEPHENS: He forms part of that condominium. You have an administration that is desperate to cut a deal with the Iranians, which is part of the reason they're soft peddling their opposition and effectively pursuing, if not a pro Assad policy, a policy that allows Assad to say. We have told the Syrians we won't go after the Syrian military positions.
GIGOT: Let's assume Bret's right about the --
DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST, DEPUTY EDITOR: I think he is right.
GIGOT: OK. I think that that's right, too. That's really going to create problems for Turkey, for example, and the Saudis in particular, not to mention the Israelis. And we need the Turks and the Saudis as an alliance to defeat Islamic State.
GIGOT: So isn't there a contradiction here?
HENNINGER: Well, there's certainly a contradiction. It does do all those things, but I think Bret has put his finger on it. The Iran nuclear deal is the tail wagging the entire Middle East dog for the United States. That determines everything. Barack Obama needs Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to be on board for this deal and so he's willing to allow these other events to occur. The question is, will the Middle East degrade to the point where it will simply be impossible to get this deal with Iran? Look, we just had the Yemeni government that fell, our supposed ally in the Middle East. We here at the end of the week that the Obama administration is now reaching out to the Houthis who have replaced the Yemeni government.
GIGOT: But what about the argument that, look, we won't defeat the Islamic State otherwise, and they are -- I think you guys would agree -- probably the more immediate threat to Western security and the insecurity in the Middle East, no?
STEPHENS: Well, look, what the administration is trying to do is pursue a containment strategy with the Islamic State. We are not --
GIGOT: You don't think they're trying to defeat them?
STEPHENS: Well, if we were trying to defeat them, we'd be having more air sorties events, for instance, than we're having now.
GIGOT: Wait a minute --
GIGOT: -- Throw them out with the Kurds on the ground, with the help --
GIGOT: -- from Kobani.
STEPHENS: Right, in a small enclave in Kobani. But nonetheless, from Fallujah to all the way to the outskirts of Aleppo, the Islamic State is deeply entrenched. If fact, it's more entrenched now in Syria than it ever has been before. What this administration is pursuing is a kind of containment strategy with the Islamic State in the hope that at least the problem doesn't get worse. At the same time, pursuing effectively a pro Shiite strategy, thinking that that's part of the sort of broader realignment of American interests. You heard President Obama say not too long ago that Iran can be a very successful regional player if it comes to a deal. Basically saying you make a deal with us and we are going to license your regional power plays throughout the Middle East.
GIGOT: Doesn't that leave the Middle East with essentially the Islamic State still in a place of prominence, still a possible threat to the West? Meanwhile, Iran -- I mean, you'll have two competing forces, and I guess we could play balance of power, but it's a recipe for some instability.
HENNINGER: Yeah, I think over the long term, it most certainly is. I mean, we claim to have defeated Islamic State in Kobani but that was an effort that took months, months of fighting by the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, plus air sorties by the United States. If it has taken months to root out the foreign fighters there, that suggests the real battle is going to take a greater effort on the part of the U.S. and is going to be a longer battle. The Islamic State can wait us out if they need to.
GIGOT: So briefly, Bret, you agree with Dan that basically this is about the Iranian nuclear deal above all?
STEPHENS: That's all it is. By the way, the Houthis are the Yemenite version of Hezbollah. Let's not think that it's some kind of Shiite tribe. They are an Islamic sect.
GIGOT: The militia there in Lebanon, Hezbollah?
GIGOT: All right, when we come back, as the Senate passes a Keystone Pipeline bill, President Obama sets his sights on a new fossil fuel target. So is Alaska the new front in the energy wars and the latest example of executive overreach?
GIGOT: As the Senate worked this week to pass a Keystone Pipeline bill, President Obama set his sights on a new fossil fuel target, announcing that he'll use his executive authority to designate 12 million acres in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge wilderness, walling it off from future oil and gas drilling. The surprise move prompted Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski to claim that the president has effectively declared war on her state, where the energy industry accounts for as much of 90 percent of government revenue.
We're back with Dan Henninger. Wall Street Journal Potomac Watch columnist, Kim Strassel; and editorial board member, Joe Rago, also join the panel.
Kim, let's start with you. The same week that the president made this move in Alaska, he also opened up some new areas potentially off the Atlantic coast for drilling. Which move is more important?
KIM STRASSEL, POTOMAC WATCH COLUMNIST: The Alaskan move is far more important. The move off of the Atlantic is still just a possibility. We don't know how long it will take for them to open that up for leasing, it's not very much. And we don't really know what's proven out there.
STRASSEL: The Alaska move is significant. Alaska is an engine of energy production in this country. The Pipeline is vital. And to the degree that the Obama administration continues to wall off any federal oil and gas going into that pipeline, the more likely it is it gets shut down.
GIGOT: The current pipeline could get shut down?
STRASSEL: Yes. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
GIGOT: Wow. That would be a huge blow to Alaska.
So this is a repudiation in part of a deal that Congress had made some years ago where it said, look, we'll wall off some parts of Alaska but some of the parts that the president now wants to block from drilling were explicitly laid out -- reserved by Congress for the potential for oil and gas exploration.
JOE RAGO, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: Right. This is a law going back to 1980. And I think the Alaska delegation makes a pretty good case that this move is actually illegal. It says you can't designate more wilderness without the consent of Congress. If you listen to what they're talking about, and Lisa Murkowski is the quintessential center right, moderate Senator, and she didn't just say declare war, she said this is an attack on our sovereignty. We are being treated like a territory. We're a colony.
GIGOT: How can the president just do this then if Congress had said, look, before you can wall off more, Congress has to act?
RAGO: It's completely unilateral. And I think it will be litigated for years.
HENNINGER: You know what's fascinating though, Paul, is that the environmental left, the greens, are furious.
GIGOT: Because of the Atlantic coast move?
GIGOT: They're happy with Alaska. Delighted.
HENNINGER: Well, no, he didn't lock up everything in Alaska.
HENNINGER: I mean, their view is that, they have this thing that temperatures are going to go up by two degrees Celsius, Armageddon will be upon us, and the only way to stop this is if all hydrocarbons are kept in the ground. Why do they make this argument in light of this? I think they're trying to soften up the bureaucracy, push back against the EPA bureaucrats, and say don't even think about moving forward with any of these things like on the Atlantic -- the Atlantic coast.
GIGOT: So, Kim, the president, in the State of the Union, and every time he gets the chance, takes credit for low gas -- oil and gas prices. Takes credit for new American oil supplies. And here he is doing another big move to block new exploration. How can he have it both ways? Which is the real president?
STRASSEL: I think the real president is exemplified in what you see going on in Alaska. This is a big deal. Most of the oil that moves to the south from Alaska comes through the Trans-Alaska pipeline, 800 miles. It starts in Prudhoe Bay. Most of it comes from Alaskan state lands. But those fields are being depleted.
STRASSEL: The president is effectively doing here is walling off all of the federal lands around it, to the east, ANWR, and to the West, the National Petroleum Preserve, to the north, and he's making it so that no more oil can go in that pipeline. If not enough flows down that pipeline, it has to close down. And you get to Dan's point, all the hydrocarbons are left in the earth. The environmentalists would be thrilled.
GIGOT: So we did also get a Keystone Pipeline vote, 62-26 in the Senate, would have been 63 votes if all the Republicans had been there. Nine Democrats voted in favor of it. Still four short of a veto override, but significant. First time it's passed. What happens next, Joe?
RAGO: I think it goes to the White House. I think it gets vetoed. It bounces back to Congress. And I think they'll kind of have to negotiate how much time they want to spend on this issue. I think he's really dug in here --
GIGOT: The president is.
RAGO: The president, he sees this as an attack on the White House authority. I don't think we'll see a lot of movement on this issue.
GIGOT: He'll never approve the pipeline, do you think? Even though the State Department has the power to do so, you don't think he ever will?
RAGO: You know, every CEO that comes into our office says he's just playing for the green left. I think as this presidency winds down, he's bidding for a much larger environmental legacy, and approving the Keystone would taint that too much.
GIGOT: And that environmental legacy is essentially shutting down as much as he can of fossil fuel production in North America?
RAGO: That's right. You are seeing it in the power sector. In terms of oil and gas drilling, across the economy.
GIGOT: All right, thanks, Joe.
When we come back, the GOP presidential field continues to take shape as Mitt Romney says he'll sit 2016 out and two other high-profile Republicans inch closer to running. Who does Romney's exit help most?
GIGOT: Former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, announced Friday that he won't make another run for the White House, telling supporters that he's bowing out so that the next generation of Republican leaders could emerge. This, as two others appear to be moving closer to 2016 bids, with both New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker filing paperwork to form political action committees, a move that allows them to raise money and hire staff ahead of a potential run.
We're back with Joe Rago. And "Wall Street Journal" assistant editorial page editor, James Freeman, joins the panel.
James, why do you think Mitt Romney, after he really suggested a couple of weeks ago he was thinking very hard about it, pulled back?
JAMES FREEMAN, ASSISTANT EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: Well, he's talked about how he wants to let the next generation of candidates move forward. I think the current generation of GOP donors was not showing --
-- as much enthusiasm for him this time as last time.
GIGOT: Go ahead.
FREEMAN: It's because you have a more competitive field.
FREEMAN: He was basically the acceptable guy to weigh -- I don't want to say country club Republican, but let's say a business, kind of mainstream Republican. You have a lot more people, serious contenders, fighting over the same donors.
GIGOT: A lot of the donors, according to the news reports we've seen and my own sources, they had moved -- they were particularly enthusiastic about Jeb Bush, former Florida governor.
RAGO: That's right. It's a chance to turn a new page essentially. If you assume that the Democratic nominee is going to be Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mitt Romney's third run for the White House is hard to create that old versus new theme.
GIGOT: You know, some people say that his statement -- his exit statement, pushing the younger, next generation was a shot at Jeb Bush because Jeb is in his younger 60s now.
FREEMAN: I guess you could see it that way. But this is definitely good news for Jeb Bush, for Chris Christie as well, really for all the candidates because now you have moved more people into the undecided column in terms of votes in primaries. You have put a lot of money up for grabs. There's no guarantee that this money goes to Bush.
FREEMAN -- goes other places.
GIGOT: But some of the conservatives would say it really helps the establishment candidates, if you will, Bush and Christie and maybe one or two other governors who have that appeal, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, for example, as opposed to some of the more Tea Party candidates.
FREEMAN: Yeah, that's a fair statement because Mitt Romney is not a Tea Party guy and those were not Tea Party votes. I mean, to the extent there was any real core to the Romney support, I'm not sure there were. But certainly, Bush and Christie would benefit the most.
GIGOT: Let's talk about some of those governor candidates, Joe. We have Mr. Walker, Governor Walker. Went to Iowa, had a big reception last weekend. Good reception, by all accounts at an event. And then gave a speech this week in Washington with a very much outside Washington, outsider message. I will clean up this joint. It's a big mess here, unreal. Back in Wisconsin, we know the score. That's going to be a big part of these campaigns isn't it?
RAGO: No question. Scott Walker is expanding his theme. When he ran for re-election this year, he essentially posted as Wisconsin versus Washington. Now he's taking that message national. In the speech, he talked about in D.C., he said it's great to be here, 68 square miles surrounded by reality. So he's sort of sharpening that theme and he's saying let's devolve power to the states, let's let them create their open solutions and, by the way, look at what I did in Wisconsin.
GIGOT: That's a big part of a governor's appeal, but any candidate who has not engaged at the national level for a long time, also as a rookie, that means that they are going to have to step up and master a lot of these issues, national issues, whether it be entitlements or foreign policy or national tax policy, that are going to be big in a race and that can be pit falls for somebody who really hasn't studied that, like I think Walker hasn't shown. I mean, he may be able to do that, but he hasn't shown yet that he can talk with any specificity about those issues.
FREEMAN: Especially foreign policy. He can stay, at the state level, he can show the tax and entitlement reform, speak with a lot of conviction, a lot of credibility.
GIGOT: Yeah, but not necessarily with Medicare and Social Security, which trips up a lot of these guys.
FREEMAN: Yeah, but a big entitlement he addressed is the entitlement of public employees.
FREEMAN: And, you know, by the way, we talk about these pension disasters in various states in the country. You don't have that problem in Wisconsin. So he's going to have a good story there.
But I think, to your point, yes, there are national issues governors have not dealt with. And I think people want to hear that there's a thoughtful message on foreign policy with some conviction, and he hasn't just sort of gone to D.C. and picked some establishment names off the shelf to give him a foreign policy. I think they're going to want to hear a lot about that.
GIGOT: What are some of the strengths of Chris Christie, Joe?
RAGO: Well, certainly, his personality. He's a very formidable candidate. He's interesting. Anybody covering that race as a journalist will have by far the most entertaining time. And he did push through a reform agenda, whether it went far enough in New Jersey, I think remains to be seen.
GIGOT: Weaknesses briefly, Joe, Christie --
RAGO: I mean, just the -- the New Jersey economy has not turned around. The New Jersey government has not fundamentally changed. This is still a high-tax, high-regulation, slow-growth state. It's a Democratic legislature he's dealing with --
RAGO: -- that's basically been locked by the state Supreme Court justice. So it's a question of, given the circumstances, what could he do?
GIGOT: All right, thanks, James.
We have to take one more break. When we come back, our "Hits & Misses" of the week.
GIGOT: Time now for "Hits & Misses" of the week.
James, start us off.
FREEMAN: Paul, this is a hit to the middle class taxpayers of the United States who rose up in peaceful rebellion over this last week to oppose the president's plan to tax their 529 college savings accounts. It's a terrible idea, totally unfair, taxing college savings. That's almost like deflating a football before a big game, Paul.
GIGOT: All right.
RAGO: Paul, this is a miss almost as big as the blizzard that missed New York City this week. It goes to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. And they made an ad hoc decision to shut down the entire city in response to the blizzard. All forms of transportation, imposed a curfew, shut down the subways, probably caused a lot of economic damage, certainly more than the storm. And it's a reminder that great American cities are resilient, whether the prominence of weather or, more often, the politicians.
GIGOT: More resilient than the politicians.
STEPHENS: This is a giant miss to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, after King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away, decided that in his honor he would sponsor an essay contest for the late king at the National Defense University. Maybe this will honor the king's contributions in bringing women's rights in Saudi Arabia from the seventh into the eighth century or lashing a liberal journalists fewer times. My question to Chairman Dempsey is, don't you have better things to do with your time?
GIGOT: This is really going to be at National Defense University?
GIGOT: This is -- I mean, so these are -- these are graduate students. These are military officers, right?
GIGOT: I mean, these are adults that --
STEPHENS: Who are now supposed to praise Arab potentates. Not a great idea.
And remember, if you have your own hit or miss, be sure to tweet it to us at JERonFNC.
That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel and to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. Hope to see you right here next week.
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