Yemen continues its descent into chaos

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," March 28, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," Yemen sinks deeper into chaos as Saudi Arabia launches strikes against Iran-backed rebels. Is America's Middle East retreat contributing to a full-blown Sunni/Shiite war?

Plus, the White House continues its post-election assault on Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu but could it push Jewish voters in the U.S. towards the Republican Party?

And he's first out of the gate in the race for the White House. So can Texas Senator Ted Cruz deliver on his promise to reassemble the Reagan coalition in 2016?

Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

Once touted by the Obama administration as a foreign policy success, Yemen continued its descent into chaos this week with Saudi Arabia leading a 10-nation Sunni coalition in a bombing of Iran-backed Shiite rebels there. The offensive comes after Yemen's U.S.-supported president fled the country Wednesday as Houthi fighters closed in on the southern port city of Aiden and just days after the rebels seized an air base used by American forces in the fight against al Qaeda.

Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; and, columnist and editorial board member, Bill McGurn, join with me on this unfolding story.

So, Dan, this is really not just a Saudi invasion. It's really a Sunni coalition invasion. All the Sunni countries in the region uniting to fight Iranian proxies. Are we looking at essentially a region-wide Sunni/Shiite war?

DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: It looks to be building in that direction, Paul, for sure. I mean, the key player -- there are so many elements to what's been going on over here, it is hard to keep track of it. The key player is Iran. Iran is a Shiite country, a big Shiite country down in the south. Most of the countries up in the north, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, are Sunni.

GIGOT: Turkey.


GIGOT: Gulf State Emirates, Pakistan.

HENNINGER: Now, they have always sort of lived in uneasiness with one another. You now have a situation where the Iraqis have gone into the -- the Iranians have gone into Iraq to fight against Islamic State with the Iraqis. The Iranis are aligned with Bashar Assad in Syria, who is fighting some of the same sorts of forces. But rather than -- we've known about that for a while. They have also financed the Houthies in Yemen who succeeded in overthrowing the Sunni government there. This puts it in an entirely new plane. The Saudis have decided this constitutes a clear-and- present danger because Yemen is on their border.

GIGOT: Right. And they don't want to be surrounded by Iran and a proxy for them in the south. But even if the Houthies don't take over, then you have al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has used that as a base from which to stage operations not only in Saudi Arabia but even in the U.S.

And that's where the U.S. interests come in, Bill. We had been allied with that former government that's been ousted in fighting al Qaeda there.


GIGOT: So now we don't have eyes and ears on the ground as much as we did. And so what are the larger American interests there?

MCGURN: Well, I think President Obama has even said before that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the group most likely to attack us.

GIGOT: I think most people --


GIGOT: -- intelligence services believe that.

MCGURN: And he said that. And he's done what he usually does. We have had a lot of behind-the-scenes kind of things, the CIA drone operations.

GIGOT: Right.

MCGURN: People think that the president's policy there is incoherent.

I don't think it is. I think it's wrong, but it's very coherent.

GIGOT: How so? What do you think?

MCGURN: What I mean is that he's always said his policies about bringing people back, no U.S. combat troops. Every speech he gives on every action that he's doing is about no combat troops. So this is what he does. He does little behind-the-scene things but his primary thing is no combat troops and getting the guys out of Gitmo.

GIGOT: The light footprint.

MCGURN: Light footprint.


MCGURN: He'll do small things and behind the scenes but that's his tactical sort of priority.

GIGOT: But the main goal, President Obama's foreign policy in the Middle East, I think, he's been overt about it, is to withdraw from the region, not entirely but, you know, we don't want a major role. We'll let them sort it out I think.

HENNINGER: With one exception.

GIGOT: Which is?

HENNINGER: The Iran nuclear deal.

GIGOT: Oh, the Iran nuclear deal. But even that's ceding eventually to Iran a certain amount of nuclear programs.


GIGOT: And saying, look, we can handle it with an arms control agreement so we don't have to do anything more active about it.

HENNINGER: I think Bill is exactly right about the president's intentions. The problem is this is the Middle East and, by with essentially withdrawing, he has created a vacuum that has allowed these -- as President al Sisi, of Egypt, said recently, if you create a vacuum in the Middle East, players will fill it. And that's what's happening right now.

GIGOT: Well, here's --


HENNINGER: I think his policy, vis a vis, the Iran nuclear deal increasingly indefensible while the rest of this is going on.

GIGOT: And that's, why?

HENNINGER: It's because we have supported the Saudis. As they were invading Yemen, we gave them air support. They were going in to Yemen to take on the Houthies supported by the Iranians. So on the one hand, we're on the opposite side of the Iranians in Yemen, but we're trying to do a nuclear deal with them in Tehran.

GIGOT: But also, the Saudis don't trust us, right? They think -- the president saying, look, I'll do a nuclear deal with Iran, that will calm everybody down. Obama -- the Saudis, the Israelis, the Turks, the Egyptians, they don't think the opposite. In fact, this deal is moving in such a way that what's going to happen is you'll make it easier for Iran to get a bomb at the time of it's --


MCGURN: Right.

GIGOT: And so some Saudis are saying, "We can't trust you, America.

You have abandoned us so we'll go in and we'll do what we have to do to defend ourselves." It might be in Yemen or probably it's going to be getting a bomb -- a nuclear bomb themselves.

MCGURN: Right. That's why with what the president is doing is bringing about the things that you would think he doesn't want, nuclear proliferation in the region and the likelihood that we have to go back in against a stronger enemy. What we're seeing in Yemen is kind of like the Syrian civil war, in that this could get a lot messier with no clear winner right away. A lot of back and forth and a lot of people getting killed and a lot more instability.

GIGOT: That's right. I think a lot of people said let's stay out of Syria. The president did. What happened is it became -- it began to nurture the Islamic State, which then took over half of Iraq, which now is getting recruits all over the world and threatens Europe and the United States.

Briefly, Dan?

HENNINGER: That's the important point. A lot of people think just let them kill each other, we have no stake there. These are centrifugal forces. Islamic State, al Qaeda, they are not going to contain themselves in the Middle East. They will go into Europe.

GIGOT: President Obama wanted to leave the Middle East. The Middle East isn't going to leave us --

MCGURN: Exactly.

GIGOT: -- I'm afraid.

When we come back, as the White House continues its post-election assault on Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, do they risk pushing Jewish voters in America to the GOP?


GIGOT: Well, the Obama administration's post-election attack on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued this week with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough declaring in a speech that, quote, "an occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end." His remarks came after the president vowed to reassess the U.S./Israeli relations in light of Mr. Netanyahu's comments on Palestinian statehood during his re-election campaign, and as top administration officials suggested the U.S. could withhold support for Israel at the United Nations.

We're back with Dan Henninger and Bill McGurn. And editorial board member, Dorothy Rabinowitz, also joins the panel.

So, Bill, I would have thought, in the wake of an election victory -- that Benjamin Netanyahu won, unexpectedly, but he won in a big way -- that you'd want to calm things down, restore ties, put some of the, you know, the ill feeling behind us -- behind them.

MCGURN: Right.

GIGOT: He's not. So what's the president thinking here?

MCGURN: I think the obvious thing which we don't take into account, he believes it. In that speech that you cited by Denis McDonough, the chief of staff, and when a chief of staff speaks, he speaks for the president. He said it's not just -- it's not a matter of personal peak.

And I actually believe that. There's obviously --


GIGOT: When you say, what does he believe --

MCGURN: I think he believes that --


MCGURN: -- what they have said in the last four years, Israel is an unjust occupier. Israel is an obstacle to peace. Israel is no longer worthy of automatic U.S. support at the U.N. I think the president believes that.

GIGOT: So he's willing to pursue that kind of a policy.

Dorothy, think about -- try to put this in historical context. Can you think of a case where an American president treated recently elected Democratic government ally, like this?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: There's one word answer, that this is "unprecedented," completely and unmistakably so. And the Israelis feel it. And I suspect and I know American Jews feel it. The targeting of this nation as a pariah nation essentially has the unmistakable odor of something with long and deep roots. And --


GIGOT: When you say that, do you mean --


GIGOT: -- the president's personal --

RABINOWITZ: The president's personal --

GIGOT: -- feeling, a personal animus?

RABINOWITZ: Yes, a personal animus. And because that --

GIGOT: Not just part of a larger world view --


GIGOT: -- that I could be the orchestrator of peace and particularly in an Iran deal and Israel is an obstacle to that and, therefore, I have to isolate Israel and punish it?

RABINOWITZ: This has been there for a very long time, before anything obvious about his Iran intentions for this deal came through. And I suspect -- I know that many Jews feel that this is simply the opening gate for something long held in terms of antipathy. And what's happened, when Jews feel, when any people feel that they are being treated as the enemy, when you have people chanting "Death to America," "Death to the Jews," the president --


GIGOT: These are the people in Iran.

RABINOWITZ: Yes. The president is without excitement, without any sense of moral program showered on them. What incenses them? The attack on the Jews, the attack on Israel, in short. At the selection where the freely selected a leader with 64 percent of the Arab population that voted, and he showers them with attacks on offenses on civil war.

GIGOT: All right, here's what I think is also one other thing. I think it's the Iran deal, too. I think he feels that he's going to do this deal, maybe as soon as this weekend they'll announce it, and he understands that Netanyahu is a major obstacle here. Netanyahu is going to oppose it, going to fight it and going to try to get Congress to oppose it. And the president is saying to Netanyahu, look, you better tread carefully because, if not, I'm going to the U.N. and hit you where it really hurts, which is supporting a Palestinian state through the U.N. and that's going to put you in a world of trouble, Netanyahu.

HENNINGER: I agree with that. But I would go just a little further.

You put your finger on one other thing. What is Obama trying to do? He wants to be the president who established a Palestinian state. It's like Cuba. He wanted to be the president that did the opening to Cuba.

GIGOT: That's not happening.

HENNINGER: That's not happening. But like Bill said, Obama gets these ideas in his head and if you don't agree with him, he isolates you and walks away from you. Now, in the United States, all that has produced is political gridlock. In the Middle East it's produced chaos and war.

And to Dorothy's point, I think that's what a lot of American Jews are seeing that if Obama's policies, although you might agree or disagree with them, the way he executes them creates a dangerous situation, and now for Israel.

GIGOT: Bill, is there any political fallout domestically in terms of how Jewish Americans, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, like 70 percent for --

MCGURN: Right. I'm not going to let the son of Notre Dame speak for



But I will say, for the Republican Party, it's really astounding. The complete disappearance of the Buchanan wing is from the Republican Party in these 25 years --

GIGOT: You're talking about Pat Buchanan --


MCGURN: On foreign policy in Israel and so forth.

GIGOT: -- Israel.

MCGURN: The numbers are staggering. The Republican Party is already there in overwhelming numbers in terms of --


GIGOT: In support for Israel.

MCGURN: -- their support for Israel.

GIGOT: Including the evangelicals --

MCGURN: Right.

GIGOT: -- one of the stalwart --


MCGURN: And also I think not just evangelicals. I think after 9/11, I think a lot of ordinary Americans just looked and said these guys have the same enemies we do. They're just out there on the front lines.

GIGOT: All right.

When we come back, he's first out of the gate in the race for the White House, so what does Texas Senator Ted Cruz bring to the Republican field and can he deliver on his promise to reassemble the Reagan coalition in 2016?



SEN. TED CRUZ, (R), TEXAS: I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to reignite the promise of America. And that is why today I am announcing that I'm running for president of the United States.



GIGOT: Senator Ted Cruz, at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Monday, announcing his campaign for the White House. The Texas freshman is the first official entrant into the 2016 presidential race, a move he hopes will give him a leg up in what is sure to be a crowded Republican field.

We're back with Dan Henninger and Dorothy Rabinowitz. And Wall Street Journal assistant editorial page editor, James Freeman, also joins the panel.

So, Dorothy, you have told us that you think Ted Cruz actually could have some promise as a candidate and do well. Why?

RABINOWITZ: Again, because he's a hardliner in a very good way and a way that will be very welcome --


GIGOT: You mean that on foreign policy?

RABINOWITZ: On foreign policy and in other ways. In a way that will be very welcome to voters who are suffering from extreme Obama fatigue. He is also a peerlessly eloquent speaker. He is immensely focused. And look at this as a Rorschach test. The way you look at Ted Cruz tells you something about yourself. If you're offended by his professorial demeanor and that other stuff, but crowds out, and they feel an electric presence, that is without doubt the most valuable aspect.

GIGOT: All right, James, what do you think about -- I mean, on his positions, there's not a lot difference between him and some of the other candidates' positions. They haven't ruled them out. But is there anything that stands out among the things he's already announced that might set him apart?

JAMES FREEMAN, ASSISTANT EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: Well, I think he does have talent. He does have skills as an orator. He's similar to --


GIGOT: He was a debate champion in college.

FREEMAN: Debate champion. And similar to Marco Rubio, kind of his colleague in that way. Not much in the way of a tangible achievement or executive experience, but very skilled at making the case. If you're a conservative looking at this race, a positive to having him in there is he'll make a case for religious liberty, for limited government, for a flat tax, an idea that Republicans haven't been talking too much for a while.

If he can get in the race, and win or lose, convince Republicans to go for a flat tax, if elected, I think that's an --


GIGOT: Rand Paul is probably going to propose a flat tax, too.

Here, Dan, here's something that you've talked about in the past.

That is he's a rookie, right?


GIGOT: He's a first-term Senator. He's got the same kind of background that Barack Obama does. A little different, obviously. He was a solicitor general, which is a more responsible position than community organizer or state Senator in Illinois. But he basically went to the Senate and he's seen it as a steppingstone to higher office.


GIGOT: He hasn't tried to do anything in Senate. He overtly tried, in fact, to set himself apart from his colleagues. He is disliked by his colleagues, not unlike Barack Obama. So is the American public going to buy that kind of resume following eight years of another rookie?

HENNINGER: Well, I think, in desperation, as Dorothy is suggesting, they just might. But as troubled as I am by the rookies, let's do a little bit of comparison and then we can come around to what I think Ted Cruz's biggest problem is. Marco Rubio is also a first-term Senator. Rubio has worked with his Senate colleagues.

GIGOT: He was the Senate -- THE assembly leader, speaker of the Florida House.

HENNINGER: Right. And if I may say so, without being -- the chute dropping beneath me --


-- Hillary Clinton, when she was Senator from New York, was widely regarded as a good Senate colleague, someone who actually did work on legislation. Ted Cruz is completely alienated from all of his Republican colleagues in the Senate.

GIGOT: He's pitching that as a virtue.

HENNINGER: But this is my problem in selecting the president this time. Are we just selecting somebody who's going to make us feel good because he gives speeches in the White House, the way Barack Obama does, or are we going to elect someone who has political skills to pass a flat tax or to get some legislation enacted? And Cruz has not suggested yet that he has those political skills.

GIGOT: Dorothy, that polarizing projection -- he's trying, overtly again -- this is not us projecting on him. He's saying this. I'm going to rally conservatives. I'm going to make this a conservative/liberal fight.

There are enough conservatives out there who can prevail. Is that -- that's the governing strategy of Barack Obama in reverse, obviously, ideologically.


GIGOT: But is that the kind of leader that a conservative -- that the voters are going to want, Republican voters even in the next four years?

RABINOWITZ: The question is, what do they see when they see him?

They're not looking at his background. They're not looking at his compatibility with his colleagues. They're looking at, as all voters look, at a voice that reaches them in their innards. That is what he can do.

And note, he is that intellectually gifted, he does not sound like a maniac.

GIGOT: Is there a path to the White House for him, or let's say to the nomination? Is there a path to the nomination?

FREEMAN: It's hard to see. I'm not sure you get a big money edge with Cruz versus a lot of the others who will be well funded. You have other conservatives in the race. As we said, there are others who are kind of pitching the same of the ideas. I think it's tough for him. Maybe he has to rely on some other people imploding along the way. But he has the skills. I think for a lot of voters, if he doesn't get along with people in Washington, that's a good thing for him, so he'll have an argument.

GIGOT: All right, James.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits & Misses" of

the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits & Misses" of the week -- Dan?

HENNINGER: Well, Paul, a miss to Susan Rice who, as the whole world knows by now, after Bowe Bergdahl was released, said that he had served with honor and distinction.

GIGOT: National security adviser.

HENNINGER: National security advisor. Bowe Bergdahl was just charged

-- there were five possible charges. He got the most severe desertion as a felony. He could serve life in prison. The problem isn't just Susan Rice.

It's the whole Obama administration. You feel like you're having an out- of-body experience with these people.


Whether it's the war on terror, Islam, or desertion, whatever normal people think, they think the opposite.


GIGOT: Bill?

MCGURN: A hit to Indiana and Virginia, whose governors this week each signed a right-to-try legislation. A lot of people talk about the right to die. The right-to-try gives people who are terminally ill the opportunity to try drugs that are not FDA approved and so forth. In Indiana, the face of this movement was this 5-year-old boy with muscular dystrophy. His mom says her son will never play in the NFL but she's glad he has a chance.

GIGOT: All right, thanks, Bill.


FREEMAN: Paul, this is a hit to Matt Stainbrook, the Xavier basketball team. Unfortunately, the Musketeers' run in the NCAA tournament ended in the Sweet 16, but here's a guy who -- the best player on the team, gave up his scholarship to his younger brother. And Matt, while leading the team this year, has been driving for Uber to help pay the bills. So I'm just glad I finally have a story about an athlete off the court I can talk to my kids about.

GIGOT: James, I want to congratulate Harry Reid on his announcement that he's retiring from the Senate, his finest hour --


GIGOT: -- after 2016. So thank you, Mr. Reid.

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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