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THE SITUATION ROOM
Swine Flu Continues to Spread; Obama to Choose New Supreme Court Justice; Tavis Smiley Opines on Obama's First 100 Days
Aired May 2, 2009 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: A new strain of flu races across the globe and health officials warn no region on the planet may be safe. This hour, former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt on the danger in the United States and whether the Obama administration is doing enough.
President Obama on the brink of choosing a new Supreme Court justice. Word that David Souter is set to retire unleashing a title wave of speculation. We'll consider the president's options.
And one of America's most influential people, in the company of Oprah and Tiger. You know him by his first name. You're going to find out who he is and what he has to say about the president's first 100 days.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've asked every American to take the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu. Keep your hands washed, cover your mouth when you cough, stay home from work if you're sick, and keep your children home from school if they're sick. Everyone should rest assured that this government is prepared to do whatever it takes to control the impact of this virus.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: President Obama addressing the first health emergency of his administration. Officials in the United States and around the world, they're scrambling right now to slow the spread of this deadly swine flu, especially in Mexico where the virus began.
Joining us now, the Health and Human Services Secretary to President George W. Bush, Mike Leavitt.
Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.
MIKE LEAVITT, FMR. HHS SECRETARY: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: You've written a letter to the new Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, the former governor of Kansas. And you have several suggestions, several recommendations. Let's go through some of them. On the importance of educating and communicating, this is a time you write for the secretary of HHS to be informing but not inflaming. Public health officials must find a balance that inspires planning but not panic. How is the Obama administration doing so far?
LEAVITT: Wolf, I think they're doing a credible job. This is not an easy situation. It's particularly difficult for a new Secretary of Health to enter a big job already. But to have the potential of a pandemic, there's a lot to be dealt with. There's a very good plan that's been laid out. They're following it well. I think they're doing a creditable job.
BLITZER: And they credit, by the way, a lot of the work done during the Bush administration in helping them set the stage for what they're doing right now.
On closing borders, especially the border between the United States and Mexico, this is a very sensitive subject as you know. You write this, you say, "Bottom line, it just isn't an effective way to deal with a pandemic. First the damage done to the economy is massive, which distracts from and debilitates further response. Second, many complicated social issues are presented. And third, it won't work."
Let's get to the third point. Why won't it work? Because there are critics out there who say, you know what? Just shut down that boarder between the United States and Mexico right now, land, sea, air travel.
LEAVITT: Well, to begin with, the virus is already here. And it will spread, it will spread quickly. The question is will it be a virulent virus? Or will we be able to work through this without a lot of death and sickness?
Closing the borders would have a great dramatic economic impact. It would debilitate our capacity as an economy to respond to it. And there are very difficult questions like what do we do with U.S. citizens? Do we deny U.S. citizens readmittance to the United States just because they might have been infected by a virus somewhere else?
The biggest problem, of course, is that many people don't manifest symptoms until several days after they have the ability to communicate the disease. So it just doesn't work. It's a discussion we always have. It's a kind of knee jerk reaction that needs to be avoided because it'll distract us from the real things we - the real business we need to get down to.
BLITZER: We know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they're working on a vaccine already to deal with this swine flu. You say it's critically important. It will take eight to 20 weeks, you write, to get a suitable and safe vaccine in place. The Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Health, Food and Drug Administration and the vaccine industry need to be brought together with a well organized collaboration. Things can get bogged down easily.
Based on what you know right now, are things being bogged down or are they moving expeditiously? LEAVITT: I have no evidence they're being bogged down. I just know how complicated this is. And they need to work in a very well orchestrated effort. The secretary, I'm sure, will be appointing an able person to make certain it doesn't bog down.
Vaccines will likely be effective in the second wave. One of the things that characterize pandemics is that they last a long time, generally as much as a year. And they come in waves. We won't have a vaccine during the first wave, but many times the second wave is the most destructive. And so having a vaccine will be very helpful. They takes 8 to 18 weeks...
BLITZER: Let me interrupt for a moment. When you say a second wave, we're now at the end of the traditional flu season. What you're concerned about is when the new flu season starts later in the year, that's when that second wave could -- of swine flu could erupt?
LEAVITT: Well, viruses are quite unpredictable. We don't know. The scientists don't know, but if you look at the pattern of other viruses, they typically run four to six months apart in these waves. So the more rapidly we're able to develop an effective vaccine, the better prepared we will be for subsequent waves. It will take, as I indicated, 18 weeks. It then needs to be manufactured. So the faster we move at the beginning, the more likely it is that we'll have an effective vaccine should it continue to roll out.
BLITZER: All right, listen to what the vice president, Joe Biden said on "The Today Show" earlier in the week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.: I would tell members of my family and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico. It's you're in a confined aircraft, when one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not at this point if I - if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, he later - a spokesman said, you know, he meant to say if someone was sick in his family, he would recommend not going on a plane. He seemed to back away from the remarks.
But a lot of people say, you know what, maybe he was simply telling everyone the truth. That's how he feels. Don't get on planes. Don't get on subways in the midst of a potential pandemic. What do you think about all of this?
LEAVITT: I won't pile on with respect to those remarks, but I will say that the best source of information is going to be the Centers for Disease Control. They have provided information and advice. They'll continue to provide advice, I believe, to schools who have to make decisions about how they deal with each school.
The important role for the federal government at this point is to provide information and to do it in a way that's consistent and informative. There will be a lot of people who have to make individual decisions. School principals, for example, on the closure of schools. Those are better decisions made at the school level than in Washington.
But the CDC can provide that kind of basic information. I thought the president did a very nice job in laying out the basics of pandemic preparedness. We'll all have to learn those if this continues to roll forward.
BLITZER: Mike Leavitt, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services. Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming in.
LEAVITT: My pleasure, Wolf.
President Obama will soon exercise one of the greatest privileges a president gets, picking a United States Supreme Court justice. Liberals and conservatives, everyone will be closely watching whomever he nominates.
Also, the flu outbreak began in Mexico. Should the U.S.-Mexican border be closed? The Mexican ambassador of the United States has some strong feeling. He's getting ready to weigh in.
And a provocative title with a thought providing message about Iran and much more. A book entitled, "How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror." Stay with us. You're going to want to hear what the author has to say.
BLITZER: President Obama will have a chance to reshape the United States Supreme Court earlier than a lot of people thought. Justice David Souter planning to retire next month. So who will replace him? And might the president choose a woman? Joining us now, our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. He's the author of the great book on the Supreme Court entitled, "The Nine."
Jeff, thanks very much joining us.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Hi, Wolf.
BLITZER: Souter's 69 years old. And while he's always been a moderate to liberal justice, and we assume the president will nominate a moderate to liberal justice. What he could do, President Obama, was named someone 20 years younger than Souter and have an impact for a longer time down the road. Is that the most significant development that we should presumably anticipate?
TOOBIN: You know, absolutely. This is a big moment in the Obama presidency because Supreme Court appointments are one of the president's chief legacies. You know, John Roberts and Samuel Alito are going to be on the Supreme Court long, long after George W. Bush is gone. Look at how long justices can serve. David Souter is 69 years old. But John Paul Stevens is still on the court. And he's 89 years old. 20 years older. So these justices who keep themselves in good shape, who are intellectually engaged, can serve decades on the court. And Obama has his first probably of several opportunities to really reshape the court.
BLITZER: And over the course of the next four years and maybe eight years, if he gets himself re-elected, talk about John Paul Stevens, who's 89 years old right now. He's also on the liberal side of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 76 years old. She suffers form cancer. So there will be presumably additional openings coming up down the road in which he once again will be able to name someone in his or her 40s or early 50s. And that impact could go on for decades.
TOOBIN: And don't think that age isn't a very big consideration as the White House considers candidates. Age is a big deal. There are lots of good candidates for the Supreme Court who are in their 60s, who are not going to be considered for just that reason.
And you know, you talk about Souter and Ginsburg and Stevens, three liberals, who are likely to leave. But remember also, Antonin Scalia is 72 years old, Anthony Kennedy is 72 years old. So in a two-term Obama presidency, he could have a chance to reshape and change the alignment on the court dramatically if he gets two terms and these justices leave when most justices do leave.
BLITZER: Because Anthony Kennedy, he's been sort of the swing vote on the 5-4 decisions in more recent years. There are four solid conservative justices on the Supreme Court right now. And we'll put them up on the screen.
As you point out, Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel alito and the Chief Justice John Roberts. If you had to take a look over the next four to eight years, one of those conservatives leaving, because if he's going to have a real impact long-term, it would have to be to have to replace a conservative with a liberal?
TOOBIN: Well, I don't think any of those four conservatives or Anthony Kennedy are going to leave voluntarily during Obama's term. Justices take very seriously the issue of who's president, which president is going to appoint their successor. But presidents don't always get to choose. Thurgood Marshall desperately did not want a Republican to pick his successor. William Brennan didn't want a Republican to pick his successor. The two great liberals of the late 20th century, but they both got sick and they got old and they had to leave. And when you have justices who are getting into their mid and upper 70s, you know, sometimes nature doesn't give them the choices that they would prefer.
BLITZER: Listen to what then candidate Barack Obama said at that debate. I moderated a presidential -- Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas back in 2007. And the subject of the Supreme Court came up. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Sometimes we're only looking at academics or people who have been in the courts. If we can find people who have life experience and they understand what it means to be on the outside, what it means to have a system not work for them, that's the kind of person I want on the Supreme Court.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That's the kind of person he says I want on the Supreme Court. How do you interpret his intention there?
TOOBIN: Well, I think it's a very interesting comment because, you know, the current Supreme Court is the first Supreme Court in the history of the country where all nine justices are former federal appeals court judges. When Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, not one of the justices had ever been a judge of any kind before. You had Earl Warren, who was chief justice, the former governor of California. You had Hugo Black, a former senator. You had William Douglas, the former head of the SEC.
The tradition used to be to pick non judges. And what Obama was saying in the debate you moderated was that he's thinking about going back to that tradition, picking someone who might be a governor or a senator. And that would be almost as big a change as the political composition of the court. There hasn't been a politician on the court for quite some time.
Jeffrey Toobin, thanks very much.
TOOBIN: Okay, Wolf.
BLITZER: We'll be in close touch.
President Obama marks 100 days in office. His senior advisor David Axelrod tells what the administration has accomplished and the challenges ahead.
And he's one of the magazine's most influential people. We're talking about "TIME" magazine, says President Obama needs - he says President Obama needs to be held accountable. The journalist Tavis Smiley right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: My Republican friends, I want them to realize that me reaching out to them has been genuine. I can't sort of define bipartisanship as simply being willing to accept certain theories of theirs that we tried for eight years and didn't work. And the American people voted to change. But there are a whole host of areas where we can work together.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: President Obama essentially said can't they simple all just get along? With his first 100 days behind him, what's the potential for but there are a whole host of areas where we can work together. President Obama essentially said can't they simple all just get along? With his first 100 days behind him, what's the potential for increased bipartisanship in the days ahead? I spoke about that with White House senior advisor David Axelrod, but I began on another topic, the federal government is responding to the swine flu cases in the United States and preparing possibly for the worst.
DAVID AXELROD, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER: Well, the federal government has been hard at work since we first learned of these possibilities. And so, that work's going to go on uninterrupted.
The -- the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, the CDC, the -- the Centers for Disease Control, have all been in touch with state and local agencies. We're moving supplies around as necessary. And -- and we feel that we're doing everything that we can and should to prepare for whatever comes.
BLITZER: Give me some perspective on how the president views this, because he has so many issues on his agenda right now, the swine flu, potential pandemic out there. How much time does he really devote to this, as opposed to some of the economic issues, the national security issues, that full plate that he's dealing with?
AXELROD: Well, Wolf, as you know, in this job, there -- you know, you have to be able to handle a lot of things at once. And the president has been well-informed throughout.
This is something, as you may know, that has been an interest of his for some time. When he was in the Senate, he read quite a bit about the possibility of pandemics. Then, it was related to the avian flu. And, so, he moved legislation through Congress to prepare Tamiflu and some of the other materials necessary to deal with those kinds of threats.
So, he was -- he was well-versed in this -- in this prospect when -- when it first arose. And he's been following it very closely, talking to -- talking to his agency heads on a regular basis.
BLITZER: I'm going to read to you what Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, said in "USA Today," and I will get your reaction.
"The essential truth of President Obama's first 100 days is this: The rock he wants to build the American economy on is the great mass of government. The foundation of his house is the leaden, immovable force of big bureaucracy. The supports are big unions and big politicians. And the payment is being stolen from our children and grandchildren. In just 100 days, President Obama has been devastatingly effective in swiftly moving forward the most radical, government-expanding agenda in American history."
All right. Go ahead and tell Newt Gingrich how you really feel.
(LAUGHTER) AXELROD: Well, you know, I'm glad that he didn't engage in hyperbole. I think that would have been wrong.
But the reality is that Newt Gingrich and some in the Republican Party would like us to simply ratify the policies of the last eight years. They believe they had the right economic doctrine, cutting taxes for the very wealthy, doubling the national debt, neglecting some of our fundamental needs in health care, in energy, in education.
I think the American people rendered a verdict on that last November. We're not going to go back. And -- and, so, you know, we're trying to build a new economy with a stronger foundation that's built on -- that's built to last, and not to crumble, as the economy has in the last -- over the last couple of years.
And, so, I'm not surprised that -- that he's -- that he's disappointed. We feel like we're taking sound steps to restore the economy and build a better future. And that will be the test.
BLITZER: All right.
AXELROD: And we can have the discussion as time goes on.
BLITZER: In the next 100 days, what's the most important priority for the president, as far as his legislative agenda is concerned?
AXELROD: Well, obviously, we want to continue to complete the budget process. We want to reform contracting procedures, particularly as -- at the Pentagon, but throughout the government. We need to save money, so that we can invest in the things that are truly important to our future.
We want to do something about the credit card gouging that's been going on, because people are suffering all over the country with uncertain rules and capricious decisions by -- by credit card companies.
BLITZER: I'm not hearing -- I'm not hearing, David, health care.
AXELROD: No, no.
And -- well, I got to finish my litany. We've got a lot to do, Wolf. We want to move...
BLITZER: But is health care the most important issue on your agenda right...
AXELROD: There's no question that health care reform is going to be an important part of what we do over the balance of the year. It's an essential pillar in our economic future, as is energy. We believe energy offers not just an opportunity to deal with issues of pollution and climate change, but offers a great economic opportunity...
BLITZER: All right, one final... AXELROD: ... for millions of new jobs.
BLITZER: One final question -- when we meet in August, at day 200 of this administration, will health care reform have been enacted?
AXELROD: I think we will have taken big steps forward toward health care reform. I think a consensus is building. I think we will get something done.
BLITZER: David Axelrod is the top political adviser, one of the senior advisers, to the president.
Thanks very much, David, for coming in.
AXELROD: OK. Good to be with you.
BLITZER: All right, good luck to you over at the White House.
BLITZER: Mexico is the epicenter for the swine flu outbreak. The virus traced to a young boy on a remote pig farm. Ahead, I'll talk to the Mexican ambassador of the United States about why the flu crisis in his country has been deadly.
And how to win a cosmic war. An author makes the case that the war on terror is unwinnable and that there are better ways to stop Muslim extremists from going on the attack.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: We have some breaking news into the CNN Newsroom. We'll get back to THE SITUATION ROOM in just a moment. This is breathtaking and it is frightening. It's video from Irving, Texas happening moments ago. Take a look.
Let me tell you about what you're looking at. This is an air supported canopy. It's over the Dallas Cowboys practice field. It collapsed during a huge storm there. At least seven people, we're told, are injured. The situation is ratcheting up, it appears. One of them critically injured. When we left you live here during our 5:00 hour, it was four people injured, staff members. We're hearing now seven people injured, one of them critically. And they are still checking to see if anyone is left under this.
The lights started shaking. Everything came down. That's sent these rookie players and coaches and reporters and photographers as you see there, they were scrambling. As many as 80 people might have been inside when the so-called bubble collapsed.
That's the chaos that happened just moments ago in Irving, Texas near Dallas at the Dallas Cowboy rookie mini camp. The storm winds at the time were clocked at about 64 miles an hour. And aftermath now of what it looks like from our affiliate WFAA in Dallas. Take a look at these pictures. This is the outside, folks were trapped. A 100-yard football field that this collapsed on top of, this canopy. And also there are aluminum scaffolding holding this up. And that's why many people were injured.
Dangerous storms are rolling through the area at the time. We're getting new information every minute here into the CNN Newsroom. We're going to bring that to you at the top of the hour, just as soon as we get more information on that.
If we can show the video from this, I would appreciate it. That video coming in to the CNN Newsroom just moments ago. This is how it unfolded in Irving, Texas just a short time ago. We're going to have new information on this coming up at the top of the hour, 7:00 Eastern. Wolf Blitzer and THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: This is a cause for deep concern, but not panic. And I think that we have to make sure that we recognize that how we respond intelligently, systematically, based on science and what public health officials have to say will determine in large part what happens.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: President Obama responding to the possibility of an imminent flu pandemic. As the U.S. braces for a crisis, Mexico finds itself in the midst of a crisis with the largest number of confirmed cases and deaths. I spoke about that and more with the country's ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan.
BLITZER: How convinced are you that this swine flu outbreak originated in Mexico.
ARTURO SARUKHAN, MEXICAN AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: We still don't know, this is something that authorities in Mexico and authorities in the United States, CDC, they're trying to figure out. We can't pinpoint the origin of the outbreak. And we certainly don't know where it started and how it propagated. This is one of the issues that we're very quickly trying to work with our Canadian and American partners to find out.
BLITZER: The assumption is it started in Mexico, because most of the cases, and certainly almost all of the fatalities have been in Mexico. And there's an area not far from Mexico City that has a large pig population.
SARUKHAN: Well, that's one of the speculations that's out there. But it still is not clear whether that was the origin. It is true that we have a very high concentration of cases in Mexico and in particular in Mexico City. But we're working very hard to determine where this started, and more importantly how it is being passed on.
BLITZER: I assume there are a lot of cases that are simply unreported in Mexico. For all the cases that are officially documented, there are probably a lot of others that people just get sick and they hope they're going to get better, is that right? SARUKHAN: Well, that may be the case. Remember that we first started detecting this and were able to pinpoint that this was a new strain of influenza, more or less at the same time that the flu season was winding out in Mexico. So there may have been other cases.
But certainly, we're trying to very aggressively, quickly and transparently figure this one out, ensure that our communication with the United States, Canada, other countries and the World Health Organization is allowing us to very quickly pinpoint the origin, pinpoint the contagion rates, and to be able do shut it down.
BLITZER: Was the State Department right yesterday in calling for a travel advisory against any non-essential travel to Mexico?
SARUKHAN: Well, the World Health Organization has not called for a travel ban or a quarantine or the shutting gown of borders. I think that when you have a disease like this, common sense should be the keystone. And I think the people who are traveling should use common sense to determine whether they need to travel or they can hold back a few days or a few weeks until we can all figure out what's going on.
BLITZER: There's no doubt that Mexico like so many other countries places around the world was suffering from an economic recession, major economic distress. Tourism already going down because of the drug issue. But now because of this, your country is in deep financial trouble as a result of this economic strain, the result of swine flu, is that right?
SARUKHAN: Well, I think all the world is facing a profound global recession. I think Mexico is not the exception. I must say that figures for tourist revenues in the first part of the year are more or less on par to what they were last year. And more importantly, we have not seen any significant reports of influenza along the coastal regions of Mexico. So we're waiting to see what the impact of this is.
BLITZER: There's one report that you're losing $57 million a day in tourism revenue right now. Have you heard about that?
SARUKHAN: I have not seen those figures, Wolf.
BLITZER: But as you say, if people are nervous, they're not going to go to Cancun or Acapulco, they're not going to go on vacation to Mexico right now, at least until this swine flu crisis eases.
SARUKHAN: Well, I think that what is important right now for the Mexican government is to ensure that the health of our citizens and of other citizens traveling to Mexico from other countries is taken care of, that we ensure that by working with the United States and other nations that we can shut this down. This has to be our priority. And this is what we will focus on in the next days.
BLITZER: How is your supply of the masks, the anti-viral medications. Are the stockpiles there or are they dwindling?
SARUKHAN: The stockpiles of the medicine are there. They're strong. Face masks at the rate they're being used, are starting to dwindle, but we're already reaching out to certain countries in the world to ensure that our stockpiles can be maintained.
BLITZER: What do you say to those Americans who want to really tighten up, close up the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and make it so much more difficult for Mexicans to come in to the United States either land, sea or air?
SARUKHAN: Again, if you look at previous experiences, Wolf, where there have been previous outbreaks of other diseases, this type of decisions don't do the job. They don't do the trick. It won't change the fact that they're already cases of influenza in the United States, that there are cases of influenza in other countries. And I don't think the shutting of the borders at the stage at least will do anything to change that.
BLITZER: How is the level of cooperation between your government, the Mexican government, and the Obama administration on this issue right now?
SARUKHAN: It is excellent. We're building upon what we started doing. Canada and Mexico and the United States knew that at some point we could face this type of challenge. Since 2005, Wolf, Mexico, Canada and the United States have been working to streamline protocols to exchange information, to create the mechanisms where we can very quickly react.
And I think that the support that we're getting from the Obama administration is top notch. I have been on the phone several times with Secretary Napolitano and John Brennan at the White House. And I think that the cooperation and the exchange of information is where it needs to be.
BLITZER: What are your health experts in Mexico tell you should expect in Mexico over the next shall we say two weeks?
SARUKHAN: I wish I was Sanjay Gupta to be able to answer that one, Wolf. Basically I think the mode right now is wait and see. We're trying to ascertain whether there's a leveling off of contagion and of deaths related to the virus during the next 24 to 36 hours. And based on that, I think we will be able to start seeing some projections of how the virus either mutates or reacts in the coming days.
BLITZER: Mexican ambassador to the United States speaking.
Coming up, he's been an antagonist of the United States and he leads a nation many view as a growing threat. But ahead, I'll talk with the man who says the true power of Iran does not lie with his president Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Also "TIME" Magazine calls Tavis Smiley one of the world's most influential people. And he says Americans have a job to do, hold President Obama accountable.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: We still confront threats ranging from terrorism to nuclear proliferation as well as pandemic flu. And all this means you can expect an unrelenting, unyielding effort from this administration to strengthen our prosperity and our security in the second 100 days, and the third 100 days, and all the days after.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: President Obama at a news conference marking his 100 days in office. Among the key security challenges facing the still young administration, a persistent al Qaeda and a resurgent Taliban. I spoke with Reza Aslan, author of "How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization and the End of the War on Terror," and began by asking him about the concept of a cosmic war.
REZA ASLAN, AUTHOR, "HOW TO WIN A COSMIC WAR": The cosmic war is a religious war. It's a war in which participants believe they're acting out on earth a battle that's actually taking place in the heavens between the cosmic forces of good and evil. And that we human beings are just sort of pawns in the hands of God, that our actions are not our own, but they're being actually controlled from heaven. And the argument of the book is that this is the kind of war, this war of the imagination that al Qaeda and these various militant groups that associate themselves with the global jihadist movement are fighting.
BLITZER: Is - so we assume al Qaeda, the Taliban, and like minded groups out there, they're fighting a cosmic war. Would you say the Iranian leadership is engaged in a cosmic war against the West?
ASLAN: No, not at all. Especially when it comes to the Iranian leadership, which is actually quite irrational actor and very pragmatic in the way that it runs business. Not as ideological as it's made out to be.
But more importantly, those who are fighting a cosmic war tend to be those who like al Qaeda, and certain elements of the Taliban, those that have wedded themselves to the al Qaeda ideology have a much more global ideology. Their agenda, their goals do not rest on any kind of earthly plane. I mean, the sort of agenda of trying to get reshape the global order and to get rid of all states and all nations, all borders and boundaries and to reconstitute the world as a single world order under their leadership.
These are really not real goals. As opposed to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and the so-called religious nationalists, and by the way, the majority of the Taliban, who do have very concrete goals, and therefore can be negotiated with, that you can have a conversation with somebody who wants something real. You can't with someone like al Qaeda, who wants something that can't be had in any real or measurable terms.
BLITZER: You're an authority on Iran. You understand that society. Is there any way short of military action which everyone wants to avoid that can stop the Iranians from going forward with trying to build a nuclear bomb?
ASLAN: There's nothing that I think the international community can do at this point to stop Iran's enrichment of uranium. And I think even the Obama administration has started to realize this. They're about to come to the point where they're going to take that off the table as a precondition for talks.
However, there is plenty of time and plenty of options to keep us from actually or to keep Iran from actually weaponizing their nuclear program.
But I think the first order of business here is to understand is why Iran is even pursuing such a program, because although they do talk a very tough talk, the truth is that Iran feels as though it's under threat, not just by the American military forces that literally surround it, but also from the fact that, you know, Israel itself has nuclear weapons that are actually pointed at Iran right now as we speak.
And so, Iran in some ways has learned a valuable lesson from its fellow axis of evil members. One didn't have nuclear weapons and it was destroyed and occupied. The other one North Korea does have nuclear weapons. And we've poured tens of billions of dollars in order to get them to get rid of it.
BLITZER: Do you believe that President Obama's overtures to the Iranians and it's been going on now since his election, will actually pay off and that there will be some sort of a dialogue, some sort of a good relationship emerging between the U.S. and Iran?
ASLAN: I do think so. And it's partly because the vast majority of the Iranian people believe Barack Obama when he says he wants to reach out to Iran.
And you can see this in the way that Ahmadinejad himself has begun to change his rhetoric in the early sort of levels of the campaign that he's running now. You know, he's up for election of course in the middle of June. Even Ahmadinejad has been talking about reproachment with Iran.
So there is a wave of support for closer ties with the United States. But I think it's going to be a very slow process. And I don't think you're going to see much happen in a bilateral way until after the presidential elections in Iran. I think the Obama administration wants to make sure they know who they're going to be dealing with before they begin the process of actually reaching out.
BLITZER: From the U.S. perspective, does it make any difference who wins that election in Iran?
ASLAN: It does in the sense that it becomes very difficult to sit down with someone like Ahmadinejad because of the inflammatory comments that he has made and the way that he has turned himself into an international pariah. However, dealing with the president from Iran who perhaps has a different outlook on international relations and a different status, I think, in the global community will make the process a little bit easier. But you're absolutely right, the president of Iran is not where the power in Iran ultimately rests. It ultimately rests with a clerical regime, and particularly with a supreme leader. But nevertheless, we cannot sort of forget about the power that the Iranian people actually do have in changing the way in which that government functions.
BLITZER: Reza Aslan is the author of the new book "How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror." Reza, thanks very much for coming in.
ASLAN: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: So what's it like to be a member of an elite club of Americans who have tremendous influence and an unforgettable first name? Next, the TV host and power player Tavis Smiley on his own clout and President Obama's first 100 days. And the prince, the pope and our hot shots of the week.
BLITZER: President Obama now working toward the 200-day milestone. He offered some thoughts this week on his first 100 days as did so many politicians, analysts and others who influence the political conversation in this country.
BLITZER: And joining us now, Tavis Smiley. He's the host of "Tavis Smiley" on PBS and "The Tavis Smiley Show" on public radio international. His newest book is entitled "Accountable: Making America as Good as its Promise."
Tavis, thanks very much for coming in.
TAVIS SMILEY, AUTHOR, "ACCOUNTABLE": Thank you for the opportunity, Wolf. Nice to be on with you.
BLITZER: Congratulations first of all on the new book, which is excellent. But also congratulations on being named by "TIME" Magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people. Charlie Rose wrote an essay about you. Among other things, he says this, "Tavis, he has one of those names that stand alone. Think Oprah, Tiger, Elvis and yes, Barack. You know if you hear Tavis, you are talking about Mr. Smiley." How does that feel?
SMILEY: Well, first of all, I want to thank the editors of "TIME" magazine for even considering me to be on the list. It was quite a surprise when I got the call that my name was on the list.
But I was just beyond humbled, Wolf, to have Charlie Rose write the piece. Every one of the persons, the 100 persons on the list have another person of stature who writes the piece about you. And they don't tell you who the person is going to be. So I didn't know who it was until I saw the piece myself.
When I started in this business, Wolf, having watched you and people like Charlie for years, I remember saying in the interview once or twice that I wanted to be the chocolate covered Charlie Rose. I wanted to be a good interviewer taken as seriously as Charlie Rose and to have the opportunity to be on the same network as Charlie every night, and to have Charlie write the piece. But it's just humbling for me. So it's been quite a week.
BLITZER: And you're only 44 years old. So you got a lot of years ahead of you, Tavis, to do this kind of work.
Let's talk a little bit about the book and talk about President Obama. The book is entitled, "Accountable". Has he delivered so far in these initial 100 days based on what you've seen?
SMILEY: I think he's off to a good start, Wolf. The book lays out 242 promises that candidate Senator Obama made on his way to the White House that he would do if elected. 242 promises primarily around the top ten issues that matter most to Americans.
At the pace that he's on right now, Wolf, at the end of his first term, he will have completed about 66% of those promises if he keeps up the busy pace that he's at right about now in these first 100 days.
Ultimately, the book is about understanding that his accountability is our responsibility. The book is not just about Barack Obama, but about how we hold all of our leaders responsible to keep the promises that they made when they campaigned.
And so 66%, you know, is a decent number, it's not the dean's list. But I think he's off to a good start. But ultimately what are the things that he promised to do that the American people need to know how to hold him accountable to? You don't have to rely on CNN or any other network necessarily to tell you how your president is doing. You can follow along as a citizen and grade the president every day, every month on whether or not he's doing what he said he would do.
BLITZER: What's the most surprising thing you've learned, if anything, about President Obama since taking office?
SMILEY: I think that the fact that he is juggling, and I think that's a good word, Wolf, juggling eight or nine major issues all at one time really does underscore the way he presented himself during the campaign, cool, steady, measured.
I think that he is the kind of leader, quite frankly, that you need in a crisis. You know, he said in that press conference earlier this week, that if he just had two wars and, you know, a couple of other issues to juggle, you know, he would take that deal. But to be juggling and to be wrestling with eight or nine issues every day, all major, one of them now a crisis in health potentially to the country, he is doing and leading in the very way that he campaigned, quite frankly. Very calm, steady, very measured and very practical. And I think the American people are calmed by that presence in the White House given these crises.
BLITZER: Charlie Rose in the essay in "TIME" Magazine about you, he writes this. "Tavis rejects arguments that we are in a post racial era because he looks at race and sees an unfinished agenda. And in fact he has taken on the responsibility of holding the president accountable on race." I assume you agree with Charlie Rose on that, but what point is he trying to make?
SMILEY: Well, on the accountability question, my role, Wolf, is no different than yours. Our job is to make sure that the president is held accountable. I believe that Barack Obama can be a great president. I believe he may in fact be a great president, but only if we the American people and the media help make him a great president by holding him accountable to doing what he said he was going to do.
So I reject the notion that so many talking heads have promulgated that because we have a black president, we now live in a post racial America. America may be less racist, but it's not post racial. We have not achieved a post racial status in this country. And I think what Charlie was trying to say is that one, I reject that argument. And because I reject that argument, I want America made better for everybody.
The president in his news conference earlier this week said that a rising tide will lift all boats, answering a question specifically about black unemployment. He's right about the fact that a rising tide will lift all boats.
But ultimately, when the tide comes up, you're sitting in your yacht and I'm sitting in my dinghy, we still have a problem. The question is how do we make everybody in America come up? It'd be one thing, Wolf, if everybody in America were getting richer, but the problem is that the rich keep getting richer at a faster pace than the rest of us. And there's something wrong with every day people are having a difficult time trying to navigate these troubled waters. And so it's about holding them accountable, not just on race, but on everything he promised to do as president.
BLITZER: Tavis Smiley's book is called "Accountable: Making America as Good as its Promise." Tavis, thanks for coming in.
SMILEY: Thanks for the opportunity, Wolf, as always.
BLITZER: The fear of contracting the swine flu has some people taking drastic steps. This week's hot shots pictures worth 1,000 words. That's next.
BLITZER: Here's a look at some hot shots coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press, pictures from around the world. In Egypt, a health worker sprayed chemicals to disinfect a local pig of its swine flu fear. In Rome, Prince Charles took a snack before meeting with the pope. In Switzerland, the hockey teams of Norway and the Czech Republic faced off.
And in a Budapest zoo, check it out. A 13-year-old orangutan ate an apple. Some of this week's hot shots, pictures worth 1,000 words.
That's it for us today. Thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Join us weekdays in THE SITUATION ROOM from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. Eastern and Saturday at 6:00 Eastern and at CNN International at this time every weekend.
Don't forget on Monday, the president of Israel, Shimon Perez here in THE SITUATION ROOM. On Tuesday, Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan here THE SITUATION ROOM.
Thanks for joining us. The news continues next on CNN