The Great Debate UK

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Nine interviews that will make you smarter

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Imagine a place where retired-four-star General Stanley McChrystal, warmly shakes your hand and insists you call him Stan. He means it, too, joking when the word general pops out of your mouth while you position him properly in front of the cameras for a brief interview. He wants to talk about getting young people involved in public service through a program where they would dedicate a year of their lives to improving the country. But he's game to talk about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. He served in both -- becoming the man in charge in Afghanistan before comments he made to Rolling Stone that were critical of the Obama administration ended up costing him his job.

McChrystal makes a strong impression, and a positive one. And he's not the only one who wants to talk with at least the appearance of frankness. In Aspen, Colorado, for the 10 days of the annual Ideas Festival, we're all equals -- of a sort. In my five days there, I met no one who wanted to be called mister, senator or any other title. It was first names all around, with the good and great wearing khakis, or even shorts. If people were trying to impress, it was mostly through trying hard to not impress at all.

The people I, Andy Sullivan, Lily Jamali and Zach Goelman interviewed work in the fields of art, science, international affairs, politics and romance. We're all Reuters journalists with more than 50 years of experience among us. We've all interviewed interesting and powerful people before, but never such a diverse group in such a beautiful setting, nor in such quick succession.

Below are some of the things we took away:

Frank Underwood isn't evil -- at least not according the man writing House of Cards, Beau Willimon

from The Great Debate:

Bergdahl reveals the impossible choices faced by hostages’ families

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl waits in a pick-up truck before he is freed at the Afghan border

The furor surrounding the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl this week has exposed the murky world -- and impossible choices -- of the families of Americans taken captive by militants.

Demands for vast ransoms or for prisoner releases put these families in the excruciating position of seeming to be able to save a loved one’s life. Meet demands and your beloved lives. Hesitate and carry responsibility for their death to your grave.

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Afghanistan votes on its future

The coverage on the impending Afghan presidential elections has been filled with death and chaos -- the tragic shooting at the Serena hotel where an international election monitor was killed, the shocking attack on the Afghan Election Commission's headquarters, the killing of a provincial council candidate and the news that several international monitoring groups are pulling out.

These tragedies, however, shift the focus from the major news in Afghanistan this week: Election fever has gripped the nation. I hear from Afghans as well as many foreigners now working in Afghanistan that the excitement about the coming April 5 presidential election is palpable and encouraging.

from The Great Debate:

Can Obama ever close Guantanamo?

Twelve years ago this month, President George W. Bush issued an order authorizing the U.S. military to detain non-U.S. citizen “international terrorists” indefinitely, and try some of them in military commissions. Within two months, those seized in the “war on terror” following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan were being sent to Guantanamo Bay.

A dozen years later, the United States is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, ending “the longest war in American history,” as President Barack Obama observed on Veteran’s Day. Yet the Guantanamo prison -- now notorious as the site of torture and other abuses -- remains open.

from The Great Debate:

A fragile peace with Taliban if school attacks escalate

In the week in which America opened the door for negotiations with the Taliban, three bloody massacres of school children -- shot down simply because they wanted to go to school -- raise grave questions about what kind of peace the Taliban offer.

Within days of the initiative for talks, the Taliban shot to death nine foreign tourists encamped on the peak of Nanga Parbat in northern Pakistan, saying the murders were in retaliation for a drone attack that killed one of their leaders. But what kind of justification can possibly be offered for the firebombing of a college bus carrying forty girls from their Quetta campus in Pakistan? Fourteen defenseless girls died in the bombing; eight more people died when the terrorists ambushed the hospital.

from The Great Debate:

Obama faces only hard choices in Mideast

The conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that a newly empowered president, freed from the political constraints of reelection, will have more discretion, drive and determination to take on the Middle East’s most intractable problems.

Don’t believe it. This looks a lot more compelling on paper than in practice. Should President Barack Obama be tempted to embrace it, he may well find himself on the short end of the legacy stick.

from The Great Debate:

Awlaki and the Arab autumn

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

The death of Anwar al-Awlaki this morning is welcome news, but Washington policymakers should not delude themselves into thinking the drone that killed him is a supernatural antidote to militancy. Yes, drone strikes should continue, but the real playing field continues to be the aftermath of the Arab spring; namely vital elections scheduled for October in Tunisia and November in Egypt.

A series of outstanding stories by reporters from Reuters, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, have aptly laid out the stakes. Islamists are on the rise in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but an extraordinary battle is unfolding over the nature of Islam itself.

from The Great Debate:

Don’t overestimate Afghanistan pessimism

This is a response to Rory Stewart’s book excerpt “My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention.” David Rohde’s response can be read here and Anne-Marie Slaughter's response can be read here.

By James Dobbins
The views expressed are his own.

Rory Stewart maintains that it is “not simply difficult, but impossible” to build an Afghan state. Presumably, this is meant hyperbolically, since Afghanistan has been recognized as an independent state far longer than any of its northern or southern neighbors.

from The Great Debate:

My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention

By Rory Stewart
The views expressed are his own.

I returned to Afghanistan (after spending a short time at Harvard) in 2005. And when I heard that the British government was about to send three thousand soldiers into Helmand, I was confident that there would soon be a widespread insurgency. I also predicted that the military would demand more troops, and would get dragged ever deeper.

It wasn’t that I had any particular skill in predicting the future. I failed to predict that Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak would fall. I was wrong about Iraq. And my prediction for Helmand wasn’t based on any knowledge of Helmand. It was simply that I recognized the mindset and the actions of the NATO governments from Iraq. And I wasn’t alone in warning against the deployment. Many others predicted the same thing in Helmand. A military friend of mine had returned from a reconnaissance trip saying, “There isn’t an insurgency, but you can have one if you want one.” The Helmand surge continued regardless. The British government seemed to have a momentum, quite distinct from any individual politician or policy-maker. Troops were increased from two hundred U.S. Special Forces in 2005 to three thousand British soldiers in 2006.

from The Great Debate:

The 9/11 generation

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

In a speech last week at the American Legion convention in Minneapolis, President Obama rightly hailed what he called “the 9/11 generation,” the five million Americans who served in the military over the last decade.

“They’re a generation of innovators,” he declared. “And they’ve changed the way America fights and wins at wars.”

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