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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interviews with Presidents of World Crises

Aired May 9, 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: Three countries, three of the biggest crises facing the Obama administration. Afghanistan and a troubled and growing war. Neighboring Pakistan and a growing Taliban insurgency, the presidents of both countries, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari, they join me here this hour.

As well as the president of Israel, will his country attack Iran to keep it from getting a nuclear weapon? I'll ask Shimon Peres. He calls a nuclear Iran a threat to the entire world.

Plus, the First Lady of California Kennedy cousin Maria Shriver on her groundbreaking and very personal documentary about Alzheimer's disease, her husband's political future, and her Uncle Ted Kennedy's battle with brain cancer.

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: We meet today as three sovereign nations joined by a common goal, to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and it's extremist allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their ability to operate in either country in the future. And to achieve that goal, we must deny them the space to threaten the Pakistani, Afghan or American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Three American presidents, one united front. The goal, capture or kill terrorists before they kill more innocent people. Right now parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan explode with death and disturbance. Pakistan's military tries to beat back Taliban advances. And in Afghanistan, a raging battle against insurgents. All these issues impact U.S. national security.

So today, a rare occasion here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We have three presidents from the region, Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, Israel's Shimon Peres. But we begin with the leader of the country where so much of this violence originates.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. Mr. President, welcome to Washington. Thanks very much for joining us.

HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT, AFGHANISTAN: Happy to be with you again.

BLITZER: Always good to see you.

KARZAI: Always good to see you.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about these civilians who have been killed whether in U.S. led air strikes or other incidents. We see these very disturbing scenes of angry demonstrators in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan right now shouting death to America. Do you accept the U.S. explanation that the U.S. accidentally killed civilians in these air strikes? Or what else was going on?

KARZAI: Well, civilian casualties and the manner in which military operations are conducted has been a source of serious concern to the Afghan people for a long, long time. And because of the strength of the Afghan relationship with America, because of the desire for the Afghan people to have a better future and because of the desire of the Afghan people to defeat terrorism completely, and in alliance with America, there has been a lot of tolerance in Afghanistan for these incidents. But the more of these incident incidents, the lesser (INAUDIBLE) for these incidents...

BLITZER: Who's responsible? And what goes wrong if there is accidental air strikes that kill civilians?

KARZAI: Well, the air strikes are not acceptable. This is something that we embraced with the United States government very clearly that terrorism is not in the Afghan villages, not in Afghan homes. And you cannot defeat terrorists by air strikes.

BLITZER: But if they have U.S. or NATO - they have information that there are Taliban or al Qaeda suspects holed up and they're firing or whatever...

KARZAI: Even then.

BLITZER: Isn't it wise to go out there and...

KARZAI: It's not wise to use an aircraft. It's not wise to drop bombs from air on villages. We cannot justify in any manner for whatever number of Taliban, for whatever number of significantly important tourists, the accidental or otherwise loss of civilians. So this is something...

BLITZER: Did you mention that to President Obama?

KARZAI: We have -- we spoke about that. And President Obama was very nice and kind to direct and extend his sorrows and apologies for these incidents. BLITZER: In this most recent incident, that maybe 100 or 150 civilians, men, women and children were killed, do you know that it was the U.S. who did this?

KARZAI: This was definitely caused by bombings, yes. I came to know this this morning definite.

BLITZER: Because there was some suggestion maybe the Taliban were using hand grenades to blow up people...

KARZAI: No.

BLITZER: ...to blame the Americans.

KARZAI: No, no. Now we know for a fact. Our (INAUDIBLE) has concluded. They look at the area. We- -I got definitive word from the government this morning that there were more than 100 casualties, nearly 125 to 130 civilians lost, children, women and men. And that it was done by the bombings.

BLITZER: U.S. bombings?

KARZAI: Yes.

BLITZER: Will you demand what from the United States, compensation now, what?

KARZAI: We don't demand those things. We don't demand those things. We don't demand compensation. We don't demand any other, you know, assistance for our civilians lost. We demand the proper conduct for operations. We demand an end to these operations.

BLITZER: You want all air strikes over?

KARZAI: An end to air strikes. We believe strongly that air strikes are not an effective way in fighting terrorism, that air strikes rather cause civilian casualties. And that's not good for the U.S. That's not good for Afghanistan That's not good for the conduct of the war.

BLITZER: Does the Taliban use human shields to try to protect themselves?

KARZAI: Yes, they do.

BLITZER: And so how do you deal with that?

KARZAI: You deal with that by using the Afghan forces in the villages, using the villagers, using the Afghan government institutions, using daytime operations, using daytime search operations conducted by the Afghan forces, where the Afghan forces cannot succeed. Then the international forces can come and help us from a distance or from close.

BLITZER: Is it your bottom line that the Americans, the U.S. military in Afghanistan right now are as they say trigger happy?

KARZAI: Well I wouldn't describe them as trigger happy. But I would demand that we take a lot more care, as I have demanded in the past, which has caused tension between us in Washington, our demands, that they take a lot more care in the conduct of the war on terrorism. Specifically I would remind them once again that the war on terror is not fought and should not be in the Afghan villages and homes, that the Afghans are friends with the Afghan people who were successful in defeating the Taliban. That air strikes especially and sudden burst into homes at night are not in any way good for this war.

BLITZER: A spokesman for the Afghan Taliban gave an interview to our Nic Robertson, one of our correspondents and said this.

ZABIULLAH MUJAHIO, AFGHAN TALIBAN LEADER'S SPOKESMAN (through translator): Afghanistan will be the Vietnam for them, I want to tell you clearly, we will win and they will die.

BLITZER: Is there a possibility that the Taliban will win in Afghanistan?

KARZAI: No, no, that's a lot of nonsense. The Taliban should not be killing the Afghan people by suicide bombs, by roadside bombs. They should not be throwing acid at the faces of Afghan children going to school, Afghan girls going to school. They should not be murdering Afghan religious leaders, Afghan community leaders. They should not be destroying schools and clinics and doctors and engineers. They should not be destroying their own country. They should come back to Afghanistan and live with the Afghan people, with their own people, and allow the international community to work with us, to fight al Qaeda and the terrorists and to mend our country.

BLITZER: We invited our viewers from around the world to submit some questions for you, knowing we were going to be doing this interview. We got this from Jim Deol of Toronto, Canada.

JIMMYDEOL, CNN iREPORTER: President Karzai, is it a likely scenario that the elusive peace in Afghanistan would only be possible by making some kind of at least a regional power sharing deal with the Taliban?

KARZAI: No, I don't think that's right to do. What we are suggesting is a peace deal with those Taliban who are not part of al Qaeda, who are not part of any terrorist network, who are not up to any evil against Afghanistan or the rest of the world, who accept the Afghan constitution and the way of life, who can then peacefully return to Afghanistan and settle down in their country and then (INAUDIBLE), go to the parliament, (INAUDIBLE) for the president and do like all other Afghans do, have responsibilities, have privileges as Afghan citizens that we offer completely. And they can be governors. They can be all that they want, but through the Afghan constitutional process and through the political knobs that we have set now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And now to the other key player in this growing hotspot, Pakistan. In a pledge by President Obama.

(BEGIN VIEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I want the Pakistani people to understand that America is not simply against terrorism. We are on the side of their hopes and their aspirations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But the U.S. does have a big concern. Where is Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and is it secure? I put that question to Pakistan's president next.

Plus, an antagonistic leader threatening to develop nuclear weapons. Why Shimon Peres of Israel says Iran's Ahmadinejad may be his own worst enemy.

And a happy birthday from Hezbollah? The story behind the message are hidden inside to the Middle East reveal. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: And within Pakistan, we must provide lasting support to democratic institutions, while helping the government confront the insurgents who are the single greatest threat to the Pakistani state. We must do more than stand against those who would destroy Pakistan. We must stand with those who want to build Pakistan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Obama pledging support for a critical ally in the battle against extremists. Right now, Pakistan boils with killings and chaos, as the military tries to beat back Taliban advances. One real fear, keeping Pakistan's nuclear weapons secure.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari.

Mr. President, welcome to Washington.

ZARDARI: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan, a subject of great concern not only in your country but around the world. This is what the "New York Times" reported this week.

"The United States does not know where all of Pakistan's nuclear sites are located and its concerns have intensified in the last two weeks since the Taliban entered Buner, a district 60 miles from the capital. The spread of the insurgency has left American officials less willing to accept blanket assurances from Pakistan that the weapons are safe."

Are your nuclear weapons safe?

ZARDARI: Definitely safe.

First of all, they are in safe hands. B, there is a command and control system under the president of Pakistan. And Buner, like you say, as the crow flies, these mountains are 60, 70 miles from Islamabad. They have always been there. And there has been fighting there before. There will be fighting there again. And there has always been an issue of people in those mountains who we've been taking on. BLITZER: Because you know, the world is worried if the Taliban or associated groups were to take over.

ZARDARI: It doesn't work like that. They can't take over.

BLITZER: Why can't they take over?

ZARDARI: We have a 700,000 Army. How can they take over?

BLITZER: But aren't there elements within the Army who are sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda?

ZARDARI: I deny that. There aren't any, sir, sympathizers for them. There is a mind-set in the local area maybe who feel they are akin to the same religion, God, et cetera, et cetera. But nothing that should concern anybody as far as the nuclear arsenal or other instruments of such sort.

BLITZER: Because there has been deep concern as you know that the Pakistani intelligence service has links, direct links with Taliban and maybe even al Qaeda supporters.

ZARDARI: All intelligence links have their sources in all -- in all such organizations. Does that mean CIA has direct links with al Qaeda? No, they have their sources. We have our sources. Everybody has sources.

BLITZER: Do you feel you, as the president of Pakistan, have complete control over the Pakistani military?

ZARDARI: Yes, I do, sir.

BLITZER: You have no doubt about that? If you give an order, that order will be obeyed?

ZARDARI: It does, yes.

BLITZER: You're very confident of that?

ZARDARI: Very confident of that.

BLITZER: The security, getting back to the security of the nuclear arsenal, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, a man you've met with on a few occasions. He said he doesn't even know, and he is the top U.S. military officer, where Pakistan's various military, nuclear components are spread around. Is that information you're willing to share with the United States?

ZARDARI: I don't think so. I think it's on a need-to-know basis information.

BLITZER: But don't you think the United States should need to know something as critical as that?

ZARDARI: If comes up we might and I might not share it with them, it depends. BLITZER: Has the U.S. asked you for that kind of information that they would be reassured that the nuclear arsenal is safe?

ZARDARI: They have not asked me directly, no.

BLITZER: But what I hear you saying is that, if Admiral Mullen or some other high-ranking U.S. official, maybe the president of the United States, were to say, you know what, let's work together, let's learn about your arsenal so that maybe we can help you. You'd be open to that?

ZARDARI: I think it's already been shared before.

BLITZER: What has been shared before?

ZARDARI: The information of the concerns have been shared before. Let's put it this way. Every official of any knowledge in your administration has shown -- they have given the same statement, that they have confidence in the fact that they are safe.

BLITZER: They have said that, that they are confident that they are safe but Admiral Mullen the other day said he's not sure, he's not sure where everything is located, he doesn't have that kind of information and he said he respected Pakistani sovereignty.

ZARDARI: So that answers the question.

BLITZER: How worried are you -- this is a blunt question, but there is a history in Pakistan -- of a coup d'etat, a military coup, taking over, removing you as the president of Pakistan?

ZARDARI: I don't think there is any such chance at the moment. Whenever we had a coup d'etat, whenever we have had a dictator, he's always been supported by you, as in the United States.

BLITZER: When you say the United States...

ZARDARI: The United States. And I don't think the...

BLITZER: So, when President Musharraf took over, you say the U.S. supported that?

ZARDARI: I think that is our position. Yes, they did.

And I feel that, at the moment, the world does not have the appetite to support another coup d'etat in Pakistan.

BLITZER: But what I hear you saying, if there were a coup in Pakistan, you would blame the United States for that?

ZARDARI: I would blame all the democratic forces in the world. And we always have.

And then we worked with them in order to get our country back. We've fought three dictators already. People's Party has a history of fighting three dictators and winning over them. BLITZER: As you know, I interviewed your late wife Benazir Bhutto here. She was sitting in that seat where you are right now just before she went back to Pakistan. All of us were worried what might happened. And we know the worst case scenario happened.

Let me ask you, how worried are you, Mr. President about your security?

ZARDARI: I'm -that is a very, it's in the back of my mind, but the fact of the matter is worrying doesn't solve anything. She came, she was there, she got attention, she managed to throw out a dictator. In her spirit under her name, under her philosophy, democracy, we took the presidency, we took the prime ministership, we made a first time woman speaker of Pakistan and parliament. Now under the same philosophy, we shall defeat the Taliban. We shall defeat all the challenges and take Pakistan into the 21st century.

BLITZER: Mr. President, good luck.

ZARDARI: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you very much for coming in.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The United States is providing money to Pakistan and its military. Of the $1 billion in emergency aid, $400 million is for new military aid, mostly to train and equip Pakistani forces for counter insurgency operations. The Obama administration proposes adding another $700 million in its budget.

In terms of troop strength, Pakistan's military ranks seventh in the world with 620,000 troops and another 500,000 in reserve. The president takes the new tone on the Taliban threat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: We will sustain our cooperation and we will work for the day when our nations are linked not by a common enemy, but by a shared peace and prosperity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So what's behind the optimism after that summit with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan? I'll ask CNN's Fareed Zakaria.

And will Israel strike Iran to keep it from getting nuclear weapons? My interview with the Israeli President Shimon Peres.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I'm pleased that these two men, elected leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat that we face and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it. And I am pleased that we have advanced unprecedented cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan on a bilateral basis. And among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States which will benefit all of our people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Obama sounding optimistic after this week's White House summit. Are things actually moving in the right direction?

Joining us now, Fareed Zakaria. His latest book is out in paperback right now. It's called "The Post American World." He's the host of "Fareed Zakaria GPS." It airs Sundays, 1:00 Eastern right here on CNN.

He was pretty upbeat after that three-way meeting, even though only a few days earlier he sounded very different, listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not because I think that they're immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan. More concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Fareed, you know this region well, you understand U.S. policy, what's going on?

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: I think what Obama was trying to do was put a good face on the situation. I think it is certainly true that these two presidents are getting on much better than they have before. You remember of course President Karzai and President Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan had very bad relations, in fact traded barbs with each other off and on your show.

So things moved forward in that respect, but the key problem was is the guy who wasn't the room, General Kiani (ph), the head of the Pakistan military who actually runs Pakistan and who particularly runs Pakistan's national security policy. So Zardari, the president of Pakistan, can make assurances all he wants. He has been overruled time and again by the military.

BLITZER: But he told me, President Zardari, that he's not worried about a military coup. Should he be worried?

ZAKARIA: I don't think that he should. I think General Kiani has made clear that he doesn't have an interest in that. But he tried to do a series of things which would take control of policy, national security policy from the military.

For example, he tried to have Pakistan's intelligence service, the so- called ISI, report to the Minister of the Interior rather than the Army Chief of Staff, which is happens currently. General Kiani said no way. He offered to send the head of the intelligence services to India after the Mumbai attacks. General Kiani overruled him publicly the next day. So...

BLITZER: There's a rivalry between India and Pakistan?

ZAKARIA: Precisely. So right now it isn't clear to me that that photo-op was as meaningful as it could have been. Not so much because, you know, these guys aren't good guys, but because the guy who wasn't in the photograph, the general who runs Pakistan is really the person we have to convince.

BLITZER: President Zardari assured us that he was not worried and no one should be worried about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. You buy that?

ZAKARIA: I buy that in the sense that the Pakistani army is pretty disciplined, pretty professional. It has control over those sites. They're probably mostly in Punjab, not in these areas that are being overrun by the Taliban.

Here's the danger, though, Wolf. It's a spiraling anarchy in Pakistan, downward spiral which produces so much chaos and so many factions within the Pakistani military might even start allying with various forces that you have a leakage of fissile material. It's not the actual sites which have the nuclear missiles I worry about. It's the fact that some of this stuff can get out, sold on the black market, given to ideological pals. This is what A.Q. Carne (ph) did in Pakistan. So this is not an idle fear.

BLITZER: The U.S. has been encouraging the Pakistani military to go on the offensive and crush the Taliban in those border areas in northwest Pakistan. And they're doing that apparently right now. And there are a lot of refugees that have resulted from this new military assault. Is all of this smart?

ZAKARIA: You know, it's a great question, because first this issue of -- the Pakistani military wants to fight this fight? And then the second question is do they know how to?

From watching what they're doing right now, it looks a lot like the way we fought in Iraq during the occupation for the first year and a half or two. That is to say very large scale operations, massive civilian casualties. You heard civilians out of the area, producing a lot of alienation. A lot of these guys now hate the government. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled.

I don't think they understand how to do counter insurgency. Look, it took us a while in Iraq to figure out. And the Pakistani military has never wanted to do counter insurgency. They'd much rather pretend they're preparing for the war against India, than deal with this very thorny complex one which they could lose.

BLITZER: Fareed Zakaria's new bestseller "The Post American World." It's out in paperback right now. Fareed, thanks very much for coming in.

ZAKARIA: Always a pleasure, Wolf. BLITZER: And tomorrow, Fareed Zakaria will sit down with the Dalai Lama. Is there still hope after 60 years of struggle with China? "Fareed Zakaria GPS," it airs Sunday, every Sunday, 1:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

A country flexing its muscle and threatening to go nuclear. Can Iran's president be talked out of it? Why one of his biggest adversaries, Israel's Shimon Peres says maybe. And a birthday message form militants, a side of the Middle East most Americans never see.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT: Instead of arresting the danger in the last six years, the danger has grown. It has not been arrested. We're determined to change that. That's why we will pursue direct principle diplomacy with Iran. With the overriding goal of preventing him from acquiring nuclear weapons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But what if U.S. diplomatic efforts don't bear fruit? Will Israel attack Iran in an effort to keep it from getting a nuclear weapon? I sat down with Israel's President Shimon Peres.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: President Peres, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to Washington.

SHIMON PERES, ISRAELI PRESIDENT: Thank you.

BLITZER: How much of a threat do you see right now from Iran's nuclear program?

PERES: I see it as a threat to the entire world. I don't think that Israel has to monopolize this threat.

BLITZER: How much time is there, do you believe, before the Iranians actually have a nuclear bomb?

PERES: I don't know. It may be a year. It may be two years. Nobody knows. I am not sure the Iranians know.

BLITZER: Is Israel considering some sort of military action to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, along the lines of what you did to the Iraqi nuclear facilities back in 1981, and, more recently, a Syrian suspected nuclear facility?

PERES: What Israel hopes for is that world leaders, headed by President Obama, will do whatever possible not to allow the Iranians to have a nuclear bomb.

BLITZER: What if that fails?

PERES: Well, let's see. Maybe it will succeed.

Why start with the failure?

Let's start with the hope.

BLITZER: So far, it hasn't succeeded. They seem to be accelerating their enrichment of uranium.

PERES: I'm not sure. It's partly succeeded.

Why?

Because they have two problems. One is the enriched uranium and the other is the nature of the present rulers of Iran. What they did already, they split the Arab world so deeply, so meaningfully, that they changed the situation.

Ahmadinejad organized an Arab profound opposition to his policies, to his government. He created a new chance for peace, unwillingly.

BLITZER: Because you're talking about the Arab countries like Israel, who -- who are worried about Iran's nuclear ambitions. PERES: I'm talking about the Arab countries -- most of them are Sunnites -- 70 percent of the Arab world...

BLITZER: Sunni?

PERES: Sunni. They think that Iran is the greatest danger, not Israel.

BLITZER: Which countries are you talking about specifically?

PERES: I can mention Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Principalities, Morocco, who can't have relations with Iran -- most of the Arab countries.

I recently interviewed the Vice President Joe Biden almost the exactly a month ago. And I asked them about Israel and Iran and the possibility of an Israeli military strike. Here's what he said.

BIDEN: I don't believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu would do that. I think it would be ill advised to do that. And so my level of concern is no different than it was a year ago.

PERES: Let me say, look, Israel did not make any decision to attack military Iran. Israel took a decision to coordinate our policies with that of the United States. The friendship with the United States is in our eyes the most important strategic asset. We are not going to endanger it.

Now if President Obama thinks he wants to start with engagement, okay. But as long as the president doesn't say all other options are out, he doesn't say it because he warns that Iran will take seriously his proposal. Even Putin says that I cannot agree that Iran will have a nuclear weapon. The same is with Israel. We don't agree that they will have a nuclear weapon. Nobody suggests your solve tomorrow with a war. It's nonsense. Nobody suggests that you will tranquilize Iran unnecessarily. You want engagement, okay. You want economic sanctions, okay. You want to limit the distance or the production of the long range missiles, okay. You want to control the situation in the Persian Gulf, okay. We should listen carefully. We are a responsible government who don't do any crazy missions. And we should wait the situation according to each development.

BLITZER: Do you have a problem with the Obama administration reaching out and seeking a dialogue with Ahmadinejad?

PERES: Look, if it will be successful, God bless him. Who wants a war? We're not crazy. We don't want that Iran will be a menace to us, to the Arabs, to the entire world.

BLITZER: So you think it's realistic, it's potentially realistic that Iran could step back from a nuclear weapons program through diplomatic or political needs?

PERES: I wouldn't count it out, because is not only thing. There is an opposition against Ahmadinejad already inside Iran itself. We have two problems to change the system, to prevent a nuclear war. The combination between the two, that's what makes it so dangerous.

BLITZER: Mr. President, good luck.

PERES: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: The Middle East certainly rife with turmoil, but violence and extremists are only part of the story. I'll speak with the author of a new book about a very different side of the region. And the First Lady of california, Maria Shriver, she talks about her father's struggle with Alzheimer's. The impact on her family and why it led her to make a very personal documentary about the disease.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There are elements in the Middle East which most Americans will never experience or see, but my next guest has opened a window to the hidden side of that region.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now, Neil Macfarquhar, the author of a brand new book, "The Media Relations Department of Hezbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East."

Neil, thanks very much for coming in.

NEIL MACFARQUHAR, AUTHOR: Thank you for talking to me.

BLITZER: You got to explain this title to us. MACFARQUHAR: Well, when you work in Hezbollah country, which is sort of the southern neighborhoods of Beirut or Southern Lebanon, they make you fill out a bunch of forms first. And they ask you your mother's name, where you went to college, and your birthday. And then suddenly on my birthday, e-mail messages started popping up, saying happy birthday from Hezbollah.

BLITZER: Which is pretty unusual. And that cover, the book jacket, turn around take a look at it. That little boy on the book jacket, that's you growing up in Libya?

MACFARQUHAR: Yeah, I grew up on the Mediterranean, spent five years there underneath the former king, and five years with Khaddafi.

BLITZER: So ten years, so you learned Arabic, obviously.

MACFARQUHAR: Well, I think one of the points I try and make in the book is that we're often kind of isolated from the countries around us even as a correspondent. And we were living in an oil camp where they didn't let Libyans in during the - they let them in during the day, but they weren't allowed to live there. So actually went back after college and learned to speak Arabic.

BLITZER: And then you were based in Cairo, moved around.

Let's talk a little bit about what you learned in the Middle East. I'm going to read to you from the book. "So which is the real Middle East? All that bloodshed or the people struggling to improve their lot, to increase their space to breathe? It is both, and the latter are certainly the majority, yet extremists, color our entire impression of the region."

As someone who has traveled around the Middle East a lot over the years. I think it's an accurate description that most of us just focus in on the violence, the extremism, the anti-American aspect, but there's so much more.

MACFARQUHAR: I think so. And I mean, I've spent 20 years covering the region or writing about it. And you know, I go back to the wars, the first Gulf War, the various uprisings in the occupied territories, the invasion of Iraq. And I just sort of feel like there's this litany of violence that leaves the impression that the whole region is sort of masked gunmen or, you know, veiled women who would say rescue me if they could talk.

And I think that we need to look at it in the less monochromatic fashion. And so I talk about the most famous chef in Lebanon. I talk about a devout Muslim woman who's got a cable show that talks about sex therapy. She's a sex therapist. I talk about Fehruz (ph) is the most...

BLITZER: Stories we wouldn't normally read about or hear about, see on television. And that's what this book is all about.

Is it fair to say that the -- from the women's perspective, as far as women in the Muslim and the Arab world, is the situation getting better or worse right now from the West's perspective?

MACFARQUHAR: I think there's a, you know, there's sort of a conservative resurgence which makes women want to veil their hair and things like that. But I also think that with globalization, seeing women's rights in the rest of the world, that women in the Arab world are being much more outspoken about demanding their rights. And they're also getting much more educated. And so they are finding that they can push against the system to get, you know, a broader role.

BLITZER: The -- reaching out that President Obama has done since taking office, giving an interview to al Arabiya, delivering videos, for example, to the Iranians, is that going to pay off?

MACFARQUHAR: You know, it's a long term effort. And I think it's good that, you know, the fault other presidents made, including President Clinton and President Bush is they waited too long into their terms to try and engage. And he's starting right from the beginning and saying I'm going to listen and I'm going to try and help, you know, people who are poor and lack opportunity.

And I think that the change in tone is important.

BLITZER: I interviewed Shimon Peres, the president of Israel. Is there any hope that this Israeli-Palestinian peace process can get back on track?

MACFARQUHAR: I mean, I think everyone in the region wants it. And I think certainly people on both sides want it. It's just trying to get the two political sides to negotiate. And they're kind of far apart at the moment.

BLITZER: So what does the United States need to do to make - to get them going at least, in order to achieve some sort of deal the way the Israelis did with the Egyptians, later with the Jordanians? Clearly, there's an opportunity, but it seems so desperate.

MACFARQUHAR: I think in the United States push is on both sides that the move would be popular among the people in the region. And I think that's what you have to keep your eye on. You know, you have to keep your eye on what the people want.

BLITZER: And so the balancing act from the U.S. is what?

MACFARQUHAR: I think the balancing act from the U.S. is listening to both sides and trying to find common ground where they can create a peace plan. I mean, they've reached the outline so many times. They've come close so many times with Syria. They've come close with the Palestinians. And I think it just needs to, you know, they need to push both sides, both governments.

BLITZER: So there's an opportunity that has to be exploited and exploited well. Neil, thanks very much for coming in. You're still covering United Nations, right?

MACFARQUHAR: I am, yes. BLITZER: Neil Macfarquhar is the U.N. correspondent for "The New York Times," also the author of "The Media Relations Department of Hezbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday." Thanks very much.

MACFARQUHAR: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: California's First Lady Maria Shriver brings a personal story to television, her dad, Sergeant Shriver's struggle with Alzheimer's disease and how the illness has affected her family and other families.

And an unlikely trio meets with President Obama over at the White House. One of this week's hot shots.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: See, I told you my wife right now is Praise.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your wife is - well, who do you think I am?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, let me see. I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't know? I am your wife.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you really?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Uh-huh.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What a power line scene. It's from the four-part HBO documentary, "The Alzheimer's Project". For co executive producer Maria Shriver, it was a labor of true love. Her dad Sergeant Shriver suffers from Alzheimer's and no longer even recognizes his own daughter. The First Lady of California is here to talk about this with us. Maria, thanks so much for coming in, but more importantly, thanks so much for doing this documentary on HBO.

Tell us how it started? What made you decide you wanted to really do this and talk so personally and openly about your dad's Alzheimer's?

MARIA SHRIVER, CALIFORNIA FIRST LADY: Well, Wolf, I wrote a book in 2004 for children called "What's Happening to Grandpa?" And I approached HBO at that time. And they didn't think the time was right to do the subject, not enough people were talking about it, not enough people had been diagnosed.

And then about two years ago, Sheila Evans whom I've tried to work with on and off for many years called me and said I think the time is right now. The numbers are ballooning. People are really interested. There's a major federal study underway. And we want to do it in a big way. Will you be involved? And I was thrilled, because I knew I could tell just by the way people come up to me that the numbers were changing. And I thought it would be a great television event and that people would be interested in the subject.

BLITZER: How is your father doing?

SHRIVER: Oh, well, he's doing well. If you saw him, you'd think he's doing well. And my brothers take him out to ball games to watch their kids play and that sort of thing. But I think, you know, Alzheimer's is a challenging emotional disease. It's challenging financially, spiritually in every single way.

So when I go home this afternoon to Washington and go in and see my dad, I'll introduce myself to him. And I have to keep doing that. And I'll get a reaction somewhat like that man just had the reaction to his wife where he said, you are? And I get that same reaction from my dad when I tell him I'm his daughter. He says you are? Isn't that wonderful? And will shake my hand or kiss my hand and marvel that I am who I say I am.

BLITZER: So how does that make you feel?

SHRIVER: Well, it's complicated. I mean, you -- it's complicated to put into words. It's a whoa moment when you realize that your parent doesn't know who you are. And that -- I think there are many whoa moments in Alzheimer's, when you realize that that person isn't who they used to be. That's like an aha moment when they don't know your name or don't know the simplest things.

And when you realize they need 24 hour care. And so at every step of this disease, you have a moment that takes you aback and says okay, now I'll deal with this new normal.

BLITZER: Because your dad, a lot of remember, he was the first Peace Corps director, he was a vice presidential candidate. How old is he right now?

SHRIVER: He's 93. He was also a presidential candidate, started the war on poverty, Headstart, legal services for the poor, job corps, a lot of incredible poverty programs that are still in existence today. And he had the most sharply tuned mind of any human being I've ever seen. And when I testified in the Congress about a month ago, I talked about he knew everybody in that building, he knew their politics, their soft spots, who they were married, what their whole life story was about.

So this was a man who could do a crossword puzzle in, you know, seconds. And Alzheimer's struck him down.

So I think that while we say the numbers are 5.5 million to 6 million people, anybody dealing with Alzheimer's know that the millions more are impacted by the one person who has the disease. And they say every 70 seconds, a new person is being diagnosed. And Speaker Gingrich and Senator Kerry and Justice O'Connor testified to the fact that this disease alone will break the health care system if we don't find a cure and then revamp the health care system to deal with Alzheimer's.

BLITZER: How many years has it been since he's was diagnosed? In other words, how many years has he been going through this?

SHRIVER: Well, he was diagnosed in 2003, but we knew that he had Alzheimer's for several months before that. And I think it's up to every family individually about when they want to tell people, who they want to tell. And we tried to work with our dad.

I think you also work with the -- your loved one to maintain their dignity. And my father loved giving speeches. So that was kind of our first hurdle was to try to regret the speech invitations that came in to him. And I think back then, there was a lot of confusion around the disease. You didn't want people to think he didn't know or he didn't want people to know what you knew. There was a lot of that. I think that's lessening now. I'm hoping that this project on HBO will bring, as I say, Alzheimer's out of the basement and into the living room and make it acceptable to talk about.

And different cultures I would say also deal with this in different ways. And 70% of people with Alzheimer's are living at home. A quarter of a million children are caring for grandparents with Alzheimer's. This is an American family epidemic. And I'm hopeful that this Alzheimer's project will put some light on this really complicated disease.

BLITZER: It's an important project. You have another illness in your family. Your Uncle Ted Kennedy who had brain cancer, how's he doing?

SHRIVER: Well, I can only tell you that I did an interview this morning on a rival network. And the only call I got of the day was from Teddy. So when I checked my messages, there was a message this morning from Teddy saying, I watched you, you're doing great, I'm doing great, and keep up the good work. You're so, you know, went on and on. And only a loving uncle can do.

So he sounded great this morning. I'm hoping to see him this weekend. But I think also with, you know, whether you're dealing with cancer or Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, you learn to kind of take at a time and count your blessings that you have that person on that day in front of you.

BLITZER: Well, give your uncle and your dad our best. And we wish that only the best. The documentary "The Alzheimer Project" airs on our sister network HBO Sunday night. Maria, thanks for coming in.

SHRIVER: Thank you, Wolf. Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Walls of flame closing in on an exclusive stretch of the California coast, just one of this week's hot shots. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of this week's hot shots from our friends over at the Associated Press. In Washington, Michael Bloomberg, Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich meet with President Obama to talk about education.

In California, a home was threatened by a wall of flames as a wildfire raged.

In Vietnam, a group of kindergarten students walked to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

And in Germany, an orangutan painted a picture at the zoo, some of this week's hot shots, pictures worth 1,000 words.

I'm Wolf Blitzer here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Join us weekdays in THE SITUATION ROOM from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. Eastern, and every Saturday at 6:00 p.m. Eastern on CNN and at this time every weekend on CNN International. Happy Mother's Day to all the others out there. The news continues next on CNN.

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