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Fareed Zakaria GPS
Crisis in Syria; Syrian Regional Perspective; Interview with Neil Gershenfeld
Aired September 01, 2013 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Welcome to all our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is a special live addition of GPS, the Global Public Square. I'm Fareed Zakaria in Istanbul, Turkey.
If you cross the Bosphorus behind me and went a few hundred miles, you'd be in Syria. And if you went the other way, through the Sea of Marmara, you would reach the Mediterranean where U.S. warships are at the ready for possible orders to launch missiles at Syria.
And it's where we're focus the show today on President Obama's dual decisions announced Saturday that the United States should take military action, but that he would seek Congress's approval first.
We'll start the show with big minds in foreign policy: Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Haas on those decisions, whether they were right for America and the world.
Then, to politics. The British Parliament decided against military action in Syria. Will the U.S. Congress do the same thing?
And I'm in the region so we'll take the pulse of it. What is actually going on inside Syria and is it now a regional war?
But, first, here's my take: Last March, President Barack Obama spoke off-the-cuff about how Syria's use of chemical weapons would be a "game-changer." It has turned out to be, except not quite in the sense that he meant.
It has been an event that has confused and confounded the Obama administration. Whatever your views on the larger issues, it's hard not to conclude that the administration's handling of Syria over the last year has been a case study in how not to conduct foreign policy.
The president started out with an understanding that the Syrian conflict is a messy sectarian struggle that cannot be influenced easily by American military intervention. He was disciplined in resisting calls to jump into a cauldron.
But from the start, he confused and undermined this policy with loose rhetoric, perhaps egged on by some of his advisors and critics to "do something." So, he announced just over two years ago that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had to go.
Now, a pundit can engage in grandiose rhetoric. The president of the United States should make declarations like that only if he has some strategy to actually achieve it. He did not.
In truth, Obama and many others miscalculated. They believed that Assad's regime was near the end, misreading both its strength and brutality, but also the level of support it has from several segments of Syrian society.
Then, just about a year ago, came the off-the-cuff remarks about a red line on chemical weapons, insufficiently thought through but now publicly stated and definitive.
Since then, American foreign policy in Syria has largely been concerned about ensuring that Obama's threat does not seem empty. After all, what American national interest is being followed?
The administration says it is upholding international law. Except, as Fred Kaplan points out in Slate, the institutions that embody international law and consensus, the United Nations and other international organizations, do not support this action.
The United States plus France and Turkey cannot be considered the embodiment of international law and global public opinion.
The nature of the strike, we are told, will be short and symbolic, a shot across the bow, in the midst of a civil war in which both sides are in a high-stakes struggle for survival.
Does anyone think that this will make any difference? And then, the strangest twist, an unplanned, last minute appeal to Congress, paving the way for further delay, weakening momentum, erasing what little surprise existed, and setting the stage for a potential defeat at home.
I don't think that this strike, should it eventually take place, will be as damaging as its critics fear. The Assad regime will likely hunker down, take it, and move on.
It will make little difference one way or the other. But the manner in which the Obama administration has first created and then mismanaged this crisis will, alas, cast a long shadow on America's role in the world.
That's my view. Let's get started.
We're live in Istanbul, Turkey, a country that shares a 500-mile border with Syria. You just hear my take. Now, let's hear from two experts on U.S. foreign policy.
Zbigniew Brzezinski served as National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. And Richard Haas is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as director of policy planning at the State Department and he is the author of "Foreign Policy Begins at Home."
Zbigniew, let me start with you. Secretary Kerry revealed on CNN, on the preceding show, that the United States now has independent confirmation of sarin signatures. Do you believe that this case is now both clear and important enough for the United States to act?
ZBIGNIEW BREZEZINSKI, FORMER UNITED STATES NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: I think the fact is that we are very heavily committed to act. Presidential leadership is at stake. American credibility's at stake.
I think the worst outcome would be now to act indecisively. The vote in Congress, for example, if it turns out to be split evenly or if there's a very heavy vote against it, will further complicate the issues.
I hope the United States acts now in keeping with its commitment. It has made a commitment. I hope Congress supports the president. And I hope we then close the chapter on two years, as you have correctly described, a very inept performance by the United States internationally.
We now have to think in a larger perspective. We have to ask ourselves is the region sliding into an explosion and what can we do, together with others, to avert that.
ZAKARIA: Richard, is it possible for us to make this move, to do the strike as Zbigniew says, because, at this point, not to do it would clearly be -- you know, would be, in some ways, a collapse of credibility, but to do it and stop there, as Zbigniew is suggesting.
Are we not -- have we not inched forward over the last year more and more to a point where we have a dog in this fight?
RICHARD HAAS, PRESIDENT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Well, it's important to do the strike. And, as you say, we made it more difficult on ourselves with the delay, with now the need for congressional authorization.
We've raised all sorts of questions about our reliability. We've raised questions about our predictability and so forth. I also think we've now made it more difficult to "thread the needle," as the president wants to do.
All along, he said, he wanted to reinforce this norm against chemical weapons use, but he didn't want to get the United States enmeshed in the Syrian Civil War.
But with the delay, with the uncertainty, with now the Syrian ability to prepare psychologically and physically for these attacks, it seems to me the administration needs to do more.
Simply to do a pinprick or a shot across the bow or anything token doesn't underscore the norm. It defeats the purpose which is to inflict real pain and cost on the Syrian government for using chemical weapons.
So, this is, to use a different metaphor, Fareed, it's a real Goldilocks challenge. He has to use enough to make the point, but not so much that the administration finds itself getting dragged into the civil war. Finding that spot now is going to be quite difficult.
ZAKARIA: Zbigniew, is that possible? Because, at the end of the day, it is a civil war and by attacking Assad, you are indirectly helping the Sunni militias that are trying to oust him; the largest, best organized of which is Al-Nusra, which is deeply allied with al- Qaeda.
So, we are ending up not only taking sides in a civil war, but we're helping guys who in Afghanistan and Yemen we are actually trying to kill with drones.
BREZEZINSKI: Oh, you're absolutely right. I have been saying that for almost two years. I think the whole approach has been misconceived. But I'm operating right now from the point at which we are currently. What do we do now?
And it seems to me that he has to go through some symbolic military action because he has committed himself so heavily and I hope the country supports him.
But, beyond that, we have to move towards a wider international effort to deal with the problem of Syria, but also in a larger regional context.
We have to enlist not only our former colonial powers, namely the French and the British, in some joint effort, not necessarily the Turks, who also used to dominate the region.
We also have to involve the oriental powers, the Asian countries, which are so dependent on the steady flow of oil from this region. They have to be very worried as to where this is headed.
This engages, in some fashion, also the Russians, in spite of the aggressive and insulting language they're using. You know, one of Mr. Putin's closest associates said the other day, and I'm just reading it to you now, "The West behaves towards the Islamic world like a monkey with a grenade."
We have to be aware of the fact that the Russians may use this conflict, if it explodes, to undermine overall our position in the Middle East.
We have to create a situation in which it becomes in their interest to participate in a larger, international initiative to define the rules of the game and the solutions for the current problems which go beyond Syria; that is to say the overall potentially explosive state of the Middle East.
ZAKARIA: Richard, you understand the Republican Party and foreign policy pretty well. You've served three Republican presidents. What do you think the Republican mood right now with regard to this issue is?
HAAS: Well, the Republican Party, as you know, is split on foreign policy. You've got everything from minimalists, who essentially want to have as little foreign policy as they can, to so- called Neocons who are quite assertive in their view that the United States ought to try to remake other countries abroad and you've got those in between.
I think there's also those in the Republican Party who want to weaken the president. That said, my guess is many will rally around some form of a resolution simply because the cost of not support this would be enormous.
I also think that whether, Fareed, the next president is Republican or Democrat, this sets a strong precedent of going to the Congress, not simply for approval, but for authorization.
It in some ways diminishes presidential prerogative. It also puts the president in real trouble if Congress narrows the authorization.
So, I think there's a lot of precedents here that are unfortunate for future or Republican or Democratic presidents. And I think that what will happen as a result is this Republican Party will be loathe to make it impossible for the United States to act.
But this is not going to be a -- if you will, an uncritical support. And I just add one other thing, even if the president wins the vote, it doesn't provide a blank check of support or cover down the road.
If this were to go badly, if this Middle East, if you will, stays true to form, and this is not going to protect the president from Republican or, for that matter, Democrat criticism in the future.
ZAKARIA: Zbigniew, one last quick though from you. You know Obama. You've been national security advisor. Is this -- does this reflect some kind of breakdown of process? What went wrong?
BREZEZINSKI: Well, in a sense, I think a lot of things went wrong. I think the president became simultaneously the chief executive, the principal spokesman and the policy-shaper without clear indication of what the strategy is.
I think he stumbled into a series of tactical problems that now loom large as potentially strategic dangers. So, I think that's part of the problem.
Secondly, I think our foreign policy in the Middle East has been essentially ad hoc, never dealing comprehensively with the region, but dealing with its separate parts. I think we're now beginning to play the costs of that.
We have to redeem ourselves in this respect. And this is where I agree, I think, with Richard that an outcome in Congress could be troublesome. Because the precedence now being established that the president cannot act militarily even in the terms of limited military missions.
We have liberate ourselves from this unfortunate past and launch a comprehensive region-wide international initiative which engages the major countries of the world that have a stake in this region of blowing up and please countries that are not just Western countries.
In that context, we might be able to seduce the Russians into a more positive stance because the Russians don't want to be isolated in the end and they are fearful of stability in the caucuses.
Putin has a stake in the Winter Olympics. There is leverage here that we can use intelligently if we have a long-term policy for the Middle East as a whole and not just for disparate parts.
ZAKARIA: Zbigniew, thank you.
Richard Haas, thank you.
Very important messages. Lots more ahead. We're going to dig deeper into Britain's vote against striking Syria. What does it mean in the U.S. Congress. We're live in Istanbul, Turkey, and we will be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: Welcome back to GPS. I'm Fareed Zakaria, live from Istanbul, Turkey, today. That was British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking in parliament seeking approval to strike Syria, but he suffered a resounding defeat and accepted it.
What are the implications of that vote? Will the same thing happen here in the United States? I have two expert watchers of politics on both sides of the pond:
Nicholas Wapshott is a columnist for Reuters. He's the founding editor for the Times Magazine in London. Jay Newton-Small is the congressional correspondent of Time Magazine.
Nicholas, is what happened in Britain with the British Parliament the prize for Iraq. In other words, the disenchantment that the British public and therefore its representatives feel about the whole Iraq imbroglio and the fact that Blair led that country into war?
Or is it more than that? Is it really about the collapse of British power and the unwillingness to play any kind of a world role?
NICHOLAS WAPSHOTT, COLUMNIST, REUTERS: No, it's the first preeminently. It's about the fact that the Iraq War cast a very long shadow on both sides of the Atlantic. The interesting thing by Cameron was that actually he didn't need to. Rather like Obama, he didn't need consent from parliament. But he, like Obama, faces a divided parliament. He doesn't have a majority in parliament of his own people and he can't count upon them.
And it turned out there were just too many people who, for reasons completely unrelated to foreign policy, were prepared to trip him up on this. He also didn't prepare himself properly it's true to say.
This came before this extraordinary convincing list from John Kerry of reasons why we know who exactly did it. Had he prepared the ground more carefully, I think that we wouldn't have found himself in a position.
But for Obama, he spoke to Obama after his defeat and for Obama to walk straight into the same trap strikes me as bizarre.
ZAKARIA: Jay, when you listen to British Parliamentarians, members of the conservative party, saying that they simply did not understand why this was in British interests to get involved in this, do you hear enough echoes of that among Congressional Republicans that makes you think that we might be surprised by the weakness of support from the Congressional Republicans?
JAY NEWTON-SMALL, CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, TIME MAGAZINE: Absolutely. You hear, not just from Congressional Republicans, but also from Congressional Democrats.
This is an issue that splits both parties and you see hawks and doves on both sides in both parties. And it's going to be very difficult, especially in the House, to muster these votes and you're going to see a lot of coalition-building.
So, it's interesting to see that you have both sides, both Nancy Pelosi, who's the leader of the Democrats and John Boehner, who's Speaker of the House Republicans, have set sort of their conferences free, their caucuses free, and said you can vote your conscience here.
But we expect we're going to have to build coalitions and spent a lot of time in the next few weeks trying to whip both sides essentially and see where the votes are.
ZAKARIA: Nicholas, you're a historian. You're writing actually about the Anglo-American relationship. Do you think that these kind of setbacks have occurred in the past or is this new? Is this sort of the end of the special relationship?
WAPSHOTT: No, I don't think it's the end of the special relationship. But you're quite right that the history does tend to repeat itself in various forms.
I just, as it happens this weekend, (inaudible) writing a book about Franklin Roosevelt and how he outsmarted the isolationists. It took him two full years between the beginning of World War II -- and Pearl Harbor was the final trigger, but he took two long years as the isolationists in Congress tried to prevent him from doing what actually American now faces.
It is the richest country in the world. It is the most powerful country in the world. And if it forgoes the responsibility that goes with that wealth, then they are going to cede the ground to another country to start intervening instead of even worse to allow the country, the whole world, which is shrinking, you can hear it shrink by the day, become a lawless place.
And, so the issues here are about as profound as you can get in terms of the history of the world, I would say.
ZAKARIA: Nicholas, Jay, thanks for joining us.
We're going to stay on this story. Up next, the regional perspective. What do Syria's neighbors want the United States to do? Turkey, Lebanon, Israel. We'll be right back.
ZAKARIA: Welcome back to GPS, the Global Public Square. I'm Fareed Zakaria coming to you live from Istanbul, Turkey. We've been talking about the situation in neighboring Syria.
Should the United States strike Damascus or not? What do people in the region think? Soli Ozel is in Istanbul. He's a professor of international relations at Turkey's Kadir Has University.
And Fawaz Gerges is in London. He's been inside Syria frequently over the last two years. Fawaz is the author of "Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment."
Soli, let me ask you. If the United States miscalculated about the durability of the Assad regime, so did Syria's next-door neighbor, Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan also thought Assad would go and declared he was going to go and seems to have been caught in a similar miscalculation.
Turkey has been trying to build up some kind of moderate, legitimate alternative to Assad as a political leadership and has very little to show for it. Take us inside. What is going on?
SOLI OZEL, PROFESSOR, KADIR HAS UNIVERSITY: Well, to begin with, I think most everyone in the world that wanted the Assad regime to go made the same miscalculation thinking that the result in Syrian would be something similar to what happened in Tunisia first and then in Egypt, then you can say even in Yemen and then in Libya with, of course outside intervention.
And it is true that the Turkish government, after having tried to convince Assad to change his ways, positioned itself squarely against him and tried to build a coalition. And, in fact, the Syrian National Council was born and raised inside Turkey.
But those efforts really didn't lead anywhere either in the sense that the Syrian National Council, as a political force, did not prove to be a very potent one and it could not really have a leadership that had much to say over what goes on in the territory.
And the Turkish government, I suppose like the Lebanese and Jordanian governments in particular, is very unhappy with both the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding inside the country and the burdens that the war is inflicting on its own people and on it's own interests actually.
There are probably over 400,000 refugees here, over 500 in Jordan and as many in Lebanon that is really testing especially those two countries, but even in Turkey, I think the available space to accommodate more and more refugees is becoming very limited.
So, Turkey would like to see ...
ZAKARIA: Fawaz ...
OZEL: The conflict to end immediately.
ZAKARIA: Let me -- Fawaz, let me bring you in. Fawaz, let me bring you in. What do you think is going on in Syria right now? Do you believe that these strikes are going to be effective in deterring Assad?
FAWAZ GERGES, PROFESSOR, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: My reading, Fareed, is that the disadvantages of an American military strike outweigh any advantages. I don't think that an American strike or strikes would make a critical difference.
In fact, most probably, they would exacerbate an already complex situation quickly. It would deepen the involvement of regional powers in the Syrian conflict.
This is not just a conflict between Assad and the opposition. This is a regional conflict. You have two camps. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And you have Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and, to a lesser extent, Iraq.
You're going to see intensification of tensions. In particular, sectarian tensions inside Syria and neighboring states. If Assad survives, I would argue that an American military strike would turn Assad into an Arab hero standing to the might of the greatest empire, America and the Western powers.
And, also, I think what you might see is that an American attack or attacks, Fareed, would rekindled collective memories in that part of the world of Western and American hegemonic efforts in the region to remind them of Iraq and other European campaigns in that part of the world.
ZAKARIA: Soli, let me ask you again, though, this issue of trying to create a moderate Syrian opposition, this has been the stumbling block for the United States. As I understand it, they want to be more involved in helping create that opposition, they just can't find it. Turkey has had a similar experience. Are we to conclude from that that the opposition to Assad is largely very sectarian, very hard-line Sunnis and it's very hard to find kind of moderate, pluralistic, more mainstream kind of people who we could ally with?
OZEL: Well, the thing is, it is -- by now it is very fragmented and it appears from every report that I personally saw that the most radical, most violent elements are the ones that actually have some power. I mean there is no central authority to which the fighters on the land can actually turn to. There's no one that actually commends either respect or loyalty from all the groups inside. And most, I think, Western countries in particular, and I suppose Russia as well, fear that if Assad falls, we will end up with a jihadist state, which will probably prompt the continuation of the war. Therefore -- I mean, first of all, I agree with Fawaz that a pinprick war with no strategic orientation, no political goals and directions will really not give us much at all. So diplomacy ought to be pursued. And if I may make a comment about something that was said earlier --
ZAKARIA: Soli, let me -- let me just ...
ZAKARIA: Let me ask you, Soli. Let me, Soli, I've got to cut you off because I need to ask Fawaz very quickly on that issue. If there is going to be a diplomatic settlement, Fawaz, very quickly, is Russia the key? And can it be wooed?
GERGES: Russia is a pivotal player, but this conflict, Fareed, is a regional conflict. You have to involve the regional powers. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. You cannot dance around Iran and Hezbollah and Iraq and take in Saudi Arabia. I hope that the United States, the Obama administration uses this particular moment to renew efforts of diplomacy, try to coop Russia, and involve the regional powers who have major stakes in the conflict inside Syria to end the carnage. Fareed, this is not about the credibility of the U.S. presidency, this is about stopping the bloodshed inside Syria and the killing that has been taking place for two years and a half.
ZAKARIA: We have to get out. Soli Ozel, Fawaz Gerges, thank you very much. I'm sorry we had to cut you off.
There's lots more ahead, including the latest headlines from around the world. We will be back.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Fredricka Whitfield with the CNN center in Atlanta. Fareed Zakaria GPS will have more on the crisis in Syria in a minute, but first a look at today's major stories and other headlines. Nelson Mandela has been released from a hospital. The 95-year-old former South African president had been hospitalized since June for a lung infection. He remains in critical condition and will continue to receive care at home.
In Japan a sharp spike in radiation levels is reported in pipes and containers holding water at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. Tokyo electric power company says only a single drop of highly contaminated water escaped the holding tanks. The company is confident its crews can deal with the problem safely. The Fukushima plant was severely damaged in March of 2011 when that tsunami hit Japan.
WHITFIELD: Veteran British broadcaster David Frost died of a heart attack last night. He was 74. Frost was best known to U.S. audiences for his series of interviews with former president Richard Nixon. CNN's "Reliable Sources", rather, will have more on David Frost in the 11:00 A.M. hour. Those are your top stories. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Now back to "Fareed Zakaria GPS."
ZAKARIA: Now for our "What in the World" segment. Watching countries from around the world grow and prosper, we tend to assume that global poverty is falling. In fact, the World Bank says that in 1981, nearly half the world citizens were impoverished, that is they lived on less than $1.25 a day. And today less than a fifth of the world's population lives in poverty. In raw numbers that translates to a 40 percent drop, from about 2 billion to 1.2 billion people. But when I dug deeper, I realized that the picture is more murky. Put simply, most of the reduction in global poverty has to do with one country, China. Take it out of the equation and the numbers look very different. Let's go back to 1981. Back then China accounted for 43 percent of the world's poor. The other major contributors were South Asia with 29 percent and sub-Saharan Africa with 11 percent. Fast forward just a decade and you'll see the China's share of the world's poor began to drop. The trend continues through the 2000s. By 2010, China accounted for only 13 percent of the world's impoverished population. South Asia's share had jumped to 42 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa share tripled to 34 percent.
The World Bank data shows that the total number of impoverished Chinese declined by nearly 680 million people in the last three decades. That's about 95 percent of the total global decline. By registering double-digit growth for three decades, Beijing has transformed the fortunes of a poor nation within a generation.
That's amazing, but it tells you that in the rest of the world, progress has been much, much slower, if there's been progress at all. There's a lesson here for other developing countries. Take India, for example. New Delhi has also made strides against poverty. The problem is those strides have only been a few steps ahead of population growth. Look at the numbers. In 1981, 429 million Indians lived in poverty. About 60 percent of the population. By 2010, the percentage of impoverished people had dropped to 33 percent. And yet the total number of Indians living in poverty was still around 400 million. Why? You see India's population had expanded by about half a billion. For all the millions who were lifted out of poverty, millions of others were born into it.
What is the answer? Growth. In the 1960s and '70s, India was infamously stuck in a rut of slow growth with a mediocre two percent a year often. Then in the 1980s, it began opening up and in the 1990s, New Delhi scrapped much of the old socialist set of controls. By the mid-2000s India was growing at around nine percent. That growth helped create India's middle class and dramatically reduced the number of people living in poverty. But according to the pro-free market KATO Institute, if those reforms had taken place two decades earlier, India would today have fewer impoverished people. 175 million fewer. That's why India's recent drop in economic growth is alarming. Those most affected will be the poor. Africa is also changing, but for its poorest, change is still too slow. Look at this graph. Since 1981, poverty rates have been dropping steadily in both the developing world and the world as a hole, but in sub-Saharan Africa, poverty rates actually got slightly worse in the 1980s and '90s. It has only recently begun to turn the corner again, thanks in large part to faster economic growth. Global poverty is falling, but China deserves most of the credit and thanks to the Communist Party of China, we now know that the path to poverty alleviation is capitalist led growth.
Lots more ahead. A fascinating look at how 3-D printing works and how it's going to change our lives.
ZAKARIA: The "Star Trek" replicator could instantly fabricate anything out of thin air. It may be science fiction, but one MIT professor says the real thing is coming, and soon. Neil Gershenfeld is the director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. He teaches one of the university's most popular classes called "How to Make Almost Anything." And he says the next digital revolution is right around the corner.
How would you like to design almost anything you wanted and produce it on demand?
So you say, the next big digital revolution is in fabrication.
NEIL GERSHENFELD, DIRECTOR, MIT'S CENTER FOR BITS & ATOMS: Yes.
ZAKARIA: Explain what that means.
GERSHENFELD: What's emerging now is a science of digital fabrication that lets you turn data into things so we can program the physical world. And what it's leading to, the science is how to make the "Star Trek" replicator, and the impact is anybody can make anything.
ZAKARIA: Digital fabrication is already used for more than manufacturing prototypes or machine parts. NASA awarded $125,000 grant this year for the development of a 3-D printer that would create food from powders and oils. There are medical applications, like the production of custom-made prosthetic limbs. And believe it or not, scientists are even developing the technology to print human organs, and the machines that come to mind are kind of 3-D printers that layer through kind of a squirting process layer by layer build up something that looks like a physical object, but there are actually many, many different ...
GERSHENFELD: Right. I've used every 3-D printer from the beginning. But that's actually among the least useful machines. It's a little bit like in the 1950s telling the chef the future of your kitchen is the microwave oven. Microwave ovens are good, we have them, but it doesn't replace the rest of the kitchen. ZAKARIA: If a 3-D printer is like a microwave, then what are some of the other kitchen appliances? At MIT's fabrication lab, there are high-powered lasers that can cut shapes very precisely allowing two-dimensional shapes to fit together to make three-dimensional structures. There are machines that can cut wax for making molds and casting parts. There are water jet cutters where high pressure water pushes abrasive sand to cut materials. There are also milling machines that can manufacture other fabrication machines.
GERSHENFELD: We're transitioning now to a stage where not only can the machine make something, but the machine can actually make its own parts.
ZAKARIA (voice over): Nadya Peak, a Ph.D. student at MIT, developed this machine. Controlled by a computer, it makes these inexpensive circuit boards. The circuit boards can in turn be used to control the machine. It can produce the parts it needs to run itself.
(on camera): Explain the implications and the ramifications of this, because it strikes me as it seems to suggest that you in a sense have the -- a complete transformation of manufacturing. Let's say I'm on an oil rig somewhere. I would have five of these machines that would just manufacture every spare part I ever needed, things like that.
GERSHENFELD: You could certainly do that, but that's only a little piece of the impact. The impact is much broader.
ZAKARIA (voice over): Today 3-D printers deposit materials in layers. In the future, machines will deposit or assemble digital materials. This means tiny building blocks will be designed to fit together perfectly, analogous to Legos snapping together. So, just as pixels come together to make up images on computer screens today, these materials will come together as what are essentially 3-D pixels, which will make up physical objects.
GERSHENFELD: Where the research is heading, is again the "Star Trek" replicator, which builds from the atoms on um, at a real molecular level, you assemble anything, and that still may be 20 years away.
ZAKARIA: While we wait for "The Star Trek" replicator, he opened Gershenfeld open a fab lab in Boston's South End that provides free access to digital fabrication machines for local children, teens and entrepreneurs in the community.
GERSHENFELD: We set up a community lab that was in between the research tools on campus and the "Star Trek" replicator in the future. It was maybe $50,000 worth of machines, and that was the whole project.
ZAKARIA: But Gershenfeld's whole project soon got a whole lot bigger. When MIT and the National Science Foundation were asked to set up a fab lab in Ghana. And that was just the beginning.
GERSHENFELD: They started doubling. There are about 200 now. They've been doubling about every year and a half, they above the Arctic Circle in rural villages, in Jalalabad and Afghanistan, in shanty towns.
Every time we opened one, somebody else wanted one. The labs get used for education, learning skills. They get used for creating businesses. They get used for play. They get used to make art. Then we link them globally with video and online content.
ZAKARIA: Around the world people are benefiting from these fab labs and the potential for this technology seems limitless.
But as with many emerging technologies, there are downsides. In May of this year, a Texas-based company successfully fired a bullet from a gun that was entirely made from a 3-D printer. Some lawmakers have rushed to ban these guns, and the State Department ordered that the online blueprints be removed. Before they were, the blueprints were downloaded more than 100,000 times. So should we worry?
(on camera): One thing that people have pointed out about digital fabrication is you can make guns. You can make the keys to unlock any police cell in the world. You can -- you know, the power to use this in kind of disruptive ways is pretty intense. What do you say about that?
GERSHENFELD: Any remotely well-equipped workshop can make gun parts. And in fact, if I gave you a choice between a gun made in a weak piece of plastic versus a gun made out of a piece of metal, you'd pick the piece of metal.
ZAKARIA: You don't worry about the -- I mean you're giving individuals enormous power that perhaps they didn't have before.
GERSHENFELD: Any technology in all of history has always been used for good stuff and bad stuff. It is at a cusp. What's limiting this and the opportunity is it's a real kind of reinvention, if anybody can make anything, how do you live, work and play. Sort of how do you organize society.
ZAKARIA: Big, big stuff. Neil Gershenfeld, thank you so much.
GERSHENFELD: My pleasure.
ZAKARIA: And we will be back.
ZAKARIA: Tomorrow is Labor Day in the United States, a day to pay tribute to working men and women. So, whom do we have to thank for that? It brings me to my question of the week. Which U.S. president signed the bill making Labor Day a national holiday? A, Abraham Lincoln, B, Benjamin Harrison, C, Grover Cleveland, or D, Thomas Jefferson. Stay tuned and we'll tell you the correct answer. Go to cnn.com/fareed for more of the "GPS Challenge." You can follow us on twitter and Facebook. And remember, you can always go to iTunes.com/fareed if you ever miss a show or a special. This week's book of the week is "Harvesting the Biosphere" by Vaclav Smil. Smil is an academic who has written widely and intelligently on a range of big topics. This one is about how much of the planet's resources we, humans, use up and how we're going to take up even more. It raises profound questions, provides some fascinating data and insights. It is not beach reading, but it is extremely rewarding.
Now for the last look. Take a look at these stark images of refugees around the world. From Syria, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq. Across the globe some 45 million people have been forced from their homes by political conflict or violence. That's the highest in 18 years, according to the U.N. But this grim world, there is perhaps a bit of good news on the horizon. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees currently has two options for emergency shelter. A tent or a tent. Anyone who's ever slept in a tent knows it's far from optimal for long-term stays. Along comes the Ikea Foundation, the charitable arm of the furniture giant. Armed with its wealth of experience mass producing big items that pack up small, it allied with the Refugee Housing Unit and came up with a hard-sided shelter, powered by solar, that even the tallest Somalis can stand up in. It packs up flat and is expected to cost about $1,000. Prototypes are currently being set up and tested in Ethiopia and are en route to Lebanon and northern Iraq. Just don't lose the instruction manual or the little wrench that comes in the box.
The correct answer to our "GPS Challenge" question was C, Grover Cleveland. In 1894, President Cleveland signed the, law which designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day. But ironically, Cleveland was perceived to be anti-labor for sending 12,000 federal troops to stop a strike by the American Railway Union at the Pullman Company in Chicago. About 30 workers died as a result and the bill was actually seen as a way to pacify organized labor. Despite giving everyone a holiday, Cleveland's party deserted him and did not nominate him for the next election in 1896.
Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.