China, Russia, and Uzbekistan are simply not committed to addressing human trafficking. That's the takeaway from the State Department's new 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, out Wednesday afternoon. After nine years each for China and Russia, and six years for Uzbekistan, on the State Department's watch list, the status of the three countries was downgraded this year to "Tier 3," the lowest rank, which includes "countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards [to address human trafficking] and are not making significant efforts to do so." Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania were also downgraded to Tier 3, joining the ranks of North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others.
According to the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), Russia "ranks among the top 10 countries of origin for trafficked individuals," with as many as "130,000 sex trafficking victims ... in Moscow alone." The State Department report notes that while several Russian law enforcement and judicial bodies conduct "periodic training" on trafficking issues, the government does not investigate reported abuses. This includes the forced labor, documented by Human Rights Watch, being used to construct facilities for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Workers have had their passports and other documentation seized, pay withheld, and contracts violated.
The State Department report also includes a case study of 12 migrant laborers from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Trapped in Russia, they "were held captive for 10 years in a supermarket after being promised employment in Russia." The owners of the supermarket held their documents and "used threats of violence, beatings, and sexual violence to demand subservience." A brief investigation was closed after Russian "prosecutors claimed there was no evidence of a crime."
China is singled out in the report for, among other things, its "birth limitation policy and a cultural preference for sons," which has led to "a skewed sex ratio of 118 boys to 100 girls." To fill that imbalance, the report notes that China has an unusually high "demand for the trafficking of foreign women as brides for Chinese men and for forced prostitution." China is also the country of origin of many sex trafficking victims, with "Chinese sex trafficking victims ... reported on all of the inhabited continents" over the past year. Chinese men in forced labor were reported across Asia, in African mining operations, and in European agriculture. The Chinese government has run a series of public service announcements to raise awareness about human trafficking, and has addressed the issue on social media, including the popular microblogging site Weibo. But, the report notes in a particularly damning observation, "the government continued to perpetuate human trafficking in at least 320 state-run institutions."
In 2008, Congress legislated that, rather than keep countries on the government's watch list indefinitely, nations that did not show signs of improvement of human trafficking over a series of yeas would face automatic demotion, and China and Russia have since exhausted the maximum two years of waivers to prevent their downgrade. The Tier 3 designation opens China, Russia, and Uzbekistan to potential U.S. sanctions. In a statement, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, suggested that more countries should be downgraded to Tier 3 and that the State Department report was "pulling punches."
Representatives from the Russian and Chinese embassies did not respond to requests for comment.
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On Wednesday, Rep. Michele Bachmann announced that she will not seek another term in Congress in 2014, making clear that her decision has absolutely nothing to do with her prospects for winning reelection or the FBI's reported probe into whether her campaign improperly used funds during the 2012 presidential campaign. You can watch her announcement here:
The end of Bachmann's congressional career means we may soon be robbed of her foreign policy punditry. So without further ado, here are some of her greatest hits -- on topics ranging from climate change to North African geography:
Does Michele Bachmann hate Muslims? She says that she doesn't. But the president of Iran? Definitely a hater:
During her stop in Estherville, Iowa, Bachmann responded to Ron Paul's accusation on the Jay Leno show last night that she "hates Muslims."
"I don't hate Muslims," Bachman said. "I love the American people. And as president of United States, my goal would be to keep the American people safe, free and sovereign."
"The haters are the president of Iran," she said, referring to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "He stated unequivocally that given a nuclear weapons he will use that weapon to wipe Israel off the map, and he's willing to use it against the United States of America."
The Arab Spring
In her resignation video Wednesday, Bachmann claimed that President Obama has turned "the Middle East into a devastating, evil, jihadist, earthquake." That's a familiar theme for the congresswoman. Here she is laying the blame for the Arab Spring -- which is apparently a bad development altogether -- at Obama's feet:
The Muslim Brotherhood
According to Bachmann, the Muslim Brotherhood has inflitrated the U.S. government:
The U.S. Dollar
But does the Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy even compare to the U.S.-led effort to do away with the dollar and embrace a global currency? Judge for yourself:
Bachmann has also served as a chief rabblerouser with regard to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Given the political points she's scored off the attack, it perhaps isn't all that surprising that she considers it an act of divine intervention:
Then again, her advocacy on the issue of Benghazi would probably have been more effective had she been able to place Libya on the African continent from the get-go:
For a taste of Bachmann's questioning style, here she is interrogating a thoroughly confused John Brennan:
REP. Michele Bachmann: When the White House conducted their armed drone strikes in North Africa, particularly in eastern Libya, prior to the attack on our mission in Benghazi on 9/11 last year, did the White House notify the State Department of the armed drone strikes before they were made?
DIR. John Brennan (director of central intelligence): Armed drone strikes in Libya? I'm unknowing of such, and I would defer to the White House to address your question.
REP. Bachmann: Were there any armed drone strikes in Northern Africa that were made by the White House?
DIR. Brennan: White House doesn't have a drone capability, responsibility, whatever. So I -
REP. Bachmann: Did they have any directives toward having armed drone strikes in North Africa?
DIR. Brennan: Again, I don't know what it is specifically you're referring to, but again, I would defer to the White House on whatever happened at that time.
DIR. CLAPPER: (Referring to ?) the capability, the UAVs that were over - flying over Libya were military and were unarmed.
REP. Bachmann: And so were there any armed drone strikes that were made in North Africa prior to 9/11?
DIR. Clapper: In Libya?
REP. Bachmann: I'm asking in North Africa. I'm asking the - I'm asking Director Brennan. Were there any armed drone strikes that were made by the United States in North Africa prior to 9/11?
DIR. Brennan: Well, we usually don't talk about any type of specific actions, but again, I don't know what you could be referencing.
REP. Bachmann: I'm just wondering if the State Department was aware or if the military was aware or if the CIA was aware. And if we aren't going to talk about that, we aren't going to talk about that, but that's a question I'd like to know.
Let's also not forget that Bachmann was the first to raise the alarm on Iran's (non-existent) plan to annex part of Iraq:
Iran is the trouble maker, trying to tip over apple carts all over Baghdad right now because they want America to pull out. And do you know why? It's because they've already decided that they're going to partition Iraq.
And half of Iraq, the western, northern portion of Iraq, is going to be called.... the Iraq State of Islam, something like that. And I'm sorry, I don't have the official name, but it's meant to be the training ground for the terrorists. There's already an agreement made.
They are going to get half of Iraq and that is going to be a terrorist safe haven zone where they can go ahead and bring about more terrorist attacks in the Middle East region and then to come against the United States because we are their avowed enemy.
Carbon dioxide, Mister Speaker, is a natural byproduct of nature. Carbon dioxide is natural. It occurs in Earth. It is a part of the regular lifecycle of Earth. In fact, life on planet Earth can't even exist without carbon dioxide. So necessary is it to human life, to animal life, to plant life, to the oceans, to the vegetation that's on the Earth, to the, to the fowl that - that flies in the air, we need to have carbon dioxide as part of the fundamental lifecycle of Earth.
Michele, we are going to miss you.
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After clandestinely slipping into Syria on Monday for a series of meetings over fresh juice and cherries with rebel commanders, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) became the highest-ranking U.S. official -- besides the U.S. ambassador to Syria -- to enter the country since the start of its civil war.
According to the trip's organizers, McCain's visit was approved by Secretary of State John Kerry, but his decision to meet with rebel commander Salim Idris and engage in some foreign-policy freelancing probably won't be drawing praise from the White House anytime soon. Accused of standing by and tacitly watching Syria burn, the Obama administration is currently engaged in a diplomatic offensive to bring the conflict to a negotiated end -- a campaign that is complicated by senior American politicians traveling to Syria to gather information on the weapons systems rebels believe they need to turn the military balance in their favor.
Then again, freelancing by members of Congress is far from a new phenomenon -- especially by legislators unhappy with the sitting president's foreign policy.
Rep. Charlie Wilson, the man almost singlehandedly responsible for arming the Afghan mujahideen during their fight against the Soviet army, is something of the godfather of foreign-policy freelancing by members of Congress. During the 1980s, Wilson, a playboy Democrat from Texas and staunch anti-communist, worked hand in glove with the CIA to funnel weapons to Afghan insurgents, including the anti-aircraft missiles that proved decisive in countering Soviet air superiority.
Though McCain's embrace of the Syrian rebels carries overtones of Wilson's support of the Afghan rebels, the Texas Democrat went to absurd lengths to secure arms for the mujahideen. In 1984, for instance, Wilson traveled with CIA agents to Egypt to inspect weapons for possible purchase and transfer to Afghanistan. At a test firing on an Egyptian range, the missile doubled back on the congressman, who had to throw himself to the ground to avoid being struck. "We decided not to buy any of those," he gamely recalled. (Some of the individuals Wilson armed would later orchestrate the 9/11 attacks.)
In recent years, similar diplomatic initiatives have been less spectacular -- if no less controversial. In 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria for a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in an effort to re-engage the country after relations soured in 2003. That meeting produced little progress, and the image of Pelosi seated next to Assad is probably one she wishes she could erase.
McCain is himself no stranger to the dramatic overseas tour -- even if the move hasn't always turned out as he hoped. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he embarked on a trip to Iraq to burnish his foreign-policy credentials and paint the Democrats as intent on cutting and running from the war. But that effort backfired when the senator mixed up which extremist group Iran was supporting inside Iraq (no, not al Qaeda).
Then there's Curt Weldon, a former Republican representative from Pennsylvania. In 2004, Weldon led a congressional delegation to Libya in support of Muammar al-Qaddafi's decision to abandon his nuclear program. Weldon left Congress after his defeat in the 2006 midterm election. But when the uprising in Libya broke out in 2011, Weldon promoted himself as a potential broker in the conflict and traveled to Libya with the intention of convincing Qaddafi to step down. The effort failed.
Weldon could have suffered a worse fate. In 2012, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher was denied entry into Afghanistan as a result of a long-standing feud with President Hamid Karzai. Surprisingly well-acquainted with Afghanistan, Rohrabacher first traveled to the country while working in the Reagan White House during the 1980s -- and in 1988 he even fought alongside the mujahideen in Jalalabad. But after launching an investigation into the Karzai family's personal wealth as a member of Congress -- one in a string of aggressive actions against Karzai and his political clique -- Rohrabacher found himself less than welcome in Kabul.
By that standard, McCain's visit this week appears to have gone pretty well.
Today, the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform is convening its long-awaited hearing on the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi -- one that will feature a group of self-described "whistleblowers" from inside the State Department.
According to leaked copies of their testimonies, the witnesses -- Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism; Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission/chargé d'affairs in Libya; and Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya -- will testify that the State Department rebuffed requests for additional security at the consulate and that the Obama administration denied a request to send a team of special forces to Benghazi. According to the witnesses, U.S. soldiers could have made it to the consulate in time to save lives, though that is a highly contentious allegation.
The controversial testimony is sure to generate heated debate among the lawmakers assembled. Here's a guide to what you can expect from the most high-profile antagonists in today's hearing:
Best known for lobbing endless accusations at the Obama administration for the botched "Fast and Furious" operation at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Issa, the committee's chairman, is now staking a claim as a major player in Republican efforts to keep the White House's feet to the fire on Benghazi. On Monday, Issa, a California Republican, told CBS News that there is "no question" that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's inner circle and possibly the secretary herself were involved in covering up the State Department's handling of the Benghazi attack.
"If Hillary Clinton is not responsible for the before, during and after mistakes ... it's somebody close. There certainly are plenty of people close to the former secretary who knew, and apparently were part of the problem," Issa told CBS.
A darling of the Tea Party, Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, has accused the Obama administration of seeking to suppress the testimony of the witnesses slated to appear. "There are people who want to testify that have been suppressed," he told Fox News Sunday. "They're scared to death of what the State Department is doing with them."
Expect Chaffetz to advance the ball on allegations that the U.S. military could have responded to distress calls at the Benghazi consulate. On Monday, he told Fox News that the military was told to "stand down" and that after the attacks the Obama administration worked to cover up orders for the military to not respond to the attack.
A South Carolina Republican, Gowdy is the man behind much of the hype leading up to today's hearing. "There are more Benghazi hearings coming; I think they're going to be explosive," he told Fox News in late April. But don't just expect grandstanding from Gowdy. A former prosecutor, Gowdy told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he is concerned his Republican colleagues won't sufficiently focus on fact-finding during the hearing, and that he has been working behind the scenes to educate his colleagues about the art of interrogation. "So I have worked with, now, four of my colleagues whose backgrounds are not in litigation, how to ask these questions in a precise, pithy way that makes the witness the star and not some arm-flailing congressman who wants to be on YouTube," Gowdy told Hewitt.
Expect Gowdy to pursue some interesting lines of questioning. Here's what he promised Hewitt:
My fear over the weekend was that a lot of the information that I thought would be most interesting tomorrow has already been released. So I went to staff, and I went to others, and said with any jury trial, you have to save something back. You have to be interesting on the day of the trial. And I have been assured, in fact, I know, because I've seen it myself, there's going to be new, provocative, instructive, dare not use the word explosive, but there's going to be information that comes out tomorrow that whether people have been so desensitized to government lying to them that they don't care anymore, I cannot speak to that. But if you're interested in Benghazi, there is going to be enough new material tomorrow to make you absolutely livid that it's taken eight months for us to get to this point.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Cummings has been lambasting Republicans for politicizing the attacks. Expect him to describe the hearing as an exercise in partisan politics. "[Republicans] have leaked snippets of interview transcripts to national media outlets in a selective and distorted manner to drum up publicity for their hearing," Cummings said in a press release. "This is investigation by press release and does a disservice to our common goal of ensuring that our diplomatic corps serving overseas has the best protection possible to do its critical work."
Fresh off losing the Democratic primary in Massachusetts' special election to replace former Senator John Kerry, Stephen Lynch has been doing battle with Jason Chaffetz in recent days. During Wednesday's hearing, he'll likely be one of the louder Democratic voices pushing back on Republican claims. "This has been a one- sided investigation, if you want to call it that," Lynch told Fox on Sunday. "There's been no sharing of information in a significant way with the Democrats staff members who usually conduct this type of investigation. And I think it's disgraceful, to be honest with you."
Grab some popcorn. It should be a good show.
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Amid international accusations of chemical weapons use by Assad government forces in Syria's civil war, Secretary of State John Kerry told NATO members on Tuesday that the alliance should consider contingency planning and prepare for possible threats to NATO nations emanating from Syria, including chemical weapons threats (after Kerry's remarks, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen clarified that NATO is not considering intervening in Syria).
Earlier this year, however, NATO did deploy three Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, a NATO state, in response to concerns in Ankara that southern Turkish cities could be targeted by Syrian Scud missiles. Other NATO countries are acting independently to facilitate arms provisions, non-lethal supplies, and training for rebels. And earlier this month, Pentagon officials announced they were doubling the U.S. military presence in Jordan to 200 military planners, with the potential to expand that presence to as many as 20,000 soldiers in an emergency.
In Washington, meanwhile, there is a mounting policy debate about the "least bad" options for the United States in responding to the protracted conflict in Syria. In a policy speech delivered last week, Sen. John McCain, a consistent advocate of intervention in Syria, outlined potential options for U.S. involvement in the conflict:
No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put tens of thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria. We have more limited options. We could, for example, organize an overt and large-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces. We could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad's aircraft and Scud missile launchers on the ground, without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria's air defenses. We could use similar weapons to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make their crews think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria.
So, is McCain on to something? Could his options serve as blueprints for intervention? The United States already operates a clandestine training program for Syrian rebels in Jordan, and growing the program could be a "very significant gamechanger," Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, told FP.
Precision strikes, while feasible, would require "something like a mini-campaign" with a dedicated effort to find targets, some of which may have to be struck multiple times, White said. "It couldn't be done in one fell swoop."
Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who has consulted for the administration, suggests on his blog, Syria Comment, that the Obama administration may be receptive to the idea of Patriot-enforced safe zones:
For some time, the language used in the White House to frame the Syria problem has been that of containment. Here are some of the oft repeated phrases I have been hearing from White House insiders:
- "Keep the violence inside Syria"
- "Prepare for Syrian failure"
- "Shore up the neighbors"
- "There are no good guys in Syria"
Adm. James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander for Europe, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that, in his opinion, Patriot-enforced no-fly zones along Syria's northern border "would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime."
"Assuming we have permission to deploy Patriot missiles appropriately in Turkey and Jordan, they could be used to implement a no-fly zone," White told FP, though he pointed out that the density of the fighting in southern Syria would limit the effectiveness of a no-fly zone in establishing a buffer zone along the Jordanian border.
There is a potential downside to establishing safe zones, though. White pointed to the potential for retaliation, saying, "If you had Patriot missiles trying to enforce a no-fly/no-missile zone, they could be targeted. There could be some risk to these forces, I wouldn't say significant risk, but some risk." Landis also cites concerns raised by David Pollock, also of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that safe zones, depending on how they're enforced, could lead to blowback. Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch has also suggested that buffer zones could trap refugees in the war zone without access to necessary aid.
What's clear is that President Obama is now facing increased pressure to act in Syria based on comments made in Israel last month that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line." What comes after that red line's been crossed? Well, that's far less certain.
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Sen. John McCain sounded a civil note at the beginning of his remarks at a Center for a New American Security event on Thursday, April 18. "What Republicans need now is a vigourous contest on ideas on national security and foreign policy," he told a group of military, foreign policy, and business professionals. "This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something an old wacko-bird like me must remember from time to time."
Though he didn't resort to epithets, the rest of the speech featured a series of broadsides against isolationists and non-interventionists of both parties, but especially senators on McCain's own side of the aisle. "When it comes to the politics of national security," McCain said, "my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do."
In particular, McCain singled out his "libertarian friends" who participated in Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster against John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director. "Rather than debate the very real dilemmas of targeted killing," McCain said, "my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil even if they're not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did -- including many who know better."
As a compromise, McCain suggested revising the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provides the legal justification for the targeted killing program, and codifying drone policy "to preserve, but clarify the commander-in-chief's war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed."
He inveighed against the "emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process," though his critique focused on the runaway costs of projects like the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship rather than the defense budget writ large, which he has pushed to maintain. He also went after colleagues who have tried to slash foreign aid, pointing out that, "It now seems that every piece of legislation that the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes." McCain sounded downright weary as he described "explaining" and "reminding people" of the purpose of foreign aid. "While foreign aid might not make its recipients love us," he noted, "it does further our national security interests and values."
McCain went after colleagues' knee-jerk opposition to the United Nations as well. When asked about the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said, "It's probably not going to come up. Not with the makeup of this Senate, that's the reality. We couldn't even do a disabilities treaty, for God's sake." The problem? Here, McCain got sarcastic. "It's just, you know, it's the 'U.N.' It's the 'U.N.,'" he exclaimed, making air quotes and shrugging.
Despite the critiques of sequestration and U.S. policies on Syria and Iran, President Obama got off pretty easy by comparison. "Right now, the far left and far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world," McCain observed. "The president and I have had our differences, many of those differences will persist, but there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party."
And while McCain seemed uncomfortable with the many rounds of nuclear negotiations with Iran, he said he didn't envy the president's decision on the use of force. "It's going to be probably one of the most difficult decisions the president of the United States has ever had to make," he argued, "and it's very rarely that I'm glad that I'm not the president of the United States, but this is one of [those times]."
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Sure, Senator Rand Paul's 13-hour filibuster on Wednesday was dramatic in the moment. But in the history of filibusters, it's unexceptional. After all, it was the ninth-longest in U.S. Senate history, according to USA Today -- not exactly a glowing achievement in the practice's millenia-long international history.
The etymology of the term stems from a Dutch word for privateers, and it entered the American lexicon via Spanish as rogue American settlers tried to seize land in Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico in the mid-19th century. Locally, they were called filibusteros -- "free-booters" -- and their populist movement was a diplomatic nightmare for the U.S. government. These expansionist efforts fell apart when the Civil War forced Americans to turn inwards, but the word had already gained its modern meaning when, in 1853, a Democratic senator, Abraham Venable, joined the Whig opposition to block a private expedition of settlers looking to seize Cuba. Despite his opposition to the aggressive expansionism, which he feared would "make the United States the brigands of the world," his own colleagues in the Democratic Party turned the word on him for his own roguish action. The term came to be associated with aggressive minority efforts to delay legislation.
Some historians trace the practice back much further in history -- to ancient Rome and civil libertarian patron saint Cato the Younger, who was known to make lengthy speeches past the Roman Senate's deadline to adjourn at dusk, blocking further business for the day.
The filibuster is truly a performance art, so much so that the most recent one before Paul's yesterday, launched on Dec. 10, 2010 by Bernie Sanders, was accompanied by charts and made into a book and an art installation. The record for the longest filibuster in the U.S. Senate is held by Strom Thurmond, who spoke (maybe off and on) for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an effort to block civil rights legislation. At the state level, the record is longer: In 1924, a Rhode Island Senate filibuster extended 42 continuous hours over three days and "began with a mass fistfight over control of the gavel and ended when Republican operatives placed a poison-soaked rag behind [Democratic Lieutenant Governor Felix] Toupin to gas him out of the presiding officer's chair," according to Gregory Koger's Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate.
Elsewhere, the filibuster (by its modern, American definition) has different names. In the United Kingdom, the practice is known as being "talked out," and it was employed in January 2012 to stymie legislation that would have adjusted daylight savings time. Since British legislation is allotted only a certain amount of time for discussion and voting before being taken off the table, members of parliament can talk until the subject is shuffled back into the stack of pending bills -- in the case of the daylight savings time legislation, the bill was talked out by Scottish and Welsh legislators who wanted more autonomy and the option to opt out of the U.K. time change.
In the United Kingdom, the tactic has also been an occasional recourse for Irish and Scottish representatives seeking to punch above their administrations' weight. But, as in the United States, it has been used to block civil rights efforts as well, including women's suffrage legislation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Perhaps the most dramatic filibuster, though, occurred in April 1963 in the Philippines. With legislators evenly divided between supporters of the Liberal Party incumbent, Diosdado Macapagal, and Nationalist Party up-and-comer Ferdinand Marcos, it came down to the Senate to decide the presidency. The day before the scheduled vote, Marcos visited Liberal Senator Roseller Lim, offering to pay off his home loans in exchange for a swing vote. Lim refused and Marcos, incensed, swore at him and his family before departing.
The next day, the Liberal senators were a man down -- Senator Alejandro Almendras was still en route, returning from a throat operation in the United States. Lim took the podium and spoke for 18 hours and 30 minutes -- he could not sit or eat, and he urinated in his pants at the podium rather than allow the vote to occur without the Liberals' crucial swing vote. Finally, Lim yielded the floor upon hearing that Almendras's fight had landed, and collapsed onto a waiting stretcher after casting his vote.
Unlike so many other filibusters, it's hard to say that Lim's act was one vanity -- but it was in vain. Lim would learn, upon awaking in the hospital, that Almendras has cast his vote for Marcos.
Paul's stand yesterday for a clarification in Obama's targeted killing policy was dramatic at times, but not that dramatic. Hey, there's always next time.
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It was widely reported last week that this year's Aipac conference, which ends tomorrow, will culminate in a mass lobbying effort by attendees to persuade law makers to officially designate Israel a major strategic ally of the United States, a designation that until now has never been awarded.
So does the bill, the "U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act," actually make a new class of alliance for Israel? Is the House about to name Israel a super-best-friend-for-life ally of the United States?
No. They're not.
The bill, which can be accessed online here, simply states that, "Congress declares that Israel is a major strategic partner of the United States." Nowhere in the bill does it define or codify this terminology; it doesn't grant special privileges like, say, being the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid or being permitted nuclear weapons without pressure to sign conventions regulating them, both of which are already part of U.S.-Israel policy. It is just a "declaration of policy," much in the way that last year's "U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012" stated:
It is the policy of the United States to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the security of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. As President Barack Obama stated on December 16, 2011, "America's commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel's security is unshakeable." And as President George W. Bush stated before the Israeli Knesset on May 15, 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, "The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty."
The new legislation, which extends existing legislation on military, cyber, and energy cooperation, does not alter Israel's formal designation as a "major non-NATO ally" of the United States (other major non-NATO allies make for some strange bedfellows, including Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). At this point, in other words, there's no need for other U.S. allies to start getting jealous about new official labels -- there aren't any.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this morning about the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on that killed four American citizens, including the ambassador to Libya. Her remarks came after four months of controversy and finger-pointing about security lapses, intelligence failures, about and the administration's response to the attack, with critics accusing the White House and State Department of misleading the public (a charge that may have scuttled U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice's chances for a nomination to succeed Clinton in Foggy Bottom).
After months of reporting on the attack, there was little new information to be gleaned from Clinton's testimony, but it did provide an opportunity for both the secretary and her congressional critics to air their perspectives and grievances. Clinton's testimony turned emotional early on, as she choked up in her opening statements describing standing with President Obama as the bodies of the Americans killed in Benghazi arrived at Andrews Air Force Base. She also reiterated that, "as I have said many times since Sept. 11, I take responsibility."
The hearing also turned heated at times. Sen. Ronald Johnson (R-Wis.) expressed his vehement disbelief that the State Department could not determine whether the attack was a planned terrorist action or grew out of a protest in response to the incendiary film Innocence of Muslims, which had provoked rioting at other U.S. facilities throughout the Muslim world that week.
"Madam Secretary, do you disagree with me that a simple phone call to those evacuees [from the Benghazi consulate] would have ascertained immediately that there was no protest?" Sen. Johnson asked. "I mean, that was a piece of information that could have been easily, easily obtained," he continued, before dismissing Clinton's comment that she did not want to interfere with the processes at work on the ground as an "excuse."
The secretary told Johnson "to read the ARB [Accountability Review Board report] and the classified ARB because even today there are questions being raised" about the attackers' interests and allegiance. (Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) wrote about the ARB for Foreign Policy last month.) When pressed again, a visibly exasperated Clinton responded, "With all due respect, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or because of guys out for a walk one night who decided to go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) were visibly frustrated by Clinton's answers. After the secretary told the committee that she had not personally read all the cables from the diplomatic mission in Libya, including those requesting increased security measures, Sen. Paul remarked that this represented "a failure in leadership," a charge that has been leveled by FP's own Shadow Government as well. "Had I been president at the time," he told Clinton, "and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Amb. Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post.". McCain again voiced his doubts about the veracity of administration messaging about the attack in the early weeks afterwards. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) compared the administration's response to the faulty intelligence behind claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. Clinton said of the talking points, "The fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information."
McCain also "strongly disagreed" with Clinton's characterization of U.S. policy towards Libya after Muammar al-Qaddafi's fall, concluding by saying that the State Department's choice of a "soft footprint" for security contributed to the deaths at Benghazi. Clinton pointed out that Congress had placed holds on funding requests aid and security projects like those McCain cited. "We've got to get our act together between the administration and the Congress. If this is a priority, trying to help this government stand up security and deal with what is a very dangerous environment from east to west, then we have to work together," Clinton replied.
One of the few substantive clarifications was the role of the Marine personnel stationed with the diplomatic mission -- a point of confusion among many policymakers. "Historically, Marine guards do not protect personnel," said Clinton. "Their job is to protect classified material and destroy it if necessary." Several senators suggested that this should change.
Regarding that classified material, Clinton told the committee that no classified documents were left at Benghazi, "although some unclassified material was unfortunately left behind." Foreign Policy reported about this oversight in September when documents found at the razed compound suggested that there had been warning signs an attack was imminent.
Interestingly, one of the most interesting moments in the hearing wasn't about the Benghazi attack at all. Clinton spoke briefly about the hostages taken at the In Amenas gas field in Algeria, observing that the same proliferation of weapons that helped arm the terrorists in Benghazi also helped arm the terrorists in southern Algeria. "The vast majority of weapons came out of Qaddafi warehouses," she said, characterizing the spread of small arms and shoulder-fired missiles as a "Pandora's box." As to whether the attacks in Benghazi and at In Amenas were directly related, she said there was insufficient intelligence.
The testimony made for a strange coda to Clinton's otherwise well-regarded term as secretary of state. Her imminent departure was mentioned as a matter of accountability by both her critics and herself. Paul remarked that he saw her decision to step down now as accepting "culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11." Clinton saw things differently. "Nobody is more committed to getting this right," she told the committee in her opening remarks. "I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
This is a new one:
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) called Democrats' push to force through an arms control treaty and an omnibus spending bill right before Christmas "sacrilegious," and warned he'd draw the process out to wage his objections.
"You can't jam a major arms control treaty right before Christmas," he told POLITICO. "What's going on here is just wrong. This is the most sacred holiday for Christians. They did the same thing last year - they kept everybody here until (Christmas Eve) to force something down everybody's throat. I think Americans are sick of this."
Not quite sure by what definition Dec. 15 qualifies as " right before Christmas." As Steve Benen points out, "Americans nationwide are working this week and next, as are U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."
And if DeMint is really so concerned about getting his holiday shopping done, he might want to reconsider taking up the rest of today by having the entire treaty -- which was signed in April -- read aloud.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Of all the many foolish, self-defeating, and downright stupid U.S. policies -- from the Cuba embargo to agricultural subsidies to the prohibition on talking to Iranian diplomats -- tariffs on Pakistani textiles probably rank among the dumbest.
That's the conclusion I drew from the Council on Foreign Relations' thoughtful new report on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was just released this morning.
The 112-page report, whose lead author was the council's Daniel Markey, a former top State Department official for South Asia, offers a mild-mannered, but unmistakable rebuke to the recent optimistic rumblings coming from U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan.
The bipartisan task force behind the report -- headed by former State Department No. 2 Richard Armitage and Clinton-era national security advisor Sandy Berger -- lends "conditional" support to the Obama administration's current strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but recommends the U.S. downgrade its presence in Afghanistan if Obama's upcoming policy review finds that the current approach is failing. (Note: a number of task force members dissented from that conclusion.)
"We are mindful of the real threat we face," the report reads. "But we are also aware of the costs of the present strategy. We cannot accept these costs unless the strategy begins to show real signs of progress."
The group makes a number of other recommendations -- including a vague call for the U.S. to do something about Lashkar-e-Taiba -- but to me, the textile tariffs stand out.
"The textile sector industry accounts for 38 percent of Pakistan's industrial employment, this agreement could provide employment opportunities for millions of young Pakistanis, discouraging them from paths leading to militancy," the report argues.
Given that additional aid to help Pakistan recover from the horrific floods that devastated the country this summer will probably be a tough sell on Capitol Hill, and the likelihood that China and other low-cost producers, not the remnants of the U.S. textile industry, would probably be hurt by lifting the tariffs, this strikes me as a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, as the Wall Street Journal reported in August that there's little appetite in Washington (or Brussels) to help the struggling Pakistani textile industry, which is getting creamed by Chinese competition.
The link between unemployment and militancy is controversial, but it doesn't get any more direct than in Faisalabad, the hard-scrabble town that was home to one of the Mumbai attackers:
The textile crisis has hit Faisalabad-a grimy city of three million named in the 1970s for the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia-harder than anywhere in Pakistan. Scores of factories have closed recently here, in the heartland of Punjab province's textile industry.
Umer Apparel Ltd., a Faisalabad company that exports $15 million in goods to the U.S. annually, including brands like American Eagle and Aeropostale, has laid off almost a fifth of its work force of 1,500 and is running at only three-quarters of capacity, says its chief executive, Rana Hassan Sajjad.
Faisalabad officials are concerned about links between unemployment and a wave of Islamic extremism in the city. A number of suicide bombings by the Pakistan Taliban on government and civilian targets in Pakistan this year, including many in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, have been planned from Faisalabad, city police say."There's a valid link between joblessness and militancy," says Tahir Hussain, the chief federal government official in Faisalabad. "Wherever the militants are getting manpower, that's where the joblessness is."
About half a million Pakistani textile workers have lost their jobs, mainly due to Chinese competition, according to the Pakistani government. The United States charges a 17 percent tariff on Pakistani-made cotton shirts and pants -- lifting it entirely would net Pakistan as much as $4 billion a year, the government estimates. (Compare that to the paltry $150 million the U.S. offered after the floods, or the $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar aid bill, which is spread over five years.)
Getting rid of the tariffs would not be without its complications. India would likely protest the move as unfair preferential treatment toward Pakistan, as would China. That isn't the real problem, though: U.S. textile producers would fiercely lobby Congress against the move, though American garment manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would mildly support it. And with a number of existing trade deals looking dead in the water, it's not clear such legislation would go anywhere.
Last year's experience is instructive: Congress tried to pass a bill establishing special trading zones in Pakistan to get around the tariffs, but Senate Republicans spiked it in a dispute over the law's labor provisions. In any case, as the New York Times noted in an editorial back in August, "The trade legislation that finally emerged from the House last year was so hemmed in with protectionist limits that it was almost worthless."
I hope this new report changes some minds, but betting on Congress to do the smart thing is never a good investment strategy.
Thousands of Tea Partiers are converging on FP's hometown tomorrow for Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on the Washington mall, which will feature a speech by Sarah Palin and, controversially, take place on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.
For all the overt displays of national pride at Tea Party events, it can be difficult to discern how the movement sees America's place in the larger world. New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker addressed this uncertainty in a piece for our most recent print issue:
The two most famous Tea Partiers, in fact, are at the opposite ends of the foreign-policy spectrum. Where Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice-presidential candidate with her eye on 2012 and her muscular talk of a movement of "Mama Grizzlies," embraces Bush's assertive foreign policy, Rand Paul, the son of the Texas congressman, extends his dad's don't-tread-on-me philosophy at home to mean don't tread on others abroad.
Congressman Ron Paul has graciously written a short response to Baker's piece which we are featuring on the site today. Paul makes the case that the movement should commit itself to a less militaristic vision of Republican foreign policy:
As many frustrated Americans who have joined the Tea Party realize, we cannot stand against big government at home while supporting it abroad. We cannot talk about fiscal responsibility while spending trillions on occupying and bullying the rest of the world. We cannot talk about the budget deficit and spiraling domestic spending without looking at the costs of maintaining an American empire of more than 700 military bases in more than 120 foreign countries. We cannot pat ourselves on the back for cutting a few thousand dollars from a nature preserve or an inner-city swimming pool at home while turning a blind eye to a Pentagon budget that nearly equals those of the rest of the world combined.
While Paul's views may not be representative of the entire Tea Party movement, it will be interesting to see if his brand of non-interventionist Republicanism gathers momentum. As Daniel Drezner recently wrote, the emerging generation of "Millenials," whose political experience has largely been defined by 9/11, two costly wars, and a global financial crisis, would seem to be the perfect audience for these arguments.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
If you're someone who's kept up at night by apocalyptic fears, there are certain obvious questions you might worry over as you toss and turn: for example, will Armageddon be the work of malevolent extraterrestrials (think Independence Day) or of an equally nasty monster, global warming (a la Day After Tomorrow)? But of the many things that might trouble a doomsday worry-wart, what to eat at the end of the world probably wouldn't make the list. But as it turns out, planning for the apocalypse menu is already well underway-- and this isn't just another gourmet gimmick.
In 2008, world leaders gathered together to herald the opening of the so-called, "doomsday vault," a vast cache of seed samples built inside a remote Arctic mountain. The vault -- complete with four sets of locked doors, a 410 ft tunnel, and armed guards (see above) -- was designed with the ambitious goal of eventually housing a seed sample from every species of edible crop in the world. Seeds have been steadily accumulating ever since: already more than half of million of the estimated 4.5 million total have been tucked away in the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard.
The latest addition to the treasure chest arrived this week in the hands of improbable deliverymen: U.S. senators. Led by Benjamin Cardin, Democrat Senator from Maryland, the seven American delegates deposited an assortment of potent North American chili seeds inside the icy vault. The seeds -- which one expert admiringly praised for their "colorful names and histories" -- have long been protected as part of Native American tradition, but many fear that they may become the next victims in the worrisome trend of declining global crop diversity. Among the now-safe species are Wenk's Yellow Hots (a chameleon-like breed that changes color and flavor) and the San Juan Tsile (known for keeping diners on their toes: different peppers can be mild, medium, or hot -- and it's impossible to tell which is which).
So when the flood waters start rising and that nacho craving sets in, just head north.
Hakon Mosvold Larsen/AFP/Getty Images
I feel like some of the media’s John McCain fanboys should give more consideration to the idea that less here has changed than they think, and they themselves just shouldn’t have been so eager to embrace McCain in the first place. McCain is still a fanatical warmonger who believes in maximal application of military force in all circumstances, a kind of mirror-image Quaker. That his cartoonish worldview has ever been taken seriously tells you a lot about how deep in the grips of militarism Washington, DC is.
I'm not sure what timeframe Yglesias is considering but it's not true that McCain never met a war he didn't like. McCain's early career in congress was actually more defined by opposition to the use of military force. In 1983, as a freshman congressman, McCain broke with President Reagan and most congressional Republicans to oppose the redeployment of U.S. troops in Lebanon. Regarding what came to be known as Operation Desert Storm, he told the New York Times in 1990:
''If you get involved in a major ground war in the Saudi desert, I think support will erode significantly. Nor should it be supported. We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood.''
He also opposed U.S. military operations in Somalia, Haiti, and (initially) Bosnia. From Kosovo on, and certainly after 9/11, McCain has been far more hawkish. But at the time of the 2000 election, when the "fanboys" first acquired their McCain infatuation, the senator actually had a fairly mixed record on military force.
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As Congress reconvenes the most recent of the BP executives' unenviable appointments in Washington this afternoon, a word about Tony Hayward's current inquisitor: California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. There's an interesting symmetry between today's hearing and one that Waxman held a quarter century ago, when he was a subcommittee chairman. The news peg, then as now, was an unprecedented environmental catastrophe: the December 3, 1984 chemical leak at Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed over 3,000 people. And then as now, Waxman (whose committee drafted the House climate change bill last year) was engaged in a protracted, long-odds battle for a game-changing piece of environmental legislation: the expanded pollution regulations that would eventually be signed into law as the 1990 reauthorization of the Clean Air Act.
Among the pollutants that Waxman was hoping to regulate were the same categories of air toxics that had caused the Bhopal disaster, and shortly after the incident he and his staff pulled together a field hearing in West Virginia, near another Union Carbide plant that produced the same chemicals as the one in Bhopal, and posed similar risks. It was a canny political set piece, and while the Clean Air Act reauthorization wouldn't make it into law for years, the spectacle whipped up by the Bhopal hearing prompted Congress to pass a precursor law requiring chemical plants to inventory and disclose their toxic emissions. It was a milestone in environmental regulation in the United States: Never before was anyone but the chemical companies understood the sheer quantity of the toxic pollutants, 2.7 billion pounds of which were emitted in 1987 alone.
I bring all of this up because in several ways, Waxman is working from the Bhopal playbook today. In The Waxman Report, the autobiography he published last year, the congressman distills the lessons of Bhopal for the sort of long, grueling legislative crusades that are his stock in trade:
In contrast to what many people imagine, legislative debates rarely occur within fixed parameters, or at least not for very long -- the center is constantly moving. In the years it can take to pass a major piece of legislation like the Clean Air Act, the terms of debate often shift significantly. Sometimes the balance shifts gradually and by design, such as from a sustained lobbying effort. At other times, the shift happens suddenly and without warning, the consequence of a new president, a shake-up in Congress, or a major news event that recasts public opinion.
The BP spill has certainly recast public opinion on oil drilling, but its implications for broader environmental policy, particularly a future energy and climate change bill, are far from clear. At the New Republic, Bradford Plumer offers a particularly gloomy reading on the response to the spill among American politicians and the public; plenty of other pundits have noted that in his widely panned Oval Office speech earlier this week, President Obama was conspicuously reluctant to tie the disaster to specific policy goals.
But keep an eye on what comes out of today's hearing. Waxman and his House colleagues are less central to the future of a climate bill than their opposites in the Senate, or the president. Still, the guy knows how to make use of a disaster.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In his testimony before Congress this morning, Douglas H. Brown, chief mechanic for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, recounted a dispute between a BP official and Transocean crew members that took place the day of the rig's explosion. At issue was whether BP could replace heavy drilling fluid -- typically used in the final stages of plugging oil wells -- with a lighter liquid, a substitution crew members appear to have opposed.
"The driller was outlining what would be taking place, whereupon the company man stood up and said, 'No, we'll be having some changes to that'...The OIM, tool-pusher and driller disagreed with that, but the company man said, 'Well, this is how it's gonna be.'"
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In the latest development in the Armenian genocide resolution row, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted at expelling thousands of Armenians from the country. The threat was made as a result of genocide resolutions progressing in the U.S. Congress and Swedish parliament.
About 100,000 undocumented Armenians live in Turkey (and another 70,000 legal residents), many performing menial work.
Obviously Erdogan's words aren't helpful (and would seem particularly crass given the issue), but they're nothing new. Aris Nalci, editor at Agos, a Turkish-Armenian weekly, downplayed the remarks:
We are not taking it as a serious threat.
Checking the scorecard, the impact of the committee vote is now a threat to the use of Incirlik Air base, a crucial link in the supply train to Iraq; damaging the peace process and rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia; and now a warning that tens of thousands of poor, migrant Armenians might get deported.
Does the foreign affairs committee still think it was worth it?
On his New Yorker blog, George Packer takes aim at the "devastatingly unremarkable" bloviation of Beltway journos. He cites Washington Post columnist (and "dean" of the Washington press corps) David Broder's analysis of a recent Sarah Palin speech as "[showing] off a public figure at the top of her game -- a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself." He also offers up the New York Times' Adam Nagourney's coverage of a recent Republican leadership conference: "Here in Honolulu, the strains within the party over conservative principles versus political pragmatism played out in a sharp and public way."
These two characterizations from two top writers for the United States' two leading papers, Packer argues, are but purple guff -- in the words of Michael Kelly, examples of how the "idea of image" is "faith in Washington." The journalists follow the same, strange, well-worn routine. They take the mundane comings and goings of major political figures, interpret them according to prevailing partisan winds, and write them up in the overheated, undercooked language of a harlequin novel. The result is airy nonsense that fervently insists on its trenchancy.
Packer further demonstrates the absurdity of this journalistic convention by satirically recasting the Palin passage about Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats."
The point is that Washington coverage of major political figures is not just bizarre stylistically, but dead substantively. To discuss for hundreds of words how Palin is at the top of her game is to spend hundreds of words not discussing her actual relevance to the fractured conservative scene. Foreign correspondence on major political figures needs to be more explanatory than illlustrative -- and it would be better if coverage of Washington were more like the clear-eyed, clean-written analysis of Kabul.
Yet, Washington is -- we all must agree -- as complicated and tribal and strange a town as any. Contrary to Packer, I see it as increasingly covered as if it were, with the conventional-wisdom reporting shifting away from personality-focused atmospherics towards structure- and process-focused explanation.
It is a matter of necessity. It once used to be that you understood the presidency by understanding the president, at least according to the corps. Clinton was a man of appetite and a bleeding heart -- ergo the klieg-lit campaigns, the Lewinsky affair, the Brady Bill, the low-income tax cut. Then, the press corps put George W. Bush on the couch. The stubborn Texan-by-way-of-Connecticut was always trying to prove himself to his father, the correspondents said, hence the invasion of Iraq and the wartime tax cut.
But you'd look like an idiot trying to explain Obama's Washington by explaining (the rather Vulcan) Obama. To be sure, the press corps has limned his psychology -- most brilliantly in the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza's profile of Obama's sharp-elbowed navigation of the Chicago machine and most obviously in the Obama-as-poker-player stories. Both Broder and Nagourney have filed the profiley fluff Packer derides. But both Broder and Nagourney have also written granular pieces on the strange conventions and rules of the White House and Hill.
It seems the deans of Washington journalism are increasingly treating their home city the way Packer treats Kabul -- and it is a very good thing indeed.
U.S. President Barack Obama has indicated that he will not make any recess appointments next week, while senators are back in their home states for the president's day holiday. Earlier in the week, Obama had signaled he might make the direct appointments -- circumventing the molasses-slow senate confirmation process, currently holding up scores of nominees, via this constitutionally granted executive privilege -- after senators approved 27 nominees yesterday.
Now, confirmation math is notoriously tricky. The numbers constantly change as the White House nominates and Congress takes appointees up. But some numbers we know for sure. At the one-year marker, George W. Bush had 70 nominees pending. Obama had 171. During Bush's first year, only three nominees waited for confirmation for more than three months. Forty-five of Obama's have waited more than four months; nine have waited more than six.
And the Republican minority has thrown sand in the gears of vitally important national security nominees -- who are, by congressional tradition, generally not subject to the absurd congressional tradition of holds. During wartime, Republicans held up the nomination of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Sec. of the Army John McHugh, a Republican. Even after the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt, Sen. Jim DeMint kept a hold on Obama's nominee to the Transportation Security Administration, Erroll Southers. Even after yesterday, Philip Goldberg, Obama's nominee to lead the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, remains at home -- despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid taking to the floor to demand his confirmation.
So, even if the Senate confirmed 27 nominees yesterday, it is hard to argue it has been keeping pace. As far as I can figure, Obama got nothing in return for not making recess appointments this go-around -- it isn't as if the Republicans will let go a hold on another appointee or send him a fruit basket. And he has only further alienated the labor left and frustrated Dems on the Hill. Nobody's happy, vital security and diplomatic nominees are still pending, and I can't see the decision as anything but bizarre.
I'm sad to see that John Murtha, the Pennsylvania congressman and defense spending cardinal, has died after a long and productive life in government.
Whatever your views on Murtha -- and as someone who grew up in southwest Pennsylvania, I certainly have my own opinions -- this is very bad news for Johnstown, the main town in the district he represented for nearly 36 years. Because if there's one thing Murtha did, it was bring home the bacon. Millions of dollars of it.
There was the John P. Murtha Neuroscience and Pain Institute, the John P. Murtha Regional Cancer Center, the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center, the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, and of course the John P. Murtha Institute for Homeland Security, to name but a few of the places, not to mention a number of defense contractors, kept afloat thanks to the congressman's mastery of the earmark system.The loss of a patron in Washington will be devastating.
Maybe, though, Johnstown will ultimately be better off without Murtha's largesse. The town was crushed by the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s, and never really recovered. Murtha's projects, along with some telemarketing and retail business, were about the only source of employment the town of 24,000 had to offer. Yet household income is about half the national average, and the area school system is abysmal. Now, Johnstown will have to attract industry on the region's own merits, rather than relying on its powerful friend on Capitol Hill. It's going to be painful for a while, but I hope this hard-luck town will emerge stronger for it.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
The big news in Washington -- aside from Snowpocalpyse Part II/#snOMG/Snowmageddon 2/panic caused by relatively common weather -- comes from the office of Sen. Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama.
Yesterday, TPM reported, Shelby slapped a hold on all of Obama's nominees pending in Congress. Every last one. Why? Pork. Shelby is angry that two appropriations -- one for an air-to-air refueling program and one for a new FBI lab -- haven't come his state's way just yet.
The political maneuver and its optics are laughably terrible. On the Hill, everyone is talking about obstructionism, the deficit, and cutting government spending -- and yet, Shelby decided to go for the nuclear option on nominees over two pet projects. It's a gift to Obama, really, and Democrats are taking advantage. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was unsparing in slamming Shelby during today's press conference. Democrats will hit this hard for weeks now.
Shelby's maneuever hypothetically could push Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid to call the Alabama senator's bluff. Reid could bring the nominees onto the floor and force Republicans to filibuster them. Republicans would have to band together, all 41 of them, to prevent the nominees from being voted upon and confirmed. It would likely be a good political moment for Democrats. But it would cost precious floor time, delaying Obama's policy agenda further. The whole scenario is highly unlikely, especially because Republican leadership was reportedly not in the loop with Shelby's drastic plan.
And Republicans would likely have objected to it -- particularly because of Shelby's holds on national security nominees. Generally, diplomatic, national security, intelligence, and military appointmees aren't hit with senatorial holds without good, good reason. But Shelby's blanket hold, he says, applies to all of the scores of nominees working through the congressional process.
His office released a statement today saying, "Sen. Shelby has placed holds on several pending nominees due to unaddressed national security concerns" -- arguing that the projects he wants fast-tracked are vital to the homeland.
This is, well, not true. What is true that the number of security and diplomatic appointees left unconfirmed does no good for the government or the people -- a point Reid made on the floor this week, when he bashed senate holds on three intelligence nominees -- all highly vetted and entirely non-controversial candidates.
Today, on Fox News Radio (via The Hill), Rep. James Clyburn, the House majority whip, let loose with some nasty words for the upper half of the U.S. bicameral legislature: "[Senators] tend to see themselves as a House of Lords and they don't seem to understand that those of us that go out there every two years stay in touch with the American people. We tend to respond to them a little better."
It's an easy statement to sympathize with. In the past year, the majority-rules House has seemed a paragon of populist efficiency, passing cap and trade and the health care bills with relative ease -- before the Senate's long horse-trading process winnowed public support for the latter, and before the Democrats lost their 60th Senate seat and thus their ability to stop Republican filibusters.
But it left me thinking -- if only the Senate were like the House of Lords!
At the very least, Britain realized that the institution was anti-democratic and unpopular -- and reformed it, diminishing its power and changing its crusty composition. Parliament has progressively reduced the number of hereditary peers, the land-owning barons of old, replacing them with life peers appointed for career excellence. Plus, in the future, Parliament will likely start making peers elected. (See the composition of the House of Lords here.)
After months of resistance against international pressure to overturn Uganda's now-notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda's politicians seem to be pulling back. In early January, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni expressed concern that the bill was too harsh and on Jan. 12th noted:
"Because it is a foreign policy issue, it is not just our internal politics, and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles but also takes into account our foreign policy interests."
The U.N. and the U.S. government, along with countries such as Britain, Canada and Sweden, have expressed their strong disapproval of the bill. Their displeasure has had an effect: during a January 19th cabinet meeting, the Ugandan government agreed to form a committee to amend the bill, with cabinet members citing the possibility of aid cuts by Western governments as a chief reason behind their reservations. The bill's author, MP David Bahati, held strong for a little longer. That is, until today when he expressed willingness to change some key clauses of the legislation.
Of course, none of this means that gay Ugandans will be getting a fair shake anytime soon -- especially when 95 percent of those surveyed in the country believe homosexuality should continue to be criminalized.
Although the U.S. government has condemned the bill, the American evangelical influences behind it are widely known. For example, Rick Warren, who advised most of the bill's leading supporters (such as Pastor Martin Ssempa), was barely ahead of Museveni in distancing himself from it. Also heavily circulated were the allegations by Jeff Sharlet that President Museveni, his ethics minister Nsamba Buturo and David Bahati, all have ties to U.S. politicians linked to The Family (a secretive evangelical organization with plenty of political influence).
Now, with human rights activists and journalists fully in the mix, friction over the bill has led to a proxy battle over the U.S.' cultural influence in the region.
WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images
Aluf Benn argues in Haaretz that the upset in Massachusetts is a victory for Israel's prime minister:
Over the past nine months, Netanyahu has managed to curb pressure from Obama, who enjoys a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Now, however, Obama will be more dependent on the support of his Republican rivals, the supporters and friends of Netanyahu.
No Israeli politician matches his steps to the political goings-on in the U.S. as much as Netanyahu. He dragged out negotiations over the settlement freeze and then decided it would last for 10 months and end in September - just in time for U.S. Congressional elections in which Democrats are expected to suffer heavy losses. [...]
Proponents of the peace process will view this as a missed opportunity for Obama, who spent his first year in office on fruitless diplomatic moves that failed to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians. From now on, it will be harder for Obama. Congressional support is essential to the political process and in the current political atmosphere in the U.S. - in which the parties are especially polarized - Netanyahu can rely on Republican support to thwart pressure on Israel.
I'm don't quite buy the premise of this. It's been pretty clear for the last year that the Obama administration doesn't have a whole lot of leverage over Netanyahu with a Democratic supermajority. The direct effect of losing one Senate vote is going to be pretty negligible.
That said, if Stephen Walt is right and the administration will back away from its ambitious agenda and focus on fewer problems in its second year, perennial issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict are likely to take a back-seat to more immediate national security challenges.
Not sure if Florida Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack's proposal to add Venezuela to the list of countries whose travelers will require extra scrutiny to enter the United States will go anywhere, but I was interested to see the FARC-al Qaeda alliance meme (I've been recently informed that the proper term is "El Qaeda") being used in Congress:
For her part, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen cited DEA reports that demonstrate a Venezuelan connection in a new alliance formed between the FARC and al Qaeda, in which the oil producing nation plays the part of a ``massive airport for the use of the traffickers.''
``It is no surprise that Hugo Chávez allows Venezuela to serve as a massive airport for the use of traffickers. In fact the DEA has said that all the planes captured in West Africa left from Venezuela,'' Ros-Lehtinen said.
She explained that the recent arrest of three African agents of al Qaeda after a drug smuggling operation showed a new panorama of cooperation between Islamic extremist groups and those of South American narco-guerrillas.
``Groups like the FARC are finding new ways to sell drugs in Europe by means of al Qaeda in Africa. And al Qaeda is more than willing to use the drug trade to help finance its extremist agenda,'' Ros-Lehtinen said.
As I wrote earlier this week, the arrest of the three Africans, whose relationship to al Qaeda is still somewhat unclear, did not show a "new panorama" of anything. The men were arrested for making a deal with a DEA agent who was posing as a representative of FARC. Unless there's some unreported evidence, it's far from clear the al Qaeda and FARC are actually in cahoots.
Again, I'm not saying that the potential for such a partnership isn't there, but I wish that lawmakers would stop viewing this arrest as proof of a grand trans-Atlantic axis of evil.
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Today, Sen. Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Conn., announced that will not seek re-election this year. Dodd, suffering from a low approval rating and bashed for his perceived closeness with fat-cat bankers, wasn't expected to win a sixth term.
Dodd was primarily known as a domestic policy guy, and a powerful one at that -- a longtime Hill veteran, the head of the Senate Banking Committee, and at the center of the financial regulations storm.
But Dodd was also an important foreign policy thinker -- especially regarding Latin America. In the 1970s, just out of college, Dodd served with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. Once on the Hill, he maintained an interest in the region, becoming one of the loudest progressive voices regarding policy for the countries he always insisted were not "America's backyard" but "America's neighborhood." Back in the 1980s, he -- along with Sens. John Kerry and Tom Harkin -- spoke out against the Reagan administration's military and financial support of anticommunist groups, like the contras in Nicaragua. He later advocated for taking a soft-glove approach with countries like Cuba and Venezuela. (This won him plenty of opprobrium from the right, particularly during the Bush administrations.) More recently, he has won plaudits for his vocal support of policies to aid the human-rights disaster in Darfur.
As for Dodd's seat's future -- the Connecticut Democratic and Republican primaries are upcoming. Richard Blumenthal, the state's very popular attorney general, is expected to gain the Dem nod and Dodd's seat in the Senate. He'll likely face Republican Linda McMahon, the head of the WWE wrestling federation. No word yet on her views on Chavez.
I'm not sure an appearance by Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe was really needed to ensure that the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen ends in failure. The delegates seem to be perfectly capable of taking care of that inevitability on their own.
Inhofe is an idiot and his consistent misrepesentation of climate science is disreputable, but I have to say that he made some good points here in his Copenhagen press conference:
In the U.S. Senate, a senator or group of senators can block legislation through what's called a filibuster...Breaking a filibuster requires 60 votes. As is obvious, McCain-Lieberman supporters, even with a bill full of holes and exemptions-in other words, a pale shadow of its former self-didn't even come close to crossing that threshold." They needed 60, they got only 44.
Here we are six years later, and nothing has changed: cap-and-trade failed in 2003, it failed in 2005, and it failed in 2008. As we look ahead, an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill stands no chance of passing. I want to be sure the 191 countries understand this: again, an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill stands no chance of passing.
Mind you, Inhofe is crowing about this situation, not bemoaning it. And then he follows with a bunch of misleading claims about "ClimateGate," almost of all of which were demolished by this "exhaustive" AP investigation.
I think he's also wrong in claiming that there is "no chance" the Senate will pass some sort of cap-and-trade bill. I think there will be a bill at some point next year.
That said, it just might get so watered down in the process of getting to 60 votes that it becomes a meaningless exercise. A lot of folks who follow the climate-change issue closely say: that's fine, let's just get SOMETHING passed and we can always ratchet the caps down later. But if the narrative becomes that the last bill didn't "work," so why bother passing legislation that might hurt the U.S. economy without saving the planet, then that strategy will backfire.
AXEL SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Today marks the start of a grueling set of four congressional hearings for U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley McChrystal:
We'll be live-blogging and live-tweeting throughout, and watch for thorough coverage on the AfPak Channel as well.
So, what to look for?
Well, above all: details about the Obama administration's planned escalation of the conflict, including where the soldiers are headed, information about strategic goals, information about the civilian surge and population-centric strategy, questions about the importance of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and questions about relations with the Karzai government and Pakistan.
Also: dissent. Eikenberry and McChrystal aren't particularly fond of one another right now. The ambassador reportedly strongly questioned the strategy the latter helped create, arguing that sending more troops without bolstering the Afghan government might foster dependency and undercut the state; McChrystal, in contrast, wanted to send 40,000, rather than 30,000, troops. One of the unstated goals of the hearings will be to show a united face. But members of congress, as well as the press, will be looking for any cracks.
Yesterday, I wrote about the brief life and presumed death of Rep. David Obey's "war tax," also known as the "Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010." Obey and his cosponsors hoped to make the Afghan war pay-go from here on out, with an income tax surtax (one percent for most earners, and higher for high earners) linked to the cost of war.
I liked the idea precisely because so much of this war (around 40 percent) thus far has been funded with deficit spending during very good economic times, from 2001 to 2006, when high-income Americans certainly could have afforded higher taxes (which were cut by George W. Bush).
Commenters here and elsewhere asked: Why raise taxes during a recession, when the government has been deficit-spending wildly to boost the economy? Tax dollars are tax dollars, not earmarked for one use or another. Raising taxes is raising taxes. Isn't this precisely the time we're supposed to deficit spending?
Well, yes, but not all deficit dollars are created equal, I fear. If we spend an additional $60 billion on the Afghanistan war, it does do some good for the American economy. It goes to American companies to build things like planes and armor, to hiring new soldiers, to American contractors working in Afghanistan to build roads and schools. But, down the road, the United States doesn't get those roads and schools. Soldiers stop fighting in Afghanistan, but continue to collect salaries and benefits. This means the deficit dollar spent in Afghanistan isn't as effective as the deficit dollar spent in, say, Detroit.
For some data on this phenomenon, Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research produced a paper showing that war spending (rather than domestic spending) ultimately costs jobs and GDP.But all of this might be moot. It seems that Congress is considering extending the estate tax, which was due to expire for a year before coming back into force in 2011. The tax only hits estates worth more than $3.5 million. I say extend it, and expand it to include less, erm, ample estates as well. That seems even better than the Obey plan.
Like many in Washington, I spent Saturday night at home watching C-SPAN as the House debated and ultimately passed a major healthcare reform bill. It was about as exciting as the legislative process gets: a special weekend session, with heated debate over a controversial amendment, impassioned statements from virtually every House heavyweight, and a vote that came down to a thin margin, with a single crossover.
This banner moment marks the closest that the United States has ever come to overhauling its woefully expensive, inefficient, and incomplete healthcare system -- and it felt like a victory. But it marks just one step in what promises to be a long and detailed legislative process. Now, the Senate votes on its healthcare bill, then the two bills are merged, and then both chambers vote again. The remaining process will be highly prone to filibusters from Republicans (and, sigh, Joe Lieberman), and will require extensive negotiation. And this comes after months of wrangling in the Senate and House committees.
While healthcare reform takes its time to pass, two other big bills wait on the sidelines, and governments across the globe wait with them. Indeed, the Senate is, in effect, filibustering the world.
The first back-burnered issue is immigration reform. During his campaign, Obama promised that he would enact comprehensive legislation during his first year in office. It was a heady pledge -- President George W. Bush tried to pass reform during his final term in office, and failed. But it won Obama the support of organizations like the National Council of La Raza and plaudits from governments in Central America, Mexico, and Canada. Then, earlier this year, Obama ingloriously shelved it, laying down a big-bill priority rank with immigration reform taking the bronze. Congress hasn't even started to tackle the issue -- no bills, cosigners, or committee votes yet -- spurring disappointment across the United States' borders and further afield.
The second and vastly more important issue is cap and trade. The House bill passed in June, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushing it onto the floor as soon as she had the votes. But leaders in the White House and Congress decided to cool it to preserve votes for healthcare, and Congress won't make law until sometime early next year.
This delay means that the United States will be something of a weak actor at next month's U.N. Copenhagen conference on climate change. Global leaders will hash out the details of a worldwide plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to attempt to stave off anthropogenic climate disaster. Obama will not be one of them because of, well, Congress.
The United States has said any climate change agreements it makes must comport with U.S. law, and U.S. law isn't ready yet. So, Obama has said he will not attend. In the meantime, the United States has actually attempted to weaken many of the most important measures. Washington, under Obama as under Bush, remains the most recalcitrant major player on climate change, even more so than big-emitter Beijing.
European governments, as well as many others, are bewildered if not piqued. During her address to both chambers of Congress last week, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel implored lawmakers to tackle climate change "without delay." It was a futile plea, and half of the lawmakers didn't bother to clap.
This isn't to say that Washington should have different legislative priorities, or should have put climate change or immigration reform before healthcare. It isn't to say that Obama should have stepped out on those issues before Congress enacted law. It isn't even to say that Congress should move faster, though I often wish it would.
It is simply to note that the United States is used to waiting for its legislative process to work. The rest of the world isn't. On climate change, especially, the Senate is not just holding up U.S. legislation, but global action. And it remains unclear what that means for foreign policy.
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