Barack Obama's counterterrorism speech on Thursday has drawn mixed reviews here in the United States (here at FP, Rosa Brooks gave the address an A-, while Emile Simpson found it to be a "conceptual car crash") -- and reactions have been similar in the countries that may be most affected by the president's proposals.
In the Pakistani press, the takeaway from the speech was the Obama administration's position on drone strikes, which have targeted militants in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. With a touch of optimism, Pakistani reports listed the revised criteria for drone strikes described in the speech and new "presidential policy guidance" as a major shift in U.S. policy. The reports also took special note of Obama's acknowledgement of the "thousands of Pakistani soldiers [who] have lost their lives fighting extremists."
For some in Pakistan, though, including the government's Foreign Ministry, the speech was too little, too late. The ministry issued a statement saying that, while officials agreed with Obama's comment that "force alone cannot make us safe," the Pakistani government "has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law." In an op-ed in Dawn, Pakistani author Rafia Zakaria wrote that the speech would have been better two years ago. In the time since the May 2011 Osama bin Laden raid, she pointed out, terrorism in Pakistan has metastasized as groups like the Pakistani Taliban have been emboldened by airstrikes:
The United States delegitimised the Pakistani state by continuing its onslaught of drone strikes year after year. Unheeded by both Parliamentary resolutions that denied any tacit agreement on drones and the statements of UN Rapporteurs calling them illegal; the Predators continued to fly, releasing Hellfire missiles over Pakistani territory and treating Pakistani borders as arbitrary impediments to American strategy.... The Tehreek-e-Taliban made the same point as the Americans, that the Pakistani state was not able to protect its own people, that their invasive capacity to kill was greater than the government's capacity to protect and that the writ of the state simply did not apply.
Meanwhile, in Yemen, despite the prevalence of U.S. drone strikes in the country, the reaction has focused on Obama's comments about the Guantánamo Bay detention center, where Yemeni nationals make up the majority of remaining detainees. The most-read article on the Yemen Post website on Friday, titled "Gitmo detainees could be heading home to Yemen soon," led with:
Following weeks of an intense political debate between Yemeni and American officials regarding the fate of Yemen 56 cleared terror detainees in Guantanamo Bay prison, America's infamous terror penitentiary, US President Barack Obama said he is ready to resume the transfers of prisoners, hence ended his self-imposed moratorium. In a speech on Thursday at the National Defense University President Obama made clear he wished to reduce Guantanamo "detainee population" ahead of the potential closure of the facility altogether.
The article also noted the looming political fight in Washington, stating, "While the news will come as a relief to many Yemeni officials and the families of detainees, not all American officials agree with their president's decision." The Yemeni government issued a press release and the Yemen Post article quotes officials from the country's Human Rights Ministry confirming U.S.-Yemeni cooperation on a new rehabilitation program in Yemen for repatriated detainees.
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President Obama is giving a much-hyped counterterrorism address this afternoon at the National Defense University in which he'll announce new restrictions on drone strikes and targeted killings, and renew his push to shutter the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. But this isn't the Obama administration's first big speech on drone policy -- current and former officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, former counterterrorism czar and current CIA chief John Brennan, former State Department legal adviser Harold Koh, and former Pentaon general counsel Jeh Johnson, have all delivered carefully crafted statements on the subject in recent years. Here's what we've learned so far.
The basics. Starting with the first major speech in March 2010 by Harold Koh, the Obama administration has sketched out a legal framework for drone strikes and other targeted killing operations -- though the fact that many of these strikes are conducted by remotely piloted vehicles wasn't acknowledged until a speech by John Brennan in May 2012. That justification rests on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al Qaeda, which, in the administration's interpretation, allows for the use of force against al Qaeda-affiliated targets that pose an imminent threat to the United States in countries that have either given permission to the United States or are unwilling or unable to take action against the targets on their own. This rubric has been refined a bit -- but not much -- in subsequent speeches by Brennan and Eric Holder.
Yes, U.S. citizens can be targeted. There's legal precedent for the government using lethal force against American citizens abroad who have taken up arms against the United States, but the Obama administration did not lay out the rationale for such a scenario until a speech by Holder in March 2012. "The president may use force abroad against a senior operational leader of a foreign terrorist organization with which the United States is at war," Holder said in an address at Northwestern University, "even if that individual happens to be a U.S. citizen." Holder has since expanded on this in writing to indicate that the government does not have the authority to conduct targeted killings domestically. Additionally, in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee released on Wednesday, Holder revealed that targeted killings have killed four U.S. citizens since 2009, but that only one of them was the intended target of a strike.
Former officials would like to see more transparency -- to a point. Jeh Johnson has expressed concern about how limited public information about the drone program is affecting its reputation. "In the absence of an official picture of what our government is doing, and by what authority, many in the public fill the void by envisioning the worst," he said in a speech in March 2013. That sentiment was seconded by Koh; in a speech earlier this month, he told an audience at Oxford University that the administration "has not been sufficiently transparent to the media, to the Congress and to our allies." But Johnson wouldn't go so far as to endorse a court for approving targets, which he said could not provide the transparency and credibility its advocates suggest.
For every vague explanation that has been given in these drone speeches, though, there are more questions. Here are a few things we still don't know:
Who is the government really targeting? As Micah Zenko pointed out last month, internal government assessments obtained by McClatchy demonstrate that, in addition to members of al Qaeda, U.S. airstrikes have targeted hundreds of "Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists" from "the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as 'foreign fighters' and 'other militants.'" That goes far beyond the limited scope that the Obama administration has outlined in a Justice Department white paper: that the United States can lawfully target a "senior operational leader of al-Qa'ida or an associated force" who "poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States." In his speech earlier this month, Koh stuck with what Zenko has called "the fundamental myth of the Obama administration's targeted killing program" -- that those targeted are clearly "cobelligerents" of al Qaeda. The administration has yet to discuss publicly the use of "signature strikes," in which groups are targeted based on a set of observed behaviors that are similar to those of terrorist cells.
Just how imminent is 'imminent'? What determines when capture isn't 'feasible'? That Justice Department white paper has a lot of fuzzy language in it. Targeted killings are authorized by "an informed, high-level official of the US government" when there is an "imminent threat of violent attack" and capture is deemed "unfeasible." But really, who qualifies to make that call? Does simply being a member of al Qaeda make someone an imminent threat, or does there have to be a specific plot associated with the individual or cell? Capture was feasible for Osama bin Laden in a safehouse just outside a military base in the heart of Pakistan, but not for men riding in an SUV bumping along a rural Yemeni road -- who makes that determination, and how? Rosa Brooks has written more about how the white paper said a lot by not saying very much at all.
Where and when does the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force not apply? In his February 2012 speech, Johnson called the AUMF "the bedrock of the military's domestic legal authority" for drone strikes and the broader war on terror -- but the AUMF was written to target individuals responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It's been a bit of a stretch for the administration to claim that this authorizes them to target organizations only tangentially affiliated with al Qaeda -- some of which didn't even exist in 2001, and some analysts and politicians have argued that it's time to revise the AUMF. Or, as Brooks has asserted, it might make more sense to scrap it altogether and start over with a new law that doesn't try to shoehorn new authorizations into an old law with more legalese.
But if past speeches are any indication, don't expect too many answers today.
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Ahead of President Obama's big counterterrorism speech tomorrow, Attorney General Eric Holder has written a letter, obtained by the New York Times, to the Senate Judiciary Committee disclosing the four American citizens killed by targeted strikes during the Obama administration, three of whom "were not specifically targeted by the United States":
Since 2009, the United States, in the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qa'ida and its associated forces outside of areas of active hostilities, has specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi. The United States is further aware of three other U.S. citizens who have been killed in such U.S. counterterrorism operations over that same time period: Samir Khan, 'Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi, and Jude Kenan Mohammed. These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States.
The letter does not include the names of all Americans who have been killed in drone strikes. A fifth U.S. citizen, Ahmed Hijazi (a.k.a. Kamal Derwish) was killed in 2002 during the Bush administration in the first ever U.S. drone strike. That strike, in Yemen, was directed at Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, who was associated with the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. An unnamed FBI source told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer several years ago that another U.S. citizen was believed to have been killed by a U.S. cruise missile in Somalia sometime between 2006 and early 2009.
Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were propagandists for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the U.S. government believes that Awlaki played a role in planning the attempted underwear bombing in 2009. His son, 'Abd al-Rahman, had reportedly linked up with AQAP members while looking for Awklaki when a drone targeted his vehicle. The three men were killed in a series of airstrikes in September and October 2011.
The only new name is Jude Kenan Mohammed, whose death in Pakistan was rumored in a February 2012 local news story in his hometown of Raleigh, N.C but had not been previously acknowledged.
With the letter, the Obama administration has now admitted killing more U.S. citizens than detainees the Bush administration admitted waterboarding. Hooray for transparency?
The full text of Holder's letter is included below:
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America and Australia have their fair share of similarities -- both are former British colonies with English as a primary language, both occupy giant chunks of land, and both are characterized by their independent frontier spirits -- but is this reason enough to join them? Sadly, no.
The deadline for a White House petition to "Join American and Australia to form Ameristralia" is fast approaching. The petition, which has until Friday to garner 100,000 signatures, so far clocks in at an unimpressive 6,500.
The campaign to combine the two great nations was inspired by Redditors who in April realized that the United States dominates the social media site during its daytime while Australians actively use Reddit when America sleeps. Combined, they could achieve Reddit -- if not world -- domination. As Urban Dictionary puts it: "the union of the greatest country in the world and the deadliest island, Ameristralia rules all of the day and all of the night."
But while the petition is clearly a joke, an argument can be made for fusing the two countries. Fans of the union -- who call themselves 'Matriots' (Mate + Patriots) -- note: Ameristralia would bypass Russia in size at 17.32 million square km to Russia's 17.08. And yes, it would also finally bring the United States into the metric system. Furthermore, not only do the two countries' respective leaders get along famously, but having a whole territory in the South Pacific, not just a Marine base, could really be a boon to the U.S. pivot to Asia. As the initiative's Facebook page notes, both countries have "amazing armies" to be used "to uphold freedom and awesome." Who could argue with that mission statement?
Still not convinced? Redditors point out that Ameristralians would also dominate Olympic swimming, diving, and at long last give the United States a fighting chance at rugby.
So there you have it: a case for Ameristralia. If the petition somehow reaches 100,000 signatures by Friday, it will join other ridiculous requests -- like Texas seceding from the Union or the United States building a Death Star -- to require White House review.
Donald Rumsfeld has never had a reputation for being particularly tactful or articulate (let's all take a moment to remember how Saturday Night Live portrayed him, even before the invasion of Iraq), but he's demonstrated a habit of owning his mistakes -- in his own way. The former defense secretary took his infamous, convoluted, "There are known knowns" comment, made in a press conference in 2002, and appropriated it as the title of his 2011 memoir, Known and Unknown. And now he's doing it again as he promotes his new book, Rumsfeld's Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life, a collection of aphorisms and rules to live by -- if only Donald Rumsfeld took his own advice.
"You go to war with the Army you have" may have been a gaffe when Rumsfeld said it to a National Guard soldier asking about jerry-rigged armor on Humvees, but in Rumsfeld's Rules, it's a pearl of wisdom. And when he's not rehabilitating his own troublesome turns of phrase, he often cites the advice of others with little self-awareness. All of this has made for an incredibly awkward book tour.
There was the time, for instance, when Rumsfeld cited one of his rules at a book party in Washington on Tuesday: "Every government looking at the actions of another government and trying to explain them always exaggerates rationality and conspiracy and underestimates incompetence and fortuity," he observed. "I learned that from watching you!" Circuit Court Judge Laurence Silberman, who coined the rule, reportedly called out.
And when Rumsfeld spoke to Politico's Patrick Gavin, he wasted no time contradicting himself: "If you have rules, never have more than 10," he joked of his 380-rule book. Then again, he added, "All generalizations are wrong, even this one."
It's complicated, you see.
For example, when Rumsfeld said, "It's easier to get into something than it is to get out," he's not talking about the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In a conversation with Kai Ryssdal, the host of American Public Media's Marketplace, Rumsfeld clarified that he was thinking of a much smaller deployment of U.S. forces 20 years earlier:
I thought of that when I was President Reagan's Middle East envoy and we had 241 Marines killed at Beirut, at the airport. And I concluded then that the United States has to be careful about putting ground forces in because we're such a big target.
"I sorta can't believe these words are coming out of your mouth," an incredulous Ryssdal interjects. When Ryssdal asks if he's ever considered apologizing, Rumsfeld replies, "Well, my goodness, you know, as Napoleon said, 'I've been mistaken so many times I don't even blush for it anymore.' Sure, you see things that don't turn out the way you hope. You look at intelligence -- and of course, if intelligence were a fact, it wouldn't be intelligence."
Incidentally, "If intelligence were a fact, it wouldn't be intelligence" is not one of Rumsfeld's rules.
You can listen to Ryssdal's whole, cringe-inducing interview below. And if you're wondering how Rumsfeld is doing, he'd like you to know, he's "happy as a clam."
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In yet another example of the unrealistic ambitions of Egypt's new political class on the world stage, the Building and Development Party, the political wing of Gama'a al-Islamiyya (GI), is calling on the United States to remove the political party and its parent organization from the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
"Gama'a al-Islamiyya and the Building and Development Party do not consider the West as opponents, but instead advocate for the good of all and embrace all ideas that serve Islam," Building and Development Party spokesman Khaled al-Sharif said in a press conference on Sunday, according to a posting on the party's Facebook page. Daily News Egypt reports that al-Sharif then went on to "demand" that GI be taken off the State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organization list, and called for the United States to release Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the "Blind Sheikh."
GI was a fixture in Egypt's collegiate political scene in the 1980s but became internationally infamous for a campaign of terror attacks in the 1990s, which included assassinations and massacres targeting tourists. GI also occasionally worked with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, then headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later merged his organization with al Qaeda and eventually became Osama bin Laden's successor in that organization. Abdel Rahman had ties to both organizations and is GI's spiritual leader -- he was imprisoned in Egypt in the 1980s for issuing a fatwa sanctioning the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and is currently serving a life sentence in the United States for helping plan attacks in New York City, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. When the State Department's list of foreign terrorist groups was compiled in 1997, GI was an inaugural member.
In 2003, GI reentered the Egyptian political arena, formally renouncing violence in exchange for the release of hundreds of political prisoners. That promise has held, mostly. The change in tactics split the organization, and a violent faction formally joined al Qaeda in 2006. Mainstream members aren't a bunch of peaceniks, either; GI was responsible for organizing the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012, and has threatened to fight for the implementation of sharia law "even if that requires bloodshed."
It's not unheard of for an organization to work its way off the State Department's terror list -- after a years-long lobbying effort, Iranian dissident group Mujahideen-e-Khalq was delisted last September -- but it's a rare occasion. And though GI and its Building and Development Party aren't the only politicians in Egypt to call for the release of the Blind Sheikh, it's certainly not going to win them any fans in Foggy Bottom. It's also not going to happen.
When a former Obama administration legal advisor delivers a tough criticism of the president's prosecution of the war on terror, what do you see? Evidence of the manifest illegality of the White House's drone program? An example of Obama's lack of political will? An invocation of frightening Bush-era legal theories of presidential power?
Welcome to the Rorschach test that is Harold Koh's recent speech to the Oxford Union.
On Tuesday, Koh, until January the chief legal advisor at the State Department, criticized the White House's lack of transparency with regard to its drone program, which Koh said has resulted in "a growing perception that the program is not lawful and necessary, but illegal, unnecessary and out of control." That jab was part of a three-part plan laid out by Koh to extricate the United States from the "Forever War" (1. Disengage from Afghanistan; 2. Close Guantánamo; 3. Discipline drones).
Prior to joining the administration, Koh was an outspoken critic of the Bush administration. But once inside government, he served as one of the chief legal architects of the Obama administration's national security policies, many of which bore a striking resembling to Obama's predecessor's. Now, Koh is firing back -- if rather gently -- at his former employer. But beyond his rather straightforward policy recommendations, it's not entirely clear how to interpret Koh's speech. And the varied responses it provoked offer something of a primer on the current state of thinking about Obama's prosecution of the war on terror.
Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf sees the secrecy surrounding the drone program and Koh's call for its dismantling as proof positive of the program's illegality. In order to "discipline drones," Koh called on Obama to make public the legal rationale for drone strikes and targeting American citizens overseas, clarify its method for counting civilian casualties, and release the threat assessments behind individual drones strikes. Additionally, Koh called on the White House to send its officials before Congress to testify about the program. All in all, sensible reforms aimed at transparency.
But, as Friedersdorf argues, the fact that none of these things -- moves all within Obama's power to carry out -- have happened reveals the drone program's shaky legal basis, if not its outright illegality:
If Koh believes all that is what should happen, then he believes the Obama Administration's current approach is deeply wrongheaded, and not just because of its indefensible dearth of transparency. It is not "consistent with due process" to target American citizens. The way Team Obama counts civilian casualties is not "consistent with international humanitarian law standards." Obama can't demonstrate that its strikes were all directed against imminent threats. Being more transparent about any of those things will in fact be discrediting, not redemptive.
Hence the secrecy.
And although he precedes everything with, "as President Obama has indicated he wants to do," Koh knows that Obama could do everything Koh endorses, but has in fact chosen not to do it.
Writing for her blog Emptywheel, Marcy Wheeler interprets Koh's argument about how to close Guantánamo as evidence of Obama's lack of political will to finally erase this stain on America's human rights record. In his speech, Koh urged Obama to designate a senior White House official with sufficient weight to close down the prison. But that plan, Wheeler contends, bears remarkable similarities to Obama's failed effort to close Gitmo early in his first term:
Now, I'm all in favor of closing Gitmo and this might be one way to do it. Koh actually improves on the prior plan by admitting the indefinite detainees will have to be released as the war is over, which is legally correct but misapprehends why they're not being released and why we have to have a Forever War to justify keeping them silent and imprisoned forever.
But Koh's map for closing Gitmo also misrepresents why appointing Greg Craig himself to carry out the Gitmo task didn't work. As I traced in real time (see, here, here, and here), to get Obama's ear, Craig had to fight through Rahm Emanuel. And Rahm preferred to sell out Obama's human rights promises in exchange for an eventually failed attempt to appease Lindsey Graham. Rahm won that fight. After Rahm won that battle, he scapegoated Craig. Ultimately, when asked why he left, Craig pointed to Rahm.
It wasn't enough to appoint Greg Craig. Closing Gitmo either required appointing someone with the bureaucratic chops to beat Rahm or someone like him in battle, or someone whom Obama actually entrusts such a battle with. And Holder's fate - where Obama continues to have trust in him even while he ultimately reversed his decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in NYC - shows that's not enough. Heck, Koh stayed on for almost four years, but even battles he presumably thought he had won, like drone rules, he now appears to have lost. Ultimately, then, it's going to take a really shrewd fighter or ... it's going to take the President wanting to invest political capital in these things more than he did three years ago.
Koh's emphasis on the need to close Guantánamo reflects the degree to which the Bush administration's shadow still hangs over the Obama White House -- a fact highlighted in the blog Lawfare commentary on Koh's conception of presidential power. "Look who has discovered inherent presidential powers," Benjamin Wittes observes sarcastically (elsewhere on Lawfare, Steve Vladeck defends Koh against the charge of hypocrisy).
What do you see in this ink blot of a speech?
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Yemen's transitional government is signaling that it may release Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a Yemeni journalist who was arrested in August 2010 and who U.S. intelligence officials believe supported al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Shaye was sentenced to five years in prison in January 2011 in a trial that drew condemnation from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and human rights and journalist advocacy organizations have since campaigned for his release.
In a meeting with U.N. officials on Monday, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi told reporters that he has made plans to release Shaye, Yemen's al-Masdar reports. Al Jazeera bureau chief Saeed Thabit Saeed, who attended the meeting, wrote on Facebook, "We received a serious promise from [Hadi] that our colleague Abdulelah Shaye will be released," and Times of London correspondent Iona Craig confirmed with Hadi's office that there "is an order from the president to release Shaye soon."
This is not the first time that Shaye's release has been considered. In fact, soon after his 2011 trial, Shaye's release seemed imminent. "We were waiting for the release of the pardon -- it was printed out and prepared in a file for the president to sign and announce the next day," Shaye's lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, told Jeremy Scahill in his new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. But that plan fell through after a Feb. 2 phone call between then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and President Barack Obama, in which Obama "expressed concern over the release of [Shaye], who had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP," according to a readout of the call released by the White House.
The White House's position hasn't changed in the ensuing two years. "We remain concerned about al-Shai's potential early release due to his association with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told FP by email on Wednesday.
Nor, for that matter, is Shaye's release certain. Mohammed al-Basha, a spokesperson for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, walked back reports of the journalist's imminent release, telling FP that President Hadi had only agreed to consider ending Shaye's detention.
Shaye's investigative work drew international attention in 2009 when he reported that the United States had conducted an airstrike that killed 41 civilians in the Yemeni village of al-Majalla, and managed to interview New Mexico-born AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki on multiple occasions.
In July 2010, the Yemeni government arrested and beat Shaye, and interrogators told him, "We will destroy your life if you keep on talking," according to Scahill's account. Shaye was arrested a month later, beaten again, held in solitary confinement for 34 days without access to a lawyer, and then rushed through a trial on charges that included recruiting and propagandizing for AQAP and encouraging the assassination of President Saleh and his son. By the time Obama intervened in Shaye's pardon in 2011, protesters had begun filling city streets calling for the end of Saleh's three-decade presidency; Saleh resigned in November 2011, and since then his vice president, Hadi, has governed as part of what is slated to be a two-year period of reform and transition.
The U.S. government's case against Shaye is unclear. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein told Craig in February 2012 that "Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans," but did not elaborate. Before Shaye's arrest, an U.S. intelligence official, who told Scahill that he "was persuaded that [Shaye] was an agent," discouraged journalists from working with Shaye on account of "'classified evidence' indicat[ing] that Shaye was 'cooperating' with al Qaeda."
Since his imprisonment, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Yemen-based Freedom Foundation have campaigned for Shaye's release, and last November Yemeni Justice Minister Murshid al-Arashani publicly demanded that Hadi issue a pardon. Though it appears the Yemeni president may be preparing to meet that request, Shaye's family remains doubtful. "It's like the same as previous promises," Shaye's brother Khaled told Craig. "So far this is the fourth time Hadi has made this promise."
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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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What can an impoverished island nation -- one isolated by the United States and lacking natural resources of its own -- do to secure its influence in the world and earn hard currency? In Cuba's case, the answer lies in its medical corps.
On Monday, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota announced that his country is in negotiations to hire some 6,000 Cuban doctors to come work in rural areas of Brazil. The plan highlights what has become a cornerstone of Cuban foreign policy and its export economy. Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, the country has aggressively exported its doctors around the world -- sometimes for humanitarian reasons, sometimes for cash -- and has garnered a reputation as a provider of health care to the world's neediest countries.
Shortly after the revolution, for instance, Fidel Castro sent physicians to Algeria as a sign of socialist solidarity and to Chile in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. Since then, Cuba has sent at least 185,000 health workers to more than 100 different countries, according to the New York Times.
But what began as a strategy for exporting revolution has in more recent years turned into a means of ensuring the government's survival. Cuba's largest medical mission is currently in Venezuela, which sends Havana 90,000 barrels of oil per day in exchange for 30,000 Cuban physicians. It's an elegant quid pro quo that secures legitimacy for the Venezuelan government and keeps the Cuban economy afloat.
We hear a lot about Cuban cigars, but tobacco is far from Cuba's most important export. In 2006, 28 percent, or $2.3 billion, of Cuba's total export earnings came from medical services, according to a study by Julie Feinsilver. As a rough measure of comparison, Cuba's cigar exports totaled $215 million in 2011.
So what might Cuba's latest foray into medical diplomacy entail? In return for physicians and other health workers, Brazil is expected to fund infrastructure projects in Cuba and direct a $176 million loan toward Cuban airports. Cuban medical personnel, meanwhile, will fan out to rural areas of Brazil that are typically underserved by doctors.
It's a bitter irony for U.S. policymakers that 50 years after the imposition of the Cuban embargo, the communist regime is circumventing efforts to isolate it by sending, of all things, doctors around the world.
Never mind that the motive isn't always humanitarian.
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Fraying cooperation in the drug war will surely be top of mind as President Obama meets with his counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico this week. And perhaps nothing encapsulates Mexico's growing impatience with America's heavy-handed approach to combating drug trafficking than this nugget from a New York Times report on Tuesday. Apparently, the United States has been subjecting Mexican security officials to regular polygraph tests in an effort to identify rotten apples. But that could soon change:
Shortly after Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, took office in December, American agents got a clear message that the dynamics, with Washington holding the clear upper hand, were about to change.
"So do we get to polygraph you?" one incoming Mexican official asked his American counterparts, alarming United States security officials who consider the vetting of the Mexicans central to tracking down drug kingpins. The Mexican government briefly stopped its vetted officials from cooperating in sensitive investigations. The Americans are waiting to see if Mexico allows polygraphs when assigning new members to units, a senior Obama administration official said.
While the practice is not widely publicized, it has been an element of the two countries' security relationship for some time. In a 1997 article on U.S.-Mexican plans to join hands in the drug war, the Associated Press noted that Mexican counternarcotics agents would undergo the "kind of extensive background, financial, and polygraph tests required of U.S. drug agents." The plans came after the arrest of Mexico's drug czar, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, for taking bribes from drug traffickers.
What's more, the United States hasn't just applied this policy to Mexico. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that Washington has given elite Colombian counternarcotics agents polygraph tests as well.
The bad blood over polygraph tests isn't the only sign that U.S.-Mexican cooperation on the drug war is deteriorating. In an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE on his new book, the Mexican journalist Jesús Esquivel claimed that the Mexican military recently waved off a U.S. offer to capture famed drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Gúzman. The United States had the Sinaloa cartel chief's location and said the operation would take only 15 minutes. So why the hang-up? Mexican military officials reportedly didn't want the American military to lead the operation.
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Last week, after more than two years of being a fixture in Sanaa and cities around the country, Yemen's revolutionaries dismantled protest camps around the country. The AP reports it was a "symbolic" move, and that activists were "declaring an end to the revolution." Tawakkol Karman, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism in Yemen, told crowds at Sanaa's Change Square, "We are starting a new phase.... We declare that we toppled the rule of the family forever..."
If that strikes you as strange, it should. Yemen may have a transitional government, and last month saw the beginning of the National Dialogue, a months-long process of reconciliation and reform leading toward elections. But many of the activists responsible for driving the revolution forward are far from satisfied with these achievements. The decision to shut down the protests camps came from the Organizing Committee of the Youth Revolution, which is the most prominent -- but only one -- of several groups affiliated with the protest movement. Despite the bold pronouncements, there isn't a consensus on when -- or how -- the revolution should end.
Boshra al-Maqtari, president of the Progressive Youth Organization, stressed that "there are very big differences in the positions of the revolutionary organizations and youth movements," when reached by e-mail (her comments appear here in translation). While the youth movement has voiced concerns about having their cause commandeered by other political interests since the early months of the protests, al-Maqtari worries that the groups leading the movement now, which are tied to Yemen's Islah Party, are not leaving room for dissent in the protest movement. The decision to end the protest camps, she writes, "reflects the real problem that ... revolutionaries are no longer allowed to have any negative or contradictory opinions."
"No one ... can claim to speak for the revolution," writes Yemeni activist and journalist Farea al-Muslimi, who testified on U.S. targeted killing policy in the Senate on Tuesday. "The south remains a place where many there think their revolution hasn't even started yet."
Al-Muslimi sees the transition from the transitional to an elected government as the real test of the revolution, but the pressure for conformity in the protest movement has al-Maqtari concerned that the revolution, to date, "did not create a culture of democracy."
Both were dismissive of declarations of the end of the revolution. "The revolution is ongoing," wrote al-Matari. Al-Muslimi was blunt, telling FP it's "total rubbish to say the revolution is over."
Yemen has had this debate before, after the February 2012 referendum that formally ushered in Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, previously Yemen's vice president, into the role of transitional president. Then, protesters told the New York Times that they would wait for military reforms. Though the reforms are ongoing, the Yemeni government formalized a large shake-up in the military leadership earlier this month. But revolutions have a tendency to linger -- there are no closing ceremonies, as Lebanese satirist Karl Sharro suggested, not even in the speeches delivered at the dismantling of Yemen's Change Square camp. As she called for an end to the revolution that toppled the president, Karman proposed a new stage. "We have a new revolution," she told the remaining protesters in the square, "to cleanse the state from corruption."
Marya Hannun contributed to this post.
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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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If Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin is to be believed, Russia has stopped worrying about U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. In a speech delivered Tuesday at the Russian embassy in London, Rogozin claimed that the American missile shield no longer poses a threat to his country -- a statement that contradicts years of Russian officials howling about the presence of U.S. missiles near the Russian border.
"We have solved the issue of penetrating the missile shield," Rogozin said, according to RIA Novosti. "We regret that the United States waste their money on missile defense and compel us to do the same. The missile shield is nothing for us, it's a bluff. It poses no military threat, but remains a political and economic problem."
American officials have repeatedly tried to assure the Russians that the missile defense system is intended to counter the missile threat from Iran, but this has done little to assuage the Russians. In his remarks Tuesday, Rogozin called the system "excessive" and "provocative by nature" -- attributes that made Russia feel "compelled to search for a wise and asymmetric response."
Could it be that Russia has found a way to circumvent the missile defense system?
If so, Rogozin would certainly be in a position to know. Prior to his elevation to deputy prime minister, Rogozin served as the Russian envoy to NATO and as President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to the alliance on missile defense issues. In his current role, Rogozin oversees the Russian defense industry, a position that would certainly give him the insight to comment on innovations in Russian missile technology.
While Rogozin's comments may amount to nothing more than bluster, he has previously alluded to Russia's desire to create an effective military counterweight to U.S. missile defense systems. In February, he replied to comments by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen defending the alliance's missile shield by writing on Twitter that "we also feel responsibility for protecting our population from your missile threat and will create a reliable air and space defense." In June, 2011, Rogozin wrote in the International Herald Tribune that for "Russia it is a matter of principle to remove any threat to its strategic capabilities, which guarantee our sovereignty and independence."
But until now, there has been no indication from Russia that it has found a way to counter U.S. missile defense systems through technical means.
Interestingly, when in March the United States chose to bolster its missile defense systems in the Pacific region in response to threats issued by North Korea, it effectively canceled the final phase of the missile system the Russians opposed. That development led to hopes that Russia and the United States might reach a rapprochement on the issue -- one that did not appear.
Perhaps that was because Russia has been waiting to unveil a military breakthrough to render the issue irrelevant.
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Is Iraq a U.S. ally? Judging by his Washington Post op-ed this morning, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to think so:
Iraq is not a protectorate of the United States; it is a sovereign partner. Partners do not always agree, but they consider and respect each other's views. In that spirit, we ask the United States to consider Iraq's views on challenging issues, especially those of regional importance....
The United States has not "lost" Iraq. Instead, in Iraq, the United States has found a partner for our shared strategic concerns and our common efforts on energy, economics and the promotion of peace and democracy.
Maliki paints a particularly rosy picture of U.S.-Iraqi relations, touting the potential for investment, the growth of oil production, and the country's democratization and upcoming elections. But do any experts actually believe this?
On the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion last month, Post reporter Ernesto Londoño wrote that "the country is neither the failed state that seemed all but inevitable during the darkest days of the war nor the model democracy that the Americans set out to build.... The nation is no longer defined or notably influenced by its relationship with the United States." That dynamic was on display on March 24, when Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly had a frustrating discussion with Maliki about the flow of arms from Iran to Syria through Iraqi airspace -- the latest evidence of a persistent decline in U.S. influence in Iraq, as Baghdad has drifted closer to the policies of neighboring Iran.
But does that mean Iraq is not the "sovereign partner" of the United States that Maliki describes? The assessments are mixed. Speaking with Maliki as U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, President Obama declared, "Our strong presence in the Middle East endures, and the United States will never waiver in the defense of our allies, our partners, and our interests."
But a year and a half later, Iraq historian Toby Dodge sees the country backsliding into autocracy under Maliki. Liberal interventionist war advocate Kanan Makiya points to Iraq's leadership as a stumbling block, saying in a recent profile in the Boston Globe that the "Iraqi leadership proved itself capricious, greedy, selfish -- it was a failure on the part of the elites." In the New York Times, Ramzy Mardini of the Iraq Inistitute for Strategic Studies assessed the situation bluntly: "A decade since the occupation of Iraq began, Baghdad still cannot be considered an ally of the United States.... An alliance today is beyond anyone's reach."
Others are more optimistic. Former CIA director James Woolsey, for instance, told the Daily Beast, "There is much more Iranian influence than I would like to see. I don't know that it is hopeless." Former Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim sees the ouster of the Hussein regime and the government that has followed as "marginally a good thing, but nowhere near as good as what we thought." Writing in Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat today, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz suggests that "it is remarkable that Iraq has done as well as it has thus far" and encourages continued engagement, noting that "it is not too late for the US and Europe and the GCC countries to engage with Iraq to help steer it on a course toward inclusive and accountable governance."
And he may be on to something. Today, for the second time in two days, Iraqi officials forced an inspection in Baghdad of an Iranian plane bound for Syria. But despite estimates that Iran is transporting as much as five tons of munitions per Syria-bound flight, Iraqi officials said they only found humanitarian supplies.
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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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Chinese government officials considered using an armed unmanned aerial vehicle to target a drug trafficker hiding in Myanmar, according to an interview with Liu Yuejin, the director of China's Public Security Ministry's anti-drug bureau that appeared in Global Times on Monday. The target, Naw Kham, wanted for a drug-trafficking related attack that killed 13 Chinese sailors, was eventually captured last April in a joint Chinese-Laotian operation in Laos and is now appealing a death sentence in China. Yuejin's comments are an unusual glimpse into China's considerations for the use of drone strikes, a tactic that is no longer used exclusively by the United States.
The proposed Chinese strike would have occurred in Myanmar's restive north, where the Naypyidaw government has struggled to control ethnic conflicts and a thriving drug trade. Much like the U.S. official rationale as for strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, China could have either sought Naypyidaw's support or credibly claimed that the government was "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted," in the words of the Obama administration's white paper on its own targeted killing program. Similarly, as a violent drug trafficker tied to the deaths of Chinese sailors, China could have justified the potential drone strike under the white paper's loose definition of the "imminent threat of violent attack" against the homeland -- much as the United States justified targeting al Qaeda militants tied to the bombing of the USS Cole with drone strikes, beginning Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2002 (well before the white paper was authored).
The admission that the Chinese government considered a drone strike comes as its relationship with Myanmar has become increasingly strained amid stalled economic projects and new competition for influence with the West. China also appears to have placed special emphasis on their UAV programs in recent months, unveiling new models (that look suspiciously like U.S.-made Predator and Reaper drones) and retrofitting old Shenyang J-6 jets to fly by remote control.
Yuejin told Global Times that the drone strike option was passed over because of instructions to capture Naw Kham alive, but his comments demonstrate that China is weighing targeted killings seriously. When -- almost certainly not "if" -- China conducts its first drone strike, it will join just three other nations -- the United States, Britain, and Israel -- and place itself among the drone powers in the ongoing international assessment of the legality of these operations and whether they abridge international law and the established concept of sovereignty.
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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."
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If Sen. John Kerry is confirmed as secretary of state, one of the first issues to cross his desk will be Iran's nuclear program. Kerry has discussed the issue before. We've poured over the WikiLeaks cables, which paint a broad portrait of Kerry's diplomatic style. In those classified documents, he discussed how he might approach the issue.
The first reference comes from a conversation in February 2005 with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier. Kerry told Barnier that "his conversations in the region had convinced him that Iran remains committed to a nuclear weapons program, but agreed that there were no good alternatives to negotiating." Though he did not rule out a military option, he did point out it "would be difficult," and pointed to U.N. sanctions, which have since been put in place and periodically ratcheted up, as an alternative. Still smarting from his defeat in the presidential election in 2004, Kerry remarked that "his own intention, had he been elected president, was to pursue front channel and back channel contacts with the Iranian regime."
Five years later, Kerry got the opportunity to open some of those back channel contacts. In a February 2010 meeting with Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Kerry commented that Washington's behind-the-scenes signals to Tehran had gone unanswered. He "observed that the Iranians are scared to talk...Our instinct is that we need to find a way to talk to him." Al-Thani then reportedly offered to be an intermediary. "What if I talk to the Iranian President. What would you have me say?" he asked.
Senator Kerry responded, "The U.S. seeks serious discussion and sought to create a new foundation for a relationship based on Iran's non-confrontational compliance with IAEA requirements and other mutual interests." Those interests include dealing with drug-running, the Taliban, and illicit trade. The Chairman told the Amir he feared that Iran still thinks it is dealing with the 1953 America that tried to overthrow the Iranian government.
The United States recognizes Iran's ambitions to be a regional player, Kerry told al-Thani, and wants a dialogue about what sort of power it will be.
Of course, that conversation took place nearly three years ago. A lot has changed -- or, maybe very little has changed, and as a result patience in Washington is running low. Kerry's views may have shifted since then, but he'd probably still agree with the comment he made then to al-Thani: "It is crazy to continue on this collision course."
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Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't choose his foreign visits lightly. On May 31, Putin makes his first trip abroad since being inaugurated for a third term as president on May 7, to neighboring Belarus. The visit is highly symbolic of Russia's desire to be the leader in the post-Soviet space, as well as Putin's continued support for the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko (also known as "Europe's Last Dictator"). Afterwards, Putin will head to Germany and France, Russia's major trading partners in the EU. After the European visits, Putin will fly to speak with Uzbek ruler Islam Karimov in Tashkent, to Beijing, and finally to Astana, Kazakhstan, to meet with long-time ruler Nursultan Kazarbayev; countries central to Putin's vision of a Eurasian Union.
Earlier in the month, Putin suddenly declined to attend the G8 Summit in Camp David, under pretext that he was too busy forming a new Cabinet of Ministers, sending instead Prime Minister Medvedev. The move was widely seen as a snub to President Obama, as Putin avoided a meeting with the president, and sidestepped making the U.S. his first foreign visit. A few days later, Obama announced he would not be able to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vladivostok this September, because it conflicted with the Democratic Party convention.
Putin has now also taken the opportunity to snub the UK, by announcing he will not attend the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, even though the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on Russian territory in Sochi. Likely, Medvedev will once again be sent in his stead. Russian-British relations have been tense since the 2006 poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. Moreover the West has been pressuring Russian officials over the 2009 death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while he was detained in prison. Putin's foreign trip destinations are by no means accidental.
J Street, the "political home" for pro-Israel, pro-two state solution (read: anti-AIPAC) American Jews, kicked off its third annual conference in Washington on Saturday night. But despite its massive efforts to mobilize behind President Obama, executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami doesn't seem to be terribly satisfied with the commander in chief's track record in a press roundtable:
"We would like to see the president do more, we'd like to see the administration take a more proactive role in outlining the parameters for a resolution of the conflict, and to build an international coalition of supporters beyond the Quartet."
Ben-Ami also invoked Libya and Iran as examples for the White House to follow as it builds consensus for a two-state solution.
"The way the world was brought together around Libya and around the Iran sanctions, that's the kind of mobilization of international support that the administration will need to do if it wants to re-establish American credibility in foreign policy making."
A panel discussion held during the conference on Sunday about the current prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace took on a bleaker tone. According to Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, the current administration is simply exhausted:
"They were serious, but realized that they didn't have the political stomach...They thought they had the will to see it through, but they got exhausted."
Nadav Eyal of Israel's Maariv newspaper added that the president does not appear to be invested in the issue:
"Obama needs to come into this personally, and he has not done that."
Leila Hilal, co-director of the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force, even questioned the viability of the two-state solution itself:
"This is the time to think about new strategies. Two states is a largely hollow and abstract notion, and the Palestinian public has no interest in dead-end talks...Conditions are not ripe, and the U.S. administration cannot force proposals."
For an organization that's supposed to rally support for a peaceful two-state solution, this year's attendees seem fairly pessimistic about the chances of achieving that goal. Ben-Ami may be optimistic that the stars will someday align, but for now J Street's timing is all wrong.
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It might be the end of American hegemony in the global political and economic order, but unemployed and underpaid Americans can at least take heart at today's news.
Social networking site Badoo.com conducted a poll of 30,000 people in 15 countries to name the coolest nationality. Surprise! - despite a sinking economy, pathetic politics, and increasingly suspect pop culture exports -- Americans are still number 1.
According to Reuters, the top ten coolest nationalities are:
The five least cool?
According to Reuters:
"We hear a lot in the media about anti-Americanism," says Lloyd Price, Badoo's Director of Marketing. "But we sometimes forget how many people across the world consider Americans seriously cool."
"America," says Price, "boasts the world's coolest leader, Obama; the coolest rappers, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg; and the coolest man in technology, Steve Jobs of Apple, the man who even made geeks cool."
It's unknown how Obama's coolness factors into his job approval ratings by Americans - the most recent polls say that more than half of the country disapproves of him as leader of the pack.
Yesterday brought good and bad news in the spat over sovereignty in the South China Sea. At a meeting of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali, Indonesia, representatives from the ASEAN countries and China agreed upon a set of guidelines for resolving territorial disputes in the sea, where six countries - China, Vietnam, the Phillippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan - have overlapping sovereignty claims. The new deal, as outlined by the Jakarta Post, builds off the body's Declaration of Conduct (DOC), a nonbinding agreement signed in 2002 aimed at facilitating a legal agreement to resolve sovereignty disputes and prevent conflict in the region
Official reactions to theARF deal have varied. Chinese assistant foreign minister and meeting co-chair Liu Zhenmin has called the agreement a "milestone document," and his fellow co-chair, Vietnamese assistant foreign minister Pham Quang Vinh, said it was "significant and a good start." Nonetheless, it's important to note that the adopted guidelines are not legally binding; they merely reiterate the need to conform with the DOC, and they also lack a deadline for the implementation of a legal accord to resolve the conflict. Filipino Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario highlighted this concern when he said that more steps were needed to "add teeth" to the new deal.
Events later on Wednesday confirmed the Philippines's dissatisfaction with the ARF agreement. Four Filipino lawmakers and a Filipino military general ignored strong warnings from China and visited the island of Pagasa, the only island in the Spratlys populated by Filipinos, in a "peace and sovereignty mission." They joined residents to sing the national anthem and called for improvements in facilities on the island, which has no schools or hospitals for its 60 inhabitants. A spokesman from the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed outrage about the visit.
Wednesday's events came as Hillary Clinton wrapped up her tour of India and prepared to join ASEAN representatives at the security forum in Bali. At the same meeting last year, she surprised Chinese officials when she called resolution of the sovereignty disputes a "leading diplomatic priority" for the U.S. She looks set to reiterate the position this year. We'll see whether China agrees.
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With one sentence, the New York Times raised dozens of Middle East pundits' hopes that their words were reaching the most powerful man in the world. "At night in the family residence...Mr. Obama often surfs the blogs of experts on Arab affairs or regional news sites to get a local flavor for events," read Mark Landler's account of how the Obama administration will attempt to use the killing of Osama bin Laden to recast the U.S. relationship with the Arab world.
Well, Mr. President, we have some late-night reading suggestions for you. First, of course, there's Marc Lynch and the Middle East Channel - Foreign Policy's own contribution to the fast-changing world of politics in the Arab world. But there's also an entire community of Middle East bloggers who obsessively follow and comment on developments in their countries, and throughout the region.
Caveat emptor: Many of these authors will take you outside the comfort zone of the Washington policy debate. What's more, if you tried to gather them all in one room, you'd be virtually guaranteed a fight. But these blogs will also give you a more realistic sense of the political conversation in the Arab world. Don't stay up too late - you have a full-time job, after all.
In 2008, Yu Keping, the head of China's Central Compilation and Translation Bureau and a professor at Peking University, published an attention-grabbing collection of essays called Democracy is a Good Thing. Coming from a Chinese Communist Party official said to be close to President Hu Jintao, Yu's bold assertion that "democracy is the best political system for humankind" was striking. But so was the fine print: Yu argued in the book that while "it is the inevitable trend for all nations of the world to move towards democracy ... the timing and speed of the development of democracy and the choice of the form and system of democracy are conditional." Among other things, he has resisted the idea that a multi-party political system would be appropriate for China. All of which is to say that Yu is something of a sphinx: As a New York Times profile observed last year, "Even China experts have a hard time determining whether Mr. Yu is a brave voice for change or simply a well-placed shill."
Which makes Yu -- who is in Washington this week -- a particularly interesting person to ask about the current moment in Chinese politics, in which the Communist Party is managing the transition from Hu to his presumed presidential successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, while watching the sudden explosion of anti-government, pro-democratic sentiment in the Arab world with palpable unease. The Chinese government began cracking down on human rights activists, artists, and writers in March, and barred another prominent writer from leaving the country this week.
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Chinese President Hu Jintao's arrival in Washington yesterday was accompanied by the announcement of the imminent signing of a major joint venture between General Electric and China's state owned Avic to produce sophisticated avionics (airplane electronics) in China for sale to Chinese and other airplane producers.
No doubt intended as a way of pouring oil on the troubled waters of U.S.-China trade relations by demonstrating mutually beneficial cooperation between U.S. and Chinese industry, the announcement instead demonstrated precisely why the waters are troubled.
Let's start with GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt. About a year ago, in the course of a dinner he thought was private, Immelt complained that China is a miserable place in which to do business. It was bent on expropriating GE technology and made selling in China very difficult if not impossible unless a company also produced in and transferred technology to China, he opined. A few months later, Immelt spoke of having an epiphany about the dangers of off-shoring too much GE production. In the GE annual report, he wrote of the need for and his intent to put more investment in the United States and to bring some of GE's foreign production back to America.
But the announced deal will take things in the opposite direction. The investment and production will be in China and the technology (much of it initially paid for by U.S. tax payers and the Defense Department) will be transferred from the United States to China, thereby enabling China's aviation industry to move more quickly toward its goal of overtaking the U.S. and Europe in commercial and military jet production.
So what's going on? GE's Vice Chairman John G. Rice put it bluntly in commenting on the fact that China is expected to buy $400 billion of airplanes over the next twenty years: "We can participate in that or sit on the sidelines. We're not about sitting on the sidelines." Rice added that: "This venture is a strategic move that we made after some thought and consideration with a company we know. This isn't something we were forced into by the Chinese government."
Okay, but why can't GE sell to that big market without a joint venture with a state owned Chinese company? Why can't it just make the avionics in the United States and export them to the Chinese aircraft makers and airlines? After all, China doesn't have this technology right now. So GE is a lower cost and infinitely more sophisticated producer than Avic.
Well, one reason might be that if GE doesn't do this deal, another avionics maker might. But hold it. That has to mean that the Chinese are effectively making access to this big market conditional on producing in and transferring technology to China. So who is Rice trying to kid. Maybe the Chinese government didn't call him up and shout directly over the phone that "Mr. Rice we command you to do a joint venture with Avic and to transfer your technology and production to China." But Rice is not as dumb as he thinks we are. He was afraid that if he didn't produce in China, he wouldn't have a chance at the business.
And Immelt did say that he had cleared all this with the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Defense and State.
But that raises an even more interesting question. Will we be hearing of any joint ventures between U.S. and Chinese companies that will transfer Chinese technology and Chinese based production to the United States? I'm sure your guess was "no." And you're right. But why don't Obama and his Commerce, Defense, and State Departments make it clear to the Chinese that if they want to sell in the U.S. market they need to produce something here and transfer some technology here? China is way ahead of the U.S. in the production of solar panels for example. This is a technology being fostered by the Obama administration. Why not get the Chinese to help us in solar panels just as Immelt and GE (with the apparent approval of the Departments of Commerce, State, and Defense - and the White House) are helping them with avionics?
After all, isn't what's good for the Chinese goose also good for the American gander?
As protesters overwhelmed former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's security forces in Tunis, the regional office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the George W. Bush administration's signature democracy promotion organization, watched as its mandate was fulfilled in the most unlikely of places.
It is, to say the least, an awkward bit of symbolism. MEPI defines its mission as "develop[ing] more pluralistic, participatory, and prosperous societies." And in the country where it is based, the Tunisian people proved themselves to be uniquely and spectacularly unhappy with their regime.
But according to current and former democracy promotion advocates in the U.S. government, the decision to base MEPI's offices in Tunisia was made because the embassy had enough free space to accommodate its staff, and the country was thought to be stable enough to not interfere with the organization's sometimes controversial work.
Scott Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration who oversaw the creation of MEPI, said that the Ben Ali regime was "constantly paranoid" about the organization's presence in the country, and never allowed it to undertake significant democracy promotion programs. As a result, "we were doing a lot of stuff very, very quietly - not to say covert, but very quietly," Carpenter said.
The Ben Ali regime's hostility to any efforts to open up the political system was attested to by other Western diplomats who served in Tunis. Alan Goulty, who served as the British ambassador in the country from 2004 to 2008, said that the government would constantly raise the specter of terrorism to discourage any contact with Tunisian opposition figures.
"There was one explosion in 1987 of a bomb, where a British lady was wounded and lost her leg," Goulty said. "I lost count of the times that Tunisian officials, 15 years later, reminded me of that incident to justify their claims that the Tunisian opposition, whatever form it took, was terrorist."
In theory, the European Union should have had considerable economic and political leverage to convince the Ben Ali regime to liberalize. Trade between EU member states and Tunisia in 2009 was in excess of $20 billion - by comparison, total U.S. imports and exports to the country were valued at around $800 million. The EU association agreement with Tunisia also provided a ready-made avenue for discussion human rights and political liberalization. In practice, however, EU efforts in the country were anemic at best.
"Frankly, the EU always pulled its punches [on democracy promotion], because of the need to operate unanimously," said Goulty. "And a different approach was taken by [our] Mediterranean partners, principally France and Italy, who believed that the best way forward was to get close to the regime and further one's economic interests."
In fact, the primary contribution that the United States made to Tunisia's recent unrest was neglect. As U.S. relations with the other North African states improved over the past two decades, the relative importance of Tunisia as a U.S. ally in the region declined. U.S. diplomats may not have had much success promoting liberalization in the country, but the national security implications of the fall of Ben Ali's regime raised steadily fewer concerns in Washington.
David Mack, currently a scholar at the Middle East Institute, served as the deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in Tunisia from 1979 to 1982. "If you go back to the time when I was there, our relations were disappearing with Libya, we had poor relations with Algeria, and strained relationships in many parts of the Muslim world," he noted. "But the reality is that today Tunisia plays a smaller role overall in U.S. strategic political calculation."
However, diplomats insisted that Tunisia's apparent stability under Ben Ali did not cause them to underestimate the population's grievances with his regime. A prescient June 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks criticizes the "sclerotic" regime, which it says has "lost touch with the Tunisian people." The same memo complains that "make it exceptionally difficult for the US Mission to conduct business" and meet with regime opponents.
Those who spent time in the country seconded that assessment. "The place was so sterile -- you just feel people's fear, and the complete lack of dynamism in the society," said Carpenter. "Within the State Department we used to refer to it as ‘Syria with a smile.'"
PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP/Getty Images
For the past two and a half years, Lebanese politics was played much like a game of touch football. That is, it operated within the confines of a strictly defined set of rules: It didn't always make for the most compelling sport, but at least nobody got hurt. This was the legacy of the May 2008 Doha Agreement, which gave Lebanon's Hezbollah-led opposition veto power in the new national unity government.
But it's unity no more. The rival coalitions finally faced an issue where no compromise was possible: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was established by the U.N. Security Council to prosecute those behind the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is expected to soon issue indictments implicating Hezbollah members in the crime. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, his son, has staunchly resisted Hezbollah's attempts to pressure him to disavow the court. Today, Lebanon's opposition cabinet ministers resigned in protest, forcing the collapse of Hariri's government.
The new rules of Lebanese politics will make for a full-contact contest worthy of the NFL. The parties now begin what promises to be a protracted process to form a new government. The opposition will likely try to pressure Hariri by raising alternative candidates for prime minister. However, any other potential premier would be hard-pressed to help Hezbollah undermine the tribunal's credibility.
"As the son of the slain leader -- with Hezbollah looking for some form of absolution or some way of getting itself off the hook [for the Special Tribunal's indictments] -- Saad Hariri is in a particular position to do that much more so than anyone else," noted Mona Yacoubian, the director of the United States Institute of Peace's Lebanon Working Group.
Few expect the situation to quickly devolve into violence -- the more likely scenario is long-term government paralysis, punctuated by rival political demonstrations organized to show the various factions' popular support. In other words, the country appears poised to return to the political deadlock that existed in 2006, after Shiite cabinet ministers resigned in an earlier attempt to prevent the Lebanese government from lending its support to the international tribunal.
On the bright side, Lebanese political parties are making an effort to prevent the situation from turning into a sectarian turf battle between the Shiite and Sunni communities. Reached for comment, a delegation from Hariri's predominantly Sunni Future Movement declined to comment. A Hezbollah official also said that his party had decided to not make any further statements for the next two days on the matter. By staying above the fray for the time being, the parties are trying to keep this as a dispute between two political blocs, rather than turn it into a dispute between rival sects.
That has left the political field open to Lebanon's Christian parties, which are divided between the two sides. "Any democratic means [to achieve the opposition's goals] are allowed; this is what the opposition has committed to," a senior official of Gen. Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian party in the opposition, told me. "If there is a need for street protests, why not?"
Labor Minister Boutros Harb, a Hariri loyalist, shot back that "this government will be under the obligation to continue running the current affairs of the ministries" until another cabinet is formed. He also criticized Aoun, saying that his ambition to be president was "a big part of the problem" currently facing the country.
By the standards of Lebanese rhetoric, this is still relatively tame -- Druze leader Walid Jumblatt once referred to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as an "ape" and a "murderer," but now counts himself among Assad's allies. Lebanon still hasn't returned to that level of vitriol -- but the rules that ensured its politics were kept within certain boundaries have now been broken, and nobody can be quite sure where the game is headed next.
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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.
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