Tag Archives: Josh Rogin

Ah, Paging Mike Kinsley…

Chris Rovzar at New York Magazine:

Speaking to a small group at MIT, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that accused WikiLeaker Bradley Manning is “in the right place” in federal custody, but the way he has been treated is “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” Just now, ABC News’ Jake Tapper asked President Obama about the comments in the White House Briefing Room. “With respect to Private Manning, I have actually asked the Pentagon whether the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting basic standards,” Obama replied. “They assured me that they are. I can’t go into details about some of their concerns, but some of that has to do with Private Manning’s safety as well.” In other news, apparently Manning’s no longer sleeping naked: Now he gets to have a “suicide-proof” sleeping smock.

Hilary Clinton:

Resignation of Philip J. Crowley as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs

Press Statement

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
March 13, 2011

It is with regret that I have accepted the resignation of Philip J. Crowley as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. PJ has served our nation with distinction for more than three decades, in uniform and as a civilian. His service to country is motivated by a deep devotion to public policy and public diplomacy, and I wish him the very best. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) Michael Hammer will serve as Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.

STATEMENT BY PHILIP J. CROWLEY

The unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a serious crime under U.S. law. My recent comments regarding the conditions of the pre-trial detention of Private First Class Bradley Manning were intended to highlight the broader, even strategic impact of discrete actions undertaken by national security agencies every day and their impact on our global standing and leadership. The exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values.

Given the impact of my remarks, for which I take full responsibility, I have submitted my resignation as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and Spokesman for the Department of State.

I am enormously grateful to President Obama and Secretary Clinton for the high honor of once again serving the American people. I leave with great admiration and affection for my State colleagues, who promote our national interest both on the front lines and in the quiet corners of the world. It was a privilege to help communicate their many and vital contributions to our national security. And I leave with deep respect for the journalists who report on foreign policy and global developments every day, in many cases under dangerous conditions and subject to serious threats. Their efforts help make governments more responsible, accountable and transparent.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

Crowley’s Twitter personality mirrored his real-life personality — affable, edgy, sometimes sarcastic, and occasionally a little off-message. Crowley’s energy and willingness to take measured risks by going beyond the Obama administration’s standard talking points is what endeared him to the reporters he worked with each day. It was that same openness that cost him his job, after he admitted that he believed the Marine Corps’ treatment of alleged WikiLeaks source Private Bradley Manning was “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”

Crowley’s last tweet before resigning was a gem, but he deleted it. “We’ve been watching hopeful #tsunami sweep across #MiddleEast. Now seeing a tsunami of a different kind sweep across Japan,” read the March 11 tweet.

Of the remaining 400-plus tweets he sent out to his 24,000-plus followers, here are The Cable‘s top 10, in reverse chronological order:

  1. March 1, 7:08 a.m.: “#Qaddafi tells #ABCNews: All my people with me, they love me. They will die to protect me. The #Libyan people tell Qaddafi: You go first!”
  2. Feb. 26, 7:37 a.m.: “Despite #Qaddafi‘s hardly sober claim that the protesters are on drugs, the people of #Libya are clear-eyed in their demand for change.”
  3. Feb. 22, 7:28 p.m.: “We are surprised that #Argentina has chosen not to resolve a simple dispute involving training equipment. And we still want our stuff back.”
  4. Feb. 16, 7:56 a.m.: “#KimJongIl‘s son attended an #EricClapton concert in Singapore? Actually, the #DearLeader himself would benefit from getting out more often.”
  5. Jan. 22, 5:40 a.m.: “The claim by the lawyer for #JulianAssange that his client could go to #Guantanamo is pure legal fantasy. Save it for the movie.”
  6. Dec. 24, 12:40 p.m.: “The legal export of popcorn, chewing gum, cake sprinkles and hot sauce is not propping up the Iranian government. #Iran
  7. Oct. 28, 4:30 p.m.: “Happy birthday President #Ahmadinejad. Celebrate by sending Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer home. What a gift that would be. #Iran
  8. Aug. 27, 5:38 p.m.: “Americans should heed our #travel warning and avoid North Korea. We only have a handful of former Presidents. http://go.usa.gov/cAO #DPRK
  9. Aug. 20, 11:34 a.m.: “North #Korea has joined #Facebook, but will it allow its citizens to belong? What is Facebook without friends?”
  10. May 18, 10:37 p.m.: “It doesn’t take a reading test to recognize misguided legislation. I have read the #Arizona law. Comprehensive reform is the right answer.”

Mike Konczal at Rortybomb:

This argument is the liberal argument.  This is what distinguishes liberals from conservatives in this space.   The liberal argument isn’t that we have an extensive, unaccountable security state and feel really bad about it (while the conservative argument is that we cheerlead it), it’s that this kind of state is a bad deal.  The machine Cheney et al were operating in the dark, away from any oversight gave us no useful intelligence, corrupted offices, people and practices, and left us less safe than had we not done anything.   This is the argument I find convincing.  That Obama campaigned as the constitutional law professor from Chicago who could push back on the 8-year power grab was one reason I found him so compelling as a candidate.

P.J. Crowley has a distinguished career, retiring from the Air Force as a Colonel, and it’s good to see him stand by his statement after resigning. When I combine things like this with the administration’s aggressive war on whistleblowers it makes me think this has been a complete disaster at reform in the security-surveillance state.   What can be done about this?

Three related: 1. Kudos to the people who cover this material. Glenn Greenwald, FDL, Adam Serwer, etc. I can link to an unemployment number to tell you what you already know – things are bad in the economy. That Obama has an aggressive war on whistleblowers when he campaigned to expand their protections is a tough narrative to establish, especially since everyone has wanted to believe otherwise in the liberal space.

2. Emptywheel has a post about the Brothers Daley and torture, relating Bill Daley’s comment – “he’s done” – to the sordid history of Richard Daley’s time as a prosecutor and Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge’s torture of African-American residents of Chicago during interrogations. I’ve talked with people who know the Burge situation well from Chicago, and when I ask how could it happen I always get some variety of “that’s how things were done back then.” I worry that a “that’s how things are done” is taking to the surveillance state now that Obama hasn’t broke it but instead established and, in some cases, expanded it.

3. Robert Chlala at Jadaliyya has a post – Of Predators and Radicals: King’s Hearings and the Political Economy of Criminalization – that gives a disturbing look at where all this can go. Discussing “From Super Predator to Predator Drone” Chlala argues that the current work done on Muslim so-called radicalization in America looks very similar to the African-American “youth gang” hysteria of the 1990s, an argument that lead to a massive expansion of the incarceration state along with a political ideology of making “state violence the only solution to social questions…while nurturing a broader racialized political economy of fear that entwines media, police, military, prisons, urban “entrepreneurs,” and security/crime “experts” towards the solidification of the neoliberal punitive state.” We’ve seen where this hysteria leads. Serious leadership and mechanisms for accountability when it fails is needed.

David Weigel:

It sounds even stranger when you type it out: the spokesman for the Secretary of State resigned over comments he made at a seminar of around 20 people at MIT. It sounds so strange that the Guardian muddled it a bit in one of the first stories on the matter.

Hillary Clinton‘s spokesman has launched a public attack on the Pentagon for the way it is treating military prisoner Bradley Manning, the US soldier suspected of handing the US embassy cables to WikiLeaks.

Not really; it was a non-reported, non-televised talk to a small group that happened to be blogged. He wasn’t saying he spoke for the administration, much less that he knew the facts of the case. It was a comment in confidence; that was enough to embarrass the administration and boost him out.

John Hinderaker at Powerline:

Reflexive leftism is pretty common at State, and I suppose this was a classic gaffe, i.e., Crowley said what he actually believed. Still, it is hard to understand how Crowley could have thought it would be OK to slam the Defense Department. Isn’t the State Department supposed to be all about diplomacy? Isn’t it a bit weird that they can’t come up with a spokesman who is diplomatic enough not to insult the guys on his own side?

Rick Moran:

The military says that Manning is on suicide watch which necessitates his being stripped to make sure he can’t harm himself. If Crowley thinks that’s “ridiculous” he also thinks the Defense Department are violating the law by enforcing common sense procedures to make sure we have a live suspect to stand trial and not a dead martyr.

Crowley’s position simply became untenable.

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And The Verdict Is… Open!

Eli Lake at The Washington Times:

President Obama on Monday lifted the ban he imposed two years ago on military trials for detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison, ending his bid to move most terrorism trials to civilian courts and pushing his already busted deadline for shuttering the island prison indefinitely forward.

The reversal came as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited Afghanistan and indicated that he was willing to keep a presence of U.S. forces in the war-torn country beyond the Obama administration’s 2014 pullout goal, highlighting again the difficulty the president has had moving from the policies of President George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama announced the Guantanamo decision in an executive order that also sets forth a periodic review process for detainees who have not been charged or convicted but are still considered threats to the U.S.

White House aides stressed that Mr. Obama remains committed to closing the prison, which he has described as a key recruiting tool for terrorist groups, and pursuing some cases in civilian courts. Mr. Obama vowed during the campaign to close the prison by the end of 2009, his first year in office.

Massimo Calabresi at Swampland at Time:

All of this responds to Obama’s archives speech of May 2009, where he walked back his more progressive January 2009 position but tried to retain a bulwark of detention and prosecution principles for terrorism detainees. Since then, Congress has passed laws blocking the closure of Gitmo by preventing the transfer of detainees by the executive branch. House and Senate Republicans (McKeon and Graham) are expected to introduce bills further blocking detainee access to U.S. courts in the coming week.

On a conference call Monday, Obama senior advisors said the president remains committed to closing Gitmo by diminishing the number of detainees held there. But the moves announced today could have the opposite effect, admits a senior White House official. The Bush and Obama administrations have faced repeated habeas corpus challenges to their detention of alleged terrorists at Gitmo. Last I checked, detainees bringing habeas cases were winning by a 4-to-1 ratio. By increasing due process at Gitmo, the new measures make it more likely judges will defer to the executive branch and rule against detainees claiming they are being held unfairly at Gitmo. One administration official argued that judges would not be affected by the new procedures.

The habeas releases remain the only way that Gitmo’s numbers can decrease these days. The administration is still debating how to comply with the Congressional ban, but as long as it is in place even a detainee who uses his new due process rights to challenge his detention in military commissions and wins will stay in Gitmo forever… or until Congress changes its mind about closing it down.

Amy Davidson at The New Yorker:

Who wins in this? Do we think that “American system of justice” means whatever it is Americans do, as long as some court-like trappings are present? The order acknowledges that the “privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” is available to inmates, but also sets up a routine for holding prisoners indefinitely without charges (what the order calls “the executive branch’s continued, discretionary exercise of existing detention authority”). In statements today, Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates all mentioned how highly they thought of the federal court system. Gates said,

For years, our federal courts have proven to be a secure and effective means for bringing terrorists to justice. To completely foreclose this option is unwise and unnecessary.

So this order doesn’t “completely foreclose” on the rule of law—is a partial foreclosure supposed to count as a moral stand? Given all the nice things the Administration has to say about the federal court system, one would think that it might find it wise, and even necessary, to actually use it a bit more. Instead, the statements seem more concerned to note that the President is not giving up any options or powers—as if bringing accused murderers to court were a prerogative, rather than an obligation. No doubt, Republicans, and some Democrats, have made it hard for Obama to close Guantánamo. But it might be easier if he wanted to do it; the order today makes it sound like he considers it a somewhat useful place. It is not.

Speaking of questionable detention measures: Can someone in the Administration explain, slowly and clearly, why Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of leaking the WikiLeaks cables, is required to stand naked in front of his cell in the morning and sleep naked, ostensibly for his own protection? The military’s explanations so far—that he could somehow harm himself with underwear (though he is not on suicide watch and is being monitored by video) so he can’t sleep in any, and then there is just no time for him to put underwear on in the morning before they get him out of the cell—are just not plausible. (By coincidence, a case about Americans being strip-searched after being arrested for minor offenses may be coming before the Supreme Court.) A naked man who hasn’t been convicted of a crime—that shouldn’t be what American justice looks like.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy

Bryan Preston at PJ Tatler:

Only two years into his presidency, Barack Obama has learned that there are no easy answers to dealing with captured transnational terrorists. It’s easy to create sound bites decrying the evils of holding terrorists at Gitmo, and it’s easy to create sound bites about how awful it is to try them in military tribunals (even though that’s where illegal enemy combatants should rightfully be tried), but it’s very hard to change reality. So bowing to reality, Obama has authorized the re-start of military trials for captured terrorists.

John Yoo at Ricochet:

The Obama administration’s anti-war campaign rhetoric and naive first-year promises continue to collide with reality.  And happily, reality continues to prevail.  The Obama administration has finally admitted, I think, that the Bush administration’s decision to detain al Qaeda operatives and terrorists at Gitmo was sensible.  It wasn’t driven by some bizarre desire to mistreat terrorists, but instead was the best way to address security concerns without keeping them in Afghanistan or inside the United States.

It also turns out that the military commission trials too were a sensible decision.  Civilian trials threaten the revelation of valuable intelligence in a covert war where hostilities are still ongoing. Military commissions allow a fair trial to be held but one that does not blow our wartime advantages.  Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s track record has been poor — it was lucky to get the limited convictions that it has.  Obama folks owe an apology to the Bush administration for their unjust criticism of military trials.

It should also be noted that Obama did not come to this turnabout after reasoned consideration alone.  I think there are significant figures in the administration that would still love to close Gitmo tomorrow and give every terrorist the same exact trials reserved for Americans who commit garden-variety crimes.  Congress dragged the administration kicking and screaming to this destination by cutting off funds for the transfer of any detainees from Gitmo to the U.S.  This effectively used Congress’s sole power of the purse to prevent Obama from making a grievous national security mistake.  The new Congress should continue to keep the ban in its Defense spending bills to prevent Obama from another 180 degree turn.

Adam Serwer at Greg Sargent’s place:

Conservatives committed to burnishing Bush’s legacy were quick to claim vindication, arguing that the decision proved that the detention camp at Gitmo was a good idea all along. But Obama’s decision doesn’t prove this at all.

The administration also released an executive order outlining its new indefinite detention policy. Not much has changed from when I first wrote about it a few months ago — the new procedures formally adopt what Karen Greenberg referred to as “the heart of Bush policy” while making the process marginally fairer by allowing individuals detained indefinitely who have lost their habeas cases to be represented by counsel during periodic reviews every six months.

The president and the secretary of defense also reiterated the importance of trying terrorists in federal courts, but they might as well be shouting into the wind. The ban on funds for transfers of Gitmo detainees to federal court won’t be going away any time soon, but it’s worth remembering that ban actually ensures that fewer terrorists would be brought to justice than would be otherwise. Only six terrorists have ever been convicted in military commissions, compared to hundreds in federal court.

Failing to close Gitmo remains the most visible symbol of the president’s failure to reverse the trajectory of Bush-era national security policy, but the reality, as Glenn Greenwald notes this morning, is that most of the substantive decisions adopting Bush policies were made long ago. The new policies don’t amount to a “reversal” on the issue of whether Gitmo should be closed. Republicans are eager to portray Gitmo staying open as a “vindication” of the prison’s usefulness, but the fact that the indefinite detention order is limited to detainees currently at Gitmo means that the administration won’t be reopening the facility to new detainees, as Bush apologists have suggested doing.

Gitmo isn’t open because the administration doesn’t want to close it, although its efforts in this area are ripe for criticism. It’s still open because Republicans in Congress successfully frightened Democrats in Congress out of giving the administration the necessary funds to close it when they had control of Congress. In the process, they’ve managed to obscure the original reason detainees were brought to Gitmo — to keep them away from the scrutiny of the federal courts. Once the Supreme Court held that federal courts had jurisdiction and even habeas rights, the facility was useless for that purpose. Republicans are determined to keep it open not because we can’t safely imprison terrorists in the U.S., but because they feel its ongoing presence vindicates Bush in the eyes of history.

Glenn Greenwald

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Congress After Dark, Where No One Can See What’s Going On

What’s happening in Congress right now?

David Rogers at Politico:

Senate Democrats abruptly pulled down an omnibus spending bill after senior Republicans – caught with their hands in the cookie jar — deserted the measure in an effort to square themselves with tea party activists and conservatives in the party.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the announcement and signaled he would substitute a short-term spending resolution for the much more detailed year-long $1.1 trillion plus measure which many in the GOP had been quietly rooting for just weeks ago.

With Washington facing a funding cutoff Saturday night, the result is a genuine fiscal crisis — at once serious and rich in political farce.

Democrats have only themselves to blame for failing to pass any of the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the day-to-day operations of the government. At the same time, Republicans contributed mightily to this failure and are going through their own culture war — torn between the Senate’s old-bull pork-barrel ways and the more temperate fiscal gospel of their new tea party allies.

The Senate passed its version of the tax deal by a wide margin this week, but in the House, the plan appears to be in jeopardy.  Democratic leadership had to pull the rule governing the debate on the bill after liberals in their caucus revolted and threatened to send it to a defeat.  One Democrat called it a “speed bump,” but as of yet the road to passage has not opened:

A final House vote on President Obama’s tax proposal could be delayed after Democratic leaders were forced to pull a procedural measure off the House floor Thursday.

The House was set to vote on the rule governing debate on the broad tax bill, but the measure was withdrawn at the last minute when leaders realized it was likely to be rejected. Liberals opposed to the deal Obama struck with Republicans were upset that the procedure approved by the House Rules Committee on Wednesday did not allow them a clean opportunity to vote on the legislation the Senate passed on Wednesday. A final vote on the tax deal had been planned for Thursday evening.

“We’re just trying to work out some kinks,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a floor manager for the tax bill, told reporters. He characterized the decision to pull the procedural measure off the floor as “a bump” and said he did not think the House would have to delay a final vote past Thursday. Yet he said it was unclear what the next move was and said Democratic leaders were huddling over how to proceed.

Ironically, this resulted from an attempt to “deem-and-pass” the tax deal.  The rule would have allowed an amendment for the sake of altering the estate-tax portion of the deal Barack Obama cut with the GOP; had it then passed, the House would have deemed the rest of the deal to have passed as well and sent the amendment to the Senate. If not, then the House would have held a clean vote on the Senate bill.

Jay Newton-Small at Swampland at Time:

House progressives just nearly brought down the Bush tax cuts bill over lingering anger at the compromise President Obama worked out with Senate Republicans. Democratic leaders had hoped that an amendment built into the package changing the estate tax provisions would sway enough liberals to vote to proceed to the bill and for the legislation on final passage. But the leaders were forced to yank the rule — which outlines the debate and procedure to pass the bill — off the floor when it became clear it was going to fail. Progressives are demanding a clean vote up or down on the original package — unamended — so they can register their opposition.

Overall, the nearly $900 billion bill extends all of the Bush tax cuts by two years, provides a fix for the Alternative Minimum tax, extends renewable energy tax credits passed in the stimulus and extends unemployment insurance to millions of Americans. It also ups the estate tax level from 55% of estates worth $1 million to 35% of estates worth $5 million or more. House Dems want to see that rate lowered to 45% on estates worth $3.5 million or more. If the amendment to lower the rate succeeds in the House, it will ping-pong the bill back to the Senate where the changes could bring it down.

Rep, Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who is managing the bill on the floor, told reporters that the problem was “just a bump,” and leadership sources say they still expect final passage of the bill today after they add an amendment to the rule. Meanwhile, a caucus meeting has just been called for 3:45pm, so this could be a late night for the House.

Now that Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe have come out for the stand-alone bill in the Senate to repeal don’t ask don’t tell, there’s no longer any doubt as to whether there are the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to get this done. The only issue, Harry Reid tells us, is this: Will there be enough time to vote on repeal before the end of the lame duck session?

As a matter of fact, there is a simple way that Reid can make the time necessary to ensure this gets done, aides involved in the discussions tell me. Reid needs to schedule a debate and vote on DADT repeal beginning as soon as this weekend, once the issue over government funding is resolved. Reid can do this before New START is resolved, or at least while it’s getting resolved.

On MSNBC just now, Joe Lieberman called on Reid to fast-track DADT repeal in this fashion. “I believe instead of going back to the START treaty, we should go to the independent stand-alone repeal of don’t ask don’t tell Saturday night,” Lieberman said. “We can get it done by Monday, maybe Tuesday at the latest, and then go back to the START treaty.”

Here’s why this is the way to go, as spelled out by an aide involved in the discussions. If Reid waits until New START is done before holding the vote on DADT, Senators could start going home once the treaty is resolved, dooming DADT repeal. But this scenario would be averted if Reid slips in the DADT vote before START. By contrast, if the DADT repeal debate and vote are done first, no Senator will leave Washington before START is resolved. So doing DADT repeal first doesn’t imperil START.

What’s more, if worst comes to worst, START could be resolved early next year. DADT repeal, meanwhile, can’t be resolved next year, because by then the votes simply may not be there in the Senate to pass it. The votes, however, are there right now, and GOP moderates have signaled that it’s time.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

The debate over New START officially began on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, as Democrats and Republicans staked out seemingly irreconcilable positions as the Christmas holiday approaches.

A vote to move to debate on the treaty Wednesday passed 66 to 32, indicating that there is not enough Republican opposition to stop the process from moving forward. Democrat Evan Bayh (D-IN) missed the vote but is expected to support the treaty. The vote is giving treaty supporters confidence in the chances of ratification, but there are to be many more twists and turns before that can happen.

Nine Republicans voted to begin the debate: Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), George Voinovich (R-OH), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Scott Brown (R-MA), and Bob Bennett (R-UT).

Following the vote, leading Senate Democrats and Republicans held dueling press conferences on Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon in what has turned into a high-stakes game of legislative chicken. Only three GOP senators have publicly announced their support for New START, and nobody knows for sure if there are 6 additional Senate Republicans who will buck their own party’s leadership to support the agreement when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) calls the vote, probably before Christmas day.

One large looming question is whether the White House will insist on holding the vote if it hasn’t secured assurances of the 67 “yes” votes needed for ratification when the clock runs out on the lame duck session.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), in a press conference today, said that Vice President Joseph Biden told him he’d rather take the risk that the treaty is defeated this year than take the risk of delaying consideration until the new Congress is seated in January.

Acknowledging that it’s the White House’s decision whether to call the vote and risk defeat, Kerry said that Biden told him personally that the outlook in the next Congress is worse than the outlook now.

“We’d rather lose [the vote on New START] now with the crowd that’s done the work on rather than go back and start from scratch [next session],” Kerry said that Biden told him.

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Talking About The Talking About The Talking… Do You Feel Cynical Or Dizzy?

Ethan Bronner at NYT:

The American invitation on Friday to the Israelis and Palestinians to start direct peace talks in two weeks in Washington was immediately accepted by both governments. But just below the surface there was an almost audible shrug. There is little confidence — close to none — on either side that the Obama administration’s goal of reaching a comprehensive deal in one year can be met

Instead, there is a resigned fatalism in the air. Most analysts view the talks as pairing the unwilling with the unable — a strong right-wing Israeli coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with no desire to reach an agreement against a relatively moderate Palestinian leadership that is too weak and divided to do so.

“These direct negotiations are the option of the crippled and the helpless,” remarked Zakaria al-Qaq, vice president of Al Quds University and a Palestinian moderate, when asked his view of the development. “It is an act of self-deception that will lead nowhere.”

And Nahum Barnea, Israel’s pre-eminent political columnist, said in a phone interview: “Most Israelis have decided that nothing is going to come out of it, that it will have no bearing on their lives. So why should they care?”

That such a dismissive tone comes not from the known rejectionists — the Islamists of Hamas who rule in Gaza and the leadership of the Israeli settler community in the West Bank — but from mainstream thinkers is telling of the mood.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with a round-up

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

State Department officials had been sure that the statement, a formal invitation for both parties to enter direct negotiations, would be released earlier this week. But last-minute objections from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides forced new rounds of discussions, culminating in what Reuters reported was a conference call between Quartet members Thursday afternoon to discuss the latest draft.

“There are details that are still being worked out. You could quote Yogi Berra, I suppose, ‘It’s not over till it’s over,'” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. “We think we’re very, very close to an agreement.”

Multiple diplomatic sources confirmed that the substance of the reported draft represents a compromise intended to accommodate the Palestinians’ calls for the pending Quartet statement to include several specific items that they believe are “terms of reference” for the direct talks but which the Israeli side sees as “preconditions” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to reject.

The apparent compromise would result in a statement whereby the Quartet reaffirms a “full commitment to its previous statements,” according to Reuters, a reference to the March 19 Quartet statement issued in Moscow, but doesn’t explicitly repeat certain contentious language from that document.

Among the disputed items in that statement, which Netanyahu ultimately rejected, were calls for a Palestinian state to be established in 24 months and for Israel to halt all settlement building, including natural growth of existing settlements, as well as building and evictions in East Jerusalem.

Neither side wants to be seen as resisting the move to direct talks, which the Obama administration has been pushing hard to begin before Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement moratorium expires next month. If the Quartet is able to get its new statement out Friday, it will be about a week later than State Department sources had predicted, due to some extra shuttle diplomacy that the U.S. team had not anticipated.

When Special Envoy George Mitchell traveled to the region last week, he believed he had a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the wording of the statement, but it was clear upon arrival that Abbas had additional concerns, multiple diplomatic sources said.

So, Mitchell called back home to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to inform her that the Palestinians were not on board. After further negotiations, Abbas set forth his demands for what the statement should include, but when Mitchell brought those terms to Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister told Mitchell he couldn’t accept them.

“We wanted the statement to include the same elements the March 19 statement included,” the PLO’s Washington representative Maen Rashid Areikat, who is in the region, told The Cable in an interview.

“The Quartet statement must be clear about how the quartet sees the terms of reference, the time frame, and the situation on the ground, such as the cessation of settlement activity,” Areikat said.

Mitchell was forced to return to Washington empty-handed, but left the National Security Council’s David Hale in the region to continue working the problem and negotiations continued.

Mitchell’s trip wasn’t a failure, according to Areikat. “I believe it was part of an overall discussion of progress with the parties, and if we see progress in the statement it will have been worth it,” he said.

Andrew Lebovich at Washington Note:

The big news today is of course the announcement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been invited to Washington at the beginning of September to engage in the first direct talks between the two sides in two years.

The stakes are high on a regional and international level, but Clinton’s announcement left many things up in the air, by refusing to endorse the pre-1967 boundary as the starting point for negotiations on borders, and leaving so-called “final status” issues, like the fate of Jerusalem, land swaps, and settlements, to be brought up when Netanyahu and Abbas decide to do so.

Still, the onus is on the United States to bring the two sides together, as President Obama will have to deal with the backlash if talks fail. As Daniel Levy, the co-director of the New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force said today:

[Clinton’s] announcement covered very familiar ground, following a playbook that has been tried many times and found wanting. Instead of terms of reference to guide negotiations we received today a guest list for a September 1 White House dinner – even the chaperons for that dinner have a decidedly retro ring to them – Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Mubarak. Today’s announcement could have been an opportunity to introduce some clarity to proceedings and to jumpstart real decision-making (by for instance, defining border talks as being based on ’67 lines with one-to-one land swaps). Rather we were served ambiguity, and not it seems of the constructive variety……What today’s announcement has done is to raise expectations given the one-year deadline placed on the resumed talks. Yes, deadlines have been missed before, but this time the US national interest in resolving the conflict has been placed front and center and there is now broad consensus that the two-state option is passing its sell-by date. It was the Obama administration that insisted on the direct talks format as the way forward, and the ball will now be in their court to produce results.

Lexington at The Economist:

It is easy to be cynical about the scope of this supposed breakthrough. By getting the two sides back into direct talks Mr Obama has merely returned to where George Bush was after his Annapolis summit of November 2007. Big deal: the direct talks initiated then got nowhere, even though Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, was far readier for territorial compromise than is Mr Netanyahu. Even if, by some miracle, the two men came close to agreement, Hamas is still absent from the table. This means that half of the Palestinian movement would not be party to any deal and will try hard to sabotage one. So indeed will those Israelis in Bibi’s governing coalition who for reasons of ideology, security or both vehemently oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. It is better for the parties to be talking than not talking, but a betting man would not favour the chances of a breakthrough to peace.

That said, it would be a mistake to put the chances of success entirely at nil. When Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas hit the inevitable impasse, the Americans, who intend to be actively involved in the process through the person of George Mitchell, will doubtless table a bridging proposal. And this is the point at which the script could begin to depart from the precedent Mr Bush set at Annapolis.

Mr Bush left his push in Palestine to the end of his presidency, and with the Iraq war to fight never saw the peace process as much more than a distraction or palliative. Mr Obama, on the other hand, started early, and seems determined to persevere despite the pushback he ran into from Israel’s friends in Congress after his brutal confrontation with Mr Netanyahu over settlements in the territories. America’s president, in short, shows every sign of being a true believer in the necessity of solving this conflict, not least in order to redeem the promises he gave the Muslim world in his famous Cairo speech. A year from now, when the negotiation “deadline” expires, he may be approaching the final year of his presidency—but for all the parties in the region know he might still have another four-year term ahead of him. That will make it more expensive for the Israelis or Palestinians to resist whatever bridging ideas America brings to the table.

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

Well there is certainly less here than even the initial Obama spin would have had us believe. It seems to be that only an initial dinner is set. (”The United States will put its imprimatur on the talks in an orchestrated series of meetings that begin with a White House dinner Sept. 1 hosted by Mr. Obama.”) Beyond that? “Within the negotiations we’ve obviously had a lot of preparatory discussions with the parties on how to structure them,and we’ll need to finalize those, so we’re not in a position now to really talk about that.” Good grief. This has all the makings of a rushed announcement to try to put a horrid week for the White House behind them.”

It is interesting that Obama’s role is not yet finalized either. In fact, as my Israel expert points out, the death knell of the talks may be Obama’s own presence. After all, the Israelis have learned the hard way not to trust him, so it’s difficult to see how his presence could be a help. The telltale sign of the level of animosity between Obama and the Jewish state – he doesn’t yet have the nerve to visit Israel, where he could very likely face angry crowds. (”‘He looks forward to an opportunity to visit Israel,’ [Dan Shapiro] said of Obama, adding that such a visit would likely include a stop in the Palestinian Territories. The visit ‘could be very valuable and very meaningful at the right time.’”) Translation: he’s not going anytime soon.

The statements by others released on Friday were indicative of the low expectations that these talks engender among knowledgeable observers. AIPAC, which is obliged to cheer each step in the fruitless “peace process,” declares that it  ”welcomes the renewal of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), as announced Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and expresses its appreciation to the Obama administration for its efforts in making this goal a reality.” But even its usually bubbly tone was replaced by sober and somewhat skeptical caveats:

For talks to succeed the PA must match Israel’s commitment to conducting peace talks without preconditions or excuses, abandon its longstanding attempts to avoid making difficult choices at the negotiating table and cease incitement against Israel at home and abroad.  Likewise, Arab states must heed the calls by the Obama Administration and Congress to take immediate and meaningful steps toward normalization with Israel, and they must provide the political support for the Palestinians to make the kind of significant and difficult choices that will be required.

An even more candid statement came from Senate candidate Pat Toomey, who said he was hopeful but also “wary”:

Too often such talks produce little substance, and devolve into casting unfair blame at Israel for its legitimate efforts to guard its own security, while ignoring the unending violence that is openly encouraged by Palestinian leaders. That is especially the case with negotiations that involve the United Nations, the Russians, and the Europeans. I encourage President Obama to work against that tendency, and to set the tone in these talks by stressing the very real national security concerns Israel is dealing with.

And what happens when the talks go nowhere? Will we face yet another intifada? Will the bridging proposals morph into a imposed peace plan? Who knows — not even Day 2 is set yet.  The administration has imbibed the peace process Kool-Aid, but there is little evidence that it promotes peace or that the Obami are competent to oversee negotiations. And meanwhile the real Middle East crisis — the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon looms on the horizon. In a real sense, the “peace process” is nothing more than a dangerous distraction.

Allah Pundit:

Coincidentally, according to today’s front-page administration-fed NYT story, one year is also the timeframe U.S. officials are now claiming Iran has before it achieves nuclear breakout capacity. The idea of this two-step media offensive, presumably, is to put pressure on Israel not to do anything “rash” before the new round of peace talks plays out, especially with news set to break tomorrow that the Bushehr reactor is ready to go. That’s consistent with the White House’s thinking all along: They’ve always believed that settling the Palestinian issue first will make it easier to deal with Iranian nukes by denying the mullahs an opportunity to exploit the great Muslim grievance. If a peace deal is struck, then theoretically the goodwill it’ll generate towards Israel and America among Sunni nations will neutralize the Muslim solidarity that Iran wants to exploit when the confrontation over its nuke program finally comes. I’m not sure how that’ll work in practice, though, since Hamas will play no role in the peace negotiations and has no interest in ceding Gaza to its enemies in the Palestinian Authority in the event that a peace deal is hashed out. On the contrary, with Iran’s full support, they’ll inevitably accuse Abbas of having sold out the Palestinian nation in order to inflame the same sense of Muslim grievance and solidarity that the peace talks are meant to mute. In fact, if O shocks the world and the talks start making serious progress, I assume Iran and Hamas (and Hezbollah, of course) will simply precipitate some sort of crisis in order to derail them. Which is to say, how can you expect any deal to hold as long as Tehran and its proxies still have fangs?

Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy:

If you think today’s announcement that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to resume “direct talks” is a significant breakthrough, you haven’t been paying attention for the past two decades (at least). I wish I could be more optimistic about this latest development, but I see little evidence that a meaningful deal is in the offing.

Why do I say this? Three reasons.

1. There is no sign that the Palestinians are willing to accept less than a viable, territorially contiguous state in the West Bank (and eventually, Gaza), including a capital in East Jerusalem and some sort of political formula (i.e., fig-leaf) on the refugee issue. By the way, this outcome supposedly what the Clinton and Bush adminstrations favored, and what Obama supposedly supports as well.

2. There is no sign that Israel’s government is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian “state” consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans, with Israel in full control of the borders, air space, water supplies, electromagnetic spectrum. etc. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that this is what he means by a “two-state solution,” and he has repeatedly declared that Israel intends to keep all of Jerusalem and maybe a long-term military presence in the Jordan River valley. There are now roughly 500,000 Israeli Jews living outside the 1967 borders, and it is hard to imagine any Israeli government evacuating a significant fraction of them. Even if Netanyahu wanted to be more forthcoming, his coalition wouldn’t let him make any meaningful concessions. And while the talks drag on, the illegal settlements will continue to expand.

3. There is no sign that the U.S. government is willing to put meaningful pressure on Israel. We’re clearly willing to twist Mahmoud Abbas’ arm to the breaking point (which is why he’s agreed to talks, even as Israel continues to nibble away at the territory of the future Palestinian state), but Obama and his Middle East team have long since abandoned any pretense of bringing even modest pressure to bear on Netanyahu. Absent that, why should anyone expect Bibi to change his position?

So don’t fall for the hype that this announcement constitutes some sort of meaningful advance in the “peace process.” George Mitchell and his team probably believe they are getting somewhere, but they are either deluding themselves, trying to fool us, or trying to hoodwink other Arab states into believing that Obama meant what he said in Cairo. At this point, I rather doubt that anyone is buying, and the only thing that will convince onlookers that U.S. policy has changed will be tangible results. Another round of inconclusive “talks” will just reinforce the growing perception that the United States cannot deliver.

UPDATE: Daniel Drezner and Heather Hurlburt at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #2: Hussein Ibish and Eli Lake at Bloggingheads

Max Fisher at The Atlantic

UPDATE #3: Daniel Levy at The Huffington Post

Taylor Marsh

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Gates Breaks Out The Scissors

Frank James at NPR:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made reducing and redirecting the Pentagon’s huge budget a priority.

On Monday, he pushed forward his initiative on that front. Included among the ideas he laid out is a recommendation to eliminate one of the military’s nine commands, the Joint Forces Command which is called Jiffycom by some. That command employs employs about 5,000 people, both uniformed military and private sector.

As NPR’s Tom Bowman reported for the network’s radio newscast.

TOM: What Gates wants to cut is called the Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Va., that employs 3,000 private contractors.

The command was created a decade ago to get the military services to work more closely together, but Gates says that’s now largely been achieved.

Gates also wants to reduce the Pentagon’s dependency on those outside contractors.

GATES: To accelerate this process and achieve additional savings, I have directed that we  reduce funding for service supported contractors by 10 percent per year for each of the next three years.

Gates told reporters that 200 Pentagon contractors work full-time just writing reports ordered by Congress.

Any money saved in these cutbacks, says Gates, will be used to help modernize the military.

The American Forces Press Service has a fairly comprehensive report on the briefing Gates gave reporters Monday. It contained this background on why the cuts are needed:

Money saved with these efficiencies will go back into funding needed military capabilities. “To be clear, the task before us is not to reduce the department’s top-line budget,” Gates said. “Rather, it is to significantly reduce its excess overhead costs and apply the savings to force structure and modernization.”

President Barack Obama has programmed in real growth of between 1 and 2 percent into future years’ defense budgets, but that is not enough to maintain today’s warfighting capabilities and modernize, which requires roughly 2 to 3 percent real growth. The savings in overhead are crucial to making up that difference, Gates said.

Gates continues to target political sacred cows for extinction, both weapons programs and bases that are so spread out across the county as to impact many congressional districts. He realizes he doesn’t have the political wind at his back on this one, just the opposite.

Sandra Erwin at National Defense Magazine:

Winners: Troops in uniform, ship programs, weapons systems that are needed to fight current and future wars.
Losers: Bloated defense and intelligence agencies, redundant bureaucracies, four-star generals and admirals guilty of “brass creep,” report writers, white-collar contractors.

That pretty much sums up the casualty report from the efficiency-campaign bombshells dropped today by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He is looking for $100 billion in savings from cuts in overhead costs over the next five years.

The Pentagon needs the savings to “sustain a military at war and prepare for future threats,” Gates said. There are no plans yet to cut the defense budget top line, but these measures are necessary for the Defense Department to preserve its current force structure and fund modernization programs within the flat budgets projected for the foreseeable future, he said.

“I concluded that our headquarters and support bureaucracies — military and civilian alike — have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions, grown over reliant on contractors, and grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost,” Gates said at a news conference. His office alone has added 1,000 employees during the past decade, with little evidence that the expansion has added any real value, Gates said.

The bureaucratic ballooning and the excessive hiring of white-collar contractors must end, said Gates.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

In Washington, you know a decision is controversial when the pushback comes before the announcement. Such is the case with Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘s Monday bombshell that he wants to close Joint Forces Command.

The AP broke the news this morning that Gates would announce at a press conference his idea to shutter JFCOM’s gigantic base in southern Virginia as part of his drive to cut $100 billion from the Pentagon budget. He also announced a 10 percent cutback in the Defense Department’s use of contractors each year for the next three years and pledged to cut the size of his own staff and that of the larger Pentagon bureaucracy.

Today, Gates also directed the elimination of DOD’s Business Transformation Agency and the office of the assistant secretary of defense for networks and information integration (NII). He said the moves were part of his two-year effort to reform the Defense Department and pledged more announcements in the coming months.

“The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint,” Gates said. “This agenda is not about butting the department’s budget. It’s about reforming and reshaping priorities to ensure that in tough budgetary and economic times, we can focus defense resources where they belong.”

But even before Gates spoke, a team of Virginia lawmakers sent out an advisory that they will hold “an urgent press conference” on the announcement Monday at 4 p.m. at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, near where the base is located. Reps. Glenn Nye, J. Randy Forces, Bobby Scott, and Rob Wittman were all scheduled to speak.

“The proposal by the Defense Department to close JFCOM is short-sighted and without merit,” Nye said following Gates’s announcement. “I appreciate the department’s attempt to rein in spending, but I have yet to see any substantive analysis to support the assertion that closing JFCOM will yield large savings.”

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner released a statement Monday protesting the announcement before it was made.

“I can see no rational basis for dismantling JFCOM since its sole mission is to look for efficiencies and greater cost-savings by forcing more cooperation among sometimes competing military services,” Warner said. “In the business world, you sometimes have to spend money in order to save money.”

Gates said he would work with JFCOM employees to ease their transition as the base closes and speculated that Virginia could benefit if the savings are reinvested in other local military efforts, such as shipbuilding.

Rachel Slajda at Talking Points Memo

Karaka Pend at Spencer Ackerman’s place:

I have to say, I admire Gates for taking the hardline on this budget, whether it’s pulling back on Navy war machines or getting the President to back a veto on an extra jet engine. Today’s announcement shows he’s serious about backing off the hose of spending attributed to the Department of Defense, an act that is doubly hard as we’re finishing up one conflict and continuing on with another. Besides which, the first place you’d look at to offset the deficit would be the defense budget, and this is the administration taking a proactive stance towards that budget.

Still, this will make some people pretty unhappy. JFCOM is tasked with co-ordinating the various branches of the military in training, future mission development, and organizational structure, and while those roles can be folded into other entities, it will take some time to transition. Furthermore, reducing contractor support by 10% annually for the next four years is no small potato either. But if anyone can push this through, it’s Gates.

Lewis MD at Spencer Ackerman’s place:

Defense and security take up approximately a fifth of the federal budget. Twenty cents out of every dollar that you send to the government goes towards that slice of the pie. The nominal cost is somewhere north of $700bn per year. With the large budget deficits in our future, defense deserves a large amount of scrutiny.

Gates and the White House seem to realize this. Congress, however, doesn’t seem to share the appetite for budget cuts. This has led to some fierce battles over specific programs. The problem is that there are defense industries in every state and congressional district in the country. No congressman wants to give up the jobs that come with, for example, a second engine for the F-35, even if the Pentagon doesn’t even want it.

Congress will likely fight these budget cuts tooth-and-nail, but if we’re going to get deficits under control, the DoD can NOT be exempted from the pain. Off the top of my head, other programs that probably should fear the budget axe include the Marines’ V-22 Osprey and F-35B (with STOVL capability), the navy in general, and contractors.

Paul Krugman’s column today focused on the pain being felt in communities as essential services are cut back. His column talked mostly about the tax cuts that are set to expire this year. But don’t we need more and better teachers more than a special version of the F-35 that the Marine Corps admits it doesn’t really need? Wouldn’t we rather invest in our crumbling infrastructure than build another aircraft carrier when we already have an order of magnitude more carrier battle groups than any other nation? We spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. We can still have a conventional military that dwarfs any other nation, while making tough choices to weed out bad or only marginally useful programs. Our communities could really use the money.

John Guardiano at FrumForum:

I honestly don’t know whether the Pentagon’s decision yesterday to eliminate Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) is wise or ill-advised. That’s a programmatic and bureaucratic decision that, candidly, I lack the expertise right now to make.

But what I do know is this: In the absence of budgetary pressure from the White House, the Pentagon most likely would not be seeking now to close down JFCOM while reducing its spending by some $100 billion over the next five years.

I also know that since Obama was elected president, the only government agency asked to make significant budget cuts has been the Department of Defense; and this is wrong. It is wrong because it is unfair, unreasonable and dangerous.

It is unfair because the U.S. military is really the only governmental entity that is being forced to scale back. Domestic social-welfare spending, by contrast, has skyrocketed. Yet where’s the hue and cry? It doesn’t exist.

But you can be sure that if it were the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency that were being forced to make cuts, the bureaucracies there would be vociferously protesting — and ditto their allied outside liberal lobby groups.

The U.S. military, of course, can’t protest and it doesn’t protest. This because of the principle of civilian control of the military. Military officials instead simply salute and say, “Yes, Sir.”

Meanwhile, the defense contractors and parochial elected officials make ill-conceived and unpersuasive appeals based on “jobs” and pork-barrel spending.

I say ill-conceived because defense spending should be explained and justified as a matter of military necessity, not as a “jobs program” for congressional constituents. And I say unpersuasive because everyone knows that these pork-barrel spending appeals are politically self-serving and economically dubious.

To be sure, there is an economic case to be made for defense spending. I’ve made that case myself here at FrumForum, and it is this: Just as defense spending helped to lift America out of a prolonged depression in the 1930s, so too, can defense spending help to lift America out of its current economic malaise.

But defense spending can be economically beneficial only if it plays to the central strength of America’s economy in the 21st Century. And that strength involves our ability to harness computer processing power and other information technologies to create new and unprecedented opportunities for individuals, even individual soldiers.

The politicians, however, don’t get this. Their defense spending schemes aren’t aimed at creating new 21st Century economic opportunities. They’re aimed instead at preserving old and ossified 20th Century “jobs programs.” Their efforts aren’t part and parcel of any overarching national defense strategy; they’re the economically wasteful byproduct of domestic political indulgence. And that is why they ultimately fail, both politically and economically.

In any case, it is extremely unfair to force the Department of Defense alone to bear the burden of Washington’s phony newfound fiscal rectitude.

Fred Kaplan at Slate:

Gates is canny to play off one set of interests against another (drop the Joint Forces Command, pick up another ship; give up a dozen generals, win a few more of those armored vehicles you’ve been eyeing). Maybe it will work. But by notching up his victories in this manner, he forgoes a path that would have yielded much greater savings.

The big money and the real savings lie precisely in the “force structure” and “force modernization” that Gates is aiming—and genuinely wants—to protect. In the question-and-answer period, he said that about half of the weapons-procurement budget goes for modernization—that is, for building new weapons, most of which have little or nothing to do with the wars we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the current budget ($549 billion, not counting the costs of our two wars) contains $137.5 billion for procurement, that amounts to roughly $70 billion.

Gates wants the Pentagon and the military branches to conduct a “clean-sheet review” and to “start setting priorities, making real tradeoffs, and separating appetites from real requirements” when it comes to things like contractors, headquarters, overhead, and so forth. And that’s all to the good. But he’s not launching any similar campaign when it comes to deployments and weapons systems. (In fairness, last year, he did cut about 20 weapons programs, including the F-22—more than any defense secretary in 40 years. But budget officials estimate that the bag of goodies is still bursting way beyond our ability to pay for them.)

The steps Gates took today have far-reaching implications; I don’t mean to minimize them. But there are other issues and questions that tap more deeply into the foundations of what he himself calls our “cumbersome and top-heavy” military, which has “grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost.”

For instance: How many submarines and aircraft carriers does the Navy really need? And do all those carriers need the same number of aircraft and escort ships? How many fighter planes does the Air Force really need? How many brigades does the Army really need?

Gates’ new reforms are based on two premises: First, that the nation can’t afford unceasing growth in the defense budget; second, that the nation can afford moderate growth in the defense budget, as long as the Pentagon shows good faith by slashing what any objective observer would label “waste.”

The first premise is unassailable, the second probably too optimistic. The fact is, we can’t afford growth in the defense budget, period. To get the cuts he’s after, Gates—as a matter of political realism—has to leave the rest of the budget alone. But at some point, some secretary of defense is going to have to open it all up to scrutiny.

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You Can’t Spell “Corruption” Without “Afghanistan”

Greg Miller and Ernesto Londoño at WaPo:

Top officials in President Hamid Karzai’s government have repeatedly derailed corruption investigations of politically connected Afghans, according to U.S. officials who have provided Afghanistan’s authorities with wiretapping technology and other assistance in efforts to crack down on endemic graft.

In recent months, the U.S. officials said, Afghan prosecutors and investigators have been ordered to cross names off case files, prevent senior officials from being placed under arrest and disregard evidence against executives of a major financial firm suspected of helping the nation’s elite move millions of dollars overseas.

As a result, U.S. advisers sent to Kabul by the Justice Department, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration have come to see Afghanistan’s corruption problem in increasingly stark terms.

“Above a certain level, people are being very well protected,” said a senior U.S. official involved in the investigations.

Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar denied investigations had been derailed. “There is no case, no instance, in which the palace or anyone from the palace has interfered with a case,” he said.

Afghanistan is awash in international aid and regarded as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Indeed, even as the United States and its allies pour money in, U.S. officials estimate that as much as $1 billion a year is flowing out as part of a massive cash exodus.

Joshua Jamison:

While the Afghan government, one of the most corrupt in the world, has made several attempts at reigning in the those responsible for hindering corruption cases, most have failed miserably.

Afghanistan’s attorney general, Mohammed Ishaq Aloko, was seen as a potential ally against corruption when he took the job two years ago. Some investigations have ended in convictions. But U.S. officials said that Aloko, a native of Kandahar province who studied law in Germany, has repeatedly impeded prosecutions of suspects with political ties.

Some suggest Karzai in fact, is running a game of smoke and mirrors in an effort to garner the favor or various foreign nations.

Critics say Karzai’s initiatives are meant to appease the international community. “It’s all a show,” lawmaker Sayed Rahman said, noting that no senior government official has been imprisoned on corruption charges.

Over the past year, U.S. officials said, Afghan investigators have assembled evidence against three Karzai-appointed provincial governors accused of embezzlement or bribery. All three cases have been blocked. The interference has persisted, officials said, despite Karzai’s pledge in November during his second inaugural address to make fighting corruption a focus of his new term. The extent of the interference has become evident, officials said, in large part because of improvements in Afghan authorities’ ability to pursue corruption cases.

More Londono:

Afghanistan’s attorney general on Tuesday accused the U.S. ambassador in Kabul of threatening to have him ousted if he didn’t pursue the case of a banker suspected of fraud.

Mohammed Ishaq Aloko lashed out at Karl W. Eikenberry during a news conference in the Afghan capital convened to dispute the allegation that his office’s corruption task force routinely bows to political pressure from President Hamid Karzai’s administration. The Washington Post reported Monday that U.S. officials working with the attorney general’s office are frustrated by political meddling that derails corruption probes.

Aloko described his office as “independent” and immune to political influence. He said Eikenberry recently violated “diplomatic ethics” by suggesting that Aloko could lose his job if he didn’t aggressively prosecute a banker incriminated during the prosecution of a minister who left the country after being charged with corruption.

“The ambassador’s discussions with his counterparts are private, and we’re not going to comment on them,” said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

Sify:

‘The US ambassador tells me that ‘if you don’t arrest Haji Azimi, then you should resign,” Aloko told a press conference here. ‘It is against all diplomatic principles to threaten the attorney general of a country like this.’

The comments by the country’s top prosecutor, which could strain relations between Kabul and Washington, came a day after a US daily quoted unnamed US officials as saying that Aloko has repeatedly impeded the prosecution of suspects with political ties.

The Washington Post reported that among those protected was Haji Muhammad Rafi Azimi, deputy chairman of the Afghan United Bank, a private bank with its headquarters in Kabul.

Azimi was heard on a wiretap recording discussing bribes paid to Mohammad Siddiq Chakari, the former minister for religious affairs, the paper said.

Chakari, who is accused of taking bribes from companies seeking contracts to take pilgrims to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, has fled the country and currently lives in London.

Since Chakari could not be put to trial due to the lack of an extradition treaty between Afghanistan and Britain, US officials instead asked Aloko to arrest Azimi, pointing to the existence of evidence such as the wiretap recording, the paper reported.

‘I could not arrest Azimi, because we don’t have any evidence against him,’ Aloko said in Tuesday’s press conference.

Aloko said he told Eikenberry that only the country’s parliament or President Hamid Karzai had the authority to ask for his resignation, adding that after Eikenberry failed to persuade him, ‘he got upset and left my office’.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

As the debate over the road ahead in Afghanistan heats up in Congress, Democrats are using the power of the purse to seek broad changes in the administration’s policy and express their unhappiness with the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai.

In the latest move, a leading House appropriator promised Monday to remove all the Afghanistan foreign operations and aid money from next year’s funding unless she can be assured none of the funds are being wasted due to corruption in the Afghanistan government.

“I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists,” foreign ops subcommittee chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-NY, said. “Furthermore, the government of Afghanistan must demonstrate that corruption is being aggressively investigated and prosecuted.”

Her subcommittee will mark up the fiscal 2011 state and foreign ops appropriations bill Wednesday. When they do, billions of dollars the president requested for all sorts of non-military work in Afghanistan will not be in the bill.

A spokesperson for Lowey said she was responding, in part, to two articles published Monday that described some of the abuses of U.S. taxpayer funds going to Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal reported that more than $3 billion of cash has been flown out of the Kabul airport over the last three years, packed in suitcases, and a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation is underway. The Washington Post reported Monday that Karzai is protecting high-level political officials from scrutiny related to the missing funds.

Lowey’s spokesman told The Cable that the largest pots of money to be affected are about $3.3 billion in economic support funds and about $450 million requested for anti-narcotics and law enforcement aid to Afghanistan. Other accounts to be excluded include global health money, anti-terrorism funds, and military training funds for Afghanistan army officers. Humanitarian aid would not be affected.

Lowey also tied the issue to the still struggling U.S. economy, a theme that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, focused on in a separate speech today. Democrats in Congress are preparing to go home to their districts after this week for a July 4 recess that will kick off the congressional campaign season. Accordingly, they are amplifying their rhetoric about deficit spending and expressing their unhappiness with the progress of the war in Afghanistan.

“Too many Americans are suffering in this economy for us to put their hard-earned tax dollars into the hands of criminals overseas,” Lowey said.

Daphne Eviatar at Huffington Post:

Lowey’s statement is an understandable expression of frustration. But cutting off foreign aid now is absolutely the wrong approach for the United States to take in Afghanistan.

After several visits to Afghanistan in the last few years, Human Rights First issued recommendations to the Obama administration last year specifically recommending that the United States help train Afghan investigators on evidence collection and documentation and help Afghan prosecutors provide fair prosecutions. Current plans do just that, in addition to working with Afghan officials on improving their own detention facilities and their judiciary.

Lowey’s frustration is understandable, not only because of the Washington Post‘s recent news stories, but also because of this report prepared for the State Department last year that reviewed a broad range of Afghan institutions and concluded that corruption is rampant and growing. Not surprisingly, thirty years of war has undermined the development of reliable and legitimate institutions, and of a judicial system able to keep corruption in check. But to keep Afghanistan from returning to Taliban rule or simply descending into chaos, the United States has an obligation to help the Afghan government develop and enforce laws that reduce corruption and improve government transparency. Given the recent reports that Afghanistan has some $3 trillion worth of natural resources it’s eager to exploit, transparency will be critical to make sure the proceeds of those riches don’t just get shipped out of Afghanistan like the billion dollars a year flying out of there now.

Although our NATO allies should and will be helping in this effort, the necessary “nation-building” isn’t going to happen unless the United States commits to funding carefully-targeted programs designed to improve governance and reduce corruption. Continued funding can be made contingent on the acceptance and participation of Afghan leaders and institutions with this anti-corruption agenda.

Lowey is right that US aid to Afghanistan should be spent wisely, and not indirectly fund warlords to provide security or corrupt officials to spread as graft. But the State Department and the military’s Joint Task Force in charge of detention facilities in Afghanistan are just beginning their work to improve local government enough to allow the U.S. military to transition out of there. Cutting off the funding that will allow that to happen would not only undermine the development of legitimate government institutions in Afghanistan, but would make the United States’ goal of eventually leaving the country that much more elusive.

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Let Us Learn What The Weekly Standard Has Learned

William Kristol in The Weekly Standard:

THE WEEKLY STANDARD has learned that senior Obama administration officials have been telling foreign governments that the administration intends to support an effort next week at the United Nations to set up an independent commission, under UN auspices, to investigate Israel’s behavior in the Gaza flotilla incident. The White House has apparently shrugged off concerns from elsewhere in the U.S. government that a) this is an extraordinary singling out of Israel, since all kinds of much worse incidents happen around the world without spurring UN investigations; b) that the investigation will be one-sided, focusing entirely on Israeli behavior and not on Turkey or on Hamas; and c) that this sets a terrible precedent for outside investigations of incidents involving U.S. troops or intelligence operatives as we conduct our own war on terror.

While UN Ambassador Susan Rice is reported to have played an important role in pushing for U.S. support of a UN investigation, the decision is, one official stressed, of course the president’s. The government of Israel has been consulting with the U.S. government on its own Israeli investigative panel, to be led by a retired supreme court justice, that would include respected international participants, including one from the U.S. But the Obama administration is reportedly saying that such a “kosher panel” is not good enough to satisfy the international community, or the Obama White House.

Scott Johnson at Powerline:

Kristol’s report comes just as Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has informed Israel’s representatives the world over that there were never any humanitarian supplies or equipment aboard the Mavi Marmara, where Israeli commandos were ambushed by armed mercenaries posing as peace activists. Of related interest are the videotaped statements of two Mavi Marmara crew members showing that preparations for a violent confrontation with IDF forces were put in motion about two hours before the boarding began, when the Israeli Navy hailed the ship and told it to halt; according to the statements, the atmosphere aboard the Mavi Marmara; IHH operatives on the main deck were cutting the ship’s railings with metal disks they had brought with them into lengths suitable to be used as clubs.

Despite outward appearances, the Obama administration is not clueless. It has plenty of clues. Let’s just say now is a good time to meditate further on Dorothy Rabinowitz’s Wall Street Journal column on “The alien in the White House.”

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

Recall that this week Obama himself spoke about an international board of inquiry. And other sources confirm to me that, indeed, this was Susan Rice’s recommendation. (This may explain why the U.S. was mute when Israel was condemned by the Human Right Council.)

But this brain storm might be a bridge too far, even for timid Democrats on the Hill. So (like the leaks about an imposed peace plan from James Jones meeting with such illustrious characters as Zbigniew Brzezinski), this may be an idea that the Obama administration really, really wants to pursue but doesn’t know if it can pull off. Test the waters, make Israel nervous. Turn up the heat. Show the Arabs what good guys we are. But if the game plan is exposed and a firestorm erupts, well, then — retreat. Deny that was ever the intention and come up with a plan that is less offensive — another “compromise.”

There is another alternative, of course. Veto (if it should come to the Security Council) and/or refuse to cooperate with any UN investigation. Support an Israeli investigation. The administration can and should do both. Perhaps the revelation that Obama is playing footsie with the UN (again, and as he did with the NPT group), will cause the administration to sound the retreat (as the Obama team was forced to do regarding the trial balloon on an imposed peace plan). But Obama can never bring himself to wholeheartedly embrace Israel and say no to the international community. Let’s see if he can manage to do that this time around.

Andy McCarthy at The Corner

Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall:

So on the one hand, the administration actually tries to ease sanctions on Iran — an avowed enemy that poses, literally, an existential threat to our ally, Israel — as it undermines our friend.

This is foreign policy, Alice-in-Wonderland style.  It’s surreal and frightening.

Howard Portnoy at The Examiner:

I suppose, if nothing else, one should be grateful that Obama is showing his true colors for once. Among his failings as a human being and a leader—and they are legion—perhaps none is more glaring than his dishonesty, which has been on fairly continuous display since he took the oath of office. He has not leveled with the American people regarding his stance on health care (despite his refusals to acknowledge the fact, he is on record as stating his ultimate goal for the country is universal health care), nor has he been forthcoming about his views on black nationalism or socialism.

At least at last, he is flautning his anti-Semitism for all the world to see. I trust that Jewish voters will find some way to repay his candor in the polls come November of 2012.

Ben Smith at Politico:

The White House is sharply denying a claim by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol that “the administration intends to support an effort next week at the United Nations to set up an independent commission, under UN auspices, to investigate Israel’s behavior in the Gaza flotilla incident.”

The White House has suggested in the past that it supported international participation in an Israeli investigation, but a shift to the kind of international inquiry supported by many of Israel’s critics would be a dramatic one, and a White House official brushed off Kristol’s flotation.

The White House pushed, immediately after the incident, to downgrade a planned resolution condmening Israel to a vague presidential statement that didn’t directly target the Jewish State.

The White House official said the administration continues to support “an Israeli-led investigation into the flotilla incident that is prompt, credible, impartial, and transparent.”

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

The White House is pushing back hard against a claim by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol that the administration is preparing to support an independent U.N. investigation into the Gaza flotilla incident.

Kristol, writing on the Weekly Standard blog, claimed he had heard, “the administration intends to support an effort next week at the United Nations to set up an independent commission, under UN auspices, to investigate Israel’s behavior in the Gaza flotilla incident.”

The White House quickly and sharply denied that account.

A  White House official told multiple reporters, “We’ve said from the beginning that we support an Israeli-led investigation into the flotilla incident that is prompt, credible, impartial, and transparent. We are open to different ways of ensuring the credibility of this Israeli-led investigation, including international participation.”

The official also said, “We know of no resolution that will be debated at the U.N. on the flotilla investigation next week.”

Kristol’s allegation, and the White House’s rebuttal of it, is further illustration of the ongoing tension between some in the pro-Israel advocacy community and the administration over how strongly and aggressively to defend Israel in the international arena.

While it’s true there is no specific resolution expected, sources close to the issue say, what pro-Israel leaders like Kristol are worried about are continuing calls for tougher measures against Israel, such as the vote in the Human Rights Council, and whether or not the administration will really oppose them with vigor.

Jennifer Rubin again:

As expected, the administration is denying the report — sort of. The response is telling, and not only for its gratuitous nastiness. First, the administration plainly thinks it’s achieved a grand success by toning down the UN resolution and downgrading it to a statement. And it lets on that, once again, some “compromise” is under consideration. Moreover, it only denies that the UN will not debate the resolution “next week.”

What is missing is any determination to rule out an international investigation. Indeed, it advances the notion that an Israeli investigation would not be “credible.” No mention is made of, and there seems to be no interest in, investigating Turkey or the terrorists.

John McCormack at The Weekly Standard:

A simple denial would look something like this: “The United States will oppose any UN investigation into Israel.”

But the White House didn’t say that. It couldn’t even muster an official response on the record. Politico originally included a statement from White House spokesman (and friend of THE WEEKLY STANDARD) Tommy Vietor—”We have no idea what Bill Kristol is talking about, and would surmise that neither does he”—but that quote has since vanished from the blog (it can be seen here).

Maybe Tommy had to ask for his quote to be deleted because it was a tad snarky—given that the administration probably is going to end up supporting (or at least yielding to), and cooperating with, and pressuring Israel to cooperate with, a UN investigation.

He’s also probably on a tight leash after this picture zipped around the Internet this week (for the record, I fully support Vietor’s right to drink beer at a bar—and even play beer pong—though he really should keep his shirt on at public establishments, especially on a Sunday afternoon).

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Filed under International Institutions, Israel/Palestine, Political Figures, UN