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."
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Today, the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform is convening its long-awaited hearing on the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi -- one that will feature a group of self-described "whistleblowers" from inside the State Department.
According to leaked copies of their testimonies, the witnesses -- Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism; Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission/chargé d'affairs in Libya; and Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya -- will testify that the State Department rebuffed requests for additional security at the consulate and that the Obama administration denied a request to send a team of special forces to Benghazi. According to the witnesses, U.S. soldiers could have made it to the consulate in time to save lives, though that is a highly contentious allegation.
The controversial testimony is sure to generate heated debate among the lawmakers assembled. Here's a guide to what you can expect from the most high-profile antagonists in today's hearing:
Best known for lobbing endless accusations at the Obama administration for the botched "Fast and Furious" operation at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Issa, the committee's chairman, is now staking a claim as a major player in Republican efforts to keep the White House's feet to the fire on Benghazi. On Monday, Issa, a California Republican, told CBS News that there is "no question" that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's inner circle and possibly the secretary herself were involved in covering up the State Department's handling of the Benghazi attack.
"If Hillary Clinton is not responsible for the before, during and after mistakes ... it's somebody close. There certainly are plenty of people close to the former secretary who knew, and apparently were part of the problem," Issa told CBS.
A darling of the Tea Party, Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, has accused the Obama administration of seeking to suppress the testimony of the witnesses slated to appear. "There are people who want to testify that have been suppressed," he told Fox News Sunday. "They're scared to death of what the State Department is doing with them."
Expect Chaffetz to advance the ball on allegations that the U.S. military could have responded to distress calls at the Benghazi consulate. On Monday, he told Fox News that the military was told to "stand down" and that after the attacks the Obama administration worked to cover up orders for the military to not respond to the attack.
A South Carolina Republican, Gowdy is the man behind much of the hype leading up to today's hearing. "There are more Benghazi hearings coming; I think they're going to be explosive," he told Fox News in late April. But don't just expect grandstanding from Gowdy. A former prosecutor, Gowdy told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he is concerned his Republican colleagues won't sufficiently focus on fact-finding during the hearing, and that he has been working behind the scenes to educate his colleagues about the art of interrogation. "So I have worked with, now, four of my colleagues whose backgrounds are not in litigation, how to ask these questions in a precise, pithy way that makes the witness the star and not some arm-flailing congressman who wants to be on YouTube," Gowdy told Hewitt.
Expect Gowdy to pursue some interesting lines of questioning. Here's what he promised Hewitt:
My fear over the weekend was that a lot of the information that I thought would be most interesting tomorrow has already been released. So I went to staff, and I went to others, and said with any jury trial, you have to save something back. You have to be interesting on the day of the trial. And I have been assured, in fact, I know, because I've seen it myself, there's going to be new, provocative, instructive, dare not use the word explosive, but there's going to be information that comes out tomorrow that whether people have been so desensitized to government lying to them that they don't care anymore, I cannot speak to that. But if you're interested in Benghazi, there is going to be enough new material tomorrow to make you absolutely livid that it's taken eight months for us to get to this point.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Cummings has been lambasting Republicans for politicizing the attacks. Expect him to describe the hearing as an exercise in partisan politics. "[Republicans] have leaked snippets of interview transcripts to national media outlets in a selective and distorted manner to drum up publicity for their hearing," Cummings said in a press release. "This is investigation by press release and does a disservice to our common goal of ensuring that our diplomatic corps serving overseas has the best protection possible to do its critical work."
Fresh off losing the Democratic primary in Massachusetts' special election to replace former Senator John Kerry, Stephen Lynch has been doing battle with Jason Chaffetz in recent days. During Wednesday's hearing, he'll likely be one of the louder Democratic voices pushing back on Republican claims. "This has been a one- sided investigation, if you want to call it that," Lynch told Fox on Sunday. "There's been no sharing of information in a significant way with the Democrats staff members who usually conduct this type of investigation. And I think it's disgraceful, to be honest with you."
Grab some popcorn. It should be a good show.
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Amid international accusations of chemical weapons use by Assad government forces in Syria's civil war, Secretary of State John Kerry told NATO members on Tuesday that the alliance should consider contingency planning and prepare for possible threats to NATO nations emanating from Syria, including chemical weapons threats (after Kerry's remarks, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen clarified that NATO is not considering intervening in Syria).
Earlier this year, however, NATO did deploy three Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, a NATO state, in response to concerns in Ankara that southern Turkish cities could be targeted by Syrian Scud missiles. Other NATO countries are acting independently to facilitate arms provisions, non-lethal supplies, and training for rebels. And earlier this month, Pentagon officials announced they were doubling the U.S. military presence in Jordan to 200 military planners, with the potential to expand that presence to as many as 20,000 soldiers in an emergency.
In Washington, meanwhile, there is a mounting policy debate about the "least bad" options for the United States in responding to the protracted conflict in Syria. In a policy speech delivered last week, Sen. John McCain, a consistent advocate of intervention in Syria, outlined potential options for U.S. involvement in the conflict:
No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put tens of thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria. We have more limited options. We could, for example, organize an overt and large-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces. We could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad's aircraft and Scud missile launchers on the ground, without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria's air defenses. We could use similar weapons to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make their crews think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria.
So, is McCain on to something? Could his options serve as blueprints for intervention? The United States already operates a clandestine training program for Syrian rebels in Jordan, and growing the program could be a "very significant gamechanger," Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, told FP.
Precision strikes, while feasible, would require "something like a mini-campaign" with a dedicated effort to find targets, some of which may have to be struck multiple times, White said. "It couldn't be done in one fell swoop."
Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who has consulted for the administration, suggests on his blog, Syria Comment, that the Obama administration may be receptive to the idea of Patriot-enforced safe zones:
For some time, the language used in the White House to frame the Syria problem has been that of containment. Here are some of the oft repeated phrases I have been hearing from White House insiders:
- "Keep the violence inside Syria"
- "Prepare for Syrian failure"
- "Shore up the neighbors"
- "There are no good guys in Syria"
Adm. James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander for Europe, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that, in his opinion, Patriot-enforced no-fly zones along Syria's northern border "would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime."
"Assuming we have permission to deploy Patriot missiles appropriately in Turkey and Jordan, they could be used to implement a no-fly zone," White told FP, though he pointed out that the density of the fighting in southern Syria would limit the effectiveness of a no-fly zone in establishing a buffer zone along the Jordanian border.
There is a potential downside to establishing safe zones, though. White pointed to the potential for retaliation, saying, "If you had Patriot missiles trying to enforce a no-fly/no-missile zone, they could be targeted. There could be some risk to these forces, I wouldn't say significant risk, but some risk." Landis also cites concerns raised by David Pollock, also of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that safe zones, depending on how they're enforced, could lead to blowback. Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch has also suggested that buffer zones could trap refugees in the war zone without access to necessary aid.
What's clear is that President Obama is now facing increased pressure to act in Syria based on comments made in Israel last month that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line." What comes after that red line's been crossed? Well, that's far less certain.
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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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Many of you may have already read Vali Nasr's scathing inside account of the State Department's struggle to put diplomacy at the center of U.S. efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. If not, go read it right now. Are you back? Good. Now check out this fracas at Monday's State Department press briefing, conducted by spokesman Patrick Ventrell:
QUESTION: On Afghanistan. Vali Nasr, who used to be at the State Department, just came out with a new book detailing a little bit about the work with Richard Holbrooke and how President Obama's White House team kind of shut him out. Specifically, he writes that "the White House encouraged the U.S. Ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go around the State Department and work with the White House directly, undermining their own agency."
I'd like your response to that, whether that's an accurate assessment, and whether the State Department felt that the White House was taking too much control over the Afghan - Af-Pak file.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know, Elise, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on the specifics in this book or our interagency discussions.
QUESTION: Why not?
MR. VENTRELL: That's not something that we do from this podium.
QUESTION: Well, there's a specific charge laid out in this book from someone who used to be in this building.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm not going to comment on a former official's characterization one way or another, or our interagency processes one way or another. But let me talk a little bit about Afghanistan, where we are, some of the progress we --
QUESTION: No, I don't - I mean, I'm specifically --
MR. VENTRELL: I'm not --
QUESTION: You can talk about Af - I'm happy to hear what you have to say --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: -- about Afghanistan, but specifically, do you feel that the State Department has equal equity in the policy deliberations on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm just not going to --
QUESTION: You don't know whether you do?
MR. VENTRELL: I'm not going to comment on a former official's characterization.
QUESTION: Well, I'm not asking you to - so don't comment on his book, but specifically, do you feel as if the State Department has equal equity on policy deliberations on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: We have an excellent working relationship with our White House and interagency colleagues. And let me just tell you a little bit about where we are in Afghanistan, because that's - some of the thrust of the book is talking about policy development on Afghanistan. We've increased the capacity of Afghan security forces to fight insurgents, transitioning Afghan security lead - transitioning to an Afghan security lead, building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. We now have Afghan forces leading nearly 90 percent of operations across the country. We've signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. We're working on a new - negotiating a new bilateral security agreement. We're working on preparations for a free, inclusive, and transparent election in 2014. So we really stand behind the record of the progress we've made in Afghanistan, but beyond that I'm not going to get into interagency discussions.
QUESTION: But it's not a new charge. I mean, it's a charge that analysts are making around Washington, that the foreign policy is being decided in the White House with not enough input, or very little input, from the State Department.
MR. VENTRELL: We make our input, but I'm just not going to characterize it beyond that.
QUESTION: Are you listened to? Do you feel that you're listened to properly in the White House?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, the State Department has - we have an excellent working relationship, as I said, with the White House, with the interagency, and --
QUESTION: You can't say whether you feel as if you're getting equal input?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm not going to characterize some sort of historical discussion about what happened in years past. All I'm going to say is --
QUESTION: I don't think it's historical, because it also goes to what's happening today in the White House.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, guys, I've said what I can on this. I think we've done what we can here. Thanks.
President Barack Obama has taken some heat over the news that his administration may cut America's nuclear arsenal by "at least a third," according to FP contributor R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity. As Republican operative Michael Goldfarb tweeted, "Good timing for Obama's State of the Union announcement of unilateral nuke cuts." Just after the test, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte issued a press release headlined "Now Is Not the Time to Reduce Our Nuclear Deterrent," and a few other senators made the same link in Tuesday's Senate committee hearing vote on Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense.
And indeed, the timing for such an announcement didn't seem politically wise, given that North Korea just tested its own nuclear device -- which may explain why the president didn't mention the cuts on Tuesday night, aside from a vague pledge to seek bilateral reductions with Russia.
But what about the substance? Just how does Obama's pile of nukes stack up against Kim Jong Un's? I asked Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, which tracks these issues closely. Here's what he said:
The total combined yield of all the warheads in the US nuclear stockpile is an estimated 1,400 Megatons. Warhead yields range from 0.3 kilotons to 1.2 Megatons per warhead.
North Korea doesn't yet have an "arsenal" in the form of deliverable warheads, but might have enough fissile material for less than 10 weapons. If their three tests are an indication, then an estimated combined yield of 20-50 kilotons might be a reasonable estimate. That is assuming yields of 4-6 kilotons per warhead.
Here's what that looks like in one handy chart:
Call me crazy, but I think we can handle the cuts.
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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The more I think about it, the more I think John Kerry was a great choice for Obama's second-term secretary of state. Granted, he wasn't the president's first choice. But Obama may have stumbled into a pretty good decision.
The main reason is that Obama's second term is going to involve a number of lines of sensitive, patient diplomacy that could be politically unpopular at home, or at least easy to attack. Let's take them one by one.
First, there's the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which may or may not involve serious discussions with the Taliban. If it happens, and depending on the parameters of that conversation, that's going to be hugely politically risky, and controversial even within the Obama administration itself. I'm not as optimistic as David Ignatius, but there are already signs that at least some factions of the Taliban are willing to come to the table, if only to explore their options. Kerry knows this terrain well, having managed to develop good relations with both Karzai and the Pakistani leadership.
Second, Iran. Kerry has long thought that the United States needed to find a way to strike a deal. He's skeptical that military action will work. He understands all too well the limits of sanctions. I think he's willing to get creative, and really try to exhaust all options before he signs on for a bombing campaign. He won't just check the diplomacy box -- I think he will really give negotiations a chance to play out.
Third, North Korea. The Obama administration's approach has been "strategic patience" -- a fancy way of saying do little and hope for the best. There were some good arguments for waiting out the North Koreans, chief among them that the South Koreans wanted to take a different tack. But it hasn't worked, and now even the conservative president-elect, Park Geun-hye, wants to explore engagement once again. The United States will be under pressure to join in.
Fourth, Syria. If the administration is serious about brokering some kind of negotiated solution (and it's far from clear this is the case), it will require some pretty deft multidimensional diplomacy with the regime, various factions of rebels, the neighbors, the Europeans, the Iranians, and the Russians. File this one under "mission impossible." But Kerry has been out ahead of the administration on Syria, at least. Maybe he'll be able to make the case for a more less terrible strategy.
Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a dog of an issue, and it seems very far from solvable at the moment. Obama would be foolish to have another tilt at a peace deal. But the Middle East has a way of dragging you in against your will. As long as it is propping up the Palestinian Authority and sending hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to Israel, the United States won't be able to walk away from this mess. Kerry will need to find a way to at least credibly pretend that the Obama administration has a strategy -- and above all, work to prevent things from getting worse.
These are hard problems, and they are exactly the sorts of thankless tasks that Kerry excels at -- the kind that Hillary Clinton was either too busy thinking about 2016, spread too thin, or too disempowered by the White House to do much about. Remember: She wasn't a diplomat when she took the Foggy Bottom job; she was a politician. Yes, she has excelled at public diplomacy -- "townterviews" and the like. That was important in the wake of the Bush years. And yes, the State Department has done some solid diplomatic work in Asia under Clinton's watch. But there are only a few episodes (that we know of) where the secretary's personal, private involvement was crucial to a deal. In one of these cases, the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, she had a strong incentive to get involved -- because not to give her all to get Chen released would have been a stain on her legacy. But on the really tough issues, she's worked through envoys, a tactic that minimized the risks to Clinton herself. (And it worked: Nobody, for instance, seems to blame her for the administration's spectacular failures on the Israel-Palestinian front, or for its less than vigorous Syria policy. Even Benghazi hasn't really affected her reputation.)
Kerry is of course also a pol, but he has nothing left to lose. He's already run for presidency and lost. He seems at peace with himself. He'll shrug off personal attacks. Yes, he can be pompous and long-winded at times. But I think he's going to throw himself into this task, and the arc of his career shows a man willing to take risks when the moment demands it. And the moment certainly demands it now.
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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My colleague Josh Rogin has a more complete and straightforward writeup of this report, an independent look at the State Department's handling of the Sept. 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, over at The Cable, but I want to highlight a few elements of it in the meantime.
In short, it demolishes some of the more outlandish storylines on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. "special mission" in Benghazi (officially, it wasn't a consulate), from the notion that the Obama administration delayed its response for some strange reason to the idea that anyone gave orders not to come to the mission's aid.
"The Board members believe every possible effort was made to rescue and recover Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith," it reads, before going on to detail in gripping bureaucratese the heroic efforts of the mission's security officers to save their boss -- going back into the smoke-filled complex multiple times, at great personal risk, to try to find him and bring him to safety.
What about the story, reported by Fox News, that the "CIA chain of command" ordered the rescue squad from the agency's Benghazi annex to "stand down"? Nope: "The departure of the Annex team was not delayed by orders from superiors," the report found.
Nor did officials in Washington dawdle on the night of the attack, though they come in for plenty of criticism for lapses in security planning beforehand. "The interagency response was timely and appropriate," the report concludes," noting that there "simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference. ... The Board found no evidence of any undue delays in decision making or denial of support from Washington or military combatant commanders."
That said, the report is focused by design on the State Department. At least in the unclassifed version released Tuesday evening, it doesn't have much to say about the intelligence community's failures or the White House's role in the response to the attack. It doesn't name names, or make clear at what level certain key decisions were made. But it makes a pretty strong case that the conspiracy theorists got this one badly wrong.
As a side note, the report also confirms Foreign Policy's story on the Benghazi mission's concerns about "troubling" surveillance of the compound by a local police officer:
At approximately 0645 local that morning, a BML contract guard saw an unknown individual in a Libyan Supreme Security Council (SSC) police uniform apparently taking photos of the compound villas with a cell phone from the second floor of a building under construction across the street to the north of the SMC. The individual was reportedly stopped by BML [the British contractor's] guards, denied any wrongdoing, and departed in a police car with two others. This was reported to ARSOs [regional security officers] 1 and 2. Later that morning they inspected the area where the individual was seen standing and informed the Annex of the incident. There had not been any related threat reporting. The local February 17 militia headquarters was informed of the incident and reportedly complained to the local SSC on the Special Mission’s behalf. The Ambassador reviewed a Special Mission-drafted complaint to local authorities on the surveillance incident; however, it was not submitted due to the typically early closure of Libyan government offices. Later on September 11, the Ambassador was informed by his Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Tripoli of the breach of the Embassy Cairo compound that had occurred that day and briefly discussed the news with ARSO 3. The TDY RSO [regional security officer on temporary assignment] was also informed of the Cairo compound breach by his Regional Security Officer counterpart in Tripoli and shared the information with colleagues at the Annex.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has been on a tear lately: breaking news on the files found in Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad safe house, revealing details of the backchannel negotiations between Erdogan and Ayatollah Khamenei, and now, channeling the Obama administration's negotiating strategy toward Iran.
At a time when Thomas Friedman is writing his 35th column complaining about the state of America's train system and urging New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch a third-party bid for the presidency, Ignatius is far and away America's must-read columnist right now. Iggy has always been known for his top-notch sources, especially in the intelligence community, but his columns seem especially well-sourced of late -- it's almost as if he has a weekly lunch with Tom Donilon or something.
Let's take a look at his latest. Ignatius says that "the smart money in Tehran is betting on a deal" -- picking up on a rise in the Iranian stock market to argue that a nuclear agreement is in the offing. "So far," he writes, "Iran is following the script for a gradual, face-saving exit from a nuclear program that even Russia and China have signaled is too dangerous. The Iranians will bargain up to the edge of the cliff, but they don’t seem eager to jump." According to Ignatius, under this deal, "Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 percent, for use in medical isotopes."
In exchange, Iran would get ... nothing, at least right away. Ignatius suggests that the Europeans would agree to delay implementing their oil embargo, set to take effect July 1, and the Americans would delay their own fresh round of sanctions due to be implemented in late June.
Frankly, I don't see how this can work. There do seem to be signs that Khamenei is laying the political groundwork for a deal, for instance by bringing his pragmatic former president, Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, back into his good graces. But any deal that doesn't visibly benefit Iran -- rather than merely preventing future harm -- will inevitably be viciously attacked within the country's fragmented political system. And I suspect, given his past behavior, that the supreme leader will stick his finger in the air before staking out a clear public position.
It seems equally unlikely that President Obama will risk handing an electoral issue to his rival Mitt Romney by making any real concessions to Tehran. Americans may not be eager to fire up the B-52s -- and the Pentagon certainly isn't -- but they don't want to see their president look weak. And even if Obama did cut a deal, Republicans and pro-Israel groups would likely make a lot of noise, and might even be able to derail it.
Then there's Israel, which has set the bar extremely high for these negotiations, insisting among other things that Iran shut down its Fordow enrichment plant -- the one it spent years building in secrecy and burying 200 meters beneath a mountain outside the city of Qom at a cost of millions of dollars. Indeed, everything the Obama administration agrees to apparently has to be vetted with the Israelis, who have completely unrealistic notions about what Iran is willing to accept.
Moreover, the intricately choreographed arrangements of the type Ignatius suggests seem hard to imagine given the deep levels of distrust between the two sides. It beggars belief to think that two countries whose diplomats will barely even sit in a room with one another can work out "confidence-building measures" that will survive the political maelstrom news of a deal would unleash. We are not anywhere close to a Nixon going to China moment, in any sense of that hackneyed historical analogy.
What will most likely happen, as Time's Tony Karon lays out here, is that the can gets kicked further down the road: Talks will proceed for the sake of talks, and a decision about whether to bomb will be deferred until at least November (unless Iran crosses a red line like installing next-generation centrifuges at Fordow).
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that if you want to know what the Obama administration is thinking, read David Ignatius. But don't expect to be optimistic once you do.
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.
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images
What foreign policy-related words are you most likely to hear during tonight's State of the Union address? Since the economy is the dominant issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, you may not be hearing all that many. But to answer the question, we sifted through President Obama's major foreign-policy speeches, talks at multilateral events such as G-8 and G-20 summits, remarks with foreign leaders, and pivotal addresses such as the State of the Union, generating word clouds for every six months of the Obama presidency (click on the images below to expand). One thing is certain: Based on the word clouds below, Obama is definitely a "people" person.
Jan. 20, 2009 - June 30, 2009
Within days of entering office, President Obama gave a speech at the State Department announcing the confirmation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the appointments of George Mitchell and the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as special envoys, and the closing of Guantánamo Bay. In April, Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to announce the beginning of nuclear arms talks that would culminate in the New START treaty in 2010. Several days after that meeting, Obama delivered remarks in the Turkish parliament about the economy and the Middle East. In June, Obama gave his much-hyped speech in Cairo about America's relationship with the Muslim world.
Obama began July at his first G-8 meeting in L'Aquila, Italy, where he delivered remarks on the environment and global economy. He later addressed the U.N. General Assembly for the first time on the topic of multilateralism and spoke at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on the administration's strategy for the war in Afghanistan, which included a troop surge. A week later, Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm.
Jan. 1, 2010 - June 30, 2010
The new year brought the devastating earthquake in Haiti and Obama's first State of the Union address, in which he spoke at length about the economy and the need to pass health care reform. The president held meetings with a host of leaders including India's Manmohan Singh and China's Hu Jintao, and signed the New START treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. In June, he placed additional sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and gave a speech at the G-20 meeting in Toronto in which he emphasized the need for cooperation in responding to the churning global economic crisis.
A light summer turned into a busy fall as Obama delivered his second speech at the U.N. General Assembly, which focused more on international security and terrorism than his previous address. Shaking off a dismal midterm election for the Democrats, Obama flew to Asia where he spoke in front of the Indian parliament. The president capped off 2010 by announcing a free trade agreement with South Korea, which Congress passed the following year.
Jan. 1, 2011 - June 30, 2011
The first six months of 2011 were consumed by the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled the governments of Egypt and Tunisia. Obama's second State of the Union address primarily revolved around increasing American competiveness and jobs. He addressed the Arab Spring directly in May -- the same month that he went on television to announce the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Obama also outlined his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at an AIPAC Policy conference after his peace proposal angered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
During his third address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama revisited the Arab Spring and spoke about how the world had changed since the 9/11 attacks (Muammar al-Qaddafi died a month later). In November, Obama traveled to southern France to meet with the G-20 on the global financial crisis. Several subsequent speeches highlighted the administration's strategic pivot toward Asia, including remarks at Trans-Pacific Partnership and APEC meetings and an address to the Australian parliament, during which Obama announced a new U.S. Marine base in northern Australia.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
In a bombshell revelation sure to reverberate around the world, the Washington Post quotes a senior U.S. intelligence official seeming to suggest that the United States' goal in Iran is now the collapse of the regime. The story's headline: "Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, U.S. official says."
I say "suggest" because the Post never directly quotes the official saying outright that regime change is the policy. Here's the key passage:
The goal of U.S. and other sanctions against Iran is regime collapse, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, offering the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is at least as intent on unseating Iran's government as it is on engaging with it.
The official, speaking this week on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the administration hopes that sanctions "create enough hate and discontent at the street level" that Iranians will turn against their government.
What's more, the story's authors -- Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson, two very seasoned and careful reporters -- also spoke with a "senior administration official" who contradicted that line:
A senior administration official, speaking separately, acknowledged that public discontent was a likely result of more punitive sanctions against Iran's already faltering economy. But this official said it was not the administration's intent to press the Iranian people toward an attempt to oust their government.
"The notion that we've crossed into sanctions being about regime collapse is incorrect," the administration official said. "We still very much have a policy that is rooted in the notion that you need to supply sufficient pressure to compel [the government] to change behavior as it's related to their nuclear program."
Dennis Ross, a top Middle East advisor who recently left the White House, also told De Young and Wilson that regime change was not the goal of the sanctions. And he should know, because he helped design them.
So what's going on? I suspect that the first source, the "senior U.S. intelligence official," may have misspoken, or been somehow misinterpreted. Pursuing regime change in a well-armed country of 78 million is no small matter, nor is it the sort of thing that can be ascertained from a blind quote that's immediately contradicted by other sources. (It's also very much worth noting that the harshest sanctions -- on Iran's central bank -- were imposed by Congress over the White House's objections.)
Still, as my colleague Dan Drezner noted yesterday, the Obama team may be hoping that sanctions can open up fissures within the Iranian regime and provoke internal political strife -- thus giving the United States and its allies more leverage. That's not quite the same thing as regime change, however.
It's important to remember that Iranians themselves haven't called en masse for regime change. The protests that broke out over the stolen 2009 presidential election were mainly about calling for a recount or a revote, not about bringing down the entire clerical system. More Iranians may eventually conclude that "everything must go," but as far as we can tell they aren't there yet.
There is a certain political appeal in calling for regime change in Iran, I'll admit. Obama is being pilloried daily by the Republican presidential hopefuls for not doing enough to stop Iran's nuclear program, and he seems highly unlikely to agree to a bombing campaign that may or may not succeed in doing the job. But if he can say that he's trying to overthrow the mullahs rather than negotiate with them, he might be able to neutralize that line of attack. That's probably a bad idea, and it's no way to make foreign policy, but it wouldn't be the first time an American politician behaved like, well, a politician.
UPDATE: The Post has now changed its headline, substantially revised the top of the story, and appended a correction. The new headline reads: "Public ire one goal of Iran sanctions, U.S. official says." That's more like it.
Apparently the president's wife was just as in the dark as the rest of us about the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound May 1. As hard as it is to imagine that President Obama didn't confide in his wife about what must have been one of the most agonizing periods in his life -- the tense lead up to the raid -- Michelle Obama says she didn't know.
I knew something was happening, but when it gets down to that level of secrecy, there's just a small number of people who know anything ... I was actually out to dinner with girlfriends, and I didn't know until I walked in the door. It was later in the evening, and Barack had his suit on, because he was going to the press conference. And I said, 'What's going on?'
Her reaction, when she found out?
I was, like, 'Wow.' Then I wanted to know the details: 'How did it happen? Then what? And then what happened?' I was probably like every media person ... And then I sat down and talked to Malia to make sure she was aware, because the crowds [outside the White House] were starting to form.
Even Joe Biden -- with his reputation for not always knowing when to keep his mouth shut -- kept the secret from his wife. In a joint AARP Magazine interview with the first lady, Jill Biden said: "Joe left early and was gone all day. Didn't come home for a meal-nothing. So I knew something was happening, but I thought it was about Libya. [When I heard,] I was grading papers and watching TV."
Coming up on the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the magazine also asked the first lady where she was that day.
I'll never forget, because it was Malia's first day of preschool. It was a beautiful, crisp, bright day. And I remember feeling optimistic that my little girl was going off to school, and the world for her was just opening up. We were in the car, and I had NPR on and thought, 'What does this mean for my daughter's life now? Has the world fundamentally been changed? Are we now a nation at war?' So for me it was about the future.
The price tag for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq since the 9/11 attacks is somewhere between $3.7 and $4.4 trillion, according to a new report released today. The staggering figure is nearly four times higher than the U.S. government estimate. Just last week, President Barack Obama pegged the cost over the last decade at $1 trillion.
The new estimated cost provided by a research project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, is also much higher than most previous attempts to quantify the operations.
A March 2011 Congressional Research Service report estimated the war funding at $1.4 trillion through 2012 and the Congressional Budget Office pegged the cost from 2001 through 2021 at an estimated $1.8 trillion, according to Reuters.
A 2008 report by economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, however, put the estimated combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars between $5 and $7 trillion. They included interest on debt, future borrowing to pay off debt, the cost of a continued military presence, and health care and counseling for veterans.
Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at Brown and one of the project's directors, told Foreign Policy her group also took into account future costs, such as obligated expenses for injured soldiers in the decades to come.
According to a White House spokesperson, the number disparity between the trillion-dollar figure the president used this month and the Brown report comes down to methodology -- and what you choose to include. The administration is counting only the "direct costs of war," the spokesperson said, which includes just the money appropriated for the budgets of the Pentagon, State Department, and intelligence community. Officially, the White House says the "total amount appropriated for war-related activities" is $1.3 trillion, which could rise to $1.4 trillion in 2012.
Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said it's fair to include more than just the cost of current operations when coming up with the "total cost" of the war -- including things such as veteran care.
"There are people who are being injured today who will need health care for a long time after the conflict ends," she said. "That's not part of the current cost, but it's certainly directly related."
Bensahel, who has not read the entire report, said other expenses mentioned in the press were less fair -- including factoring in lost opportunity costs.
"I don't think that's an appropriate cost to include because every expenditure of money includes some trade-offs," she said.
According to the report, the United States has already spent between $2.3 and $2.6 trillion on Iraq and Afghanistan. The project also looked at the cost of war in terms of human casualties. The number of total deaths it calculates (225,000) is "a very conservative estimate," said Lutz.
"Seeing the death toll, how many of the allied uniform folks have died and seeing the civilian numbers was the biggest shock for me," she said.
31,741 uniformed allied soldiers and contractors -- from U.S., Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani security forces, as well as contractors -- have been killed. And the report claims that at least 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Journalists and humanitarian workers accounted for between 434 and 521 deaths.
The goal of the project was to give the public "a fuller sense of what's at stake," Lutz said. "I think it's the case that we've had an atrophying of public information sources [looking into these questions]. Journalism is in a challenged state and there's a real heavy spin machine out there. Whatever one's political project, it's accompanied by a heavy dose of misinformation. We really feel it's important for foreign policy and domestic policy decision-making to know this information."
On Sunday, for the first time since January 25, the Arab world's attention was riveted not on scenes of protesters castigating their own governments, but on much more familiar imagery: that of Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation.
For months, Palestinian and Arab activists had planned to mark May 15 -- Youm an-Nakba or "Day of the Catastrophe," which usually takes place the day after Israel's independence celebrations -- with a civilian march on the occupied territories. For Arabs, Nakba Day represents a day of mourning, a time to commemorate the expulsion during the 1948 war of Palestinians from their villages and homes, press for the right of refugees to return, and denounce the Jewish state.
In past years, Nakba Day has generally passed without much fanfare: demonstrations around the world and in Palestinian villages, occasional attempts to march on Israeli-held territory, met with force.
But this is 2011, and things were rather different on Sunday. In Lebanon, a group of hundreds of Palestinian refugees tried to stream across the border and were fired upon by both Israeli and Lebanese troops. Near the Erez crossing in Gaza, IDF soldiers fired on Palestinians seeking to cross into Israel. Near Ramallah in the West Bank, a large crowd battled tear-gas-wielding riot troops with rocks and Molotov cocktails. And in Syria, another large crowd swarmed over the fence along the disputed line that separates the two countries and made it into Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the Golan Heights, before being rounded up by the IDF. (Jordan and Egypt prevented smaller crowds from reaching the border.) Altogether, more than a dozen Palestinians were killed and dozens more wounded by live fire, according to the New York Times.
Al Jazeera Arabic went large with its coverage, deploying a split screen to show the events live, while thousands more followed developments on Twitter using the #nakba tag. So did Syrian state television, happy to change the subject from the domestic demonstrations of the last few months. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hailed the protesters, addressing them directly: "You are adamant to liberate your land no matter how many sacrifices you make and the fate of this [Jewish] entity is to fade." Hamas declared the onset of a third intifada; its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, declared that changes sweeping the region would "lead to the collapse of the Zionist project in Palestine and victory for the program of the nation." Meanwhile, in Cairo, Egyptian security forces violently dispersed a large crowd demonstrating in front of the Israeli Embassy, arresting a number of well-known revolutionary Twitterati.
Somewhere in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad is smiling for the first time in weeks.
All of this sounds a bit like the old Middle East, doesn't it? Arabs raging impotently at the Jews instead of their own brutal rulers? And yet the narrative that the Arab revolutions were never about Israel has always been wrong, or at least incomplete. For Arabs living under authoritarian regimes, Israel (and America's support for Israel) has long been seen as an important reason for their subjugation. Nowhere is this more true than in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak bucked popular opinion by selling gas to Israel below market rates and enforced a widely reviled blockade of Gaza. In Tahrir Square, there were plenty of chants denouncing Mubarak as an Israeli and American agent, no matter what Thomas Friedman says.
Yet there is nothing impotent about Sunday's tactics, which put Israel and its American ally in an incredibly tough position. Whatever Assad's cynical motives for allowing and even encouraging the protesters to reach the Golan ("See, Bibi, you need me after all!"), Palestinians now have a powerful tool at their disposal, and there will no doubt be attempts to replicate the feat. As Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn puts it, "The nightmare scenario Israel has feared since its inception became real -- that Palestinian refugees would simply start walking from their camps toward the border and would try to exercise their ‘right of return.'"
Even more awkward for the United States, Netanyahu is due to visit Washington in a few days in what will likely be one long exposition of the words, "I told you so." If he is smart, he will announce a serious plan for peace and get out ahead of the most serious threat to Israel's security since the 1973 war. If he is true to form, he will use the opportunity to double down on his argument for the status quo.
President Obama has planned two speeches for the coming week: one for Thursday, billed as a disquisition on the Arab Spring, and another an address at the AIPAC conference. With George Mitchell's resignation, the peace process is officially dead. The Arab street now understands its power -- people clearly aren't going to sit around quietly waiting until September for the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state. The BDS movement ("boycott, divestment, sanctions") is gaining steam internationally. There will be more marches, more flotillas, more escalation, more senseless deaths.
What is Obama going to say now?
Jalaa Marey/JINI/Getty Images
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.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, remarks with Spanish foreign minister, January 25:
QUESTION: [T]here are some major demonstrations in Egypt today, and I'm wondering if there is concern in Washington about the stability of the Egyptian Government, of course, a very valuable ally of the United States?
SECRETARY CLINTON: With respect to Egypt, which, as your question implied, like many countries in the region, has been experiencing demonstrations. We know that they've occurred not only in Cairo but around the country, and we're monitoring that very closely. We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence. But our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.
President Barack Obama, State of the Union address, January 25:
And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.
White House press secretary statement, January 25:
As we monitor the situation in Egypt, we urge all parties to refrain from using violence, and expect the Egyptian authorities to respond to any protests peacefully. We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals.
More broadly, what is happening in the region reminds us that, as the President said in Cairo, we have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and free of corruption; and the freedom to live as you choose - these are human rights and we support them everywhere.
Clinton, remarks with Jordanian foreign minister, January 26:
SECRETARY CLINTON: Before I talk about our meeting today, I want to say a word about the protests taking place in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. As we monitor this situation carefully, we call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence. We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. And we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites.
We believe strongly that the Egyptian Government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic, and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and with the Egyptian people to advance such goals. As I said recently in Doha, people across the Middle East, like people everywhere, are seeking a chance to contribute and have a role in the decisions that affect their lives. And as the President said in his State of the Union yesterday night, the United States supports the democratic aspirations of all people.
When I was recently in the region, I met with a wide range of civil society groups, and I heard firsthand about their ideas, which were aimed at improving their countries, of giving more space and voice to the aspirations for the future. We have consistently raised with the Egyptian Government over many years, as well as other governments in the region, the need for reform and greater openness and participation in order to provide a better life, a better future, for the people.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Madam Secretary, I'd like to follow up on your opening statement on Egypt. In Tunisia, the United States was quick to support the aspirations of the protestors. Will the United States support the aspirations of the Egyptian protestors? Mr. Minister, is Jordan worried about these protests spreading elsewhere in the region? Madam Secretary, there are reports already that Egypt has shut down Twitter and Facebook. Do you plan to bring this up with the Egyptian Government directly?
And if I may stay in the region on behalf of a colleague and go a little further south - (laughter) - to Sudan, your meeting later today with the foreign minister of Sudan. Is the United States ready at this point to take them off the terror list? Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: I hope I'm awake enough to remember all those questions.
FOREIGN MINISTER JUDEH: I remember mine.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Good, good. (Laughter.)
Well, first, let me say clearly the United States supports the aspirations of all people for greater freedom, for self-government, for the rights to express themselves, to associate and assemble, to be part of the full, inclusive functioning of their society. And of course, that includes the Egyptian people. I think that what the President said last night in the State of the Union applies not only to Tunisia, not only to Egypt, but to everyone. And we are particularly hopeful that the Egyptian Government will take this opportunity to implement political, economic, and social reforms that will answer the legitimate interests of the Egyptian people. And we are committed, as we have been, to working toward that goal with Egyptian civil society, with the Egyptian Government, with the people of that great country.
With respect to the Egyptian Government, I do think it's possible for there to be reforms, and that is what we are urging and calling for. And it is something that I think everyone knows must be on the agenda of the government as they not just respond to the protest, but as they look beyond as to what needs to be done economically, socially, politically. And there are a lot of very well informed, active civil society leaders in Egypt who have put forward specific ideas for reform, and we are encouraging and urging the Egyptian Government to be responsive to that.
P.J. Crowley, press briefing, January 26:
QUESTION: P.J., on Egypt, are you aware of reports that a number of journalists have been detained, some of them roughed up, by Egyptian police in trying to cover the demonstrations? And if you are, what do you make of this?
MR. CROWLEY: We are aware that certain reporters have been detained, I think a couple of AP reporters in particular. We have raised this issue already with the ministry of foreign affairs and we will continue to monitor these cases until they are successfully resolved.
QUESTION: Okay. And when you say you've raised the issue with the ministry of foreign affairs, does that mean you've said that you expect that these people will be released or that they will be treated well?
MR. CROWLEY: We are calling for the release of journalists, yes. Absolutely, and we will continue to raise this with the Egyptian Government if it is not quickly resolved.
QUESTION: Okay. And then more broadly, the Egyptians say that they've arrested close to - I think it's close to a thousand people now. What about those people?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as the Secretary made clear in her remarks earlier today, we believe it's vitally important for Egypt to respect the universal right of its people to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, the right to peacefully protest. Our Ambassador, Margaret Scobey, had a meeting today with the Egyptian Government. She expressed our concern about the situation and the need for the Egyptian Government to demonstrate restraint. She also raised the issue of interference with social media. Internet freedom is just as important as a citizen's right to enter a city square or criticize the government without fear of reprisal.
QUESTION: When you say that Scobey met with the - who did she meet with?
MR. CROWLEY: She met with the Minister of State for Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab.
Goyal. Oh, I should mention one thing. Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman left Tunisia today. He's now in Paris conferring with his counterpart within the French Government. But he met today with civil society representatives and had a press conference with Tunisian media. And that's the latest on him as well.
QUESTION: Are there any plans for him to go to Egypt?
MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?
QUESTION: Any plans for him to go to Egypt?
MR. CROWLEY: I don't think so. I think he's coming back here tomorrow. I think there's a conference later this week on Iraq that he plans to attend.
QUESTION: I'm sorry. He's in Paris talking about what? About Lebanon or Tunisia?
MR. CROWLEY: He's meeting with his counterpart. I have no doubt that the bulk of the conversation will be on Lebanon.
QUESTION: Just on the reform issue with the Secretary this morning and the statement last night --
MR. CROWLEY: But yeah, I think he'll also talk about Tunisia.
QUESTION: -- was talking about that now's a good time for Mubarak maybe to move ahead with some reforms. And you talked broadly about the political, economic, social opportunity. Does the U.S. Government have any specific ideas about political reforms, which might improve the situation in Egypt, and are you making those suggestions to them?
MR. CROWLEY: This is a conversation that we've had with Egypt for some time. We do believe that political reform is important for Egypt, just as it's important for other countries in the region. We have long called for Egypt to create greater space for broader participation in its political process. Our concern and the fact that we have raised this issue with Egypt is longstanding, actually.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, press gaggle, January 26:
Q Robert, last night you issued a statement calling on the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful assembly. Today, as you've seen, they've banned gatherings and they've cracked down on Twitter and Facebook. What is your response to that? And my second question is, do you still back Hosni Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, obviously we are monitoring quite closely the situation in Egypt and continue to do so, obviously, in Tunisia. You heard the President speak about universal rights last night in the State of the Union.
We continue to believe, first and foremost, that any of the parties -- all of the parties should refrain from violence. We support, as the President mentioned last night about the people of Tunisia, the universal rights of the people of Egypt. And this is an important time for the government to demonstrate its responsiveness to the people of Egypt in recognizing those universal rights.
So we're going to continue to monitor the situation. I got a couple updates very early this morning, and we'll try to get more as we go along the day.
Q But do you believe they should lift the ban on protests? Should they allow these demonstrations to go ahead as long as they're peaceful?
MR. GIBBS: Again, yes, we are supportive of the universal right for assembly and speech. Those are universal values.
Again, I think we would stress quite clearly, for all involved, that expression should be free of violence. Again, we're working with -- obviously we have a close and important ally in Egypt and they will continue to be.
Q And as you stand today, you still back President Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Again, Egypt is a strong ally.
Crowley, press briefing, January 27:
QUESTION: Egypt. Does the U.S. Government have any view about the return of former IAEA Director General Mohamed elBaradei to Egypt.
MR. CROWLEY: This is a matter for the Egyptian people and how they view his return.
QUESTION: Would you like to see more potential political candidates showing up in Egypt?
MR. CROWLEY: We would like to see political reform in Egypt, as we've made clear for a number of years, and a broader opportunity for people to participate in the political process in Egypt. How that - what that actually means in terms of who might run for what office, that's, again, a matter for the Egyptian people.
QUESTION: Was there a particular significance to Secretary Clinton's language yesterday when she said that "Egypt had an opportunity for political, economic, and social reform at this moment in time"? Normally, your exhortations for political reforms in other countries, and particularly in Egypt, are much less specific in terms of time. Was she trying to signal a particular urgency because of the protests?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, this is actually not necessarily a new issue. We've had - this has been part -
QUESTION: I didn't say it was a new issue.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I know that. And -
QUESTION: Then why are you saying it's not a new issue? I didn't say it was, right?
MR. CROWLEY: Let me continue.
QUESTION: Please do.
MR. CROWLEY: This is an issue that we have talked at length with Egypt for quite some time. We have made investments over the years to try to help expand Egyptian civil society. Clearly, what you are seeing this week is very significant public protests in Egypt. As the Secretary made clear, we want to see Egyptian authorities allow and enable those protests to occur peacefully. We've also made clear that we want to make sure that there's no interference with the opportunity for the Egyptian people to use social media. But to the extent that we obviously see that, country by country across the region, people are watching what has happened in Tunisia, country by country, population by population, they are drawing lessons from what is happening.
Now, what happens going forward will be something that develops indigenously, country by country. We're not looking at this as - there's a regional dynamic, if you will, in the sense that many - as the Secretary said in her speech in Doha, across the region from the Middle East to North Africa, countries do face similar demographic challenges - young populations, highly educated, very motivated, looking for jobs, looking for opportunities, and quite honestly, frustrated by, depending on the country, what they see as a lack of opportunity. This is bringing more people out into streets. This is bringing forward public calls for a greater dialogue, greater opportunity. And the Secretary, given what we are seeing and observing in Egypt, was responding to current events.
QUESTION: So that phrase implies that she does indeed see a greater - see the need for reform with greater urgency because of the protests and violence?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, because of - everyone has been watching what's happening in Tunisia, drawing lessons from what's happening in Tunisia, it has created an opportunity. It's an opportunity that presents itself in Egypt. It's an opportunity that presents itself in Yemen. And we believe that governments need to take advantage of this opportunity to expand their dialogue with their populations and respond to the aspirations of their people.
QUESTION: Wouldn't you have preferred - I mean, presumably they've had this opportunity for many years, not just in the last three, four weeks. Wouldn't it have been better if these governments had taken advantage of this - of these important opportunities before blood was shed in the streets?
MR. CROWLEY: Well - and obviously, we deplore the deaths that have occurred among protesters and the security forces. I mean, I think we need to be careful here. Obviously, there is a dynamic that is underway within the region. But the - what happens from this point forward will rely on indigenous actions that happen country by country. The solution in Tunisia is not the solution in Egypt is not the solution in Yemen. And yet because people are observing what's happening, they're reacting to what's happening, it is an important moment for these countries to find ways to respond. And that was the message that the Secretary gave to leaders in Doha. And we're clearly seeing that there's an opportunity here, and it will be best for these countries if they actively respond at this time to obvious concerns and the voices of their people.
QUESTION: All right. And so you --
QUESTION: Are you simply telling the Egyptian Government that you need to reform to stay in power? Are you getting --
MR. CROWLEY: No.
QUESTION: -- that specific?
MR. CROWLEY: This should happen because it's important for these countries to reform and evolve. This has not happened because we, the United States, are telling any country what to do. We see a dynamic in the region, as the Secretary said. The status quo in the Middle East and North Africa is not sustainable. The fact is that they have young populations that are looking for more than their respective countries and governments are currently giving them. And it is better for governments to respond when moments like this occur.
So we think that this can happen, change can happen, in a stable environment. In fact, if you look at Tunisia, even though protests do continue, in order to get to where the people of Tunisia want to go - to credible peaceful elections - you're going to have to have calm in society so that these events can be generated. Jeff Feltman is on his way back from Paris and will be looking at how can we contribute expertise to help build a credible process so the Tunisian people can have the opportunities - opportunity to influence their future. But obviously, it has to be a peaceful environment for things like this to occur.
QUESTION: P.J., that was a fine answer, but I'm not sure it was the answer to Lachlan's question. (Laughter.) His question was are you telling the Egyptian Government --
MR. CROWLEY: I heard fine answer.
QUESTION: Are you telling the Egyptian Government that they need to adopt reform? That was his question.
MR. CROWLEY: No, we're --
QUESTION: And - hold on a second. As the Secretary said yesterday --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as a friend, we're --
QUESTION: Wait, wait, wait --
MR. CROWLEY: We're offering our advice to Egypt. But what they do is up to them.
QUESTION: Well, fair enough. But what the Secretary said yesterday was reform must be on the agenda for the Egyptian Government. How is that not telling them that they should reform, enact reforms?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we're giving Egypt and other countries our best advice.
QUESTION: Okay. So you are telling them that they should reform.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we're - no, I didn't hear that. I thought - I thought was there a particular - was there something in particular that we wanted to see Egypt do.
QUESTION: I think the transcript will reflect that what Lachlan asked was: Are you urging the Egyptian Government to reform to stay in power?
QUESTION: That's correct.
MR. CROWLEY: This is not an either/or proposition. It's not up to us to determine who, in the future, will lead the people of Egypt. That is a choice for the people of Egypt. We want to see political, economic, and social reform that opens up the opportunity for Egyptian people, just as the people of other countries, to more significantly influence who will lead their country in the future and the direction of that country and the opportunities generated in that country.
QUESTION: Could you be a little more specific, like would you recommend that they hold elections the way the Tunisians are heading, that they need some credible elections after the ones in November that you didn't like?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, that's an important distinction. We encourage reform. We want to see greater opportunity generated. How that happens will be something that develops country by country. We are willing, as a partner and a friend and an ally of Egypt, to help in that process if Egypt is willing. But as the Secretary said, we definitely believe that reform is needed. No question about that.
QUESTION: But are you talking about elections with them? Are you getting that specific?
MR. CROWLEY: We have always talked to Egypt about elections and the character of the elections that they have had and concerns that we've had about who gets to run and the dynamic and the environment surrounding elections.
QUESTION: And in light of the --
MR. CROWLEY: We did not hesitate earlier this year to express - or last year express our concerns about that.
QUESTION: So you must be urging them to do a better job next time, and you might be telling them maybe to do it sooner rather than later?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as I said, we're encouraging reform, clearly. But exactly what the government does and how they do it and on what timeline, that is a matter for the government to work with its own population.
QUESTION: All right. And so at the risk of you just dropping the word "Egypt" and substituting "Yemen" in everything you've been saying for the last 15 minutes --
QUESTION: Can I ask - can I stay with Egypt for just one last one?
QUESTION: Well, this is going to be - all right.
QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up on something from yesterday. You mentioned that there were several overtures from U.S. officials to the Egyptian Government about the detention of journalists and about stopping social media sites. I was curious if you were satisfied with any --
MR. CROWLEY: I believe the journalists have been released, by the way.
QUESTION: -- satisfied with any response that you - or reaction that you've seen from the Egyptian Government since then.
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, at this point, I did ask if we had any high-level conversations with Egypt over the last couple of days. I'm not aware of any. Our interaction has primarily been through the Embassy. But I'm not aware that we've had any particular feedback from Egypt at this point.
QUESTION: Okay. No, but in their actions, I guess I was referring to, regarding the detention of journalists that they --
MR. CROWLEY: Like I say, I can't speak for whatever discussions have happened with the government and our ambassador and embassy staff in Cairo, but I believe I saw a report earlier today that my counterpart in Egypt, or one of my counterparts in Egypt, has acknowledged that there is a need for a dialogue with those who are protesting. And that would be the kind of thing that we would encourage.
Gibbs, press briefing, January 27:
Q And in Egypt, street protests are continuing. Former IAEA chief ElBaradei has returned to the country and is calling for Mubarak to step down. How would the -- does the administration see ElBaradei as a viable alternative to Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let's broaden the discussion and have a little bit of a discussion about some of the events in Egypt. First and foremost -- and I said this yesterday, but I want to reiterate it -- that there's an obligation by the government not to engage in violence. There's an obligation by those that are protesting not to engage in violence by burning government buildings. So, first and foremost, this is a process that should be conducted peacefully, and that is one of our primary concerns.
I'm not going to get into different personalities except to say that we believe that this represents an opportunity for President Mubarak and for the government of Egypt to demonstrate its willingness to listen to its own people and to devise a way to broaden the discussion and take some necessary actions on political reform. Those are issues that the President talks with President Mubarak about every time they meet, and I doubt that there is a high-level meeting that happens between the two countries in a bilateral nature where those issues aren't brought up.
Q And how concerned is the administration that the unrest, the upheaval in the Middle East, is now spreading to Yemen, which is a key base for al Qaeda?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it is important not to -- because every country is different and every country is at a different stage in its political development -- to not generalize across the platform. So I think you heard the President talk about the people of Tunisia, and I think myself and the Secretary of State have said quite a bit on Egypt. Again, I hate to generalize across a whole series of countries at different stages in their political development and their history.
Q Just to follow on Egypt, does the White House believe that the Egyptian government is stable?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q So Hosni Mubarak has the full support of the President?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Dan, I think it's important to -- this isn't a choice between the government and the people of Egypt. Egypt, we know -- and President Mubarak has for several decades been a close and important partner with our country. And every time the President meets with President Mubarak -- and I would point you to the speech in Cairo in 2009 where the President also specifically addresses this, as well as the readout that we put out on the September meeting that the President had with President Mubarak as part of the Middle East peace process -- that we consistently have advocated for the universal rights of assembly, of free speech, of political reform. All of those are important and we have at every turn encouraged President Mubarak to find a way to engender that political discourse in a positive way. And we will continue to do that.
Q On Egypt, Mubarak has been the leader of Egypt and the United States has worked with him for a very long time. By not vocally supporting him but simply saying we support the people of Egypt, is that sending a message to the people who are out there protesting against him that they should just go full-bore and is that going to inflame the situation? And is that what the President is trying to do?
MR. GIBBS: No, again, I --
Q It sounds like he's being tossed aside to a lot of people.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, again, it's what I said to Dan, Chip. This isn't -- our government and this administration and I presume previous administrations aren't here to pick the leaders of countries over the people of those countries. We stand for the universal rights that are enshrined in our Constitution and what led our country to be created more than two centuries ago. We think that and believe strongly that those rights are held by those throughout the world.
Just recently when President Hu was here, the President discussed universal rights. We do not see this as a choice between one or the other, and I don't believe it should be. We think that -- again, he is a close and important partner.
Q He is?
MR. GIBBS: He is. And every time the two meet the President talks about the steps that he believes that President Mubarak should be taking to have that fuller conversation and to make some important reforms as it relates to political freedoms, we believe -- and they'll have an opportunity to do this later this year -- to have free and fair elections. We believe that the emergency law that's been largely in place since 1981 should be lifted, and spoke out in a statement by me that its extension was not a good thing. It gives the government obviously extra judicial powers, which we don't find to be necessary.
So all of these things we will continue to push and prod President Mubarak on in order, again, to create a situation peacefully -- peacefully -- and I think that needs to be underscored, both the government and the protesters -- to get into a place where a political dialogue can take place.
Q Since he has been so heavy-handed for so many years and you are saying that the most important thing here is adherence to international human rights or the international rights of the people of Egypt, would it be a good thing if he were overthrown?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into picking the leaders of Egypt and that's not what the government of this country does. Again, I think that what is important is we can -- President Mubarak and those that seek greater freedom of expression, greater freedom to assemble, should be able to work out a process for that happening in a peaceful way.
Q The perception by many on the ground in Egypt is the United States is taking sides here -- not with Mubarak, but with the people out there protesting. Is that accurate?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I'll say this for the third time. This is not about taking sides. This is not about choosing --
Q But I'm saying the perception there is that you're taking sides.
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me try it a fourth time. This is not about taking sides. So I hope you'll perceive to them that, again --
Q We don't perceive -- they perceive from you, not us.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I hope you'll play each of the four times in which I said it's not a choice that you make.
Q And one other question on this --
MR. GIBBS: Because, again, let me just -- when President Mubarak was in the Oval Office in September, these were issues that were brought up. When the President spoke with President Mubarak around the events that were taking place in Tunisia -- again, go to the readout that we put out about that. It's very explicit that the President talked about the political reforms that have for quite some time needed to take place in Egypt.
So this is a sustained and important message that we want to deliver to President Mubarak, to the government of Egypt, and we think they have an important role to play.
Q There are some analysts who believe the President is expressing that message much more forcefully now than, for example, he did during the Iran uprising; that he was a bit slow and cautious then in supporting the people out in the streets but he's not now.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think our response has been quite similar in speaking out in support of universal rights. The President I know spoke with you all in the Rose Garden prior to the Iranian elections. And, again, as I said earlier, I hate to -- political conditions and development in different countries are different, and I would hate to generalize.
Obama, YouTube interview, January 27:
QUESTION: Over the past few days in Egypt, people have taken to the streets of Cairo and been filming their experiences. A lot of people wrote in from the streets of Cairo wondering your reaction to the events that are taking place there. Kam Hawy wrote in saying: Dear President Obama: Regarding the current situation in the Middle East and Egypt over the past two days, what do you think of the Egyptian government blocking social networks to prevent people from expressing their opinions?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let me say first of all that Egypt's been an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues: They made peace with Israel; President Mubarak has been very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East. But I've always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform (political reform, economic reform) is absolutely critical to the long-term wellbeing of Egypt. And you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets. My main hope right now is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt. So the government has to be careful about not resorting to violence, and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence.
And I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances. As I said in my State of the Union speech, there are certain core value that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns. And I think that is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States.
Vice President Joseph Biden, PBS Newshour, January 27:
JIM LEHRER: Has the time come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go, to stand aside?
JOE BIDEN: No, I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that -- to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there.
These are -- a lot of the people out there protesting are middle-class folks who are looking for a little more access and a little more opportunity.
And the two things we have been saying here, Jim, is that violence isn't appropriate and people have a right to protest. And so -- and we think that -- I hope Mubarak, President Mubarak, will -- is going to respond to some of the legitimate concerns that are being raised.
JIM LEHRER: You know President Mubarak.
JOE BIDEN: I know him fairly well.
JIM LEHRER: Have you talked to him about this?
JOE BIDEN: I haven't talked to him in the last three days.
I -- last time I -- actually, I haven't talked to him in about a month. But I speak to him fairly regularly. And I think that, you know, there's a lot going on across that part of the continent, from Tunisia into -- all the way to Pakistan, actually. And there's -- a lot of these countries are beginning to sort of take stock of where they are and what they have to do.
JIM LEHRER: Some people are suggesting that we may be seeing the beginning of a kind of domino effect, similar to what happened after the Cold War in Eastern Europe. Poland came first, then Hungary, East Germany.
We have got Tunisia, as you say, maybe Egypt, who knows. Do you smell the same thing coming?
JOE BIDEN: No, I don't.
I wouldn't compare the two. And you and I used to talk years ago about what was going on in Eastern Europe.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
JOE BIDEN: A lot of these nations are very dissimilar. They're similar in the sense that they're Arab nations, dissimilar in the circumstance.
For example, Tunisia has a long history of a more progressive middle class, a different set of circumstances, a different relationship with Europe, for example. And the difference between Tunisia and Egypt is real, beyond the fact that Egypt's the largest Arab country in the world.
So, I don't see any direct relationship, other than there seems -- it might be argued that what is happening in one country sparks whatever concern there is in another country. It may not be the same concern. It may not be even similar, but the idea of speaking out in societies where, in the recent past, there hadn't been much of that occurring.
But I don't -- I think it's a stretch at this point. But I could be proven wrong. But I think it's a stretch to compare it to Eastern Europe.
JIM LEHRER: The word -- the word to describe the leadership of Mubarak and Egypt and also in Tunisia before was dictator. Should Mubarak be seen as a dictator?
JOE BIDEN: Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.
And I think that it would be -- I would not refer to him as a dictator.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Vice President, should we be -- should the United States be encouraging these protesters, whether they're in Tunisia or Egypt or wherever? They want their rights. And should we encourage them to seek them, if it means going to the streets or whatever?
JOE BIDEN: I think we should encourage both those who are, to use your phrase, seeking the rights and the government to talk, to actually sit down and talk with one another, to try to resolve some of what are the -- the interests that are being pursued by those who are protesting.
Now, so far, there seems to be some differences. And, historically, in the past, the concern was in some of these countries that some of the more radical elements of the society, more radicalized were the ones in the streets.
Some could argue, might argue that what's going on in Lebanon was different than what's going on in Egypt, in terms of who is the -- who the protesting forces are. Hezbollah is not, doesn't seem to be what is the nature of the protest that's going on in Egypt right now.
But -- so, not every one of these circumstances is the same, which was my point before.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
JOE BIDEN: We're encouraging the protesters to, as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we're encouraging the government to act responsibly and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out.
JIM LEHRER: Does the U.S. have any role to play in this?
JOE BIDEN: I think the role we have to play is continuing to make it clear to us that we think violence is inappropriate on the part of either party -- either of the parties, the government or the protesters.
JIM LEHRER: But there was something said today. I think the president said or the president's spokesman said the United States is not going to take sides in this dispute in Egypt.
Is that correct? Is that a correct...
JOE BIDEN: Well, look, I don't -- I wouldn't characterize it as taking sides.
I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable accommodation -- accommodation and discussion, to try to resolve peacefully and amicable the concerns and claims made by those who've taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to, because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt.
So, it's very much, I would argue, in the government's interest. But it's also in the interest of those who are seeking those rights. Again, that's different than some protests that occur in that region of the world that are really designed to overthrow a government for the purpose of establishing an autocracy that is more regressive than anything that exists.
#Egypt must handle protests peacefully and create greater political, social and economic opportunity consistent with people's aspirations.
#SecClinton spoke this afternoon with FM Aboul Gheit of #Egypt. She encouraged restraint and dialogue, and offered U.S. support for reforms.
We are closely monitoring the situation in #Egypt. We continue to urge authorities to show restraint and allow peaceful protests to occur.
We are concerned that communication services, including the Internet, social media and even this #tweet, are being blocked in #Egypt.
I'm in Maui for the holidays. Hey, somebody has to do it and anyhow I have a good excuse. My daughter and two grandchildren live out here and I have to visit them once in a while. So why not now? Besides, I'm not the only inside the Washington beltway type coming out here this Christmastide. Michelle, the two girls, and the dog arrived over the weekend and President Obama himself will be out just as soon as he signs into law all of the last-minute bills he has been able to milk out of the lame duck Democratic congress.
After the ordeal of the mid-term elections and the last months of this congress, the President for sure deserves some R&R and if Honolulu just happens to be his old hometown, so much the better. But while he's here he might do well to ponder aspects of the Hawaiian political scene that have similarities to and significance for the Washington scene to which he will only too soon have to return.
Start with Mufi Hannemann, the former mayor of Honolulu who lost to Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic primary for the nomination for governor. Just yesterday it turned out that losing was probably the best thing that ever happened to Hannemann. Sunday's Maui News reported that Hannemann has been hired to head up the Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association, the lobby group that represents most of the islands' hotels. While in office, Mufi was a big promoter of the hotel industry and now the time has come for the private hand to wash the public one.
This kind of swinging door for lobbyists and government officials will no doubt make the president feel right at home, but it might also remind him of the promise he made to stop this kind of corruption in Washington. He hasn't even come close. Virtually all of his top economic advisers have been from Wall Street or closely associated with Wall Street. Rumors have it that the top candidates to replace Larry Summers as the head of the National Economic Council are also Wall Street types. Maybe while he's reading the local papers about Mufi, the president can reconsider and get someone from closer to Main Street instead. Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm or current GE CEO Jeff Immelt would be good candidates.
Another issue Obama ought to consider while in Hawaii is that of alternative energy and energy independence. It's not clear that the United States as a whole can become energy independent. But if there's one place in the world that should be energy independent it's Hawaii. I mean with all the sunshine, tidal forces, potentially energy-producing algae, sugar and macadamia nut waste out here, Hawaii should be the world's leading laboratory and showcase of alternative energy. It's not... not even close.
Take just solar cells. My cottage out here needs a new roof. So I called the local solar cell rep to get an estimate of the cost of installing the cells along with the new roof. The quoted cost was $40,000, but after federal and state tax credits the actual number I would have to pay came down to about $15,000. That's a nice discount to be sure, but $15,000 is still a significant number and that's why most houses in one of the world's great sunshine capitals don't have solar cells on their roofs. The cost is high because solar cells are not yet being produced in large enough quantities to achieve maximum economies of scale. Moreover, those that are being produced in large quantities are being produced in China not in the United States.
This is really a critical moment for the industry and for the United States. Already, major U.S. producers like Applied Materials have moved not only production but also even their R&D centers to China. While soaking up the rays out here where the major industry is tourism that pays low wages in a high cost area, the President ought to consider matching the Chinese effort and launching a serious Apollo Moon Shot like project to make America and Hawaii number one in a solar cell industry that would pay high wages and be at the leading edge of technology.
Finally, the president ought to visit some local stores and take a look at the prices. Gillette aftershave lotion costs double what it does in Washington D.C. as do most other goods. People call it the price of paradise, but actually it's the price of monopoly. The Jones Act requires that interstate shipping in U.S. coastal waters be carried in U.S. ships, and the shipping from the mainland of the United States over 2300 miles of Pacific ocean to the islands of Hawaii is considered inter-state coastal shipping for Jones Act purposes. So the result is that the Matson Line holds a monopoly on all shipments from the mainland of the United States to Hawaii and they, of course, charge monopoly prices. Both to relieve the citizens of Hawaii and to make American shipping competitive once again in international markets, the president ought to call for abolition of the Jones Act. It is just an excuse for monopolies protected by lobbyists to rip off ordinary citizens.
Whether Barack Obama will go down in history as a great or even good president will not be decided on the battle fields of Afghanistan. It will be decided by whether the American economy can compete effectively in the 21st century market place. How that must be done can actually be seen very clearly here in warm, sunny Hawaii. Wish you could all come.
Clyde Prestowitz is president of the Economic Strategy Institute and author of The Betrayal of American Prosperity.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
This is a new one:
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) called Democrats' push to force through an arms control treaty and an omnibus spending bill right before Christmas "sacrilegious," and warned he'd draw the process out to wage his objections.
"You can't jam a major arms control treaty right before Christmas," he told POLITICO. "What's going on here is just wrong. This is the most sacred holiday for Christians. They did the same thing last year - they kept everybody here until (Christmas Eve) to force something down everybody's throat. I think Americans are sick of this."
Not quite sure by what definition Dec. 15 qualifies as " right before Christmas." As Steve Benen points out, "Americans nationwide are working this week and next, as are U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."
And if DeMint is really so concerned about getting his holiday shopping done, he might want to reconsider taking up the rest of today by having the entire treaty -- which was signed in April -- read aloud.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
President Obama will consult with 20 CEOs of major U.S. companies today to get their advice on how to stimulate U.S. economic growth and create more American jobs.
The premise of these kinds of meetings is that the heads of American headquartered companies like GE, Google, PepsiCo, and Motorola have a special concern for the fate of the U.S. economy and useful advice on how to fix it. But do they? Are these really American companies in any way other than that they happen to be incorporated in Delaware of some other U.S. state, and do these CEOs have or even can they have the best interests of the American economy at heart?
Remember that most of these companies sell and produce far more outside the United States than inside. They often have many more employees outside the United States than inside and a large proportion of their shareholders are also not American. They must deal in most cases with more than 100 presidents and prime ministers of countries in which they have major interests. In the case of the European Union they must deal with officials in Brussels who are responsible for an economy that is about a third larger than the United States. In Beijing and New Delhi they must deal with governments that are currently driving the development of economies that are almost surely going to become larger than the U.S. economy in the next twenty to forty years.
Also remember that these companies have greater financial power and greater production capacity than all but a handful of countries. They are quasi-sovereign entities and their CEOs are in many respects more akin to powerful heads of state than to your average everyday businessman. It is not a criticism of them to point out that their interests may or may not be congruent with America's interests. Motorola and Cisco, for example, do a large portion of their production in China. They benefit from China's undervalued yuan that allows them to have artificially low production costs. Obama badly needs China to stop manipulating its currency to be undervalued if he wants to realize his goal of doubling U.S. exports. But a halt to China's currency manipulation is not necessarily in the interests of the companies that do a lot of their production there. So what will the CEOs say to Obama about currency manipulation?
A particularly troubling aspect of the global business situation is the affect of the asymmetry of global political organization. In democratic Washington, for instance, the CEOs of these companies are major political players. They have their PACs, legions of lawyers and lobbyists, and ready access to the highest levels of government. Moreover, they can take the U.S. government to court anytime and win. In authoritarian Beijing, on the other hand, not only are the CEOs not political players, they need to pay careful attention to which way the winds are blowing. So in a funny way, they may have to be more responsive to the wishes of the authoritarian governments than to those of the democracies. And certainly it is easier for them to lay off workers and close facilities in the U.S. than it is in most other countries in which they operate including the EU and Japan.
This is not to say that Obama should not be meeting with them. Some CEOs like GE's Jeffrey Immelt seem to have had some second thoughts about off-shoring their production and have even brought some production back to the U.S. from abroad. So it will no doubt be informative for Obama to listen to what they all have to say. But he must do so with a clear understanding of the fact that his problems are not necessarily their problems and indeed may be the source of some of their success.
It would really help if the U.S. government had a clear articulation of the U.S. national economic interest. But it does not, and this is all the more reason for Obama to be non-committal about what he hears.
Indeed, rather than listening too much, the President ought to use this occasion to act like Chinese, Singaporean, Israeli, and French leaders and tell the CEOs that they really need to invest in America. He could remind them that when they need help in protecting their intellectual property and in protesting discriminatory policies abroad, it is not to the Chinese or E.U. or South Korean or other authorities to whom they turn for help. Rather it is to Washington. He could also remind them that more of their innovation comes out of U.S. laboratories and universities than anywhere else and that to keep it going more investment and U.S. based production is also necessary. He should make it clear that he'll be watching their investment announcements and that while he will strive to make America more attractive for their investments, he also expects the companies to do their best to make it or provide the service in America.
After all, what America makes (including services provision) makes America.
Clyde Prestowitz is president of the Economic Strategy Institute and author of The Betrayal of American Prosperity.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Critics of the Obama administration's approach to Middle East peace, a group that includes just about everyone who is paying attention, say that focusing on Israeli settlements for the last 2 years -- as opposed to "core issues" -- was the key mistake that hindered potential progress in other areas.
Instead, these folks say, Obama & co. should have focused on borders, because once the Israelis and Palestinians agreed on the outlines of a future Palestinian state, it would be clear what was a "settlement" and what was merely a suburb of Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put himself in this camp Monday, dismissing settlements as a "marginal" issue and calling instead for negotations to focus on -- you guessed it -- "core issues."
"To reach peace, we need to discuss the issues that are really hindering peace, the question of recognition, security, refugees and, of course, many other issues," he reportedly said in a speech just hours before meeting U.S. envoy George Mitchell.
One way to read those remarks is that Netanyahu is ready to roll up his sleeves. More likely, he has no intention of meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's demand to get serious and lay his cards on the table. Note that he did not mention borders at all. Instead, he appears to be reiterating his position that the Palestinians must explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which they refuse to do, that Israel needs to have control of the Jordan Valley, another nonstarter for the Palestinians, and that the Palestinians need to give up the "right of return" (this one is more reasonable) before he'll even think about trading land for peace.
In other words, don't expect the new, settlement-free U.S. approach to yield any more progress than the old one. What's more, even if the talks did focus on borders, where the parties are supposedly closer together, it wouldn't take very long for them to come back to areas where they're further apart... namely settlements and Jerusalem. Israel won't freeze the former, and Netanyahu has said he won't divide the latter, while Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their future capital.
The lesson here is that it's devlishly complicated to jerry-rig negotiations to avoid the tough topics, especially when neither side seems especially eager to do a deal. One can come up with all kinds of sophistry justifying one U.S. tactic or another, but if Israeli and Palestinian leaders aren't serious, and aren't feeling pressure from their own publics to make peace, then nothing will work.
Speaking in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Monday, President Barack Obama lamented America's stubbornly high unemployment and promised to outline for the gathered students a "vision that will keep our economy strong and growing and competitive in the 21st century."
There was applause as the students sat on the edges of their chairs in anticipation. Unfortunately, what followed only proved that the president should have gone to his eye doctor instead of the Winston-Salem. It was at best, a case of partial vision.
It began with a "recognition" that in the past few decades revolutions in technology and communications and the integration into the global economy of two billion new people in India and China had touched off fierce competition among nations for the industries and jobs of the future to replace the auto mechanics and machinists that Forsyth Technical Community College, where he was speaking, had been founded many years ago to produce. It continued with the argument that the winners of the competition would be the countries with the most educated workers, the most serious commitments to research, the best roads, bridges, high speed trains and airports, the fastest Internet connections, and the most innovation.
The president emphasized that the most important competition the United States faces is not the competition between Republicans and Democrats, but the competition between America and its economic competitors around the world. "That's the competition we've got to spend time thinking about," he stressed.
He went on to reassure the audience that America will win this competition because it has the world's best universities, smartest scientists, best research facilities, and most entrepreneurial people. Indeed, entrepreneurialism is "in our DNA" he said.
But then the vision became a bit cloudy. Despite the reassurances of American superiority, the president said the country is in danger of, indeed is, falling behind -- in high school graduation rates, the quality of math and science education, in the proportion of science and engineering degrees we hand out, in attracting research and development facilities compared to India and China, in R&D spending, and in Internet speed and connections.
Are you a little confused by how we could be falling so badly behind if we have the best universities, best research facilities, smartest scientists, and most entrepreneurial people? All I can tell you is that the president says we are facing in "Sputnik Moment", calling to mind the shock America felt in 1957 when the Russians launched the first earth satellite. To respond to this challenge, he emphasized that we must set the goal of "Made in America."
Hey, nothing wrong with that. At this point, I was cheering. He's the first president in my memory who has dared to say that we need to compete by actually making things. So I give the first half of the vision an A.
But then Obama turned to how we're going to come back and regain leadership by increasing education and R&D spending, improving our infrastructure, and doubling our exports by negotiating more free trade agreements like the one just concluded with Korea.
Aside from the Korea deal (which I'll address in a moment),these are all good things to do and we should do them. But doing them will not by itself reverse the decline in our competitiveness. Actually, the Korea deal illustrates both why this is true and why the president's vision is still impaired. South Korea's workforce is not better educated than America's. Nor does it spend more on R&D, nor is its labor inexpensive like that of China, and nor is it nearly as entrepreneurial. Yet the United States a growing trade deficit with South Korea and is far behind it in areas like liquid crystal displays, various kinds of semiconductors, cell phones, and much more.
What the Koreans do is target development of key industries with special financing and regulations and manage their currency to be undervalued versus the dollar as a kind of protection of the domestic market cum subsidy of exports, impede foreign penetration of domestic markets through a wide variety of formal and informal non-tariff barriers, fail to enforce intellectual property rights of foreign enterprises operating in South Korea, and make foreign investment in Korea extremely difficult as a practical matter.
I am not saying these things to attack South Korea. If these policies work, and they obviously do, South Korea has every right to keep them in place. But obviously Korea is engaging in a different kind of globalization than we are. And equally obviously, the president doesn't recognize that. Thus the president expects that this new free trade deal is going to increase U.S. exports to Korea and create 70,000 jobs in the U.S. But any deal that allows currencies to be managed in such a way as to stimulate exports and inhibit imports - to mention just one factor -- is not going to result in surging U.S. exports or in surging U.S. job creation.
The White House eye doctor needs to prescribe glasses that will allow the president to see the other half of the playing field and to recognize that he must play with a full deck of cards. More education and R&D? By all means, bring them on. But he also needs to respond to the industrial targeting, exchange rate, investment, and getting realistic about the globalization policies and practices of our economic competitors.
Clyde Prestowitz is president of the Economic Strategy Institute and author of The Betrayal of American Prosperity.
Is China through with North Korea? That's the Guardian's takeaway from the exchanges between American diplomats and their Chinese and South Korean counterparts in the first batches of State Department cables released by Wikileaks on Sunday and Monday. "China has signalled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime," Simon Tisdall writes, and goes on to note evidence of "China's shift:" Nods of approval from Chinese officials for a single Korea governed from Seoul, expressions of alarm from Beijing about Pyongyang's 2009 missile tests, and a Chinese official's complaint that Kim Jong-il's regime is behaving like a "spoiled child."
It's all in there -- but sifting through the Wikileaks cables, that reading strikes me as a bit breathless. It's true that there are a couple of significant nods toward the idea of reunification. One comes in a 2009 meeting between Richard E. Hoagland and Cheng Guoping, respectively the American and Chinese ambassadors to Kazakhstan, at a hotel restaurant in the capital city of Astana. (Hoagland, incidentally, is a great reporter -- his account of the meeting is some of the best reading in the Wikileaks files.) "When asked about the reunification of Korea," Hoagland writes, "Guoping said China hopes for peaceful reunification in the long-term, but he expects the two countries to remain separate in the short-term."
The other is some intelligence relayed from South Korean then-Vice Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo, who told U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens that Chinese officials "would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a ‘benign alliance' -- as long as Korea was not hostile towards China." The breaking point, Chun reportedly told Stephens, was North Korea's 2006 nuclear test, after which Chinese officials were increasingly willing to "face the new reality" that North Korea had outlived its usefulness as a buffer between Chinese and American forces. Chun (in Stephens's paraphrase) notes that the "tremendous trade and labor-export opportunities for Chinese companies" in a newly opened North Korea might would make reunification easier to swallow, and points out that in any case, "China's strategic economic interests now lie with the United States, Japan, and South Korea -- not North Korea."
Otherwise, Beijing's sharpest words -- such as Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei's remark that the Kim regime is acting like a "spoiled child" trying to get the attention of the "adult" United States -- came mostly in the wake of Pyongyang's April 2009 missile test, in the context of Beijing's efforts to engage Washington in bilateral talks with Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il's principal diplomatic goal at the time. Beijing's emissaries mostly just seem to be trying to keep the Americans at the table.
David E. Sanger's take in the New York Times better captures the essence of the cables, which is to say their ambiguity -- based on the selective evidence here, Beijing seems only somewhat less in the dark about what exactly is going on in Pyongyang than North Korea's enemies. Other corners of the Wikileaks trove are rich in plot and detail: the Obama administration's slow disenchantment with Turkey, byzantine Azeri-Iranian money laundering schemes, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh's entanglements with the U.S. military. The North Korean cables are mostly a lot of chatter around the edges of a giant question mark. As Sanger writes, they "are long on educated guesses and short on facts, illustrating why their subject is known as the Black Hole of Asia." The dominant mood of the Chinese diplomats who appear throughout them is exhaustion -- a sense, plenty familiar in Washington and Seoul, that no one really knows what to do next.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
In his new book, George W. Bush writes that he was under pressure not just from hawks in the United States to invade Iraq, but from Arab statesmen as well.
In a revealing passage, Bush writes that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt "told Tommy Franks that Iraq had biological weapons and was certain to use them on [American] troops," a VOA article highlights. Bush goes on to say that Mubarak "refused to make the allegation in public for fear of inciting the Arab street."
Additionally, Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who served as the influential Saudi ambassador to the United States for over 20 years and who Bush calls "a friend of mine since dad's presidency" also wanted a "decision" to be made -- although this seems less direct an indictment than "Iraq has biological weapons and will use them against you."
So while the Arab street was firmly opposed to American intervention in Iraq, Arab heads of states were quietly and secretly either encouraging or tacitly endorsing allegations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a fact that was directly being used as the principal justification for invading the country.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Napoleon always said he liked lucky generals. He would have loved Barack Obama. The president is so lucky that he now has the South Koreans doing the dirty work of saving him from committing political suicide by signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that would likely further increase both the U.S. trade deficit and the U.S. unemployment rate.
Reports from Seoul yesterday said the deal was essentially done and that Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak would meet their self-imposed deadline by inking the deal today (Thursday). But no, the Koreans, who have been relentlessly promoting this deal as essential to both Korea's future economic well-being and its national security, suddenly said they couldn't agree to a small increase in imports of U.S. beef or a slight relaxation of emissions rules for imports of small numbers of foreign auto imports.
Since, like China, South Korea already manipulates its currency and imposes a myriad of subtle bureaucratic regulations and informal agreements that make the Korean market one of the most closed in the world, one might wonder why Seoul couldn't agree to these two U.S. requests which would in no way result in any significant increase in Korean imports from the United States. But Obama should really thank his lucky stars for South Korea's economic paranoia because it may save him from his administration's own worst instincts.
I know we're all supposed to be free traders and that opposition to anything labeled free trade is strictly taboo. But really, does anyone truly believe that we have anything like free trade with South Korea? This is a country that, as a matter of policy encourages the infringement of foreign intellectual property, and whose courts routinely annul the Korean patents of foreign based companies.
Yes, the proposed deal would significantly reduce Korean tariffs and facilitate foreign investment in Korea and contains strong language on the protection of intellectual property. But if the courts won't enforce the language what is the point? And tariffs are not the real barriers to foreign penetration of the Korean market, especially since the Korean government can and does manipulate its currency to offset the effect of any tariff reductions. As for facilitating foreign investment in Korea, why do we especially want to do that when we need investment in the United States? Moreover, the proposed deal on investment as presently constituted actually allows the U.S. branches of Korean companies to take disputes over U.S. regulatory rulings and impacts out of the American legal system by appealing to the World Bank and the International Court.
Isn't that something? The United States has consistently refused to join the International Criminal Court on grounds of protecting national sovereignty, but was just on the verge of signing a trade deal that would enable foreign companies to evade the sovereignty of the U.S. legal system in certain disputes. I wonder if the Republicans who have been promoting the deal understand that.
But sovereignty is not really the main point; that would be jobs. Here, the deal fails utterly. Of course, there are lots of studies by the various think tanks around Washington. Not surprisingly they only prove that while figures don't lie, liars figure.
If you are for the deal, you can easily find a computer model that will confirm your view and vice versa. So let me put it in the words of one of the Korean negotiators whom I know and to whom I posed the question of whether, honestly between friends, he thought the deal would significantly increase U.S. exports to Korea or U.S. employment. His answer was an immediate "no." And no one who knows anything about doing business in Korea believes otherwise.
So let's hope Obama's lucky streak keeps holding, at least until he gets out of South Korea.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Image
As the G-20 talks get underway, we're thrilled to have Clyde Prestowitz guest-blogging for us over the next few days. Clyde is the president of the Economic Strategy Institute here in D.C. He served as counselor to the secretary of Commerce during the Reagan administration and as vice chairman of the President's Committee on Trade and Investment in the Pacific.
Be sure to check out his most recent book, The Betrayal of American Prosperity: Free Market Delusions, America’s Decline, and How We Must Compete in the Post-Dollar Era as well as his piece, Lie of the Tiger, from the November print issue of FP. -JK
First, Barack Obama was shellacked in last week's congressional elections. Then, the U.S. president was garlanded in India and Indonesia. Now he's in Korea, where he's about to be waterboarded by the G-20.
Oh sure, the G-20 will come up with some paper-over language that will allow everyone to sign on to some vague agreement that it might be a good idea to achieve global rebalancing at some undetermined time in the next century. But this is just what the Japanese would call tatemae -- the packaging or superficial appearance of things. The honne -- the truth or actuality -- is that whether he knows it or not, the U.S. president has arrived in Seoul to preside over the end of the Flat World.
In fact, the Obama administration is demonstrating a lot of schizophrenia about this. In India, Obama couldn't stop spouting the conventional wisdom about how international trade is always a win-win proposition and how those who express concern about the offshoring of U.S. services jobs to India are just bad old protectionists.
At the same time, however, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is calling for some kind of deal for the G-20 governments to take concrete actions to reduce their trade surpluses or deficits. To be sure, Geithner has quickly backpedaled from his original proposal that governments would set hard numerical targets for the allowable limits of surpluses and deficits at 4 percent of GDP. His first fallback position was that the numbers would be only voluntary targets or reference points. When that elicited a new round of incoming fire he retreated further to the current proposal for agreement that each country will take the measures it thinks necessary to reduce excessive surpluses and deficits. Hardly much of a deal at all.
Yet even this is a revolution. No matter how watered down, Geithner's proposal is a call for managed trade. It is an implicit admission that contrary to 50 years of the preaching of economists, trade deficits matter. Even bilateral trade deficits can matter if they are big enough because they distort capital flows and exacerbate unemployment in the deficit countries. Further, it is an admission that unfettered, laissez-faire free trade is not self-adjusting and therefore not really win-win.
This implicit admission by Geithner has been manifested even more strongly (but still implicitly) by some of our leading free-trade economists and pundits. Thus, Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner and long a champion of conventional free trade has called for tariffs on imports from China. So has Washington Post columnist and eternal free trader Robert Samuelson, and even the Financial Times' economics columnist Martin Wolf has suggested that some offsetting response to China's currency manipulation might be necessary.
But Obama isn't going to get agreement to any of that in Seoul. None of the other countries want to face the fact that the United States cannot be Uncle Sugar and the buyer of last resort forever. In fact, Obama has asked both the Germans and the Chinese to help out a bit by consuming more and exporting less. The Germans told him bluntly to get lost and the Chinese told him somewhat more politely to get lost. So the honne is that the Germans, because they're Germans, and the rest of Europe, because it is in terrible financial shape and can't borrow any more, are bent on creating jobs by dint of export-led growth. Essentially, they are saying they are going to create jobs by taking U.S. jobs. The Asians are saying and doing the same thing. Neither Asia nor Europe is likely to take steps that will achieve significant rebalancing in any reasonable period of time. That, of course, means no new jobs for Americans.
The big question is whether or not Obama will respond to that refusal by taxing foreign capital inflows, imposing countervailing duties on subsidized imports, matching the tax holidays and other investment incentives used by China and others to induce off-shoring of U.S. production, and challenging the mercantilist practices of many Asian countries in the World Trade Organization (WTO). These are all measures that he could take himself in an effort unilaterally to reduce the U.S. trade and current account balances and thereby create jobs for Americans.
If he does, he is sure to be harshly criticized by the apostles of the conventional wisdom. But if he doesn't he is sure to be toast in two years.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
Today's column is very strange. Apparently Broder thinks Obama can fix the economy by threatening a war with Iran:
With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.
I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.
In case it's not obvious, this is crazy for a number of reasons. One is that markets don't like tensions, and certainly not the kind that jack up oil prices. Second, World War II brought the United States out of the Great Depression because it was a massive economic stimulus program that mobilized entire sectors of society. Today's American military has all the tools it needs to fight Iran, and there isn't going to be any sort of buildup. Hasn't Broder been reading his own newspaper? The Pentagon is looking to find billions in cuts as it confronts the coming world of budget austerity.
I'll leave the question of whether Iran is truly "the greatest threat to the world" to others.
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