Posted on March 26, 2013 in Countdown

Countdown Vol. 11, No. 15

Mixed Opinions on Obama's Middle East Trip

President Obama has returned to Washington from his trip to the Middle East last week, and reactions have been decidedly mixed. Obama seemed to genuinely impress and charm the Israeli public, succeeding in sending the message that he has a real understanding of Israeli history and culture. He hit all the right notes, using increasingly bellicose language against Iran and never pushing too hard for Israel to end its settlement project in the West Bank. Reaction from the Palestinian side was much less positive, perhaps reflecting the few hours the President spent in the West Bank compared to the two days he passed in Israel. We also think it might be the continued occupation with no end in sight. For example, Palestinians resent the fact that Obama came to the region with no concrete plan to restart peace talks, and that the main purpose of the trip seemed to be to be reassuring Israelis when the situation of the Palestinians is much more dire. The president did, however, deliver an unprecedented message about the need for Palestinian statehood in his speech to the Israeli public, saying Israelis need to try to see the world through Palestinian eyes and recognize their "right to self-determination, their right to justice." Despite some car troubles, Obama managed to score one concrete victory: convincing Israel and Turkey to restore diplomatic relations, broken since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. No such breakthrough looks to be in the Palestinians’ future.

Helping Iraqis Who Helped Us

In 2008, Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa for Iraqis who aided the US during the Iraq War. The program was created to expedite the process of bringing those who risked their lives to help the US military here to the United States. But since the program’s creation, the State Department has only issued about 5,500 of the 25,000 possible visas. That’s exactly 22%, not exactly a passing grade by most ranking standards. There are thousands of Iraqis whose lives are undoubtedly still at risk or whose identities were compromised and potentially killed for working with the US, and the very program that was created to keep them safe and reward them for their service has left them out to dry. And now, the visa waiver program is set to expire in September. Fortunately, though, a bipartisan congressional letter signed by 19 members of Congress was sent to the president asking him to both extend and reform the visa program for both Iraqis and Afghans working with US forces. The ball is in the President’s court now, and that’s just the way he likes it. But hope might not be the only way to bring about change in this case; we need to push lawmakers to do the right thing. 

Understanding Bachmann

We know, sounds like a terrible movie title, but we’re really starting to believe that Michele Bachmann is misunderstood. Perhaps one of the most regularly featured members of Congress in Countdown, (and we thought for good reason) Bachmann has been no stranger to controversy. Who can blame us, though, for not being able to resist such an interminable blend of dim-wittedness and downright ignorance? We didn’t do it for pleasure, but rather to keep you informed on important developments regarding members of Congress. So what’s the latest misunderstanding in the never-ending Bachmann saga? Well, the Minnesota member who still sits on the House Committee on Intelligence - and yes, still has access to our country’s most sensitive secret information - is facing an ethics probe for allegedly misusing PAC money to pay campaign staff during her failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination. Though we aren’t privy to the details of the probe and the evidence is not out, we’re sure this is just a classic mix up. After all, this is probably just like the time we all misunderstood Bachmann when we thought she was baselessly accused high-ranking government officials of being secret agents for the Muslim Brotherhood. Poor Bachmann, no one understands her.

Some Significant Shifts on Syria

This week brought a number of important developments in the Syrian civil war. An important piece in yesterday’s New York Times revealed that the CIA has been providing logistical support to a joint effort to arm Syrian rebel forces that involves Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan. The revelation that the CIA is assisting these flights shows that the Obama Administration’s claims that it will not arm the rebels rest on semantic distinctions between the US and its Arab allies.  The President is also feeling pressure from Congress to do more to assist the rebels. The Chairman of the House Intelligence (the name doesn’t refer to the committee’s membership) Committee, Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, recently called for the US to “act” (he declines to say in what way we should act) in Syria in response to unproven allegations of chemical weapons use. Lindsay Graham and Carl Levin have also urged Obama to explore military options. Inside Syria, the main opposition organization also seems to be in upheaval. Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition, resigned over the weekend, though the SNC has rejected his resignation and he has continued to represent the organization in meetings this week. In addition to that, one of the first defectors from the Syrian military, Riad al-Assad, was wounded in a bomb attack as he toured rebel-held territory. Despite the popularity of armed solutions in Congress, Syria needs tents, medicine and food much more than it needs more weapons. Whew! Get all that?    

Iraq: Looking Back and the School Yard Case for War

The ten year anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq has prompted a flurry of retrospection about how that conflict reshaped our country, our politics and the decade that followed. Some in the media who vocally supported the war, like Ezra Klein and Andrew Sullivan, have issued apologies, while others, like Fred Hiatt’s Washington Post editorial page, which was a prominent cheerleader for the invasion, have not reflected, much less apologize. Among the war’s architects, including men like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and most of all, George W. Bush, no such introspection has emerged. This is a major failure of the American political system, especially given that failing to examine the mistakes made in the run-up to the Iraq War makes it more likely that those mistakes will be repeated in our present standoff with Iran. Marc Lynch calls attention to another shortcoming in the war retrospectives: they come almost exclusively from an American perspective. Iraqi voices are almost totally absent, despite the fact that Iraqis were overwhelmingly the victims of the war’s violence. If anything positive can be learned from the Iraq experience, it should be a wariness of preemptive wars based on suspicions about nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, that lesson seems to have gone unlearned in the American political class. Our favorite rationale behind the invasion of Iraq: “Saddam deliberately led us to believe he had and was concealing weapons of mass destruction.” That was Richard Perle on NPR last week making the school yard case for Iraq: “Saddam made us do it!” 

The Future Role of Drones in Counterterrorism

The debate surrounding the administration’s vast drone program has focused primarily on civil rights and the constitutional overreach of the executive branch on targeted killings. But reports of a secret letter from a panel of White House advisors to President Obama warns that extensive focus on targeted killings and drone strikes may actually be compromising the intelligence community’s ability to perceive terrorist threats from elsewhere. The letter, propagated by newly-confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and former senator David L. Boren who sits on the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, is mainly significant in that it could be the first signal of a shift in the administration’s allocation of resources for counterterrorism operations. The use of drones in counterterrorism could be questioned. Don’t get too excited, though, there are no signs that the not-so-secretive drone program the administration has been relying for some time now is going anywhere. We hope the panel’s findings will resonate with the President because as bad as the drone program is, continuing to fund a program which not only gives the administration too much power and has victimized innocent civilians, but also takes away from real threats to our nation, is just plain crazy.


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