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Archive | Commentary

Select Committee on Benghazi Needed for Answers

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Cliff Owen/AP Photo
Cliff Owen/AP Photo

Cliff Owen/AP Photo

The State Department needed to protect Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, but instead turned a blind-eye on that fateful night in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, when brutal Islamists killed the ambassador and three other Americans. This is a serious matter that needs answers, since the credibility of the White House and State Department are on the line.

After Muammar Gadhafi’s downfall, in the chaos that followed, extra security precautions should have been taken by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service. The U.S.-led incursion into Libya in 2011 to oust Col. Gadhafi led to an unstable environment. Intelligence sources knew that Islamists affiliated with al-Qaeda had infiltrated the region and were taking control of large swaths of eastern Libya. The interim government did not have the capability to provide protection for our diplomats.

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The Obama Administration has itself to Blame for Renewed Benghazi Scrutiny

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Jason Reed/Reuters
Jason Reed/Reuters

Jason Reed/Reuters

The renewed controversy over the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi terrorist assaults reinforces two broad criticisms made of Mr. Obama. The first is that his foreign policy decision-making is heavily shaped by a national security inner team, drawn largely from the young staffers in his 2008 presidential campaign, that habitually subjects policy to political machinations. The second is that this team presides over an especially defective policy apparatus.

As noted in earlier posts, these are charges even former administration staffers and otherwise sympathetic pundits advance. As Vali Nasr, who worked on AfPak issues in the first term, argues in his new book, The Dispensable Nation, that, “[T]he president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans [emphasis added].”

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Navigating Syria: The Impossible, Indispensable Mission

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Syrian rebels evacuating Homs's old city by buss. Source: Twitter

I unfriended another Facebook friend this week. It may seem to be a trivial matter, but for me, it is not.

Syrian rebels evacuating Homs's old city by buss. Source: Twitter

Syrian rebels evacuating Homs’s old city by buss. Source: Twitter

The reason behind my action was Syria. As in Egypt, Syria has instigated many social media breakups with people whom, until then, were regarded with a degree of respect and admiration. But this is not a social media affair. The problems lie at the core of the Syrian conflict, with all of its manifestations, be they political, sectarian, ideological, cultural, or intellectual. While on the left (not the establishment left of course) Palestine has brought many likeminded people together, Egypt has fragmented that unity, and Syria has crushed and pulverized it to bits.

Those who cried over the victims of Israeli wars on Gaza, did not seem very concerned about Palestinians starving to death in the Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. Some squarely blamed the Syrian government for the siege that killed hundreds, while others blamed the rebels. Some writers even went further, blaming the residents of the camp. Somehow, the refugees were implicated in their own misery and needed to be collectively punished for showing sympathy to the Syrian opposition.

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Budget Uncertainty puts America’s National Security Interests at Risk

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A U.S. Marine uses an interpreter during a patrol in Sahtut, Afghanistan

Last week the House Committee on Armed Services began the legislative process for crafting the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, with several subcommittee meetings scheduled before the full committee markup on May 7.

A U.S. Marine uses an interpreter during a patrol in Sahtut, Afghanistan

A U.S. Marine uses an interpreter during a patrol in Sahtut, Afghanistan

Congressional budget battles, which, lately, seem to be a never-ending exercise in futility, will intensify. Budget discussions and markup efforts will reflect a political landscape defined by the upcoming mid-term elections in November and resultant political campaign posturing. This reality adds fodder to the uncertainty of the budget process outlook, and suggests that congressional efforts may culminate in the eventual passage of a continuing resolution, as has become the politically convenient solution in recent years. While Congress continues to hem and haw, defense contractors appear to be navigating uncertain waters and mitigating uncertain budgetary futures by reining in expenditures, reducing employee overheard and implementing cost reduction initiatives to keep fickle investors at bay. Recent quarterly earnings appear to substantiate the industry-wide fears and consequent cutbacks.

Boeing (NYSE:BA), a multinational, American-based aerospace company, had a 6 percent decline in sales from $8.1 to $7.6 billion in its Defense, Space & Security business unit. Overall, the company did see an increase of 8 percent in revenue during the first quarter, but that gain comes as a result of a nearly 20 percent uptick in its commercial aviation division. General Dynamics (NYSE: GD), a major aerospace and defense company, sustained a 15.2 percent drop in revenues for its combat systems business unit over this quarter last year. Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), a leading global security company, also took a hit, with sales down 4.2 percent from $6.1 billion to $5.85 billion, over last year. And Raytheon (NYSE: RTN), a technology company specializing in defense and homeland security solutions, sustained a 6 percent drop in sales compared to this quarter in 2013.

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Narendra Modi’s Challenge

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Narendra Modi pictured here campaigning in Mumbai. Source: Narendra Modi

India, with a population of 1.2 billion, is diverse with Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other religious groups. It is the largest democracy in the world, holding free and fair elections during the past sixty-seven years, ever since the country gained independence from the British.

Narendra Modi pictured here campaigning in Mumbai. Source: Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi pictured here campaigning in Mumbai. Source: Narendra Modi

Rashtriya Swayamsekak Sangh (RSS), or National Patriotic Organization, is a right-wing Hindu paramilitary, volunteer organization. The RSS was founded in 1925 as an educational group to train Hindu men, to unite the Hindu community. RSS members participated in the Indian independence movement. However, the RSS view of a Hindu majoritarian India is at odds with most Indians. RSS fuels religious conflict, it has a history of inciting and participating in anti-Muslim riots. The RSS claims to uphold Indian culture and its civilization (read Hindu). The RSS was banned by the Indian government in 1948 when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a former RSS member, and again in 1992, after Hindu mobs, some of them from the RSS, demolished Babri Masjid, an ancient mosque built by the Mughals some four hundred and sixty-years ago.

RSS commands respect among many Hindus for its non-political work, such as charities and disaster relief. It has a network of 18,000 schools and clubs to spread its ideology. In addition, a political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) arose from the RSS cadres. Throughout these many decades, RSS remained the ideological mentor of the BJP. Narendra Modi joined the RSS as a young man and rose through its ranks by sheer grit and hard work. His mentors, impressed by his leadership qualities, encouraged him to play a role in the BJP wing of Gujarat State. Mr. Modi, now 63, is the Chief Minister of Gujarat State. He is one of the longest serving Chief Ministers in India, and very popular in his state. His economic policies have benefited Gujarat, resulting in a high rate of growth of about 10% during the past ten years.

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Letting the Rapist in the House: The U.S.-RP Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement

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President Barack Obama during a joint presser with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III

“We Do Not Want Filipinos, We Want the Philippines.” – San Francisco Argonaut, 1902

President Barack Obama during a joint presser with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III

President Barack Obama during a joint presser with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III

The cloakroom of hegemony can be a heavily stocked one. There are variations in style, dress and material – but at the end of the day, the accent is unmistakable. Imperial wear remains just that, an ominous warning to those who taste it, and those who would love it. In the context of Washington’s move into the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), cloaked hegemony is again giving its ugly strut in the country.

Activists who campaigned for years to remove the US military presence from the country now face a reversal of those gains under President Benigno Aquino. That it should be the son turning back the legacy of the mother, Corazón Aquino, would seem to make it a suitable topic for tragic drama. In a more concrete sense, the agreement would tend to constitute a glaring breach of the Philippines constitution of 1987, which disallows the presence of foreign military bases and troops. In 1992, US military bases were dismantled, less to do with Washington’s embrace of peaceful demobilisation than the Philippine Senate’s resolution of 1991 to end Washington’s leases on the bases.

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Why Does Anyone Care what Mahmoud Abbas thinks about the Holocaust?

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo: Olivier Pacteau

Today is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day fraught with the worst types of historical memory for many Jews around the world.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo: Olivier Pacteau

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo: Olivier Pacteau

In a reversal of Abba Eban’s famous witticism about the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has seized the opportunity presented by the day to dub the Holocaust the most heinous crime in modern history, which is significant given his extensive history of Holocaust denial, most prominently in his doctoral dissertation. In the past, Abbas has written that fewer than one million Jews were killed by the Nazis and that the Holocaust was enabled by the Zionists, who plotted with the Nazis to exterminate European Jewry in order to encourage Jewish immigration to Palestine. The New York Times portrays Abbas’s new statement as a significant shift in his thinking, while Yair Rosenberg over at Tablet argues that Abbas has not actually said anything to indicate that his views have changed, as Abbas can simultaneously believe that the Holocaust is the most heinous crime in modern history and that Zionist Jews were themselves responsible for it.

Whatever one’s views are of Abbas’s latest statement and whether it is indeed an evolution or simply artful obfuscation, the big takeaway is that Abbas’s take on the Holocaust is being widely interpreted through the prism of the peace process. For optimists – in what can only be termed as the soft bigotry of low expectations – Abbas’s willingness to condemn the Holocaust is a signal that he is a true partner for peace. For pessimists – in what can only be termed as shifting the goalposts – Abbas’s condemnation of the Holocaust no longer matters because he has agreed to a reconciliation deal with Hamas, which certainly does not recognize or acknowledge the singular evil of the Holocaust. Bibi Netanyahu, for instance, yesterday explicitly used Abbas’s pact with Hamas to negate his Holocaust declaration, and dismissed the entire thing as a public relations stunt.

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The Moral Crisis at the Heart of Obama’s Mid-East Peace Effort

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U.S.-Islamic World Forum
U.S.-Islamic World Forum

U.S.-Islamic World Forum

To understand how thoughtless the US latest ‘peace process’ drive has been, one only needs to consider some of the characters involved in this political theater. One particular character who stands out as a testament to the inherently futile exercise is Martin Indyk. Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, was selected by Secretary of State John Kerry for the role of Special Envoy for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Under normal circumstances, Kerry’s selection may appear somewhat rational. Former ambassadors oftentimes possess the needed expertise to navigate challenging political landscapes in countries where they previously served. But these are not normal circumstances, and Indyk is hardly a diplomat in the strict use of the term.

As the US-sponsored peace process began to falter, Kerry made a peculiar move by dispatching his envoy Indyk to Jerusalem. On Friday, April 18, Indyk took on the task of speaking to both sides separately. International media depicted the event as a last ditch effort to revive the talks, and to help bridge the gap between the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. The envoy visit took place a day after intense and difficult talks were reported to have taken place between Israeli and PA negotiators. “No breakthrough was made,” an official Palestinian source told AFP of the Thursday meeting. It was not that any progress was expected. Both sides are not talking about resolving the conflict per se, but the deliberations were mostly concerned with deferring Kerry’s deadline for a ‘framework agreement,’ slated for April 29.

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Ahmadinejad is Gone, and so is Ahmadinejadism!

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's former president, speaking at the Natanz nuclear facility

Hassan Rouhani has been Iran’s president since June of last year and it is useful to examine the legacy of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's former president, speaking at the Natanz nuclear facility

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s former president, speaking at the Natanz nuclear facility

For those who have come to believe that Iran is the country dominated by anti-Semites or Holocaust-deniers, I think the most categorical response is what Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Christine Pelosi, in a Twitter exchange on September 5, 2013: “Iran never denied it [the Holocaust]. The man who did is now gone. happy new year.”

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected as Iran’s president in June of 2005, neither I nor any journalist or political expert in Iran had a clear idea of what his foreign policy would be. Domestic and economic policies are not the subject of our discussions here. As time went by, it became clear that Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy was based on no single principle, but adventurism, ultra-idealism and frantic decisions that would render him a publicity stunt rather than a chief executive.

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Video of Russian Lt. Colonel in Ukraine not Quite the Smoking Gun

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Will this turn out to be the smoking gun?

Feelings are running high about Russia’s campaign of pressure and destabilization in Ukraine.

Will this turn out to be the smoking gun?

And perhaps not surprisingly foreign journalists and pundits sympathetic to Kyiv are eager to pounce on anything which appears to offer proof about the much-discussed but surprisingly elusive direct Russian role. As a result, sometimes pictorial or video evidence is being taken at face value when it needed a little more cautious scrutiny: witness the video purportedly of Russian soldiers in Ukraine being blocked by plucky Ukrainians, which turned out to be Ukrainian troops being harangued by ethnic Russian militants. (The uniforms were a give-away then.)

The latest “smoking gun” is a video in which a man in Russian camouflage introduces himself to the defecting Horlivka police as a lt. colonel in the Russian army and introduces them to their new chief. So far, so straightforwardly damning. However, while this may appear to the holy grail of proof, I’m afraid that I think it ought to be taken with some caution.

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How the Middle East Peace Process went ‘Poof’

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State Dept. Photo
State Dept. Photo

State Dept. Photo

Poor John Kerry. This week he emitted a sound that was more expressive than pages of diplomatic babble. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee he explained how the actions of the Israeli government had torpedoed the “peace process.” They broke their obligation to release Palestinian prisoners, and at the same time announced the enlargement of more settlements in East Jerusalem. The peace efforts went “poof.”

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The Poverty Incentive: Making the Poor Carry the Refugee Can

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Sharon Tisdale
Sharon Tisdale

Sharon Tisdale

The poorer you are, the more likely you need to shoulder more. This axiomatic rule of social intercourse, engagement and daily living is simple and brutal enough: the poor shall hold, conserve, preserve. The rich will thrive on that principle and forge ahead on backs, shoulders and general supports. History is replete with that principle: tithes, feudalism, taxes, excises, tariffs, the consumer tax provide the sweet rescue for the wealthily insecure. It is not those who have who must give – they, rather, demand that those who don’t have take their place in answering the question.

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An Open Letter to Aung San Suu Kyi

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Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Claude TRUONG-NGOC

“Muslims have been targeted, but also Buddhists have been subjected to violence. But there’s fear on both sides and this is what is leading to all these troubles and we would like the world to understand: that the reaction of the Buddhists is also based on fear.” – Aung San Suu Kyi

Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Claude TRUONG-NGOC

Dear Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi,

Thanks in part to the Internet, I have the luxury of writing this open letter to you.

Last month, at the third Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), you met with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Both of you discussed various issues, such as the importance of providing micro-loans to rural women and drug trafficking in the region. It was encouraging to hear that steps are being taken for the betterment of the entire region.

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How to Read Vladimir Putin

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Putin is a statist who wants to safeguard a strong and great Russia. Photo: AFP

It was the sinking of the Russian submarine, the Kursk, in 2000 that first prompted Vladimir Putin to reveal critical elements of his personality to the world.

Putin is a statist who wants to safeguard a strong and great Russia. Photo: AFP

Since then, the Western media have generally characterised him as a heartless bully bent on challenging the West. While various Western experts claim to have insight into Putin’s thinking, in reality, few do. A big part of the reason is that so few view Putin through the prism of his upbringing, and Russian history, which is critical to getting Putin right.

By Western standards, he came from nothing. Excelling at judo presented Putin with his first opportunity to become something more than an average kid living in communal housing. During his martial arts training, he became more reactionary and disciplined. He calculated manoeuvres on the mat, waiting patiently to take an opponent down, which made his mind more focused and goal-oriented. Like so many Russians raised during the Soviet era, Putin was driven by opportunity, which is not the same as greed, but rather, a survival instinct.

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Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer

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President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

This old cliché is still apropos in President Barrack Obama’s saber-rattling standoff with President Vladimir Putin.

President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

In Europe last week Mr. Obama said that Russia was a declining “regional power.” In seizing Crimea, Mr. Putin was expanding Russia’s influence over Ukraine–part of the lost former Soviet Empire–was the inference. I am sure Mr. Putin is still fuming over those remarks. For the U.S. the annexation of Crimea is not a national security threat as was the Cold War era. Containing Russia’s further incursion into Ukraine is important however the most pressing foreign security issues are the control of Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical stockpile. Mr. Putin is the key to both issues.

Mr. Obama needs to spend time with Mr. Putin, to better understand his goals–at least his thinking. The Crimea takeover could have been averted. Reversing its integration into the Russian Empire probably will not happen. Western allies wringing their hands and seeking punishing sanctions will not change the takeover. What we don’t want to do is push Mr. Putin into annexing Ukraine. This would begin a more regional conflict and draw in neighboring countries.

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