Obama Faces National Security Team Shakeup

A week after he won reelection, American president Barack Obama is confronted with having to replace several top members of his national-security team. Among them Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who previously indicated that she would not be serving a second term, and General David Petraeus, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan who became director of the Central Intelligence Agency in September of last year but resigned this week after an extramarital affair came to light.

Among Clinton’s possible successors are Susan Rice, currently the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, and Tom Donilon, the incumbent national security advisor. If either of them is appointed, it would open up another slot for replacement. Read more “Obama Faces National Security Team Shakeup”

Democrats Claim Foreign Policy Success at Convention

Republicans in the United States long enjoyed an advantage in popularity and trust on national-security issues. Conservatives were seen as more capable to conduct defense and foreign policy whereas Democrats preferred to campaign on domestic issues like education and health care.

In the 2012 election, Republicans could be losing that advantage. Whereas the party’s presidential candidate Mitt Romney hardly mentioned defense and foreign policy in his acceptance speech last week, instead focusing on improving the economy, speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina hammered their opponents on their perceived failures in the recent past. Read more “Democrats Claim Foreign Policy Success at Convention”

Top Democrat: We Could Have Deficit Deal

Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009
Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Members of the congressional “supercommittee” tasked with identifying more than a trillion dollars in deficit reduction took to the Sunday morning news shows to vent their differences as a deadline to reach compromise was periously close. According to Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the two sides could still reach a deal before Monday evening.

Kerry, a top Democrat, told NBC’s Meet the Press that Republicans had made “the calculation politically” to block a comprehensive deficit reduction effort “to wait until next year and just write their own deal.” Read more “Top Democrat: We Could Have Deficit Deal”

American Politics Divided on Growth Strategy

Despite an agreement to raise the nation’s legal debt limit in conjunction with future spending reductions, the major political parties in the United States remain deeply divided over the question how to best stir economic growth. Democrats have suggested more stimulus and tax hikes whereas Republicans insist on austerity. The political gridlock was cited by Standard and Poor’s as a reason for downgrading America’s creditworthiness last week. The two parties have blamed each other for the unprecedented move.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a former Democratic Party presidential candidate, blamed the downgrade on the Tea Party, a conservative minority in the House of Representatives that pushed for trillions in budget cuts but refused to consider revenue increases. Their intransigence “countered even the will of many Republicans in the United States Senate, who were prepared to do a bigger deal,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Some of these congressional freshmen, Kerry added, were actually willing to risk a default.

The almost inevitable downgrade of America’s credit rating by Standard and Poor’s also reminded Washington that its current deficit reduction plans fall short of balancing the books in the long term. Kerry recognized that the federal government would have to enact more than $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years to assure markets. But he also championed additional stimulus spending on infrastructure to save and create jobs.

Although private-sector hiring in July was slightly up, unemployment is still over 9 percent while millions of Americans are only able to find a part-time job.

Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — who chairs the House budget committee and is the architect of the opposition’s plans for fiscal consolidation — rejected another “demand sided” stimulus on Fox News Sunday which he believes could only resuscitate the economy, not hasten its recovery. Instead, he urged entitlement and tax reform to boost America’s competitiveness.

Ryan pointed out that unlike the president’s party, Republicans “passed a budget that would make debt peak in two years at 74.5 percent of GDP” and reduce the debt burden on the economy thereafter. “We put out a plan, very specific plan to address the situation, pay off the debt, balance the budget, reform the tax code to create jobs in the economy,” he added.

Unfortunately, our partners on the other side of the aisle, the president and the Senate, have always been unwilling to put a specific plan out there to address entitlements, specifically health-care entitlements.

By 2021, more than 50 percent of federal spending would have to be allocated to public pension and health support programs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Along with defense, interest payments on the debt and unemployment insurance, it would be nigh impossible for the federal government to continue to finance other domestic programs unless taxes are raised substantially.

The largest entitlement programs could not be solvent for the next generation unless they are significantly reformed soon. Medicare, which finances health care for the elderly, is expected to run out of money in 2024 while Medicaid, which subsidizes health care for the poor and is paid for through the states, is increasingly crowding out investment in other areas, including education and infrastructure.

The Social Security trust fund is projected to last until 2036 but once it is depleted, the annual payroll taxes that pay for the program will only be sufficient to cover 75 percent of the retirement benefits it is required to pay seniors.

Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan previously expressed support for Ryan’s budget plan, noting that with government borrowing over a third of what it spends, to find reductions, lawmakers should look for “not individual, piecemeal cuts or taxes,” but reconsider whole programs instead.

This Sunday, he stressed that the country would not be able to solve its debt problem without pain. “Cutting back on government spending will cause some contraction in economic activity,” he admitted. But tax increases could curtail growth even further.

The old central bankers also warned last year that businesses would not be likely to hire and expand “unless and until we can begin to lift [the] pall of uncertainty.” He reiterated that sentiment on Meet the Press this weekend.

“The evidence is reasonably strong,” Greenspan said, that as a result of new regulations, especially for the financial industry, corporate America is sitting on a pile of cash “in excess of $500 billion in liquid assets held in nonfinancial corporations” that it would invest if it had more confidence. Because it fears more state activism from the incumbent administration though, that capital is not put to work.

Debating the Future of US-Pakistani Relations

Osama bin Laden’s death last week at the hand of American special forces was a victory in the country’s War on Terror. The fact that the terrorist leader was living in the heartland of Pakistan highlighted a major impediment to that very war effort at the same time — the ability of insurgents to find safe haven with Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor.

Even former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf admitted to the “incompetence” of his country’s military and intelligence establishment this week when it turned out that bin Laden had lived for several years near an army base seventy miles northeast of Islamabad. Several American lawmakers wondered aloud whether the Pakistani intelligence service, which still maintains ties with the Afghan Taliban, didn’t shelter bin Laden.

National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon hadn’t seen “any information that would indicate foreknowledge by the political, military or intelligence leadership in Pakistan” however. He reminded ABC’s This Week that more people had died and more terrorists killed in and by Pakistan than anywhere else. “They have been an essential partner of ours in the war against Al Qaeda and in our efforts against terrorism,” he said.

More than 3,000 Pakistani soldiers and police have died in the fight against the Taliban and insurgents in the northwest of their country.

Even if some in Pakistan might have known about the terrorist leader’s whereabouts, Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, the number two senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, stressed that division within their government probably prevented higher ranking officials from learning the fact. He, along with committee chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts, dismissed calls to end the more than $1 billion in aid the United States send to Pakistan each year. Kerry, in fact, saw an “enormous opportunity” to reevaluate America’s relationship with Pakistan while admitting that the two nations’ interests not always converged.

The Pakistanis have had a different set of interests about India, a different set of interests about what kind of Afghanistan they want to see. They’re apprehensive about a 350,000 person army being built up in Afghanistan on their border. They have a different interest on nuclear weapons.

“All of that,” said Kerry on CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday morning, “has to change” and “can change.”

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed that America shouldn’t “cut off” Pakistan in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper earlier this week. “We’ve always known,” she said, “that there are elements of extremism in Pakistan and even in some of its institutions. There was a significant effort to purge some of those elements after 2001 by Musharraf and to get forces that had no links to extremism.”

The former Pakistani president, a career military officer, allowed the United States to gather intelligence on his soil and execute military strikes against suspected Taliban strongholds. He helped destroy the Taliban although Islamabad probably couldn’t have had an Afghan regime that was more compatible with its national interests.

The operation of what is largely a Punjabi army in predominantly Pashtun border provinces has pushed Pakistan onto the brink of civil war. The army’s offensives in the region displaced nearly half a million people. Until two years ago, the battle was confined to the tribal areas but since 2008, it has spread into Pakistan proper with bombings and assassinations taking place in major cities including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.

Since the United States are preparing to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014 — “come hell or high water,” according to Vice President Joe Biden — Pakistan has to prepare for the eventuality of a Taliban resurgence if not the emergence of an autonomous “Pashtunistan” occupying its tribal provinces in the near future.

Rice therefore warned against a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying, “We have to be very careful that we don’t leave the job unfinished so it becomes a safe haven again.” Avoiding that, she argued, involved modest “nation building” operations.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney similarly urged caution, pointing out on Fox News Sunday that during the late 1980s, “after we solved the Soviet problem, everybody left Afghanistan and […] ultimately the Taliban took control, Osama bin Laden showed up; it became a safe harbor.”

If we turn and walk away from Pakistan or Afghanistan or that part of the world generally, I’m fearful that we’re headed for trouble down the road.

Counterterrorism experts both within and outside of the administration have long insisted that the mere existence of sanctuaries across the border is undermining progress made in Afghanistan however where the Taliban remain active in the mountainous frontier region.

Contemplating America’s Options in Libya

As Libya’s longtime ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi clings to power, confrontations between rebels and supporters of the regime grew evermore violent this week. Heavy clashes occurred in the western city of Az Zawiyah, some forty miles west of Tripoli, on Saturday while anti-government militias claimed control of Ra’s Lanuf, a hub of the Libyan oil and petrochemical industries on the Mediterranean coast.

In Zawiyah, the government deployed tanks against protesters but air attacks appeared to have been limited to strategic targets in the east of the country. Rebels have nevertheless called upon the West to enforce a no-fly zone to allow them to advance on the capital where Gaddafi remained in power.

A notable supporter of American involvement is Arizona Senator John McCain who told ABC’s This Week on Sunday that his country “can’t risk allowing Gaddafi to massacre people from the air, both by helicopter and fixed-wing [aircraft].”

McCain favored enforcing a no-fly zone last week, suggesting that America should arm rebels and supply them with humanitarian assistance. He told Meet the Press that he wasn’t “ready to use ground forces” at the time, noting that the United States should make clear that “anyone who continues or is engaged in these kinds of barbarous acts is going to find themselves on trial in a war crimes tribunal.”

The International Criminal Court in The Hague launched an investigation this week but it hadn’t deterred Gaddafi from deploying military force against his antagonists.

Democrat John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rejected outright military intervention but didn’t believe enforcing a no-fly zone would amount to that. He suggested on CBS’ Face the Nation that America “crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time.”

The United States military has been hesitant however with defense secretary Robert Gates warning Congress on Wednesday that “a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.” He added that the navy would have to field more than the single aircraft carrier currently near Libyan waters to effectively mount such an operation.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that reports of Gaddafi deploying air force against his own people had not been confirmed. McCain responded to that remark on Friday, telling reporters that he assumed the Pentagon was “not completely up to speed.”

On This Week, the former Republican presidential contender argued that the “air assets that Gaddafi has are not overwhelming.” The Libyan air force consists of mostly Soviet era ground attack and bomber craft, only some of which are believed to be flyable.

Enforcing a no-fly zone and supporting a provisional government in the east of the country would send a powerful message to the regime that its days are numbered, said McCain. Gaddafi himself may be “insane,” he admitted, “but perhaps the people around him would begin to depart the sinking ship.”

Already senior members of the regime, including ministers and ambassadors, have publicly disavowed the colonel to side with the rebels. While Gaddafi appears cornered, “he obviously remains lethal,” said Kerry.

Both senators opposed putting American soldiers on the ground in Libya. “Ground intervention would not be appropriate,” according to McCain and could be counterproductive. Kerry agreed. “We don’t want troops on the ground. [The rebels] don’t want troops on the ground.”

Contemplating Egypt’s Political Future

As civil unrest continues to linger in the cities of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak is likely to be sidelined politically while his former intelligence chief and newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, leads the country into a phase of greater democracy. Whether the promised reforms will manage to satisfy protesters remains to be seen however. For now, thousands still gather to call for Mubarak’s immediate resignation.

There are American officials who would rather Mubarak remain in power for several months while the country prepares for free elections. The administration won’t publicly attest to that view. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly called for an “orderly transition” instead, noting that while political change can be tumultuous, it won’t happen instantly.

Even as the United States have been hesitant to embrace the protests, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, professed on Meet the Press this Sunday that President Barack Obama had been perfectly clear about his intentions. “The president wants change; wants it immediately; he wants it to be meaningful and he wants it to be orderly. Those are the terms that the president set out.”

Kerry said to support the efforts of Vice President Suleiman. He has been in dialogue with members of the opposition to lead Egypt through a period of transition. It hasn’t been clear though with whom exactly Suleiman is talking. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition party, hasn’t been involved in negotiations. The senator urged greater transparency on the part of the government.

What is important is that the Egyptian people understand that their demands are being met; that there will be an election; that it will be open, fair, free and accountable; and that they will have an opportunity to go to the polls and choose their future.

Former secretary of state James Baker agreed that the process needed to be more transparent. “There does have to be time for political parties to form,” he said on the same program. Whether Mubarak stays on as president for several more months isn’t that relevant, he said. “The important thing here is that the process is moving in the direction it ought to move.”

One of Baker’s successors at the State Department, Madeleine Albright, agreed that the democratization process was important and added on CNN’s State of the Union that the United States cannot “micromanage” it.

The fear with American and Israeli officials is that extremists, including radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, could take advantage of the situation and take over the Egyptian government. “The question is what the army would do,” said Albright. Egypt’s armed forces are well respected among all segments of the population and the largest in the region.

For thirty years, Mubarak pointed at the dangers of Islamic fanaticism to legitimize his regime. Albright said that there is actually a third way. “There are rising groups within Egypt that are working out a mechanism to go to the next phase.” The huge demonstrations that took place throughout Egypt last week, she suggested, were proof of that.

Republicans Agree to New START with Russia

After several months of procrastinating, Republicans in the United States Senate voted to enact the New START treaty with Russia Wednesday. The vote is a welcome victory for Democrats who will see their numbers decimated in Congress next year as a result of November’s midterm elections.

Before the vote took place the only opposition member who had publicly endorsed the nuclear arms reduction treaty was Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He appeared on ABC’s This Week Sunday along with Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts to stress that START was instrumental in advancing relations with the Russians. The administration so far has been able to gather but lukewarm support from Moscow for sanctions against suspected nuclear weapons proliferators as Iran and North Korea. “To throw away all of those opportunities simply because some feel the Russians are no longer relevant […] seems to me is an illogical stance,” said Lugar, “but we’re hearing a lot of that.”

Kerry and Lugar were eventually able to find thirteen Republican senators to ratify New START, three more than necessary. Prominent opponents of the treaty, including Jon Kyl and John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, voted against ratification. They said to fear that by further downsizing America’s nuclear arsenal while undertaking limited missile defense modernization efforts, deterrence may be undermined.

All 56 Democratic senators voted yes as did Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman and Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders.

The defection of thirteen Republicans was another blow to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. According to Politico, McConnell, for the past two years, maintained iron discipline over his forty member conference, mustered a mostly united opposition against the White House and helped define the GOP as “the party of no” in the eyes of critics.

But in the waning days of the 111th Congress the White House and Democrats think they have finally found a crack in Fortress McConnell. On two critical pieces of legislation — the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military and the START treaty with Russia — Republican moderates defied their leadership and backed two major priorities of President Barack Obama.

The Minority Leader was successful in other regards however. He forced the administration to extend tax rates for the wealthiest of Americans, defeated a $1.2 trillion omnibus spending bill as well as an act that would have granted citizenship to the children of illegals. There is no question though that in the next Congress, McConnell will find himself squeezed between an incoming class of emboldened conservatives with a Tea Party tinge and the eight to twelve moderates who showed their independence on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and New START.

John Kerry on Mission in the Middle East

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, former Democratic presidential candidate, has emerged as something of an unofficial envoy of the Obama Administration’s in recent months. In his capacity as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has visited the Middle East several times, notably Syria where the United States have no ambassador.

The senator has been touring the region once again this week, visiting Turkey where he spoke with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey previously negotiated a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran in conjunction with Brazil and is expected to host international talks between Iran and the West on its alleged nuclear weapons program soon. Read more “John Kerry on Mission in the Middle East”