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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Not Waiting For Petraeus

What's left of the Republican Party in the Northeast is once again feeling anxious about the war in Iraq. They've been told over and over by party leaders to "wait until September." Well, September is here and six House Republicans don't need to hear from General Petreaus in order to make up their minds.

"Next week, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will submit a very important report to Congress regarding efforts to quell violence and reach political compromise in Iraq," they state in a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner. "While we are hopeful that their report will show progress, we should not wait any longer to come together in support of a responsible post-surge strategy to safely bring our troops home to their families."

The letter was signed by GOP Reps. Mike Castle, Phil English, Scott Garrett, Jim Gerlach, Charlie Dent, Thomas Petri and House Democrats John Tanner, Tim Mahoney, Allen Boyd, Bob Brady and Dennis Cardoza, leaders of the party's Blue Dog wing.

Despite a relentless PR campaign to sell the surge, increased GOP defections spell more bad news for the White House, as moderate Republicans join with conservative Democrats in calling for a "bipartisan strategy to stabilize the country and bring our troops home."

Bloomberg's Poverty Party

Written and reported by Matthew Blake:

One might expect that a briefing on the latest federal poverty data by an ostensibly liberal Washington, DC think tank would explore some of the root causes of poverty in the country---broken social services, AIDS and other diseases not being treated, record-high incarceration rates. It would also seem timely to mention the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and what it revealed about poverty in America.

But the Brookings Institution's "Poverty and Income in 2006" event in Washington today--coinciding with the release of the US Census Bureau's annual data on poverty--mentioned none of those things. Instead, bizarrely enough, it became a celebration of all things Michael Bloomberg, even edging into an impromptu event to draft the New York City Mayor to run as a third party candidate for President.

Brookings Senior Fellow and moderator Ron Haskins set the tone by stating, "A lot of people in Washington talk about poverty, but only mayors and governors do." Therefore, Sawhill concluded, Bloomberg "is the perfect public official" to be the first keynote speaker in the event's seven year history.

Bloomberg began by praising Brookings for being an institute above partisan politics, made a joke about how he was not running a stealth campaign for Attorney General and then launched into a 15-minute speech---about New York City education policy.

He finally got around to directly addressing poverty, rhetorically asking the crowd "How do you do it?" Bloomberg has presented himself as an alternative to the Republican right, but the former Democrat-turned Republican-turned Independent was quick to show that he's no liberal, either. "You can't fightpoverty without fighting the principle causes, which are poor education and dependence on government," he said. In respect to the latter, Bloomberg alleged that the 1996 federal Welfare Reform Act is the prime example of government effectively establishing the proper incentives in helping its most vulnerable citizens.

"It's about breaking taboos like requiring mothers to work," Bloomberg said in reference to both the Welfare Reform Act and his own city policy to give the newly employed $150 a month in cash if they stay on the job. "You have to stick your neck out and try policies even if its results are unknown."

Bloomberg's poverty policy in question includes expanding the earned income tax credit in ways he hopes will end the "marriage penalty" and giving the aforementioned "conditional cash payments" to adults who obtain and keep new jobs. It garnered the adulation from Sawhill and the other assembled Brookings fellows who spoke when Bloomberg---and about 300 of the assembled crowd of 400---left.

"About Michael Bloomberg's proposals--I would just say amen," said Rebecca Blank, an economist and visiting fellow at Brookings. "I agree with it completely."

Senior Fellow Gary Burtless echoed Blank's words: "I think Michael Bloomberg is absolutely right in his proposal."

In the spirit of intellectual diversity, Brookings invited conservative commentator Robert George, whose New York Post columns have been caustically critical of the Mayor's conditional cash payment proposal. But even George had kind words for the Mayor, light-heatedly asking whether Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel or former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn would be his Presidential running mate.

Leaving the national press club, this reporter was swarmed by advocates with "Draft Bloomberg" posters and business cards. No word yet on whether they also received fellowships at Brookings.

Warner Buys Bush Time

Senator John Warner's call yesterday for an "orderly and carefully planned withdrawal" from Iraq is being read in Washington as yet another devastating blow to President Bush's Iraq policy. Certainly Warner's latest statement, coming just a few weeks before the much-awaited "progress report" from General David Petraeus, is not good news for the President. But it's not entirely bad, either.

Warner did not call for a timetable to end the war. He did not push for US troops to leave in a reasonable amount of time, such as a year. He only asked President Bush to begin a "symbolic" pullout of 5,000 troops by Christmas.

It's worth remembering that the US had 130,000 troops in Iraq last fall before adding 30,000 more in the "surge." So withdrawing 5,000 troops doesn't even come close to getting the US back to pre-surge levels. If Bush followed Warner's advice, he could brag about having a plan to end the war while doing nothing of the sort--like Nixon did in Vietnam. You can imagine this White House, Nixonian in so many ways, drawing up such a head fake as we speak.

By this point in time, Warner should know that President Bush is likely incapable of ending the war he started, especially if given wide latitude on how and when to do so. If Warner was serious about getting our troops out of harm's way, he'd make his symbolic withdrawal number far more concrete.

Hillary Silent on Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch's takeover of the Wall Street Journal this week is drawing the ire of some Democrats running for President.

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd called the deal "a serious threat to our democracy." John Edwards urged fellow Democrats to oppose and block the merger and refuse campaign contributions from News Corp execs.

But the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, hasn't said a peep. Perhaps that's because Clinton has been courting the Aussie billionaire since she became a New York Senator---and vice versa. Murdoch threw a lavish fundraiser for her at the News Corp tower last year. And he and son James, the heir apparent, both wrote big checks to Clinton's presidential campaign this June. Nine News Corp executives have thus far given a total of $20,900 to Clinton this election cycle.

She calls him "smart and effective." He calls her "a good Senator" and "very, very gutsy originally on the war in Iraq."

So you see, the Journal is not Murdoch's only recent prize.

Saying No To Bush & Saudis

At least one high-profile presidential candidate has come out against the Bush Administration's proposed $20 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

"Congress needs to stand firm against the president," John Edwards said in a press release this week. "The administration's proposed arms deal with Saudi Arabia isn't in the long-term interests of our country or the region. This deal has serious shortcomings--it doesn't force Saudi Arabia to stop terrorists from going into Iraq, make a real effort to help stabilize Iraq, lead regional security talks or assure the arms will not be used for offensive purposes. Congress should do the right thing and block the deal."

A group of Democrats in the House are preparing to introduce legislation to block the deal "the minute Congress is officially notified," according to Reps. Jerry Nadler and Anthony Weiner. Democrats picked up their first GOP co-sponsor when New Jersey Republican Mike Ferguson announced his opposition to the deal on Tuesday.

"I am deeply disappointed with the Bush Administration's decision to begin negotiations with Saudi Arabia on a $20 billion arms package of advanced weaponry," Ferguson said at a press conference, "and it is our hope that Congress will take every step necessary to block this transaction."

The deal has members of both parties scratching theirs heads. If Dubai wasn't fit to run our ports, they reason, why should the Kingdom of Saud get our arms?

[UPDATE: 114 members of the House, including 16 Republicans, sent a letter to President Bush this afternoon stating their "deep opposition" to the arms deal and vowing "to vote to stop it."]

For, Against & For The War

Before he was against getting out of Iraq, Michael O'Hanlon was for it.

In May 2004, the foreign policy specialist (and frequent advisor to Democratic candidates) penned a Washington Post op-ed with his Brooking Institution colleague James Steinberg entitled, "Set a Date to Pull Out."

"Unless we restore the Iraqi people's confidence in our role, failure is not only an option but a likelihood," they wrote. "Critical to achieving our goal is an announced decision to end the current military deployment by the end of next year."

But O'Hanlon, for reasons unexplained, seems to have had a change of heart. He supported the escalation of troops. And after a recent eight day tour of Iraq, on the invitation of his old Princeton buddy David Petraeus, O'Hanlon and Iraq war cheerleader extraordinaire Ken Pollack wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday entitled, "A War We Just Might Win."

"We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms," the two write, contradicting Brookings's own Iraq index, ironically supervised by O'Hanlon. "There is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008."

So O'Hanlon and Pollack are back firmly in the pro-war camp, where they and so many of their colleagues in the foreign policy establishment were before the war. (I wrote a feature about the supposedly liberal think tanks that enabled the war in Iraq back in '05 called "The Strategic Class.")

Only Steinberg (now dean of the school of public affairs at the University of Texas), it seems, has kept to his position. "I'm skeptical" of the O'Hanlon-Pollack op-ed, he told me via email. "On the other hand, they've just been there and I haven't. But in the absence of more compelling evidence (and a chance to talk to them directly) I remain of the view that I held then."

It's little wonder why the White House likes O'Hanlon and Pollack so much. But it's a mystery why prominent Democrats still bother to listen to them.

Why Pelosi Opposes Impeachment

If she were not in the House--and not Speaker of the House--Nancy Pelosi says she "would probably advocate" impeaching President Bush.

But given her current role as party leader, at a breakfast with progressive journalists today (named after our great friend Maria Leavey) Pelosi sketched her case against impeachment.

"The question of impeachment is something that would divide the country," Pelosi said this morning during a wide-ranging discussion in the ornate Speaker's office. Her top priorities are ending the war in Iraq, expanding health care, creating jobs and preserving the environment. "I know what our success can be on those issues. I don't know what our success can be on impeaching the president."

Democratic Party leaders do not have the votes to pass an impeachment resolution. And Democrats could be judged harshly for partisan gridlock, just as the American people turned on Congressional Republicans in the 90s for pursuing the impeachment of President Clinton.

In the first question of the morning, Pelosi was asked if she supported a proposal by Washington Rep. Jay Inslee to impeach beleaguered Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The Speaker looked down and rubbed her temples wearily. "I would like us to stay focused on our agenda this week," she said. Today the entails finalizing ethics and lobbying reform. Tomorrow it will mean expanding children's health care and boosting Medicare benefits. By the end of the week the House will likely pass an energy bill and legislation will be brought to the floor that reins in the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping program.

Pelosi's no fan of Gonzales or his bosses. "The Administration wants the Attorney General to sign off on what can be collected," she says of the wiretapping proposal. "Absolutely not."

She is greatly disturbed by the lawlessness of this Administration and its contempt for checks and balances. "I take an oath to defend and protect the Constitution, so it is a top priority for me and my colleagues to uphold that." She notes the vigorous oversight hearings held by committee chairman like John Conyers and Henry Waxman.

But Pelosi sees impeaching Gonzales and his superiors as a distraction from the ambitious agenda she has crafted for the House. [UPDATE: Pelosi's staff notes she only said that she opposes impeaching Gonzales this week and did not comment on the larger policy. Listen to the recording for yourself at 19:30.]

"If I can just hold my caucus together," she says, "I can take them to this progressive place."

As to whether she fears a primary challenge from pro-impeachment activist Cindy Sheehan, the topic sadly never came up.

A New Middle East Arms Race

The Bush Administration has a solution to the escalating arms race in the Middle East: sell more arms.

Under an Administration proposal, Saudi Arabia will get $20 billion of satellite-guided bombs, fighter jet upgrades and new navy ships over ten years to counteract Iran. Israel will get $30 billion over the same period to balance Saudi Arabia, a 43 percent increase compared to the last decade. Not to be left out, Egypt will receive $13 billion. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have also been promised a piece of the pie.

In the latest US-backed arms bonanza, everyone's a winner!

The pact with the Kingdom of Saud--home to 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, 45 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq and birthplace of Al Qaeda--in particular has prompted resistance inside Congress and human rights organizations.

Representatives Anthony Weiner and Jerry Nadler introduced a plan to block the deal on the steps of the Saudi consulate in New York City on Saturday. "We should remember that the high tech arms we gave to the Shah of Iran ended up in the Ayatollah Khomeini's hands," Nadler said. "The same thing could end up happening in Saudi Arabia."

If the US withdraws from Iraq, the Saudi royal family has pledged to arm Sunni military leaders and create new Sunni militias. An advisor to the Saudi government admitted in a November op-ed that Saudi intervention in Iraq "could spark a regional war."

In other words, the weapons the US is proposing to sell to the kingdom could likely end up in the hands of the very people we are currently targeting in Iraq.

Don't forget this picture from 1983 of a certain American official shaking hands with a certain ally-turned-dictator in Baghdad. If only Donald Rumsfeld were still around...

Newt's Pygmy Primary

Last week in Washington Newt Gingrich may or may not have compared the GOP candidates for president to a group of "pygmies."

When asked if he'd join the '08 fray, Newt, ever erudite, invoked Charles De Gaulle. "This is like going to De Gaulle when he was at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises during the Fourth Republic and saying, 'Don't you want to rush in and join the pygmies?'" he said at a dinner sponsored by the American Spectator. "I have no interest in the current political process."

But it seems as if Fred Thompson might win Gingrich's pygmy primary. Newt's longtime strategist, Rich Galen, recently signed up with the (to-be-announced-in-September) Thompson campaign. Gingrich and his wife dined with the Thompsons last month and he's said that if the former Tennessee Senator "runs and does well, then I think that makes it easier for me not to run."

What a relief! But given Gingrich's sordid personal history and chronic foot-in-month disease, an endorsement for Thompson could be more trouble than it's worth.

All Politics is International

Matthew Blake reports from Capitol Hill:

In his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy gave a vision of American service that would lead to establishment of the Peace Corps, famously declaring, "My fellow Americans: ask not what your country do for you; ask what you can for your country."

Karl Rove has turned this vision on its head. In March 2003 the White House asked Peace Corp officers, in essence, "How many of you are willing to be briefed on GOP Congressional and Gubernatorial races? Are you prepared to sit through a power point presentation on key media markets for the Republican 2008 presidential nominee?"

Since a Washington Post report yesterday that the White House gave political briefings to US ambassadors and Peace Corps officials, two Senate hearings have tried to ascertain what in the world the White House, much less the volunteer-driven Peace Corps and foreign assistance agencies, could possibly gain from such meetings.

Today, Connecticut Senator, Democratic Presidential candidate and Peace Corps alum (Dominican Republic '66-68) Chris Dodd scrutinized Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter for allowing a meeting between White House political strategists and around 15 Peace Corps officials. "I'm troubled by it," Dodd said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today. "The good reputation the Peace Corps has built over 40 years has been soiled."

Tschetter pleaded ignorance to a series of questions Dodd asked about who was at the meetings and continually responded that the sessions were voluntarily. He did admit, however, that the meeting took place at Peace Corps headquarters, which meant it likely violated the Hatch Act, a federal law barring executive branch employees from participating in partisan politics on the job.

Republican Senator Bob Corker was similarly baffled. He asked Tschetter to make certain that the "Peace Corps is still the gold standard in non-partisanship." Tschetter promised he would "ask around" about who attended the political briefings.

At a separate Foreign Relations Committee hearing yesterday, United States Agency of International Development acting administrator Henrietta Holsman Fore skated around questions anout why her aides met with White House Political Director Scott Jennings before and after the midterm elections. "It is a corruption of process and waste of time to have 20-30 employees of USAID briefed on the electoral landscape," New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez told Fore. "I'm not quite sure how it helps development abroad to know the key battleground states."

Prior to these newest findings by the Foreign Relation Committee, the White House admitted to giving about 15 federal agencies "political landscape" briefings from Rove's office. Congress has particularly focused its investigation upon General Services Administration Chairwoman Lurita Alexis Doan, who told her underlings to "help our candidates" win the next election.

That type of service was not exactly what President Kennedy had in mind.

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