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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

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.

Targeting Alaska's Terrible Two

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and Representative Don Young, the dynamic duo that brought us the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," have long been known as the unrepentant kings of pork on Capitol Hill, funneling billions of dollars in federal money to their far-off state.

Now the law is inspecting whether Stevens and Young illegally lined their own pockets in the process. According to today's Wall Street Journal, "federal investigators are examining whether Rep. Young and Sen. Stevens accepted bribes, illegal gratuities and unreported gifts from VECO Corp., Alaska's largest oil-field engineering firm."

As former chairman of powerful committees, the cantankerous duo are the highest-ranking members of Congress to be ensnared in the flurry of corruption cases in Washington.

The Journal reports that "VECO has won a string of federal contracts in recent years" but it isn't known which contracts are the subject of the investigation. Stories have come to light about how Young earmarked federal money to benefit campaign contributors in states as distant to him as Florida. The current probe may prove a repeat performance, albeit with more local roots.

Here's what is known: VECO employees gave $157,000 to Young over the past ten years and VECO CEO Bill Allen threw a "Pig Roast" fundraiser for him every August. Earlier this year Allen plead guilty to trying to bribe members of the Alaska state legislature, including Stevens's son Ben, paying him $243,250 for "giving advice, lobbying colleagues and taking acts in matters before the legislature."

Allen bought a racehorse with Stevens, supervised the remodeling of his home in 2000 and dined with him frequently. Last fall FBI agents raided Ben's office and recently told Stevens to preserve documents pertaining to the case.

We are witnessing an old story, with new characters. The mixture of bravado, excess and avarice that elevated Stevens and Young in Washington may also bring them down.

Dept of Misleading Headlines

According to the latest New York Times poll, "two-thirds of those polled said the United States should reduce its forces in Iraq, or remove them altogether." The same number believes the war continues to go badly.

So why is the Times story about the poll headlined "Support in US for Initial Invasion has Risen, a Poll Shows?"

Presumably because the number of Americans who say the war was right to fight stands at 42 percent, compared to an all-time low of 35 percent in May. And those who think the war is going "very badly" has decreased from 45 percent earlier in the month to 35 percent today.

Promising news, one could suppose, for the Bush Administration. But the overall findings of the poll indicate a hardened and continued pessimism about the direction of the war, which is not at all reflected in the pro-war headline.

The Washington Post, in its own Iraq poll today, had a very different take.

"Overall attitudes about the conflict continue to be decidedly negative," the Post writes, "with more than six in 10 saying that given the cost, the war was not worth fighting."

Eight in ten Americans say Bush is not willing enough to change his policy, a 12 percent increase since December.

The Post headline: "Poll Finds Democrats Favored on War."

So much for the Times' alleged "liberal bias."

The Dems' Nuclear Option

We've done all we can do, Democrats said after pulling an all-nighter last week, when Republicans blocked yet another vote on a proposal to begin withdrawing American troops from Iraq.

It takes sixty votes to pass anything in the Senate these days. And Democrats had only fifty-two. After much hype, just three Republicans broke with President Bush. Until more Republicans defect, Congress is stuck in a stalemate.

But there's another option. Democrats could give Republicans a taste of their own medicine and invoke the "nuclear option." Two years ago Republicans threatened to eliminate the filibuster if Democrats didn't allow an up-or-down vote on President Bush's judicial nominees. Frightened Democrats acquiesced and allowed the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Alito, thus ensuring a conservative majority on the court for decades to come.

Is the war in Iraq equally important to Democrats? Vowing to alter the rules of the Senate would be a risky and unpredictable move. But it would prove that the party stands for more than all-night PR stunts.

DeLay's Not Dead

Tom DeLay is not dead. In Max Blumenthal's new video he appears at the College Republicans annual convention, offering an unconventional solution to America's illegal immigration problem: ban abortion.

"If you don't believe abortion doesn't affect you," DeLay told the youngsters, "I contend it affects you in immigration. If we had those 40 million children who were killed over the last 30 years, we wouldn't need the illegal immigrants to fill the jobs that they are doing today." He pauses awkwardly, before offering this gem: "Think about it."

Our own David Corn also ran into DeLay this week. Corn asked DeLay what he was up to. Trying to be the "Democrats worst nightmare," he answered. Didn't DeLay already have that gig?

He also said he wanted his old nemesis Newt Gingrich to run for president. That's just the boost Newt needs.

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