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Unsettling Times

Has the President started two secret wars against Syria and Iran?  That is the question foreign policy expert Steve Clemons is asking today.  The entire post is below:

Did the President Declare "Secret War" Against Syria and Iran?

Washington intelligence, military and foreign policy circles are abuzz today with speculation that the President, yesterday or in recent days, sent a secret Executive Order to the Secretary of Defense and to the Director of the CIA to launch military operations against Syria and Iran.

The President may have started a new secret, informal war against Syria and Iran without the consent of Congress or any broad discussion with the country.

The bare outlines of that order may have appeared in President Bush's Address to the Nation last night outlining his new course on Iraq:

Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

We're also taking other steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East. I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence-sharing and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies. We will work with the governments of Turkey and Iraq to help them resolve problems along their border. And we will work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.

Adding fuel to the speculation is that U.S. forces today raided an Iranian Consulate in Arbil, Iraq and detained five Iranian staff members. Given that Iran showed little deference to the political sanctity of the US Embassy in Tehran 29 years ago, it would be ironic for Iran to hyperventilate much about the raid.

But what is disconcerting is that some are speculating that Bush has decided to heat up military engagement with Iran and Syria -- taking possible action within their borders, not just within Iraq.

Some are suggesting that the Consulate raid may have been designed to try and prompt a military response from Iran -- to generate a casus belli for further American action.

If this is the case, the debate about adding four brigades to Iraq is pathetic. The situation will get even hotter than it now is, worsening the American position and exposing the fact that to fight Iran both within the borders of Iraq and into Iranian territory, there are not enough troops in the theatre.

Bush may really have pushed the escalation pedal more than any of us realize.

-- Steve Clemons

UPDATE: This exchange today in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is full on non-denial denials and evasive answers to Biden's query about the President's ability to authorize military operations against forces within Iran and Syria:

SEN. BIDEN: Last night, the president said, and I quote, "Succeeding in Iraq requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges, and that begins with addressing Iran and Syria." He went on to say, "We will interrupt the flow of support for Iran and Syria, and we will seek out and destroy networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Does that mean the president has plans to cross the Syrian and/or Iranian border to pursue those persons or individuals or governments providing that help?

SEC. RICE: Mr. Chairman, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs was just asked this question, and I think he perhaps said it best. He talked about what we're really trying to do here which is to protect our forces and that we are doing that by seeking out these networks that we know are operating in Iraq. We are doing it through intelligence. We are then able, as we did on the 21st of December, to go after these groups where we find them. In that case, we then asked the Iraqi government to declare them persona non grata and expel them from the country because they were holding diplomatic passports.

But the -- what is really being contemplated here in terms of these networks is that we believe we can do what we need to do inside Iraq. Obviously, the president isn't going to rule anything out to protect our troops, but the plan is to take down these networks in Iraq.

The broader point is that we do have and we have always had as a country very strong interests and allies in the Gulf Region, and we do need to work with our allies to make certain that they have the defense capacity that they need against growing Iranian military build-up, that they fell that we are going to be a presence in the Persian Gulf Region as we have been, and that we establish confidence with the states with which we have long alliances, that we will help defend their interests. And that's what the president had in mind.

SEN. BIDEN: Secretary Rice, do you believe the president has the constitutional authority to pursue across the border into Iraq (sic/Iran) or Syria, the networks in those countries?

SEC. RICE: Well, Mr. Chairman, I think I would not like to speculate on the president's constitutional authority or to try and say anything that certainly would abridge his constitutional authority, which is broad as commander in chief.

I do think that everyone will understand that -- the American people and I assume the Congress expect the president to do what is necessary to protect our forces.

SEN. BIDEN: Madame Secretary, I just want to make it clear, speaking for myself, that if the president concluded he had to invade Iran or Iraq in pursuit of these -- or Syria -- in pursuit of these networks, I believe the present authorization granted the president to use force in Iraq does not cover that, and he does need congressional authority to do that. I just want to set that marker.


-- Steve Clemons

First of the First 100 Hours

After today, I don't want to hear anymore about Republicans being the stronger party on National Security.  That's because House Democrats are opening the "First 100 Hours" by passing the many security reforms recommended by the 9/11 Commission, but ignored by the Republican 109th Congress and President Bush.

A more complete list from the House Democrats is at the bottom of this post, but some of the highlights include: more homeland security grants for at-risk states, mandatory air cargo screening, overseas port scanning for containers heading to US ports, and the creation of a new system of anti-nuclear proliferation sanctions against individuals and the governments that do business with them.  Rather then highlights, maybe I should have called this list the "obvious steps that should have already been taken to protect America."

There are criticisms of this package, but most of them are that the the steps are actually too aggressive and may run into opposition in the Senate:

"It's a very aggressive proposal, more aggressive than I would have thought," Greenberger said. "I wouldn't be optimistic that it will all make it through the Senate, but I'm surprised it got this far."

Given the choice between being over-aggressive on homeland security and more inertia, I'm glad that House Democrats are going all out and replacing empty conservative rhetoric with bold legislative action.

So That's How We're Going to Balance the Budget...

The President has a lengthy editorial in today's Wall Street Journal.  He opens with a reminder that he still has "the next two years -- one quarter of my presidency, plenty of time to accomplish important things for the American people." And closes with the best byline in the business "Mr. Bush is the President of the United States."  There is lots to parse, and take issue with, in between.  But the one line that stood out to me was the President's promise to "balance the budget by 2012 while funding our priorities and making the tax cuts permanent.  In early February, I will submit a budget that does exactly that."  You'll remember budgets as those things that Congress used to pass, before the Republican 109th came along.  There aren't many details about how the President plans to cut taxes, fund priorities, and balance the budget.

But maybe the President's fiscal goals can all be accomplished be eliminating all the senior State Department staff.  In more distressing news from the State Department, John Hillen the Assistant Secretary for Political-Military affairs is resigning his post, joining a long list of recent, top-level departures, all of them unfilled.  Hillen is described by the Washington Wire as "the principal link between State and the Pentagon and was leading the administration’s effort to build better security ties with Arab allies in the Persian Gulf in a bid to contain Iran’s growing influence."  At a time when America is facing unprecedented foreign policy challenges, we can little afford to lose talented people who are rushing to the exits of the flailing Bush Administration.  2008 can't come soon enough. 

Eliot Spitzer's Inaugural Address

As a native New Yorker, I'm very excited about Governor Eliot Spitzer's agenda for reform that starts on "Day 1."  Governor Spitzer is an old friend of NDN and the need for new, progressive government was at the heart of his inaugural address this morning:

The reform we seek is substantial in size and historic in scope.

It will require a new brand of politics – a break from the days when progress was measured by the partisan points scored or the opponents defeated. No longer can we afford merely to tinker at the margins of the status quo or play the politics of pitting one group against another. We must replace delay and diversion with energy and purpose in the halls of our capital.

What we needed now more than ever is a politics that binds us together, a politics that looks to the future, a politics that asks not what is in it for me, but always what is in it for us.
We must embrace a progressive vision of government once more – a vision that upholds the values of individuality and community; of entrepreneurship and opportunity; of responsibility and fairness. No one any longer believes in government as a heavy hand that can cure all our ills, but rather we see it as a lean and responsive force that can make possible the pursuit of prosperity and opportunity for all -- by softening life’s blows, leveling its playing field and making possible the pursuit of happiness that is our god given right.

Governor Spitzer also looked back to two of New York's most famous former Governors, calling for a sense of shared responsability and hard work, as Teddy Roosevelt did before him:

As New York’s former Governor Theodore Roosevelt once remarked, there can be no great progress without first entering the arena.

My fellow New Yorkers: join me in that arena.

Lend your sweat, your toil and your passion to the effort of building One New York of which we can all be proud.

And recalled the energy of FDR, while channeling his optimism:

Franklin Roosevelt advised us to be, "bold," and to recognize that people demand "action, and action now." 

...no matter how great the hardship, no matter how daunting the challenge, the promise of our democracy makes it possible to overcome the greatest odds so that we -- individually and as a society -- may arrive at a greater good.

Here at NDN we applaud Governor Spitzer's modern, forward looking agenda, and committment to creating new politics in the Empire State.  We'll be watching his administration closely in the days, weeks and years ahead.

Read the entire speech

Update 1/3/07: watch video of the speech

Translating Bushspeak: Surge = Escalation

Those of you reading the White House tea leaves know that it looks more and more likely that the President is going to announce a "surge" strategy for Iraq, in January.  In a surge, already overextended army and marine troops would see their tours extended, in order to temporarily increase the number of US troops in Iraq by up to 30,000.

The debate over sending more U.S. troops to Iraq intensified yesterday as President Bush signaled that he will listen but not necessarily defer to balky military officers, while Gen. John P. Abizaid, his top Middle East commander and a leading skeptic of a so-called surge, announced his retirement.

At an end-of-the-year news conference, Bush said he agrees with generals "that there's got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished" before he decides to dispatch an additional 15,000 to 30,000 troops to the war zone. But he declined to repeat his usual formulation that he will heed his commanders on the ground when it comes to troop levels.

Noted Middle East scholar, Naval Postgraduate School professor, and new addition to the guest blogging team at TPM Cafe Vali Nasr explains the what, why and potential consequences of the strategy:

New troops will be in Iraq not to police the streets and hold the line against the creeping violence, but to expand the war by taking on the Shia militias. This is an escalation strategy. Will it work; maybe, maybe not. But it runs the risk that it may very well provoke a Shia insurgency—something Iraq has not so far witnessed.

Make sure to read the entire post and to remember that what the President and Senator John McCain call a surge - which is opposed by commanders on the ground and the joint chiefs - is more accurately described as an escalation.

Good News in Iraq?

It's almost impossible to write the six words that make up the title of this post without ending with a question mark.  But today's New York Times offers a glimmer of hope.  Or maybe it's the hint of a glimmer.  Either way, the news about Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric and a man who holds great political power in Iraq, is promising:

[Ayatollah Sistani] has tentatively approved an American-backed coalition of Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties that aims to isolate extremists, particularly the powerful Shiite militia leader Moktada al-Sadr, Iraqi and Western officials say...American officials have been told by intermediaries that Ayatollah Sistani “has blessed the idea of forming a moderate front,” according to a senior American official. “We wouldn’t have gotten this far without his support.”...

...Shiite infighting has paralyzed the government. Since Mr. Sadr’s loyalists began boycotting the government last month, the Parliament has been unable to form a quorum, preventing the passage of laws.

The new coalition is aimed at circumventing that kind of conflict, its leaders say, which is probably why Ayatollah Sistani is willing to lend his support.

Any agreement that would isolate Moktada al-Sadr and other extremists, while also allowing the Parliament to get back to governing would be a huge advance.  Although Tom Friedman's column from today has some sobering advice:

What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant.  All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language.  Anything said in English, in private, doesn't count.  In Washington, officials lie in public and tell the truth off the record.  In the Mideast, officials say what they really believe in public and tell you what you want to hear in private.

I hope the President and his advisors are following Thomas Friedman's maxim (a maxim gleaned from decades of reporting on the Middle East) and paying attention to all facets of the Iraqi politicians they are counting on to make up this new, moderate coalition.  If the White House is only considering the private comments that Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders make in meetings with the President, then their is a very real chance that the Bush administration will revert to form and wind up completely divorced from reality, yet again.

Iran Round-Up Part I

I watched New America Foundation's "Dealing with Tehran" event today and was impressed, as always, by the insight of NAF Senior Fellows Flynt Leverett and Steve Clemons.  Unfortunately, the event was overshadowed by apparent White House interference in the CIA pre-publication review process of an op-ed Leverett wrote for the New York Times.  As a former Senior Director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, Leverett submits all his writing to the CIA to make sure it does not contain classified information.  According to him, Clemons and others, the White House requested the document from the CIA and redacted large sections of already publicly known information. 

You can read much more about this unprecedented move by the Bush Administration on Steve Clemons' blog The Washington Note. Expect this to be a big story going forward, especially following Tony Snow's denial at today's White House press briefing. Attempting to muzzle a widely respected expert on Iran and the Middle East like Flynt Leverett, just because he has criticized White House policy might be the ideal frame needed to explain the lack of transparency and flawed thinking of the Bush foreign policy team.

I'll have an in-depth wrap on the "Dealing with Tehran" event tomorrow, for those of you who missed it.  In the mean-time it's well-worth watching online in its entirety. 

While this important event, and ensuing drama, was going on, there were two important stories on Iran that may have flown below the radar.  First, Iran held elections on Sunday for its Assembly of Experts, the powerful body that selects Iran's Supreme Leader.  The Washington Post said:

Allies of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad failed to dominate elections for a powerful Iranian clerical body and local councils, according to early results Sunday, in what analysts said was a setback to the hard-line leader's standing...turnout of about 60 percent and Ahmadinejad's close identification with some candidates, particularly in Tehran, suggested a voter shift toward more moderate policies and away from the president's often-confrontational positions.

These election results support Leverett's argument that Iran is not a monolithic country, and that President Ahmadinejad should not be seen as all powerful in Iran's complicated political system.

Iran also announced over the weekend that it was switching its foreign currency reserves from dollars to euros in response to US restrictions on Iran:

An Iranian spokesman said all its foreign exchange transactions would be conducted in euros and its national budget would also be calculated in euros as well as its own currency.

"There will be no reliance on dollars," said Gholam-Hussein Elham...Washington has sought to exert financial pressure on Iran, which it accuses of flouting international law by trying to acquire nuclear weapons.

This development opens up a diplomatic window for the US as we attempt to apply pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear weapons development and stop supporting terrorism.  If Iran could be forced to give up its dollar holdings, surely it could forced to give up its euro holdings as well, leaving it without a strong foreign currency to support its economy. 

Of course that would require close diplomatic cooperation with our allies, not the Bush Administration's strong suit. 

When the Outgoing Republican Congress Hands you Lemons...

...your best option is to make lemonade.  And that is just what Congressional Democrats are poised to do. 

I've been a frequent critic of the historically underwhelming work of the 109th Congress, particularly its failure to pass the basic spending bills that keep the Government running.  But rather than taking time to re-craft the nine unfinished spending bills, worth almost $500 billion dollars, further delaying action on the initiatives Democrats ran on, Appropriations Committee Chiefs Rep. David Obey and Senator Robert Byrd have come up with a much better idea.  Obey and Bird propose passing continuing resolutions for all nine bills, funding them at current levels through the 2007 fiscal year, and at the same time eliminating all federal earmarks

That's right, the pork projects which gave us the Abramoff and a dozen other still evolving scandals are going to take a one year hiatus.  And this proposal came from the king of earmarks himself, Senator Robert Byrd.  This isn't a permanent move, as much as a recognition that after the rampant appropriations corruption under the Republicans, the process needs a breath of fresh air.  Maybe that's why Byrd is willing to forgo $11 million for WV's Marshall University, as part of a total of $17 billion in savings.

I wonder if there are any outgoing Republicans scratching their heads right now and going, "I guess fiscal responsibility isn't all the tricky after all."

Winter Edition of the Democracy Journal

Democracy Journal is a new publication, but it is already a heavy-hitter in the progressive ideas business.  Founded by two of NDN's good friends Andrei Cherny and Ken Baer, this quarter's edition includes:

Peter Bergen and Michael Lind taking on the conventional wisdom on what makes someone a terrorist; a similarly iconoclastic piece by Aaron Chatterji and Siona Listokin on the problems with the corporate social responsibility movement; Jeff Faux's critical look at the development of the global economy; Erwin Chemerinsky on the problem with sweeping judicial theories; Kevin Mattson on what we lose when historians disengage from public life; a group of essays on American foreign policy by Joshua Kurlantzick, Gayle Smith, and Suzanne Nossel; and much more.

We'll have more on Democracy Journal later this week, but for now, visit their site to read articles, learn more about the publication and become a subscriber. 

NPI Event Recap: The Next Wave of Tools for Progressive Politics 12/5/06

The New Politics Insitute (NPI) held a great event this week here in Washington, DC.  Experts from the political, tech and media worlds were there to talk about the rapid changes in technology and strategy that are transforming progressive poltics.

Speakers included:

Tim Chambers on Mobile Media (bio)


Julie Bergman Sender on Viral Video in the post YouTube world (bio)


Will Robinson on the Evolution of Television through Cable, Satellite and TiVo (bio)


Laura Quinn on Data Driven Politics (bio) 


For more information visit the New Politics Institute website and check back often as we'll be putting video from the event on the NPI website.

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