National Security


US-Cuba policy on Florida ballot this year

There is an excellent piece running on Salon by Kirk Nielsen that looks at how the future of US policy towards Cuba may be altered by the outcome of 3 competitive Congressional races in South Florida this year.

Among those running in these seats is former NDN Executive Vice President, Joe Garcia, who stepped down after more than 3 years at NDN to run. While at NDN Joe led an important effort to challenge the ineffective and unpopular Bush approach to Cuba, focusing on relaxing remittances and travel to the island as a first step. This position was adopted by Senator Obama last year.

NDN believes this new opening in South Florida is coming about for at 3 reasons. First, with Castro's passing from the scene there is an historic opportunity to open a new chapter in US-Cuba relations, a subject we reviewed at length in a recent forum in DC.

Second, the current Bush policy and its GOP defenders are simply out of step with the times and the Cuban-American community itself, something we captured in a recent poll of South Florida Cuban-Americans.

Finally, the demography of Florida is changing, with the great growth in Florida Hispanics coming from new communities - 2nd generation Cuban-Americans, post-Mariel Cuban exiles, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians and others from all over Latin America. This transformation has left the Florida Hispanic electorate majority non-Cuban and majority Democrat for the 1st time since the 1960s, something we look at in our recent report, Hispanics Rising.

Taken together all of these changes are giving US leaders a chance to imagine a new day for US-Cuban relations, and a new and better day for the long-suffering people of Cuba.  So while every Congressional race matters, these 3 may have even greater significance in that their outcome could open up a new day for US relations not just in Cuba, but for all of Latin America. 

To learn more about our work in this arena vist here.

Fidel Castro steps down

After 49 years, Fidel Castro is stepping down. From the Miami Herald:

Saying he is no longer healthy enough to hold office, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has announced he will not seek reelection after 49 years in power and nearly 19 months sidelined by illness, marking the first official step in a long-awaited succession in the island's leadership.

''It would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer,'' the 81-year-old Castro wrote in a letter published in Tuesday's editions of Cuban newspapers. ``This I say devoid of all drama.''

Castro's not-unexpected announcement came just days before the Cuban National Assembly meets Sunday to select members and president of its Council of State. The president of the council is the official ruler of Cuba -- and that's been Castro since the council was established in 1976.

Our statement from 2006 when Fidel's failing health led to a transfer of power still has relevance today:

The current situation in Cuba could be the beginning of a tremendous opportunity for the Cuban people as the world anticipates the end of Fidel Castro's oppressive rule. We should proceed with cautious optimism about the possibilities in store not only for the people of Cuba but also of the Cuban exile community who have long awaited a moment like this. A transition to a democratic Cuba will not only greatly benefit the Cuban people but also will help provide much needed long-term stability for all of Latin America.

As many of you know, NDN has long advocated for a new approach to Cuba policy that eases restrictions on family travel and sending remittances to the island. In August, 2007, Senator Obama traveled to Little Havana and adopted that same approach, which you can learn more about in our poll from October, 2006. For more on our work on Cuba, check out the video below of a Forum we held in February, 2007 called After Fidel: A New Day for America's Relations with Cuba and Latin America?

Update: For those of you who are wondering how this news could affect the 2008 campaign, check out this Newsweek article by Fareed Zakaria. In it, Zakaria highlights the inherent differences between the Cuba policies of Senators Clinton and Obama. Given the news above, focusing on those differences could give the campaign an interesting twist in the coming days and weeks.

Report from Israel 2 - The Bush Legacy in the Middle East

As some may recall I just returned from a 10 day foreign trip, including 6 days in Israel. There I spoke at a major policy conference and met with Israeli journalists, policy makers, elected officials, entrepreneurs and other civic leaders. All in all it was a remarkable trip.

I offered up some initial thoughts soon after arriving in Jerusalem. Since I returned I've been thinking a lot about the trip, and have watched as the people of Gaza spilled into Egypt and the Winograd Commission issued its report. I've come away from the trip with a profound sense that the Bush era has made the Middle East more radical, less stable, more anti-American and anti-Israeli. The policies of the Bush Administration have left our ally, Israel, in a much weaker position than they found it.

4 key points:

The Iraq War is directly responsible for the rise of Iran as a regional power. The Iraq War removed Iran's greatest regional rival, placed an Iranian-influenced Shiite-led government in the heart of the region and paved the way for Iran's current regional ascension, which includes much more robust support for Hezbollah and Hamas. The chaos which has ensued in Iraq will also no doubt create an entire new generation of trained radicals who will be haunting the region for years to come. And the failure of our policy in Iraq has made it much more difficult to rally domestic and world opinion against the prospect of a nuclear Iran, a development hat simply must be seen as one of the greatest security threats in the world today and one that is an existential threat to Israel.

As readers of this blog know I have been obsessed for years about what Bush and company believed would happen in the region if America put in charge of Iraq Shia political parties whose leaders left the country during their war with Iran, and lived and sided with Iran in its war against Saddam. Did we not understand the history of the regional Sunni-Shiite struggle? How could democracy flourish there, particularly without any real plan for investing in and nurturing Iraqi civil society? How could the first Shiite-led Arab government in the Middle East become anything but a threat to the region's Sunni populations, Sunni governments and an ally of Iran?

After the initial success of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, George Bush had many choices on how to proceed to bring about a more peaceful and prosperous world, and further riding the world of security threats. At a strategic and operational level, it is now clear, for the interests of both Israel and the United States, that the decision to invade Iraq, the lack of a serious plan to bring about post-invasion regional security, the lack of a serious plan for investment in Iraqi civil society, has been a disaster and left the region much more unstable and dangerous than before.

The epic failure of Bush's democratization agenda as a regional strategy. Prior to going to Israel, I had believed that the President's "democratization" agenda was just a rhetorical facade for Western audiences to put a more pleasant face on his more imperial designs. But in Israel I learned that Bush and his foreign policy team actually believed in this agenda, and worked to carry it out in the region. They met with Arab heads of state, and told them that is was a new day and that they needed to open up their closed societies. They promoted elections in Iraq, which of course elected Shiite parties close to Iran and anathema to the region's Sunnis. And most consequentially, over the objection of the Israeli government, the Bush Administration allowed the participation of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah in elections in the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon without insisting that they give up their arms, recognize Israel's right to exist or renounce the killing of innocent civilians. Both Hamas and Hezbollah did well in their elections, and have now gained a degree of local, regional and international legitimacy - and political power - long denied them. The immediate impact was to plunge Lebanon into further political chaos, split the government of the PA into two and strengthen Iran's regional influence.

Again, what were they thinking?

As in Iraq, the Bush Administration seemed to believe that democracy itself had magical powers, that it was the act of electing a democratic leader which would bring about peaceful societies. But this idea is an extraordinary misreading of history. Hitler gained power through democratic elections. Chavez and Putin today, two of the world's most powerful autocrats, were elected. Fidel Castro is elected every few years in Cuba, getting, remarkably, all the votes cast. Elections themselves have never been sufficient to create open societies. The American formula, used so effectively to help bring modern and open societies to ever more of the world, was always more complex. It required free markets, personal liberty, the rule of law and yes democratic representation. Applying tried and true formula to the Middle East would have required Hamas and Hezbollah to renounce terror, recognize Israel, and demilitarize as a condition for participation in their elections. There can be no rule of law, no personal freedom if one of the major political parties in a nation keeps a private and well-funded private militia.

Bush's democratization agenda has become a joke in the Middle East. Israelis I spoke to saw it as a wildly naïve, dangerous concept and policy. This simplistic view of what builds complex, functioning, civil societies undermined both realistic planning for the peace in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli peace process. For it is harder to see today how meaningful peace can be brought to Israel and Palestine with he fanatics of the Hamas having control in Gaza and a newfound global legitimacy. Sunni Arabs have not exactly been inspired by the aftermath of our democratizing efforts in Iraq, which among other things strengthened the regional hand of Iran and the Shiites.

And, of course, once Hamas and Hezbollah had strong electoral showings, as many had predicted, the Bush Administration announced they would not work with these newly elected groups, further making the Bush call for democratization a hallow and cyniical one.

So also damaged in the Bush era is the whole idea of free and open societies themselves, as his loony vision of "democratization" has been instrumental in bringing further chaos and instability to an already troubled region. It will be vital that the next President, of whichever Party, restores the tried and true - and hard - vision of what it takes to build pluralistic, democratic and free nations.

The failure to lead the world in lessening its dependence on oil. There can be no doubt that the world's dependence on oil is itself becoming a grave security threat. We know the global environmental challenge a carbon-based economy offers. But we also have to come to terms with oil how many of the oil producing nations themselves - Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia - are becoming the main funders and purveyors of regional and global instability. And perversely, as the price of oil rises with the perception of global instability, these nations now have a national interest in maintaining or increasing the instability which fuels their economies and is the source of their regional and global power.

Hamas and Hezbollah are funded with Iranian oil money. Al Qaeda's start up capital came from a wealthy Saudi family, made rich by their relationship with the Saudi Royal family. Oil money funds the Madrassas which are radicalizing young Muslims around the world. Oil money is keeping dictators in power, preventing the modernization of many nations.

It is simply impossible to be for Israel and for a peaceful Middle East without also being for an enormous global effort to wean the world its debilitating addiction to oil. The Bush Administration's lack of leadership on climate change has in of itself strengthened the hand of the world's emerging petro-dictators, and lengthened their time of influence and power.

Bush's actions and rhetoric have made tens of millions of Europeans and Arabs much more anti-US and anti-Israeli. For many, the collective impact of the Axis of Evil war on terror language towards Muslims, the botched Iraq War, the lack of a commitment to lasting Arab-Israeli peace, the closeness of Bush and the Israeli government, and the sheer unpopularity of Bush himself has weakened the Israeli cause across the world, including in the United States. The Israelis are now seen not just aligned with the United States but one of the world's most unpopular and belligerent leaders. The UN may have once equated Zionism with racism, but now the world is essentially equating Zionism with Bushism, something that may be much more damaging for Israel than the infamous UN Resolution.

In my several days in Britain I was able to learn first hand how anti-Israeli many British elites have become. It was something I didn't expect, as it was a Brit almost a century ago who cleared the way for the early Israeli state, and Israel is the only nation in the entire Middle Eastern region which looks anything like a Western pluralistic democracy.

To sum up my trip to Israel left me excited about what a wonderful nation Israel has become, and worried about the worsening political situation around it. I have no doubt from my trip that the people of Israel are ready to accept a free and open Palestinian state, one that accepts Israel's right to exist, and one that does not launch attacks from across what we all hope will be a peaceful border. But years of historic and extraordinary failures of the Bush Administration have made the realization of a peaceful Middle East and a two state solution much more difficult, leading me to conclude that this American Administration has weakened our ally Israel and done damage to the hope of peace in the Middle East.

1st report from Israel

Jerusalem, Sunday, 830am - I arrived in Israel late Friday afternoon a few days before I am slated to speak at the well-regarded Herzliya conference on Monday morning. I have visited Israel just once before, in 1993, for a wonderful trip that lasted 10 days. Some initial impressions:

- Jerusalem and its hills are much more beautiful than I remember. Though a little chilly yesterday, I visited the top of the Mount of Olives in several spots and was able to see both east, towards the West Bank, and West towards the Old City. It was a clear day, allowing views all the way to the Dead Sea and Jordan and well beyond Jerusalem proper. The air was fresh and vital, a wonderful breeze was blowing all day, the sun was warm and inviting. And the views....well let us just say this is a place of unnatural natural beauty.

- The newly erected "Security Fence," separating Israel from the lands of the Palestinian Authority, is very present in and around Jerusalem. There can be little doubt that resolving the final status of Jersusalem will be difficult, and consequential.

- Modern communications is simply a wonder. When I landed in Israel my blackberry and phone worked just like home, keeping me in real time communication with the office, my listserves, my friends and family. I am writing this from my laptop, which has a global wireless connection. After breakfast this morning I came back to my room and scanned over the internet the major American papers and sites like Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo to get caught up on the elections last night.

On the way in from the airport my cab driver, a Palestinian Israeli, had a cell phone mount on his dashboard and what looked like a GPS. He took several calls during the trip into Jerusalem, putting on his wireless ear piece to talk. And of course he played American music for the entire drive.

In recent years most of my travels have been inside the US. With my 3 kids getting old enough to allow me to leave my remarkable wife for some longer trips, I plan on traveling more this year to see how globalization and this communications revolution is changing the world. As someone who did a great deal of traveling as a younger guy, before cell phones and the internet, before cash cards and computers, it is remarkable how different traveling is today. You feel much less "away," much less distant from my American life, as it all comes with you now wherever you go. All of this makes travel, distance somehow much less a hardship. It is a very different way to travel than even when I was here in 1993. Very different.

This new global communications network is creating a truly global web of information, bringing all the worlds people closer together. We are all becoming more mobile, more connected, less distant from one another. Half the world's 6 billion people are now on this global communications grid, something that will without doubt do much to spread ideas, spur the desire for personal freedom and democracy, and increasingly lift isolated and poor communities from poverty and ignorance.

But as I am reminded, here in Jerusalem, even in this modern age, identity, faith and history can be monumental barriers to overcome, no matter how wired and connected we may all be.

Our broken election system

There may be no greater example of the failure of leadership of the Bush era than that after the terrible experience of Florida in 2000 America still has a broken and unreliable election system. 

The Times magazine has a great piece which takes an indepth look at the problems we may face in the fall elections.

Last night the Democratic candidates, particularly Obama and Edwards, talked a great deal about making average every day people the focus of our politics.  Obama talked about the need for greater openness, transparency and accountability in our government.  But there should be little doubt that as the eventual Democratic nominee develops their "reform" agenda,they will need to put the bringing of greater integrity and openness to our electoral system at its very center.  It is not just a moral necessity, and one consistent with our values and tradition, but allowing the electoral system of the most powerful country in the world to be in question needs to be seen as a major national security concern as well. 

My hope is that our leaders will do more than insist on working voting machines, and look at things like same day voting registration, adopting a single national popular vote, weekend voting, more experiments with vote by mail and even potentially eliminating the need to register as additional reforms.  We simply have to make it easier to vote.   Voting should not be harder than getting a credit card in the US.  

There is much to do to clean up the mess of the Bush era.  Designing and building an American voting system for the 21st century needs to become one of the top priorities for candidates of both parties.

Bush needs to come before Congress and explain

As CNN is now reporting that the Administration is in the process of revising its story about what Bush knew and when he knew it about Iran and its nuclear program, there is really only one responsible way to deal with what has happened here - the President needs to come before Congress and explain.

In 1998 we impeached a President over a lie about an affair. This Administration has serially lied about so many things, including the cause of our war with Iraq; they have almost certainly broken the law in their warentless spying on Americans; they almost certainly broke the law in the way they politicized the Department of Justice to serve their own electoral designs; the entire senior White House team was involved in the treasonous exposure of Valerie Plame; and now this new lie, about Iran and its nuclear program - this lie has significantly harmed our national security and cannot be treated as a "there they go again" moment. The Administration knowingly misled the world about Iran in a way that could have engulfed the region in a major war. The exposure of this lie has caused significant damage - again - to America's credibility around the world, and reinforced our image as a belligerent and out of control imperial power. For the good of the nation we simply must better understand what happened here - so we can prevent it from ever happening again.

Congress cannot compel the President to come before them. But they should ask. Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi should send a simple and polite letter asking President Bush to come before them, and the American people, in an extraordinary joint session that lasts just an hour. 15 minute opening statement. 4 questions, 2 from each Party. Let's do it in Mid-January, before the State of the Union, before Congress gets back to business, and before the Presidential nominees are picked.

The President will probably refuse. But at least our Congress will have attempted to get the bottom of another terrible moment in this lamentable Presidency.

Update: The New York Times has a major story today on how the conclusions of the NIE were reached. A must read for all following this closely.

Update: Senator Harry Reid just released this statement:

I am growing increasingly concerned about the White House's inconsistent explanations of when the President was told about important new intelligence information regarding Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions.  It appears the President and Vice President were briefed in August on this information, before both the President and Vice President began to ratchet up their increasingly-heated rhetoric on the threat of Iran.

I urge the White House to fully and accurately explain what the President and Vice President knew and when they knew it, and why the Administration's rhetoric was not adjusted when presented with new data this summer.  I find it surprising the Administration did not learn the lessons of Iraq; it was exactly this type of misleading rhetoric that led us into a misguided, unilateral war.

I also again urge the Administration to announce a top-to-bottom review of its Iran policy, including new steps to launch a major diplomatic surge to address the challenge of Iran.

Oh, that Middle East peace conference

I set out this morning to find the exact date of upcoming Peace Conference. Amazingly, this is what I found:

A few days after Thanksgiving, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plan to open a meeting in Annapolis to launch the first round of substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during Bush's presidency.

But no conference date has been set. No invitations have been issued. And no one really agrees on what the participants will actually talk about once they arrive at the Naval Academy for the meeting, which is intended to relaunch Bush's stillborn "road map" plan to create a Palestinian state.

The anticipation surrounding the meeting has heightened the stakes for other countries seeking invites. If Turkey comes, Greece wants a seat. So does Brazil, which has more Arabs than the Palestinian territories. Norway hosted an earlier round of peacemaking in Oslo, so it wants a role. Japan wants to do more than write checks for Palestinians.

"No one seems to know what is happening," one senior Arab envoy said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid appearing out of the loop. "I am completely lost."

The envoy recounted the calls he made in recent days to dig up information and said he had reserved rooms for his country's foreign minister and other officials. He added with exasperation: "It is a very peculiar thing."

Even a senior administration official deeply involved in the preparations confided, before speaking off the record about his expectations: "I can't connect the dots myself because it is still a work in progress."

Have we ever had a team like this running the government of the United States?

The astonishing Bush era foreign policy failures continue to mount

The Times has one of those pieces on Bush that makes you wish his term was over, today. Two excerpts:

Mr. Bush — an ardent believer in personal diplomacy, who once remarked that he had looked into the eyes of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and had gotten “a sense of his soul” — was taken in by the general, with his fluent English and his promises to hold elections and relinquish military power. They said Mr. Bush looked at General Musharraf and saw a democratic reformer when he should have seen a dictator instead.

“He didn’t ask the hard questions, and frankly, neither did the people working for him,” said Husain Haqqani, an expert on Pakistan at Boston University who has advised two previous Pakistani prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. “They bought the P.R. image of Musharraf as the reasonable general. Bush bought the line — hook, line and sinker.”


The “Bush-Mush relationship,” as some American scholars call it, has always been complicated, more a bond of convenience than a genuine friendship, some experts said. When he was running for office in 2000, Mr. Bush didn’t even know General Musharraf’s name; he couldn’t identify the leader of Pakistan for a reporter’s pop quiz during an interview that was widely replayed on late-night television.

Relations between the nations had been tense over Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions even before Mr. Bush took office, and American aid to Pakistan had been all but cut off. But Sept. 11 threw the United States and Pakistan together. Mr. Bush demanded General Musharraf’s allegiance in pursuing Al Qaeda — and got it. General Musharraf demanded military aid that could help him maintain power — and got it.

Experts in United States-Pakistan relations said General Musharraf has played the union masterfully, by convincing Mr. Bush that he alone can keep Pakistan stable. Kamran Bokhari, an analyst for Stratfor, a private intelligence company, who met with General Musharraf in January, said the general viewed Mr. Bush with some condescension.

“Musharraf thinks that Bush has certain weaknesses that can be manipulated,” Mr. Bokhari said, adding, “I would say that President Musharraf doesn’t think highly of President Bush, but his interests force him to do business with the U.S. president.”

In his autobiography, “In the Line of Fire,” General Musharraf writes glowingly of the trust Mr. Bush placed in him. But he passed up a chance to praise Mr. Bush on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” where he was promoting the book. Mr. Stewart asked who would win a hypothetical contest for mayor of Karachi, Mr. Bush or Mr. bin Laden.

“I think they’ll both lose miserably,” the general replied.

It sure seems that the litany of terrible disapointments of this era should become much more of a stable of the national foreign policy debate.

Sidney Blumenthal on Blackwater

Sidney Blumenthal has a great piece in Salon on the sovereignty issues raised by the presence of Blackwater and other contractors in Iraq.   It begins...

Oct. 04, 2007 | On June 27, 2004, the day before the United States was to grant sovereignty to a new Iraqi government and disband the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. proconsul, issued a stunning new order. One of the final acts of the CPA, Order 17 declared that foreign contractors within Iraq, including private military firms, would not be subject to any Iraqi laws -- "all International Consultants shall be immune from Iraqi legal process," it read. "Congratulations to the new Iraq!" Bremer said moments before flying out. His memoir, "My Year in Iraq," neglects to mention Order 17.

The author of Order 17 was a CPA official named Lawrence Peter, who oversaw the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. As soon as the CPA was dissolved, the Private Security Company Association of Iraq hired Peter to act as its liaison and lobbyist there. The new Iraq included a revolving door.

Thus, in the process of granting Iraq sovereignty, the Bush administration eviscerated it. Order 17's grant of immunity to contractors guaranteed that more than half of the foreign presence on the ground -- for U.S.-paid contractors outnumber U.S. military personnel -- would operate for all intents and purposes beyond the law. Order 17 also undercut the authority of the U.S. military, frustrating command and control of the battlefield and upsetting sensitive counterinsurgency strategies. Order 17 meant that the monopoly of violence was fractured and outsourced to those not subject to the law. By unilateral fiat Order 17 uniquely created a red zone of impunity covering the entire country...

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