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May 30, 2008

Incompetence or Worse?
Posted by Moran Banai

The press did an important service by spotlighting the issue of the Fulbright students that the U.S. was prepared to abandon in Gaza. Since Secretary Rice was taken by surprise when she was asked about the rescinding of the scholarships this morning, the State Department has back-pedaled, finding more money to replace the scholarships they had given away and implying that it was all the fault of the Israelis for refusing to grant the students exceptions to an almost-complete ban on travel from Gaza.

This claim contradicts a couple of lines buried in an AP story entitled “US predicts Israel will relent on Gaza students.” In the article, Anne Gearan reports that:

Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said the current policy is to issue permits only in humanitarian cases and "students are not included under the definition of humanitarian aid."

But then she goes on:

Individual exceptions are made, Lerner said, and the United States did not specifically ask for visas for the eight Gaza students. The U.S. made the decision to cancel the scholarships without coordinating with Israel, Lerner said.

If this reporting is accurate,the United States did not even ask for the permits from the Israelis before deciding it would not be able to get them and giving the money to other students. This is a particularly salient possibility when you consider the 100 Gazan businesspeople who were able to attend the Palestine Investment Conference just last week. Their ability to get in and out of Gaza suggests that what is going on now was a choice on the part of someone at the State Department, not an inevitability. The fact that Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns, the third-ranking position at State, lobbied the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. on the question after the initial critical New York Times story and subsequent barrage of questions at the morning press briefing, suggests the same. It also begs the question, why wasn’t that call made before the money was reassigned?

Hopefully, the decision on the Fulbrights will be fully reversed and the students will be here by the time their courses begin. Yet even if it is, and they are, what happened should not, and will not, be quickly forgotten here, in Gaza or in the region. One can only hope that the State Department will learn its lessons well from this.

The Condescension of John McCain
Posted by Michael Cohen

John McCain screwed up today - he was wrong about the situation in Mosul and the number of troops currently serving in Iraq. But besides another in a steady litany of misstatements about Iraq, what I found most striking about McCain's response is its amazingly condescending nature. Take a look the statement from McCain about Obama's and John Kerry's response:

Clearly John Kerry and Barack Obama have very little understanding of troop levels, but considering Barack Obama hasn't been to Iraq in 873 days and has never had a one on one meeting with Gen. Petraeus, it isn't a surprise to anyone that he demonstrates weak leadership.

What informed people understand, John McCain included, is that American troops are not even close to surge levels. Three of the five Army 'surge' brigades have been withdrawn and additional Marines that were initially deployed for the 'surge' have come home as well -- the remaining two brigades will be home in July.

Talk about a political stunt, it's sending out campaign surrogates to parse words about a topic Barack Obama has no experience with, and has shown zero interest in learning about.

"Very little understanding," "what informed people understand," Obama has no experience," "has show zero interest in learning about" McCain's statement is just dripping with condescension - and considering that McCain clearly misspoke it is rich indeed to treat his opponent in such a haughty manner.

These words follow on the heels of a statement a few days ago about Obama's criticism of McCain's position on the Webb GI Bill:

Perhaps if Senator Obama would take the time and trouble to understand this issue, he would learn to debate an honest disagreement respectfully.

Now, it's not my place to give advice to John McCain but in any presidential campaign, ideas matter, but so of course does perception - and frankly McCain's spokesman (Tucker Bounds) comes across, with these words, as kind of a jerk. The attitude expressed here is just incredibly demeaning, dismissive and rude.

Now I understand that McCain is trying to demean Obama and his foreign policy experience but the way he's chosen to go about it is really not helpful.  Americans are generally not  supportive of presidential campaigns that are arrogant and condescending, especially when they are expounding a view (about the war in Iraq) not shared by two-thirds of them.

That's What I'm Talking About
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Yesterday I wrote a piece for the American Prospect on Soft Power and generally how Democrats talk about national security

Even more important than the specific wording is the manner in which the message is delivered. Poll after poll has found that when Democrats respond aggressively to claims that they are not equipped to defend America they are able to offset Republican advantages. In the run up to the 2006 mid-term elections when Republicans began accusing Democrats of being soft on terrorism because of their opposition to warrantless wiretapping, a Democracy Corps study found that the best response was to take the argument head on. What mattered was less the substance of the argument than the fact that Democrats were unafraid to defend their ideas.

Today's back and forth on Iraq is a perfect example.  Rather then back down when McCain
accused Obama of being inexperienced, Obama responded in kind by hitting McCain for his lack of knowledge.  John Kerry's statement was a textbook response:

Sadly it’s straight out of the Bush playbook that John McCain would propose a political joint photo-opportunity in Iraq, and then use it as a prop to raise a few campaign dollars even as he misstates the number of troops serving on the ground

Now, it would be great if this whole debate was a little more high-minded and I'd love to see Obama and McCain debating Iraq policy at a more substantive level.  But the point on national security holds.  When conservatives hit below the belt on national security, you have to hit back and hit back hard.

Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

This whole trip to Iraq / troop level spat etc...  is sort of silly.  But I gotta say that when McCain's Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Randy Scheunemann says:

The difference is so minuscule that I'm not sure it rises to the level of nitpicking.

Well, that's just blatantly insensitive.  That's 20,000 American troops and their families that you are talking about. 

A Question for John McCain
Posted by Moira Whelan

Given his current confusion over the number of troops in Iraq. I have a two part question for Senator McCain…

How many troops are in Afghanistan addressing America’s #1 security threat? How many troops was the Pentagon unable to send to Afghanistan due to the overburdening of the military in Iraq?

Hint: Ask Admiral Mullen.
Note to the McCain campaign: Present tense, please.

Eight Trips to Iraq...
Posted by Adam Blickstein

...and McCain still has no clue what's actually happening on there. Via Nico at Huffington Post:

Speaking about Iraq at a townhall event on Thursday evening in Greensdale, Wisconsin, Sen. John McCain declared, "I can tell you that it is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it's succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels. Basra, Mosul and now Sadr city are quiet and it's long and it's hard and it's tough and there will be setbacks..."

...Moreover, McCain's claim that Mosul is "quiet" was disproved earlier today in grim fashion. Three suicide bombings -- two in Mosul and another in a surrounding town -- left 30 Iraqis dead and more than two dozen injured, according to press reports.

Now it strikes me odd that if the media is going to echo McCain's challenge to Obama on the disparity in trips they've each taken to Iraq (8-1), that reporters wouldn't also challenge McCain's repeated displays of ignorance as far as what's actually occuring on the ground there.  Repeating the the claim that traveling to Iraq 8 times on sheltered CODELs equals transcendent knowledge of reality in Iraq is like me saying I've traveled to Tokyo because I ate Japanese food during a two layover at the Narita Airport while listening to the Lost in Translation soundtrack.  I agree with CNN's Michael Ware, one of the most in touch reporters in Baghdad, regarding McCain and congressional visits to Iraq (with the exception of Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed):

Well, in many ways, T.J., it's four words -- dog and pony show. I mean, you've got to give anyone credit who comes here at least trying to get the smell, the touch, the feel of this place. But you need to understand, as a visiting U.S. official, or even as a senior U.S. commander or embassy staffer, you are getting a very, very filtered version of the reality. The Green Zone and American bases are far divorced from life on the Iraqi streets.

And as genuine as U.S. commanders like to be with visiting delegations or anyone who is inquiring, they themselves don't always have a handle on what's going on.

Remember, we've had officials in this -- visiting this country before told that the insurgency is in its death throes. The American mission is turning how many corners, that there is no civil war or that you could walk the streets of Baghdad. All of which have since proven to be false.

...Well, it's still going to be, you know, a very sterilized kind of visit. But I mean, let's look at it from a different perspective. As you said yourself, T.J., what, Senator McCain has been here something like eight times. And Senator McCain gets it glaringly wrong quite often as well.

McCain's Trips to Iraq
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

It's important to remember a few things when looking at McCain's latest condescending challenge to travel to Iraq with Obama.

  1. This is a political stunt because there is no way the secret service would ever ever let this happen.
  2. As Michael Ware pointed out on CNN, you don't get a very genuine picture of Iraq from spending two days in the Green zone. 
  3. The last time John McCain was in Iraq, he confused Shi'a and Sunni and on numerous times claimed that Iran was training and Al Qaeda in Iraq forces, which makes one wonder about the value of this education.
  4. The time before that McCain embarrassed himself by traveling to a Baghdad market with 100 troops, 3 Blackhawk helicopters, and 2 Apache gunships to try and make a political point that he could freely walk around parts of Baghdad.
  5. If McCain is so concerned with talking to General Petraeus then maybe he shouldn't have missed his last two confirmation hearings and walked out pretty early from the Petraeus Crocker hearings last month.

It's also worth pointing out that the Democratic primary clearly played role in Obama's inability to leave.  If the primaries had ended after March 4 in Texas and Ohio, he probably would have taken a trip very similar to the one McCain took at the time.

May 29, 2008

Losing Hearts and Minds
Posted by Moran Banai

The New York Times just reported that the U.S. State Department has rescinded Fulbright offers to Palestinian students from Gaza and is “redirecting” the money to other students. State blamed the Israelis for not allowing the students to leave Gaza.

Canceling the Fulbrights is inexplicable. First, was the United States really incapable of working with Israel to get permission for several students to leave Gaza? The New York Times points out confusion among Israelis, with a defense official saying that education was not a humanitarian concern worth the risks associated with allowing the students out, while  the prime minister’s office asserted the opposite. Given that 100 Gazan businesspeople were just permitted to go to Bethlehem for an investment conference the U.S. strongly supported, it seems that had the U.S. made this a priority, the Fulbright students would be able to leave Gaza.

How is it that reaching out to the people of Gaza, and in particular to the best and the brightest of the young people in Gaza, is not a primary interest of the United States? If the U.S. and Israeli policies are premised on reaching out to and strengthening moderate Palestinians then how does this quote from Abdulrahman Abdullah, who was one of the students who was meant to get a Fulbright, fit into the equation?

"If we are talking about peace and mutual understanding, it means investing in people who will later contribute to Palestinian society … I am against Hamas. Their acts and policies are wrong. Israel talks about a Palestinian state. But who will build that state if we can get no training?”

Last October, Taghreed el-Khodary, the New York Times journalist in Gaza and herself a Harvard Nieman fellow, spoke to us at Middle East Bulletin about the situation in Gaza. She is on the committee to select Fulbright scholars and, at that point, last year’s group was unable to leave. She told us:

“When talking about Fulbrights – this is a very select group. These are the brightest students, with strong undergraduate records; they are generally among the most  open-minded too. They want to pursue graduate studies in the United States to continue  their education, and come back to work and change society here. They are the ones with the potential to make changes; and they want to better understand the U.S., and to have Americans better understand Palestinians. You know this is what Fulbrights are all about. And these people are missing this chance, entirely.”

For almost a year, Israelis, Americans and Palestinian leaders now in the West Bank seem unable to thread the needle between isolating Hamas and not isolating or punishing the people of Gaza. To provide the people of Gaza some reprieve without benefiting Hamas requires a secure means of manning the checkpoints that allow people and goods in and out of Gaza, for example, without giving up control to Hamas. It is difficult but possible and necessary to find a balance between protecting the critical security needs of Israel and the long-term interests of everyone in the region. To do this, the basic needs of the people of Gaza must be met, they must be able to see a better future on the horizon and we must demonstrate to them that we care about their present and their future.

What the United States has just done in canceling the Fulbright opportunities for these students says just the opposite on all counts. It is indefensible not to keep our commitments to these students and incomprehensible that this is not a primary interest of the United States.

Update: Secretary Rice says she hadn't heard about this and will "look into it." How did this not make it onto her desk before it happened?

May 28, 2008

Don't tread on me
Posted by Max Bergmann

Today is a big day for American soccer fans - especially for the Anglophile among us. The US plays England at historic Wembley in London today at 3pm (note to bosses: I am taping the game and will watch after work).

Having lived in England for a number of years and felt the complete and utter disregard of the US national team by the Brits, a good showing by the US national team would be particularly satisfying. The British press mocking of American soccer was particularly brutal during the 2002 world cup. The Guardian ran a fake transcript of what it would be like if an American announced an England game. The BBC mocked ABC's announcers - granted they were poor, and the commentators paid absolutely no attention to the U.S. team. Alan Hansen, a BBC pundit, as I remember, dismissed our chances in the round of 16 against Mexico - our arch soccer rival that we had not lost to for a number of years.  And when Nike came out with the "don't tred on me" ad invoking Tom Paine's revolutionary war pamphlet - it hit close to him. The US team after 2002 was looking for respect...

Unfortunately, 2006 did not go so well. But US soccer has made tremendous advances. Many more American players are playing in the top European leagues, a number of young American players appear to be budding stars, and the team has been playing well under Bob Bradley the last year and half. And with games coming up against Spain and Argentina in the next few weeks and the Confederation Cup next year the U.S. will have plenty of preparation prior to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

But this is England - and a chance to demonstrate to the nation that created the sport that the US team is no longer a push over - that we have arrived. One of the great things about being an American soccer fan is that we truly get to adopt that underdog mantra. As Steven Wells wrote in the Guardian a few years back,

Despite the fact that we've taken turns to run the world via vastly superior firepower, both Brits and Yanks desperately need to portray themselves as outnumbered and outgunned. We've got Rorke's Drift, Dunkirk and Arnhem. They've got the Alamo, Guadalcanal and dogfaces firing rifles at Tiger tanks during the Battle of the Bulge.

...The US men's team is an overdog in embryo. A glance at the stats (pro-soccer in the US is already better attended than in most European countries while the grassroots game continues to explode) tells you that the US will soon be a soccer superpower. And when that happens this intensely patriotic country will - for the first time ever - have a men's sports team that can consistently kick international ass (the US women's soccer team has been doing it for years). And that's not going to be pretty. There'll be nothing 'plucky' about it. Just the brutal application of raw demographic power...

In the 1760s Britain emerged atop the imperial dogpile as the world's undisputed heavyweight champion. And it felt kinda odd. The seeds of arrogant, triumphalist jingoism existed alongside a gnawing nostalgia (among intellectuals and writers at least) for the cocky, outgunned but ingenious little England of Drake and Raleigh. Of course this reverie was rudely interrupted shortly after when the cocky, outgunned but ingenious citizens of a new country called the United States of America pluckily kicked Britain's enormous new imperial nadgers clean off - but for a while the sudden loss of underdog status caused real pain.

I suggest US soccer fans enjoy being underestimated, derided, mocked and written off while they still can. It won't get any better than this.

Until then - don't tread on me.


Taking a Stand on Darfur
Posted by Moira Whelan

In a great (and rare) demonstration of political unity, Save Darfur launched a campaign today with the support of all three presidential candidates calling for an end to the violence in Darfur.

It's a great moment of bipartisanship...but not in the David Broder kind of way.

Well done, and hopefully this is just the beginning of an effort to promote a commitment human dignity around the world.

Watch the video here:

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