Published May 19, 2011
For Obama, The Less Said on the Middle East the Better
"Tunisia was the first, but swiftly the knights of Egypt have taken a spark from the free people of Tunisia to Tahrir Square. It has made the rulers worried…. I think that the winds of change will blow over the entire Muslim world, with permission from Allah.”
-- Usama bin Laden in a recording released posthumously by Islamist terror group al Qaeda praising the popular uprisings across the Middle East. Translation provided by SITE Intelligence Group.
With the Arab Spring looking increasingly menacing and Jewish Democratic donors cautioning Obama against any sweeping statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, today’s speech has continued to shrink in scope since it was first announced two weeks ago as a pivot point on American policy.
The administration at first promised a broad address that juxtaposed the wholesome efforts of the Arab Spring with the failed jihad of Usama bin Laden. The speech would give Obama a chance to remind Americans that he was the one who gave the go-ahead to the mission that killed bin Laden and to use that acclaim to explain an often confusing administration policy toward the region.
But in a new audio recording made by the terror boss in his Pakistani hideout before being snuffed by Navy SEALs, bin laden sounds wholly happy about the Arab Spring. His point was that the movement will help drive out Western influence in the region and establish Islamist control over the region. To him, it meant another step closer to the end of secularism and the elimination of Israel. Suicide bombers or flash mobs – whatever it takes.
Usama bin Laden always played the politician and said whatever was happening was good for his cause, even if it was the US Air Force bombing the bejeebers out of his friends in the Taliban.
But recent events have suggested that the early excitement with which the Obama administration greeted the uprisings may have been too much -- especially as Israel (or the eradication of it) becomes central to the movement. Whatever happens next, there is no doubt that U.S. influence in the region has been dramatically lessened.
Obama today will likely explain how this is a good thing and why it is time for the region to sort out its own affairs. This will be a more artful explanation of what an anonymous staffer described to The New Yorker as “leading from behind.” The message will be that America is there to help any good things that happen, but won’t be shaping policy – except in Libya, but that’s different. And Bahrain, but that’s different too.
He will also talk about the largely symbolic sanctions against Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. Obama has yet to call for regime change in the wake of Assad’s brutal crackdown on unrest among the country’s Sunni majority, and may take the chance today to get closer to that threshold.
Obama will also lay out a new foreign aid program that involves some kind of formula for conditioning aid on good conduct and metrics. The president may talk about accountability, but Americans hate foreign aid, especially at a time when the government is $14.3 trillion in debt.
And as for Israel, well, it’s complicated. With the Arab revolution spreading to the Palestinians and Hamas being welcomed back into polite company again, the Israelis are in no mood to hear calls from Obama for concessions in the peace process.
Liu a Likely Loser in Court Bid
“…‘free enterprise,’ ‘private ownership of property,’ and ‘limited government.’ These are code words for an ideological agenda hostile to environmental, workplace, and consumer protections.”
-- University of California at Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu in a July 22, 2005 Bloomberg News op-ed opposing the confirmation of now Chief Justice John Roberts.
Celebrity has been a double-edge sword for Goodwin Liu.
His provocative opinions and media appearances have helped make him a favorite of the American left. He was especially prized for his brutal attacks on George W. Bush’s court nominees. Without Liu’s high-profile punditry, it is unlikely that President Obama would continue to push the Berkeley professor and former law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for an opening on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
But because of Liu’s outspoken and confrontational ways – he described Samuel Alito as the kind of judge who would allow police to gun down unarmed children for the crime of purse snatching and championed the use of decisions from other countries in setting U.S. precedents – he seems likely to be denied the prize of a lifetime appointment.
While Liu excoriated Bush appointees for what he believed was a secret conservative agenda, Liu has been right out in the open with his positions. He omitted more than 100 of his prior writings in his disclosure to the Senate, but it wasn’t like his views about the use of the courts as a vehicle for social engineering were any mystery.
It looks likely that Liu’s nomination will go down to a bipartisan defeat today, despite a recent mellowing on judicial appointments after federal judges pleaded for the Senate to break its partisan logjam on appointments.
But Liu will be too much for most Republicans and some Red State Democrats. The gentleman’s agreement between the parties forbids filibusters except for in “extraordinary circumstances,” and Liu seems to have met that threshold. And it’s hard to see how Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia or Claire McCaskill of Missouri could risk a vote for him.
The good news for Liu is that he will likely have a much more celebrated (and probably lucrative) career as a doyenne of the legal left than he would have hearing appeals in San Francisco. The bad news is that it probably also means that he will never make it to the Supreme Court.
War Powers Deadline Looms on Libya
“Friday is the final day of the statutory sixty-day period for you to terminate the use of the United States Armed Forces in Libya under the War Powers Resolution. As recently as last week your Administration indicated use of the United States Armed Forces will continue indefinitely. Therefore, we are writing to ask whether you intend to comply with the requirements of the War Powers Resolution. We await your response.”
Congress has always been hesitant about invoking the War Powers Resolution of 1973 for fear that by exercising the authority they might lose it.
Presidents since Richard Nixon have been dismissive of the law that gives the commander in chief 48 hours to inform Congress about committing American forces to a conflict and then 60 days to obtain congressional approval or withdraw forces. Constitutional purists have long lamented the resolution because it actually cedes some of Congress’ enumerated power to declare war to the chief executive. But modern presidents have mostly viewed the law as an attempt to usurp executive power.
Congress invoked the law in 1993 over the Somalia intervention, but presidents have mostly avoided these final confrontations by either getting some kind of authorization from Congress – either before or after a U.S. strike – or by wrapping up any adventures within the two-month window.
But Obama has been unable to extricate the U.S. from the Libyan civil war despite stepped up efforts to expand NATO’s humanitarian mission into a plan to take out Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. The morass continues at a moment when Congress is increasingly populated with constitution sticklers.
The problem for Obama is that while killing Usama bin Laden has boosted public support for the war in Afghanistan (likely on the supposition that voters believe the nation-building effort to be ending), the Libya war has few supporters.
Enthusiasts for intervention like Sen. John McCain don’t like the half measures Obama has deployed – late entry, limited engagement, occluded mission, etc. – while those who were on the fence over the conflict now fear that the mission will turn into a long, expensive commitment for our deeply indebted government. Since the war looks more like a tribal bloodbath than a democracy movement there is now little hope for a rapid end to hostilities or a functional pan-tribal government.
Obama can choose to ignore the demand from constitutional conservatives and anti-war liberals alike for an end to U.S. involvement, but that will only agitate other lawmakers concerned about the loss of a congressional prerogative. That agitation would make it less likely for Obama to ever get authorization for the participation and jeopardize his other military initiatives, including the escalation of the covert campaign in Pakistan.
On the other hand, if Obama tries to pitch a resolution in support of the war right now, it might go down to defeat and leave him in the position of bailing out of the war even as our NATO allies are unable to prosecute the mission. That would be a loss of face and open the possibility that the U.S. will have to return to sort out what promises to be an unhappy ending.
The better political case can be built for seeking approval. Obama’s clout on foreign policy is likely to never be so high again as it is in the afterglow of killing Usama bin Laden. Democrats like the feeling of being tough on terror right now and there would be fewer defectors than there will be when the warmth of the killing has faded.
Pentagon Peeved Over Bin Laden Leaks
"My concern is that there were too many people in too many places talking too much about -- about this operation. And we -- we had reached agreement that we would not talk about the operational details… I'm very concerned about this, because we -- we want to retain the capability to carry out these kinds of operations in the future.”
-- Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a press conference talking about the leaked details of the raid that killed Usama bin Laden.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates is making no secret of his annoyance with the rampant leaking surrounding the SEAL Team raid that killed Usama bin Laden.
Others in the administration, like Gates’ designated replacement, CIA boss Leon Panetta, are blaming too much chatter among military men and the media, Gates has now twice – once at a Wednesday press conference and once at a Q&A session with Marines at Camp Lejeune – placed blame on violations of an agreement to secrecy made in the White House Situation room on the night that President Obama and his team watched the killing.
A retired military officer told Power Play that Gates’ frustration reflects a broad sentiment within the officer corps that there has been too much talk about the raid coming from the political precincts of the administration.
“If you kill the guy, you don’t need to go on and on about it,” the recently retired officer said. “Killing him sort of speaks for itself.”
The strains with the Pentagon will likely fade, especially given the lavish praise the president has heaped on the SEALs themselves, but the White House talk has done real damage to the political advantage the president is trying to obtain from killing bin Laden.
By slurping out too much, too soon his advisers created confusion and an air of disarray, shifting the focus from the wonderfulness of the thing to gritty operational details.
And a tight-lipped response from the White House would have encouraged more restraint and decorum down the line, the absence of which Panetta and others have lamented. When the White House is dishing details to insatiable reporters in a midnight press briefing (several points of which were later contradicted), it sets a low threshold for leaking.
As the president looks to continue using the bin Laden killing in fundraisers (he credited donors in Boston Wednesday with making the killing possible by their support), a speech about Middle East policy and then with a victory-lap visit to the CIA, there is less to work with as a result of the excessive detail.
Obama Keeps Taking Shots at RomneyCare
"Our work isn't done. Yes, we passed health care, with an assist from a former Massachusetts governor. Great idea. But we still have to implement it."
-- President Obama at a $35,000-per-couple fundraiser in Brookline, Mass.
The only two Republican Presidential candidates President Obama much mentions are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Obama’s former ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman.
When Obama has jabbed Huntsman about running for office it has helped enhance the former Utah governor’s political profile. But when Obama mentions Romney, it is always to highlight Romney’s 2006 Massachusetts health care law that, like Obama’s national law, requires all citizens to either purchase insurance or be enrolled in a government program.
One of the beneficiaries of Newt Gingrich’s disastrous campaign launch has been Romney. His healthcare law is hugely unpopular among Republican primary voters. It was controversial in during the 2008 election, but given Obama’s adoption of its core principle, it has become toxic.
Gingrich, who will be making an appearance on “Face the Nation” Sunday, took the focus away from negative reactions to a speech last week by Romney in which he tried to reframe the debate. Conservatives were hammering away at Romney’s mandate two-step when Gingrich began to self-destruct by launching attacks on Republican plans for entitlement reform.
Obama, though, is determined to keep the focus on Romney and not let voters forget the similarities between their plans. This not only could help derail Romney’s bid in the primaries but helps foreclose Romney’s avenues of attack on health care if he does end up winning the GOP nomination.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“I'm not sure he is toast. More of a collapsed soufflé.”