Commentary Magazine


Topic: State Department

Obama’s Siege Mentality

You may have noticed in recent months that the spokespersons for the U.S. State Department–the public face of American foreign policy–have proved themselves both unqualified and undignified. Just as the challenges to the global order have become more serious, our spokesyokels have become less so.

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You may have noticed in recent months that the spokespersons for the U.S. State Department–the public face of American foreign policy–have proved themselves both unqualified and undignified. Just as the challenges to the global order have become more serious, our spokesyokels have become less so.

There was the famous “hashtag diplomacy,” during which spokeswoman Jen Psaki demanded that Vladimir Putin stop invading Ukraine and thereby truly begin to “live by the promise of hashtag.” Even if Putin wanted to give the order to retreat from Ukraine, there was no way he could do so until he stopped laughing, so the selfie diplomacy was counterproductive as well as inane.

Then there was Marie Harf, first rewriting history on the bin Laden raid and getting called out on television by Andrea Mitchell and then, in the course of defending some more ridiculous moments by Psaki, picking a fight with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and even calling him “sexist” for criticizing Psaki.

If that last gambit sounded eerily like a stale, cynical Obama campaign ploy, there’s a reason for it: Psaki and Harf came to the State Department from the committee to reelect the president. (Though, in fairness, Harf worked in communications for the CIA earlier in her career.) And that, I think, helps us understand why exactly Psaki and Harf were given their current jobs, and why the president may not quite understand how much of a disaster they’ve been.

Over the weekend Paul Mirengoff at Power Line offered his own dual theory as to why Obama hires such “obvious lightweights” to speak for American foreign policy. First, Mirengoff writes, “Obama is playing to a core component of his base — the young.” Second, Mirengoff believes “Team Obama is trying to ‘demystify’ foreign policy — to make it look unthreatening almost to the point of child’s play. Psaki and Harf provide visual expression of this view just by standing at the podium and talking.”

He continues:

If one believes that the world is a dangerous place and that the U.S. must, accordingly, respond with constant vigilance and, at times, forceful engagement, then you want your spokespersons to look and talk maturely and somberly — to project, in a word, gravitas. For those of us who see the world that way, James Haggerty (Eisenhower’s press secretary who once said “if you lose your temper at a newspaper columnist, he’ll get rich or famous or both”) is a model.

But suppose you don’t believe the world is all that inherently dangerous. Suppose you believe, as Obama does, that the U.S. is at the root of many of the world’s problems and that a new dawn in international relations is possible if America will just lighten up.

In that case, you will be quite happy with light, breezy young foreign policy spokespersons. And if, like Harf, that spokesperson likes to get snarky with conservative journalist, all the better.

I recommend Mirengoff’s whole post on the topic. But my guess would be, as I mentioned earlier, to look to the Harf/Psaki team’s last jobs to grasp their current ones.

Back in 2012, the New York Times published a long article on President Obama’s “Terror Tuesdays,” his weekly meetings on counterterrorism. The article was centered on Obama’s drone war and how he was choosing and eliminating terror targets instead of capturing them. Present in the room for those meetings, the Times revealed, was Obama’s top political advisor David Axelrod, “his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.”

Axelrod was there because Obama is always hyper-aware of the partisan political implications of everything he does, including national security acts and choosing which terrorists to assassinate. It rankled people a bit that Axelrod sat in on those meetings, but for Obama cynical political point-scoring tends to be the priority.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel wrote a piece on “Obama’s Kissingers,” the people the president had brought into his national-security inner circle. It was heavy on the “political hacks.” Some of them, like Tommy Vietor (who famously responded to a question on Benghazi with the immortal words “Dude, this was like two years ago”), were particularly undistinguished.

So why put people like that out front to take questions from the press? Because Obama’s innate bitter partisanship dominates his staffing decisions, and because he not only views the press as possible enemies–and treats them as such–but any questions as being part of the daily political competition between the president and his many pursuers.

A disturbing example of this was contained in an August column by Chemi Shalev on the administration’s decision to withhold weaponry from Israel during wartime. Shalev writes: “a very senior Washington figure recently told an Israeli counterpart that each step or statement made by Netanyahu is a-priori examined by the White House to see if it helps the Republicans or if Sheldon Adelson might be behind it.”

That is the kind of remarkably unhealthy paranoia for which the president has unfortunately come to be known. And it explains why political hacks and spinmeisters are the only people he trusts to field questions from the press. To this president, everyone’s a suspect.

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Why Is the State Department Supporting a Jewish Conspiracy Book Fair?

Tom Gross, probably Europe’s leading observer of the Middle East to whose work I have linked before, points out on his website that the U.S. State Department has become a “cultural partner” with the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which this year has run from April 30 until May 5. He writes:

Among the anti-Semitic publications on display at the fair (in both English and Arabic) – books which paved the way for The Holocaust – are “The International Jew,” “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” is now reported to be the second most widely published book in the Arab world. It promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews are planning global domination.

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Tom Gross, probably Europe’s leading observer of the Middle East to whose work I have linked before, points out on his website that the U.S. State Department has become a “cultural partner” with the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which this year has run from April 30 until May 5. He writes:

Among the anti-Semitic publications on display at the fair (in both English and Arabic) – books which paved the way for The Holocaust – are “The International Jew,” “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” is now reported to be the second most widely published book in the Arab world. It promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews are planning global domination.

He notes, rightly, that there are many books on display that have absolutely nothing to do with Israel, Jews, or conspiracy theories. Still, no other U.S. government agency would even consider sponsoring a conference that promoted the works, for example, of racists David Duke and Louis Farrakhan, or conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, even if it also sold books by J.K Rowling or Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys. Why the State Department under the leadership of John Kerry believes that it should use American taxpayer money to do the equivalent is a question that goes to the very heart of how the State Department spends money and executes strategy which in theory should promote American interests and U.S. national security.

Perhaps it is long past due for those in Congress charged with oversight of Foggy Bottom to ask such basic questions and to examine such choices as the State Department’s decision to sponsor the Abu Dhabi book fair, and work backwards to see how the choice was made and what due diligence, if any, our Foreign Service conducted.

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Why Do Diplomats Tweet?

Whatever one’s opinion of Obama administration policies—and even on these pages there are different assessments—it is clear that President Obama and his administration have embraced social media far more than his predecessors.  During the 2012 campaign, journalists noted that Obama had an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even if those counting deducted the millions of Obama’s fake followers.

Not only does the State Department tweet, but so does John Kerry. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweets constantly, even if at times nonsensically. While it’s all well and good to embrace the new communications tool, the technology is no substitute for substance.

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Whatever one’s opinion of Obama administration policies—and even on these pages there are different assessments—it is clear that President Obama and his administration have embraced social media far more than his predecessors.  During the 2012 campaign, journalists noted that Obama had an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even if those counting deducted the millions of Obama’s fake followers.

Not only does the State Department tweet, but so does John Kerry. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweets constantly, even if at times nonsensically. While it’s all well and good to embrace the new communications tool, the technology is no substitute for substance.

Last month, the Public Diplomacy Council published an insightful interview with Laurence Pope, an experienced diplomat with long service in the Middle East. Pope was asked a long-overdue question with regard to the State Department’s Twitter outreach:

Q:  The Department has embraced the social media to re-shape public diplomacy and transform American diplomacy.  What contribution can it make?

POPE:  There is nothing wrong with the use of Twitter and Facebook and Zillow and Youtube and all the rest of it, but diplomacy requires speech on behalf of the state, and social media are individual expressions by definition.  This can easily create confusion —think for example of Susan Rice tweeting about the need to bomb Syria while the President was changing his mind about that.  I don’t know how many Facebook pages and Twitter accounts there are at the State Department —hundreds if not thousands.  When individuals speak through them, one of two things are true: either they are expressing American policy, in which case 140 characters is unlikely to be a useful way of doing so, or they aren’t, in which case their views may be interesting, but there is a risk of confusion… The Youtube videos newly minted ambassadors make are downright embarrassing.  They give an impression of proconsular self-regard which is in bad taste.  Diplomacy is premised on a world of sovereign states.  The State Department’s  fascination with social media suggests that it no longer thinks that is the world we live in, a strange notion for a foreign ministry.  

Just as diplomatic correspondents and the secretaries of state they cover err by seeming to conflate miles flown with success, so too does the State Department fail by believing tweets matter. Russian President Vladimir Putin must laugh when, against the backdrop of ordering the invasion of Crimea, he faced little more than a cavalcade of angry tweets from Power. The sad thing is that the State Department now spends millions on public diplomacy, Twitter, and translations of its Twitter feed without once asking what good its Twitter feed does. That is not to deny that outreach can be positive, but it’s silly to spend such money without ever establishing metrics by which to judge Twitter diplomacy—and sillier to treat new communications technology as a substitute for substance.

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State Department Ignoring Treaty Cheating Nothing New

Bill Gertz over at the Washington Free Beacon reports that House leaders seek a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation into the State Department’s failure to report Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Gertz writes:

“It is clear from my subcommittee’s oversight that the administration did not fully disclose what it knew about Russian arms control violations when it was trying to get the New START treaty ratified,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces. “Its all-consuming drive to protect its Russia reset policy has gutted our missile defenses, alienated allies, and only encouraged Vladimir Putin’s lawlessness,” he said in a statement.

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Bill Gertz over at the Washington Free Beacon reports that House leaders seek a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation into the State Department’s failure to report Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Gertz writes:

“It is clear from my subcommittee’s oversight that the administration did not fully disclose what it knew about Russian arms control violations when it was trying to get the New START treaty ratified,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces. “Its all-consuming drive to protect its Russia reset policy has gutted our missile defenses, alienated allies, and only encouraged Vladimir Putin’s lawlessness,” he said in a statement.

Alas, the willingness of the State Department (often the Central Intelligence Agency as well) to turn a blind eye to intelligence that undercuts high-profile diplomatic engagements is more the rule than the exception. Researching Dancing With the Devil, it became clear that diplomats and analysts often seek to bury information that might lead Congress to conclude that diplomacy is not successful. When Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, both the CIA and the State Department changed their interpretation of the “yellow rain” incident to suggest that the battlefield presence of deadly toxins dropped from airplanes had less to do with the Soviet planes that dropped them than naturally occurring bee feces that just happened to appear in the area at the same time. To conclude that the Soviet Union had violated the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), diplomats and analysts feared, might undercut efforts to conclude the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT-2). Years later, however, as the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian officials acknowledged that they had indeed cheated on the BWC.

Likewise, when Congress asked the State Department to certify that the Palestine Liberation Organization had foresworn terrorism, and made U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority contingent on that certification, senior Clinton administration State Department officials appear to have lied to Congress, when the now declassified intelligence is compared with their contemporary testimony. And, of course, the State Department reacted with outrage when the GAO found that North Korea had been cheating on its commitments because senior Clinton administration officials said such a finding could endanger diplomacy.

Let us hope that Mike Rogers and Ted Poe (R., Texas), chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade, continue to press the GAO to report on the State Department’s actions. For unless the pattern in which diplomats twist truth to justify diplomacy is broken, American national security will continue to suffer and adversaries will continue to understand that they need not adhere to their commitments.

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UNESCO Fiasco Explains Why ME Talks Fail

Did anyone really think a United Nations agency would sponsor a scholarly exhibition about the 3,500-year-old connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel? The world body’s constituent agencies have been cesspools of anti-Semitism for decades with many of them devoting a disproportionate amount of time, money and effort to attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state and to condemn its every action. Chief among the culprits has been UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which endorsed the infamous 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution by the UN General Assembly on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and has since been a veritable playground for international Israel-bashers. The United States and Israel stopped paying dues to the agency in 2011 when it admitted “Palestine” as a full voting member although it is not a UN member state.

But, perhaps in an effort to win back American support, UNESCO agreed to host an exhibit on the Jews and their ancient homeland at its Paris headquarters. But all it took was a single letter of protest from the Arab members of the agency to get UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to cancel the exhibit created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the grounds that it might harm the Middle East peace process. This is an outrageous insult to Jews everywhere since it treats the ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel as a matter of debate rather than historical fact. As the author of the exhibit, historian Robert Wistrich has said, coming from an organization devoted to Holocaust commemoration, the decision once again illustrates that the UN “loves dead Jews” but regards the existence of live ones, especially in the state of Israel, as something it cannot stomach.

This is no surprise to anyone who follows the UN, but it is interesting to note that in explaining her decision to shelve the exhibit, Bokova used the same excuse cited by the U.S. State Department when it, too, chose not to co-sponsor the exhibit. Only Israel, Canada, and Montenegro were willing to put their names on the display. Though the U.S. has subsequently and rightly condemned Bokova’s decision, the Obama administration’s decision to keep its distance from the exhibit makes its rebuke to UNESCO an example of rank hypocrisy.

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Did anyone really think a United Nations agency would sponsor a scholarly exhibition about the 3,500-year-old connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel? The world body’s constituent agencies have been cesspools of anti-Semitism for decades with many of them devoting a disproportionate amount of time, money and effort to attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state and to condemn its every action. Chief among the culprits has been UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which endorsed the infamous 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution by the UN General Assembly on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and has since been a veritable playground for international Israel-bashers. The United States and Israel stopped paying dues to the agency in 2011 when it admitted “Palestine” as a full voting member although it is not a UN member state.

But, perhaps in an effort to win back American support, UNESCO agreed to host an exhibit on the Jews and their ancient homeland at its Paris headquarters. But all it took was a single letter of protest from the Arab members of the agency to get UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to cancel the exhibit created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the grounds that it might harm the Middle East peace process. This is an outrageous insult to Jews everywhere since it treats the ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel as a matter of debate rather than historical fact. As the author of the exhibit, historian Robert Wistrich has said, coming from an organization devoted to Holocaust commemoration, the decision once again illustrates that the UN “loves dead Jews” but regards the existence of live ones, especially in the state of Israel, as something it cannot stomach.

This is no surprise to anyone who follows the UN, but it is interesting to note that in explaining her decision to shelve the exhibit, Bokova used the same excuse cited by the U.S. State Department when it, too, chose not to co-sponsor the exhibit. Only Israel, Canada, and Montenegro were willing to put their names on the display. Though the U.S. has subsequently and rightly condemned Bokova’s decision, the Obama administration’s decision to keep its distance from the exhibit makes its rebuke to UNESCO an example of rank hypocrisy.

The UNESCO decision to avoid anything having to do with the history of the region might make sense if the world body refrained from endorsements of the Palestinian view of events. But this is the same United Nations that holds an annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (expanded now to a “Year of Solidarity” in 2014), an event that is nothing less than an Israel-bashing festival, replete with pseudo-historical displays aimed at walking back the UN’s 1947 decision to create a Jewish state in the then-British Mandate for Palestine alongside an Arab one.

As Wistrich says in an interview with the Times of Israel, given UNESCO’s history of anti-Israel bias, he was skeptical from the start of the process of creating the exhibit. But he is especially angry about the State Department’s refusal to endorse the exhibit and not unreasonably believes it may have set the stage for Bokova’s decision to bail on the project:

The State Department had been repeatedly asked to cosponsor the exhibition, and “after sitting on the fence for a long time they declined, using a very similar argument to that used by the Arab delegates,” Wistrich said.

Earlier this month, Kelly Siekman, the State Department’s director of UNESCO affairs, wrote to the Wiesenthal Center: “At this sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process, and after thoughtful consideration with review at the highest levels, we have made the decision that the United States will not be able to cosponsor the current exhibit during its display at UNESCO headquarters. As a rule, the United States does not cosponsor exhibits at UNESCO without oversight of content development from conception to final production.”

“That makes the U.S., passively at least, complicit in the UNESCO decision,” Wistrich charged. “Because in my view UNESCO would not have felt that it could, with impunity, act in this way if the U.S. had been a cosponsor.”

The reason that the exhibit was necessary in the first place was to correct the depiction of the state of Israel purveyed by the Palestinians and their international cheerleaders as a colonial error in which Jews were dumped on Arab territory in order to compensate for the Holocaust. If Jews are seen as having connections and a presence in historic Israel/Palestine millennia before 1948, it undermines the canard—a staple of Palestinian Authority propaganda and incitement—to delegitimize the notion that Jews have any right to sovereignty anywhere in the Middle East, making peace talks pointless.

That is exactly the sort of delusional perspective the State Department should be working hard to oppose. But the American decision to distance itself from the project sent an unmistakable message that the Obama administration views any talk about Jewish ties to the land as too controversial to warrant its involvement. So long as the Palestinians are enabled by both the UN and the U.S. to continue denying Jewish history, the peace process that both Bokova and the State Department claim to take so seriously  has no chance of success. 

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Hillary and the “Preventable Tragedy”

In today’s New York Times, the paper’s editorial column addresses the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Benghazi terror attack and draws some strong conclusions about what happened and why. The piece soberly digests the findings and rightly concludes that even when one takes into account the difficult circumstances in Libya on September 11, 2012, there is no escaping the fact that the State Department was at fault:

In the last analysis, however, it is the State Department that must bear most of the blame for failing to provide adequate security and not preventing the preventable. This leaves the department on the same hook that an investigation by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it on last year when it faulted the department’s “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies.”

For once, the Times editorial page is right on target with its analysis. Though the department’s leadership has consistently attempted to divert public attention from its blunders, as the paper accurately concludes, subsequent reforms in its procedures have come “tragically very late in the game.” But there is one element missing from this analysis. Indeed, one could say there are two vital and inescapable words that are nowhere to be found in it: Hillary and Clinton.

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In today’s New York Times, the paper’s editorial column addresses the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Benghazi terror attack and draws some strong conclusions about what happened and why. The piece soberly digests the findings and rightly concludes that even when one takes into account the difficult circumstances in Libya on September 11, 2012, there is no escaping the fact that the State Department was at fault:

In the last analysis, however, it is the State Department that must bear most of the blame for failing to provide adequate security and not preventing the preventable. This leaves the department on the same hook that an investigation by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it on last year when it faulted the department’s “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies.”

For once, the Times editorial page is right on target with its analysis. Though the department’s leadership has consistently attempted to divert public attention from its blunders, as the paper accurately concludes, subsequent reforms in its procedures have come “tragically very late in the game.” But there is one element missing from this analysis. Indeed, one could say there are two vital and inescapable words that are nowhere to be found in it: Hillary and Clinton.

As Senator John McCain noted this week on the floor of the Senate when discussing the paper’s coverage of the aftermath of the Benghazi attack and the scandal attaching to subsequent attempts by the administration to mislead the public about it, the Times has been “an ever-reliable surrogate for the administration” on all things Benghazi. But never, even when publishing a badly reported piece falsely claiming that there was no al-Qaeda involvement in the attack, has the paper displayed its partisan bias in so brazen a manner as in this editorial.

Contrary to conspiracy theorists, Mrs. Clinton did not intend the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the American post in Benghazi, when she chose not to involve herself in the discussions about security in Libya. There is almost certainly no “smoking gun” memo to be found in which she expresses indifference to the possibility of a terror attack or another in which she orders people to lie about the event after it had occurred, even though that is exactly what happened when talking points were distributed that falsely characterized the terror attack as a case of movie criticism run amok. But if, as the Times correctly notes, the fault for not “preventing the preventable” must lie with the State Department, how is it possible to condemn the agency without even mentioning that responsibility for that failure must be laid at the feet of the person running the place?

The reason for the decision not to prioritize security in Libya is not exactly a mystery. Mrs. Clinton did not ask questions about the topic or see to it, as was her responsibility, that our missions were not being left unprotected simply because the topic was not of any great interest to her. Since the president was running for reelection in part on the strength of a belief that al-Qaeda was no longer a threat after the death of Osama bin Laden, any attention devoted to counter-terror activities or security in a country that was thought to be securely in the hands of friends of the United States was bad politics. That also explains the almost reflexive instinct on the part of Clinton and others in the diplomatic and security apparatus to deny what happened was an act of terror even after it was obvious to all those in the know.

Though these were the aspects of the job that Mrs. Clinton relished, running a vast enterprise like the U.S. Department of State is about more than making speeches and racking up frequent flyer miles on the way to photo opportunities. It also means taking responsibility for an enormous government agency and holding all those who administer its various departments accountable. And, as Benghazi proved, it was on that more prosaic but ultimately vital task, that her leadership proved inadequate.

Given that Mrs. Clinton appears on track to be asking the country to put her in charge of a far larger enterprise than merely the State Department—the entire federal government—if she is elected president in 2016, it is not unfair to ask whether her record on Benghazi ought to influence the decision of the voters. But that is one question that the New York Times dare not ask even as it takes the agency she ran to task for failures and misconduct that happened on her watch.

Though there is really no comparison to the most notorious public scandal of the last week—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate—it should be noted that the Times has run three editorials in the last eight days on that topic. The Times has rightly taken Christie to task not just for the egregious traffic jam that his aides manufactured but also for creating an atmosphere in which such misconduct could happen. It has also correctly noted that whether or not he knew in advance about the scheme, since it happened on his watch as governor, he bears responsibility for what happened. Yet even though four more people died in Benghazi than perished (other than metaphorically from frustration and boredom) in the traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, the Times saw fit never to mention Clinton in the editorial about what happened on her watch at the State Department.

As the flagship of elite liberal opinion in this country, it is to be expected that the Times would support Clinton’s candidacy even long before she declares her intentions about 2016. But for it to publish a scathing editorial about the conduct of the State Department during the period of her stewardship without even alluding to the fact that she was the one who presided over the disaster illustrates the paper’s utter lack of intellectual integrity.

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Of Mad Men and Diplomacy

While Pentagon employees faced furlough and military contractors received pink slips, the State Department continued operating basically as normal. After all, diplomacy is essential stuff, even when the U.S. government is $17 trillion in debt. And while certainly it makes sense to keep essential diplomats at their posts, continue American citizen services, and keep embassies open, it’s long past time the State Department stopped treating public diplomacy as a slush fund to pursue projects that are far from essential.

Take, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain. Just days before the government shutdown, the embassy sponsored a visit by Andre and Marie Jacquemetton, writers and producers for the TV show Mad Men. Now, I like Mad Men, and I’m sure it has its Bahraini fan base as well, but I remain at a loss as to how sponsoring their visit enhances American interests.

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While Pentagon employees faced furlough and military contractors received pink slips, the State Department continued operating basically as normal. After all, diplomacy is essential stuff, even when the U.S. government is $17 trillion in debt. And while certainly it makes sense to keep essential diplomats at their posts, continue American citizen services, and keep embassies open, it’s long past time the State Department stopped treating public diplomacy as a slush fund to pursue projects that are far from essential.

Take, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain. Just days before the government shutdown, the embassy sponsored a visit by Andre and Marie Jacquemetton, writers and producers for the TV show Mad Men. Now, I like Mad Men, and I’m sure it has its Bahraini fan base as well, but I remain at a loss as to how sponsoring their visit enhances American interests.

Ditto this band performance sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Oman, and Turkey gets the Kung-Fu Masters, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. The U.S. Embassy in Morocco “empowered” hundreds of Moroccan youth by sponsoring skateboarding workshops in six cities. It’s not just the Middle East where such expenditures are made. The U.S. Embassy in Belize is assisting with “Teaching Tumbling to Youth,” and the State Department sent a sculptor to Honduras to help judge a local art contest. Meanwhile, of course, budget cuts have prevented the deployment of a U.S. hospital ship which would have provided medical services to a number of countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. The U.S. Embassy in Ireland flew a chef from Washington D.C. to Dublin to give cooking lessons, so U.S.-Irish relations are now secure.

A culture of profligate spending continues to permeate public service. Projects are sponsored to fill programming space and keep junior officers busy with little consideration for how that money fulfills core U.S. interests. Government workers have blurred the distinction between essential and frivolous, and the State Department remains unable to show any lasting benefit from sponsoring such programming. Alas, when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, the problem is no longer just the budget, but the culture in which decisions regarding spending priorities are made.

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Blame the Middle Manager for Benghazi?

Nine months after the terrorist attack in Benghazi that cost four American lives, we’re finally finding out who it was that the State Department thinks is responsible for the debacle: the middle managers. Josh Rogin’s exclusive interview at the Daily Beast with the only person to lose his job over the tragedy doesn’t tell us much about why Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were left without security in the face of clear danger from an al-Qaeda affiliate. But it does tell us everything we need to know about how Hillary Clinton’s State Department functioned.

Benghazi is one of the worst disasters in American diplomatic history, but the sum total of accountability for it is limited to the career of Raymond Maxwell, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) who was placed on administrative leave in December after the now-famous Administrative Review Board (ARB) led by Thomas Pickering issued its report. Pickering didn’t bother interviewing the person in charge of the department—Secretary Clinton—but according to Rogin’s sources, Maxwell was consigned to perdition for not reading his daily intelligence reports. If so, perhaps he deserves his fate even though Maxwell claims he had “no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi.” That is something that cannot be said of others, including the secretary, who sent Stevens on what proved to be a fatal mission. Yet what comes across loud and clear in the piece is that what happened at Foggy Bottom in the aftermath of the debacle was that a middle manager was made to walk the plank while all senior personnel were spared from the consequences of the mistakes that were made.

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Nine months after the terrorist attack in Benghazi that cost four American lives, we’re finally finding out who it was that the State Department thinks is responsible for the debacle: the middle managers. Josh Rogin’s exclusive interview at the Daily Beast with the only person to lose his job over the tragedy doesn’t tell us much about why Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were left without security in the face of clear danger from an al-Qaeda affiliate. But it does tell us everything we need to know about how Hillary Clinton’s State Department functioned.

Benghazi is one of the worst disasters in American diplomatic history, but the sum total of accountability for it is limited to the career of Raymond Maxwell, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) who was placed on administrative leave in December after the now-famous Administrative Review Board (ARB) led by Thomas Pickering issued its report. Pickering didn’t bother interviewing the person in charge of the department—Secretary Clinton—but according to Rogin’s sources, Maxwell was consigned to perdition for not reading his daily intelligence reports. If so, perhaps he deserves his fate even though Maxwell claims he had “no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi.” That is something that cannot be said of others, including the secretary, who sent Stevens on what proved to be a fatal mission. Yet what comes across loud and clear in the piece is that what happened at Foggy Bottom in the aftermath of the debacle was that a middle manager was made to walk the plank while all senior personnel were spared from the consequences of the mistakes that were made.

The ARB actually fixed the blame for Benghazi at the assistant secretary level that would have meant that Maxwell’s boss, Beth Jones, should have been the one to fall on her sword along with others of similar rank. But according to Rogin:

But Jones was not disciplined in any way following the release of the report, nor was the principal deputy assistant secretary of State at NEA, Liz Dibble, who is slated to receive a plush post as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in London this summer. In the DS bureau, the assistant secretary, principal deputy, and deputy assistant all lost their jobs. In the NEA bureau, only Maxwell was asked to leave.

Jones and Dibble were responsible for security in Libya, Maxwell and three State Department officials said. What’s more, when Maxwell was promoted to his DAS position in August 2011, most responsibility for Libya was carved out of his portfolio, which also included Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Although Maxwell did some work on Libya, all security related decisions were handled by Dibble and Jones, according to the three officials.

At the time he was placed in career limbo, Rogin reports Maxwell was told that after the political storm about Benghazi blew over, he would come back to his department and get a senior job. But apparently Clinton and Mills reneged, leaving him out in the cold to face the music while they were allowed to go on in their positions.

Suffice to say that if Mrs. Clinton had a shred of personal honor, she would have taken genuine responsibility for Benghazi rather than merely says those words as a figure of speech. If she did, she might not have let her department sacrifice a low-level person like Maxwell for supposedly not reading every item he was sent to read while her defenders claimed it was unreasonable, if not defamatory, to hold her responsible for the documents that went out under her name. Instead, she left State to the applause of her acolytes to wait for a propitious moment to resume her quest for the presidency, all the way claiming none of what happened in Benghazi was her fault.

If the Obama administration took the issue of embassy security as seriously as it claims to—while insisting that any attention paid to the lies it told about Benghazi is a distraction—it might have cleaned house at State in a way that made it clear that all those involved with the refusal to give Stevens adequate security did not escape accountability.

Maxwell’s saga is a depressing reminder of everything that is wrong with Obama and Clinton’s sense of entitlement and a refusal to be accountable for mistakes. It will be up to the Congress and a slowly awakening mainstream press to keep the issue alive and reopen the question who, other than a middle manager with unrelated job responsibilities, should be blamed for Benghazi.

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Hillary Hasn’t Heard the End of Benghazi

Democrats arrived at the House Oversight Committee’s hearing on the Benghazi terror attack determined to defend the reputation of the person that most believe will be their presidential candidate in 2016. Ranking member Elijah Cummings and his colleagues thundered at chair Darrel Issa and any other Republican who dared to raise questions about the way the State Department responded not only to the attack but also to questions about the aftermath, determined to cast the entire event as a partisan ambush. But the testimony of the three whistleblowers overshadowed their complaints about the necessity for the hearing or the spin being put on it by Republicans. While nothing said at the hearing was the “smoking gun” that some in the GOP suspect will eventually bring senior administration officials down because of the Libyan tragedy, enough questions were raised to keep the fires stoked on the issue for the foreseeable future.

Whether Democrats like it or not, Americans are going to be wondering about what senior diplomat Gregory Hicks told the committee about requests for military assistance on the night of the attack, the disconnect between the false story about the murders being a response to an anti-Islamic film and what he and others on the scene told Washington, and why he was told not to cooperate with the House committee. If Clinton thought she had put these issues to rest in January when she railed at senators inquiring about Benghazi asking, “What difference does it make?” who killed the Americans and why, the whistleblowers have ensured that Congress will keep pushing until they get the answers to these questions.

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Democrats arrived at the House Oversight Committee’s hearing on the Benghazi terror attack determined to defend the reputation of the person that most believe will be their presidential candidate in 2016. Ranking member Elijah Cummings and his colleagues thundered at chair Darrel Issa and any other Republican who dared to raise questions about the way the State Department responded not only to the attack but also to questions about the aftermath, determined to cast the entire event as a partisan ambush. But the testimony of the three whistleblowers overshadowed their complaints about the necessity for the hearing or the spin being put on it by Republicans. While nothing said at the hearing was the “smoking gun” that some in the GOP suspect will eventually bring senior administration officials down because of the Libyan tragedy, enough questions were raised to keep the fires stoked on the issue for the foreseeable future.

Whether Democrats like it or not, Americans are going to be wondering about what senior diplomat Gregory Hicks told the committee about requests for military assistance on the night of the attack, the disconnect between the false story about the murders being a response to an anti-Islamic film and what he and others on the scene told Washington, and why he was told not to cooperate with the House committee. If Clinton thought she had put these issues to rest in January when she railed at senators inquiring about Benghazi asking, “What difference does it make?” who killed the Americans and why, the whistleblowers have ensured that Congress will keep pushing until they get the answers to these questions.

The dramatic nature of Hicks’ testimony about the night of the attack changed what started out as a stormy proceeding as Cummings attacked Issa’s statements and motives. Hicks’s recollection of the phone going dead as Ambassador Chris Stevens told him the attack was under way made it clear that what he would say would rise above the political maelstrom. And when he spoke of his conversations with U.S. military personnel who were outraged that they weren’t being ordered to go to the rescue of the beleaguered Americans, that opened a can of worms that the administration had hoped it had definitively closed.

Just as problematic was Hicks’s telling of his shock when he heard U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice tell the country that U.S. intelligence had decided the attack was the result of film criticism run amuck. Given that he had already communicated to Washington the fact that the film wasn’t a factor in Libya and that U.S. personnel in Libya knew the assault was the work of an Islamist group connected to al-Qaeda, this makes the growing controversy about the truth behind the official administration talking points that the White House altered to downplay any connection to terror even more worrisome. As Pete Wehner noted on Monday, the emails prove that the administration knowingly misled the country about the attack in a manner that makes it impossible to believe they weren’t motivated by their desire to help President Obama win re-election.

Just as damning was Hicks’s testimony about being told by the State Department not to cooperate with the House committee and Representative Jason Chaffetz as well as how his career seems to have come to a standstill as a result of his unwillingness to toe the party line about Benghazi. When combined with other testimony raising questions about what was not done to protect or help the Americans, it’s clear that further grillings of senior officials will ensue and keep the issue alive. More than that, what we heard today will deepen the suspicion that Clinton or others very close to the top in the capital had a clear desire to lie about the attack and to make sure that no one in the know about what actually happened would speak out.

None of this may change the opinions of Democrats who have been determined to move on from Benghazi since the fateful night of 9/11/12. Nor will it deaden the enthusiasm they are feeling about the prospect of Hicks’s former boss running for president in 2016. But today’s testimony shows that the attack will be a wound that will continue to bleed in the weeks and months ahead. It may not sink Clinton, but anyone who thinks she’s heard the last of this wasn’t paying attention today.

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“Success” at the Counterterrorism Forum

At Friday’s State Department press conference, spokesman Mark Toner was asked again about the U.S. commitment to get Israel involved in the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), which will be meeting again on December 13 without Israel. Reporter Matt Lee asked Toner “what exactly the Administration has done … since the last [GCTF] meeting, when you all said that you were going to try to get [Israel] included in this group, or at least some of this group’s work.”

Toner responded that “we’ve succeeded and agreed with our partners in the GCTF to have this issue as a formal agenda item on the – at the December 13 meeting.” That produced this colloquy:

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At Friday’s State Department press conference, spokesman Mark Toner was asked again about the U.S. commitment to get Israel involved in the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), which will be meeting again on December 13 without Israel. Reporter Matt Lee asked Toner “what exactly the Administration has done … since the last [GCTF] meeting, when you all said that you were going to try to get [Israel] included in this group, or at least some of this group’s work.”

Toner responded that “we’ve succeeded and agreed with our partners in the GCTF to have this issue as a formal agenda item on the – at the December 13 meeting.” That produced this colloquy:

QUESTION: Okay. What exactly is it that’s on the agenda? I mean, what is – can you say what –

MR. TONER: To have this issue discussed about –

QUESTION: Israel’s participation as a full – in the — …

MR. TONER: That the GCTF needs to develop more concrete policies on the involvement of non-members.

Lee asked whether the agenda item is specifically about Israel, and Toner said no: it’s about all non-members, although “certainly, Israel would be included” in this category. OK, but is the agenda item at least about how non-members can become members?

MR. TONER: No. On how to get them involved. As I talked about, this is about mobilizing the best and the brightest strategists from around the world.

QUESTION: Okay … Is membership closed? Is it full? Can no one else get in?

MR. TONER: I’m not aware that membership is closed in this organization. What we’ve been working towards … is getting Israel, with its expertise, with its experience, involved in some of the activities that this group’s involved with.

QUESTION: Right. Okay. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you want them to join or you’re pushing for them for full membership?

MR. TONER: It does not necessarily assume membership, but we want to see their expertise reflected.

Lee then summed up the colloquy with this exchange:

QUESTION: So I guess then my quick question is just is the agenda item that you’re talking about being – it does not anticipate or does not get into whether non-members can actually become members?

MR. TONER: No. What we’re talking about here is the issue of participation of non-members, including Israel, in these kinds of events.

So we’ve gotten the GCTF, which we co-formed and co-chair, to agree to an agenda item that does not mention Israel; does not anticipate Israel becoming a member; will not be the occasion for pushing Israel for membership; is simply a discussion about how 163 non-member countries, at some point in the future, might get involved in “some of the activities” of the GCTF; and we have announced this as a success.

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Baluchistan’s First Rhodes Scholar in 40 Years

My colleague Danielle Pletka alerted me to this article, which truly is a rare good news story out of Pakistan:

Rafiullah Kakar, 23, is all set to live “a dream come true”. He is the 2013 Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan… Kakar does not belong to a feudal family. He grew up in one of the most hostile and backward regions of Pakistan and no one had gone to college in his family before him. His transformation from a boy who did not learn Urdu until the seventh grade to a Rhodes Scholar is a story of hard work, family support, perseverance and the pursuit of personal ambition.

The whole news report is worth reading. Baluchistan is one of the most backward areas of Pakistan and Iran (for history buffs, about five years ago I did a thumbnail history of Baluchistan, here), and Pakistan is a society where elite and family connections often trump talent. American politicians may quip that it takes a village, but government alone will never supplant hard work and individual aptitude, nor does progress occur when it dampens rather than promotes rewards inherent in personal ambition.

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My colleague Danielle Pletka alerted me to this article, which truly is a rare good news story out of Pakistan:

Rafiullah Kakar, 23, is all set to live “a dream come true”. He is the 2013 Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan… Kakar does not belong to a feudal family. He grew up in one of the most hostile and backward regions of Pakistan and no one had gone to college in his family before him. His transformation from a boy who did not learn Urdu until the seventh grade to a Rhodes Scholar is a story of hard work, family support, perseverance and the pursuit of personal ambition.

The whole news report is worth reading. Baluchistan is one of the most backward areas of Pakistan and Iran (for history buffs, about five years ago I did a thumbnail history of Baluchistan, here), and Pakistan is a society where elite and family connections often trump talent. American politicians may quip that it takes a village, but government alone will never supplant hard work and individual aptitude, nor does progress occur when it dampens rather than promotes rewards inherent in personal ambition.

Kakar’s story is further testament both to the importance of merit scholarships and family support. USAID and U.S.-government programs waste so much money on sublime and ridiculous programs that it sometimes is useful to remember the importance of seeking to bring the best and the brightest to study in the United States, as we did for Kakar two years ago. Alas, when we compare the good that Kakar might accomplish on a pittance with the waste the State Department now engages in by subsidizing Muslim Brotherhood misgovernment in Egypt, heads should spin.

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A Fine Mess at Foggy Bottom

Lost in all the speculation about the next secretary of state is the degree to which Foggy Bottom will need someone who can put the pieces back together. While Hillary Clinton coasted for much of her term on the good press that comes with being a Clinton, until the last couple of months she was having a decidedly average run as secretary of state. But the Benghazi debacle–which was in large part the result of Clinton’s incompetence and lack of attention–followed by the expected defection of most of our European allies at the UN vote on the Palestinians today, reveals a State Department marked by ineptitude and surprising irrelevance.

To be sure, as the New York Times has thoroughly documented, diplomacy has always been one of President Obama’s more glaring weaknesses. But the well funded, high-profile State Department’s mission is to be the public face of American diplomacy, and should at least be able to keep the support of our allies. But the reported decision by Germany, France, Italy, and Britain to abandon the U.S., Canada, and Israel at the UN today left Israeli diplomats proclaiming: “We lost Europe”–to say nothing of Washington’s inability to prevent Mahmoud Abbas from going forward with this stunt in the first place:

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Lost in all the speculation about the next secretary of state is the degree to which Foggy Bottom will need someone who can put the pieces back together. While Hillary Clinton coasted for much of her term on the good press that comes with being a Clinton, until the last couple of months she was having a decidedly average run as secretary of state. But the Benghazi debacle–which was in large part the result of Clinton’s incompetence and lack of attention–followed by the expected defection of most of our European allies at the UN vote on the Palestinians today, reveals a State Department marked by ineptitude and surprising irrelevance.

To be sure, as the New York Times has thoroughly documented, diplomacy has always been one of President Obama’s more glaring weaknesses. But the well funded, high-profile State Department’s mission is to be the public face of American diplomacy, and should at least be able to keep the support of our allies. But the reported decision by Germany, France, Italy, and Britain to abandon the U.S., Canada, and Israel at the UN today left Israeli diplomats proclaiming: “We lost Europe”–to say nothing of Washington’s inability to prevent Mahmoud Abbas from going forward with this stunt in the first place:

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, mounted an aggressive campaign to head off the General Assembly vote.

In a last-ditch move Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made a personal appeal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood. The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat….

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Wednesday that the U.N. vote will not fulfill the goal of independent Palestinian and Israeli states living side by side in peace, which the U.S. strongly supports because that requires direct negotiations.

“We need an environment conducive to that,” she told reporters in Washington. “And we’ve urged both parties to refrain from actions that might in any way make a return to meaningful negotiations that focus on getting to a resolution more difficult.”

I’m not sure who the fact that Clinton’s State Department is falling to pieces benefits, Susan Rice or John Kerry. On the one hand, Rice’s inexperience and tendency to clash with those around her would seem to argue against her being the best choice to fix things at Foggy Bottom. On the other hand, inflicting John Kerry upon the world doesn’t seem likely to win us back any of the goodwill we’re looking for.

Additionally, either one would have the challenge of serving under Obama; it’s notable that when Burns begged Abbas not to do this, and offered a re-engaged Obama in return, Abbas found nothing remotely enticing about the offer.

One more bit of irony about all this: the one political figure in this episode who followed Obama’s recommendations was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu agreed–wisely–not to punish the Palestinian Authority for its UN gambit. And Netanyahu has been offering to negotiate with the Palestinians face to face with no preconditions for some time now, so if and when the rest of the world decides to work with Obama again, Netanyahu will be ready and waiting.

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Why Does the State Department Help Autocrats Silence Journalists?

Over Sunday brunch, an opposition Russian journalist mentioned a State Department policy that symbolizes everything that is wrong with the American approach toward autocratic regimes: In order for foreign journalists to get State Department credentials, the journalists must not only have a letter in hand from the organization for which they work, but they also need a cover letter from the press attaché from their country’s embassy in Washington.

Opposition Russian journalists must therefore get a letter testifying to their journalist credentials from the Russian government or the Russian embassy in Washington; Opposition Venezuelan journalists must get credentials from the Venezuelan embassy; and opposition Turkish journalists must get certified by the Turkish embassy. Needless to say, these countries grant credentials only to those journalists who at worst sing the praises of Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and at best self-censor.

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Over Sunday brunch, an opposition Russian journalist mentioned a State Department policy that symbolizes everything that is wrong with the American approach toward autocratic regimes: In order for foreign journalists to get State Department credentials, the journalists must not only have a letter in hand from the organization for which they work, but they also need a cover letter from the press attaché from their country’s embassy in Washington.

Opposition Russian journalists must therefore get a letter testifying to their journalist credentials from the Russian government or the Russian embassy in Washington; Opposition Venezuelan journalists must get credentials from the Venezuelan embassy; and opposition Turkish journalists must get certified by the Turkish embassy. Needless to say, these countries grant credentials only to those journalists who at worst sing the praises of Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and at best self-censor.

There is no waiver for journalists from such countries who would use their residence in the United States to report critically about their home countries. President Obama may on occasion talk about democracy and freedom but, in effect, the State Department’s policy carries water for the world’s worst dictators and uses a pointless bureaucratic impediment to help them silence the very people whom the United States should be doing the most to support. Perhaps it’s time to reset the bureaucratic mindset in Washington, and help Russian journalists while we are at it.

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Hillary Apologizes for Benghazi, But Where’s Obama?

This is nothing short of disastrous for President Obama. After dodging responsibility for the Benghazi attack for over a month, pointing fingers at everything from the State Department to the intelligence community, the White House is outclassed by…Hillary Clinton. By taking the blame now, Hillary effectively 1.) Undermined Obama’s leadership, 2.) Put pressure on him right before a major debate to take the heat:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday tried to douse a political firestorm around the deadly assault on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, saying she is responsible for the security of American diplomatic outposts.

“I take responsibility” for the protection of U.S. diplomats Clinton said during a visit to Peru. But she said an investigation now under way will ultimately determine what happened in the attack that left four Americans dead. …

Clinton said President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are not involved in security decisions.

“I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha,” she added, noting that it is close to the election.

This puts Obama in an incredibly uncomfortable position.

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This is nothing short of disastrous for President Obama. After dodging responsibility for the Benghazi attack for over a month, pointing fingers at everything from the State Department to the intelligence community, the White House is outclassed by…Hillary Clinton. By taking the blame now, Hillary effectively 1.) Undermined Obama’s leadership, 2.) Put pressure on him right before a major debate to take the heat:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday tried to douse a political firestorm around the deadly assault on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, saying she is responsible for the security of American diplomatic outposts.

“I take responsibility” for the protection of U.S. diplomats Clinton said during a visit to Peru. But she said an investigation now under way will ultimately determine what happened in the attack that left four Americans dead. …

Clinton said President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are not involved in security decisions.

“I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha,” she added, noting that it is close to the election.

This puts Obama in an incredibly uncomfortable position.

If he let’s an underling like Hillary accept responsibility, he’s going to look even weaker than he has over the past few weeks. But even if Obama does step up and take the blame for the Benghazi attack today, it might be too late. Not only will it look like he did it under political pressure, but Hillary falling on her sword just highlights the politically-craven blame-game the White House has been playing for the past month.

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Admin Using Fallen Ex-SEALs For Cover?

Obama administration officials have denied there were security breakdowns at the Benghazi consulate, with UN Ambassador Susan Rice citing the two former Navy SEALs killed in the attack, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, as part of the “substantial security presence” at the compound. But the Washington Guardian reports today that Woods and Doherty were not part of the official security detail:

The officials provided the information to the Washington Guardian, saying they feared the Obama administration’s scant description of the episode left a misimpression that the two ex-Navy SEALs might have been responsible for the ambassador’s personal safety or become separated from him.

“Woods and Doherty weren’t part of the detail, nor were they personally responsible for the ambassador’s security, but they stepped into the breach when the attacks occurred and their actions saved others lives — and they shouldn’t be lumped in with the security detail,” one senior official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the State Department. …

In fact, officials said, the two men were personal service contractors whose official function was described as “embassy security,” but whose work did not involve personal protection of the ambassador or perimeter security of the compound.

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Obama administration officials have denied there were security breakdowns at the Benghazi consulate, with UN Ambassador Susan Rice citing the two former Navy SEALs killed in the attack, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, as part of the “substantial security presence” at the compound. But the Washington Guardian reports today that Woods and Doherty were not part of the official security detail:

The officials provided the information to the Washington Guardian, saying they feared the Obama administration’s scant description of the episode left a misimpression that the two ex-Navy SEALs might have been responsible for the ambassador’s personal safety or become separated from him.

“Woods and Doherty weren’t part of the detail, nor were they personally responsible for the ambassador’s security, but they stepped into the breach when the attacks occurred and their actions saved others lives — and they shouldn’t be lumped in with the security detail,” one senior official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the State Department. …

In fact, officials said, the two men were personal service contractors whose official function was described as “embassy security,” but whose work did not involve personal protection of the ambassador or perimeter security of the compound.

Former Navy SEALS, who were in Libya as private contractors, were serving in some capacity unrelated to their official titles. That’s pretty vague, but you can probably connect your own dots from there. Whatever Woods and Doherty were doing, they were not in Benghazi as State Department employees, nor were they tasked with directly protecting the ambassador or the compound.

And yet both Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice have implied they were providing embassy security for the State Department at the time of the attack. During an interview with Jake Tapper earlier this week, Rice rejected charges that the State Department hadn’t provided adequate security for the consulate, saying that “two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security” along with “other colleagues who were doing the same with them.”

TAPPER: Why was there such a security breakdown? Why was there not better security at the compound in Benghazi? Why were there not U.S. Marines at the embassy in Tripoli?

RICE: Well, first of all, we had a substantial security presence with our personnel…

TAPPER: Not substantial enough, though, right?

RICE: … with our personnel and the consulate in Benghazi. Tragically, two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security. That was their function. And indeed, there were many other colleagues who were doing the same with them.

It would be perfectly understandable if the administration didn’t get into the details about what Woods and Doherty were doing in Benghazi, particularly if they were there in some covert capacity. But it’s another thing for the administration to use them as cover for the State Department’s failure to provide adequate security. These men served their country with honor, and they deserve more from this administration.

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Why is USAID Celebrating “Global Female Condom Day”?

The attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi have sparked a debate in Congress about the efficacy and wisdom of foreign aid in both Egypt and Libya, and more broadly throughout the region; some congressmen are already calling for stripping aid to Egypt and Libya. Aid and assistance have their purpose but, against the backdrop of a severe financial situation at home and a looming threat that sequestration could decimate defense, the State Department and the larger aid community do themselves no good when, on a day of mourning, they prioritize this:

Today is the first-ever Global Female Condom Day, and women and men around the world are celebrating. They’re also speaking out for increased recognition of a prevention method that is too often overlooked… One new type of female condom is the Woman’s Condom, developed in part with funding from PEPFAR through USAID. PATH, CONRAD, and our research partners in several countries developed the Woman’s Condom using feedback from women and their partners. Their input helped us design a female condom that’s easy to insert, secure during use, and comfortable for both partners. Through our Protection Options for Women Product Development Partnership, we are now working to bring the Woman’s Condom to market in China and sub-Saharan Africa.

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The attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi have sparked a debate in Congress about the efficacy and wisdom of foreign aid in both Egypt and Libya, and more broadly throughout the region; some congressmen are already calling for stripping aid to Egypt and Libya. Aid and assistance have their purpose but, against the backdrop of a severe financial situation at home and a looming threat that sequestration could decimate defense, the State Department and the larger aid community do themselves no good when, on a day of mourning, they prioritize this:

Today is the first-ever Global Female Condom Day, and women and men around the world are celebrating. They’re also speaking out for increased recognition of a prevention method that is too often overlooked… One new type of female condom is the Woman’s Condom, developed in part with funding from PEPFAR through USAID. PATH, CONRAD, and our research partners in several countries developed the Woman’s Condom using feedback from women and their partners. Their input helped us design a female condom that’s easy to insert, secure during use, and comfortable for both partners. Through our Protection Options for Women Product Development Partnership, we are now working to bring the Woman’s Condom to market in China and sub-Saharan Africa.

This isn’t the Marshall Plan. USAID and the State Department should dispense no money without first answering the very basic question: How does this enhance U.S. national security? If all they can respond with is theoretical and fluffy gobbledygook, perhaps they should shelve that project as something the private sector and non-governmental organizations can take up on their own. It’s well past time that foreign aid bolstered American security, not provided a slush fund to let do-gooders spend endlessly money that would better stay in taxpayers’ wallets.

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State Department Doesn’t Care About a Stinkin’ Voice Vote

At Thursday’s State Department press conference — the day after President Obama directed the Democratic Party to re-instate in its platform the words “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel” — a reporter asked acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell which city the U.S. recognizes as the capital of Israel. Mr. Ventrell responded as follows:

Well, as you know, longstanding Administration policy, both in this Administration and in previous administrations across both parties, is that the status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. So that’s longstanding Administration policy and continues to be so.

That response produced several more tries by reporters (“I mean, no city is recognized as a capital by the U.S. Government?” “That means Jerusalem is not a part of Israel?” “Are there any other countries in the world where the U.S. doesn’t know what the capital is or won’t say what the capital of a country is?”) — each of which produced the same non-response from Ventrell. Another reporter tried a fifth time, and this time the colloquy was more pointed:

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At Thursday’s State Department press conference — the day after President Obama directed the Democratic Party to re-instate in its platform the words “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel” — a reporter asked acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell which city the U.S. recognizes as the capital of Israel. Mr. Ventrell responded as follows:

Well, as you know, longstanding Administration policy, both in this Administration and in previous administrations across both parties, is that the status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. So that’s longstanding Administration policy and continues to be so.

That response produced several more tries by reporters (“I mean, no city is recognized as a capital by the U.S. Government?” “That means Jerusalem is not a part of Israel?” “Are there any other countries in the world where the U.S. doesn’t know what the capital is or won’t say what the capital of a country is?”) — each of which produced the same non-response from Ventrell. Another reporter tried a fifth time, and this time the colloquy was more pointed:

QUESTION: What does the U.S. think the capital of Israel is? What do you –

MR. VENTRELL: As I’ve just said, we believe that the status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status –

QUESTION: I’m not asking you that question. I’m asking you what you think the capital is.

MR. VENTRELL: And my response is that Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations.

QUESTION: She didn’t ask about Jerusalem, though.

MR. VENTRELL: Look, this is something we’ve been through at this podium. Toria has been through it before. We’ve repeated it many times. You know that the position is. It hasn’t changed for decades.

QUESTION: Wait, I know that. And I don’t want to play the verbal game, I’m just very curious if you actually have a position about a capital of that country. And if you don’t, if – I just would like to hear you say you don’t.

MR. VENTRELL: Well, right now, Nicole –

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. VENTRELL: — the situation is that we have an Embassy in Tel Aviv that represents our interests with the Government of Israel but that the issue of Jerusalem is one that has to be resolved between the two parties. That’s all I can say on this. [Emphasis added].

As the above exchange demonstrates, President Obama’s statement that “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel” was meant only for purposes of his platform and not for purposes of his policy. It has no more meaning for him in 2012 than it did in 2008, when he delivered the line to an AIPAC conference, complete with his trademark “Let me be clear” preface — and then proceeded to disregard it as soon as he left the building.

If President Obama ever holds another formal press conference, perhaps a reporter will ask how he was able to get the line into the platform but cannot get the State Department (or his own press secretary) to endorse even the first part of the sentence.

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Ex-U.S. Diplomat Meets Iran’s Leader

Jeffrey Feltman did a stellar job as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008. While many career ambassadors embrace moral neutrality against the backdrop of political crisis, Feltman stepped up to the plate during the Cedar Revolution and helped give the Lebanese a real shot at affirming their freedom and independence from Syrian domination. Alas, the March 14 movement was hopelessly divided and ineffective. After Feltman left, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blessed the Doha Agreement which enabled Hezbollah to reassert its control, and effectively end the Cedar Revolution.

President Obama’s election was a mixed blessing for Feltman. On one hand, he received a nice promotion and became the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs but, on the other hand, Obama used him as his point man for his silly and misguided strategy to flip Syria and normalize ties with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad who both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton considered a reformer.

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Jeffrey Feltman did a stellar job as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008. While many career ambassadors embrace moral neutrality against the backdrop of political crisis, Feltman stepped up to the plate during the Cedar Revolution and helped give the Lebanese a real shot at affirming their freedom and independence from Syrian domination. Alas, the March 14 movement was hopelessly divided and ineffective. After Feltman left, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blessed the Doha Agreement which enabled Hezbollah to reassert its control, and effectively end the Cedar Revolution.

President Obama’s election was a mixed blessing for Feltman. On one hand, he received a nice promotion and became the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs but, on the other hand, Obama used him as his point man for his silly and misguided strategy to flip Syria and normalize ties with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad who both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton considered a reformer.

Earlier this summer, Feltman had enough. He resigned from the State Department and immediately began to work for the United Nations, as that body’s under-secretary-general and head of its Department of Political Affairs. Alas, any hope that the good Feltman would rub off effectively on the United Nations appears to have been dashed. As my colleague Ahmad Majidyar pointed out, Iran’s Fars News Agency has just published a photo of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Feltman meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. Feltman looks distinctly uncomfortable and, indeed, he should squirm. He is being used as a showpiece in Iranian propaganda, as he and his misguided boss supplicate themselves to a man who openly calls for genocide.

Decisions matter, not only when in the State Department, but also when retired from it. Feltman’s predecessor as Assistant Secretary of State David Welch used his connections to solicit business for Bechtel in Libya, but actually worked to advise Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi on how to maintain power. If these are the best and the brightest at the State Department’s Near East bureau, let’s hope that a Romney administration would take a long hard look at how the career foreign service is staffed and trained, and why it is that so many representing the United States appear to have lost their grounding.

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A Second Front in Obama’s War on History

Back in May, I wrote about how President Obama had his name dropped into the official White House online biographies of other presidents going back to Calvin Coolidge, to attempt to share credit for their accomplishments. The Heritage Foundation’s Rory Cooper was the first to notice the changes when he saw the administration’s added note to Ronald Reagan’s biography in order to misrepresent Reagan’s tax plan as basically his own, which was quite far from reality.

Then a week ago, Jim Roberts, who works for Heritage and the Wall Street Journal on the jointly produced Index of Economic Freedom, noticed another oddity: the Obama State Department has been removing the comprehensive “background notes” on other countries in favor of brief, far less informative, descriptions of the countries’ relationships with the Obama administration. Roberts, who has worked for the State Department writing background notes in the past, said he was in the process of going through this latest messianic presidential prank-on-history, and has published this morning at the Wall Street Journal what he found.

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Back in May, I wrote about how President Obama had his name dropped into the official White House online biographies of other presidents going back to Calvin Coolidge, to attempt to share credit for their accomplishments. The Heritage Foundation’s Rory Cooper was the first to notice the changes when he saw the administration’s added note to Ronald Reagan’s biography in order to misrepresent Reagan’s tax plan as basically his own, which was quite far from reality.

Then a week ago, Jim Roberts, who works for Heritage and the Wall Street Journal on the jointly produced Index of Economic Freedom, noticed another oddity: the Obama State Department has been removing the comprehensive “background notes” on other countries in favor of brief, far less informative, descriptions of the countries’ relationships with the Obama administration. Roberts, who has worked for the State Department writing background notes in the past, said he was in the process of going through this latest messianic presidential prank-on-history, and has published this morning at the Wall Street Journal what he found.

Here’s one example of the change:

Compare the nearly 1,200-word Fact Sheet published last week by the U.S. Embassy in Brazil with the last Background Note written during the George W. Bush administration. The 4,100-word Bush document was full of information and statistics about Brazil—that it’s a constitutional federal republic, for example, with 196 million people of whom 74% are Roman Catholic, and annual economic output of nearly $2 trillion. The section on U.S.-Brazil relations was 300 words long, or 7% of the total.

By contrast, 70% (or 830 words) of the new Brazil Fact Sheet is dedicated to U.S.-Brazilian relations—and most of that either discusses President Obama directly or in the context of the educational, scientific and cultural programs he launched during a March 2011 visit to the country.

The Bush-era document noted similar joint efforts, but it did so briefly and after offering thousands of words of historical context. (Both the Bush and Obama administrations failed to include information about the costs of these foreign-aid programs to U.S. taxpayers—a bipartisan weakness.)

Roberts writes that the administration’s new “fact sheets” treat left-wing and right-wing governments differently, with left-wing governments more likely to receive effusive praise from The One. Other times the president tries to take credit for the successful policies of others, such as the fact sheet on sub-Saharan African countries noting President Bush’s incredibly successful and lifesaving Pepfar AIDS relief program without actually mentioning that the program predated Obama.

The fact sheet on China removes much of the information on China’s human rights abuses and other problems, and the fact sheet on Pakistan has been reduced to practically a note card’s worth of information, mostly beginning in 2009. Roberts adds:

In simpler times, the hot fires of domestic political polarization were said to stop at the waters’ edge. Americans agreed that it made sense to project a united front abroad, both to our enemies and our friends. The State Department’s stodgy Background Notes were a reflection of that old consensus, in addition to being a valuable source of information to the American public.

Such information shouldn’t be reduced to just another taxpayer-subsidized campaign commercial. But that’s just what the Obama administration is doing.

That gets at the two problems with the change. First, the president is once again erasing history, or at the very least manipulating it, because in the fantasy world he is trying to project he seems far less unimpressive a president. But the larger problem is the president’s erasure of information. In the White House biographies, Obama didn’t actually erase history (though the White House was caught doing so in George W. Bush’s biography, but that obsessive pettiness doesn’t seem to have been applied elsewhere).

But with the removal of the background notes, the president is displaying a shocking lack of interest in the world. He was caught, because others aren’t nearly so dismissive of intellectual pursuit and curiosity about the world as Obama seems to be.

Obama’s lack of knowledge about world affairs has landed him in trouble in the past—glaring mistakes about Middle Eastern history, confusion about Russia and Georgia, offensive mishaps with regard to World War II and European history, etc. But most disappointing is the fact that rather than fill in those gaps in his knowledge, the president would rather pass those gaps along to others who might otherwise be interested educating themselves.

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Report: Precious Little Religious Freedom

Here’s a pretty gruesome story from Pakistan that began circulating yesterday:

At least 11 nurses, including three Christians, were poisoned at Civil Hospital Karachi for eating during Ramadan. During their afternoon break yesterday, the 11 nurses went to the hostel cafeteria for some tea and food. Rita, a Catholic nurse, collapsed first after drinking her tea. Now all the nurses are in the hospital’s intensive care unit, some in very serious conditions.

It was an appropriate day, then, for the State Department to publish its 2011 report on religious freedom around the globe. And the bottom line is that, throughout the Islamic world, as well as in the unreconstructed communist and authoritarian states, there’s precious little of it.

What kind of ranking does religious freedom hold in the conduct of American foreign policy? As of this morning, the State Department’s website had on prominent display the following declaration from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “For the United States, religious freedom is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest, and a foreign policy priority.” No room for misinterpretation there, then.

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Here’s a pretty gruesome story from Pakistan that began circulating yesterday:

At least 11 nurses, including three Christians, were poisoned at Civil Hospital Karachi for eating during Ramadan. During their afternoon break yesterday, the 11 nurses went to the hostel cafeteria for some tea and food. Rita, a Catholic nurse, collapsed first after drinking her tea. Now all the nurses are in the hospital’s intensive care unit, some in very serious conditions.

It was an appropriate day, then, for the State Department to publish its 2011 report on religious freedom around the globe. And the bottom line is that, throughout the Islamic world, as well as in the unreconstructed communist and authoritarian states, there’s precious little of it.

What kind of ranking does religious freedom hold in the conduct of American foreign policy? As of this morning, the State Department’s website had on prominent display the following declaration from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “For the United States, religious freedom is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest, and a foreign policy priority.” No room for misinterpretation there, then.

The report does shine much needed light on the serial violators of religious freedom. Pakistan, for example, features prominently in the report’s executive summary, which notes the assassination of two politicians who criticized the country’s draconian blasphemy law – one of them, Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, was the only Christian in the cabinet – and the continuing imprisonment of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who is facing a death sentence for blasphemy. Other countries singled out in the executive summary include Iran, where the Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani still faces a death sentence arising from the charge of blasphemy, and where seven leaders of the embattled Baha’i minority remain incarcerated on trumped up accusations of spying for Israel; Indonesia, another state where Christians are being imprisoned under a blasphemy law; China, where Buddhists in Tibet and Uyghur Muslims in the restive province of Xinjiang are subjected to all sorts of discrimination and harassment; and North Korea, where, the report states simply and accurately, “religious freedom does not exist in any form.”

The report also discusses what it terms “a rising tide of anti-Semitism.” In a welcome riposte to those who argue that anything short of an expletive-ridden denunciation of Jews isn’t really anti-Semitism, the report explains that in countries like Egypt and Iran, anti-Semitic agitation works hand-in-hand with opposition to Zionism and Israel. Instructively, the report mentions “Holocaust denial, glorification, and relativism” (my emphasis) as manifestations of anti-Semitism. This last word refers to the execrable habit of Arab propagandists and western leftists of comparing Israeli policies with the Nazi Holocaust.

Still, the report does pull its punches in certain key areas. Reading the section on Afghanistan, you would never know that American and allied troops have been present there for more than a decade, nor that President Obama has still to spell out what the “new chapter” in U.S.-Afghan relations which he promised in May will actually involve, especially once the U.S. withdraws in full by the end of 2014.

In its section on Nigeria, the report buries the enormous threat posed by Boko Haram, an Islamist terror group whose name is Hausa for “western education is a sin.” It asserts that “Boko Haram has likely killed more Muslims than Christians, since its primary bases of operation have existed in the predominately Muslim North.” That statement may be true, but it misses two important points:  firstly, that there is an established global pattern demonstrating that other Muslims are the main victims of Islamist terrorists, and secondly, that Boko Haram sets out to kill Christians along with other members of non-Muslim faiths. The most yawning gap of all concerns Boko Haram’s status here in the United States: the Obama administration is still refusing to designate the group as a terrorist organization, citing its apparent lack of homogeneity as the reason.

Turkey, too, is treated with kid gloves. The report praises the Islamist government of Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan for issuing “a decree facilitating the return of property confiscated from religious community foundations in the past.” However, according to Open Doors, an American organization that monitors the persecution of Christians worldwide, Turkey stands at number 31 on its watch list of 50 countries, hardly evidence of the “improvements” which the report claims have been implemented.

Further afield, the report notes that the “influential” Jewish community in Venezuela numbers 9,000, but fails to mention that its Jewish population has plummeted by 50 percent during the past decade, largely because of the anti-Semitism stoked by the regime of Hugo Chavez. Nor is there any investigation of the claim the Venezuelan authorities required the Jewish community to obtain special sanitary permits for the importation of matzo for the Passover holiday.

In its conclusion, the report says that the “United States was active around the world promoting religious freedom,” before citing a vague list of meetings, conferences, and small grants to local advocates of religious tolerance. None of this will exactly have the tyrants shaking in their boots. And one wonders what the report will have to say in 2013, when we will have a better chance to assess whether the policy of constructive engagement with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has paid off. Or not.

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