Opinion

Bernd Debusmann

Obama, Iran and a push for policy change

Bernd Debusmann
Feb 25, 2011 15:27 UTC

Could the administration of President Barack Obama hasten the downfall of Iran’s government by taking an opposition group off the U.S. list of terrorist organizations? To hear a growing roster of influential former government officials tell it, the answer is yes.

The opposition group in question is the Mujadeen-e-Khalq (MEK) and the growing list of Washington insiders coming out in its support include two former Central Intelligence Agency chiefs (James Woolsey and Michael Hayden), two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Peter Pace and Hugh Shelton), former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge and former FBI head Louis Freeh.

The MEK was placed on the terrorist list in 1997, a move the Clinton administration hoped would help open a dialogue with Iran, and since then has been waging a protracted legal battle to have the designation removed. Britain and the European Union took the group off their terrorist lists in 2008 and 2009 respectively after court rulings that found no evidence of terrorist actions after the MEK renounced violence in 2001.

In Washington, initial support for “de-listing” came largely from the ranks of conservatives and neo-conservatives but it has been spreading across the aisle and the addition of a newcomer of impeccable standing with the Obama administration could herald a policy change not only on the MEK but also on dealing with Tehran.

The newcomer is Lee Hamilton, an informal senior advisor to President Obama, who served as a Democratic congressman for 34 years and was co-chairman of the commission that investigated the events leading to the September 11, 2001 attacks on Washington and New York.

Who is the superpower, America or Israel?

Bernd Debusmann
Feb 21, 2011 17:19 UTC

On February 18, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. The vote raises a question: Who dominates in the alliance between America and Israel?

Judging from the extent to which one partner defies the will of the other, decade after decade, the world’s only superpower is the weaker partner. When push comes to shove, American presidents tend to bow to Israeli wishes. Barack Obama is no exception, or he would not have instructed his ambassador at the United Nations to vote against a policy he himself stated clearly in the summer of 2009.

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop,” he said in a much-lauded speech in Cairo.

Egypt, America and a blow to al Qaeda

Bernd Debusmann
Feb 14, 2011 14:38 UTC

These must be difficult times for Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The uprising that swept away Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of huge demonstrations, none in the name of Islam, does not fit their ideology. In the war of ideas, al Qaeda suffered a major defeat.

Its leaders preach that the way to remove “apostate” rulers — and Mubarak was high on the list — is through violence. Al Qaeda’s ideology does not embrace the kind of people power that brought down the Berlin wall, forced Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines into exile, and filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square with tens of thousands of peaceful protesters day after day.

They waved the red-white-and-black flags of Egypt, not the green banners of Islam, in peaceful demonstrations that amounted to “a huge defeat in a country of central importance to its image,” in the words of Noman Benotman, the former leader of a Libyan group often aligned with al Qaeda. “We are witnessing Osama bin Laden’s nightmare,” wrote Shibley Telhami, an Arab scholar at the University of Maryland.

Obama, immigration and “anchor babies”

Bernd Debusmann
Jan 31, 2011 16:59 UTC

After breaking a promise to tackle immigration reform in his first year in office, President Barack Obama now thinks the time has come to deal with the thorny issue “once and for all.” It’s a safe bet that he will fail to repair America’s broken immigration system. Why? George W. Bush helps explain.

The immigration reform Bush championed would have provided tighter control over the 2,000-mile border with Mexico, a new visa system for temporary workers, and a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants already in the country. The bill failed in 2007 after running into stiff opposition from congressional leaders of his own Republican party.

In his memoir, Decision Points, he says the debate over the reform had been affected by “a blend of isolationism, protectionism and nativism,” apocalyptic warnings of a “third world invasion and conquest of America” by TV radio hosts and commentators and last but not least the influence of ideological extremes in Congress.

The great Iranian nuclear guessing game

Bernd Debusmann
Jan 21, 2011 14:39 UTC

On April 24, 1984, the respected London-based Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that Iran was in the final stages of producing a nuclear bomb that could be ready in two years. Sound familiar?

In the past quarter century, forecasts of when Iran might have a nuclear bomb have been issued, and proven wrong, so frequently that nuclear experts have coined the phrase “rolling estimate.” Forecasts have come from a wide variety of sources, including Iraq (during its disastrous war with Iran), the U.S. Congress, the Central Intelligence Agency, Israel’s Mossad, prominent Israeli politicians, and think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic.

Iranian bomb estimates have been making headlines again this month after Meir Dagan, on the day he handed over leadership of the Mossad to his successor, said he did not believe Iran could have a nuclear capability before 2015. Last year, he forecast Iran could reach that stage within a year.

In America, violence and guns forever

Bernd Debusmann
Jan 14, 2011 15:09 UTC

Another American mass shooting. Another rush to buy more guns.

On the Monday after the latest of the bloody rampages that are part of American life, gun sales in Arizona shot up by more than 60 percent and rose by an average of five percent across the entire country. The figures come from the FBI and speak volumes about a gun culture that has long baffled much of the world.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation compared January 10, 2011, with the corresponding Monday a year ago.

So what would prompt Americans to stock up their arsenals in the wake of the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 14, including Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman who was the target of an unhinged 22-year-old who has since been charged with attempted assassination?

Fading optimism in “new normal” America

Bernd Debusmann
Dec 23, 2010 15:19 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own

Optimism is so deeply embedded in the American national psyche that it withstood the Great Depression in the 1930s and a string of recessions since then. But in the era some economists call “the new normal” in America, optimism is fading.

So say public opinion polls that ask Americans how they see the future, theirs and their country’s. One recent survey, by the respected Pew Research Center, found that depression era Americans were more optimistic about economic recovery in the near future than people questioned in a Pew poll this October, when only 35 percent said they expected better economic conditions in a year’s time. In response to a similar question in 1936 and 1937, about half expected general business conditions to improve over the next six months.

The phrase “new normal” was coined by PIMCO, one of the world’s biggest investment funds, and is shorthand for an American future that includes lowered living standards, slow growth and high unemployment. Joblessness now stands at 9.8 percent, up from 9.6 percent in October. Add workers who have given up looking for jobs and people forced to work part time and the rate climbs to 17 percent, a powerful reason for declining optimism.

American secrets and bizarre rules

Bernd Debusmann
Dec 17, 2010 15:59 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Does a secret stop being a secret when millions of people know it? Yes, says common sense. No, says the U.S. government, whose reaction to the WikiLeaks dump of classified diplomatic cables portrays a bureaucracy inhabiting a logic-free world all of its own.

Writers thinking of producing 21st century novels emulating the works of Franz Kafka are well advised to closely follow Washington’s problems in coming to grips with what kind of information should be open to whom and when.

Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can see the 1,500-odd classified cables released so far by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which holds more than 250,000 messages exchanged between the U.S. Department of State and American embassies around the world. Five news organizations, including the New York Times, have reported on the cables in great detail. But the fact that the information is in the public domain makes no difference to the government’s view of its classified nature.

WikiLeaks, cyberwar and Julian Assange

Bernd Debusmann
Dec 10, 2010 16:39 UTC

What started out as a small group of activists operating a clearing house for leaked secret documents, WikiLeaks looks like it is turning into an international grass roots movement that needs no central figure to fight a “data war” in the name of Internet freedom.

It could be a long war, no matter whether Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, remains the world’s most prominent anti-secrecy figure or not.

Since November 28, when WikiLeaks began releasing a quarter of a million classified U.S. State Department cables from embassies around the world, there have been several attempts to drive the organization off the Internet and cut its channels for receiving donations. A day after Assange was arrested in London, Internet activists struck back.

A counter-productive WikiLeak

Bernd Debusmann
Dec 3, 2010 16:00 UTC

WIKILEAKS/AMAZON

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

WASHINGTON — Now that WikiLeaks has begun releasing a quarter of a million classified U.S. State Department cables from embassies around the world, a new era is dawning. Political change and reform are inevitable world-wide and at long last, there’s a chance for peace and stability in the Middle East. Really.

This is how Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks, views the effect of the dispatches that lay bare the inner workings of U.S. diplomacy, provide frank and often titillating detail of the shortcomings and foibles of foreign leaders, report on the breath-taking scale of corruption in such places as Afghanistan and Russia, and note that — surprise, surprise — Arab leaders in particular tend to say one thing in public and quite another in private.

“The…media scrutiny and the reaction from government are so tremendous that it actually eclipses our ability to understand it,” Assange said in an interview with Time magazine on day 3 of the data dump, which began on November 28. “I can see that there is a tremendous re-arrangement of viewings about many different countries. And so that will result in a new kind of harmonization … ”

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