Opinion

David Rohde

The Iraq war’s most damaging legacy

David Rohde
Mar 19, 2013 14:46 UTC

American households will be blanketed this week by a torrent of coverage, commentary and regret about the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war. Liberals claim that Twitter – if it had existed – could have stopped the invasion. Conservatives argue that the links between Saddam Hussein and terrorism have, in fact, been underplayed.

The glaring lesson of the war is that American ground invasions destabilize the Middle East, instead of stabilizing it. The 100,000 Iraqis who perished, the 4,500 American soldiers killed and the $1 trillion spent should have halted what Tufts University professor Daniel W. Drezner has called the “creeping militarization of American foreign policy.” Instead, the civilian American institutions that failed us before Iraq have grown even weaker.

The State Department is the first example. Drezner correctly argues that as the Pentagon’s budget has ballooned in the post-9/11 decade, so has its influence over American foreign policy. Too many former generals, he contends, have occupied foreign policy important positions.

That trend has slowed in the second Obama administration, but the budget, planning capabilities and training programs of the State Department are still laughably small compared with those of the U.S. military. Money equals power, influence and a seat at the table in Washington. As one former national security reporter put it to me, weak civilian institutions leads to fewer potential civilian responses to crises.

In his first major speech as secretary of state, John Kerry tried to put the size of the American civilian effort in perspective. He cited a recent poll that found most Americans believe the State Department and U.S. foreign aid programs consume 25 percent of federal spending. In fact, they receive 1 percent. (The military gets roughly 20 percent.)

The best legislation liberals can buy

David Rohde
Feb 28, 2013 22:31 UTC

If George W. Bush had launched such a group, the coverage would be overwhelming and the criticism widespread. Last Friday, a story by Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times revealed that President Obama’s political team is trying to raise $50 million to fund the conversion of his re-election campaign into Organizing for Action, a “powerhouse” new national lobbying group.

The story said that at least half of the organization’s budget will come from a small number of well-connected donors who each raise or contribute more than $500,000. In return, those donors get a spot on a national advisory board, the right to attend quarterly meetings with the president and access to other White House meetings.

“Unlike a presidential campaign, Organizing for Action has been set up as a tax-exempt ‘social welfare group,’ ” Confessore wrote. “That means it is not bound by federal contribution limits, laws that bar White House officials from soliciting contributions or the stringent reporting requirements for campaigns. In their place, the new group will self-regulate.”

Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea is good — for HBO

David Rohde
Feb 26, 2013 21:14 UTC

Retired NBA star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea, yes, North Korea, on Tuesday in the latest of a series of visits by American citizens to the Stalinist state. Rodman and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters will engage in “basketball diplomacy,” according to this exclusive Associated Press story on Rodman’s trip.  The retired Chicago Bulls star and five-time NBA champion will play an exhibition game with North Korea’s top basketball stars and conduct a basketball camp for children.

“It’s my first time, I think it’s most of these guys’ first time here,” a subdued Rodman told reporters after arriving in Pyongyang airport. “So hopefully everything’s going to be OK, and hoping the kids have a good time for the game.”

This video shows Rodman’s arrival. Much more video will follow. Rodman was accompanied by a reporter for the new HBO news magazine Vice, which will air an episode about the trip after its April debut.

Syria demands a new policy

David Rohde
Feb 21, 2013 22:38 UTC

Typhoid and hepatitis outbreaks are spreading. An estimated 70,000 people are dead, and another 850,000 are refugees. After covering the battle for Damascus for a month, my colleague – photographer Goran Tomasevic – declared the situation a “bloody stalemate” this week.

“I watched both sides mount assaults, some trying to gain just a house or two, others for bigger prizes, only to be forced back by sharpshooters, mortars or sprays of machine-gun fire,” Tomasevic, a gifted and brave photographer, wrote in a chilling first-hand account. “As in the ruins of Beirut, Sarajevo or Stalingrad, it is a sniper’s war.”

The Obama administration’s policy toward Syria is a failure. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are funneling more aid, armaments and diplomatic cover to Bashar al-Assad. And Syrian rebels who once hailed the United States now loathe it.

Political courage – and risk – in Tunisia

David Rohde
Feb 20, 2013 19:30 UTC

Keeping his promise to the people of Tunisia, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned yesterday after his own party rejected his call for the creation of an apolitical government of technocrats to ease the country’s rising political tensions. My colleague Tarek Amara reported this morning that the ongoing political instability is slowing economic growth in Tunisia just as the country’s economy was showing its first signs of life since the 2011 revolution.

For Jebali personally, his resignation is a gamble. After promising to resign if he could not form a new apolitical government, Jebali did just that on Tuesday. The prime minister’s move was seen by many in Tunisia as “a rare display of accountability by a politician,” according to The New York Times. But it also leaves Jebali without the strong backing of any major political party.

Tensions have soared in Tunisia since a leftist opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated two weeks ago. The ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, has rejected complaints of poor governance and failing to crackdown on attacks on liquor stores and art exhibits by hardline Salafists. Instead, it has blamed Tunisian news media, secular elites and elements of the old government for its decreasing popularity.

Obama’s ‘war on inequality’

David Rohde
Feb 14, 2013 00:03 UTC

He quoted Jack Kennedy but sounded more like Lyndon Johnson.

In an audacious State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama made sweeping proposals to reduce poverty, revive the middle class and increase taxes on the “well off.” While careful to not declare it outright, an emboldened second-term president laid out an agenda that could be called a “war on inequality.”

“There are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead,” Obama declared in a blunt attack one a core conservative credo. “And that’s why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.”

In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson introduced the legislation that became known as the “War on Poverty.” Those laws – along with many others he shepherded – stand today as perhaps the greatest legislative achievement of any modern president. Whether or not one agrees with him, Johnson’s laws – from the Civil Rights Act, to Medicaid, Medicare and Head Start, to sweeping federal urban renewal and education programs – changed the face of American society.

A troubled homecoming for Bin Laden “shooter”

David Rohde
Feb 11, 2013 22:23 UTC

Update at 12:20 pm EST on 2/13/13:

The Veterans Administration weighed in Tuesday on the dispute between Esquire magazine and Stars and Stripes over the benefits available to the retired Navy SEAL who reportedly killed Osama Bin Laden. In an email, a Veterans Administration spokesperson laid out the benefits available to combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan:

- Full access to VA health care for five-years after separation for OIF/OEF/OND combat Veterans.

- Post 9-11 GI Bill Education benefits which provides tuition, fees and a monthly housing allowance.

Obama’s legacy of secrecy

David Rohde
Feb 8, 2013 19:00 UTC

John Brennan’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday was a microcosm of the Obama administration’s approach to counterterrorism: The right assurances, with little transparency.

Brennan said the United States should publicly disclose when American drone attacks kill civilians. He called waterboarding “reprehensible” and vowed it would never occur under his watch. And he said that countering militancy should be “comprehensive,” not just  “kinetic,” and involve diplomatic and development efforts as well.

What any of that means in practice, though, remains unknown.

Brennan failed to clearly answer questions about the administration’s excessive embrace of drone strikes and secrecy. He flatly defended the quadrupling of drone strikes that has occurred on Obama’s watch. He gave no clear explanation for why  the public has been denied access to vital Justice Department legal opinions that give the president the power to kill U.S. citizens without judicial review. And his statement that the establishment of a special court to review the targeting of Americans was “worthy of discussion” was noncommittal.

Assassination casts pall on Arab Spring’s best hope

David Rohde
Feb 8, 2013 17:05 UTC

At a faster rate than many expected, the post-Arab Spring’s Islamist governments are stumbling.

For weeks, President Mohammad Mursi has faced increasingly violent opposition in Egypt. And now the Islamist rulers of Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, are facing growing unrest.

Across the country once considered the region’s best hope for democracy, mass protests and political paralysis have erupted following the assassination of a leading secular politician on Wednesday.

The ‘trust me’ administration

David Rohde
Feb 6, 2013 21:21 UTC

In a bold second inaugural address, one line was my favorite.

“We will defend our people and uphold our values,” President Barack Obama declared, “through strength of arms and rule of law.”

Obama was right to describe the “rule of law” as a weapon the United States can use to defend itself. But the administration’s insistence on enveloping its counter-terrorism efforts in excessive secrecy flouts the rule of law. A proud American ideal is being turned into a liability, not an asset.

“It’s not sufficient for the administration to say, ‘Trust us, we’re taking care of it,’ ” said Amrit Singh, author of a new Open Society Institute report that raises numerous questions about the United States’ use of rendition and torture since 2001. “There needs to be greater transparency.”

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