NDN Blog

More on the Shiite ascendency in the Middle East

Following on our post from yesterday, the Post has a strong piece this morning about the powerful new dynamic in the Middle East unleashed by America's actions in recent years:

Four years after the United States invaded Iraq, in part to transform the Middle East, Iran is ascendant, many in the region view the Americans in retreat, and Arab countries, their own feelings of weakness accentuated, are awash in sharpening sectarian currents that many blame the United States for exacerbating.

Iran has deepened its relationship with Palestinian Islamic groups, assuming a financial role once filled by Gulf Arab states, in moves it sees as defensive and the United States views as aggressive. In Lebanon and Iraq, Iran is fighting proxy battles against the United States with funds, arms and ideology. And in the vacuum created by the U.S. overthrow of Iranian foes in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is exerting a power and prestige that recalls the heady days of the 1979 Islamic revolution, when Iranian clerics led the toppling of a U.S.-backed government.

"The United States is the first to be blamed for the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East," said Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi writer and academic. "There is one thing important about the ascendance of Iran here. It does not reflect a real change in Iranian capabilities, economic or political. It's more a reflection of the failures on the part of the U.S. and its Arab allies in the region."

Added Eyal Zisser, head of the Middle Eastern and African Studies Department at Tel Aviv University in Israel: "After the whole investment in democracy in the region, the West is losing, and Iran is winning."

The Times reports this morning that European governments are questioning America's strategy seeking to isolate Iran.

"The fight we're in"

"This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in."

This morning I offer up three pieces helpful in gaining a greater understanding of this new "fight we're in."

Yesterday the Times published a remarkable essay by Sabrina Tavernise, looking back at her time in Iraq, and how much things have degraded in the last several years. The story dives into the deepening and horrible fight between the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq in a way few other stories I've read have.

The Post had a thoughtful editorial yesterday making the case that now is the time for a diplomatic opening to Iran. I agree with their arguments.

And this morning, the Iranians outflank the Administration, and offer the Iraqi government aid in reconstruction and in "the security fight."

I can't get that State of the Union line out of my head, for in so many ways it is the defining line of the Bush Administration. The stumbling, the lack of understanding of what they were doing, of where we are headed in the Middle East today. And that is my great concern now. These guys have gotten so utterly wrong for so long, why do we believe they are going to get it right now?

I don't think they have really come to terms with what is happening in the Middle East today. The most powerful new dynamic, unleashed by our actions in Iraq, is the growing violence between Sunnis and Shiites, and the assertation of power by Shiites across the region. Do we really believe that this dynamic, captured so powerfully in Tavernise's piece above, will be solved by military action alone? Reopening some state owned factories? Or the capturing of some insurgents in a field?

It seems as if the Administration simply doesn't understand this new Middle East our policies have created, this new "fight we're in." It isn't going to get made better by arms alone. It is going to require a great deal more imagination, diplomacy and political sophistication than the Administration is showing today. Starting by telling Congress to go f--- themselves was probably not a great sign that these guys, once again, are headed in the right direction.

Cheney: Saying Administration blundered in Iraq is "hogwash"

The Vice President gave a rather remarkable interview yesterday on CNN.  Read the story and see the interview here.

Thoughts?

Weigh in on the President's speech, and Webb's response. 

More progress on immigration reform

The President sure did make a strong case for passing comprehensive immigration reform tonight.  In the Spanish-language Democratic response, Rep. Becerra also made a strong and passionate case for reforming our broken immigration system. 

These important rhetorical commitments come on the heels of other recent important signs of progress on this important issue:

- The GOP made a Cuban immigrant, and great champion of comprehensive immigration reform, the Chairman of their Party.  It is an important sign of the President's commitment to passing a bill this year, and for Republicans it helps provide some distance from their shameful demonization of immigrants in last year's election.   

- A new coalition of powerful grassroots groups has formed to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.  It is aptly named Alliance for Immigration Reform 2007. 

- The Democrats choose Denver as their convention site in 2008.  To fully capitalize on their choice of Denver in the 2008 elections, Democrats will want to show the Hispanics of the southwest and the nation that they helped fix the broken immigration system, and brought an end to a debate that has become seen in this community as anti-Hispanic.

- Finally, in his State of the Union Preview Friday, Colorado Senator Ken Salazar made it clear that passing comprehensive immigration reform was an important Democratic priority this year. 

Given how contentious this issue was in 2006, there is no doubt that it will take a lot of work to get it done in 2007.  But I remain optimistic, we are making progress, and we at NDN will be using all means available to get this important legislation passed this year. 

For more on NDN's work promoting immigration reform, visit the immigration section of our website at www.ndn.org/immigration.

LA Times suggests Administration is exaggerating the case against Iran

Scant evidence found of Iran-Iraq arms linkU.S. warnings of advanced weaponry crossing the border are overstated, critics sayBAQUBAH, IRAQ — If there is anywhere Iran could easily stir up trouble in Iraq, it would be in Diyala, a rugged province along the border between the two nations.

The combination of Sunni Arab militants believed to be affiliated with Al Qaeda and Shiite Muslim militiamen with ties to Iran has fueled waves of sectarian and political violence here. The province is bisected by long-traveled routes leading from Iran to Baghdad and Shiite holy cities farther south in Iraq.

But even here, evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq's troubles is limited. U.S. troops have found mortars and antitank mines with Iranian markings dated 2006, said U.S. Army Col. David W. Sutherland, who oversees the province. But there has been little sign of more advanced weaponry crossing the border, and no Iranian agents have been found.

In his speech this month outlining the new U.S. strategy in Iraq, President Bush promised to "seek out and destroy" Iranian networks that he said were providing "advanced weaponry and training to our enemies." He is expected to strike a similar note in tonight's State of the Union speech.

For all the aggressive rhetoric, however, the Bush administration has provided scant evidence to support these claims. Nor have reporters traveling with U.S. troops seen extensive signs of Iranian involvement. During a recent sweep through a stronghold of Sunni insurgents here, a single Iranian machine gun turned up among dozens of arms caches U.S. troops uncovered. British officials have similarly accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs, but say they have not found Iranian-made weapons in areas they patrol.

The lack of publicly disclosed evidence has led to questions about whether the administration is overstating its case. Some suggest Bush and his aides are pointing to Iran to deflect blame for U.S. setbacks in Iraq. Others suggest they are laying the foundation for a military strike against Iran....For more on the Administration's new focus on Iran, you can find these following three essays: Pakistan is helping the Taliban. Now what?; Why is the Administration surprised that Iran is gaining regional influence?; and and the Rise of the Shiites.  

The State of the Union is Stronger and Better

Tonight, President Bush will attempt to explain away, again, his foreign policy mistakes, and offer the Democrats a few olive branches on domestic issues. While we should all welcome his overtures on important challenges like health care and immigration reform, my sense is that anyone watching tonight will be filled with a profound sense of “what might have been” – of the lives, years, money, opportunities and good will squandered by this Administration.

Looking back, it is interesting to see how our nation has changed from just a year ago. Consider this except from a memo I wrote to all of you on the morning of last year’s State of the Union:

Tonight, the President reports to the nation on the State of the Union. We will hear soaring rhetoric, powerful words, a President resolute and determined. We will hear of victories, progress, and pride. He will tell a compelling story – and very little of it will be true.

The truly compelling story of this decade is one that Bush doesn’t want told – the rapid and dramatic failure of conservative government. Finally in a position of virtually unchecked power after decades in the political wilderness, modern conservatives have failed quickly and utterly at the most basic responsibilities of governing, leaving our nation weaker and our people less prosperous, less safe and less free.

Seduced by the temptations of power, these movement ideologues also quickly came to believe that the rules of our democracy did not apply to them. The result is one of the farthest-reaching episodes of corruption and criminal investigations into a governing party in our history.

To fully appreciate the State of the Union, we need a deep understanding of the conservative movement and its rise to power. Jumpstarted a little more than fifty years ago by William F. Buckley’s National Review, the conservatives began their long march to power by investing billions of dollars in a modern infrastructure to combat the entrenched position of progressives in government. They used this infrastructure – think tanks, for-profit media, superior and innovative forms of electioneering – to defeat an aging progressive movement, and now have more power than at any time since the 1920s.

In recent years America has learned what life is like under a true conservative government. With near absolute power, conservatives have pursued their agenda with little compromise or input from progressives. The latest chapter of the great conservative story – the Bush years – may have been one of political victories, but it has also been one of disastrous governance. The broad and deep failures of the Bush government should cause all Americans to reappraise the virtue of this grand conservative experiment, recognizing that even after 50 years and untold billions of dollars, they have yet to come up with a true alternative to 20th century progressive government -- which did so much good, for so long.

....The next chapter in the story of conservatism has yet to be written. Will they learn from their mistakes, work with the Democrats, and fashion a bipartisan approach to our challenges? Or do they recede deeper into their fantasies, continue to wage war against all imagined enemies domestic and foreign, and continue down the current path of drift and decline?

It is too early to tell how this next chapter will unfold. We all know which path would be best for America at this challenging time. We at NDN pledge to do everything we can to extend our hand to members of both parties interested in getting past these disappointing years, cleaning up the mess and working together to craft a better future for our nation.

As NDN has written in recent weeks, it is our hope that the sheer magnitude of the administration’s failures will enable responsible members of both parties to wrest control of our government from the conservative ideologues and begin the work of ushering in a more constructive era. NDN and its allies helped to produce successful government in the 1990s. We left the world at peace, the budget in surplus, and the country in unprecedented prosperity. Our hope is that as we lay out a better agenda for our great and good nation, we will begin with the one approach that worked so well in recent years – the governing approach of the modern Democratic Party.

Coming back to today, it is remarkable to note just how much leaders of both parties, and the American people, are fighting to end this disappointing era and usher in a new and better one for our nation. In November, the American people gave much greater governing responsibility to the Democrats, a party that governed responsibly, and effectively, when last in power. They elected the first woman ever to be Speaker, and Nancy Pelosi now stands as the highest ranking woman in the history of American government. On Election Day, Americans supported Democratic Congressional candidates over Republicans 54% to 42%, one of the strongest performances by Democrats in any election over the last two generations. And that support continues, with overwhelming public support for the Congressional Democrat’s agenda, and their leaders, especially Speaker Pelosi. In the recent success of the 100 Hours plan in the House, dozens of Republicans broke from the orthodoxy of the Bush years, and supported core Democratic initiatives like raising the minimum wage and providing funds for stem cell research. At the same time, the President’s polls numbers have hit record lows, and are similar to Nixon’s just before his resignation in 1974.

But nowhere is the rush to repudiate the Bush years more evident than in what has happened in response to the President's “stay the course plus” strategy for Iraq. The Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the plan to send 20,000 additional troops to Baghdad, without a clearly defined mission. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group opposed the plan, advocating instead for regional negotiations and an eventual drawdown of troop levels. All leading Democrats and some prominent Republicans opposed the plan, and let the President know prior to his January 10th announcement. The country now opposes this escalation plan by a 2 to 1 margin, and that support is dropping. In a new Washington Post - ABC Poll out this morning, when asked who they trust more to handle our occupation of Iraq, the American people choose the Democrats 60% to 33%.

In the Senate, there is now Republican competition for how to best repudiate their President, with such prominent Senators as Hagel, Warner and Collins all debating the details of what will be a remarkable Senate resolution later this week. In a new interview out this morning, Senator John McCain, the chief architect of the new strategy, publicly rips into Vice President Dick Cheney for his management of all things Iraq. Even in the go-along, get-along House, the new GOP leader John Boehner is asking for reports from the President every 30 days so they can track the progress, or lack thereof, in Iraq.

We should also consider the early start of the 2008 Presidential contest – on both sides – to be another manifestation of the almost desperate need the country has to put the Bush era behind us. Candidates in both parties are racing out there, faster than ever before, and in great numbers. They sense, as good politicians, an opportunity to fill the space left by the Bush collapse. They are quickly deploying a new set of media and technology tools that will bring them closer to the emerging electorate of the 21st century. Along with the new Congress, their voices are defining the next debate, a debate that will be dominated by how to best clean up the mess left by conservatives, and to tackle the many challenges left unmet. This is a debate our network will, I hope, have an important role in shaping.

While we have many years of work and difficult decisions ahead of us, we should take comfort that our nation has taken decisive action that will help us meet the daunting challenges of our time. The American people have wisely repudiated a corrupt and failed governing party, rejected the President’s misguided foreign policy, welcomed a new set of Congressional leaders with fresh ideas and a deep commitment to governing, and encouraged Presidential hopefuls of both parties to jump in early, so their voices can be added to the consequential debates of today.

So, while the nation still faces great challenges, together, we are poised to take the important and difficult steps necessary to meet them. And for that reason alone, the state of our Union is stronger and better than it was when the President last spoke to us a year ago.

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Republicans: "Abandon ship!"

From the Post tonight:

"Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, yesterday endorsed a new resolution opposing President Bush's buildup of troops in Baghdad, as even some of the most loyal Republicans scrambled to register their concerns and distance themselves from an unpopular policy.

The resolution, unveiled the day before the president's State of the Union address, is expected to garner the support of many Senate Republicans -- especially those facing reelection next year. The measure appeals to many rank-and-file Republicans because it allows them to voice their differences with the administration without embracing the highly critical language of another bipartisan resolution co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), one of the sharpest critics of the administration's Iraq policy.

By last night, Warner had already met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and the two camps were negotiating a single resolution likely to be approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday...."

Cleaning up the staggering criminality and corruption of the Bush era

Coming back to one of my favorite subjects, Talking Points Memo has a good recap of renewed efforts to put Republican and conservative criminals in jail.

While I applaud the new, tough ethics bills passed by Congress, those efforts don't really touch on the criminal activities of the Republicans and conservatives these past few years.  Even though many of these folks are no longer in positions of power, it is critical that the new Congress support those pursuing any thread of evidence that laws may have been broken.  Investigations into people like the king of earmarks, Rep.  Jerry Lewis, must be completed, and the career prosecutors looking into what I think will be seen as the most systemic corruption of our government in our history be given both the political cover and resources to finish their jobs.  Otherwise, our new Congressional leaders will in essence be complicit in letting bad guys get away, an unacceptable outcome on many levels. 

As ethics reform goes to conference it is essential that measures be taken to give the career prosecutors in the Office of Public Integrity at Justice and in other US Attorney offices more money, and to create a greater public understanding of the importance and political difficulty of what they are being asked to do so that it will be harder for this difficult process to be interfered with.  Our new leaders of Congress have to be militant in protecting this process against what will be any attempt by what's left of conservative power, the Administration, to prevent the wheels of justice from turning.  This week Senator Leahy was reported to be offering an amendment to extend the statue of limitations of Congressional crimes from 5 yo 8 years, and to offer the Office of Public Integrity more money.  These are good and sound ideas, and must be part of any final bill.   

Accordingly, the recent firing of the various US Attorneys by the Administration, including the one who successfully prosecuted Duke Cunningham (who received the longest jail sentence of any convicted Member of Congress in history) must be understood as the first serious effort by Bushies to undermine this process.  As Talking Points reports, actions are being taken to address this new White House effort, but from first glance I'm not sure how sufficient they are to the moment at hand. 

Richardson gets in, also through an internet video

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson becomes the third Democratic candidate this week to announce over the internet

By contrast the one Republican to get in this week, Senator Sam Brownback, announced at a traditional event in his home state, an approach that looks increasingly very 20th century. 

The Post had an interesting piece this am looking at the Hillary video.  Walter Shapiro at Salon also as an early, thoughtful take on what is shaping up to be a very different type of Presidential campaign, one that is now looking very much like the first Presidential campaign of the 21st century.

You can also find on Richardson's site a Spanish-language version of his announcement.

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