Sunday, December 9, 2012

Senate Gives Disability Rights Treaty the Thumbs Down

Senate efforts to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which played out this summer and fall, went on entirely under the radar. Few in Washington or in the media even knew the treaty was under consideration. Until, that is, Republicans succeeded in blocking ratification of the treaty -- a pact more than 120 other nations around the world have already approved -- by a slim five vote margin last week.

The news was in the fact that treaty ratification failed. The treaty was so non-controversial, to most minds at least, that its approval would not have created much of a stir. Senate Democrats already gave up on ratifying another treaty due to GOP objections, but in the disability rights treaty they anticipated relatively smooth sailing. That even this treaty, which calls on signatories to bring their standards for disability rights up to standards already enshrined here in the United States by the Americans with Disabilities Act, says something about the state of the Senate and the Republican party.

For many, it was eye-opening, a revelation about just how much sway conservatives have in the party and how deep those conservatives' antipathy is for international bodies like the U.N. For those of us who cover these types of things closely, it was not nearly as surprising ($).

I discussed some of the back story on the treaty vote and its failure with C-SPAN last week. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Real Questions After Benghazi

The end of election season has done little to tamp down members of Congress -- and particularly Republicans' -- quest for answers concerning the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September. But the reality is the parameters of the attack are largely known at this point, thanks to a raft of briefings and explanations in the press.

Sure, there are questions about which specific U.S. officials knew which piece of intelligence about the assault when and why they characterized it one way as opposed to another in their public comments. But if lawmakers are really serious about "preventing another Benghazi," a goal they repeatedly invoke, then those are not the right questions to be asking.

The deeper issues are related to the level of risk the U.S. ought to subjects its diplomats, soldiers and spies to, and how best to deploy them in unstable parts of the globe. The United States is also due for a reassessment of its overall footprint and engagement strategy for the MENA region -- the Middle East and North Africa -- home to many of those unstable, and strategically important, locales.

Thus far those questions have been relegated largely to the sidelines, both by politicians and the mainstream press. It will be a test of their intentions to see if members of Congress take them up.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Treasury Wonks Behind Our Iran Sanctions

For much of the Obama administration, it's been Congress who has been out in front when it comes to pushing ever tighter U.S. sanctions against Iran. But much of the intelligence and strategy for targeting the Iranian economy actually comes from inside the Treasury Department, and specifically from a bureau created after Sept. 11, 2001 to house U.S. efforts to counter international financial networks that support terror.

The obscure Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence and its leaders have been behind the gradual program to ramp up international economic pressure on Iran, which has culminated in the collapse of Iran's currency in recent months. In a piece I wrote for this month's Fortune Magazine, I look at some of the longtime Treasury officials who helped craft this policy under former Under Secretary Stuart Levey, and are now taking it to a whole new level, thanks in good measure to pressure from Congress and Israel.

That pressure is unlikely to subside, even as the White House now seeks to restart diplomatic engagement with Tehran.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Capitol Hill Takes on the Military's Problem with Sexual Assault

Over the summer, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos hosted a dinner with a handful of lawmakers to discuss a hidden epidemic of violence in the military: 19,000 servicemembers are estimated to be victims of rape or sexual assault each year.

The high-level gathering was a signal of how seriously the military brass is now taking the problem of sexual assaults. But the dinner guests were quickly reminded of just how taboo the subject remains for much of the armed forces. Someone mentioned the low reporting rates — only 2,723 military victims came forward to formally disclose assaults in 2011. Amos’ wife turned to a high-ranking female officer at the table and asked what she would do if she were assaulted. Would she report the crime?

“With the commandant present and [three] members of Congress, she honestly answered no,” recalls Ohio Republican Michael R. Turner, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Women “perceive that it can affect someone’s career in the military negatively if they report they’re the victim of the crime,” Turner says. “And that’s just wrong.”

Turner’s outrage is widely shared in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. That consensus breaks down, however, over how best to legislate and implement a sweeping cultural change in an institution as large and complex as the U.S. military.

The debate rests on the question of whether the armed forces — where loyalty and fraternity are deeply ingrained values and resistance to outside interference is the norm — can remake itself and, most important, police itself on matters of sexual violence. Both sides acknowledge that it isn’t yet clear whether the military is at a true tipping point such that a change in culture is systematically spreading down through the services’ ranks.

In a recent feature for CQ's weekly magazine, my colleague, Megan Scully, and I looked at the measures Congress has passed in recent years that lawmakers hope will trigger just that sort of cultural change in the military, and whether they might need to go still further.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fight Night

The final presidential debate -- on everyone's favorite subject, foreign policy! -- has been sliced and diced a-plenty in the last 48-hours.

But if you're dying to rehash President Obama's sharp one-liners -- the 80s called and, well, nevermind -- or Mitt Romney's discipline in staying above the fray -- a strategy his advisers clearly thought would help improve his chances of winning the war, even though he lost the battle -- then I present you my colleague Steve Dennis' and my take on the evening for Roll Call.

I said (er, Tweeted) it at the time and I'll say it again, despite all the chatter leading up to the debate that Romney would be moderating his position on foreign affairs the same way he pivoted towards the center on domestic policy in the previous two debates, I still found myself a bit startled that he passed on a clear chance to take the president on about the attacks on the consulate in Benghazi. Yes, he muffed it in the second debate, but I'm sure his debate coaches could have come up with a line nailing Obama for the security situation in Libya, if not the White House's descriptions of the attack afterwards, where there doesn't seem to me much "there" there.

It may be wise, however, to leave the task to surrogates -- like congressional Republicans, who continue to hammer the administration on a daily basis for what they knew and when. That appears to be taking a toll on the president and his ratings on international affairs and terrorism, according to the latest polls.

The biggest news out of the debate for Washington was the president's confident prediction that there will be no sequester. Preventing those draconian budget cuts -- particularly on the military side -- has been the obsession inside the Beltway for the last year. How Obama makes that a reality remains to be seen.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Sunset of the Reset

The news this week that Russia was booting USAID -- the U.S. government's international development arm -- out of the country confirms something I wrote about earlier this month: President Obama's much-hyped reset with Moscow is over.

That's not the same thing as saying the reset was a failure, the election year argument that Republicans have been making. Those claims overlook some very substantial diplomatic and security gains the Obama administration made vis-a-vis Russia between 2009 and 2011 -- the New START bilateral nuclear arms reduction treaty, the 2010 U.N. Security Council resolution against Iran, the agreement that secured transit routes out of Afghanistan, to name the most prominent.

It's simply that, with Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency, shifting domestic politics in both countries and the rise of new conflicts like Syria, that feel-good phase of bilateral relations has run its course, gone the way of President Medvedev. In it's place is a new, more confrontational era in the U.S.-Russia relationship, but not one that promises to be entirely bereft of cooperation. Afghanistan, Iran even Asia are regions where Washington and Moscow have incentives to work together.

Sen. Dick Lugar, who has a decades-long perspective on the bilateral relationship, acknowledged that both countries seemed inclined to continue "kicking each other in the shins" these days. "The problem is, if there is too much kicking in the shins and so forth, people become unhappy with each other." For both our countries sake, he said, "we better move past that."  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Glimmers of Bipartisanship on Foreign Policy

Who says Congress can't get anything done during an election year? Granted, lawmakers may not be addressing the country's urgent fiscal challenges, but they do appear poised to further tighten the economic vise on Iran as punishment for the mullahs' continued intransigence on nuclear enrichment.

The European Union's oil embargo and United States sanctions barring transactions with the Central Bank of Iran have only been in force for a few weeks, but members on both sides of the aisles are already itching to go further. The House and Senate are now trying to hash out the final details of a consensus piece of sanctions legislation, based on bills the House passed in December and the Senate in May. New measures under consideration would effectively cut off Tehran's energy and financial sectors from the rest of the world.

Those involved in the current negotiations -- half a dozen or so offices in addition to the lead negotiators Sen. Tim Johnson, D-SD, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL -- are optimistic a compromise bill is going to be ready for a vote next week. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has signaled he's prepared to make floor time for it. Ros-Lehtinen has even suggested it could move by voice vote in the House, a sign of just how broad the support is in the chamber.

Congress may also succeed in passing legislation granting Russia permanent normalized trade relations in time for Moscow's formal accession to the World Trade Organization in August. Without it, U.S. companies cannot get preferential access to Russia's newly opened markets under the WTO framework. The legislation has the support of leading Republicans and Democrats in both chambers (CQ subscription required), but Moscow's surly behavior on the world stage in recent months -- its stance vis-a-vis Syria being the most glaring example -- hasn't won it any friends on Capitol Hill, and passage in both chambers is still something of a wild card.