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.