Focal Points Blog

Turnover of Obama’s SecDefs Eclipsed by Revolving Door of Reagan’s National Security Advisors

The Reagan administration employed a sorry succession of national security advisors. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration / WikiMedia Commons)

The Reagan administration employed a sorry succession of national security advisors. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration / WikiMedia Commons)

The departure of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense this week has provided Republicans with an opportunity to unload on President Barack Obama, a chance they’ve grabbed gleefully.

In a radio interview, hawkish Senator John McCain expressed sympathy with Hagel, blaming ‘that real tight circle inside the White House’ for ‘the incredible debacle that we’re in today throughout the world’.
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Why Exactly Was Chuck Hagel Forced Out as SecDef?

Chuck Hagel may have been a victim, but, like his predecessors, he failed to demonstrate the requisite vision the military needs for the future. (Photo: DoD / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo / Flickr Commons)

Chuck Hagel may have been a victim, but, like his predecessors, he failed to demonstrate the requisite vision the military needs for the future. (Photo: DoD / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo / Flickr Commons)

Was fired Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel simply a scapegoat for charges that the Obama presidency was slow to respond to the Islamic State and ebola? Perhaps an administration that hired him to wind down the Afghanistan War and cut Pentagon costs had reversed course and instead sought a secretary of defense to put the United States on war footing with the Islamic State.

Or as indicated by his confirmation hearings, was Hagel just too poor a spokesperson for the Pentagon?
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When Iran Nuclear Talks Resume, They Must Conclude Before New Congress

Former IAEA Director General Hans Blix fears a hawkish U.S. Congress. (Photo: Global Zero)

Former IAEA Director General Hans Blix fears a hawkish U.S. Congress. (Photo: Global Zero)

As you have no doubt heard, the United States has failed to reach a nuclear deal with Iran and talks are expected to resume next month. Reuters reports:

If the two sides reach a deal after a one-month adjournment, it would still be before the upcoming change in U.S. Congress, where hardline Republicans will dominate both houses in January. Hawkish U.S. lawmakers have threatened to push for new sanctions on Iran if there is no concrete progress in the talks.

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Loss of Manufacturing Jobs and Lack of Housing Policy Have Led to Homelessness in Hungary

“The structural roots of homelessness are very much similar in Hungary and in the United States,” says Hungarian activist Balint Misetics, pictured. (Photo: John Feffer)

“The structural roots of homelessness are very much similar in Hungary and in the United States,” says Hungarian activist Balint Misetics, pictured. (Photo: John Feffer)

During the Communist period in East-Central Europe, when people talked about “homelessness,” they were speaking of a spiritual or political condition – of being in exile from their country of origin or feeling homeless in their own country because of the presence of Soviet troops. At that time, there were few people living on the street. Everyone had to have an address. Homelessness did not officially exist.

Today it’s another matter. For many of the same reasons that homelessness increased in the United States in the 1980s, the phenomenon has intensified in East-Central Europe. In Hungary, for instance, there are around 30,000 homeless people, many of them in Budapest. People sleeping in the underground entrances to the subway or bundled under street arcades are a common sight.
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U.S. Has Almost as Much to Lose as Iran if Nuclear Deal Isn’t Reached

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, and US Secretary John Kerry during the E3/EU+3 talks with Iran on October 15. (Photo: Flickr Commons)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, and US Secretary John Kerry during the E3/EU+3 talks with Iran on October 15. (Photo: Flickr Commons)

At Politico, Gary Sick writes that, if Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif fails to capitulate to the demands of the United States and a nuclear deal isn’t reached, it would play into the hands of Iran’s hardliners. As well,

… the failure to reach a deal by Nov. 24 would in all likelihood have a second effect that would compound the problem: weakening the external leverage that the United States could bring to bear on Iran. The primary leverage that the U.S.-led side has brought to the table is the international sanctions regime that has limited Iran’s energy exports and choked off its access to international financial networks. But those are not U.N. sanctions; they rely primarily on Washington’s ability to persuade or pressure companies in countries whose governments do not endorse those sanctions to refrain from trade with or investment in Iran, under threat that noncompliance could result in their being shut out of the international banking system.

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Denying Veterans Benefits a Venerable Tradition

“The March to Valley Forge” by William Trego (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“The March to Valley Forge” by William Trego (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the early memoirs by a low-ranking soldier ― and still one of the best ― is Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary War Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin, which was published in 1830. He was keenly aware that he was working in a genre that today is known as “people’s history.” One of his main concerns, aside from how poorly the Continental Army was equipped and fed, was what we call today benefits. Martin wrote:

When those who engaged to serve during the war enlisted, they were promised a hundred acres of land each, which was to be in their own or the adjoining states. When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like old worn-out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon. Congress did, indeed, appropriate lands under the denomination of “Soldiers’ lands,” in Ohio state, or some state, or a future state; but no care was taken that the soldiers should get them. No agents were appointed to see that the poor fellows ever got possession of their lands; no one ever took the least care about it, except a pack of speculators who were driving about the country like so many evil spirits, endeavoring to pluck the last feather from the soldiers. The soldiers were ignorant of the ways and means to obtain their bounty lands, and there was no one appointed to inform them. [Emphasis added.]

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Solving Nuclear Base Foul-ups and National Laboratory Mismanagement the Easy Way

A missile wing at Minot Air Force Base conducting a simulated launch of a Minuteman ICBM. (Photo: AF Global Strike / Flickr Commons)

A missile wing at Minot Air Force Base conducting a simulated launch of a Minuteman ICBM. (Photo: AF Global Strike / Flickr Commons)

“Today’s long-expected internal and external reviews of the Department of Defense (DoD) nuclear operations,” reads a Nov. 15 press release for the Los Alamos Study Group, “do not address the root causes of the operational lapses that plague DoD nuclear forces, the Los Alamos Study Group charges.”
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U.S. Digs Its Heels in on Iran Sanctions

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, and US Secretary John Kerry during the E3/EU+3 talks with Iran on October 15. (Photo: Flickr Commons)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, and US Secretary John Kerry during the E3/EU+3 talks with Iran on October 15. (Photo: Flickr Commons)

At Truthout, Gareth Porter writes that, at this point, it’s sanctions, not enrichment capability, that’s blocking a nuclear deal between Iran and the United States.

Serious negotiations on the issue of enrichment capacity have been going on ever since an agreement between Iran and Russia on sending a large part of Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia to be converted into fuel plates was concluded. That arrangement could reduce Iran’s LEU stockpile to zero, thus having the same impact on Iran’s capability for “breakout” as the dramatic reduction in Iran’s operational centrifuges the Obama administration had been demanding all summer.

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What a GOP Senate Means for Obama’s Foreign Policy

john-mccain-gop-senate-obama-foreign-policy

(Photo: Zach Frailey / Flickr)

Who ever heard of a flock of hawks?

After the sweeping Republican midterm victories, that’s what will descend on Washington come January for the 114th Congress. What does this mean for the future of the United States and its much debated role overseas?

Though a few new hawkish members may not alter the future of U.S. foreign policy alone, the musical chairs that will result as Republicans take control of the Senate could leave a noticeable imprint on Obama’s last two years in office.

Longtime GOP hawk John McCain, for example, will likely take over the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain has said that he and Bob Corker, the incoming Foreign Relations chair, and Richard Burr, who will head the Select Committee on Intelligence, have plans to work “closely together on everything.”

In a few cases, that will complicate the president’s agenda. But in others—particularly on trade and on the war in Iraq and Syria—a GOP Senate could actually abet it. 

Iran Negotiations

Perhaps the most vulnerable Obama prerogative are the negotiations currently underway over Iran’s nuclear program. The putative deadline for a deal comes November 24th, a year after the interim agreement in 2013 temporarily eased economic sanctions against Iran’s uranium enrichment program while talks were underway about a final settlement. The talks are widely expected to receive an extension.

The prospects for a long-term settlement are a little more uncertain now. Republican senators, most of whom have expressed opposition to any deal that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, could make it difficult for Obama to permanently remove sanctions. As the Boston Globe notes, Iranian leaders are aware that Obama has a short time left in office, meaning any deal made by the White House could be short lived if Congress has anything to say about it. As a result, the Iranians “will be less likely to make concessions for a deal that could simply fall apart.”

Boots on the Ground

The Obama administration has already escalated its military intervention against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. With Republicans at the helm of key Senate committees, however, he can expect pressure to escalate the war much more dramatically.

We may be able to ‘contain’” the Islamic State, McCain said at a recent conference. “But to actually defeat ISIS is going to require more boots on the ground, more vigorous strikes, more special forces, further arming the Kurdish peshmerga forces, and creating a no-fly zone and buffer zone in Syria.”

After repeated assurances that he would not put boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria, Obama has already announced the deployment of 3,000 U.S. troops to Iraq. To continue on this path, the president has said that he will seek congressional approval—and lucky for him, a Republican-led Senate will be just the place to get it.

With Obama increasingly willing to throw U.S. troops back into the chaos— and with a hawkish congressional leadership egging him on—another drawn-out war in the Middle East suddenly seems more and more likely.

More Guns for Ukraine

Recent reports of unmarked convoys and a resurgence of violence in Ukraine have some experts, including U.S. General Philip Breedlove, ringing the bell on a Russian invasion of its neighbor.

Sightings of “Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems, and Russian combat troops,” threaten to reinvigorate the Senate hawks who have advocated supplying Ukraine’s government with more arms—a stance long supported by McCain. While Obama has avoided heavy involvement against Russia on the Ukrainian front—sticking to sanctions and nonlethal aid—the newly elected Congress may press for more.

Fast-Tracking Free Trade

Negotiations over two major free trade agreementsthe Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnershipare more likely to go forward now.

Though some Republicans are reluctant to cooperate with Obama, most support fast tracking the president’s trade promotion authority. This will give Obama the power to negotiate the pacts directly and present Congress with finished agreements for a direct vote without amendments. As John Hudson of Foreign Policy writes, this would allow Obama to wring “the most concessions from foreign governments” during the negotiation process, since “other countries won’t extend their best offer if they know Congress can later amend the deal in a thousand different ways.”

Critics, however, have charged that fast-track authority will also make it easier for the corporate lobbyists advising the negotiators to insert opaque provisions that could undermine labor and environmental protections.

The final years of Obama’s reign in the White House may not be dismally fated on all fronts. 2015 could yet see some significant developments—at least on issues where the White House and GOP are aligned.

The Islamic State’s Ongoing Program of Self-Sabotage

The Islamic State’s brutality consistently undermines its genuine contributions. Government building in Raqqa pictured. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr Commons )

The Islamic State’s brutality consistently undermines its genuine contributions. Government building in Raqqa pictured. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr Commons )

In the New York Times, Kareem Fahim writes about the American airstrikes on Syrian Islamic State capital Raqqa:

Food and fuel prices in Raqqa have soared, power blackouts have prevailed, and order is now threatened by a vacuum of any authority.

For all their violence and intolerance toward disbelievers, the fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, at least functioned as a government, providing basic services and some semblance of stability.

…  the American strikes had shaken “a sense of calm,” especially among conservative Sunni Muslims in northern Syria, who, despite their unease with the militants, had adapted, said Hassan Hassan, an analyst of Syria based in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.

The rule of the Islamic State militants in Raqqa contrasted sharply with the chaos that had existed before, when there was “infighting between rebels, or shootings, or warlords controlling oil fields,” Mr. Hassan said.

… “People say ISIS is the first group that is able to take complaints seriously” — for instance, arbitrating old property or financial disputes, Mr. Hassan said. The group also won favor by occasionally punishing its own members, and even leaders, who had been accused of abuses, Mr. Hassan and residents said.

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