Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas day's recycled terrorists

Releases from Gitmo are coming back to haunt us

With reports appearing that former Guantanamo detainees played a role in the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253, President Obama's plan to shutter the facility, putting detainees back on the streets, doesn't look so popular. Nor should it. Every released detainee has the potential for political and literal blowback.
Details are sketchy, but this much we know. On Jan. 24, Guantanamo alumni Mohammed Atiq Awayd al-Harbi (aka al-Awfi, or detainee No. 333) and Said Ali al-Shiri (detainee No. 372), both from Saudi Arabia, appeared in a video announcing their leadership roles in the newly formed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This was the same organization that recruited Flight 253 bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Under intense pressure, the Bush administration released the two men to Saudi custody in 2007; they went through Saudi jihadist deprogramming before being released into the population. It did not take. "By God, our imprisonment [in Guantanamo] has only made us more resilient and more committed to our principles that we had fought jihad and been taken prisoners for," al-Shiri said. The al Qaeda video was released within days of Mr. Obama's ordering the facility closed and was viewed widely as a pointed rebuke of the president's gesture.
It is unlikely that al-Awfi had anything to do with the plot because he turned himself back into Saudi authorities in February. Al-Shiri, however, may have had a direct role in the bomb plot because Mr. Abdulmutallab was in Yemen from August to early December, according to the Yemenis. Al-Shiri reportedly was killed in an American-assisted air strike there on Dec. 24, the second of two rounds of bombings in as many weeks personally ordered by Mr. Obama.
The Christmas Day bombing plot became al Qaeda's attempt at payback. "We are carrying a bomb to hit the enemies of God," an al Qaeda member declared at a large public gathering on Dec. 21. It is possible that al-Shiri helped plan an operation that turned into revenge for his own death.
The Guantanamo connection to the Christmas Day attack has prompted some liberal commentators to blame President George W. Bush for the incident. Indeed, the Bush administration released hundreds of detainees, some because they were innocent people caught in the dragnet, some because they no longer had intelligence value, and some, like al-Shiri and al-Awfi, under determined pressure from the Democratic Congress. However, if Mr. Bush's critics had their way, these characters would not have been rounded up in the first place.
Liberals are being forced to deal with the cognitive dissonance conjured by the inconvenient truth that Mr. Bush freed al-Shiri from detention and Mr. Obama hunted him down and killed him. We support the targeted killing program because it is the only aspect of Mr. Obama's national security strategy that is reaping concrete benefits. The "blame Bush" mantra, however, is simply a way for Mr. Obama's left-wing supporters to avoid asking hard questions about the future of terrorist detainees.
Meanwhile, potential reinforcements continue to flow to the region under the president's detainee-release program. On Dec. 20, six Yemenis arrived in the country, shortly to rejoin the general population and perhaps later to capture global headlines. This is no way to run a war or, rather, as the Obama administration would have it, an "overseas contingency operation."


'Hundreds of al-Qaeda militants planning attacks from Yemen'

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Hundreds of al-Qaeda militants are planning terror attacks from Yemen, the country’s Foreign Minister said today.
Abu Bakr al-Qirbi appealed for more help from the international community to help to train and equip counter-terrorist forces.
His plea came after an al-Qaeda group based in Yemen claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day airliner bomb plot.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, alleged to be behind the attempt to blow up an American-bound aircraft, spent time in Yemen with al-Qaeda and was in the country only days before the failed attack.
Dr al-Qirbi said: “Of course there are a number of al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen and some of their leaders. We realise this danger.
“They may actually plan attacks like the one we have just had in Detroit. There are maybe hundreds of them — 200, 300.”
Dr al-Qirbi said it was the “responsibility” of countries with strong intelligence capabilities to warn states such as Yemen about the movements of terror suspects.
The United States, Britain and the European Union could do a lot to improve Yemen’s response to militants on its own soil, he added.
“We have to work in a very joint fashion in partnership to combat terrorism,” he said. “If we do, the problem will be brought under control.
“There is support, but I must say it is inadequate. We need more training, we have to expand our counter-terrorism units and provide them with equipment and transportation like helicopters.”
Mr Abdulmutallab is said to have told US agents that there were more people “just like him” ready to carry out attacks.
An al-Qaeda group based in Yemen claimed responsibility yesterday for the failed attempt to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit as US President Barack Obama pledged to hunt down the plotters.
Photographs apparently showing the underpants worn by alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and willed with explosives were broadcast today by ABC News.
The American government pictures show the singed underwear with a six-inch packet of a high explosive called PETN sewn into the crotch, the US network reported.
Mr Abdulmutallab was reported to be carrying about 80g of PETN, more than one-and-a-half times the amount carried by Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber”, in 2001 and enough to blow a hole in the side of an aircraft.
Mr Abdulmutallab’s former tutors at University College London, where he was a student between 2005 and 2008, described him as “well-mannered, quietly spoken, polite and able” and said that he never gave any cause for concern. He was president of the institution’s Islamic society between 2006 and 2007.
Nigerian-born Mr Abdulmutallab is being held at a federal prison in Michigan on a charge of trying to destroy an aircraft.
He apparently wrote of his loneliness and struggle between liberalism and Islamic extremism in a series of postings on Facebook and in Islamic chatrooms, The Washington Post reported today.
In January 2005, when he was attending boarding school, he wrote: “I have no one to speak too. No one to consult, no one to support me and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do. And then I think this loneliness leads me to other problems.”
Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, said it was unlikely that Mr Abdulmutallab acted alone and revealed that he was banned from entering Britain and placed on a “watch list” this year.
Mr Johnson said that the alleged terrorist was refused a new visa and had been monitored since May after applying for a bogus course.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Terror Watch Lists Come Under Scrutiny

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's order to review the databases used to track terrorism suspects and keep them off airplanes comes amid growing concerns about those systems from lawmakers in both parties.
Lawmakers questioned watch-list policies Sunday after a Nigerian man who had been on such a list tried unsuccessfully to bring down a trans-Atlantic jetliner carrying 278 people Christmas Day.
"We have to have a better process to decide which people to move to the 'no-fly' list and which" should have secondary screening at airports, Rep. Jane Harman (D., Calif.), chairwoman of a House homeland security subcommittee on intelligence, said in an interview. "This is a learning experience. There was a failure."
The databases used for such tracking are managed by numerous intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security. They have been criticized for being overly broad -- barring musicians, lawmakers and toddlers from jetliners -- and for not being broad enough to keep suspected radicals out of the U.S., or off planes.
Officials said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old suspect, received a visa at a U.S. consular outpost in London in 2008 allowing him to repeatedly enter the U.S. as a tourist.
In November 2009, officials said he was added to an entry-level, or preliminary, terrorism watch list maintained by the government. That came after his father warned officials at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that the young man had become radicalized by Islamic extremists. The father also warned that his son might be in contact with terrorist groups.
Mr. Abdulmutallab's entry onto the first list, called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, essentially meant U.S. intelligence officials had opened a file on him, authorities said. There are more than 550,000 names on that list, which are shared across the government.
But authorities didn't have enough credible or derogatory information to elevate him to a narrower, more serious list of terrorism suspects, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday on NBC. "We did not have the kind of information that under the current rules would elevate him," she said.
Lawmakers want to know why his entry into the first terrorism database didn't automatically prompt a review of his visa status, or why he didn't get more serious scrutiny, which could have led to him being elevated.
With more screening, Mr. Abdulmutallab could have landed in a smaller database of 400,000 names, called the Terrorist Screening Data Base, the main database on international terrorism within the U.S. government, officials said.
That list is maintained by an multiagency group managed by the FBI. It is supposed to contain names of individuals who are "known or reasonably suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of or related to terrorism," according to an FBI Web site.
With additional scrutiny Mr. Abdulmutallab also might have been added to the roughly 14,000-person database maintained by the Transportation Security Administration called the "Selectee" list. Those people are supposed to be automatically selected for intensified, secondary screening at airports.
The next step up is the so-called no-fly list, which contains fewer than 4,000 names of people who are banned from jetliners.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R., Mich.) said Sunday in an interview that serious alarm bells should have sounded after Mr. Abdulmutallab's father went to U.S. authorities. "Within the intelligence community, I would think this would have gone right to the top of the pile, saying, 'We've got to look at this guy,'" Mr. Hoekstra said.
Write to Cam Simpson at, Evan Perez at and Siobhan Gorman at

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Real Rules of War

Sometimes the good guys do commit 'war crimes.'

Five years ago, a particularly gruesome image made its way to our television screens from the war in Iraq. Four U.S. civilian contractors working in Fallujah were ambushed and killed by al Qaeda. Their bodies were burned, then dragged through the streets. Two of the charred bodies were hung from the Euphrates Bridge and left dangling.
This barbaric act left an impression that our military did not forget: In a special operation earlier this year, Navy SEALs captured the mastermind of that attack, Ahmed Hashim Abed. But after he was taken into custody in September, Abed claimed he was punched by his captors. He showed a fat lip to prove it. Three of the SEALS are now awaiting a courts-martial on charges ranging from assault to dereliction of duty and making false statements.
This incident and its twisted irony takes me back to an oddly serene setting many years ago. When I was in college, I joined my parents on a trip to retrace my father's wartime experience in Europe. We drove from France, through Holland and Belgium and on to Germany—the same route he had taken with the U.S. Army in 1944-45. At a field outside the Belgian town of Malmedy, we got out of our rented car where my father described something I had never heard before.
During the Battle of the Bulge, in the bleak December of 1944, the Germans had quickly overrun the American lines. They took thousands of prisoners as they pushed through in a last chance gamble to turn the war around. One unit, part of the First SS Panzer Division, had captured over a hundred GIs. They were moving fast, and they didn't care to be burdened by prisoners. So the SS troops put the American soldiers in that field and mowed them down with machine guns.
Around 90 Americans were killed in that barrage. The Germans then walked through the tangle of bodies, shooting those who were still alive in the back of the head. The few that survived were brought to where my father was located in the nearby town of Liege where word of the massacre quickly spread.
My father was never a talker. And in spite of the fact that we were on a trip to look at his past, he didn't open up much, or couldn't. When I asked him what the reaction was among the U.S. troops, he answered without emotion: "We didn't take prisoners for two weeks." I immediately understood what he meant, and had the sense not to press the issue any further. I just looked out at the field, now green and peaceful on a beautiful summer day, and realized he was looking at the same field and seeing something quite different.
In the weeks following the Malmedy massacre, U.S. troops clearly broke the rules of the Geneva Conventions. Justified or not, they were technically guilty of war crimes.
My guess is that the American correspondents imbedded with those troops knew all about this and chose not to report it. So did their officers. They understood the gravity of the war, as well as the absolute importance of its outcome. And they understood that disclosing this information might ultimately help the enemy. In other words, they used common sense. Was the U.S. a lesser country because these GIs weren't arrested? Was the Constitution jeopardized? Somehow it survived.
You don't have to dig too deep to understand that war brings out behavior in people that they would never demonstrate in normal life. In Paul Fussell's moving memoir, "The Boys' Crusade," the former infantryman relates a story about the liberation of Dachau. There were about 120 SS guards who had been captured by the Americans. Even though the Germans were being held at gunpoint, they still had the arrogance—or epic stupidity—to continue to heap verbal abuse and threats on the inmates. Their American guards, thoroughly disgusted by what they had already witnessed in the camp, had seen enough and opened fire on the SS. Some of the remaining SS guards were handed over to the inmates who tore them limb from limb. Another war crime? No doubt. Justified? It depends on your point of view. But before you weigh in, realize that you didn't walk through the camp. You didn't smell it. You didn't witness the obscene horror of the Nazis.
Rules of war are important. They are something to strive for as they separate us from our distant ancestors. But when only one side follows these rules, they no longer elevate us. They create a very unlevel field and more than a little frustration. It is equally bizarre for any of us to judge someone's behavior in war by the rules we follow in our very peaceful universe. We sit in homes that are air-conditioned in the summer and warmed in the winter. We have more than enough food in our bellies and we get enough sleep. The stress in our lives won't ever match the stress of battle. Can we honestly begin to decide if a soldier acted in compliance with rules that work perfectly well on Main Street but not, say, in Malmedy or Fallujah?
In his book, Mr. Fussell probably sums up the feelings of many soldiers when he quotes a British captain, John Tonkin, who experienced a great deal of the war. "I have always felt," Capt. Tonkin said, "that the Geneva Convention is a dangerous piece of stupidity, because it leads people to believe that war can be civilized. It can't."
Mr. Kozak is the author of "LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay" (Regnery, 2009).


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Peoples' Revolt in Iran

The regime is losing legitimacy, even as Obama engages it.

The foundation stones of Iran's Islamic Republic were shaken again yesterday, showing that the largest antigovernment movement in its 30 years may be one of the biggest stories of next year as well. Now imagine the possibilities if the Obama Administration began to support Iran's democrats.
The perseverance of the so-called Green Movement is something to behold. Millions of Iranians mobilized against the outcome of June's fraudulent presidential election, and their protests were violently repressed. But the cause has only grown in scope, with the aim of many becoming nothing less than the death of a hated system.
Yesterday offered a glimpse into the regime's crisis of legitimacy. As in the waning days of the Shah in the late 1970s, Iranians merely need an excuse to show what they think of their rulers. The funeral of a leading Shiite cleric who'd inspired and guided the opposition brought out tens to hundreds of thousands to Iran's religious capital of Qom. Media coverage is severely restricted, but the demonstration's size was impossible to deny.
Associated Press
Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died Sunday, was no ordinary religious figure. He stood alongside the leader of the Islamic Revolution, his mentor Ayatollah Khomeini, and he was handpicked to replace him. But Montazeri broke with the ruling mullahs in the late 1980s, criticizing their violence and repression. And in recent months, he became a spiritual leader to the opposition.
He knew the regime intimately: "A political system based on force, oppression, changing people's votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate," he wrote.
Ailing at his death, Montazeri leaves behind a legacy Iranian modernizers can build on. Like the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, he believed that the Shiite clergy should stay out of democratic politics. He also helped shape views on Iran's nuclear program. In October, Montazeri issued a fatwa against developing an Iranian bomb. His statement confirmed the view among Green Movement figures who believe an atomic weapon will only consolidate the regime's hold on power and isolate Iran.

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Absent religious legitimacy for the so-called Islamic Republic, the current rulers must rely on blunt means of preservation, such as the elite Revolutionary Guards and the Basiji militias. Thus Iran seems to be morphing into a military dictatorship, not unlike the Poland of Wojciech Jaruzelski after the "workers"—the supposed communist vanguard—turned against that regime.
Relying on thugs carries risks. During the summer protests, many protestors were killed, tortured and raped in the regime's jails. Among the dead is the son of a prominent conservative parliamentarian. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei sought to damp public outrage by closing the most notorious prison at Kahrizak, but pressure has continued to build. Reversing months of denials, the government on Saturday acknowledged the abuses, bringing charges against 12 military officials for the murder of three young protestors this summer.
Previously a neutral broker in Iranian politics, Khamenei undermined himself by siding so openly with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after June's elections. The decision to prosecute, which he would have had to sign off on, may be another miscalculation. A trial could help expose the corruption at the heart of this system.
(Another Polish parallel comes to mind: The 1984 trial of the secret policemen who murdered the pro-Solidarity priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, that further hurt that government's credibility.)
Which brings us to President Obama. Throughout this turbulent year in Iran, the White House has been behind the democratic curve. When the demonstrations started, Mr. Obama abdicated his moral authority by refusing to take sides, while pushing ahead with plans to negotiate a grand diplomatic bargain with Mr. Ahmadinejad that trades recognition for suspending the nuclear program.
Mr. Obama has since moved at least to embrace "universal values," and in his Nobel address this month he mentioned the democracy protestors by name. The White House yesterday sent condolences to Montazeri's friends and family, which is what passes for democratic daring in this Administration.
But the White House is also still pleading for talks even as its December deadline passes without any concession from Tehran. Meantime, the Iranian opposition virtually begs Washington not to confer any legitimacy on the regime, and the democracy demonstrators crave American support. Iran's civil society clock may now be ticking faster than its nuclear clock. However hard it may be to achieve, a new regime in Tehran offers the best peaceful way to halt Iran's atomic program. Shouldn't American policy be directed toward realizing that goal?


Friday, December 18, 2009

Iranian Scorecard

The Administration opposes a bipartisan sanctions bill.


In his Inaugural address, President Obama promised the world's dictators—with Iran plainly in mind—that he would "extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Here's a status report on the mullahs' knuckles:
Weapons of mass destruction. On Wednesday, Iran tested a new version of its Sajjil-2 medium-range ballistic missile, a sophisticated solid-fuel model with a range of 1,200 miles—enough to target parts of Eastern Europe.
Also this week came news that Western intelligence agencies have an undated Farsi-language document titled "outlook for special neutron-related activities over the next four years." It concerns technical aspects of a neutron initiator, which is used to set off nuclear explosions and has no other practical application. The document remains unauthenticated, and Iran denies working on a nuclear weapon. But it squares with accumulating evidence, from the International Atomic Energy Agency and other sources, that Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons design and uranium enrichment.
Support for terrorists. Iran also continues to supply Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon with weapons and money, and there's reason to suspect the help extends to Colombia's terrorist FARC. Centcom Commander David Petraeus told ABC News Wednesday that Iran "provides a modest level of equipment, explosives and perhaps some funding to the Taliban in western Afghanistan." As for Iraq, he says, "there are daily attacks with the so-called signature weapons only made by Iran—the explosively formed projectile, forms of improvised explosive devices, etc."
Political gestures. Isolated regimes sometimes signal their desire for better relations through seemingly small gestures: ping-pong tournaments, for instance. Tehran has taken a different tack.
On Monday, it announced that three American hikers arrested along its border with Iraq in July would be put on trial. The charge? "Suspicious aims." New charges were also brought last month against Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, who was already sentenced to at least 12 years in prison on espionage charges. The regime has been going after other foreign nationals, including French teacher Clotilde Reiss, who is living under house arrest in the French embassy in Tehran. Christopher Dickey notes in Newsweek that "since [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad took over four years ago, some 35 foreign nationals or dual nationals have been imprisoned for use as chump change in one sordid deal or another."
Associated Press
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Diplomacy. In October, the U.S. and its allies offered to enrich Iran's uranium in facilities outside the country, supposedly for the production of medical isotopes. The idea was that doing so would at least reduce Iran's growing stockpile of uranium and thus postpone the day when it would have enough to rapidly build a bomb.
Tehran finally came back with a counterproposal late last week, in which no uranium would leave Iranian soil. Even Hillary Clinton admits it's a nonstarter: "I don't think anyone can doubt that our outreach has produced very little in terms of any kind of positive response from the Iranians," the Secretary of State told reporters.
Given those remarks, we would have imagined that Mrs. Clinton would take it as good news that on Tuesday the House voted 412-12 in favor of a new round of unilateral sanctions on Iran. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act would forbid any company that does energy business with Iran from having access to U.S. markets.
Instead, last week Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg wrote to Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry urging that the Senate postpone taking up the House bill. "I am concerned that this legislation, in its current form, might weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts," wrote Mr. Steinberg.
So let's see: Iran spurns every overture from the U.S. and continues to develop WMD while abusing its neighbors. In response, the Administration, which had set a December deadline for diplomacy, now says it opposes precisely the kind of sanctions it once promised to impose if Iran didn't come clean, never mind overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. For an explanation of why Iran's behavior remains unchanged, look no further.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Americans Oppose Closing Gitmo, Moving Prisoners to U.S.

Support is 8% among Republicans, 28% among independents, and 50% among Democrats

by Frank Newport
PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans remain opposed to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and moving some of the terrorist suspects being held there to U.S. prisons: 30% favor such actions, while 64% do not. These attitudes could present a significant roadblock for President Obama at a time when he seeks congressional approval to move terrorist suspects from Guantanamo to a converted state prison in northwestern Illinois.
Do You Think the United States Should or Should Not Close Guantanamo Bay Prison in Cuba and Move Some of the Prisoners to U.S. Prisons?
President Obama signed an executive order after his inauguration that called for the closing of Guantanamo, and he recently reiterated his commitment to doing this in his West Point speech on Afghanistan. The plans announced this week represent the first concrete effort to follow through on his promise, but occur in the context of continuing opposition from the American public. About two-thirds of Americans in the Nov. 20-22 poll oppose such a move, virtually the same as measured last May.
"An additional political challenge for Obama is the fact that he lacks strong support among rank-and-file Democrats as well. Half of Democrats agree that the Guantanamo Bay prison should be closed and some prisoners moved to the U.S., while 45% disagree."
Republicans on Capitol Hill this week have been highly vocal in their negative responses to the proposed move. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for example, was quoted as saying, "The administration has failed to explain how transferring terrorists to Gitmo North will make Americans safer than keeping terrorists off of our shores in the secure facility in Cuba."
McConnell and the other GOP lawmakers who have spoken out against the move are clearly representing the sentiments of rank-and-file Republicans across the country, only 8% of whom favor closing the prison and moving prisoners to the U.S.
2009 Trend: Views on Closing Guantanamo Prison and Moving Some Prisoners to the U.S., by Party ID
An additional political challenge for Obama is the fact that he lacks strong support among rank-and-file Democrats as well. Half of Democrats agree that the Guantanamo Bay prison should be closed and some prisoners moved to the U.S., while 45% disagree. Twenty-eight percent of independents favor the prison closure. These partisan breaks are similar to what Gallup found in May.
The prison the Obama administration has proposed taking over and converting to a home for Guantanamo terrorist suspects is in northwestern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Iowa. Local leaders in that area have applauded the decision, which would reportedly bring hundreds of millions in new revenue to the region, along with many new jobs.
The area potentially affected by the moves is a small part of the larger Midwestern region of the country, where there is slightly higher acceptance of the decision on Guantanamo prisoners than occurs elsewhere in the country. Support is slightly lower in the South. These differences are not substantial.
Views on Closing Guantanamo Prison and Moving Some Prisoners to the U.S., by Region
President Obama's announcement this week that he plans to move terrorist suspects to Illinois from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay represents a follow-through on his stated intention to ultimately close the Guantanamo prison.
The implementation of his plan will require congressional approval, since current law prohibits bringing Guantanamo prisoners into U.S. territory unless they are being put on trial. Congressional lawmakers voting on the plan to bring terrorist suspects now housed at Guantanamo to the U.S. will generally be doing so in the context of significant opposition from their constituents, thus potentially reducing the chances that the president will be able to get quick House and Senate approval for his proposal.
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Survey Methods
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 20-22, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Democracy Under Arrest

'Universal' human- rights law never seems to apply to the likes of Kim Jong Il.


'Universal jurisdiction" sounds like a term plucked from obscure international law journals, but it has pernicious and profoundly antidemocratic consequences in the real world. A British arrest warrant, issued over the weekend in London for former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, shows precisely why.
The warrant charged Ms. Livni—the current leader of the Knesset opposition—with war crimes allegedly committed by Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip last winter. Ms. Livni and other Israeli leaders have always staunchly defended their operation against Hamas, and the arrest warrant was withdrawn Monday when it became clear Ms. Livni would not be in Britain as previously scheduled. But the fallout from this misguided warrant will linger long after it fades from the headlines.
Universal jurisdiction originated centuries ago to deal with hostes humani generis ("the enemies of all mankind") such as pirates or slavers, who were not under any state's control but legitimately concerned them all. It has grown explosively in recent years, as self-styled human-rights advocates have pushed to criminalize national actions that they find offensive.

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Today's version of universal jurisdiction masquerades as a legal concept, but is in fact a form of political morality. It empowers prosecutions in states with little or even no connection to alleged offenses such as war crimes and gross abuses of human rights. And in many countries, as in Britain, the ability of private citizens to trigger the criminal process only adds to the danger of politicized prosecutions.
When leaders of constitutional, representative governments are targets, there is simply no argument for applying universal jurisdiction. Ms. Livni and her colleagues won free and fair Israeli elections, and were in fact defeated in subsequent free and fair elections. Israel's laws have been adopted by democratically elected Knesset members and enforced by an independent judiciary. If crimes under Israeli law have been committed, they can be prosecuted by Israel's courts. Same goes for the United States.
Augusto Pinochet's 1999 arrest in Britain on a Spanish warrant for offenses committed while overthrowing Chile's Salvadore Allende first brought universal jurisdiction global prominence. But Pinochet's arrest was followed by Belgium's toying with the idea of arresting Donald Rumsfeld for having the temerity to visit NATO headquarters in Brussels. Now Ms. Livni and other Israeli officials involved in recent regional conflicts are subject to potential arrest and trial if they travel beyond Israel's borders.
It is no accident that arrest warrants never seem to be issued for the likes of Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since the real targets of universal jurisdiction these days are Western nations. Ultimately, what it targets is the very ideas of sovereign accountability and political independence. These goals largely motivated the 1998 Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court, itself a step toward constraining states' abilities to police their own affairs, and an institution that the Obama administration yearns to join.
Transferring accountability for decisions from democratic politics to the criminal justice system understandably intimidates policy makers from making perfectly justifiable choices, such as defending against terrorist threats. Moreover, "command responsibility" has been transmogrified from liability for failing to stop known criminal activity, to liability when officials "should have known" their subordinates were committing crimes. This further ups the ante and explains why former foreign ministers like Ms. Livni or Henry Kissinger are at risk.
This deterrent impact is exactly what universal jurisdiction advocates seek—both to affect decisions at the highest national levels, and to discourage mid- and low-level officials from implementing disfavored policies. Some foreign critics hope to prosecute former President George W. Bush for enhanced interrogation techniques and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. While they likely won't get to the former president, they'll be at least somewhat content prosecuting the attorneys who wrote the underlying legal justifications. Incredibly, the Obama administration has yet to definitively reject the possibility of allowing such prosecutions overseas.
Universal jurisdiction against officials of authoritarian regimes sounds appealing. But in these cases, the real goal should be replacing such regimes with representative governments that undertake sovereign accountability for prior transgressions.
Nonetheless, human-rights activists who view their morality as higher than that of elected governments are satisfied by nothing less than prosecution. That is precisely why contemporary universal jurisdiction is so profoundly antidemocratic.
Undoubtedly, leaders of constitutional democracies make mistakes about whom they do and do not prosecute. But to substitute the judgments of self-designated international Platonic Guardians for representative governments and independent judiciaries is perilous at best, and authoritarian at worst. It's the time to unambiguously reject universal jurisdiction before its infection spreads even further.
Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad" (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Tehran-Caracas Nuclear Axis

Ahmadinejad and Chávez: new evidence of a radioactive relationship.

Here's one from the Department of We Are The World: Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address the U.N.'s climate summit in Copenhagen. Say what you will about these two gentlemen—the support for terrorists, the Holocaust denial, the suppression of civil liberties—at least nobody can accuse them of being global warming "deniers."
On the contrary, the two leaders, who met in Caracas last month for at least the 11th time, have been nothing if not cooperative when it comes to environmentally friendly and carbon-neutral technologies. Bicycles, for instance: In 2005, Chávez directed his government to "follow seriously the project of manufacturing Iranian bicycles in Venezuela." An Iranian dairy products plant (no doubt ecologically sensitive) also set up shop hard on the Colombian border, in territory controlled by Colombia's terrorist FARC.
Getty Images
Ahmadinejad and Chávez: A new document sheds light on this radioactive relationship.

Then there was the tractor factory Iran built in Ciudad Bolivar. In January, the Associated Press reported that Turkish authorities had seized 22 containers labeled "tractor parts." What they contained, according to one Turkish official, "was enough to set up an explosives lab."
But perhaps the most interesting Iranian venture is a supposed gold mine not far from Angel Falls, in a remote area known as the Roraima Basin. The basin straddles Venezuela's border with neighboring Guyana, where a Canadian company, U308, thinks it has found the "geological look-alike" to Canada's Athabasca Basin. The Athabasca, the company's Web site adds, "is the world's largest resource of uranium."
In 2006, Chávez publicly mocked suspicions of nuclear cooperation with Iran, saying it "shows they have no limit in their capacity to invent lies." In September, however, Rodolfo Sanz, Venezuela's minister of basic industries, acknowledged that "Iran is helping us with geophysical aerial probes and geochemical analyses" in its search for uranium.
The official basis for this cooperation seems to be a Nov. 14, 2008 memorandum of understanding signed by the two countries' ministers of science and technology and given to me by a credible foreign intelligence source. "The two parties agreed to cooperate in the field of nuclear technology," reads the Spanish version of the document, which also makes mention of the "peaceful use of alternative energies." Days later, the Venezuelan government submitted a paper to the International Atomic Energy Agency on the "Introduction of a Nuclear Power Programme." (Online readers can see the memorandum for themselves in their Farsi and Spanish versions. One mystery: The Farsi version makes no mention of nuclear cooperation.)
Iran would certainly require large and reliable supplies of uranium if it is going to enrich the nuclear fuel in 10 separate plants—an ambition Ahmadinejad spelled out last month. It would also require an extensive financial and logistical infrastructure network in Venezuela, not to mention unusually good political connections. All this it has in spades.

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Consider financing. In January 2008, the Bank of International Development opened its doors for business in Caracas. At the top of its list of its directors, all of whom are Iranian, is one Tahmasb Mazaheri, former governor of the central bank of Iran. As it turns out, the bank is a subsidiary of the Export Development Bank of Iran, which in October 2008 was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for providing "financial services to Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics."
Or consider logistics. For nearly three years, Venezuelan airline ConViasa has been flying an Airbus 340 to Damascus and Tehran. Neither city is a typical Venezuelan tourist destination, to say the least. What goes into the cargo hold of that big plane is an interesting question. Also interesting is that in October 2008 the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, also sanctioned by Treasury, announced it had established a direct shipping route to Venezuela.
Finally, there are the political connections. What do Fadi Kabboul, Aref Richany Jimenez, Radwan Sabbagh and Tarek Zaidan El Aissami Maddah have in common? The answer is that they are, respectively, executive director for planning of Venezuelan oil company PdVSA; the president of Venezuela's military-industrial complex; the president of a major state-owned mining concern; and, finally, the minister of interior. Latin Americans of Middle Eastern descent have long played prominent roles in national politics and business. But these are all fingertip positions in what gives the Iranian-Venezuelan relationship its worrying grip.
Forty-seven years ago, Americans woke up to the fact that a distant power could threaten us much closer to home. Perhaps it's time Camelot 2.0 take note that we are now on course for a replay.
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Monday, December 14, 2009

Obama Gives Britain the Cold Shoulder

Ideology and history explain the new U.S. disregard.

Britain is the only European country President Barack Obama can really count on to respond positively to his plea for NATO to provide extra forces for Afghanistan. So why is it, then, that the Obama administration can barely conceal its disdain for a nation that, by its deeds, time and again proves itself to be America's staunchest and most reliable ally?
Shortly before Mr. Obama's Afghan policy speech at West Point earlier this month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced Britain was sending another 500 troops to that beleaguered country, bringing the total number of British troops to around 10,000. Yet the president never mentioned Britain's support—even though, unlike most other European countries, British soldiers are prepared to undertake combat operations, and have incurred significant casualties in so doing.
While NATO officials trumpeted the fact that they had secured an additional 7,000 troops from a variety of NATO and other states to support Mr. Obama's surge strategy, there been only silence from France and Germany. For domestic political reasons, both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are reluctant to increase their military contributions.
This makes Britain the most important European contributor to Mr. Obama's war against the Taliban, in which British soldiers are fighting alongside U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan. Add to this the close and long-established intelligence-sharing operation that exists between the two countries, which has prevented a number of major terrorist atrocities, and it is easy to understand why the bond between America and Britain has long been the cornerstone of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
That is not how the Obama administration sees it.
Before he became president it was said that Mr. Obama harbored a deep grudge against Britain for its colonialist past. It is alleged that his paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was tortured by the British during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s, when it was controlled by Britain. In his autobiographical book "The Audacity of Hope," Mr. Obama unflatteringly compares the British Empire to South Africa's apartheid regime and the former Soviet Union.
Soon after his inauguration, he sent back to the U.K. a bust of Sir Winston Churchill that had been loaned to President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. The sculpture had enjoyed pride of place in the Oval Office.
There is also an important ideological reason that Britain's leading policy makers find themselves increasingly shunned by the U.S. Key foreign-policy advisers to Mr. Obama are keen advocates of a federal Europe, one in which the European Commission based in Brussels is the main center of power and influence, rather than the individual capitals, such as London, Paris and Berlin. In this context, Britain's dogged attachment to a "special relationship" with America is regarded as an embarrassing relic of a previous era.
Michèle Flournoy, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, is a leading supporter of an integrated European defense policy, which was anathema to the Bush administration because it would challenge the future of NATO. Philip H. Gordon, the State Department's assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, is another committed Europhile.
Before taking office Mr. Gordon wrote that America should "support the European project" and warned that Britain's historic resistance to closer European integration could seriously damage London's standing in Washington. "Fully in Europe, Britain has every chance to remain America's preferred and privileged partner," he said. "Marginalized from the EU [European Union], Britain could find itself less influential in Washington as well."
Yet in recent years, whenever the EU has been faced with a major international crisis, whether in the Balkans or the Middle East, the major European powers have tended to put their national interests first. This was graphically illustrated in Bosnia and during the build up to the Iraq war. And in Afghanistan, Europe divides between those who are prepared to fight, such as Britain, and those that are not, such as France and Germany.
For this reason alone, Mr. Obama and his advisers may regret their disregard for their most important battlefield ally in Afghanistan.
Mr. Coughlin is executive foreign editor of London's Daily Telegraph.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Americans Detained in Pakistan Found to Have al Qaeda Links

ISLAMABAD -- Five young Americans detained in eastern Pakistan had developed contacts with al Qaeda operatives through the Internet and were on their way to North Waziristan to join a militant training camp, said a senior intelligence official here.
Associated Press
Five Americans were arrested in Sargodha, Pakistan, at the house (pictured) of an activist of Jaish-e-Mohammed, an outlawed Pakistani militant outfit with known links to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

All of them -- students in their 20s from northern Virginia -- were arrested this week in the garrison town of Sargodha at the house of an activist of Jaish-e-Mohammed, an outlawed Pakistani militant outfit with known links to the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The suspects had arrived in Pakistan last month. They are being interrogated by Pakistani intelligence agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the intelligence official said.
The intelligence official said that information gleaned from their laptop computers and other material recovered from the suspects established their links with the militant network operating from the lawless tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
He said the men came in contact with al Qaeda through its local operatives in Pakistan. Police have also seized some jihadist literature from the house where they were arrested.
"We watched them for one and a half days and then arrested them," Usman Anwar, police chief of Sargodha, told reporters. He said they admitted that they had come to Pakistan with the intention of joining jihad. Police also arrested an employee of the federal highway department.
A U.S. official briefed on the probe said that initial evidence and interviews collected by investigators indicate the men were seeking to join a "jihadist operation against U.S. soldiers," tough it's unclear if their goal was to attack troops in Afghanistan.
A Pakistani security official said the five men were detained Monday. They had flown to Karachi on Nov. 30 and then traveled to Lahore on Dec. 5, and then on to Sargodha, he said. Investigations are under way and no charges have been filed against them, he said.
Analysts said the latest arrests gave credence to the fears that Pakistan has become the main hub of global al Qaeda, threatening the security of the U.S., Britain and other Western countries. The arrests are likely to fan worries in Western countries that the sons of immigrants from Muslim countries are being drawn to violent Islamist militancy, a process made easier by the Internet.
Pakistan is home to a number of militant groups waging a violent struggle against the government, mostly in the northwest. They have developed close links with al Qaeda.
Two of the men arrested were of Pakistani origin while the other three have origins in Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia. They are all naturalized Americans. Analysts said the arrests showed how the appeal of al Qaeda has penetrated some young Muslims in America and other Western countries.
"Al Qaeda is very successful in recruiting in the Muslim diaspora particularly among Pakistanis," said Raffat Hussain, a professor in the department of strategic studies at Quad-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "Its target is the young generation which feels alienated by the perceived repression of Muslims across the world."
Scores of radical Muslims from the West are believed to have received training in al Qaeda camps in recent years and have now been fighting on both sides of the border Afghanistan and Pakistan border. In September, Pakistani security forces arrested Mehdi-Muhammed Ghezali, a Swedish national and a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, who was trying to go to Waziristan to join al Qaeda.
The traffic of foreign fighters has slowed because of a Pakistani military offensive in South Waziristan and some other tribal regions, but they are still trickling in. A senior intelligence official said many British and German citizens have joined the militants fighting in Afghanistan. Most of the new militants are Germans of Turkish origin, the security official said.

Petraeus Says Afghan War Is Tougher Fight Than Iraq

Dec. 9 (Bloomberg) -- General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East and Central Asia, struck a note of caution on the war in Afghanistan, saying making headway against the insurgency probably will take longer than in Iraq.
“Achieving progress in Afghanistan will be hard and progress there likely will be slower in developing than was the progress in Iraq,” Petraeus told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. “Nonetheless, as with Iraq, in Afghanistan hard is not hopeless.”
Violence will increase as additional troops from the U.S.- led 43-nation alliance enable a stepped-up offensive against Taliban insurgents, he said. He predicted “greater turmoil” within the Afghan government as it moves to combat corruption with international assistance.
Petraeus testified along with Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew in the second of three days of hearings this week on President Barack Obama’s revised strategy in Afghanistan.
Petraeus’s caution contrasts with the optimism that Army General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, voiced repeatedly yesterday before two other congressional committees. With the caveat that the battle won’t be easy, McChrystal said, “I believe we will absolutely be successful.”
$40 Billion
Obama needs Congress to approve funds to carry out his policy, which is aimed at reversing Taliban gains in Afghanistan, training Afghan forces and preparing the country’s government to take more control. The buildup may cost as much as $40 billion next year, according to Representative John Murtha, who heads the House spending panel which appropriates money for defense.
Republicans question whether the 30,000 extra U.S. troops approved by Obama are sufficient and the timeline too hurried. Democrats say the U.S. could become mired in a war already surpassing eight years.
Petraeus said he fully supports the policy and cautioned lawmakers to “withhold judgment” on whether it is successful until December 2010, when the strategy and will be assessed with an eye to beginning a drawdown of U.S. forces in July 2011.
Skepticism Voiced
The top Democrat and Republican on the committee expressed concern that, while resources flow to finance the fight in Afghanistan, the leadership of the insurgency will find haven across the border in Pakistan.
“I am convinced that what happens in Pakistan, particularly near the Afghan border, will do more to determine the outcome in Afghanistan than any increase in troops or shift in strategy,” said panel Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, said the “most salient question” is whether gains in Afghanistan “will mean much if Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan remain or if instability within Pakistan intensifies.”
Petraeus said Pakistan has taken “an important step forward” in waging military campaigns against extremists on its territory. The measures “facilitate our efforts to degrade the extremist groups in the border region and to defeat al-Qaeda,” he told the committee.
Still, “these operations have not directly engaged the sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban groups in Pakistan,” Petraeus said. Pakistan also hasn’t confronted all of the elements of an extremist syndicate that includes the Pakistani Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Taiba group that carried out the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, India, and the militant Haqqani network, he said.
‘Beacon and Symbol’
“Although most Taliban fighters confronting our forces are local Afghans motivated by local circumstances, the Afghan Taliban leadership is organized, is ideologically motivated and has become a beacon and symbol for other dangerous extremist elements,” Petraeus told the panel.
Eikenberry also took a more cautious note yesterday and today than McChrystal on the prospects for success in Afghanistan, saying the U.S. is concentrating on what is “essential and attainable.”
“Afghanistan represents a daunting challenge,” Eikenberry told the committee. “Success is not guaranteed but it is possible.”
While the added troops will improve stability and make room to improve governance and expand the nation’s security forces, the U.S. faces the risk that the Afghan government will “struggle” to take over “on a timely basis.”
He also cited Pakistan as an important factor.
“The effort we’re undertaking in Afghanistan is likely to fall short of our strategic goals, unless there is more progress in eliminating sanctuaries used by the Afghan Taliban and their associates inside of Pakistan,” Eikenberry said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Obama to Accept Nobel Peace Prize as War President, Address Afghanistan Troop Surge


Trip to Norway Reignites Debate Over Obama's Qualifications for Prestigious Award

There is a bit of irony that just 10 days after announcing the deployment of 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, President Obama will accept the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow in Oslo, Norway.

President says award is a result of the "efforts of people around the world."

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The award, which the Nobel committee said was for Obama's "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," comes as he presides over wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and faces an American public that is increasingly skeptical about the U.S.-led efforts there.
Obama will walk a delicate line in his acceptance speech, and the White House said he will acknowledge that he accepts the peace prize as a war president. Aides said he will address Afghanistan and the decision to add troops there and present it in the overall context of the award he is accepting.

"We'll address directly the notion, I think, that many have wondered, which is the juxtaposition of the timing for the Nobel Peace Prize and his commitment to add more troops into Afghanistan," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "That's obviously something that he will address."
The award was seen internationally, and at the White House, as a mixed blessing – given for the promise of what an Obama presidency could do across the globe and an acknowledgement of what his election represents, but also carrying with it the added pressure to produce tangible results.

Obama is just the third sitting U.S. president to win the prestigious award and the first to win it in his first year in office. The previous sitting U.S. presidents who won were Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919.
The peace prize sparked considerable debate over Obama's qualifications: was his resume too thin? Was the committee actually rewarding the United States for its election of Obama? Was the award more for what Obama represents than what he has accomplished?
Obama provided a preview of the humble tone he will likely strike in Oslo when he spoke at the White House the day the award was announced.
"To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize," Obama said in brief remarks Oct. 9. "I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations."

Ceremony Reignites Debate Over Obama's Qualifications for Nobel Prize

The award opens up again the debate over whether Obama deserved the Nobel Prize after less than a year in office. The deadline for nominations was Feb. 1, meaning the president was nominated after being in office for just 11 days.
Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Obama needs to accept the award with humility, given his thin resume so far in office.
"I think the best thing he can do is to take the prize and accept it in the name of those who the Nobel committee apparently didn't want to consider and who really are deserving," Pletka said, citing the Iranian people and Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress as examples of others who she thinks have done more in the last year to advance world peace.
Republican strategist Kevin Madden said the fact that Obama accepts the prize as the commander in chief of a military engaged in two wars is "the elephant in the room. They're going to have to acknowledge it."
"What you're going to see is the White House project an image that says, 'this isn't about me, and this is about the people who actually have done something. This is a shared reward, a shared responsibility,'" Madden said on "ABC News Now's Top Line." "And sort of deflect away from his most recent actions, which was to essentially increase troop movement in Afghanistan."
The news that Obama was awarded the prize came as a surprise even to the White House back in October. Press aides said they had heard from news reports that the president had been nominated for the Peace Prize, but they do not believe Obama himself even knew of his nomination. The Nobel committee took a forward approach with the prize, citing the "hope" that Obama's presidency brings to the global community.
"Obama has, as president, created a new climate in international politics," the citation from the Nobel committee reads. "Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future."
The director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute said this fall that the decision to award Obama with the peace prize was unanimous.
"President Obama has changed, very dramatically, international politics," Geir Lundestad told "GMA's" Diane Sawyer Oct. 9. "We feel he has emphasized multilateral diplomacy, he has addressed international institutions, dialogue negotiations. He has inspired the world with his vision of a world without nuclear arms. He has changed the U.S. policy dramatically. There's a whole list."
Michael Worek, author of "Nobel: A Century of Prize Winners," said Obama's win was "extraordinarily unprecedented."
"It's like giving an Oscar award halfway through the movie when you haven't seen how it ends," Worek said. "We're saying, 'well, Obama has just started, we don't know if he's going to be successful.' Yes, he's said good things, but is it going to work?
"I think in America we feel he's been given his Oscar too early."
But Worek said the award was given not for what Obama has done but what the international community expects he will do.
"It's rewarding hope and they use that word in their release, they use vision twice and hope once," Worek said of the Nobel committee's citation. "It says Obama has captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future."
"I will applaud President Obama if he one day does something that earns him the Nobel Peace prize, but he hasn't done that yet, and if they want to honor this symbolically, let them honor the people of America that elected Barack Obama," Pletka said.


Massive TSA Security Breach As Agency Gives Away Its Secrets

Online Posting Reveals a "How To" for Terrorists to Get Through Airport Security

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Israel's Settlement Freeze

Prime Minister Netanyahu has broken with his party to restart the peace process.

Distracted by the crucial debate over Afghanistan, many Americans may have missed a pivotal event in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On Nov. 25, Israel's government announced a 10-month construction freeze in Judea and Samaria—the areas generally known as the West Bank. Though some projects already begun will be completed and essential public buildings like medical clinics and schools will be approved, no new housing permits will be issued.
"We hope that this decision will help launch meaningful peace negotiations," declared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "and finally end the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel." The Obama administration praised the decision and recognized its significance. Special Envoy George Mitchell hailed the decision as "substantial," and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it "unprecedented."
By contrast, Palestinian leaders rejected Israel's gesture as grossly inefficient. Without an indefinite cessation of all Jewish building in the West Bank and Jerusalem, they say, peace talks cannot resume.
What Mr. Mitchell and Mrs. Clinton understand, but what the Palestinians miss, is that Mr. Netanyahu has shown more flexibility on this issue than any previous head of his Likud Party, which is staunchly pro-settlement. Indeed, he has gone further than any prime minister in limiting a right that many Israelis consider incontestable and a vital component of their national security.
Twice—in 1948 and 1967—the West Bank served as the staging ground for large-scale attacks against Israel. While defending itself, Israel captured the territory and reunited with its ancestral homeland: Haifa is not in the Bible, but Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jericho decidedly are. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis rushed to resettle their tribal land.
These communities widened Israel's borders, which at points are a mere eight miles wide. American policy makers recognized Israel's need for defensible borders and, in November 1967, they supported U.N. Resolution 242, which called for withdrawals from "territories" captured in the war, but not from "all the territories" or even "the territories."
All successive Israeli governments supported the settlements. Only with the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords did then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agree to restrain construction in outlying communities that he considered unnecessary for Israel's defense. But the settlements continued to expand. Meanwhile the peace process progressed. The Palestinians never made a construction freeze in Jerusalem and the settlements a precondition for talks—until earlier this year.
Mr. Netanyahu initially responded that Jews, like all people, can build legally in Jerusalem, and that it's unreasonable to disallow settlers from building even an extra room for a newborn. Still, he promised not to establish new settlements, not to appropriate additional land for existing ones, nor even to induce Israelis to move to them. Yet the Palestinians balked. The peace process was moribund, awaiting an intrepid stroke.
Mr. Netanyahu has now taken that initiative. By suspending new Israeli construction in all of the West Bank, the prime minister has done what none of his predecessors, including Rabin, ever suggested.
At home, Mr. Netanyahu's decision has been fiercely criticized, even by some members of his own party. The Knesset has considered a vote of no-confidence in his leadership. And the most recent poll shows that more Israelis oppose the freeze than support it.
The prime minister has nevertheless persisted—his coalition is among the strongest and most representative in Israel's history—but the opportunity generated by his action will not endure indefinitely. Together with the Obama administration, which has repeatedly asserted its commitment to restarting talks without preconditions and to achieving a permanent two-state solution, Israelis hope that Palestinians will once again join them in talks.
By taking risks and accomplishing the unprecedented, Mr. Netanyahu has demonstrated his commitment to peace. Now the Palestinians must match that dedication and seize this propitious moment.
Mr. Oren is Israel's ambassador to the United States.