Latest Post: The Afghanistan Muddle
Latest Post: The President Bans Torture
Text of Order Closing Guantanamo Bay
President Obama’s Remarks to State Department Staff (22 January)
6:45 p.m. An intriguing development, but one which will need some detective work to assess its significance. President Obama "asked Saudi King Abdullah for support in halting weapons smuggling into Gaza and underscored the importance of U.S.-Saudi ties" in a Friday phone call.
The call takes on added significance because an influential member of the Saudi Royal Family, Prince Turki al-Feisal, launched an attack against the Bush Administration's "poisonous legacy" in a newspaper article on Friday morning, warning, "If the U.S. wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact -- especially its 'special relationship' with Saudi Arabia -- it will have to drastically revise its policies vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine."
So the first message in Obama's call was not to get active Saudi participation in the naval blockade of Gaza but assurances that Riyadh would not try to undermine it by moving cash and material to Palestinian groups in the area. The second message, however, is more important and hard to decipher:
Do those US-Saudi ties mean that Obama will accept Saudi ideas for Israel-Palestinian negotiations, for example, a revival of the 2002 Mecca proposals that the Bush Administration flagrantly rebuffed? Or is Washington expecting the Saudis to follow the lead of a yet-seen approach that will be unveiled in the visit of George Mitchell to the region? (cross-posted from Israel-Palestine-Gaza Updates)
3:40 p.m. White House announces that President Obama has reversed Ronald Reagan's ban on funding of federally-supported groups who carry out abortions overseas.
3:30 p.m. Not So Fast, General Petraeus. Here's a curious story, unlike you're a fan of Kirghiz politics, that you might have missed. On Wednesday, General David Petraeus and the US military were telling anyone who would listen of their great triumph in securing land and air supply routes into Afghanistan (and trying to cover up the inconvenience that the main supply route over the Khyber Pass has been closed down).
Well, on Thursday the Government of Kyrgyzstan, where a major US airbase is located, decided that it wasn't ready to play the good guy quite yet: "Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev will make a decision on the future of a U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan by next month, an official said Thursday."
Is Russia, which also has an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, having a bit of competitive fun with Washington? Or has the Kirghiz Government decided to get a higher price for their cooperation?
3:15 p.m. The Netherlands won't be joining the next US adventure in Afghanistan: "Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende ruled out on Friday the possibility of the Netherlands keeping its troops in Afghanistan past 2010 with a force comparable to its current deployment."
2:55 p.m. The Marines Show Their Hand. Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway says that up to 20,000 Marines could be deployed as part of the US military "surge" in Afghanistan. While Conway capped the number at 20,000, that indicates that an overall increase of 30,000 troops, which would include Army units, is still the military's preferred option.
At the same time, Conway seemed to offer support for President Obama's plans for withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq: "The time is right for Marines in general terms to leave Iraq. It's very much a nation-building kind of environment that's taking place there."
2:25 p.m. Facebook Message of the Day:
The United States of America, your quality supplier of ideals of liberty and democracy, would like to apologize for its 2001-2008 service outage. The technical fault that led to this eight-year service interruption has been located. Replacement components were ordered Tuesday, November 4th, 2008, and have begun arriving. Early test of the new equipment indicate that it is functioning correctly and we expect it to be fully operational by mid-January.
We apologize for any inconvenience caused by the outage and we look forward to resuming full service and hopefully even improving it in years to come. Thank you for your patience and understanding,
2 p.m. On his blog, CNN's Anderson Cooper posts a guest article by former interrogator Ken Robinson: "The truth is --- torture doesn't work."
Nice job, Anderson. Just one question: why didn't you put up such comments in 2003? 2004? 2005? At any point during the Bush Administration?
12:35 p.m. Al Jazeera: 19 killed in northwest Pakistan in two US missile strikes.
12:05 p.m. CNN website reporting 10 killed in US strike on northwest Pakistan, but CNN television is reporting two attacks.
10:10 a.m. The State Department's Twitterers pass on news of a US interception and two-day search of an Iranian-owned ship in the Red Sea.
No jackpot this time, however, in the quest to link Tehran and Hamas. The ship was carrying artillery shells, but the Gazan organisation doesn't use artillery.
9:30 a.m. White House officials are briefing that Obama later today will reverse Ronald Reagan's "Mexico City" order, which banned federally-funded non-government organizations from performing abortions overseas. Bill Clinton lifted the ban in his first week in office, only for George W. Bush to reinstate it in his first Presidential order.
8:20 a.m. The first application of Obama tough love in Pakistan. Reports are coming through that US missiles have killed five people in the northwest of the country. (9:45 a.m.: Death toll is now 9. Six members of a family are among the dead; intelligence officials claim "some foreign militants were also killed".)
6:35 a.m. For those watching the Obama rollback of the Bush War on Terror, some interesting signals from Dennis Blair, Obama's nominee for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in his confirmation hearings yesterday.
Blair backed up the President's headline actions, telling Senators that torture "is not moral, legal or effective" and that "there will not be any waterboarding on my watch". However, the nominee also indicated that Obama might not hand back other executive orders resting on dubious legal ground, as he "hesitated to directly challenge as illegal the Bush administration's approach to interrogations and surveillance".
6:25 a.m. And, Barack, We've Been Talking to the Washington Post. Those waging the counter-offensive against the Obama plan for a 16-month withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq have gotten the ear of the editors of The Post. Their call in their lead editorial today for a slower withdrawal, bizarrely, rests on the argument that Iraq is rapidly becoming more secure:
Iraq's continuing improvement and the low and declining rate of U.S. casualties -- four soldiers have been killed in hostile action so far this month -- ought to decrease the urgency of a quick pullout. Pragmatism calls for working within the agreed U.S.-Iraqi plan, and for allowing adjustments based on positive and negative developments in Iraq, rather than on any fixed and arbitrary timetable.
6:10 a.m. The "New Diplomacy" of the Obama Administration? On Thursday, "the chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy, Krishna Urs, walked out of a speech in Bolivia’s Congress by President Evo Morales."
5;55 a.m. One Dissent is Annoying, Two is a Rebellion. Meanwhile, on the Iraq front, departing US Ambassador Ryan Crocker has also gone public to put brakes --- albeit in diplomatic phrasing on Obama's plan for withdrawal of combat troops in 16 months. Citing "a continuing need for our security support" despite the "enormous progress" of Iraqi security forces, Crocker asserted, “If it were to be a precipitous withdrawal, that could be very dangerous, but it’s clear that’s not the direction in which this is trending.”
Far from incidentally, Crocker was also involved in Wednesday's National Security meeting with military commanders, speaking by videophone from Baghdad.
5:30 a.m. Naughty, Naughty Pentagon. Do you recall that less than 24 hours ago the military started spinning against the President's plans for withdrawal from Iraq? Well, now they're taking aim at his intention to close Guantamo. Officials have fed the following story to Robert Worth of The New York Times:
The emergence of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.
And it should be noted that this is not a sudden leak. The amount of information on the released detainee, Said Ali al-Shihri, and the contribution by four Times reporters to the story indicated that this "exclusive" was fed to them well before Obama became President.
Moreover, this is only the latest salvo in the campaign to undermine Obama's plans. Last month "Pentagon officials" began spreading the story that dozens of released detainees were rejoining Al Qa'eda and other terrorist organisations. The supposed information was discredited quickly by journalists who followed up the details --- as the New York Times notes, albeit well below its dramatic headline:
Although the Pentagon has said that dozens of released Guantánamo detainees have “returned to the fight,” its claim is difficult to document, and has been met with skepticism. In any case, few of the former detainees, if any, are thought to have become leaders of a major terrorist organization like Al Qaeda in Yemen, a mostly homegrown group that experts say has been reinforced by foreign fighters.
4:10 a.m. The excellent analyst Jim Lobe finds grounds for optimism both in the appointment of George Mitchell as President Obama's envoy to the Middle East and in Obama's statement yesterday.
3:15 a.m. We've posted separate blogs on Obama's order banning torture and on an apparent muddle over Afghanistan policy, highlighted by Administration statements yesterday.
2:30 a.m. The Guantanamo Bay Effect Reaches Afghanistan. An intriguing statement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was quick off the mark to welcome President Barack Obama's order closing Camp X-Ray: "Closing this will have a good impact, a significant impact on the minds of Afghans here in Afghanistan. We see it as extremely important and timely and we appreciate the decision taken by the new administration."
Why pay special attention to Karzai's statement beyond the welcomes coming from around the world? Well, there's the small matter of more than 600 detainees, as compared to 245 at Guantanamo, in the US military's Camp Bagram in southern Afghanistan. Karzai is being pressed by Afghan campaigners to do something about unlimited detentions closer to home, so his statement on matters far away is a symbolic nod in their direction.
But will it mean the Afghan Government presses the Americans to bring the rule of law into Bagram? Karzai's spokesman was suitably cautious: "As we rebuild our justice system, as we rebuild our law enforcement capabilities and can ensure there will be due process provided, we do expect the detainees to be gradually and slowly transferred to Afghan custody by mutual agreement,"