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Category Archives: Barack Obama

By George Friedman ~ Honorable Political Season Contributor
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 23. The meeting follows the explosion in U.S.-Israeli relations after Israel announced it was licensing construction of homes in East Jerusalem while U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel. The United States wants Israel to stop all construction of new Jewish settlements. The Israelis argue that East Jerusalem is not part of the occupied territories, and hence, the U.S. demand doesn’t apply there. The Americans are not parsing their demand so finely and regard the announcement — timed as it was — as a direct affront and challenge. Israel’s response is that it is a sovereign state and so must be permitted to do as it wishes. The implicit American response is that the United States is also a sovereign state and will respond as it wishes.
The polemics in this case are not the point. The issue is more fundamental: namely, the degree to which U.S. and Israeli relations converge and diverge. This is not a matter of friendship but, as in all things geopolitical, of national interest. It is difficult to discuss U.S. and Israeli interests objectively, as the relationship is clouded with endless rhetoric and simplistic formulations. It is thus difficult to know where to start, but two points of entry into this controversy come to mind.
The first is the idea that anti-Americanism in the Middle East has its roots in U.S. support for Israel, a point made by those in the United States and abroad who want the United States to distance itself from Israel. The second is that the United States has a special strategic relationship with Israel and a mutual dependency. Both statements have elements of truth, but neither is simply true — and both require much more substantial analysis. In analyzing them, we begin the process of trying to disentangle national interests from rhetoric.

Anti-Americanism in the Middle East

Begin with the claim that U.S. support for Israel generates anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world. While such support undoubtedly contributes to the phenomenon, it hardly explains it. The fundamental problem with the theory is that Arab anti-Americanism predates significant U.S. support for Israel. Until 1967, the United States gave very little aid to Israel. What aid Washington gave was in the form of very limited loans to purchase agricultural products from the United States — a program that many countries in the world participated in. It was France, not the United States, which was the primary supplier of weapons to Israeli.
In 1956, Israel invaded the Sinai while Britain and France seized the Suez Canal, which the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdul Nasser had nationalized. The Eisenhower administration intervened — against Israel and on the side of Egypt. Under U.S. pressure, the British, French and Israelis were forced to withdraw. There were widespread charges that the Eisenhower administration was pro-Arab and anti-Israeli; certainly no one could argue that Eisenhower was significantly pro-Israel.
In spite of this, Nasser entered into a series of major agreements with the Soviet Union. Egypt effectively became a Soviet ally, the recipient of massive Soviet aid and a center of anti-American rhetoric. Whatever his reasons — and they had to do with U.S. unwillingness to give Egypt massive aid — Egypt’s anti-American attitude had nothing to do with the Israelis, save perhaps that the United States was not prepared to join Egypt in trying to destroy Israel.
Two major political events took place in 1963: left-wing political coups in Syria and Iraq that brought the Baathist Party to power in both countries. Note that this took place pre-1967, i.e., before the United States became closely aligned with Israel. Both regimes were pro-Soviet and anti-American, but neither could have been responding to U.S. support for Israel because there wasn’t much.
In 1964, Washington gave Cairo the first significant U.S. military aid in the form of Hawk missiles, but it gave those to other Arab countries, too, in response to the coups in Iraq and Syria. The United States feared the Soviets would base fighters in those two countries, so it began installing anti-air systems to try to block potential Soviet airstrikes on Saudi Arabia.
In 1967, France broke with Israel over the Arab-Israeli conflict that year. The United States began significant aid to Israel. In 1973, after the Syrian and Egyptian attack on Israel, the U.S. began massive assistance. In 1974 this amounted to about 25 percent of Israeli gross domestic product (GDP). The aid has continued at roughly the same level, but given the massive growth of the Israeli economy, it now amounts to about 2.5 percent of Israeli GDP.
The point here is that the United States was not actively involved in supporting Israel prior to 1967, yet anti-Americanism in the Arab world was rampant. The Arabs might have blamed the United States for Israel, but there was little empirical basis for this claim. Certainly, U.S. aid commenced in 1967 and surged in 1974, but the argument that eliminating support for Israel would cause anti-Americanism to decline must first explain the origins of anti-Americanism, which substantially predated American support for Israel. In fact, it is not clear that Arab anti-Americanism was greater after the initiation of major aid to Israel than before. Indeed, Egypt, the most important Arab country, shifted its position to a pro-American stance after the 1973 war in the face of U.S. aid.

Israel’s Importance to the United States

Let’s now consider the assumption that Israel is a critical U.S. asset. American grand strategy has always been derived from British grand strategy. The United States seeks to maintain regional balances of power in order to avoid the emergence of larger powers that can threaten U.S. interests. The Cold War was a massive exercise in the balance of power, pitting an American-sponsored worldwide alliance system against one formed by the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has acted a number of times against regional hegemons: Iraq in 1990-91, Serbia in 1999 and so on.
In the area called generally the Middle East, but which we prefer to think of as the area between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush, there are three intrinsic regional balances. One is the Arab-Israeli balance of power. The second is the Iran-Iraq balance. The third is the Indo-Pakistani balance of power. The American goal in each balance is not so much stability as it is the mutual neutralization of local powers by other local powers.
Two of the three regional balances of power are collapsed or in jeopardy. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the failure to quickly put a strong, anti-Iranian government in place in Baghdad, has led to the collapse of the central balance of power — with little hope of resurrection. The eastern balance of power between Pakistan and India is also in danger of toppling. The Afghan war has caused profound stresses in Pakistan, and there are scenarios in which we can imagine Pakistan’s power dramatically weakening or even cracking. It is unclear how this will evolve, but what is clear is that it is not in the interest of the United States because it would destroy the native balance of power with India. The United States does not want to see India as the unchallenged power in the subcontinent any more than it wants to see Pakistan in that position. The United States needs a strong Pakistan to balance India, and its problem now is how to manage the Afghan war — a side issue strategically — without undermining the strategic interest of the United States, an Indo-Pakistani balance of power.
The western balance of power, Israel and the surrounding states, is relatively stable. What is most important to the United States at this point is that this balance of power also not destabilize. In this sense, Israel is an important strategic asset. But in the broader picture, where the United States is dealing with the collapse of the central balance of power and with the destabilization of the eastern balance of power, Washington does not want or need the destabilization of the western balance — between the Israelis and Arabs — at this time. U.S. “bandwidth” is already stretched to the limit. Washington does not need another problem. Nor does it need instability in this region complicating things in the other regions.
Note that the United States is interested in maintaining the balance of power. This means that the U.S. interest is in a stable set of relations, with no one power becoming excessively powerful and therefore unmanageable by the United States. Israel is already the dominant power in the region, and the degree to which Syria, Jordan and Egypt contain Israel is limited. Israel is moving from the position of an American ally maintaining a balance of power to a regional hegemon in its own right operating outside the framework of American interests.
The United States above all wants to ensure continuity after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dies. It wants to ensure that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan remains stable. And in its attempts to manage the situation in the center and east, it wants to ensure that nothing happens in the west to further complicate an already-enormously complex situation.
There is very little Israel can do to help the United States in the center and eastern balances. On the other hand, if the western balance of power were to collapse — due to anything from a collapse of the Egyptian regime to a new Israeli war with Hezbollah — the United States might find itself drawn into that conflict, while a new intifada in the Palestinian territories would not help matters either. It is unknown what effect this would have in the other balances of power, but the United States is operating at the limits of its power to try to manage these situations. Israel cannot help there, but it could hurt, for example by initiating an attack on Iran outside the framework of American planning. Therefore, the United States wants one thing from Israel now: for Israel to do nothing that could possibly destabilize the western balance of power or make America’s task more difficult in the other regions.
Israel sees the American preoccupation in these other regions, along with the current favorable alignment of forces in its region, as an opportunity both to consolidate and expand its power and to create new realities on the ground. One of these is building in East Jerusalem, or more precisely, using the moment to reshape the demographics and geography of its immediate region. The Israeli position is that it has rights in East Jerusalem that the United States cannot intrude on. The U.S. position is that it has interests in the broader region that are potentially weakened by this construction at this time.
Israel’s desire to do so is understandable, but it runs counter to American interests. The United States, given its overwhelming challenges, is neither interested in Israel’s desire to reshape its region, nor can it tolerate any more risk deriving from Israel’s actions. However small the risks might be, the United States is maxed out on risk. Therefore, Israel’s interests and that of the United States diverge. Israel sees an opportunity; the United States sees more risk.
The problem Israel has is that, in the long run, its relationship to the United States is its insurance policy. Netanyahu appears to be calculating that given the U.S. need for a western balance of power, whatever Israel does now will be allowed because in the end the United States needs Israel to maintain that balance of power. Therefore, he is probing aggressively. Netanyahu also has domestic political reasons for proceeding with this construction. For him, this construction is a prudent and necessary step.
Obama’s task is to convince Netanyahu that Israel has strategic value for the United States, but only in the context of broader U.S. interests in the region. If Israel becomes part of the American problem rather than the solution, the United States will seek other solutions. That is a hard case to make but not an impossible one. The balance of power is in the eastern Mediterranean, and there is another democracy the United States could turn to: Turkey — which is more than eager to fulfill that role and exploit Israeli tensions with the United States.
It may not be the most persuasive threat, but the fact is that Israel cannot afford any threat from the United States, such as an end to the intense U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship. While this relationship might not be essential to Israel at the moment, it is one of the foundations of Israeli grand strategy in the long run. Just as the United States cannot afford any more instability in the region at the moment, so Israel cannot afford any threat, however remote, to its relationship with the United States.

A More Complicated Relationship

What is clear in all this is that the statement that Israel and the United States are strategic partners is not untrue, it is just vastly more complicated than it appears. Similarly, the claim that American support for Israel fuels anti-Americans is both a true and insufficient statement.
Netanyahu is betting on Congress and political pressures to restrain U.S. responses to Israel. One of the arguments of geopolitics is that political advantage is insufficient in the face of geopolitical necessity. Pressure on Congress from Israel in order to build houses in Jerusalem while the United States is dealing with crises in the region could easily backfire.
The fact is that while the argument that U.S. Israel policy caused anti-Americanism in the region may not be altogether true, the United States does not need any further challenges or stresses. Nations overwhelmed by challenges can behave in unpredictable ways. Netanyahu’s decision to confront the United States at this time on this issue creates an unpredictability that would seem excessive to Israel’s long term interests. Expecting the American political process to protect Israel from the consequences is not necessarily gauging the American mood at the moment.
The national interest of both countries is to maximize their freedom to maneuver. The Israelis have a temporary advantage because of American interests elsewhere in the region. But that creates a long-term threat. With two wars going on and two regional balances in shambles or tottering, the United States does not need a new crisis in the third. Israel has an interest in housing in East Jerusalem. The United States does not. This frames the conversation between Netanyahu and Obama. The rest is rhetoric.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

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David Frum on MSNBC:

   Those of us who said there was a deal to be done, that there are a lot of parts of this bill that look familiar, that look like Mitt Romney’s plan, that look like plans Republicans proposed in 1993 and 1994, they look like things that were drafted at the Heritage foundation in 1990 and 1991, we can work with this, there are things we don’t like, [but] President Obama will pay a lot maybe for 20 or 30 Republican votes, let’s deal — that was shut down, we went the radical way, looking for Waterloo, and it looks like we arrived at Waterloo.

   …Some of the Republican leadership like Jim DeMint, I think did play a very hard-line role. Some of our leaders were trapped. They were trapped by voices in the media that revved the Republican base into a frenzy that made dealing impossible. I mean, you can’t negotiate with Adolf Hitler, and if the President is Adolf Hitler, then obviously you can’t negotiate with him. So some of the blame has has got to go to those who said, who got the psychology of the party to a point where a lot of good people, reasonable people were trapped.

   …We are encouraging a mood of radicalism in the party that is not just uncivil, that’s not the problem, the problem is it makes you stupid. It makes you make bad decisions, it leads you to think that President Obama with 53% of the vote is as beatable in 2009 as President Clinton with 42% of the vote in 1993, and that’s obviously not true.

 Frum makes the essential point that reform was inevitable and instead of going for the all or nothing path to derail it, the GOP should have negotiated their way to getting something good out of it. Now, in the search for Obama’s Waterloo, they have created their own because I’m not sure there is any other way to spin it other than Obama won this political battle, despite vigorous and unified GOP opposition. The GOP will get a lot of mileage running on their opposition to the bill in November, but Democrats may be able to make some hay out of passing it despite the opposition of the party of No.

Frum’s other point here is the one I think I really co-sign, namely that the GOP in encouraging a sort of ravening and unmitigated anger at the White House and casting Obama as a Marxist monster, has really limited its own options.  If Obama is a monster, then you have to oppose anything he does (even if it makes sense) and this is the trick bag I think republicans have gotten themselves into somewhat.  With the passage of healthcare reform, the President will now have imposed his socialist, Marxist, communist and evil will upon the country, destroying all our freedoms and the future of our children. How can you work with someone like that? But thats the view of him that the GOP encourages and enhances at every opportunity.  I don’t think it is serving the party’s interests well, nor more importantly, the interests of the American people. Lastly, his exit point is that politics is about getting things done, or it ought to be.  By going for and failing to get, the political win, the GOP have now suffered a permanent policy loss.

Soooo, I get a little preoccupied with the cares of life and turn my head for a minute and look what happens.   A couple of prominent black leaders and commentators decide to start beefing with each other.  Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton egos have collided in a absolutely delightful and entertaining manner.  Tavis jumped it off with this commentary on the Tom Joyner Morning Show Feb. 23, 2010

It’s just really hard not to hear it as an ego driven, self righteous screed. Tavis opens up talking about how he chooses to stand with poor black folk and makes some allusions about taking up his cross. He then basically calls out a number of prominent black folk (Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous, Charles Olgletree, Valerie Jarret, Mark Morial), several of which participated in a discussion with the President at the White House about jobs. He calls them out for giving the President a pass on having a black agenda. He accuses them of misleading black folk by not pressing for a black agenda from our first black president. Then, he goes another step further to announce that he’s calling for a meeting where these called out black folk can come to explain themselves.

The way he presents it, its the Obama apologists team vs. his black agenda team, which includes names like Cornel West, Farrakhan, Barbara Lewis and others. It is amazing to watch Tavis position himself as the designated black accountability moment facilitator for black America and announce this meeting and his invitations to it as though it’s a forgone conclusion that they will show up. But it gets better when Sharpton gets wind of this commentary and calls in to the TJMS show to answer the charge that he’s just singing Obama’s tune.

Sharpton emphatically denounces the charge that he or any of the people in the meeting are actively selling the idea that no “black agenda” need be pursued by this President.  Tavis decides to respond and calls in to Sharpton’s radio show the next day to beard the lion in his den.

Political Season Post Battle Analysis: Rhetorically and factually, Tavis got his clock cleaned. He’s wrong on the merits. Sharpton didn’t say that the President shouldn’t have a black agenda. Didn’t happen.  Sharpton effectively called him on his hubris in trying to place himself in a position to hold black leadership accountable based on his opinions and ideas. Sharpton is missing the boat here too though. For all Shapton’s claim to keeping it real, he is not saying a word about how this administration is sold out to the financial sector for example. Too busy being on the WH invite list and rubbing it in Tavis’s face.  In the end, neither of them has the right of it when it comes to holding the President to some measure of accountability. Tavis is consumed with a self righteous crusade to force the President to pursue a blatant black agenda. Sharpton would have us to believe that he is simply smarter than Tavis and can balance accountability with collaboration in order to be effective, but thats hard to swallow with an administration so sold out to Wall Street, on which point Sharpton has no commentary. I’m willing to bet Sharpton isn’t going to practice any accountability that gets him put off that White House invite list. You know, the one Tavis is permanently off of, though apparently the Clinton’s still roll out the red carpet for him.

Chris Matthews is a most excellent media cretin. I wish we could forget his career.

President Obama will give his first State of the Union speech tonight at 9 pm Eastern.  I’ll watch, but my expectations are extremely low.  No matter how stirring the oratory is tonight, there is nothing Obama can say this evening that will erase the fact that he has now demonstrated that he is unequal to this moment in history. In fairness, perhaps no one could have been. Two wars, an economy in shambles, a body politic divided, a terrorist enemy at the gates; if ever there was a presidency that would be forged in the crucible of events, this is one, as was that of Obama’s predecessor, George Bush.

Obama has not been equal to his promises. No one in their right mind expected him to do all that he promised in exactly the way that he promised.  But what I think people did expect and had some right to expect was that he would be true to the spirit of his hope and change mantra. Sure, we knew there would be compromises, some deviation and we frankly expected some dissapointment because we expected the pragmatist to straightforwardly tell us “hey, this isn’t doable and here’s why” straightup.

But, as Mort Zuckerman bitterly and very accurately observed, Obama has revealed himself to be more ideological than pragmatic.  What we have learned is that Obama practices small “p” pragmatism.  That his political heart and center are not big enough to fill the space created by his oratory.  He has fallen very short of the heights he called not only us to, but himself.  No amount of inspired oratory tonight or any other night can or will close the gap between the stirring heights of his rhetoric and the prosaic plateau of his deeds.

That gap can only be closed by deeds and decisions more informed, wise and courageous than most that have preceded this moment. Hope and change indeed.  Let us hope that Obama can change.

Lrey of the Conservative Brotherhood makes a mighty fine point with regard to RNC Chairman Michael Steele and Rush’s comments on Haiti, one I had not even considered.  Steele has been happy to jump on the bandwagon regarding Harry Reid’s insightful but stupidly permitted to be overhead comments on the Obama campaign, but has not had a word of opprobrium for Limbaugh’s race baiting comments (in my opinion) on Haiti, to wit:

RUSH:  “This will play right into Obama’s hands. He’s humanitarian, compassionate.  They’ll use this to burnish their, shall we say, “credibility” with the black community — in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country.  

Rush simply can’t wait to make the Haiti relief response a race baiting political weapon against Obama, suggesting that this is how he curries favor with minorities.  Its pretty foul. The crassness of the thinking in this little jewel of a comment drew pushback from no less a republican than George Bush:

“We’ve got to deal with the desperation, and there ought to be no politicization of that.”  

Which brings us to Michael Steele.  Where is he? Lrey jumps right in big Mike’s grill:

“When he should have stood-up to Limbaugh and held his ground as a person entitled to his intellectual opinion, and holding a formal political office, gained politically, he retreated from the ire of Massa Rush and subordinated himself to a man who holds him in the same regard he holds for black NFL quarterbacks – a necessary and politically correct evil.

Isn’t such retrogressive ignorance worthy of a rebuke by the man charged with making the GOP more inclusive? Steele (and other black “conservatives”) weren’t afraid to challenge Reid on his “negro dialect” comment. Either they stand-up to Limbaugh now or accept being “the negroes that bring him alcohol”, and always and forever be second class citizens in the GOP.”

This latest ugly piece of race baiting political invective from Rush comes as little surprise as he likes to take opportunities to use racial subtext to inflame the passions of his audience and tweak the MSM as well. But its the larger point here that Lrey makes that is relevant to my mind, which is that for a party leader who talks the talk of making the party more inclusive, he needs to walk the walk.  Not happening, not gonna happen.

Hat tip Shortform blog:

On race relations:

  • 58% of Americans thought Obama would change race relations before his inauguration
  • 41% of Americans say he’s actually improved race relations in his first full year in office source
  • Where was the freefall? Strangely enough, it was largest among other blacks. While white voters dipped to about 40 percent from 55 percent, blacks were at 75 percent a year ago, free-falling to 51 percent – a 24-point decline.

Little newsflash to my disappointed brothers and sisters; it’s not Obama’s job to solve all your problems in life.  Its not his job to solve “racism” to the extent such a thing is solvable. Anybody that thought his election would magically heal the divisions between black, red, white, brown and yellow was criminally deluded. Perhaps this disappointment that some feel is a good thing that will spur some people out there to solve their own problems, now that they realize Obama won’t. 

That’s essentially the position of Yves Smith at the blog Naked Capitalism.  You’ve gotta love the cats at this blog, who routinely and with great vigor expose the ridiculous logic, misdirection and wrongheaded strategic ideas that has been the Obama administrations unfettered catering to the banking industry.

Yves makes the case:

“While I cannot fathom the logic, Team Obama clearly decided to throw in its hat with the industry from the beginning, supporting a whole raft of tricks to keep banks from recognizing losses (heavens, might expose that some were bankrupt and require that incumbents be given the heave ho!). It also assisted in the “talk up the bank stocks” effort, since goosing prices would allow some banks to sell shares and save the new Administration the unpleasant task of figuring out how to resolve and recapitalize the sickest bank. It never seemed to occur to them that the best time for a President to take unpopular but productive action is at the start of his tenure. Nor did they anticipate that the public was not as dumb and inattentive as they assumed, and has taken notice of how the Administration has hitched its wagon to that of the plutocrats.”

Yves’s makes the point that keeps going unmentioned in much of the mainstream media coverage of banks who repaid TARP funds and the reports of improved performance by the industry.

“The banks got massive subsidies during and after the crisis; they continue now with the Fed’s super low rates and continued intervention in the mortgage markets (theoretically ending in March, but most informed observers expect the central bank to blink).”

Yves’ goes on to point out that now the Obama administration is caught between a crock and a hard farce, being completely sold out to the industry with a body public suffering mightily while they watched the architects of the financial crisis grow fat by socializing the losses the administration is desperately working to keep them from recognizing on their books:

 “The sketchy announcement du jour, that Obama will announce a $120 billion TARP fee this week (hhm, conveniently timed to distract attention from the start of the hearings into the crisis and Wall Street bonus announcements) illustrates the bizarre position the Administration is in. Alert readers may recall that Obama was touting the performance of the TARP at his Lehman anniversary speech in September. It repeated that palaver in December. As we noted then:

Both Obama and the Treasury Department keep talking up the TARP as if it is a money maker for taxpayers, when nothing could be further from the truth. Obama tried this stunt in his anniversary of Lehman speech, and the Treasury continues with the theme, of implying that results for the firms that paid back are representative of what the final results would be. If this logic were generally true, that would mean subprime bonds were a good investment too. After all, most borrowers did make good on their mortgages. A late September Moodys mortgage survey that a reader sent me estimated that total losses on subprime RMBS will be about 26%, which means that 74% were money good. The problem with the Treasury/Obama three card monte is that the strongest TARP are the ones that paid off first. Things can only go downhill from here. Do you expect AIG to repay the TARP in full? Or the auto companies?”

Yves’s succinctly sums up “the PR corner that Team Obama has painted itself in. It isn’t willing to do the UK thing and decry banker bonuses as irresponsible and unwarranted. It had Kenneth Feinberg, the pay czar, take a few scalps, but it was clear the Adminsitration had no intention of challenging the financial industry’s right to loot and pillage. It isn’t even willing to say the profits are due almost entirely to subsidies, hence a windfall profits tax (presumably one focused on capital markets operations, that’s where the real juice is) is in order. Heavens, that might lead chump investors to question bank valuations and sell stocks! Horrors, can’t have prices that reflect fundamentals when the Administration has been pointing to the improvement in the financial markets as proof its policies are working.So the finesse is now to admit, in a reversal of its recent posturing, that yes Virginia, the TARP is losing money
 
The Obama administration is selling fake economic recovery fumes as though they were the aroma of an energetically healing economy, talking up improved bank performance in some quarters.  Really? The Fed is selling banks money at effectively zero percent interest, which they are relending at 5% and up.  That’s a little bit of arbitrage my 7 year old Noah could do. On top of that, the executive is using the Treasury, the Fed, the tax code and every tool at their disposal to prevent banks from recognizing losses and help them recapitalize (capital they then hoard or do acquisitions with, not lend).  When the government is actually forcing you to take money (TARP) and finding any way it can to subsidize your industry, its hard not to make a few bucks.  But Americans aren’t stupid and the Obama administration is at some point going to run out of room to play both sides of the economic blame game.

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

As Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi exited the vehicle that brought him onto Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2009, security guards noticed he was behaving strangely. They moved toward al-Balawi and screamed demands that he take his hand out of his pocket, but instead of complying with the officers’ commands, al-Balawi detonated the suicide device he was wearing. The explosion killed al-Balawi, three security contractors, four CIA officers and the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) officer who was al-Balawi’s handler. The vehicle shielded several other CIA officers at the scene from the blast. The CIA officers killed included the chief of the base at Khost and an analyst from headquarters who reportedly was the agency’s foremost expert on al Qaeda. The agency’s second-ranking officer in Afghanistan was allegedly among the officers who survived.

Al-Balawi was a Jordanian doctor from Zarqa (the hometown of deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). Under the alias Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani, he served as an administrator for Al-Hesbah, a popular Internet discussion forum for jihadists. Jordanian officers arrested him in 2007 because of his involvement with radical online forums, which is illegal in Jordan. The GID subsequently approached al-Balawi while he was in a Jordanian prison and recruited him to work as an intelligence asset.
Al-Balawi was sent to Pakistan less than a year ago as part of a joint GID/CIA mission. Under the cover of going to school to receive advanced medical training, al-Balawi established himself in Pakistan and began to reach out to jihadists in the region. Under his al-Khurasani pseudonym, al-Balawai announced in September 2009 in an interview on a jihadist Internet forum that he had officially joined the Afghan Taliban.

A Lucky Break for the TTP

It is unclear if al-Balawi was ever truly repentant. Perhaps he cooperated with the GID at first, but had a change of heart sometime after arriving in Pakistan. Either way, at some point al-Balawi approached the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Pakistani Taliban group, and offered to work with it against the CIA and GID. Al-Balawi confirmed this in a video statement recorded with TTP leader Hakeemullah Mehsud and released Jan. 9. This is significant because it means that al-Balawi’s appearance was a lucky break for the TTP, and not part of some larger, intentional intelligence operation orchestrated by the TTP or another jihadist entity like al Qaeda.

The TTP’s luck held when a group of 13 people gathered to meet al-Balawi upon his arrival at FOB Chapman. This allowed him to detonate his suicide device amid the crowd and create maximum carnage before he was able to be searched for weapons.

In the world of espionage, source meetings are almost always a dangerous activity for both the intelligence officer and the source. There are fears the source could be surveilled and followed to the meeting site, or that the meeting could be raided by host country authorities and the parties arrested. In the case of a terrorist source, the meeting site could be attacked and those involved in the meeting killed. Because of this, the CIA and other intelligence agencies exercise great care while conducting source meetings. Normally they will not bring the source into a CIA station or base. Instead, they will conduct the meeting at a secure, low-profile offsite location.

Operating in the wilds of Afghanistan is far different from operating out of an embassy in Vienna or Moscow, however. Khost province is Taliban territory, and it offers no refuge from the watching eyes and gunmen of the Taliban and their jihadist allies. Indeed, the province has few places safe enough even for a CIA base. And this is why the CIA base in Khost is located on a military base, FOB Chapman, named for the first American killed in Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion. Normally, an outer ring of Afghan security around the base searches persons entering FOB Chapman, who the U.S. military then searches again at the outer perimeter of the U.S. portion of the base. Al-Balawi, a high-value CIA asset, was allowed to skip these external layers of security to avoid exposing his identity to Afghan troops and U.S. military personnel. Instead, the team of Xe (the company formerly known as Blackwater) security contractors were to search al-Balawi as he arrived at the CIA’s facility.

A Failure to Follow Security Procedures

Had proper security procedures been followed, the attack should only have killed the security contractors, the vehicle driver and perhaps the Jordanian GID officer. But proper security measures were not followed, and several CIA officers rushed out to greet the unscreened Jordanian source. Reports indicate that the source had alerted his Jordanian handler that he had intelligence pertaining to the location of al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. (There are also reports that al-Balawi had given his handlers highly accurate battle damage assessments on drone strikes in Pakistan, indicating that he had access to high-level jihadist sources.) The prospect of finally receiving such crucial and long-sought information likely explains the presence of the high-profile visitors from CIA headquarters in Langley and the station in Kabul — and their exuberance over receiving such coveted intelligence probably explains their eager rush to meet the source before he had been properly screened.

The attack, the most deadly against CIA personnel since the 1983 Beirut bombing, was clearly avoidable, or at least mitigable. But human intelligence is a risky business, and collecting human intelligence against jihadist groups can be flat-out deadly. The CIA officers in Khost the day of the bombing had grown complacent, and violated a number of security procedures. The attack thus serves as a stark reminder to the rest of the clandestine service of the dangers they face and of the need to adhere to time-tested security procedures.
A better process might have prevented some of the deaths, but it would not have solved the fundamental problem: The CIA had an asset who turned out to be a double agent. When he turned is less important than that he was turned into — assuming he had not always been — a double agent. His mission was to gain the confidence of the CIA as to his bona fides, and then create an event in which large numbers of CIA agents were present, especially the top al Qaeda analyst at the CIA. He knew that high-value targets would be present because he had set the stage for the meeting by dangling vital information before the agency. He went to the meeting to carry out his true mission, which was to deliver a blow against the CIA. He succeeded.

The Obama Strategy’s Weakness

In discussing the core weakness in the Afghan strategy U.S. President Barack Obama has chosen, we identified the basic problem as the intelligence war. We argued that establishing an effective Afghan army would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, because the Americans and their NATO allies lacked knowledge and sophistication in distinguishing friend from foe among those being recruited into the army. This problem is compounded by the fact that there are very few written documents in a country like Afghanistan that could corroborate identities. The Taliban would seed the Afghan army with its own operatives and supporters, potentially exposing the army’s operations to al Qaeda.

This case takes the problem a step further. The United States relied on Jordanian intelligence to turn a jihadist operative into a double agent. They were dependent on the Jordanian handler’s skills at debriefing, vetting and testing the now-double agent. It is now reasonable to assume the agent allowed himself to be doubled in an attempt to gain the trust of the handler. The Jordanians offered the source to the Americans, who obviously grabbed him, and the source passed all the tests to which he was undoubtedly subjected. Yet in the end, his contacts with the Taliban were not designed to provide intelligence to the Americans. The intelligence provided to the Americans was designed to win their trust and set up the suicide bombing. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that al-Balawi was playing the GID all along and that his willingness to reject his jihadist beliefs was simply an opportunistic strategy for surviving and striking.

Even though encountering al-Balawi was a stroke of luck for the TTP, the group’s exploitation of this lucky break was a very sophisticated operation. The TTP had to provide valuable intelligence to allow al-Balawi to build his credibility. It had to create the clustering of CIA agents by promising extraordinarily valuable intelligence. It then had to provide al-Balawi with an effective suicide device needed for the strike. And it had to do this without being detected by the CIA. Al-Balawi had a credible cover for meeting TTP agents; that was his job. But what al-Balawi told his handlers about his meetings with the TTP, and where he went between meetings, clearly did not indicate to the handlers that he was providing fabricated information or posed a threat.

In handling a double agent, it is necessary to track every step he takes. He cannot be trusted because of his history; the suspicion that he is still loyal to his original cause must always be assumed. Therefore, the most valuable moments in evaluating a double agent are provided by intense scrutiny of his patterns and conduct away from his handlers and new friends. Obviously, if this scrutiny was applied, al-Balawi and his TTP handlers were still able to confuse their observers. If it was not applied, then the CIA was setting itself up for disappointment. Again, such scrutiny is far more difficult to conduct in the Pakistani badlands, where resources to surveil a source are very scarce. In such a case, the intuition and judgment of the agent’s handler are critical, and al-Balawi was obviously able to fool his Jordanian handler.

Given his enthusiastic welcome at FOB Chapman, it would seem al-Balawi was regarded not only as extremely valuable but also as extremely reliable. Whatever process might have been used at the meeting, the central problem was that he was regarded as a highly trusted source when he shouldn’t have been. Whether this happened because the CIA relied entirely on the Jordanian GID for evaluation or because American interrogators and counterintelligence specialists did not have the skills needed to pick up the cues can’t be known. What is known is that the TTP ran circles around the CIA in converting al-Balawi to its uses.
The United States cannot hope to reach any satisfactory solution in Afghanistan unless it can win the intelligence war. But the damage done to the CIA in this attack cannot be overestimated. At least one of the agency’s top analysts on al Qaeda was killed. In an intelligence war, this is the equivalent of sinking an aircraft carrier in a naval war. The United States can’t afford this kind of loss. There will now be endless reviews, shifts in personnel and re-evaluations. In the meantime, the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan will be attempting to exploit the opportunity presented by this disruption.

Casualties happen in war, and casualties are not an argument against war. However, when the center of gravity in a war is intelligence, and an episode like this occurs, the ability to prevail becomes a serious question. We have argued that in any insurgency, the insurgents have a built-in advantage. It is their country and their culture, and they are indistinguishable from everyone else. Keeping them from infiltrating is difficult.
This was a different matter. Al-Balawi was Jordanian; his penetration of the CIA was less like the product of an insurgency than an operation carried out by a national intelligence service. And this is the most troubling aspect of this incident for the United States. The operation was by all accounts a masterful piece of tradecraft beyond the known abilities of a group like the TTP. Even though al-Balawi’s appearance was a lucky break for the TTP, not the result of an intentional, long-term operation, the execution of the operation that arose as a result of that lucky break was skillfully done — and it was good enough to deliver a body blow to the CIA. The Pakistani Taliban would thus appear far more skilled than we would have thought, which is the most important takeaway from this incident, and something to ponder.

Political Season reaction: The sophisticated tradecraft on this op by the Pakistan Taliban leaves me to wonder if they didn’t have help, perhaps the Pakistani security services?

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

Blacks weigh in on Harry Reid’s racial comments / The Christian Science Monitor – CSMonitor.com

So Washington is abuzz with the latest piece of red meat for politicians and associated operators to gnaw at, the simultaneously awkwardly phrased, stereotypical yet oddly insightful comments by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. In their new book, “Game Change,” journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann expose remarks Mr. Reid made in an interview about Barack Obama during the presidential campaign. Mr. Reid is quoted as saying that he believed the nation was ready to elect a “light-skinned” black man “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Race hustler Ward Connerly is one of the voices of outrage from conservatives. it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the spirit of forgiveness is universal—except when it comes to conservatives.”

Conservatives charge there is a double standard, case in point, the experience of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who made remarks praising Strom Thurmond in 2002. Mr. Lott said of the segregationist: “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we [Mississippians] voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.” Lott was forced to step down in the aftermath.

I’m sorry to break it to you guys, but there is no double standard here at all. In fact, quite to the contrary, I would argue that the condemnation conservatives get for verbal malfunctions like this, at least from the black community, is entirely logical and consistent.  Furthermore, its not complicated and when conservatives behave as though they don’t understand it, it annoys me.

Let me break it down for you.  Why is it that Harry Reid can make a comment like that and largely get a pass from black folks while conservatives get branded with the “Raaciisst” label for similar verbal vomit? Simple:  

Harry Reid belongs to a party that behaves like it gives a damn about black voters!

I wish conservatives would stop behaving as though this is incomprehensible rocket science. I’ve said numerous times before:  the GOP does not consider blacks to be a political constituency necessary or essential to its aspirations for governance and the party, from rank and file to its leadership, behaves accordingly.  I’ve repeated that many times here at the Season, but maybe I’m falling into that pesky “Negro dialect” thing Reid was talking about and its making me hard to understand.  Why don’t I let our illustrious chairman Michael Steele explain it to you:

Q: Why do you think so few nonwhite Americans support the Republican Party right now?
A: “Cause we have offered them nothing! And the impression we’ve created is that we don’t give a damn about them or we just outright don’t like them. And that’s not a healthy thing for a political party. I think the way we’ve talked about immigration, the way we’ve talked about some of the issues that are important to African-Americans, like affirmative action… I mean, you know, having an absolute holier-than-thou attitude about something that’s important to a particular community doesn’t engender confidence in your leadership by that community—or consideration of you for office or other things—because you’ve already given off the vibe that you don’t care.” –GQ Magazine March 2009

So the next time a conservative makes a racial verbal bellyflop and gets tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail while your neighborhood liberal democrat gets a playful slap on the wrist and a pass and you don’t understand, just return here and let our chairman explain it to you.