This Week in D.C. August 31-Sept. 3

This week, people are slowly coming back from their August vacations and gearing up for a well-rested Congress and a President determined to make his mark in the Middle East. Tonight, Obama will give his second-ever speech in the Oval Office on the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq starting in September. On Wednesday, The White House will host the first of many Middle East peace talks with both leaders of Palestine and Israel. Will it only take a year? Probably not, but it’ll be interesting to see what kinds of negotiations come from these talks and how the world will react–especially in light of our activity in Pakistan, the recent “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy and increased terror plots.

For Tuesday

*8:00 tonight: President Obama addresses the nation on Iraq from the Oval Office

From 10:00 AM-11:30 AM, Dr. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute will hold a briefing on the hill on “Muslims in America: Myths and Realities” organized by the Congressional Muslim Staff Association in 2325 Rayburn.

From 12:00PM-1:00 PM, the Federation for Defense Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer hosts a lunch discussion on how the  “under-reported Palestinian civil war undermines President Obama’s Mideast Agenda” at the Capitol, room H-137.

12 p.m. – 2 p.m. WORLD BANK – WATER — The World Bank Group Water Strategy Review holds a panel discussion and presentation of Sustaining Water for All in a Changing Climate, hosted by Inger Andersen, the Bank’s Vice President for Sustainable Development.

Location: World Bank Headquarters, 1818 H Street NW; Room MC 13 – 121

Contacts: Christopher Neal (, 202-473-2049

From 12:30 PM-2 PM, Africa Action, the TransAfrica Forum and IPS’ Foreign Policy in Focus host a debate on “Globalization: Threat or Opportunity?” between Rick Rowden and Eugene Kyambal at the IPs Conference Room, 1112 16th St. NW

at 2:00 PM, the National Democratic Institute will hold a discussion on Kenya’s new constitution with guest speaker Elkanah Odembo, the Kenyan ambassador to the U.S.  The event will be held at the National Democratic Institute at 2030 M. st. NW.

From 2:00 PM-3:30 PM, CSIS will hold a talk on “North Korea and the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella: Extended Deterrence in East Asia” with Dr. Patrick Morgan from UC-Irvine, Jofi Joseph, senior advisor to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and CSIS experts. The event will take place at CSIS on 18th and K st.

The Heritage Foundation will hold a discussion on former President Carter’s trip to North Korea and its impact from 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM at 214 Mass Ave NE.

ALSO at 2 PM-3:30 PM, the USIP will hold a panel discussion on “Haiti: Security after the Quake? Addressing Violence and Rape in Haiti.” The panel will feature speakers from the UN Humanitarian Response, Global Consortium on Security Transformation and USIP experts.

After the State Department briefing at 1:15 with Assistant Secretary Crowley, Sec. Clinton will hold a bilateral meeting with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and later at 3:00 with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

At 6:15 PM, Clinton will meet with Quartet Representative Tony Blair at the State Department and then launch the first in a series of bilateral meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 7:45 PM.

For Wednesday

Brookings will hold a discussion on the recent floods in Pakistan from 10:00 AM-11:30 AM with panelists Michael Young of the International Rescue Committee and Gen. Jehangir Karamat.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) will hold a news conference in Washington, D.C., to launch a national public service announcement (PSA) campaign featuring Muslim 9/11 first responders and designed to challenge the growing anti-Muslim rhetoric sparked by opposition to the planned Park51 project in Manhattan at the National Press Club Zenger Room at 10:30 AM.

There will be a telephonic press conference with faith and military leaders at 11:00 AM urging the construction of the Ground Zero Mosque as a community center Notes: 888-674-0222, call ID: Values and Security RSVP.

From 12:00 PM to 2:00 PM, Egyptian Americans for Change will hold a press conference to discuss Egypt’s political future and regional stability at the Press Club’s Murrow Room.

The Hudson Institute will host a discussion from 12:00 Pm to 2:00 PM on the impact of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) on Taiwan’s standing with China.  Professor William Rowe of Johns Hopkins University a leading historian of late imperial China will give a historical perspective and address Taiwan’s socio-economic relations with Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries. The event is located at the Hudson Institute at 1015 15th St. NW.

For Thursday

The Hudson Institute will hold a discussion on “Borders and Bridges: Recent Shifts in North American Relations,” and changes in security relations with Canada, the US and Mexico at 12:00 PM.

The International Monetary Fund will hold a book forum on “Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy” at 4:00 PM at the IMF Headquarters (720 19th st. NW).

The George Washington University Ambassadors Forum will be held at 5:00 PM with Ambassador Erlan Idrissove, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the U.S. who will speak on Kazakhstan’s Emerging Leadership Role and Its International Implications. The event will take place at Linder Family Commons on 1957 E St. NW.
WHERE: George Washington University, Lindner Family Commons, Room 602, 1957 E Street, NW, Washington, DC.
CONTACT: RSVP to; web site:

Ambassador Erlan Idrissov, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United States

Topics will include Kazakhstan’s emerging leadership role, particularly now that the country holds the 2010 rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The discussion will center on both Kazakhstan’s recent achievements and the various challenges that the country still faces.

Please send RSVP to:

On Iraq: Experts Weigh in on Risks and Benefits of the Pull Out

Recent bomb attack in Kut near Bagdad

Iraq has sprung back into the forefront of news recently after Obama announced last week that America’s mission in Iraq will change. Although it was my understanding that the mission “changed” long ago, this speech seemed to steer the debate towards the reality of the pull out.

Can American troops withdraw from Iraq, train their forces, create institutional structures and stabilize the government in a year without insurgents taking charge?

In a speech at the national convention of the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta, Obama sounded hopeful about the situation in Iraq, at least compared to conditions in the other countries in the region (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran). He said we will begin drawing down combat troops by the end of the month, leaving 50,000 troops behind to train Iraqi security forces and provide security for diplomats. He promised in the speech that all U.S. troops would be gone from Iraq by the end of next year.

“Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility, and I made it clear that by August 31st, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end,” said the President. “And that is exactly what we are doing, as promised and on schedule.”

By September, the White House says there will be 146,000 troops on the ground. Obama said by then, he will have brought home 90,000 troops since he took office (but he didn’t mention the call for 30-some-odd thousand troops he wants in Afghanistan).

Obama asserted that violence in Iraq has reached its lowest rates in years, which is a sign that it’s time for U.S. troops to come home. However, new numbers released by the Iraqi ministries of defense, interior and health indicate that Iraqi casualties have reached a two-year high since May 2008. I also follow Arwa Damon on Twitter, who is a CNN correspondent currently in Iraq, and she paints a rather dim picture of human rights and the lack of hope once U.S. troops leave.

Robert Tait, a correspondent for RFE/RL wrote an excellent piece the other day on the potential for an insurgent uprising in Iraq because of the weak government and the contradictory casualty numbers.

The article said that violent military groups could seek to fill the vacuum created by Iraq’s stalled political process. There’s been a prolonged disagreement between the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki and his main competitor, Ivad Allawi, who should form the next government after the March elections.

Brigadier General Ralph Baker said the government’s failure accompanied with U.S. pullout could spring a new wave of violence. Baker predicted that insurgent groups would attempt to “discredit the government and discredit the security forces” in an effort to gain a foothold.

“We believe that one of the aims of the criminals and the terrorists and the insurgents is to take advantage of the concern and the angst that the citizens have right now about the government’s formation in an attempt to intimidate them. And the reason they want to intimidate the population is because the citizens in Baghdad, for the last six to eight months, have been instrumental in sharing information with the security forces which has led to some very effective targeting against Al-Qaeda and other militia groups.”

Brookings here in Washington, D.C. held an online chat with David Mark, a senior editor at POLITICO and Kenneth Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy about his recent trip to Iraq. I posed questions about the disputed death toll and risks of withdrawing too soon.

“It’s certainly possible, but it’s going to be hard—and risky. I am actually pretty comfortable with the drawdown to 50K.  I think they can deal with the most likely violence,” he said. He argues that the stability of Iraq in terms of violence will depend heavily on how the elections pan out. The stability of the political process will ensure peace.

He says as a fellow at Brookings, he goes to Iraq every 4 to 6 months and has noticed a remarkable change. He also expressed confidence that the Iraqi military could handle any insurgent backlash (more “brutally” even than U.S. forces)or attempts from other groups  to come in and invade once the U.S. withdraws. In fact, U.S. troops should be more worried about keeping things cool between different political and ethnic groups inside Iraq rather than enemies outside its borders.

“No one knows how the Iraqi military is going to behave once the US military is truly gone–and that is a very big question mark. We have seen militaries that everyone thought were completely professional turn around and overthrow a democratic government within months of the departure of US troops. So we can’t be glib about this problem,” he said.

“The problem is that if it goes badly, it absolutely could push the country back to civil war,” he said.

Hypocrisy all around: Karzai tells foreigners to back off

President Hamid Karzai

After a summer of attempts to improve relations with the United States and its allies in Afghanistan, Karzai came out today with tough statements against foreign assistance. He said, according to the latest article in the Wall Street Journal, that foreign advisors should be replaced by Afghans.

He called for a ban on private security companies that are sent to protect a number of Western servicemembers in Afghanistan, saying “We have the ability to rule and govern our country and we have our sovereignty.”

Oh you do, do you?

“We hope that NATO countries and the U.S. pay attention,” he said.

The Wikileaks files along with the many reports of civilian casualties has lead to anti-American sentiment and overall loss of hope in the country. At the same time, the U.S. has promised to “start” withdrawing its troops and transitioning Afghan security forces by the summer of 2011. That means they committed to another year in the country in terms of security forces. Diplomatic efforts will continue long after 2011, they say. And that deadline, according to Sec. Clinton, is a “working deadline” and could change if circumstances change.

Just this weekend, 10 aid workers were killed, piling up the number of Western casualties of the war. The continued violence on top of Clinton’s repeated calls for corruption accountability have essentially diminished the good will we saw when Karzai visited in May.

A screenshot of Aisha, victim of abusive husband and antiquated laws in Afghanistan

Karzai made claims that security forces have received “illegal” salaries and are thieves during the day and terrorists during the night.”

What these companies do, in reality, is provide security for Western diplomats and organizations that provide aid and major infrastructure tools for Afghanistan. The article states that these companies are wary to hand control completely over to Afghan forces, which are often infiltrated by Taliban members.

According to Reuters, Congress has approved $345 billion so far to Afghanistan since 2001. Obama has asked for billions more and 30,000 extra soldiers. Will Congress be willing to fund the war when Karzai doesn’t even want foreign contractors there?

While Karzai is calling for a withdrawal, TIME, featuring an Afghan girl with her nose cut off, said “What Happens If we Leave Afghanistan.” We have a call for human rights, equality for women and the expulsion of misogynistic radical Taliban law while Karzai is telling the people of Afghanistan that foreign services need to leave.

I eagerly await a response from Obama and the State Department.

Arab Countries: A Nuclear Iran Would be “Positive”

A majority of the Arab population support Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, says a new study by the University of Maryland and Zogby International.

Shibley Telhami, the principal investigator of the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll announced at the unveiling of the study at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. that an overwhelming number of Arabs feel that Iran has the right to pursue a nuclear program, even if the program is not for peaceful purposes.

This study goes against the opinion of many experts who say that Arab nations would oppose a nuclear-armed Iran, including Mustafa Alani, research director at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, who said “We have a shared interest in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power”.

The poll indicates that 77 percent of the surveyed Arab population think Iran has the right to pursue a nuclear program, which jumped up from 53 percent last year. More than half also acknowledged that Iran is likely pursuing a nuclear program for non-peaceful means. A majority (57 percent) also said it would be “more positive” for the Middle East region if Iran had a nuclear weapon. Last year, only 29 percent of the population felt a nuclear-armed Iran would be “positive” for Middle Eastern countries. A mere 20 percent say that Iran should be pressured to stop its program.

The survey focused on Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the UAE between June 29 and July 20 of this year.

“This does not mean they like Iran. Arabs have mixed feelings,” said Telhami. “This is highly correlated to how they feel about the U.S. and their hopefulness of U.S. foreign policy.” According to the poll, the greatest foreign policy issues that disappoint the surveyed countries are the Palestine/Israeli conflict and the War in Iraq. While the war in Afghanistan overwhelmingly trumps Western headlines, only 4 percent of the surveyed population said they were disappointed with Obama’s handling of Afghanistan.

Additionally, the surveyed countries feel that the U.S. and Israel pose a greater threat to Middle East peace than Iran. While Israel scored 88 percent, Iran scored 10 percent.

“What you have is an evaluation of Iran through the lens of bigger threats—when over 80 percent are worried over Israel, the Iran issue seems marginalized. So the evaluation isn’t really about Iran—a lot of it is “the enemy of my enemy.”

The poll suggests that the Arab community has also dropped in its support and optimism for the Obama Administration because of his handling of Iraq and relationship with Israel.

“This disappointment comes from the outcome of the Iraq elections. I don’t think we get it sometimes. It’s not that Arabs don’t care about Afghanistan, but it’s not the prism they evaluate American foreign policy,” said Telhami. “It’s not the main issue to them.”

63 percent are discouraged by Obama’s policies towards the Middle East, which changed dramatically from 15 percent in 2009.

To view the complete report, visit Brookings.

Obama’s Mideast Rights Record Comes Under Fire

A report by Charles Dameron, fellow intern at Radio Free Europe based on an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Michael Posner, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, is less than sanguine about the success of the Obama Administration’s human rights policy in the Middle East. “I can’t say we’re succeeding everywhere, but we’re certainly trying,” Posner said at a Wednesday event in Washington marking the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s widely-acclaimed Cairo speech .

At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Posner fended off criticism from regional activists that the administration’s policies have failed to match its rhetoric. “[There are] many of us in the administration who are pushing for human rights, democracy, and civil society development,” Posner said.

Others are more critical. “The friends of human rights in the [Obama] administration are a minority,” says Bahey al-Din Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. In remarks at the Carnegie Endowment, Hassan claimed that “from June 2009 through June 2010, the region has witnessed an intensification of repression,” pointing to anti-Shia policies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, sectarian violence against Egyptian Copts, and new and dangerous threats to human rights defenders in the region.

Hassan’s obesrvations are backed by reports from other observers. In March, Human Rights Watch noted that the detention and harassment of civil society workers and journalists proceeds apace in Syria, even as diplomats from the United States and Europe have “failed to press the issue.” Civil rights in Egypt continue to slide, and international organizations have decried the imprisonment of independent bloggers, along with allegations of widespread fraud and interference in elections in early June. Although Vice President Biden has publicly voiced concerns with Egypt’s government, many in Egypt are unconvinced of the Obama Administration’s interest in human rights promotion.

Emad Gad, an analyst at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, was recently quoted in the Christian Science Monitor as saying, “I think the current American government doesn’t care about the human rights issue and religious freedom in Egypt.” Egyptian dissident Saad Ibrahim put it even more bluntly in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post , headlined “Obama is too friendly with tyrants.”

Indeed, there is some question as to whether Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo was meant to promote human rights in the Middle East at all. Michael Crowley of Time , looking back at the Cairo address , noted that “Obama offered only the mildest nods to human rights and democracy – pressing questions in the despotic Middle East, especially, but ones that his realist foreign policy has largely glossed over in the name of stability, perhaps at a strategic cost.”

In Washington on Wednesday, Bahey al-Din Hassan said that Egyptians interpreted Obama’s Cairo address in two broad ways: first, “that it was a message of engagment with Arab peoples and Arab governments;” and second, “that it was a message of engagement with Arab governments and disengagement with Arab peoples.” Hassan suggested that the latter interpretation was ascendant in the Arab world, and pointed to three specific administration policies indicative of a shift in US priorities away from human rights: US support for the Yemeni government, “a bloody, corrupt regime;” American endorsement of the results of Sudan’s 2010 general election, which Hassan called “rigged;” and the US government’s decision to cut off aid to Egyptian civil society organizations not registered or approved by the Egyptian government – tantamount, Hassan believes, to “providing direct support for the enemy.”

Hassan’s premise that the US government must choose between supporting the Middle East’s rulers or supporting its populations was sharply challenged as a “false choice” by Tamara Cofman Wittes, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Wittes argued that changing the oppressive behavior of undemocratic regimes required “direct engagement” with those regimes, and claimed that the United States regularly includes human rights concerns in its discussions with governments in the Middle East. She also pointed to the administration’s record in Yemen and Egypt in particular, claiming that the US has “sustained, and even increased its support for Egyptian civil society institutions,” and that the US has helped to foster a “diverse, vibrant civil society in Yemen.”

But Amal Basha, the Yemen-based chair of the Sisters Arab Forum, painted a very different picture of the situation on the ground in her native country. “Everything in Yemen is deteriorating…except for the security apparatus.” She criticized a proliferation of security agencies in Yemen, and linked that complaint to a critique of US policy in Yemen, saying that American strategy in Yemen remains too focused on military operations.

Citing two US cruise missile strikes and coordinated military raids that allegedly killed dozens of civilians in December, Basha said that she and her colleagues were outraged “when we read in the newspaper that Obama made a call to the Yemeni president to ‘congratulate’ him on the operation.” Basha also noted a more recent cruise missile strike on a Yemeni village in June, which The Independent of London says killed 41 civilians, including 21 children and 14 women . Basha suggested that the US and Yemeni governments’ focus on anti-terror measures has compromised the United States’ overall nation- and state-building objectives in Yemen, and harmed America’s credibility in the Arab world generally.

Assistant secretary Posner acknowledged the concerns put forward by Hassan and Basha. “We need to have a unified human rights policy in this government,” Posner said. “It’s taken a while for us to adopt it in a global sense.”

The Karzai Trip: What’s really in store for Afghanistan?

I am way behind on this, but I followed Karzai’s visit last week as well as reactions from key figures like Abdullah Abdullah. I attended Karzai’s talk at USIP and then Abdullah’s at the New America Foundation. I live tweeted both @RFE_Press_Room

For the past week, all eyes have been on Afghanistan with the arrival of President Karzai and his Cabinet for their week’s stay in D.C. Karzai met with President Obama, Secretary Clinton and had a chance to visit Walter Reed Hospital. While the trip was meant to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan, I’m not sure if it went beyond that.

I was able to attend the USIP wrap-up talk with Clinton and Karzai, which turned into a bit of a love fest with only one hard-hitting question from the press (they only took about three or four questions anyway).

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