Capital Briefs: Dec. 11-15

Bolton Bashers Win:

They were dancing in Damascus, Syria, in Democratic offices on Capitol Hill, and wherever lame-duck Republican Sen. Lincoln Chaffee (R.I.) happened to be, when U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton announced his resignation last week.

A columnist for the Syrian newspaper Tishrin exalted that the “ugly and hostile face” of U.S. foreign policy was departing. That departure was also a victory for incoming Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden (D.-Del.), who was intent on blocking confirmation of Bolton, who has served these past two years on a recess appointment that expires with the outgoing Congress.  Biden was aided by opposition to Bolton by Sen. George Voinovich (R.-Ohio) in committee last year. But Voinovich had seen the light and was now willing to vote for Bolton. That left it up to Chafee, the greatest villain in the Bolton case.  Chafee held the deciding vote in the still Republican-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee on whether to report Bolton’s confirmation to the full Senate during the lame-duck session that followed the November 7 election. Had Chafee been willing to vote for Bolton, the White House counted 58 votes for confirmation on the Senate floor.  But Chafee would not vote for Bolton.  This was despite significant, but ultimately futile, efforts by the White House to get Chafee re-elected—including funneling vast sums to help Chafee defeat a conservative opponent in this year’s primary. Bolton was stoic about his fate.  “I’m not going to give any wide-ranging exit interviews or even any exit interviews,” he told reporters, “because I think until I leave federal service, it’s not my personal opinions that matter, it’s the policy of the United States.”

What’s That You Say?

The U.S. has been dealing with Middle Eastern terrorism as a major problem for at least three decades, and it has been more than five years since the al Qaeda terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, yet to this day very few people at the U.S. State Department can speak Arabic.

The situation is so bad, according to the Iraq Study Group report, that of the 1,000 people working at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, only 33 can speak any Arabic at all, while only six are fluent in the language.

Still No Intel:

Perhaps it was retrospectively understandable—if unacceptable—that U.S. human intelligence-gathering in Iraq failed when we had a strict embargo on that country and no diplomatic presence there.  But, according to the Iraq Study Group report, U.S. human intelligence-gathering in Iraq continues to lag, despite the fact that the U.S. has occupied the country for three years.

“A senior commander told us that human intelligence in Iraq has improved from 10% to 30%,” said the report. “Clearly, U.S. intelligence agencies can and must do better.  As mentioned above, an essential part of better intelligence must be improved language and cultural skills. As an intelligence analyst told us, ‘We rely too much on others to bring information to us, and too often don’t understand what is reported back because we do not understand the context of what we are told.”

Know Thy Enemy?

Because of the lack of emphasis on developing intelligence analysts with the skills and experience necessary to understand the Arabic language and Iraqi culture, the U.S. still has only a vague idea of who constitutes our enemy on the ground in Iraq.

“We were told that there are fewer than 10 analysts on the job at the Defense Intelligence Agency who have more than two years’ experience analyzing the insurgency,” said the ISG report.  “Capable analysts are rotated to new assignments, and on-the-job training begins anew…. They are not doing enough to map the insurgency, dissect it, and understand it on a national and provincial level.  The analytic community’s knowledge of the organization, leadership, financing, and operations of militias, as well as their relationship to government security forces, also falls far short of what policy makers need to know.”

Carter’s Imagination:

Kenneth Stein, an adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, has resigned from his fellowship at the Carter Center to protest Carter’s newest book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.  Stein, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Emory University, wrote in a public letter: “President Carter’s book on the Middle East, a title too inflammatory to even print, is not based on unvarnished analysis; it is replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments. Aside from the one-sided nature of the book, meant to provoke, there are recollections cited from meetings where I was the third person in the room, and my notes of those meetings show little similarity to points claimed in the book.”  

Conservative Victories:

The members of the conservative House Republican Study Committee have made Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R.-Tex.) their chairman. Hensarling defeated Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R.-Kan.) 57-42 for the position and will succeed Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.).

Hensarling had worked closely with Pence in public battles over spending issues with both the Bush White House and the Republican leadership. He has hinted, however, that he will be less openly confrontational in the coming Congress. “Public squabbles are a luxury of the majority,” he said.  Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.), meanwhile, was named the new ranking member of the House Budget Committee.  “We owe it to taxpayers to spend prudently on key priorities—not wasteful pork-barrel earmarks, and we owe it to America’s workers to resist job-killing tax hikes,” said Ryan. “By working together to instill fiscal discipline in federal spending, we can restore Americans’ faith in good government and strengthen our economy for the challenges ahead.”

‘Terrible Terry’ to Team McCain:

Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) has tapped veteran political operative Terry Nelson to manage his anticipated, but not officially announced, 2008 presidential campaign. Nelson, a past chief of staff at the Republican National Committee, is known for his ties to controversial GOP campaign episodes. He made headlines this fall, for example, as the strategist in charge of the Republican National Committee’s independent expenditure that was responsible for the Tennessee TV spot featuring a blonde actress suggestively asking Democratic Senate nominee Harold Ford, Jr. to call her.