Strange Bedfellows: U.S. Looks to Iran for Help on Iraq

Oliver Knox/Yahoo

Secretary of State John Kerry cautiously signalled on Monday that the United States would be open to cooperating with Iran militarily in Iraq to beat back al Qaida-inspired fighters who pose an "existential" danger to that war-torn country and may look to target Europe and the United States.

“This is a challenge to the stability of the region. It is obviously an existential challenge to Iraq itself. This is a terrorist group,” Kerry told Yahoo News Global Anchor Katie Couric in an exclusive interview.

Prodded on whether the United States would consider cooperating militarily with Iran, Kerry replied: "Let’s see what Iran might or might not be willing to do before we start making any pronouncements."

But "I think we are open to any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together, the integrity of the country and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces that are ripping it apart," the top U.S. diplomat told Couric.

"I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability, a respect for the (Iraqi) constitution, a respect for the election process, and a respect for the Iraqi people to form a government that represents all of the interests of Iraq -- not one sectarian group over another," he said.

Kerry’s comments came as President Obama looked at possible air strikes to stem the surge of al-Qaida-inspired extremists in Iraq, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS fighters have seized Mosul, which is the country’s second-largest city, Tikrit, which is Saddam Hussein’s hometown. Overnight, they captured the city of Tal Afar, and American officials feared enough for Baghdad that they partially evacuated the US embassy there while beefing up security.

Kerry said Obama was giving "a very thorough vettting of every option that is available," including drone strikes, and underlined that "we are deeply committed to the intergrity of Iraq as a country."

Kerry said that the United States and many of its key allies are "deeply concerned" about the possibility that some of their own citizens may number among the foreign fighters fighting alongside jihadists in Syria's civil war -- and may return home bent on carrying out attacks there. He said citizens from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States number among the foreign fighters in Syria.

Asked whether the next 9-11 attacks could come from Iraq and Syria, Kerry replied fighters like those in ISIS “clearly are focused not just there, but they’re focused on trying to do harm to Europe, to America and other people and that’s why we believe it is so important for us to be engaged."

Asked whether ISIS could take the capital, Kerry replied "I don't believe that they will in the near term" and expressed skepticism that they could at all. And he underlined that he was "absolutely convinced" that the United States had "the security it needs" for its embassy in Baghdad.

As the top U.S. diplomat, Kerry has played a central role in what may be the Obama administration’s biggest foreign policy gamble: negotiations with Iran over its suspect nuclear program. Those talks resume this week with time running short to reach a deal that would lift crippling economic sanctions in return for steps designed to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

The interview comes as Kerry launches a two-day “Our Ocean” conference at the State Department.

“We will bring together individuals, experts, practitioners, advocates, lawmakers, and the international ocean and foreign policy communities to gather lessons learned, share the best science, offerunique perspectives, and demonstrateeffective actions. We aim to chart a way forward, working individually and together, to protect ‘Our Ocean,’” the department said when it announced the gathering.

The conference rests on three pillars: sustainablefishing, battling marine pollution, and reducing oceanacidification.

And it ties in with Kerry’s frequent, outspoken warnings about the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change.

“You might not see climate change as an immediate threat to your job, your community, or your families. But let me tell you, it is,” Kerry warned at Boston College’s commencement May 19.

“If we do nothing, and it turns out that the critics and the naysayers and the members of the Flat Earth Society, if it turns out that they’re wrong, then we are risking nothing less than the future of the entire planet,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s push on oceans, (and climate change generally) will test the Obama administration’sability to set the agenda at a time when headline-grabbing crises - Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria -dominate the discussion of world affairs.

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North Carolina Ground Zero for Unemployment Benefits Test

By Humberto Sanchez and Alexis Levinson, Roll Call

With Congress showing few signs of passing an unemployment extension in 2014, North Carolina’s tossup Senate race will be a key test of the issue’s political potency.

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger, state Speaker Thom Tillis, have taken sharply different stands on unemployment benefits, and the issue could cut both ways.

Hagan backed the Senate’s unemployment insurance extension, and inserted a provision to restore federal benefits to North Carolina workers.

She’s attacked Tillis for taking a lead role slashing the benefits in North Carolina — now the least generous in the nation — while he credits the cut, in part, for the state’s shrinking unemployment rate.


“It’s no coincidence given our tax, regulatory and unemployment reform that we continue to see a significant drop in unemployment and are able to add jobs for our citizens,” he said in May.

The North Carolina General Assembly cut state unemployment benefits to 19 weeks last year to help pay down the state’s debt. And beginning on July 6, anyone who applies for unemployment benefits will be able to collect for a maximum of 14 weeks, versus 26 weeks in most other states.

The state legislature also cut the maximum weekly payment from $535 to $350.

The cuts last year made North Carolina workers ineligible for extended federal unemployment benefits, something Hagan sought to fix.

“This bill includes my provision to restore federal unemployment insurance for North Carolinians who have suffered as a result of a reckless law passed by the General Assembly, which knowingly and willingly violated federal law,” she said when the Senate unemployment extension was unveiled in March.

Tillis, for his part, has accused Hagan of not securing an exemption for North Carolina in the fiscal cliff deal to allow the state to cut benefits while still receiving the federal extension.

The five-month federal unemployment extension passed the Senate in April, but has been blocked by House Republicans. Its benefits now would be purely retroactive, given they expired on May 31. Senate backers are now considering long-shot moves to get the House to act, like tying an extension to a highway bill.

For Democrats, it’s one of the many issues Hagan has used to attack Tillis’ conservative legislative record in the state House.

“There is an absolute percentage of the base where the unemployment issue is a home-run issue,” said North Carolina Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson.

But for most Democratic voters, unemployment insurance on its own will not be enough to get them to the polls.

State Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Democrat from Durham and the deputy minority leader, said unemployment insurance will be part of a larger pantheon of issues, such as abortion access and Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

“I think it’s one of many things that will galvanize people to come out, but it won’t be the sole thing,” McKissick said. “You saw 130,000 people that were receiving those long-term benefits that were just dropped. … They were hurt. So for many of those individuals, they will recall what happened and they will relate it back to the broader issue of what’s going on in North Carolina in terms of regressive politics.”

Ferrel Guillory, a professor of political science at University of North Carolina, agreed.

“It’s part of a package of issues that draw a distinction between the Republican way of government that Tillis represents and the Democratic way of government that Hagan represents,” he said.

Hagan’s campaign frames it as a “contrast between Kay’s priorities and record of working to get results, and Thom Tillis’ agenda which is in line with what the special interests want,” said campaign communications director Sadie Weiner, before dropping a reference to the billionaire Koch brothers.

“I think it’s an important part of a narrative for Democrats,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., along with other parts of the Democrats’ “fair shot” agenda such as college affordability, pay equity and the minimum wage. “I think all those are part of the same story about struggling working families, some of them out of work, and the fact that the Republicans have said ‘no’ consistently.”

But the unemployment insurance issue could also help fire up the Republican base in North Carolina, and Tillis is not shying away from it.

The unemployment rate in North Carolina has fallen from 8.6 percent in January 2013, to 6.2 percent, below the national average. Though North Carolina Democrats argue that the main reason the unemployment rate is falling is that people are dropping out of the workforce — often because they have been kicked off unemployment benefits.

Republicans proudly tout those numbers and credit their legislative policies.

“With the help of Thom Tillis’ pro-growth policies, including historic tax and regulatory relief, North Carolina has seen one of the highest rates of job growth over the last several months, and the state’s unemployment rate is at its lowest level in five years,” said Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin.

Republicans also said the cuts were needed to help pay down a $2.8 billion debt to the federal government that had been racked up to pay for more generous unemployment benefits when Democrats — including Hagan — controlled the legislature.

The fact that Tillis made those cuts, said Dallas Woodhouse, a North Carolina Republican and president of Carolina Rising, will help him show Republican voters he’s willing to make tough choices to cut spending.

“Legislative bodies tend to kick the can down the road ’til there’s no more can and no more road,” Woodhouse said. Republican voters “will probably look at it favorably … as Tillis being willing to do something difficult,” he said.

“In a base mobilization election, it will serve both sides to mobilize their base, but I believe it’ll mobilize Thom’s base more,” he added.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the Republican Conference chairman, said Senate Republicans are happy to have the argument over unemployment benefits.

“To me the real answer to all of this — and this is what our candidates are going to be talking — is the best solution is a good paying job,” Thune said. “They want to treat the symptom and we want to treat the cause.”

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Obama Presses the Reset Button - Again - on Foreign policy

Mark Landler, NY Times

WASHINGTON — President Obama, seeking to answer criticism that he has forsaken America’s leadership role, plans to lay out a retooled foreign-policy agenda on Wednesday that could deepen the nation’s involvement in Syria but would still steer clear of major military conflicts.

In a commencement address at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Mr. Obama will seek, yet again, to articulate his view of the proper American response to a cascade of crises, from Syria’s civil war to Russia’s incursions in Ukraine, according to a senior administration official who is helping draft the speech.

Sketching familiar arguments but on a broader canvas, Mr. Obama will emphasize his determination to chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention. The United States, he said, should be at the fulcrum of efforts to curb aggression by Russia and China, though not at the price of “fighting in eight or nine proxy wars.”

“It’s a case for interventionism but not overreach,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in an interview. “We are leading, we are the only country that leads, but that leadership has to be in service of an international system.”

Mr. Obama, however, will emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda, officials said. That could open the door to greater American support for the rebels, including heavier weapons, though no decisions have been made.

The president’s speech will kick off an intense, administration-wide effort to counter critics who say the United States is lurching from crisis to crisis, without a grand plan for dealing with a treacherous world. While such critiques slight Mr. Obama’s accomplishments, Mr. Rhodes said, he conceded the president had not put his priorities, from climate change to the nuclear talks with Iran, into a comprehensive framework.

Mr. Obama plans to elaborate on his ideas during a trip to Europe in early June. Over the next few weeks, the White House will roll out issue-specific speeches from Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other senior officials.

“We understand that there are a lot of questions swirling around not just our foreign policy but America’s role in the world,” Mr. Rhodes said. “People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest.”

The trouble is, as Mr. Obama takes a stage where his predecessors have signaled new directions in foreign policy — George W. Bush used a West Point speech in 2002 to revive the principle of pre-emptive military strikes — his ideas are likely to have a familiar ring.

In a speech on terrorism last year, Mr. Obama warned of an arc of Islamic extremism stretching from the Middle East to North Africa, which he said was the successor to the Al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan that was fought with troops and drones.

The president’s calibrated rationale for military intervention will draw on a speech he gave in 2011 justifying American backing for NATO airstrikes on Libya. And his broad definition of America’s responsibilities as a global power will inevitably echo the principles he outlined in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009.

Critics are also likely to argue that the president’s words have not been backed up by actions. Administration officials, for example, have long promised to bolster support for the Syrian rebels. But they have so far refused to supply them with antiaircraft missiles because they fear that these weapons could fall into the hands of extremists.

Mr. Obama’s anguished response to Syria has hung over the White House and fueled critics who say the president’s foreign policy is rudderless: He threatened, then pulled back on, a missile strike against Syria for its use of chemical weapons and resisted pleas for greater American involvement, even as the death toll rises above 160,000.

“I realized last night that the administration has no policy in Syria, has no strategy in Syria,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said last week. He had just attended a White House wine-and-cheese reception to discuss foreign policy — a gathering he described as “very bizarre.”

Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said he invited Mr. Corker and other senators to meet with him and Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, because these issues are going to loom large in coming weeks, and the administration wanted to consult Congress. “I thought we had a good back-and-forth,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s promise last year to overhaul the counterterrorism policy has been bogged down, officials say, in part because of the distraction of the surveillance disclosures by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden.

And the president’s pivot to Asia has seemed more promise than reality, with negotiations for a trans-Pacific trade deal dragging on and the restoration of American military presence limited to announcements like a base-access deal in the Philippines.

It was on Mr. Obama’s trip to Asia last month that his frustrations with his critics boiled over. “Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget?” he said in Manila.

Asked in a news conference to describe his foreign-policy doctrine, he said, “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” But, the president added, the overriding objective is to avoid an error on the order of the Iraq war.

While Mr. Obama will most likely shun such colloquialisms at West Point, the baseball analogy is an apt summary of his philosophy. In other conversations, aides say, the president has used a saltier variation of the common-sense saying, “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

In Asia, however, Mr. Obama framed the debate over military intervention in a binary way that aides say does not reflect his views. They said he agreed with the ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who recently criticized those who say there are no options between doing nothing and putting boots on the ground.

“We believe there is an alternative approach,” Mr. Rhodes said.

To offer more than competent crisis management, Mr. Obama will also promote initiatives, like a global climate change treaty, as well as the Iranian nuclear negotiations — long-shot diplomacy that could nevertheless be a legacy achievement for him.

Mr. Obama will also argue he showed firm leadership in marshaling support to resist Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine and in backing allies in territorial disputes with China. The president, Mr. Rhodes said, will draw a line from Russia to China, presenting the United States in both cases as the ultimate guarantor of an international order.

Such coalition-building, however, does not have either the speed or satisfying clarity of military action. “It’s a long game,” Mr. Rhodes said. “It’s not one that solves the problem yesterday.”

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White House Correspondents Dinner

Video courtesy CSPAN


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President Defends His Cautious Foreign Policy

Paul Brandus / WWR

Wrapping up an eight-day goodwill mission to Asia, President Obama defended his approach to foreign policy as a steady, incremental pursuit of American interests while avoiding military clashes. He crititicized opponents who have questioned his  reluctance to use force in the Middle East and for what some consider an anemic response to Soviet aggression in Ukraine. 

Mr. Obama's comments came at a news conference Monday in Manila, the last stop on his four-nation trip that also included stops in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. The President, appearing frustrated, said critics of his cautious approach failed to learn lessons from the nine-year U.S. war in Iraq. He said his foreign policy was based on a low key focus on American priorities that lacked the drama of a wartime presidency but also avoided costly mistakes.

The President's comments came on the same day that his administration unveiled new sanctions against Russia for its ongoing threats to Ukraine. 

“You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” Mr. Obama said. “But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”


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Lincoln's Civil War goal: preserving the Union - not abolishing slavery....