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International Relations: Talking To Syria

According to the Bush administration, it is unacceptable to visit Syria -- especially if you're House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Pelosi is currently in Syria as part of a Middle East tour.

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GOOD NEWS

“Iran’s President said today he would immediately release 15 British sailors and marines who have been held captive in Iran since March 23.”


STATE WATCH

ARKANSAS: State Senate committee defeats bill that would criminalize harboring or transporting undocumented immigrants.

WISCONSIN: Gov. Jim Doyle (D) defends the state’s commitment to stem cell research after a U.S. patent office revoked three Wisconsin research patents.

NEW JERSEY
: “New Jersey has been diverting billions of dollars from its pension fund for state and local workers into other government purposes over the last 15 years.”


BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: Memo to President Bush: 57 days < 119 days.

TAPPED: Where President Bush leads, conservative base will follow.

FEMINISTING: Washington Post article debunks Washington Post column on wage gap “bargain.”

NO MORE MISTER NICE BLOG: Where was the right-wing outrage when journalists actually heckled Al Gore?


DAILY GRILL

“Using his harshest language to date, the president upbraided the Democrat-controlled Congress for leaving on ‘spring break’ without completing work on the bill.”
— Washington Times, 4/4/07

VERSUS

“We should mention President Bush is heading to his ranch in Crawford, Texas tomorrow to begin his own Easter weekend break.”
— CNN, 4/3/07


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  April 4, 2007
Talking To Syria
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Talking To Syria

According to the Bush administration, it is unacceptable to visit Syria — especially if you’re House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Pelosi is currently in Syria as part of a Middle East tour. The White House has lashed out very pointedly at the Speaker, saying: “I do think that, as a general rule — and this would go for Speaker of the House Pelosi and this apparent trip that she is going to be taking — that we don’t think it’s a good idea,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. Pelosi’s not alone in understanding that the time is right for dialogue with Syria. Six other lawmakers are accompanying her in a bipartisan delegation, including Rep. David Hobson (R-OH). A three-member conservative-led delegation visited Syria this past weekend. And even the Bush administration has sent an Assistant Secretary of State for talks in Damascus recently. As Bush administration officials rachet up their “rhetorical broadsides against Syria,” bipartisan groups of lawmakers, foreign policy experts, and the American public believe it is time to engage Syria to deal with a host of difficult challenges in the Middle East. As the Iraq Study Group (ISG) noted, “To put it simply, all key issues in the Middle East — the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism — are inextricably linked.” No one doubts that Syria is causing trouble in the region. “But we cannot wish that influence away,” said ISG co-chairman Lee Hamilton. “Undoubtedly, they are part of the problem. It was the view of the study group that we must try to make them a part of the solution.”

PELOSI IS NOT THE ONLY LAWMAKER TO VISIT SYRIA: Today, against the White House’s wishes, Pelosi met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “to urge Syria to help stabilize Iraq and stop supporting Washington’s adversaries in the Middle East.” Last week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, “In our view, it is not the right time to have these sort of high-profile visitors to Syria.” Yet other congressional delegations have recently gone to Syria, with no public objections by the White House. “It’s interesting because three of our colleagues, who are all Republicans, were in Syria yesterday and I didn’t hear the White House speaking out about that,” Pelosi said on Monday. “I think that it was an excellent idea for them to go. … And I think it’s an excellent idea for us to go, as well.” Those House members included Republican Reps. Frank Wolf (VA), Joe Pitts (PA), and Robert Aderholt (AL), who said they had talked about “ending support for Hezbollah and Hamas, recognizing Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and ceasing interference in Lebanon.” Several other members of Congress, including Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and John Kerry (D-MA), have also visited Syria in recent months. During his visit, Specter “stressed the importance of reactivating the dialogue between the United States and Syria to achieve security and stability in the Middle East.” Additionally, earlier this month, “U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey held talks with a senior Syrian diplomat on how Damascus was coping with a flood of Iraqi refugees, the first such talks in the Syrian capital for more than two years.”

DELEGATIONS IN OPPOSITION TO PRESIDENT NOT UNPRECEDENTED: Fox News host Steve Doocy accused Pelosi of “freelancing” by going to Syria. “Here’s the thing, what’s she doing?” he asked. “This is something the president does.” The right-wing blog Wizbang said that Pelosi is meeting with Assad “in direct opposition to President Bush, who is the only one who can set our country’s foreign policy.” It added that Democrats, “have decided to conduct their own foreign policy.” On Monday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, “I think it’s very dangerous for America to start having 535 secretaries of state and 535 secretaries of defense, all of whom happen to be elected to the U.S. Congress, none of whom were appointed to those jobs.” But in reality, “The United States Constitution divides foreign policy powers between the President and the Congress so that both share in the making of foreign policy. ” Pelosi and the other lawmakers meeting with Syrian officials have encouraged the regime to cooperate with the U.S. government. Conservatives have not always done the same thing. In 1997 — when President Clinton was in power — Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) took a congressional delegation to meet with Colombian military officials, at the same time the President and Congress were “attaching human rights conditions to U.S. security assistance programs and negotiating a formal end-use monitoring agreement with the Colombian defense ministry.” He encouraged Colombian officials to “bypass the U.S. executive branch” and deal directly with Congress. 

RACHETING UP ‘RHETORICAL BROADSIDES’: “We have made it clear to high-ranking officials, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, that going to Syria sends mixed signals,” President Bush yesterday told reporters. Yet the Bush administration’s recent actions have been very clear. It refuses to talk directly to Syria “until it stops interfering in Lebanon and Iraq.” “My message to the Iranian people is, ‘You can do better,'” Bush said. As for Syria, he added, “the message is the same.” Instead of diplomatically engaging Syria to solve problems in the Middle East, the Bush administration has “launched a campaign to isolate and embarrass Syrian President Bashar Assad,” quietly funding opposition groups. In recent weeks, the State Department has “issued a series of rhetorical broadsides against Syria, using language harsher than that usually reserved for U.S. adversaries. ‘It’s the new Cuba — no language is too tough,'” said one official. McClatchy’s Warren Strobel notes that this strategy “bears the imprint of Elliott Abrams, a conservative White House aide in charge of pushing Bush’s global democracy agenda.” Abrams was one of the key architects of the Iraq war and a defendant in the Iran-Contra Affair, pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress.

A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH TO THE MIDDLE EAST: The White House’s stance toward Syria is increasingly out of step with the world community. The Bush administration has “demanded that Israel desist from even exploratory contacts with Syria, of the sort that would test whether Damascus is serious in its declared intentions to hold peace talks with Israel.” In meetings with Israeli officials, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “was forceful in expressing Washington’s view on the matter”: “Don’t even think about it.” Yet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmbert has supported the Pelosi delegation’s trip to Syria, “who urged her to convey the message to Assad that Israel would be willing to hold talks with Syria — if Syria would take steps to stop supporting terrorism.” In addition to the ISG, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and James Baker have all criticized the Bush administration’s unwillingness to talk with Syria. John McLaughlin, former deputy director of central intelligence under Bush, notes that “even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. … We will have to get over the notion that talking to bad guys somehow rewards them or is a sign of weakness. As a superpower, we ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence.” Seventy-five percent of Americans now support U.S. talks with Syria.

Under the Radar

ENVIRONMENT — BUSH GIVES NO INDICATION HE WILL COMPLY WITH SUPREME COURT RULING ON EPA: On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had violated the Clean Air Act by “improperly declining to regulate new-vehicle emissions standards to control the pollutants that scientists say contribute to global warming.” The court battle resulted from a 1999 petition asking the EPA to set “standards for greenhouse gas emissions for new vehicles.” The EPA demurred at the time, citing lack of legal authority and “numerous areas of scientific uncertainty” surrounding the causes and effects of global warming. Monday’s decision, however, criticized the EPA’s “laundry list” of reasons for failing to regulate emissions as “not based in the law” and added that Congress had indeed clearly granted the EPA authority regulate green house gas emissions. Despite such a clear rebuke, the Bush administration has given “no indication” that it would change its behavior by asking the EPA to “regulate emissions of heat-trapping gases.” Yesterday, President Bush “made it clear…that he thought his proposal to increase automobile fuel efficiency was sufficient for the moment.” He added, “Whatever we do must be in concert with what happens internationally.” The states, however, “are not going to wait.” Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association said, “It’s incumbent on everyone to roll their sleeves up, if they haven’t already, to deal seriously with this problem.” He added, “If pain concentrates the mind, there will be more concentration on the issue now.”

CIVIL LIBERTIES — FBI ‘POLITICAL INTELLIGENCE’ GATHERING FOLLOWS DISTURBING PATTERN:
Yesterday, the Washington Post reports, “FBI personnel used their intelligence-gathering powers in the District to collect purely political intelligence” on anti-war protesters in 2002. In this case, FBI officials and D.C. police detained and then interrogated the protesters “on videotape about their political and religious beliefs” because “they were wearing black — a color choice the FBI and police associated with anarchists” while unloading food from their parked van. This report is only the latest example of the FBI under monitoring lawful political activities during Bush administration. Similar intelligence-gathering tactics were used in New York City before the 2004 Republican National Convention, where local police officers conducted “covert observations of people who planned to protest at the convention.” In 2002, local Colorado police recorded “the license plate numbers, and the names corresponding to them, of participants in a nonviolent protest outside of a convention of a lumber industry association” and then shared that information with the FBI. The American Civil Liberties Union has also accused law enforcements agencies in Colorado of “trading political intelligence information at bimonthly meetings” on groups such as the American Friends Service Committee and Amnesty International. FBI records released in 2005 indicate that since 9/11, the Bureau has ratcheted up surveillance of activist groups, ranging from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to the Catholic Workers, who have been flagged in FBI reports as having a “semi-communistic ideology.” Such disregard for American civil liberties expressing political opinions is not isolated to law enforcement agencies. In 2005, a White House official “ordered three activists expelled from a 2005 Denver public forum with President Bush” because the activists had a “no more blood for oil bumper sticker on their car.

ETHICS — CONGRESS PUSHES JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TO TESTIFY: Last week, the Justice Department’s liaison to the White House, Monica Goodling, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights after House and Senate Judiciary Committee requested her testimony regarding the Bush administration’s prosecutor purge. “E-mails and other documents released by the Justice Department show that Goodling…played a pivotal role in helping to arrange the [U.S. attorney] terminations.” Yesterday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) sent a letter to Goodling’s attorney “requesting her cooperation in closed-door interviews in connection with the ongoing U.S. Attorney scandal,” arguing that “previous Supreme Court rulings require individuals to respond on a question-by-question basis and a closed-door interview could relieve the need for further, public questioning should she volunteer to participate.” Subsequently, Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking “whether a ‘special counsel‘ needs to get involved, or whether some other senior DOJ official can handle discussions with Capitol Hill over Goodling’s status.” Despite this congressional pressure, Goodling “rebuffed requests to talk to congressional investigators about her role in the dismissals, with her lawyer saying Tuesday that she would not even agree to an informal interview.” Goodling’s lawyer said in a statement that “threats of public humiliation” for exercising constitutional rights “are not well taken and are frowned upon by the courts. … In a free country, every citizen should have the liberty to exercise their rights without threats or coercion.” Goodling’s opposition to speaking before Congress has sparked suspicion that she is hiding something, as she is the first person in Justice Department history to invoke the fifth amendment prior to congressional testimony.


Think Fast

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is delaying his formal entry into the presidential campaign to deliver a “major speech on Iraq” on April 11 at the Virginia Military Institute. McCain “now faces a forest of hurdles, including continued skepticism from the party’s conservative base and mocking coverage of his televised assertions that Iraq is safer than portrayed by the media.”

While President Bush has focused much of his opposition to the Iraq redeployment on the earmarks attached to it, the Washington Post reports that “such spending has been part of Iraq funding bills since the war began, sometimes inserted by the president himself, sometimes added by lawmakers with bipartisan aplomb.”

The House Armed Services Committee has said it will stop using the phrase “global war on terror.” A memo for the committee staff, circulated March 27, says defense policy should be specific about military operations and “avoid using colloquialisms.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) will co-head a private bipartisan delegation to North Korea next week to retrieve the remains of U.S. troops lost during the Korean War. Conservatives are up in the arms over the announcement. Political consultant Ed Rogers observed, “Talk about retreating to a Clinton policy.”

The New York Times criticizes the Bush administration for its suggestion that Matthew Dowd and other war critics “whose children are at risk are too ‘emotional’ to see things clearly,” calling it “deeply wrong” and “especially galling from a president who from the start tried to paint this war as virtually sacrifice-free.”

Tim Griffin, Karl Rove’s protege installed as U.S. attorney in Arkansas, “claims on his official Web site that he prosecuted 40 criminal cases while at Ft. Campbell, where he was stationed from September 2005 to May 2006. But Army authorities say Ft. Campbell’s records show Griffin only serving as assistant trial counsel on three cases, none of which went to trial.”

“In March, a total of 2,762 Iraqi civilians and policemen were killed, down 4 percent from the previous month, when 2,864 were killed. The number of Iraqi policemen killed across Iraq nearly doubled from 171 in February to 331 in March, according to Interior Ministry statistics.”

“The Bush administration has begun to step up its efforts to build a controversial missile defense system in eastern Europe, launching a public push in recent weeks…to overcome fears of a new arms race elsewhere on the continent,” the LA Times reports. The move “could escalate a simmering diplomatic issue into a significant international dispute.”

And finally: The Chicago Sun-Times is crediting political satirist Stephen Colbert with the record-breaking increase of applicants to Knox College in Illinois. Since Colbert spoke at the school’s commencement ceremony last year, and subsequently mentioned Knox on his TV show, the school has seen a 20% increase in applicants.