Trump terrifies world leaders

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Politico reports: Obama hears world leaders’ fears about the Republican front-runner so often that he has developed a speech meant to ease their nerves.

First, he walks them through the Republican primary process: Trump has had success, but there are big states yet to vote and the front-runner could still stumble. Then he explains the complications of the GOP convention and how weak rules and convoluted balloting could leave Trump a loser. And finally, Obama assures America’s allies that Hillary Clinton can defeat the Manhattan billionaire.

It’s a familiar routine but not a particularly successful one. They respond — sometimes directly to Obama and other top administration officials, sometimes stewing privately about being brushed off again — that the Obama administration has been downplaying Trump’s odds for six months.

“Most people said that he didn’t have the wit, wisdom or wealth to get very far in the primaries,” said Peter Mandelson, a member of the British Cabinet under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as a former European commissioner for trade who remains in touch with many leaders. “And they’ve been wrong.”

Now, world leaders cop to being afraid of a Trump presidency, and they’re making preparations: scrambling to get deals done with the Obama administration while they still have the chance.

Leaders, members of their governments, even their aides are so spooked that they don’t want to say anything, and many privately admit that it’s because they think he’ll win, and a quote now could mean a vengeful President Trump going after them personally next year.

“As we’re on the record, I’m rather hesitant to give you big headlines on this,” said Olli Rehn, the Finnish minister of economic affairs. “In Europe, we are concerned about the U.S. possibly turning toward a more isolationist orientation. That would not be good for United States, good for Europe, good for the world. We need the U.S. engaged in global affairs in a constructive, positive way.”

They’re not caught up in some gushy lament about what’s become of American politics, as Obama has sometimes framed the conversations when he’s talked about them publicly. They’re worried about what it means for them: for their arms deals, for their trade deals, for international funding and alliances that they depend on.

“However much people recoiled from George W. Bush or have been disappointed by Obama, they see Trump as off the Richter scale,” Mandelson said. “The reason for that is not that he must be stupid — nobody thinks that — but that he’s disdainful, unscrupulous, prepared to say anything to harvest the populist vote. And that makes people frightened.”

Then there are the more parochial concerns: that Trump’s rise will encourage and empower their own nationalists. [Continue reading…]

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Failed state: Can a unity government succeed in divided Libya?

Der Spiegel reports: This may be the only thing you need to know about the situation in Libya: For security reasons, the headquarters of the United Nations Special Representative for Libya is situated 500 kilometers (311 miles) away from Tripoli in the Tunisian capital of Tunis. Martin Kobler’s office is located in a non-descript building in the city’s Les Berges du Lac diplomatic quarter.

For trips to Libya, he has an 18-seat propeller plane at his disposal, parked at the nearby airport. He uses it to commute several times each month to Libya. But sometimes, he isn’t given permission to land, for no apparent reason. On such occasions, the plane remains grounded, along with Kobler, in Tunis.

On a recent Sunday in April, Kobler has invited us to a meal in the restaurant Au Bon Vieux Temps in a posh suburb of Tunis. The view of the Mediterranean is spectacular. A slight man with a warm glint in his eyes, Kobler, 63, was once chief of staff to former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. He has also served as German ambassador to Cairo and Iraq and, most recently, as the UN special representative to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Today he has one of the most difficult jobs in the world. His task is to help create a state out of Libya at the behest of the international community. The fact that Libya was never truly a state, even under dictator Muammar Gadhafi, who was toppled in 2011, doesn’t make things any easier. Considering what he’s up against, Kobler is pursuing his mission with astounding optimism.

The situation in Libya is important for Europe for two reasons. First, because Islamic State (IS) is continuing to spread unhindered in the civil war-torn country. Second, because one of the most important routes for migrants making their way to Europe runs through Libya. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on a prominent Libyan politician as part of a broader Western effort to force Libya’s warring factions to accept the authority of a unity government backed by the United Nations.

The Treasury Department said it was adding the politician, Khalifa al-Ghweil, the leader of a self-declared government in the capital, Tripoli, to its sanctions list and would freeze any assets he might have in the United States.

The sanctions are a boost to the new unity government, which was formed under the auspices of the United Nations in December, has strong support from Western countries that are desperate to end years of turmoil in Libya. It also enjoys the allegiance of Libya’s national oil company, the central bank and some of the militias that guard the country’s oil fields. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The United Nations envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, has called for western forces to help combat Islamic State in partnership with the country’s new government.

With Barack Obama due to meet four European leaders in Germany on Monday for a summit that is likely to focus on Libya, Kobler said foreign powers should offer training and military support, combined with an end to the UN arms embargo.

“The Daesh [Isis] expansion can only be stopped militarily,” he said. “There is a consensus that a united Libyan army needs training; the lifting of the weapons embargo is very important. We need the most modern weapons to finish Daesh.”

Isis has been stepping up its offensive against Libya’s oilfields. An assessment circulating in foreign missions reports that in the last two weeks the group has broken out of its base in the coastal town of Sirte in three thrusts. [Continue reading…]

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Europe says U.S. regulations keeping it from trade with Iran

The New York Times reports: With the completion of the nuclear deal with Iran and the opening of its market, European businesses expected a trade bonanza.

But three months after the lifting of many sanctions against Iran, there is growing frustration among European politicians, diplomats and businesspeople over the inability to complete dozens of energy, aviation and construction deals with the Iranians.

The main obstacle, the Europeans say, is their ally, and the driving force behind the historic nuclear agreement, the United States. Wary of running afoul of new sanctions imposed by Washington over Iran’s missile program and accusations that Iran sponsors terrorism, European banks are refusing to finance any of the deals, effectively perpetuating Iran’s isolation from the global financial system.

Europeans also point to new American visa regulations that make it more difficult for them to enter the United States if they have traveled to Iran. Those financial and travel restrictions, they say, make it nearly impossible to reach agreements with their Iranian counterparts. [Continue reading…]

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This is why the U.S. still backs Saudi Arabia

Christopher Dickey writes: Long before his visit to Riyadh this week, when President Barack Obama was asked if the Saudis were America’s friends, he said coyly, “It’s complicated.” During his visit, a veteran of the Saudi intelligence services told me, with a similar note of irony, “It’s a special relationship — and there are special differences.”

No kidding.

How are Americans supposed to get behind a government that carries out dozens of beheadings on a single day, that has shown a recent penchant for waging wars it can’t manage to win, that supports the preaching of an extreme version of Islam that helps prepare the way for jihadists being groomed around the world, and has such a screwy relationship with women, giving them strong educations (they are 55 percent of the students in Saudi universities) then refusing to allow them to drive cars or walk the streets without head coverings?

Add to that, the suspicion lingering for the last 15 years that Saudi officials, not just Saudi citizens, were involved in some way with the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. [Continue reading…]

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Snowden seeks assurance from Norway it won’t extradite him

The Wall Street Journal reports: Edward Snowden, the former defense contractor charged by U.S. authorities for leaking classified documents to the media, is seeking assurance that Norway won’t extradite him if he comes here to collect a free-speech prize.

Mr. Snowden, who resides in Russia, has petitioned a Norwegian court, asking it to rule that the espionage charges filed by the U.S. Justice Department against him wouldn’t constitute grounds for extradition.

The Schjodt law firm, which filed the motion with the Oslo District Court on Mr. Snowden’s behalf, said Thursday that political crimes were formally excluded from a bilateral treaty and other rules governing extradition between Norway and the U.S.

“Mr. Snowden’s whistleblower activities must undoubtedly be seen as matters of political character,” the law firm said in its motion to the court.

The law firm said it has evidence that the U.S. has filed an extradition request to Norwegian authorities in the event Mr. Snowden arrives in Norway.

A spokesman at Norway’s Justice Ministry declined to comment on a court matter. The court said it hadn’t yet received Mr. Snowden’s documents. The U.S. Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Debates inside and outside the courts over Mr. Snowden’s petition could challenge relations between the U.S. and the small Nordic country, traditionally a strong U.S. ally but also a strong advocate of whistleblower rights. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s disdain for Europe’s ‘free riders’ makes this an awkward transatlantic trip

By Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

Barack Obama’s visit to Britain, brings with it plenty of chatter about the so-called “special relationship” between the US and the UK. Coming as Britain prepares for a referendum on European Union membership, the visit has already kicked off a political bunfight about the Americans “ordering” Britons how to vote on June 23, with Obama to weigh in explicitly on why a Brexit would be a seriously bad idea.

But this neurosis about being bossed around by Washington misses the bigger point about how Obama sees Britain and its neighbours. Whenever he swings through Europe, he makes a public show of friendship and unity – but he clearly thinks the US is being exploited by a troublesome continent that relies on American power to shore itself up.

This is a misdiagnosis on his part. The issue here is not European fecklessness, but Obama’s imperative to gloss over his own foreign policy failings.

While he can rightly claim credit for achievements such as the rapprochement with Cuba, a steady, pragmatic relationship with China, and a step back from the confrontation, aggression and abuse of the George W. Bush years. The problem is that he wants the catastrophes that unfolded on his watch dismissed as beyond his control.

[Read more…]

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Instead of honoring leader of Syria’s ‘White Helmets,’ U.S. refused his entry

The New York Times reports: The leader of a Western-backed rescue organization that searches for survivors of bombings in Syria was denied entry into the United States this week, where he was to receive an award recognizing his contributions to humanitarian relief.

Raed Saleh, the head of the Syria Civil Defense, was to accept the award from InterAction, an alliance of aid agencies, at its gala dinner Tuesday night in Washington. The dinner’s keynote speaker was Gayle Smith, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.

But when Mr. Saleh, who works in Syria and Turkey, arrived Monday at Washington’s Dulles International Airport on a flight from Istanbul, the authorities said he could not enter the United States. He was told his visa had been canceled.

It was unclear whether Mr. Saleh’s name might have shown up on a database, fed by a variety of intelligence and security agencies and intended to guard against the prospect of terrorism suspects slipping into the country.

The State Department declined to give specifics, but a spokesman, John Kirby, said that “the U.S. government’s system of continual vetting means that traveler records are screened against available information in real time.”

“While we can’t confirm any possible specific actions in this case, we do have the ability to immediately coordinate with our interagency partners when new information becomes available,” he added.

Mr. Saleh was put on the next flight back to Istanbul. In a telephone interview from Istanbul on Wednesday, Mr. Saleh sought to turn the focus to the experience of millions of Syrians who find the world’s borders closed to them.

“In any airport, the treatment we get as Syrians is different,” he said. “The way they look at us, we are suspected.” In his case, he pointed out, he had no intention of staying longer than 16 hours.

His group is widely known as the White Helmets for the headgear its members wear as they rush to bomb sites to rescue survivors and dig out the dead from the rubble. Government supporters have criticized the group for working in some areas held by the Nusra Front, a terrorist organization linked to Al Qaeda. But like many internal aid groups, it says it is neutral and seeks to help civilians no matter whose territory they live in.

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, called the denial of entry “a scandal.”

“The White Helmets are one of the few organizations in Syria that have been above reproach,” he said. “They have tried to observe strict neutrality in order to facilitate their humanitarian work and save lives. To do this they have worked along side all sorts of militias in order to get to victims of the fighting.”

At the dinner on Tuesday night, InterAction staff members wore white helmets in solidarity — and posted a photo on Twitter.

“I really was moved by this moment,” Mr. Saleh said. “It was a stance of the unity of humanity — and I don’t mean the international community, I mean humanity.” [Continue reading…]

In February, Saleh spoke at the Conference Supporting Syria and the Region, co-hosted in London by the UN and the Governments of the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Germany and Norway.

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Obama’s former Middle East adviser: We should have bombed Assad

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Jeffrey Goldberg writes: A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with Philip Gordon, who held the Middle East portfolio at the National Security Council from 2013 to 2015 (and before that, served as assistant secretary of state for European affairs) about my Atlantic article, “The Obama Doctrine.” The piece tried to explain how the president understands the world, and America’s role in it. (This week, the president is on a tour of the some of the countries he discussed in the article.)

Gordon, a loyal Obama man, is, like his ex-boss, somewhat-to-very fatalistic about the ability of the U.S. to direct the course of events in the Middle East (“realistic,” rather than “fatalistic,” is the term the president prefers). Gordon is known for, among other things, a pithy and concise formula he developed to explain why President Obama, and many of his advisers, are so hesitant to engage fully in the various catastrophes of the Middle East. In Iraq, the Gordon dictum goes, Obama learned that full-scale invasions leading to regime change don’t work; in Libya, he learned that partial interventions leading to regime collapse don’t work; and in Syria he learned that non-intervention also doesn’t work. An unspoken but obvious lesson: Once a president reaches this set of conclusions, can you blame him for wanting to pivot to Asia?

So I was a bit surprised to hear Gordon tell me that he believes, in retrospect, that President Obama should have attacked Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons in 2013. A year earlier, the president drew a “red line” for the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad regarding the potential use of such weapons; a year later, when Assad deployed sarin gas in the town of Ghouta, killing as many as 1,300 people, Obama set in motion a strike, but stood down at the last minute, putting the matter in the hands of Congress. In one of the interviews that informed “The Obama Doctrine,” the president told me that this moment was a source of pride for him; he resisted the pressure — and the temptation — to carry out an operation preordained by the “Washington playbook.” The “playbook,” in Obama’s mind, is in part a set of received understandings about what a president should do in the event of a rogue-state provocation. Obama argued to me that the Washington playbook is overmilitarized, and is overused.

As we know, the decision to stand down was not a popular one with America’s allies, who believed that Obama had squandered U.S. credibility. When a superpower sets a red line, the thinking goes, it must enforce the red line.

It was noteworthy that Gordon disagreed with Obama’s decision, and agreed with the criticism of U.S. allies, because he is known, in national-security circles, for being extremely wary of the consequences of deeper U.S. involvement in Syria (in this, he resembles his successor, Robert Malley, who is now Obama’s coordinator for anti-ISIS activities). I asked Gordon if he would speak to me on the record about these events, and he agreed. A full transcript of our conversation appears below, but here are some highlights: [Continue reading…]

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‘America treats us worse than animals’ — victims of Obama’s secret drone war speak out

The Guardian reports: Because US drone strikes are cloaked in secrecy, occur in remote or dangerous locales and target people presumed to be terrorists, Americans rarely hear from survivors or their relatives. But a theme emerges in interviews the Guardian has conducted with more than half a dozen drone survivors: the pain from the strike never ends, as the apparatus of secrecy renders closure unobtainable.

According to six people in Pakistan and Yemen who have lost their brothers, sons and grandparents to drone strikes, the strike lasts a moment and the consequences last a lifetime. Most of them have never told their stories to an American reporter. Some of them have theories about whom the US was targeting, while others are left guessing. The interviews were facilitated by the human rights group Reprieve and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights and conducted in translation.

The people are left impoverished, anguished and infuriated. Justice, let alone apologies, never arrive, even as a modest amount of blood money flows from the local governments. The United States, which styles itself a force for justice in the world, is to them the remote force that introduced death into their lives and treats them like they are subhuman, fit only to be targeted. At any moment, they fear, another drone could come for them.

The White House has said it will soon release of a tally of drone deaths. Relatives of the dead and survivors of the attacks expect little of it to include the truth, and doubt it will lead to the public apologies they desire – particularly since a senior aide to Barack Obama recently told the Atlantic that the president “has not had a second thought about drones”.

The CIA would not comment for this piece. An Obama administration official said: “It is certainly not the case that lives of a certain nationality are more valuable to us than those of any other. What is true, however, is that the president has said … that the American people need information to hold their government accountable. That is in part why we have been especially transparent when it comes to the deaths of US citizens.”

Nabila’s father, and Mamana’s son, Rafiq ur-Rehman, took a different view. “If America kills any westerner, one of their own, white people, they apologize and compensate. But if it’s Pakistanis like us, they don’t care. In my opinion, America treats us worse than animals.” [Continue reading…]

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Pratap Chatterjee: Inside the devastation of America’s drone wars

In our part of the world, it’s not often that potential “collateral damage” speaks, but it happened last week.  A Pakistani tribal leader, Malik Jalal, flew to England to plead in a newspaper piece he wrote and in media interviews to be taken off the Obama White House’s “kill list.”  (“I am in England this week because I decided that if Westerners wanted to kill me without bothering to come to speak with me first, perhaps I should come to speak to them instead.”)  Jalal, who lives in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, is a local leader and part of a peace committee sanctioned by the Pakistani government that is trying to tamp down the violence in the region.  He believes that he’s been targeted for assassination by Washington.  (Four drone missiles, he claims, have just missed him or his car.)  His family, he says, is traumatized by the drones.  “I don’t want to end up a ‘Bugsplat’ — the ugly word that is used for what remains of a human being after being blown up by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone,” he writes. “More importantly, I don’t want my family to become victims, or even to live with the droning engines overhead, knowing that at any moment they could be vaporized.” 

Normally, what “they” do to us, or our European counterparts (think: Brussels, Paris, or San Bernardino), preoccupies us 24/7.  What we do to “them” — and them turns out to be far more than groups of terrorists — seldom touches our world at all.  As TomDispatch readers know, this website has paid careful attention to the almost 300 wedding celebrants killed by U.S. air power between late 2001 and the end of 2013 — eight wedding parties eviscerated in three countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen).  These are deaths that, unlike the 14 Americans murdered in San Bernardino, the 32 Belgians and others killed in Brussels, and the 130 French and others slaughtered in Paris, have caused not even a ripple here (though imagine for a second the reaction if even a single wedding, no less eight of them and hundreds of revelers, had been wiped out by a terror attack in the U.S. in these years).

Any sense of sadness or regret for Washington’s actions, when it comes to the many killed, wounded, or traumatized in its never-ending, implacable, and remarkably unsuccessful war on terror, is notable mainly for its absence from our world.  So it’s an extraordinary moment when any Americans — no less a group that has been deeply involved in prosecuting the drone war on terror — publicly expresses empathy for the “collateral damage” inflicted in that ongoing conflict.  That’s why TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee brings genuine news today from the heart of America’s drone wars, from those who should best be able to assess the grim reality of just what Washington has been doing in our name. Tom Engelhardt

Drone whistleblowers step out of the shadows
In Washington’s drone wars, collateral damage comes home
By Pratap Chatterjee

In a trio of recent action-packed movies, good guys watch terrorists mingling with innocent women and children via real-time video feeds from halfway across the world. A clock ticks and we, the audience, are let in on the secret that mayhem is going to break loose. After much agonized soul-searching about possible collateral damage, the good guys call in a missile strike from a U.S. drone to try to save the day by taking out a set of terrorists.

Such is the premise of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill, and Rick Rosenthal’s Drones. In reality, in Washington’s drone wars neither the “good guys” nor the helpless, endangered villagers under those robotic aircraft actually survive the not-so secret drone war that the Obama administration has been waging relentlessly across the Greater Middle East — not, at least, without some kind of collateral damage.  In addition to those they kill, Washington’s drones turn out to wound (in ways both physical and psychological) their own operators and the populations who live under their constant surveillance. They leave behind very real victims with all-too-real damage, often in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder on opposite sides of the globe.

Sometimes I am so sad that my heart wants to explode,” an Afghan man says, speaking directly into the camera. “When your body is intact, your mind is different. You are content. But the moment you are wounded, your soul gets damaged. When your leg is torn off and your gait slows, it also burdens your spirit.” The speaker is an unnamed victim of a February 2010 drone strike in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, but he could just as easily be an Iraqi, a Pakistani, a Somali, or a Yemeni. He appears in National Bird, a haunting new documentary film by Sonia Kennebeck about the unexpected and largely unrecorded devastation Washington’s drone wars leave in their wake.  In it, the audience hears directly from both drone personnel and their victims.

[Read more…]

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Russia moves artillery to northern Syria, U.S. officials say

The Wall Street Journal reports: Russia has been moving artillery units to areas of northern Syria where Assad government forces have been massing, raising U.S. concern that the two allies may be preparing for a return to full-scale fighting after a nearly two-month cease-fire with the main opposition, U.S. officials say.

The recent Russian redeployments within Syria have been accompanied by the return of some Iranian army forces to government-controlled areas close to the front lines, according to officials briefed on the intelligence. Russia, Iran and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah have been President Bashar al-Assad’s main supporters in the conflict.

U.S. concerns about the Russian buildup in northern Syria, and the negative impact it could have on the cease-fire and political negotiations in Geneva, prompted President Barack Obama’s call to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, officials said.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, used unusually harsh language in describing the exchange between the two leaders, calling it an “intense conversation.”

Russian officials have voiced support for the partial cease-fire and the United Nations-mediated negotiations in Geneva, both in public and in private settings, according to U.S. officials.

But both are on the verge of complete collapse. Citing widening attacks by government forces, representatives of the main opposition broke off the latest round of indirect talks on Monday. Government forces have stepped up attacks in some areas in northern and central Syria in recent days, and one opposition negotiator on Tuesday described the truce as over. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s humanitarian ‘White Helmets’ chief denied entry to U.S.

Devex reports: Raed Al Saleh was scheduled to receive InterAction’s 2016 Humanitarian Award in a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday evening. Instead, he’ll likely be back on the Syria-Turkey border when he’ll be delivered the award on an undetermined future date.

Saleh, a 33-year-old Syrian national and head of the Syrian Civil Defense, was denied entry to the United States upon arriving at Dulles International Airport on the evening of April 18. Saleh had come prepared with a letter from the U.S. Agency for International Development to facilitate his entry with U.S. customs and immigration, but was told by U.S. officials that his visa had been cancelled. Saleh’s visa is valid until September 2016, and he had not received any notification alerting him it had expired, according to a statement from his colleague and translator Zouheir Albounni.

The electrical supplies salesman turned humanitarian had been scheduled for months to attend InterAction’s Forum, an annual gathering of humanitarian, development and sustainability professionals, where he was being recognized for his work leading more than 2,800 intrepid volunteers as the leader of the Syrian Civil Defense.

The group of unarmed and neutral civilians, also known as the “White Helmets” due to their protective hard hats, work as firefighters, paramedics and search-and-rescue teams. They have saved more than 40,000 lives in Syria on both sides of the fight, according to Saleh. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s November surprise?

Philip Weiss writes: The organized liberal Jewish community has a new vision: that President Obama will use the lame duck period of his presidency to make a major initiative on the Israel/Palestine conflict and introduce resolutions at the United Nations Security Council to condemn settlements and/or set out the parameters of a two-state solution.

Thus Obama will establish a more assertive U.S. policy in favor of Palestinian human rights and self-determination that the next president will live by.

Hillary Clinton won’t let him go forward with such a resolution now because it would capsize her campaign. But when he does it in November or December– after she is elected president, according to the scenario– then she will say, There is only one US president at a time, and Obama’s policy is my inherited policy.

The dream was alive at J Street’s gala dinner the other night. Both Joe Biden and John Kerry were coming! That was a huge score for the liberal Zionist organization. President Obama invited members of J Street’s youth chapter into the White House last Friday! Mort Halperin the chairman of the J Street board (and the father of political talking head Mark Halperin) said the organization is counting on the Obama administration to set out the parameters of a final deal between Israel and Palestine.

Then Biden and Kerry spoke, and the wealthy elderly legion at J Street derived hope from the following statements. Biden:

Despite our overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government, we have an obligation to push them as hard as we can… at the same time being a guarantor, an absolute guarantor of their security.

Kerry:

I can tell you that for these next nine months we will not stop working to find a way…

[N]o matter how many times we hear people tell us the goal is unattainable, they can’t do it, they’re not ready, I remember the words of Mandela: “Nothing is impossible until it is done.”

The J Street people think that Obama still has a trick up his sleeve and he owes it to them because they helped him get the Iran deal. The theme of the evening was: Obama wouldn’t have gotten the Iran deal if we had not taken on AIPAC inside the official Jewish community. But J Street took on AIPAC and cracked the monolith and signaled to politicians around the country, they could support the deal and still get Jewish backing. J Street is justly proud of this. And by the way, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council and Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares were in the hall that night; they also delivered the Iran deal. As did Jewish Voice for Peace, Code Pink and a lot of grassroots groups.

Do I actually believe that Obama will come up with a November surprise? Yes, I think he will do something. But will it mean anything or have any effect; that is the real question. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi-led air strikes with U.S. support responsible for two thirds of civilian deaths in Yemen conflict

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Reuters reports: U.N. investigators say that air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition are responsible for two thirds of the 3,200 civilians who have died in Yemen, or approximately 2,000 deaths. They said that Saudi forces have killed twice as many civilians as other forces in Yemen.

On the ground, Saudi-led forces have often struggled to achieve their goals, making slow headway in areas where support for Iran-allied Houthi rebels runs strong.

And along the Saudi border, the Houthis and allied forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh have attacked almost daily since July, killing hundreds of Saudi troops.

Instead of being the centrepiece of a more assertive Saudi regional strategy, the Yemen intervention has called into question Riyadh’s military influence, said one former senior Obama administration official. “There’s a long way to go. Efforts to create an effective pan-Arab military force have been disappointing.”

Behind the scenes, the West has been enmeshed in the conflict. Between 50 and 60 U.S. military personnel have provided coordination and support to the Saudi-led coalition, a U.S. official told Reuters. And six to 10 Americans have worked directly inside the Saudi air operations centre in Riyadh. Britain and France, Riyadh’s other main defence suppliers, have also provided military assistance.

Last year, the Obama administration had the U.S. military send precision-guided munitions from its own stocks to replenish dwindling Saudi-led coalition supplies, a source close to the Saudi government said. Administration officials argued that even more Yemeni civilians would die if the Saudis had to use bombs with less precise guidance systems. [Continue reading…]

William D Hartung writes: When President Obama visits Saudi Arabia this week for a meeting with representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, he should avoid doing what he did at Camp David last May, the last time he met with them: promise more arms sales. Since Mr. Obama hosted that meeting, the United States has offered over $33 billion in weaponry to its Persian Gulf allies, with the bulk of it going to Saudi Arabia. The results have been deadly.

The Saudi-American arms deals are a continuation of a booming business that has developed between Washington and Riyadh during the Obama years. In the first six years of the Obama administration, the United States entered into agreements to transfer nearly $50 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia, with tens of billions of dollars of additional offers in the pipeline.

The Pentagon claims that these arms transfers to Saudi Arabia “improve the security of an important partner which has been and continues to be an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.” Recent Saudi actions suggest otherwise. [Continue reading…]

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Senator says he may back bill exposing Saudis to 9/11 lawsuits

The New York Times reports: A bill opposed by the Obama administration that would expose Saudi Arabia to legal jeopardy for any role in the Sept. 11 attacks appeared to gain momentum on Tuesday when the senator holding it up said he would be open to supporting it.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in an interview on Tuesday that he would drop his opposition to the bill — predicting it could pass the Senate next week — if the sponsors of the legislation agreed to changes that he believed were important to protect American interests abroad. He did not specify what changes he was requesting.

“The goal is to bring people to justice who have been involved in terrorism,” Mr. Graham said. But he added, “I don’t want Americans to be held liable because of one bad actor in some embassy somewhere.” [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: There’s a major push in Congress right now for a bill that could hold the government of Saudi Arabia legally responsible for the 9/11 attacks. U.S. military and counterterrorism officials now leading the fights against al Qaeda and ISIS think that bill is a terrible idea.

“We don’t need this debate right now,” one defense official said, like others speaking on condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized publicly to criticize the bill, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Saudi officials have lobbied hard against the bill, telling members of the Obama administration, lawmakers, and journalists that the Saudi government has been a stalwart ally with the U.S. and was fighting al Qaeda years before it ever attacked American soil.

That message is resonating inside the Pentagon and in U.S. national security circles. Two former officials, who likewise declined to comment on the record about the bill, said it represented a troubling insertion of politics at a key point in the war against ISIS and would distract from a shared goal of combatting Islamic extremism. [Continue reading…]

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