Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
Benghazi! It's back. On Wednesday, the select committee on Benghazi set up by House Speaker John Boehner—who yanked this conservative crusade from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and handed it to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.)—will stage its first public hearing. In a surprising move that might disappoint right-wingers yearning for proof that Benghazi is Obama's Watergate (or worse!), the session will not focus on whether the White House purposefully misled the public about the attacks on the US diplomatic compound in that Libyan city that claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Nor will it probe the favorite right-wing talking point that President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, for God-knows-what reasons, ordered US forces to stand down and not respond to the murderous assault. Instead, the committee will examine the State Department's implementation of the recommendations made by the Accountability Review Board, an independent outfit that investigated the attack and in late 2012 issued proposals for improving security for American diplomats and US diplomatic facilities overseas. And the idea for this first hearing came from…a Democrat.
After Boehner in May announced the formation of a special committee—after various GOP-led congressional panels had already investigated the Benghazi tragedy—the House Democrats considered not participating in the new inquiry, which seemed not much more than an attempt by Boehner to placate tea partiers and conservatives for whom the Benghazi affair had become a top priority. But the House Dems eventually decided to join the committee—which was budgeted a whopping $3.3 million—and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) was one of the Ds placed on the committee by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Schiff scoffed at the need for further investigation of the attack. But, as he said in early August on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show, there was something productive the committee could do: review how the State Department has handled those ARB recommendations. Gowdy agreed. Presto, a hearing on substance, not conspiracy theories.
Last week, President Barack Obama outlined his plan for expanding military action against ISIS, the murderous Islamic extremist group that controls territory in Iraq and Syria. His beefed-up campaign includes increased funding previously announced (up to $500 million) to train and arm supposedly moderate rebels in Syria who are fighting the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad and also at times battling ISIS. For the past few years, Washington has assisted Syrian opposition forces deemed non-extremist—even though they might be fighting alongside Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels. But the effort has not been a great success, with hawks accusing the Obama administration of not doing enough, and administration officials skeptical about the moderate opposition's cohesion and military effectiveness and wary of doling out weapons that could fall into the wrong hands. In February, the leader of the moderate Free Syrian Army—who was the conduit for US aid to the rebels—was removed by his own council, partly because the FSA had been taking a beating from the regime and Islamist forces. Now Obama intends to boost the US effort to support these moderate fighters in Syria. But this move comes just weeks after the collapse of the Syrian Support Group, a US-based nonprofit backed by the State Department that boasted it delivered millions in dollars of nonlethal supplies to the FSA. According to former officials of the group, it shut down because of funding problems and divisions among rebel forces.
Working with the rebels in Syria will be a daunting task for the Obama administration. There are hundreds of anti-Assad militias, each with its own agenda. Some moderate bands have no interest in taking on ISIS. Some fighters shift allegiances between secular outfits and Islamic extremist groups. Neither the FSA nor the Syrian National Coalition, a political group representing the opposition, control or even coordinate all the various non-extremist fighters. And the dissolution of the Syrian Support Group in the United States—just at the time when Washington is ramping up its investment in the Syrian opposition—could be a troubling sign.
Here is President Barack Obama's challenge: how to unleash the dogs of war without having them run wild.
This dilemma applies to both the political and policy considerations Obama faces, as he expands US military action in Iraq (and possibly Syria) to counter ISIS, the militant and murderous outfit that now calls itself the Islamic State and controls territory in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. In a speech from the White House on Wednesday night, Obama announced what was expected: The United States would widen its air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, "take action" of some sort against ISIS in Syria, ramp up military assistance for the Syrian opposition, keep sending advisers to assist the Iraqi military's on-the-ground-campaign against ISIS, and maintain pressure on Iraqi politicians to produce a national government that can represent and work with Sunnis and, consequently, undercut ISIS's support and appeal in Sunni-dominated areas of the country—all while assembling a coalition of Western nations and regional allies. (He gave no details about the membership of this under-construction alliance.) The goal: to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS. There were no surprises in the speech, and this strategy of expanded-but-limited military intervention—Obama referred to it as a "counterterrorism campaign" different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—has a fair amount of support from the politerati and the policy wonks within Washington and beyond, as well as from the public, per recent polling. But whatever he calls it, the president is attempting a difficult feat: waging a nuanced war.
Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton receive the Germany Freedom Award in 2009.
Hillary Clinton often plays the hawk card: She voted for the Iraq war, dissed President Barack Obama for not being tough enough on Syria, and compared Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. This is to be expected from a politician who has angled for a certain title: the first female president of the United States. Whether her muscular views are sincerely held or not, a conventional political calculation would lead her to assume it may be difficult for many voters to elect as commander-in-chief a woman who did not project an aggressive and assertive stance on foreign policy. So her tough talk might be charitably evaluated in such a (somewhat) forgiving context. Yet what remains more puzzling and alarming is the big wet kiss she planted (rhetorically) on former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger this week, with a fawning review of his latest book, World Order.
Sure, perhaps there is secretary's privilege—an old boy and girls club, in which the ex-foreign-policy chiefs do not speak ill of each other and try to help out the person presently in the post. Nothing wrong with that. But former-Madam Secretary Clinton had no obligation to praise Kissinger and publicly participate in his decades-long mission to rehabilitate his image. In the review, she calls Kissinger a "friend" and reports, "I relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state. He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels." She does add that she and Henry "have often seen the world and some of our challenges quite differently, and advocated different responses now and in the past." But here's the kicker: At the end of the review, she notes that Kissinger is "surprisingly idealistic":
Even when there are tensions between our values and other objectives, America, he reminds us, succeeds by standing up for our values, not shirking them, and leads by engaging peoples and societies, the sources of legitimacy, not governments alone.
Kissinger reminds us that America succeeds by standing up for its values? Did she inhale?
On March 11, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, strode on to the Senate floor and made a shocking charge: The CIA had spied on committee investigators who were examining the CIA's past use of harsh interrogation techniques (a.k.a. torture). She essentially confirmed media reports that the agency had accessed computers that had been set up in a secured facility for her staffers to use—and that this high-tech break-in was related to a CIA memo that the agency had not turned over. The document was far more critical of the CIA's interrogation program than the agency's official response to the still-classified (and reportedly scorching) 6,300-page report produced by Feinstein's committee. As Feinstein described it, the CIA, looking to find out how her sleuths had obtained this particular memo, had been spying on the investigators who were paid by the taxpayers to keep a close watch on America's spies.
Feinstein's public statement—unprecedented in US national security history—caused an uproar. I noted that this clash between the Senate and Langley threatened a constitutional crisis. After all, if the CIA was covertly undercutting and interfering with congressional oversight, then the foundation of the national security state was at risk, for the executive branch, in theory, can only engage in clandestine activity as long as members of Congress can keep an eye on it. Yet the system of oversight appeared to have broken down.