Friday, March 12, 2010
I have participated in White House press briefings several times this week on behalf of the readers of this newspaper. Though I have been following the White House closely for several years, and especially for the past year, finally entering its press room was an overwhelming experience – even though the room itself was much smaller than I had expected.
I entered the White House at a time when there is very little hopeful evidence that can be shown for the success of its current administration. Looking at Washington, D.C., from the outside, one would think that the U.S. administration spends most of its time dealing with the several immense international stalemates and crises that are currently ongoing. However, the picture inside is much different.
Little of U.S. President Barack Obama’s new image-building work has borne fruit thus far. Syria was the easiest target at first to cajole and turn a new page with. The new Obama administration made it clear from the beginning that it wants Syria to draw away from Iran; recently, it even decided to send a U.S. ambassador back to the Syrian capital after five years away. The previous U.S. ambassador was recalled in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a bombing; it was widely suspected that the Syrian government was involved in this attack.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a House Committee a couple of weeks ago that the United States is asking Syria “to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran,” and to stop supporting the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah. Just one day later, when Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said sarcastically, “We must have understood Clinton wrong because of bad translation or our limited understanding, so we signed the agreement to cancel the visas.”
“I find it strange that they [Americans] talk about Middle East stability and peace and the other beautiful principles and [then] call for two countries to move away from each other,” al-Assad added.
Diplomacy with Iran and reaching out to its rogue regime has effectively come to an end as well. With the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the U.S. forces did their best, in reality, to widen Iran’s influence in the region. U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein, the archenemy of the Iranian regime, and have been fighting hard to weaken the Taliban, another force in the region that has worked to counter Iran’s Shiite influence for a long time.
The top priority item for the Obama administration in foreign affairs, the peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, took another heavy blow this week. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, the highest Obama administration official yet to visit Israel and one of the very few who is still on good terms with the Israeli administration, visited Israel to assure them that the relationship between the two countries is still unshakable. Biden also was there to kickstart the stalled peace negotiations, which U.S. envoy George Mitchell announced would start with indirect talks.
Instead, Biden “was slapped in the face” and met with a surprising decision by the Israeli Interior Ministry for new permits to build 1,600 more units in East Jerusalem. This announcement came two days after the United States brokered an agreement on the first negotiations between the sides in nearly a year; a separate announcement of building 112 new units also came the day after.
The United States’ entanglement in the Middle East, the military presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq and the nuclear standstill with Iran have prepared the stage for Russia to increase its influence in its old Soviet sphere. Ukraine’s government has recently become pro-Russian and Kazakhstan and Belarus have also accepted forming an alliance with Russia. Before Washington withdraws its troops from Iraq, and finds some acceptable solution for Iran, if ever, Moscow apparently wishes to make some more headway in Eurasia.
While all of these imminent and alarming developments are occurring, and many small countries snub the U.S. with no retribution, the White House is totally bogged down with the domestic agenda and political fights these weeks.
The latest fight in the U.S. capital is between Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts and President Obama. According to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at the Thursday press briefing, these two main actors in Washington have not spoken since the president called out the Supreme Court during his State of the Union address for changing a rule to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money advocating on behalf of candidates in elections.
Obama, after more than a year of trying, is seemingly coming to terms with the political reality at last. In recent days, he has been pushing the U.S. Congress to resort to an up-or-down vote on healthcare as part of the reconciliation. If the Senate resorts to this option to overhaul a sector that accounts for one-sixth of the U.S. economy by a simple majority, that means there will be more bloody fights to see here in Washington.
Knowing that failing to pass healthcare reform would handicap the rest of his presidency, Obama is taking all the risks he can for one last time.
There was talk in the White House press room about whether there was enough political room to get the healthcare reform done this time, let alone all the other reforms that are waiting in line, such as energy, immigration and financial reforms. Job-creation packages are still the priority, Gibbbs added at the same briefing Thursday.
We will see how much political oxygen is left in the tube for White House warriors to breathe and push all of these issues before the elections come.