Iran Election Guide

Donate to EAWV

Or, click to learn more


Entries in Washington (3)


Damascus Matters: Syria, the US, and the New Middle East

Video: Palestine Latest - Settlements and Blockades but No Reconstruction
After The Obama-Abbas Meeting: A Palestinian Stuck between Washington and Tel Aviv
Video and Full Transcript of Obama-Abbas Meeting (28 May)

Much has changed in US foreign policy since the Bush Administration pulled its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected involvement in the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Since the advent of the Obama Administration, not only the hopes of change in US-Syrian relations but the quest to unblock the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has brought the prospect of dialogue.

The latest signal came on Thursday when two Democratic Congressmen, Senator Edward E. Kaufman of Delaware and Representative Tim Waltz of Minnesota visited Syrian President Assad. According to Syria's official Arab News Agency, talks focused on "the necessity to remove obstacles that hinder relations and to promote stability in the Middle East". Specifically, the exchange points to a visit to Damascus by President Obama's envoy George Mitchell in June.

The Kaufman-Waltz visit is the fourth by US officials or legislators since January. Three days after the hard-line statement of the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, “Peace will only be in exchange for peace.”, Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts and Republican Bob Inglis of South Carolina, met Assad.

Assad's comment after this meeting that he wanted to meet Obama personally was matched by the US Embassy's statement that the talks were constructive on Syrian-Lebanese relations, security on the Syria-Iraq border, and the situation in Gaza. On 5 May, two senior US officials, Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, made their second journey to Damascus in two months and found some “common ground” with the Syrians.

The 2nd Feltman-Shapiro visit was particularly significant as it came on the
same day that Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met to re-confirm their ‘strategic alliance.’ Contrary to the claim of many that this was a declaration of Syria's "strategic needs" being met by Tehran; Assad's manoevure was more a temporary alignment with no advance on the "road map" of the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli peace processes. In the absence of tangible steps, Damascus is covering itself against any unilateral concessions.

Hence, the second visit of Feltman and Shapiro was needed to maintain close contact between Washington and Damascus until the peace process could be restarted. Other regional leaders have also contributed. On May 11, the Jordanian King Abdullah visited Damascus, as he and Assad affirmed the need for a comprehensive solution on the basis of Israeli and Palestinian states in a regional context. The newly-appointed Syrian ambassador to Ankara said on 12 May that Damascus was ready to resume Turkish-mediated indirect talks with Israel, despite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement that he would not cede the Golan Heights.

In contrast to the Bush Administration's attempt to get the "right" Middle East through exclusion of those whom it did not like or trust, the Obama Administration in four months has rebuilt relationships with key leaders. Still, the outcome of those initial breakthroughs awaits an even bigger signal: the US President's speech in Cairo next Thursday.

Fear and Loathing in the British Parliament: An Explanation for my US Friends

There is a current political story here in Britain which seems to be confusing our friends across the pond: the Mother of Parliaments has got itself into very hot water over members' expenses.

A number of my American friends have asked me to explain the furore, the public’s mood of disgust and anger. It’s simple, isn’t it? Our politicians can bend the rules and obscure the truth. Orwell’s 1984 has landed in 2009. “Expenses” is “pay”, as the political pigs take over the trough.

Those who have worked in the commercial sector will know that being imaginative with expenses is both an art form and a duel with scrutinising accountants. When I had a company car, a car wash payment of £1.00 was once disallowed on grounds that I should have washed the vehicle in my own time. I argued that this was unfair, arbitrary and wrong. On appeal to the managing director, my claim was upheld. No surprise there: I knew the MD claimed the same expense.

This case goes far beyond a one-pound car wash, however, especially in a time of self-imposed national austerity. It is argued by Westminster wonks that it has not been possible to pay these public servants the market rate. What market? They now earn £67,000 annually, a sum far in excess of the UK average wage.

To supplement these meagre earnings, a system of expenses was devised by civil servants in the 1980s which has evolved into a massive abuse of privilege. While expenses have always been a grey area, the MPs have turned it purple. It seems that in the bubble that is Westminster, many of our representatives believe they are entitled to the maximum expenses as a right, with greed taking over from common sense and decency.

Members' expenses now have a life of their own, labyrinthine and distinct from the practices of lay persons as they take-home pay into six figures. A culture has developed where cheating becomes acceptable; fictions such as “flipping homes” are the default position and tax evasion, if not avoidance, is legitimate. I have no doubt that newly elected MPs were encouraged by experienced pols, not to mention the rubber-stamp fees office, to perpetuate the system and not to rock the boat by exposing its excesses.

I understand why Americans are confused by the dark practices of Westminster. Members of the US Congress currently earn a salary of $174,000. Party leaders and the Speaker of the House are paid more. Significantly, however, no allowances whatsoever are permitted for a second residence, notwithstanding that virtually every American federal legislator has a longer commute than any MP.

Less affluent junior members live in their offices and shower in the House gym. Many operate on what is called the Tuesday to Thursday Club, arriving in Washington DC late on Monday or early Tuesday and leaving Thursday evening to save money. Another arrangement, one more likely pursued by senior members, is to move their family to Washington and maintain a small residence, use the home of a relative, or even "live" from a mailbox address in their Congressional district.

The cost of trips to Washington is defrayed from an expense account created from monies raised by the legislator, not taxpayers. Travel and rental of office space in the district is paid out of this account. All receipts and payments must be published and are scrutinized by both federal and state authorities.

In a land where speech is equated with money, it is comforting to know that legislators are both legally restricted and strictly scrutinized on sums which can be converted to personal use. The American system is transparent and seems to be simplicity itself.

I do not suggest that all American legislators are squeaky clean. Illinois Governor Blagojevich was caught with fingers in the cookie jar just a few months ago when he tried to sell the Senate seat left vacant by the then President-Elect Obama. But the contrast needs to be emphasised. As it stands, American legislators must make a positive decision to cheat; British counterparts need to make a positive decision not to do so. The clean up of the expenses system has started but has a long way to go. I am fed up with hearing that an expense is “within the rules” when individual MPs must have known that the rules themselves, the rules of the club, were wrong.

There is now talk in Westminster that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change our informal constitution and make our legislators more accountable. One idea being floated is to remove the Prime Minister’s prerogative of choice of date of an election. Surely much more is needed. We suffer from an overwhelmingly powerful executive which has increasingly strangled the initiative of the legislative branch. We have an unelected second chamber, some of whose members sit in the judiciary as the most senior judges of the land. Separation of powers does not exist.

Lesser reforms could include changes to Prime Minister’s Question Time, often a farce as stooges put forward sycophantic questions designed to put the government in a good light rather than test our chief executive. For those readers who have sat in the Commons watching a debate, they will know it is poorly attended and remarks made from the benches are often the worst kind of sledging, more fitted to a soccer field. It is time for the Parliamentary boys and girls to behave as responsible men and women, answerable and transparent to their electorate.

America has a written constitution which has stood the test of time and works, with separation of powers strengthening American democracy. In the 1980s, the Senate was exposed for its un-American privileges, such as committee chairs being chosen by longevity, not ability. It took little time to reform its practices.

The beauty of American democracy is that no one needs to trust anyone else. Checks and balances take care of that. President Clinton expressed his jealousy of Prime Minister Blair’s powers for good reason. Governing should be difficult, but under our British system, passing a law is simplicity itself if the prime minister wants it. Arguably, if our cabinet had a tougher political life seeking to pass legislation, it would pay greater attention to MPs as a more independent scrutinising body. In turn, it would have kept its eye on the ball and not allowed both Houses of Parliament to fall into disrepute over grotesque cheating in the expenditure of public funds and exchange of money for legislative influence.


May Plan C on the Israeli-Arab Peace Process Work?

My colleague Scott Lucas wondered for weeks whether the Obama Administration has a Plan A for the Middle East before, last Friday, he finally wrote of an American "grand design".

With respect, I differ. The President and his advisors not only have a Plan A. They are ready with a Plan B and a Plan C.

Obama put Plan A for a two-state Israel-Palestine outcome and general Arab-Islamic agreements to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israelis made clear, and let the press know they had made clear, that this was not acceptable. So Plan B is working groups with the Israelis while encouraging regional leaders, such as Jordan's King Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to maintain the call for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Then there is Plan C. The Associated Press reported last week that the Obama Administration may set a deadline of the end of 2009 on talks with Iran if they are not producing result.

The immediate reading was that Washington might be siding with Tel Aviv on the need for an eventual showdown with Iran. The reality could be more nuanced: the Obama Administration may use Tehran’s uncompromising position to pull Arabs and Israelis together for a regional process including Israel-Palestine.

Although some claim that this Plan C will never work, since Arabs and Israelis have different fears with regards to Iran’s policies, others argue that it is the best path. "The administration has to find the best path," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Is this the best path? Given the opportunities, yes. They may not produce success but they offer the best alternative available."

The key to full Arab participation may be Syria, which has recently been in talks with Iran on a possible common approach. Here George Mitchell, Obama's Middle East envoy and a legendary negotiator, comes into play. Washington's ploy may be for Mitchell talks in Damascus to open the doors both to a diminishing of Iran’s influence and Israeli-Syrian talks.

Because Israel wants to see the Iranian threat "dealt with" before any peace deals with the Arabs, this subtle move by the Obama Administration could bring success. Instead of Israel’s insistence on clearing Tehran's nuclear facilities, Washington can change the context of the Tehran issue by adding the more political yet still forthright policies of Arab states into a broad-based coalition against Tehran. This approach may be enough to allay Tel Aviv’s concerns.