John Brennan’s confirmation hearing on Thursday for CIA director is shaping up to be a rare moment of scrutiny into the war on terror, especially the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists. Among politicians, there is little opposition to the basic idea of targeted killings, but a growing feeling among some members of both parties that the programme has got out of control. Here are 10 questions he should be asked.
1) Legality. The legal opinion that justifies killing suspected al-Qaeda terrorists who are Americans is being shared with some members of Congress, but is secret for everyone else. If the government claims the authority to kill some of its citizens, at the very least shouldn’t the legal justification be made public?
2) The Decider. According to a leaked summary of the legal opinion, drone strikes can be authorised by an “informed, high-level official”. How senior does that official have to be? Only the president? His counter-terrorism adviser? Military commanders in the field? And what happens if other high-level officials disagree? Read more
Facing a grilling: Chuck Hagel (Getty)
Chuck Hagel’s keenly awaited confirmation hearing on Thursday to be the next US defence secretary is likely to be dominated by the hot-button issues that have already got him into trouble with some of his fellow Republicans (and a few Democrats) – his position on Israel, his opposition to Iran sanctions, his criticism of the Iraq war and his views on gays.
If so, that will be a shame, because it would be both interesting and important to hear him explain what his brand of “principled realism” actually means for US foreign policy. The hearing could provide a seminal debate on America’s global role. Here are ten questions he should be asked.
1) Defence budget. You said in September 2011 that the defence budget was “bloated”. That was before the Pentagon announced $485bn in cuts over the next decade. Is the budget still bloated? Are more cuts possible or necessary?
2) Pentagon cuts. To meet the cuts that have already been announced, will the Pentagon need to axe some important capabilities? Can the US still afford all of its aircraft carrier groups? Is the F-35 jet fighter too expensive to support? Does the US need such a large presence in Europe? Read more
Israeli politician Yair Lapid (Getty)
The cruellest but most revealing tweet about the Israeli election exit polls came from the American writer Jeffrey Goldberg: “I wonder if someone in the White House is right now researching the question, ‘who is Yair Lapid, and what exactly does he think?’”
Exit polls need to be treated with caution and Israel’s political system is particularly complex, but the early indications are that Lapid, a former television personality and leader of the self-described “centre-centre” Yesh Atid, has been the big winner of the elections.
The Obama administration had expected to be dealing with a Benjamin Netanyahu emboldened by a commanding electoral win and leading a coalition that was even more right-wing in its distaste for doing a deal with the Palestinians. According to the script, Nafatli Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, and not Lapid, was supposed to be the new star. Instead, the most likely outcome seems to be a more chastened Netanyahu looking to Lapid and the centre to help him form a new government. Read more
Barack Obama and Chuck Hagel in Jordan in 2008. (Salah Malkawi/Getty)
The shadow boxing over the potential nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next Pentagon boss intensified on Thursday when allies of the former Republican Senator leapt to his defence.
Mr Hagel has emerged as the clear frontrunner to take over from Leon Panetta as secretary of defence but has come under attack in recent days for comments he made several years ago about the “Jewish lobby”.
Amid a drip-feed of criticisms and insinuations about Mr Hagel, nine former senior diplomats released a public letter on Thursday describing him as an “impeccable choice” for the Pentagon. “Time and again he chose to take the path of standing up for our nation over political expediency,” they wrote.
Given that Mr Hagel has been criticised by one pro-Israel group for views that they say “border on anti-Semitism”, one of the interesting features of the letter is that five of the signatories are former ambassadors to Israel – Daniel Kurtzer, Thomas Pickering, Sam Lewis, William Harrop and Edward Djerejian. “He has invariably demonstrated strong support for Israel and for a two state solution,” they write. Read more
Susan Rice – a successor to Hillary Clinton? (Getty)
North Korea’s rocket launch has injected itself into American politics in an unexpected way: it has become a real-life test of the diplomatic skills of Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN.
Ms Rice was a strong favourite to become the next secretary of state until she became the main target for Republican anger over the way the Obama administration handled the September attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But unlike the Benghazi attack, where her role was simply to appear on a few Sunday political talk shows, the North Korean rocket is a central part of Ms Rice’s job at the UN. And the pressure is now on to see if she can manoeuvre the UN into taking a much tougher line on North Korea. Read more
Much to Moscow’s anger, the Senate passed the Magnitsky bill on Thursday, which places visa bans and assets freezes on a group of Russian officials accused of contributing to the death of whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
The law is part of a broader piece of legislation that normalises trade relations with Russia following its entry to the World Trade Organisation this summer. The Magnitsky bill has attracted huge attention because of the gruesome back-story that propelled it and because of the friction it has caused between Moscow and Washington. But there are two further important things to note about the bill. Read more
Mitt Romney meets David Cameron (Getty)
American cable television has come a day late to Mitt Romney’s troubled visit to the UK, but is making up for lost time by giving lots of air time to the coverage in this morning’s British press. CNN has been running items every hour about Romney’s procession of gaffes and how they have been received. Pride of place has gone to the headline in The Sun: “Mitt the Twit”. Read more
Shakeel Afridi in July 2010. RAUF/AFP/GettyImages
This was the week when the US and Pakistan were supposed to start patching things up. Instead, it has ended in a new round of mutual recriminations, including a rare bipartisan bout of indignation from the US Senate.
Just as the US and Nato are trying to sketch out long-term strategy to keep Afghanistan stable once most troops leave at the end of 2014, the never-ending downward spiral in US-Pakistan ties is casting those plans into ever-further doubt.
The latest signs of ill-feeling came as a Senate committee voted unanimously on Thursday evening to cut $33m from next year’s foreign aid budget for Pakistan; $1m for every year in the jail sentence that Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi was awarded earlier this week. Read more