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Whatever Happened to Minding Our Own Business?

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It had been some time since I tuned into a Senate hearing on CSpan – this one was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State Department’s 2015 budget with Secretary of State John Kerry as the only witness.   Having once walked the marbled halls of Congress for a living, I am familiar with Congressional hearings but times have changed and so have the Democrats who are virtually indistinguishable from Republicans – if only by tone rather than content.

Staged as a legitimate legislative process, the hearing served as a rude reminder of the self-delusional nature of American foreign policymakers, assuming the American public will accept their version of reality – although current polls show 61% of Americans still believe the country is headed in the wrong direction with 53% disapproval on Obama’s foreign policy. Two and a half hours of listening to  distorted adaptations of the historical record left me wondering that if a country’s elected officials repeatedly act contrary to the wishes of its citizens, is that country still a democracy?

Chair of the Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez greeted Kerry citing his recent travel itinerary of 44 countries with over 855 hours in the air equivalent to 35 days of continuous flying which could be one explanation for the Secretary’s sometimes obvious jet-lag and unpredictable off-the-cuff responses.  Oxygen deficiency, gravity overload  –  all that rarified air can play tricks on one’s ability to get your feet on the ground.

Menendez, a reliable carrier of legislative water for AIPAC who frequently sounds as if he is reciting AIPAC talking points, opened the hearing with these noteworthy excerpts:

“As the situations in the Ukraine, Syria and Venezuela demonstrate, never has the need for American leadership and engagement in the world been greater. “

“…in this complex and rapidly changing global environment, we know that our national security interests are our priority number one and they cannot be jeopardized.  The $40.3 billion in base discretionary funding for the Department of State and US AID provides solid footing after years of   uncertainty for our international efforts…. and the $5.9 billion for overseas contingency operation activities allow us to continue to address challenges in the middle east and north Africa including the Syrian humanitarian crisis, in Afghanistan and other front line states.”

“We also need to make sure this budget is structured so our nation is capable of meeting the new challenges and opportunities of today’s world.”

“…the menacing threat by Russia in the Ukraine – a challenge to its very existence.   We can and will continue to stand with the Ukrainian people who by right will choose their own destiny.  …authorizing a billion dollars in loan guarantees and other assistance to strength civil society  and security in the region, we have also have given you tools to respond to Russia in the form  of sanctions.  Our message to President Putin and his cronies must be robust and swift. “

“On Syria, as we commemorate the third anniversary of the uprising, I am pleased that the Administration is prioritizing assistance both in humanitarian aid and support for the opposition … the $1.7 billion request sends an important signal to Syria and to the world of our commitment.”

Even a semi-conscious reader with a less than discriminating eye can find good cause for alarm in Menendez’s words.   All the talk about ‘engagement’ and ‘national security” and ‘priority number one’, ‘new challenges,’ ‘support the opposition’ and a ‘robust and swift’ response are frightening indications of an indifferent, out-of-control government on the edge of lunacy.

It was ‘overseas contingency operation activities’ that caught my eye and when Menendez, a prominent Republicrat, describes those activities using legislative-ese lingo, he is cautious to not alert the comatose media or American public as to exactly what ‘activities’ the US State Department is spending $5.9 billion a year on ‘overseas’.

In case you’re wondering why ‘overseas contingency’ is a function of the State Department,  “Overseas Contingency Operations” from the Department’s 2012 budget request says that the Department “will take on new roles previously filled by the Department of Defense (DOD) in order to maintain its civilian presence, and face security and logistical challenges for expeditionary diplomatic missions.  These vital national security roles place unprecedented demands on the Department and its people.”

In other words, the OCO serves as political rationale for a continued US presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as a funding and organizing source for ousting legitimate governments like Ukraine and similar ‘activities’ elsewhere.  A critical piece of State Department exploits, the OCO operates with little public awareness or any real Congressional oversight.

Here are added reasons for concern from the OCO document:

“The Department will work with Pakistan to disrupt violent groups that destabilize the region while strengthening Pakistan‘s resolve to combat those elements. These tasks are formidable.”

… “essential foreign policy goals’ include ‘safeguard nuclear stockpiles to supporting over 250 locations overseas.”

“The increased role in the frontline states (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) will be an exceptional test for the Department, its diplomats and its resources, one that adds considerable expense and requirements to an already ambitious mission.”

“The OCO request will fund extraordinary Department operations in the frontline states that are above and beyond the Department‘s normal mission costs.”

While praising the Department’s goals and direction, Menendez confessed that he was ‘incredibly troubled” that State Department funding for the western hemisphere would be decreased $358 million and that those cuts would “lead us to a lack of comprehensive approach  in Latin America  and necessary resources to back it up whether in  Central America where nations are facing a threat of  criminal violence and  major challenges to governance and the rule of law….and then threats to democracy, freedom of expression and human rights in our hemisphere in Cuba and Venezuela and Ecuador.   As we have seen a volatile situation in Venezuela, undermining democracy can lead to political crisis and violence that has implications for the entire region.”

And while $5.9 billion may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to what has already been squandered on American wars since 2003, it would be a heaven-sent lifeline to millions of Americans who have lost unemployment benefits or their homes or their food stamp allocation or to twenty million homeless American children –  but then people programs are not Sen. Menendez’s ‘priority number one’ and when Victoria Nuland referred to $5 billion spent in Ukraine by the State Department, we now know it was an ‘overseas contingency operation’.

As the hearing moved on, I do hereby publicly confess to a modicum of empathy for Kerry when Menendez who has taken his role as Senate spokesman for AIPAC, oops, I mean committee Chair ultra- seriously, went after Kerry like a dog on a bone in a lengthy exchange opposing the Obama Administration’s proposed uranium enrichment agreement with Iran.

In response to Sen. Corker (R-Tenn) regarding why the US had not yet implemented the ‘use of force’ resolution that the Committee (and Congress) had approved months earlier in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, Kerry missed the opportunity to suggest that Corker read  Seymour Hersh’s recent investigation that Turkey and Saudi Arabia had roles in providing sarin (a different strain from what is found in the Syrian government arsenal) to al Nusra, the US -supported rebel group.

But that would have meant that Corker and Kerry would have had to read either Hersh’s reportage or the highly classified US Defense Intelligence Agency briefing paper – but maybe they are not on the distribution list.  Instead, Secretary Kerry went on to inform the Committee that “we are deeply engaged with opposition, more engaged than we have ever been before.”  Corker and Kerry tussled briefly whether the Congressional ‘use of force’ resolution on Syria would have been a ‘limited strike’ as Kerry contends or whether dropping bombs had the effect of ‘going to war’ as Corker maintained.

The Secretary assured the Committee that Russian “provocateurs and paid operatives” had “crossed an international boundary” and were operating in eastern Ukraine with the purpose of “creating chaos” and that it was “absolutely unacceptable” and part of a ‘transparent’ effort to “destabilize a sovereign state” and to create a “contrived crisis.”  At times, it was confusing whether the Secretary was referring to Russia or the US.

Sen.  Ben Cardin (D- Md), another AIPAC champion. raised the controversial idea  that  “those responsible for  attacks on innocent civilians should be held accountable by international community.”  What he probably meant to say is that every country should be held accountable, except Israel and the US.

Cardin went on to disparage Palestinians for “making negotiations difficult “ because they  “will not acknowledge the right of a Jewish state” but  the basic question of why there should be a separate Jewish state to the exclusion of other ethnicities never seems to get asked.  It would seem plain common sense that Israel would benefit from becoming a more diverse, a multi-denominational, all-encompassing country integrating Jews along with other peoples; a nation where all religions can live side by side.

The next Democrat to take the microphone was Sen.  Chris Murphy (D-Conn) who will be remembered for taking the stage in Kiev to stand with Oleh Tyahnybok, a member of the  anti-semitic Svoboda party, during the Ukrainian uprising.   Regarded as a liberal Democrat, Murphy’s comments that ‘one of the guiding principles behind Putin’s foreign policy is to poke a stick in the eye of the US”  and that ‘we are not willing to play by the same rules he is willing to play” did little to enhance his stature as a thoughtful progressive.

Secretary Kerry assured the Senators that the State Department would “manage the process going forward  with a clarity,”  “…that things were professed before going into Crimea that weren’t upheld; statements were made about not violating the integrity of Ukraine and they did”…“all of our European partners, countless other people are invested in this notion that what has happened is a violation of the international order, a structure by which we have dealt since WWII  in recognizing boundaries of countries and sovereignty  and integrity of territory.”

In praising US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoff Pyatt (see Victoria Nuland audio tape), Murphy described how the committee rushed Pyatt’s nomination “voted out of the committee and Senate expeditiously (approved by the Senate,  July, 2013) so that he was on the ground in time to know the country, learn the players so that he was ready to go when this crisis erupted, having no idea at the moment of his confirmation that he would be needed in this way “  But that raises the question of how did the Statement Department know to ‘expeditiously’ get Pyatt into Ukraine if they did not know that a rebellion was about to occur?

The only small glimmers of any analytical or independent thinking appeared at the end of the hearing as the two newest Senators on the Committee took their turns.

Sen. Ed Markey (D- Mass) referred to recent protests in Donetsk with pro-Russian citizens demanding a referenda on May 11 ahead of the Ukraine presidential election on May 25 with  “clearly the goal in that part of the country wishing to secede and go back to Russia.”  Markey asked Kerry about a referenda strategy as it is unfolding and what is the Obama Administration’s thinking on such strategy and how would it deal with additional  requests for secession to Russia.

Markey’s question deserved a response but all he received was that secession requests would be seen as  ‘very dangerous’, ”completely unconstitutional”, ”internationally unsupportable”, in “violation of territorial integrity of Ukraine” and so on blaming it all on some unknown  ‘paid individual’ in Donetsk.

The last Senator to address Kerry was Sen. Rand Paul  (R- Ky) who pointed out certain department expenses such as $100,000 for an electric charging station in Vienna, $700,000 for landscaping at Brussels Embassy, $100,000 to send a “make chai, not war’ comedy tour to India, $650,000 for Facebook ads and a whopping  $5 million for crystal glassware.  Without specifically naming the ‘overseas contingency operation,’ Paul resuscitated Benghazi in the context of whether the State Department should be in charge of security and whether it can ‘adequately be in charge of security.’

Secretary Kerry responded that there is a “very significant increase in American personnel on the ground (in Libya);  more significant emergency contingency plans.”

But all Senators missed the mark –  absent was any reference to minding our own business and when will the troops come home.

Renee Parsons was a staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives and a lobbyist on nuclear energy issues with Friends of the Earth.  in 2005, she was elected to the Durango City Council and served as Councilor and Mayor.  Currently, she is a member of the Treasure Coast ACLU Board.

Renee Parsons has been a member of the ACLU’s Florida State Board of Directors and president of the ACLU Treasure Coast Chapter. She has been an elected public official in Colorado, an environmental lobbyist and staff member of the US House of Representatives in Washington DC. She can be found on Twitter @reneedove31

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