x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Congress disapproves of 'equivalency'

While Congress was busy putting its stamp on Middle East budget legislation, the rest of Washington was riveted by a series of speeches and elections Lebanon's and Iran's.

While Congress was busy putting its stamp on Middle East budget legislation, the rest of Washington was riveted by a series of speeches (those of the US president, Barack Obama, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu) and elections (Lebanon's and Iran's). Probably the only one of these events to elicit a simple and unified response was the victory of the March 14 coalition in Lebanon. The reaction from all quarters, official and unofficial, was relief.

The president's Cairo speech, widely praised in the US media, was subjected to harsh criticism by Republicans. In the days following the speech, I debated with Liz Cheney, George Allen, a former US senator, and other lesser lights on the right, all singing off the same songsheet. Mr Obama was accused of "moral equivalency" (for equating Israel's suffering with that of the Palestinians!), demeaning America by apologising for the 1953 coup in Iran, and making the US less safe by admitting we lost our moral bearings after the September 11 attacks.

Mr Netanyahu's speech was given mixed reviews, with virtually all the major US media focusing as much on what he did not say (end settlements), as on what he did (a Palestinian state). Also prominent in the coverage were criticisms of the encumbrances he placed on that "state" (as in The New York Times story headlined Netanyahu Backs Palestinian State, with Caveats). Most news stories gave as much space to the Palestinian critique of the speech as they gave to the speech itself. No free rides here.

Last month the Government Accountability Office issued a lengthy report to Congress titled Foreign Assistance: Measures to Prevent Inadvertent Payments to Terrorists under Palestinian Aid Programs Have Been Strengthened, but Some Weaknesses Remain. Complete with dizzying charts, the report details the flow of US foreign aid through USAID and UNWRA and then onto "sub-awardees" in order to determine whether enough guarantees are in place to ensure that no US monies go to groups such as Hamas that are on the US government terrorist list. The conclusion is found in the report's rather wordy title. What is of interest here, however, is not the findings, but Congress's penchant for mandating reports.

Whether intended as punishment for the bureaucracy, a principled effort at oversight, or just a novel job-creating programme for unemployed researchers - barely a month goes by without the legislative branch requiring some agency to write a detailed report about something. The most massive example of this report writing enterprise is, of course, the state department's annual Human Rights Report.

This effort, beginning in 1977, was launched in order to help Congress in its determination as to whether countries qualified for US military or foreign aid - the notion being that "gross violators" of rights would be disqualified. Over the decades, the report has grown in size. It began as a few hundred pages and is now a few thousand, involving at different times, hundreds of department of state employees. It is written, rarely read (except by individual countries wanting to see how they fare) and almost never used for its intended purpose.

Undeterred by this apparent wasted effort, Congress has continued to require different agencies to write reports - ever creating entire bureaucracies to fulfil these mandates. There are annual reports on religious freedom, human trafficking, sanctions against such countries as Iran and Cuba and periodic reports on Palestinian efforts to stop anti-Israel incitement. Two weeks ago, Congress considered mandating two new report writing exercises.

One was an assessment as to whether it was safe to send US personnel back to Gaza both to provide humanitarian assistance and to "commence monitoring functions relating to humanitarian aid distribution in Gaza to ascertain that United States foreign assistance is not misused in ways that benefit any organisation designated as a foreign terrorist organisation". In other words, a report to facilitate the writing of the next GAO report.

This proposal was accepted. Congress did reject a proposal by the sometimes comical senator, John Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, who wanted to require "a report on damage to projects and programs in Gaza caused by Hamas". And so on June 12, Congress passed the 2009 Supplemental Appropriations Bill, in addition to requiring a number of reports on all things Palestinian, they set aside US$2 million (Dh7.34m) to cover the cost of these efforts. (Incidentally, Israel is the only recipient of US foreign and military assistance from GAO or USAID accounting or report writing.)

On May 21 the front pages of both the New York Daily News and New York Post (both notorious, sensation-seeking tabloids) screamed Terror Plot. The story, as reported in these two papers and nationwide, seemed frightening enough. Four Muslim men (or as one paper claimed "Arab") had been arrested on their way to Stewart Airport, intending to shoot down a US military plane. They had also planted bombs in front of two New York synagogues.

The story played out all day (and a few more) in the US papers, cable television with politicians denouncing the "home-grown terrorists" and radio talk show hosts hyperventilating about the "dangers within". But then a few enterprising journalists took a closer look raising serious questions about the role of an FBI "informant", who had tipped off law enforcement officials about the plot. It appears that he is a convicted felon who was turned into an "informant".

He plied the four men (all ex-convicts, who had converted to Islam in prison) with money, fuelled their anger and then provided them with bombs and weapons (which all turned out to be fakes) and then had them arrested. Frightening? Yes! Home-grown danger? Also, yes. But not quite the story, as initially reported. In response, one of the United States's more serious Muslim advocacy groups, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, has denounced this use of informants "and called on members of the American Muslim community to be on alert and take proactive measures to protect the security of our religious institutions, communities, and nation."