Early Comments on John Bellinger’s Brief


I’ve received some flack from TWN readers about part of last night’s gathering with Legal Advisor to the Secretary of State John Bellinger being on the record — and part off.
Not to belittle those who think that everything should be on the record, let me just remind folks that in this administration, there are not many senior government officials who are willing to walk into a room with the type of people who attended yesterday evening’s dinner gathering without an unscripted result.
So, some who view these matters from outside the Beltway may not like it, but in my view, folks should be satisfied that I was able to secure agreement from John Bellinger to have a significant portion of his commentary “on the record.”
I give John Bellinger enormous credit for his willingness to engage in public forums of this sort.
Last night’s discussion involved quite a bit of tugging back and forth over legalisms that riddle our foreign policy as well as the subjects of torture, rendition, the prosecution of global thugs who commit heinous crimes against humanity and so on. It was one of the most fascinating meetings I have moderated.
As one of the very senior journalists in the room mentioned to me on the way out, he said he could not remember a meeting where “real discussion and debate” about “real issues” between a room full of pull-no-punches writers and public intellectuals had taken place with a senior Bush administration official. While I thought that the evening was semi-stressful, my email box is full of those who saw it as refreshing and important. I suspect that some articles will appear that draw from John Bellinger’s presentation.
I need to take a few days to work through my notes and a recording of the talk to provide more substantial commentary, but as a quick executive summary, John Bellinger did say that the administration had taken some legal paths that had proved to be problematic and had made some mistakes. But the full thrust of his comments went in two directions — first, to make a conscientious, constructive commitment to getting America back into discussions regarding international law. The second part of his talk essentially provided legal rationalizations and justifications for many of the controversial positions of the Bush administration.
This latter part ignited quite a bit of feisty exchange during the dinner.
Among those who attended were Time Magazine correspondent TIMOTHY BURGER, former Congressman and Electronic Industries Alliance President (and Tom DeLay “K Street Project” Target Survivor) DAVE McCURDY, former State Department Chief of Staff and College of William and Mary Visiting Professor LAWRENCE WILKERSON, Washington Post correspondent WALTER PINCUS, New York Times Correspondent JIM RISEN, Washington Post columnist DAVID IGNATIUS, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and former National Security Council Middle East Director FLYNT LEVERETT, and Nelson Report proprietor CHRIS NELSON.
The group included New America Foundation Whitehead Senior Fellow MICHAEL LIND, New Yorker correspondent JANE MAYER, New America Foundation Fellow and CNN Terrorism Analyst PETER BERGEN, Bloomberg Broadcast Director and former CNN Washington Bureau Chief KATHRYN KROSS, C-Span Congressional Editor ROBB HARLESTON, Handelsblatt Deputy Editor in Chief MICHAEL BACKFISCH, Guardian DC Bureau Chief JULIAN BORGER, Peace & Security Initiative Director DEEPTI CHOUBEY, New America Foundation Senior Research Fellow ANATOL LIEVEN, Institute for Defense Analyses program director and former policy director at the Coalition Provisional Authority ROBERT POLK, Daily Telegraph DC Bureau Chief ALEC RUSSELL, BMW Washington Director and former Commerce Department Chief of Staff CRAIG HELSING, and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and former National Security Council staff member RICHARD FALKENRATH.
Others in the room who participated in the fascinating and sometimes tense but candid-on-all-sides discussion were Associated Press correspondent ANNE GEARAN, Newsweek correspondent EVAN THOMAS, UN Foundation senior staff JOHANNA MENDELSON FORMAN, business executive RICHARD VAGUE, Policy Review Editor and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow TOD LINDBERG, Inter-Press Service Correspondent JIM LOBE, News Hour with Jim Lehrer Senior Foreign Policy Producer MICHAEL MOSETTIG, Scowcroft Group principal and former State Department official KEVIN NEALER, Wall Street Journal correspondent JAY SOLOMON, Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff, newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of Energy ALEXANDER KARSNER, New America Foundation American Strategy Program Associate SAMEER LALWANI, Atlantic Monthly/National Journal correspondent PAUL STAROBIN, and yours truly — STEVE CLEMONS of The Washington Note and New America Foundation.
I list the names of this event because I believe that serious speakers should have serious audiences. And for the many bloggers out there who wonder where the political bloggers were, I invited several — and none of those I invited could make it.
I will post more on the Bellinger initiative later — and will try to outline what I think is substantively important and that part which I think is more new PR than actually new.
More later.
— Steve Clemons