5 Hill staffers to watch on Afghanistan
As members of Congress digest Obama’s new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and decide how they want to weigh in, some key staffers behind the scenes will be important to watch: Tom Hawkins – national security advisor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY Since the Senate GOP is poised to be Obama’s main source of support on ...
As members of Congress digest Obama’s new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and decide how they want to weigh in, some key staffers behind the scenes will be important to watch:
Tom Hawkins – national security advisor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY
Since the Senate GOP is poised to be Obama’s main source of support on implementing his Afghanistan surge strategy, how McConnell decides to proceed will be a marker for how the rest of the GOP approaches the issue. His main adviser on such matters is Hawkins.
McConnell came out with relatively strong support for the Obama plan in a conference call following the speech, only taking issue with how the administration plans to pay for the buildup (he suggested the money come from leftover stimulus funds) and Obama’s July 2011 date for beginning withdrawal. McConnell has decided that GOP opposition to the timeline can wait for now. But when it does come up, Hawkins will play a role in the substance and tactics of that battle.
McConnell often delegates war policy strategy to some degree to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking Republican, John McCain, R-AZ, who could be the one to throw up roadblocks to implementing the withdrawal date. In McCain’s shop, one player to watch is the senator’s new aide Christian Brose, a former FP senior editor who works with Hawkins and others to determine the tactics and tone any Republican pushback on Obama’s new strategy might take.
Paul Juola – staff director for the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and aide to Chairman John P. Murtha, D-PA
Eventually, Obama will have to come to Congress to get his surge money. And while he’s expected to eventually get it, you can be sure there will be some twists and turns along the way. When will the money be disbursed? Will it be part of the regular defense bill or a supplemental bill? What items will members add for themselves, their constituents, and their friends? A lot of these questions will get adjudicated by Juola. As director of the subcommittee, he runs the staff that actually writes the military sections of the appropriations bills. Murtha has said there would be a supplemental of at least $40 billion. Since the surge might only cost $30 billion, that’s a lot of wiggle room to play with. Committee sources also say that Juola has the ear of the chairman and full committee when it comes to money.
That money will also have to go through the Senate Appropriations Committee, run by Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, albeit after the House side has the first crack at the bill. Charlie Houy is the main man on Inouye’s appropriations committee staff dealing with that issue. Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee staffer Betsy Schmid is also important.
Rick Kessler, staff director for House Foreign Affairs Committee and aide to chairman Howard Berman, D-CA.
Kessler coordinates a team of experts who are involved in every aspect of the new strategy, from regional affairs, nuclear nonproliferation, and legal issues involving the Pentagon. Berman consults heavily with Kessler’s team when it comes to what questions to ask, what hearings to schedule, and Kessler’s staff was huge in writing Berman’s Pakistan aid bill, part of the new approach to the region. Berman himself has not yet come out in support of Obama’s new strategy, saying that he’s going to take some more time and think it over. You can be sure that Berman is relying on the brainpower of Kessler and his subordinates in making that decision, and that the administration will be seeking their support.
Key players on Kessler’s team include David Fite, who handles nuclear issues, Daniel Silverberg, the guy who deals with the Pentagon, and Jasmeet Ahuja, a former State Department staffer who deals with South Asia.
Vance Serchuk, foreign-policy Advisor to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT
Joe Lieberman is a unique actor in the Afghanistan debate. Neither a loyal Democrat nor a Republican, he is nevertheless a reliable hawk and never shy to criticize the Obama administration when it comes to national-security matters. Isn’t it interesting therefore that he has so wholeheartedly embraced Obama’s new strategy, even defending to some extent Obama’s explanation for setting a time frame for beginning withdrawal? Behind Lieberman’s thinking is Serchuk, a smart and polished young staffer who was a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute before transferring to Lieberman’s office as a legislative assistant and now a senior advisor. AEI was where the Iraq surge idea was born and its current thought leaders, including Bill Kristol, have come out strong and unwavering in support of Obama’s plan (Not all conservatives have followed along).
Some observers see Lieberman (and AEI) as hugging Obama on the Afghanistan surge in order to prep the ground for a full-on "stay the course" campaign in 2011. By embracing Obama on this now, they can point back to their support of him later when they make the case that the military mission in Afghanistan should be extended. Serchuk is aided by fellow Lieberman staffer Chris Griffin, another AEI alumnus.
Bill Monahan – counsel for the Senate Armed Services Committee majority staff and aide to Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI
Monahan is Levin’s point man for Afghanistan. Levin has been against increasing combat troops, in favor of placing more emphasis on training the Afghan army. And although Levin is supporting the president’s plan, he continues his call for more Afghan troops faster and isn’t likely to let that issue go. Levin is also known for his tough and pointed questions for officials. His office is crucial in pushing for details of the new strategy, clearing up discrepancies, and combating lines of criticism that might come either from the right or the left. As Levin’s lead on all of that, Monahan’s work will surely come to have an impact. He works closely with SASC general counsel Peter Levine, another important SASC staffer to watch.
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin
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