History Has Been Made

The news just broke: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is lifting the military’s ban on women in combat. The move will open hundreds of thousands of front-line positions to women, clearing away the daunting career barriers that have been in place since a 1994 rule that prohibited women from being assigned to small ground combat units (of course, thousands of women have been “attached” to such units and the world did not end).

I have covered this issue for more than two decades and wrote about military women’s long slog toward acceptance, most recently here.

No doubt, social conservatives will decry the move as the end of civilization and at least one gadfly will use the announcement to raise funds for her questionable organization. But women are already on the front line and this nation could not go to war without them.

It was true back in 1999, when I shared a leaky, muddy tent in Albania with women warriors during the Kosovo War:

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And it remains true to this day in Afghanistan.

Bravo to the Pentagon for lifting the already irrelevant ban on women in combat.

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Where Would You Rather Be?

The never-ending, New Years Eve-spoiling Fiscal Cliff drama still unfolding on Capitol Hill has reminded me why I so disliked my years covering Congress as a reporter for USA TODAY. As many of my friends and former colleagues learned last night, much of their job is standing around. And standing around. And, oh yeah, standing around while our elected representatives dither over what they would — or would not — do about something they should have done long before. In other words, a lot of late nights.

Take this photo that ran in The New York Times back in 2005. It shows Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist briefing the media during the debate on Judge John Roberts’ nomination for chief justice of the Supreme Court. That’s me on the right diligently taking notes. That was a rather calm presser and, unlike those covering the current controversy, I didn’t have to cancel my New Years Eve plans.

Capitol Hill 2005

Now take a look at these photos of me hard at work almost four years ago to the day:

abu ghraib interview

abu ghraib street interview

These were taken outside the prison in Abu Ghraib in Iraq a couple days after New Years 2009. I was there for this story about the transfer of detainees to the government of Iraq.

Yes, I did have to wear heavy body armor to interview a local council member and storekeepers in the market. And I did have to travel in an armored MRAP to get to my appointments. But compared to covering the political battle right now on Capitol Hill, I’ll take a war zone in the Middle East any day.

Another Secretary Rice?

If Republicans get their way, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice won’t be promoted to secretary of State in President Obama’s second term after Hillary Clinton retires. While the brouhaha over Benghazi doesn’t appear to have damaged her, new details about Rice’s relationship with certain African governments when she was an official the Clinton State Department may yet doom her nomination.

The current situation recalls an earlier controversy over another African-American woman named Rice who was slated to become America’s top diplomat after holding a similarly high-level job in the administration. I’m talking, of course, about Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s choice to be secretary of State in his second term.

Democrats opposed elevating the White House national security adviser, citing her role in the invasion of Iraq on the faulty grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons on mass destruction. The Senate went on to confirm Rice 85-13, with the most negative votes cast against a secretary of State nominee since 1825.

All that was behind Rice as she embarked on her first official trip as secretary of State in February 2005. I was on Rice’s plane, covering the historic trip for USA TODAY. It was a whirlwind trip as we raced to 10 European and Middle Eastern capitals in six days: London, Berlin, Warsaw, Ankara, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Rome, Paris, Brussels and Luxembourg. I filed this report on her reception.

Surely the most memorable moment of the trip — other than a case of food poisoning that laid me low from Germany through Poland and into Turkey — was our stop in Rome. Although I had already been to the Eternal City as a tourist, it was nice to revisit the Pantheon for a private tour with the world’s most powerful diplomat (that’s me on the right listening intently to the docent):

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Afterward, the entire traveling press corps went to a nearby restaurant for a private, off-the-record dinner. Since Rice had already given the reporters on her inaugural trip signed world atlases, the journalists returned the favor by giving the rabid Cleveland Browns fan an autographed football. You can see where I signed just between her fingers:

Rice’s honeymoon wouldn’t last long. By the time I accompanied her overseas on a high-stakes mission in the summer of 2006 as yet another crisis in Lebanon raged, the mood had darkened considerably.

Israel Ceasefire, Circa 2006

President Obama has dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Cambodia to Israel to try to broker a ceasefire that will end the conflict in Gaza. The deepening violence, which comes as the administration is trying to pivot its foreign policy away from the Middle East and toward Asia, recalls a previous crisis in which America’s top diplomat shuttled between the two regions in a precarious balancing act.

In July 2006, I traveled with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she led a high-level U.S. diplomatic mission to end an earlier battle in which Islamic militants fired thousands of rockets over a border into Israel. Today the clash is with Hamas in Gaza, then it was Hezbollah in Lebanon. In each, the conflict quickly escalated with Israel’s superior firepower taking a disproportionate toll on its enemy and the international community demanding an end to hostilities.

Then as now there were questions about how hard the White House would press the warring factions to stop the conflict. Back then, the small traveling press corps secretly choppered from Cyprus into Beirut with Rice to meet with Lebanese leaders. Here is my  audio report from Beirut:

Next we were off to Jerusalem and Ramallah, where Rice huddled with here Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. Here is my audio update from Jerusalem:

Our next stop was Rome for a hastily convened meeting of representatives from 15 nations. The conference failed to end the fighting thanks to foot-dragging by President George W. Bush’s administration, which quietly favored giving Israel more time to pound Hezbollah’s forces before calling a truce. Listen to my audio report on the conference:

From Rome we were off to Malaysia for a previously scheduled forum of Southeast Asia nations. We would cool our heels for two days in Kuala Lumpur while backroom talks continued in the Middle East. Then it was back to Jerusalem once more before we headed home to Washington with a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, where we filed our last trip dispatches.

The UN Security Council would approve a ceasefire two weeks later. How the current crisis will end remains to be seen.

Ismail Khan Is Back

This morning’s New York Times offered a blast from the past:

HERAT, Afghanistan —One of the most powerful mujahedeen commanders in Afghanistan, Ismail Khan, is calling on his followers to reorganize and defend the country against the Taliban as Western militaries withdraw, in a public demonstration of faltering confidence in the national government and the Western-built Afghan National Army.

I interviewed Khan for USA TODAY almost exactly 10 years ago, in December 2002.

Herat, Afghanistan – December 2002

Then as now, he was among the most powerful Afghan warlords, ruling the western region of the country near Iran with an iron hand. My interview, arranged by U.S. special forces and held at a government guest house in the middle of the night, remains one of my most memorable interviews I have ever done.

As the mujahedeen commander, who now holds the seemingly benign post of minister of energy and water, reasserts his power as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw by 2014, this article published a decade ago remains valuable in understanding the thinking of a key figure in Afghanistan’s future. As Khan told me, he rejects the label “warlord.” He and other armed regional leaders are ”genuine nationalists,” he said, ”not just people who are carrying guns. We are not gunslingers.” Indeed.

I was unable to find the original post on the USA TODAY website, which only goes back so far. But an English language Afghan news website, e-Ariana, reprinted the entire article. There was just one glitch: it attributed my USA TODAY story to the New York Times. But at least they spelled my name right. Check out “Afghan governor de facto ruler in west “Warlords” like him hold fate of central government.”

Covering Yasser Arafat’s Funeral

It was eight years ago today, on Nov. 12, 2004, that I stood in a half-finished building overlooking the Mukata Compound in Ramallah on the West Bank. There I was a witness to history as tens of thousands of grieving Palestinians mourned their national leader, Yasser Arafat. I had arrived in Jerusalem just as preparations for the funeral were underway but nothing could prepare me for the frenzied melee of hysterical mourners, gunfire and overall chaos as the helicopter carrying his coffin kicked up dust and debris as it was enveloped by the mob.

Listen to my live report from the scene as I try mightily to be heard above the din of gunfire:

Recalling Another Vice Presidential Campaign

Last week’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan got me thinking of another national campaign I covered a dozen years ago that also saw two running mates square off in Danville, Ky. I’m talking about the historic 2000 election that not only ended in the Florida recount but pitted incumbent Vice President Dick Cheney against the first Jewish candidate on a major ticket, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. The Democrat-turned-Independent is retiring this year but in the fall of 2000, he was a hot political commodity and I was the reporter USA TODAY assigned to travel on his plane during the fall campaign.

With the candidate on his 2000 vice presidential campaign plane

From Bangor, Maine, to Seattle and every swing state in between, I was with Lieberman 24/6 (the Democratic veep press corps was the only one that got off for the Jewish sabbath). I reported on the highs — watching in the studio as he did his schtick on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart  and Late Night With Conan O’Brien — and the lows — charges “the moral conscience of the Senate” turned partisan and fickle on the campaign trail. And I was at Gore-Lieberman headquarters in Nashville on Election Night, reporting  on the team that covered the fallout that ended more than a month later at the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark decision Bush v. Gore.

A few years later, I traveled to Manchester, N.H. to cover Lieberman’s lackluster campaign for the top job in the 2004 presidential election and, a few weeks later, wrote about his decision to call it quits and stay on Capitol Hill.

Over the years, I’ve weighed in on Lieberman’s ability to infuriate his once-fellow Democrats, his neoconservatism , the political view of his fellow Orthodox Jews and his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Whatever you think of Joe, after 24 years in the Senate, all I can say is gey gezunterheyt, which is Yiddish for “go in good health.”