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Good and Bad News on Jane Harman: Why Her Voice in Congress Matters

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harman222.jpgWord is leaking out everywhere that Representative Jane Harman (D-CA) is resigning her House seat in favor of succeeding Democratic foreign policy icon Lee Hamilton as the next president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

For Harman personally, this may be great news.

The job running the Wilson Center is one of the premier foreign policy/national security spots in Washington, and I think Jane Harman has a balanced understanding of the realist and idealist forces swirling around many of the key problems facing the US and the international system today.

But I am a bit disheartened on other fronts by her likely departure from Congress.

First of all, Harman -- whose trust in the George W. Bush administration's management of intelligence led her to strongly support the invasion of Iraq -- had become chastened by that experience and spoke out strongly in favor of more Congressional oversight and "certainty" when it came to future deployments of American men and women in combat.

Second, she is one of the few Democrats in Congress who has a deep understanding of the architecture of national security intelligence and knows a lot about the technical dimensions of satellites. I always felt that it was a significant mistake by Nancy Pelosi not to make Jane Harman Chair of the House Intelligence Committee because her knowledge of the beast so far outstripped anyone else's background by far.

Third, Jane Harman, who is no softy when it comes to matters of war and peace and is someone many have considered a hawk, nonetheless was emerging as a sort of J. William Fulbright-style voice against the deepening commitments of the US in the Afghanistan War. She emerged as one of the Obama administration's more serious critics, citing inchoate strategy and the problem of a corrupt-to-the-bones partner in the Karzai administration. Her voice on Afghanistan will be particularly missed.

On the Israel front, Harman, who was also one of those Members of Congress close to AIPAC and of course close to Israel's interests, was also someone who demonstrated in words and by her example that the US could not afford false choices between our relationship with Israel and our relationship with other governments in the region. Even though Iran has hardly been cooperative, Harman was a leading voice during the latter years of the G.W. Bush administration for at least engaging Iran to see what might be accomplished. She is a realist in her assessments of Middle East politics and turmoil and refuses to yield to oversimplified versions of what is going on there -- whether from Israel-tilting or Arab-tilting sources. This is the kind of perspective we need more of in Congress.

Lastly, Harman is one who believes that we are operating in a "fog of law" internationally in responding to terrorist challenges coming from non-state actors rather than the "rule of law." She believes that we need to deal with this -- be up front about it -- and renegotiate with the international system new rules for the era we are in today rather than one from the past. I totally agree with her -- and think that Harman's voice in this arena will be missed among the members of Congress who have much less mature and developed views.

I wish Jane Harman well and congratulate her on her new post at the Wilson Center -- but I think it's also fair to lament some fronts where the nation will be worse off for her departure.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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