Commentary

Labor, House Dems Stall Panama Trade Deal

There's little question that the Obama Administration has tacked hard to the right on international economic policy since coming in to office. Its efforts to ram $100 billion for the International Monetary Fund through Congress via the war supplemental without reform language that would stop the IMF from making recessions worse through demands for budget cuts - as the IMF is now doing in Latvia - are just the most recent example.

But if the Wall Street boys thought they were just going to run the table on international economic policy in this administration, they had another think coming.

Bloomberg reports:

A U.S. trade accord with Panama, which is opposed by labor unions, won't be submitted to Congress for approval until President Barack Obama offers a new "framework" for trade, an administration official said.

The decision, announced by Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Everett Eissenstat at a Senate Finance Committee hearing today, is a reversal from statements in March that the U.S. wanted to pass the accord soon.

As Bloomberg notes, this announcement followed two key developments:

IraqTortureGate: Powell Denies Knowing He Used Tortured Evidence for UN Case

The most damning credible allegation to emerge regarding the Bush Administration is arguably that Dick Cheney and other Bush Administration officials ordered the use of torture to produce false evidence of a connection between Iraq and al-Qaida to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff at the State Department under Colin Powell, recently wrote,

as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 - well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion - its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

Wilkerson cited the case of detainee Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, whose tortured testimony was crucial for building the case for war, and was cited in Powell's speech to the UN.

when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee "was compliant" (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, "revealed" such contacts.

About this case, Human Rights Watch has recently written,

A Failsafe Plan to Reduce AfPak Civilian Deaths from U.S. Operations

If civilian deaths from U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan were CO2 emissions, perhaps we'd be having a more effective discussion about reducing them.

The pattern seems to be this. When there are complaints about civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes and night raids, first the Pentagon denies there were any. When civilian deaths are documented, the Pentagon says civilian deaths are regrettable but we are doing everything we can possibly do to reduce them. When the complaints grow too strong to be dismissed in this way, the Pentagon announces that we are taking new steps to reduce civilian casualties (passing over the fact that this contradicts the previous claim that we were doing everything we could before to reduce civilian casualties.)

Then the cycle repeats.

If reducing civilian deaths from U.S. military operations were a priority, it would be a benchmark. After all, according to the repeated statements of U.S. officials, it's all about "hearts and minds" and securing and maintaining the allegiance of the population. So it seems obvious that an objective benchmark of progress is this regard would be the degree to which civilian casualties are reduced, since it is generally acknowledged that killing people's friends and relatives is extremely unpopular.

If civilian deaths from U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan were CO2 emissions, people would be arguing that we should cap them at a percentage of their current level.

For example: we could tell the Pentagon: each month you have a cap for how many civilians you can kill. The cap is seasonally adjusted, and is equal to, say, 90% of the average for the previous year.

Will Speaker Pelosi Stand Up to the IMF?

It would be an exaggeration to say that Congress has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this week to reform the policies of the International Monetary Fund. If the future is like the past, if Congress misses this opportunity, another one will come along - in about 10 years or so.

This week, House and Senate leaders are meeting in a conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the supplemental appropriations bill. The Senate version of the bill is likely to include $100 billion and new authorities for the IMF, but the House version of the supplemental bill did not include funds for the IMF. The Senate is debating amendments now as I write. The conference committee will almost surely meet soon after Senate passage; the stated goal is to pass the supplemental before the Memorial Day recess.

Concrete, observable reforms of the IMF’s policies in poor countries should be part of any agreement: there should be no “blank check” for the IMF. The IMF is imposing policies in developing countries we wouldn’t accept in the U.S. - when we have a recession, our government spends money to help the economy recover, as we did in President Obama’s stimulus package. When developing countries have a recession, the IMF demands budget cuts. With Democrats in charge in Washington, the IMF - in which the United States has overwhelming influence - should not be imposing Republican economic policies. In particular, the IMF should not be imposing Republican economic policies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, since that fundamentally undermines the quest for political stability in these countries. It’s the height of self-defeating absurdity to appropriate US tax dollars for reconstruction and development in these countries while with the other hand - the IMF hand - we tell them that their governments can’t stimulate their economies.

Obama: Israeli Settlements “Have To Be Stopped”

Two cheers for President Obama.

President Obama, at the press conference today with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu:

Now, Israel is going to have to take some difficult steps as well, and I shared with the Prime Minister the fact that under the roadmap and under Annapolis that there’s a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements. Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.

In calling for an end to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, President Obama is restating longstanding U.S. policy. However, under the Bush Administration, U.S. officials tended to use weak formulations like referring to the settlements as “an obstacle to peace” rather saying explicitly that they should stop. And the statements tended to come from folks like Secretary of State Rice, rather than from the President himself. By making the statement in his press conference with Netanyahu, President Obama underscored the policy.

However, what really matters is giving teeth to the policy. There can scarcely be any reasonable doubt that if the Obama Administration really wants to, it can stop Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. The U.S. has a great deal of leverage over the Israeli government. The question is whether the Obama Administration will use that leverage.

For example, earlier this month, President Obama sent his FY2010 budget request to Congress and, as expected, included in it $2.775 billion in military aid for Israel, an increase of $225 million from this year’s budget.

Can Treasury Sneak IMF Money Through the Supplemental?

Almost completely lost in the drama over the war supplemental for Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan is a sneaky play by the U.S. Treasury Department to get $108 billion in U.S. tax dollars for the International Monetary Fund through the supplemental. Of course, if Treasury can get the money through the supplemental, it can avoid any Congressional debate over the policies of the International Monetary Fund and whether this is a wise and just use of U.S. tax dollars; and whether Congress should insist on meaningful, observable reforms of IMF policy as the price of new U.S. funding.

After 1980 the IMF became one of the most powerful institutions in the world. The IMF’s power largely derived from the fact that it headed a “creditors’ cartel” that included the World Bank and other multilateral development banks, and as a result developing countries that didn’t obey the IMF’s policy “advice” could face a cut-off of international credit, a powerful disincentive. This power was used to impose an agenda of privatization, cuts in social spending, and removal of policies deemed obstacles to profit by foreign banks and corporations. The power of the IMF in middle-income countries has waned in recent years, as Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and other countries broke free, repudiating a legacy of policies that failed to promote economic growth and reduce poverty. But in the poorest countries, especially in Africa, the IMF’s abusive reign has largely continued. Now, rich countries are trying to strengthen the influence of the IMF, using the “opportunity” of the global economic crisis - that’s the context of Treasury’s request for more U.S tax dollars.

AfPak: Congress Clears its Throat

This week Congress continues its formal consideration of the Administration’s request for “supplemental” money for the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a decision expected Wednesday by the Rules Committee on what amendments will be allowed. Regardless of the outcome on the actual money - it’s widely expected that the money will eventually go though - this is a key window for Congressional action.

There’s never a bad time for Members of Congress to try to exert more influence over foreign policy, but a particularly good time is when there is a request for funding pending - the Administration must perform concern about what Members of Congress think, there are opportunities for limiting amendments, and the media and public will be paying more attention to any debate. Likewise, there’s never a bad time to call or write your Member of Congress expressing concern about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this week is a particularly good time to make contact, whether it’s to oppose the money or lobby for conditions.

And Tuesday, May 12 would be a particularly good day to call, because many advocacy groups - including the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Peace Action, United for Peace and Justice, and Just Foreign Policy - are calling on Americans to contact Congress on Tuesday in opposition to expansion of the war and in support of alternatives to military escalation. FCNL has provided a toll free number for calling Congress, which you can find here; if you use the toll-free number, it will add to the official tally of how many people called.

Stopping Pakistan Drone Strikes Suddenly Plausible

Until this week, it seemed like the conventional wisdom in Washington was that stopping U.S drone strikes in Pakistan was outside the bounds of respectable discussion.

That just changed. Or it should have.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus notes that counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen has told Congress that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are backfiring and should be stopped. Until now Congress has been reluctant to challenge the drone strikes, as they are reluctant in general to challenge “military strategy,” even when it appears to be causing terrible harm. But as McManus notes, Kilcullen has unimpeachable Pentagon credentials. He served as a top advisor in Iraq to General Petraeus on counterinsurgency, and is credited as having helped design the Iraq “surge.” Now, anyone in Washington who wants to challenge the drone strikes has all the political cover they could reasonably expect.

And what Kilcullen said leaves very little room for creative misinterpretation:

“Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior Al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same time period, we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area. The drone strikes are highly unpopular. They are deeply aggravating to the population. And they’ve given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism. … The current path that we are on is leading us to loss of Pakistani government control over its own population.”

Presumably, causing the Pakistani government to lose “control of its own population” is not an objective of United States foreign policy.

On Israeli Settlement Freeze, Public Has Obama’s Back

There have been hints in the press that the Obama Administration has been considering conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on a real freeze of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. There’s a conventional wisdom that suggests that doing this would touch a “third rail of politics.” But the conventional wisdom might not have been accurate; if it once was accurate, it might not be accurate any more.

WorldPublicOpinion.org has just released a poll showing that three-quarters of Americans oppose Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. This number is up 23 points from 2002.

Even among respondents who say they sympathize with Israel more than the Palestinians, 64% say Israel should not build settlements in the West Bank.

Opposition to settlements is found among majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Those who followed the issue closely oppose settlement expansion by the same margin as those who don’t.

Some may say: public opinion doesn’t matter. What matters, they may say, is that the so-called “Israel Lobby” will effectively punish any politician who tries to shift U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians.

But the Obama Administration has already proved that this isn’t necessarily so.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

The administration has asked Congress for minor changes in U.S. law that would permit aid to continue flowing to Palestinians in the event Hamas-backed officials become part of a unified Palestinian government.

Secretary of State Clinton defended the administration’s position before Congress. She noted that

NYT: Americans Support Obama's Outreach to Iran and Cuba

Despite what some right-wing critics in the media and Congress would have you believe, Americans support President Obama's outreach to Iran and Cuba. The New York Times reports, based on a recent poll, that

the public does give Mr. Obama credit for improving the image of the United States with the rest of the world. And it found support for Mr. Obama's overtures to Iran and Cuba; a majority, 53 percent, said they favored establishing diplomatic relations with Iran, while two-thirds favored Mr. Obama's plans to thaw relations with Cuba.

If you look at the actual poll questions and responses, the results are even more striking. On Iran, the poll asked:

Do you think the United States should or should not establish diplomatic relations with Iran while Iran has a nuclear program?

and the response was