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.
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
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
Sometimes an opportunity for reform comes along that is “strategic” in that it changes the playing field for efforts to win other reforms in the future. The passage of the National Labor Relations Act - establishing the right of American workers to organize unions and bargain collectively - was a strategic reform. It increased the power of people previously excluded from power, and thereby reduced the power of corporate interests.
But the right of workers in America to organize has been steadily eroded by unpunished abuses by anti-union employers. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is easy to justify on the basis of guaranteeing the basic human rights of working Americans. When the Employee Free Choice Act is signed into law, millions of private sector workers will have greater protection from having their rights violated.
What difference would that make? Ask Steve Arney. He used to be a reporter at the Bloomington Pantagraph, a newspaper in Illinois owned by Lee Enterprises.
A majority of employees at the Pantagraph signed cards to support forming a union with the St. Louis Newspaper Guild. Lee Enterprises responded with a campaign to defeat the effort by Pantagraph employees to form a union.
As part of Lee’s anti-union campaign, Steve Arney lost his job.
Economists have a concept they call "revealed preferences." The basic idea is that it's one thing to ask someone how much they value something. It's another thing to watch the economic choices that they make, from which you can draw inferences about what their true preferences are, regardless of what they say.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the question of to what degree the Israeli government has the ability to make the U.S. Congress do things. The exact truth is hard to know, partly because U.S. foreign policy is also awful in areas of the world where the Israel Lobby is presumably not weighing in as much, so it's assess exactly what the Israel Lobby's specific contribution is to the particular awfulness of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. And because there are particular reasons that have nothing to do with Israel for U.S. policy to be worse in the Middle East than it is in other areas. And also because a lot of folks clearly have incentives to overstate or understate the influence of the Lobby.
What I find most fascinating about the Jane Harman-AIPAC-Gonzales-FISA scandal is
what it suggests Representative Jane Harman's actual working model was of how Congress works.
The whole world was watching when President Obama shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Most Americans, along with most people around the world, want the U.S. to try to get along with other countries, treat their leaders with respect, address disagreements through dialogue and negotiation, and look for areas of potential cooperation with countries with which we have disagreements on other issues.
But Republican Senator John Ensign wasn't happy.
"I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich complained that by shaking Chavez' hand while smiling Obama had helped cause Eduardo Galeano's "Open Veins of Latin America" - the book Chavez gave Obama - to soar on best-seller lists.
The basic fact that the Right won't acknowledge is this: we just had an election a few months ago, and Americans voted for the guy who wanted to talk, not the guy who wanted to keep pounding the table. And the U.S. thaw with Venezuela has already yielded results. Venezuela is preparing to send its Ambassador back to Washington. The U.S. and Venezuela are increasing their cooperation in combating drug trafficking. And Venezuela is increasing its rhetorical pressure on FARC insurgents in Colombia to get talks moving with the Colombian government.
I want to make absolutely clear that I'm totally delighted for my Cuban-American brothers and sisters who can now, thanks to President Obama's announcement, travel to Cuba without restriction. The Bush Administration restrictions were gratuitously mean and caused real hardship for Cuban-American families. Most Americans agree with me - 79%, according to a recent poll from WorldPublicOpinion.org.
But without taking anything away from that, I just want to say: Mr. President, I like to travel, too. I have a passport and everything. I am not a Cuban-American. But I am an American. May I also travel to Cuba?
According to the same WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, 70% of Americans think all of us should be allowed to travel to Cuba.
Don't you want to be one of the first American tourists to go to Cuba? I mean, you want to get there before it's ruined by all the other American tourists.
This week President Obama is heading to a summit of Latin American leaders in Trinidad and Tobago. Latin American leaders are expected to press President Obama to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba and normalize relations.
The United States will soon be the only country in the Western Hemisphere that does not have normal diplomatic relations with Cuba. According to WorldPublicOpinion.org, 69% of Americans favor re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, including 57% of Republicans.
The word "accountability" has a nice ring to it. Who can be against "accountability?"
I can. I am against "accountability" in any context where the likely overall cost of proposed actions to promote "accountability" outweigh the likely benefits. And so should every other rational person be.
Americans are very happy that the American captain was successfully freed, and grateful to the Americans who successfully freed him. The Americans had their orders, which they executed faithfully, cautiously, and patiently, which included instructions to fire if they believed the captain's life was in imminent danger; they made that determination, and based on the available information, I wouldn't second-guess that.
But this shouldn't blind us to the probability that every opportunity for a nonviolent resolution of the standoff was not exhausted by the Obama Administration. Judging from press accounts, President Obama made every reasonable effort to resolve the standoff without violence - subject to the constraint that the U.S. insisted that the pirates give themselves up to arrest and prosecution.
But that begs the question of why the U.S. should have insisted on this constraint. An alternative course would have been to trade freedom-for-freedom: freedom for the captain, freedom for the pirates.
Note that the cost of insisting that the pirates give themselves up for incarceration included a significant risk to the captain's life. Rescue operations, no matter how careful, skilled, or well-trained those carrying them out, do not always work. A recent French operation killed one of the captives.
This risk will now be even greater in any future standoff: any Somali pirate in such a situation in the future is going to be less likely to trust the U.S., and more likely to harm an American captive, and to minimize opportunities for safe rescue.
U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen "took pains to make it clear" the US would not press India to negotiate with Pakistan on sensitive issues, AP reports:
"We did not come here to ask the Indians for anything," Holbrooke said. "We were not there, I repeat, we were not there, to negotiate Pakistani-Indian relations."
I hope, for the sake of U.S. troops and the people of Afghanistan, that Holbrooke was lying.
Because if Holbrooke was telling the truth, the American people deserve an explanation.
Recently U.S. officials have been saying more and more openly what they previously only hinted at: the U.S. problem with the Pakistani government is not merely that the Pakistani government "isn't committed" to dealing with the fact that Afghan insurgents have sanctuaries in Pakistan; parts of the Pakistani state apparatus are, allegedly, actively supporting insurgent groups. And they're doing this, according to US officials cited in press reports, because they believe that it serves their interests to do so in their long confrontation with India.
Therefore, it would seem blindingly obvious, and people in and around the Obama administration have indicated that they understand this, that if you want to achieve a lasting political resolution to Afghanistan's problems, you ought to try to address Pakistan's motivations for supporting insurgents in Afghanistan and to address their security concerns with respect to India. In other words, you ought to try to promote India-Pakistan peace, and that includes supporting efforts to resolve the problem of Kashmir.
Americans elected President Obama in part based on his promise to put diplomacy and international cooperation, rather than the use and threat of military force, at the center of his foreign policy. With respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan, while there have been some encouraging signals, in terms of actually implemented policies the folks who voted for Obama are not yet getting the "diplomacy first" that they were promised.
Last week the Washington Post reported that 55% of Democrats support negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, and that 56% of Democrats think the U.S. should focus more on economic development in Afghanistan than on defeating the Taliban militarily. Given that not all "Democrats" voted for Obama, and not all "Republicans" voted for McCain, and that pro-diplomacy Democrats and Republicans were more likely to vote for Obama than McCain, these numbers may understate the case.
The Washington Post-ABC poll asked:
Would you support or oppose the U.S. negotiating with elements of the Taliban if they agreed to suspend attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces?
Among Democrats the answers were: 55% yes, 39% no, 6% no opinion.
The poll asked:
Do you think the U.S. should focus more on economic development in Afghanistan or more on defeating the Taliban militarily?
Among Democrats the answers were: 56% economic development in Afghanistan, 32% defeating the Taliban militarily, 12% no opinion.
The great thing about talking to the Taliban is that it costs nothing, kills no-one, and is compatible and complementary, at least initially, with every other strategy.