Twelve Steps To Improve Relations with Iran

In response to President Obama's Nowruz overture, Iranian officials said: words are nice, but that what Iran is looking for is concrete changes in U.S. policy. Remarkably, such Iranian statements were presented in much of the U.S. press as evidence that Iranian officials aren't interested in improving relations. Another interpretation is at least plausible: Iran is looking for concrete changes in U.S. policy.

Treating a request for changes as an insult would make sense if we agree to assume that the U.S. is congenitally incapable of making concrete changes in U.S. policy towards Iran. But of course, that's not true at all. On the contrary, the U.S. finds itself like a kid in a candy store, confronted by so many choices for concrete policy changes to improve relations with Iran that one hardly knows where to begin. Here, by way of example, are twelve steps the U.S. could take to improve relations.

1. Authorize routine contact between U.S. and Iranian diplomats.

Right now, if you are a U.S. diplomat in any country, in any international forum, and an Iranian diplomat standing next to you sneezes, you have to apply to Washington for permission to say "Gezundheit." There are a lot of issues in the world, and on many of them, the United States and Iran see eye to eye. Our diplomats are not going to get Shiite cooties if they are allowed to engage Iranian diplomats in regular conversation.

2. Establish a US interests section in Tehran.

Obama Narrows Afghan Goals - And Leaves Them Wide

A progressive Congressional staffer once told me: "The first rule of Congress is - if you have the opportunity to vote both ways on the same issue, do it."

In "narrowing" the goals for the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, President Obama appears to have obeyed the first rule of Congress. In his speech on Afghanistan, Obama had it both ways.

He asserted that "we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future" and that "we are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future."

At the same time he struck out against an assumed threat of a "return to Taliban rule," and insisted that al Qaeda terrorists "would accompany the core Taliban leadership," which arguably implies that the set of U.S. goals may not have narrowed very much, and that the U.S. is indeed still trying to control Afghanistan and dictate its future.

It's a shame. He could have made a different choice. He could still make a different choice. And, I suspect, he will, eventually, be compelled to make a different choice. The real question, I suspect, is how long it will be before he is compelled to make a different choice, and how many Americans and Afghans will die for no reason in the meantime.

Just as the Obama Administration has finally been compelled to admit that there is no way out of the US financial crisis without the temporary nationalization of big financial institutions, so too the Obama Administration will eventually be compelled to admit that there is no way out of Afghanistan that does not pass through peace talks between the Afghan government and leaders of Afghanistan's insurgencies.

How many will die in the meantime?

Afghanistan: The Four Questions

President Obama is expected to "announce" his "new" Afghanistan strategy Friday -- the traditional Washington day for burying things. But there aren't likely to be many surprises. The administration has been dribbling details out to the news media, and what has been foreshadowed includes: more troops, more civilians, narrower goals; a renewed concession, perhaps, that there is no military solution.

It is widely recognized that sending more people - whether soldiers or civilians - is very unlikely in itself to change anything fundamental, because the order of magnitude is wrong. The United States has not been, is not, and almost certainly never will be willing and able to commit the resources which would be necessary to transform Afghanistan into a peaceful "democracy" according to the present policy. The most that could be plausibly hoped for is that additional resources would help make a new policy work: a new policy based on a fundamental, political shift in US policy, including accommodation with the bulk of the political forces now backing Afghanistan's various insurgencies.

And therefore, it matters little in the big scheme of things how many new troops President Obama announces. If there is no real change in policy, new troops won't accomplish anything. If there is a real change in policy, any success will be due much more to the policy change than to the "troop surge" under the cover of which the policy change takes place.

What finally matters are the answers to four questions that are only now beginning to be asked.

1. Will the United States support political negotiations between the Afghan government and leaders of Afghanistan's insurgencies?

Foreign Army Shoots US Peace Activist; US Does Nothing

Here's a news awareness question you might not hear on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." (A search on the NPR website yielded no results.)

On March 13, a US citizen attending a peace demonstration was shot in the head by a soldier of a foreign army. Eyewitnesses report that the American and his companions weren't doing anything and hadn't done anything that would justify the use of force, let alone shooting him in the head.

Here's your news awareness question: name the country.

The American remains hospitalized in critical condition, reported The Independent Tuesday, describing him as "fighting for life" following three brain surgeries. He suffered a multiple fracture to his skull, severe injury to the frontal lobe of his brain, and a collapsed eye socket. Part of his right frontal lobe had to be removed.

His parents have called for a full investigation. But so far, judging from press reports, the United States government hasn't had anything to say about it. Why not?

I freely concede that I take this quite personally. I was an international peace volunteer once. When you are a US peace volunteer in an international conflict situation, you like to think that your blue passport gives you some measure of protection; foreign soldiers, you hope, are going to think twice before shooting an American, because the US government would have to make a fuss. And if the foreign army in question belongs to a government that has very friendly relations with Washington, and is highly dependent on substantial US military, economic, diplomatic and political aid from the United States, then you might think that foreign army would really go out of its way not to shoot Americans.

But, in this case, you might be wrong.


Ban Cluster Bombs? Yes, We Can!

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are getting big praise around the world for their new Charm Offensive. As far as I’m concerned, the praise is justified. I heard our Secretary of State interviewed on the BBC a few weeks ago about our diplomatic outreach to Iran on Afghanistan. And the BBC was all, what makes you think Iran is going to help you on Afghanistan? And Hillary was all, you know, actually Iran helped us tremendously in Afghanistan after 2001. Our Ambassador in Afghanistan and the Iranian Ambassador were meeting practically every day. I just about fell off my chair. You’d have thought Hillary was applying for a job at the National Iranian American Council.

But at some point nice words about international cooperation have to be matched by deeds, the kind of concrete, bite down on, facts on the ground deeds you can wave around while saying, “see, there really is change,” without fear of plausible contradiction.

A big step would be for the United States to formally join the international consensus on cluster bombs: these weapons are inherently anti-civilian and should be totally banned from the face of the earth. On Monday, March 30, US groups campaigning for the cluster bomb ban are asking Americans to call their Senators, urging them to support the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act (S. 416). Mark your calendar.

Obama Administration Affirms U.S. Neutrality in Salvadoran Election

Thank you, President Obama. At long last - better late than never - a high-level official of the Obama Administration has clearly affirmed U.S. neutrality ahead of Sunday's Presidential election in El Salvador.

Voice of America reports:

Friday in Washington, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon said the United States supports the democratic process in El Salvador and will work with whomever is elected.

Also on Friday, Rep. Howard Berman, (D-CA), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, affirmed that neither Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans in the U.S. nor remittance flows from the U.S. to El Salvador would be affected by the outcome of the election. From the Committee website:

Congressman Howard L. Berman (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued the following statement in response to comments made by members of Congress, widely reported in the El Salvador media on the eve of elections there, that both Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans in the U.S. and remittance flows from the U.S. to El Salvador may be in jeopardy depending on the outcome of the El Salvador elections to be held this Sunday:

"Sunday's election belongs to the people of El Salvador. As Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, I am confident that neither TPS nor the right to receive remittances from family in the United States will be affected by the outcome of the election, despite what some of my colleagues in Congress have said."


Election Dirty Tricks Again in Washington and El Salvador

Last week, more than 30 Members of Congress joined Rep. Raul Grijalva in asking President Obama to affirm U.S. neutrality in El Salvador's Presidential election on Sunday March 15, to stop the recycling in El Salvador of US threats when Salvadorans voted in 2004. But there has been no high-level response from the Obama Administration, Rep. Grijalva told Democracy Now! yesterday.

But right-wing Republicans in Congress have not been quiet. Upside Down News reports:

On Tuesday El Salvador's largest circulating daily, the Diario de Hoy, published news of a letter signed by over 40 Republicans in Congress, denouncing the FMLN and warning of their links to Venezuela and Cuba. The letter expresses "grave concern that a victory by the FMLN could make links between El Salvador and the regimes of Venezuela, Iran and Cuba, and other states that promote terrorism, and also with other non-democratic regimes and terrorist organizations."

Meanwhile, CISPES reports:

NYT Publishes Roadmap for Taliban Talks

If you’re interested in a “way forward” in Afghanistan that’s not built around killing a bunch of innocent people for no reason, then I strongly encourage you to read and absorb every word of Carlotta Gall’s report in Wednesday’s New York Times, “As U.S. Weighs Taliban Negotiations, Afghans Are Already Talking.”

Some key points, based on conversations with Afghan officials and Western diplomats in Kabul:

Can Congress Save Obama from Afghan Quagmire?

A progressive presidency is a terrible thing to waste. It only comes around once every so often. Wouldn't it be a shame if Americans' hopes for the Obama administration were squandered in Afghanistan?

Members of Congress who want the Obama administration to succeed won't do it any favors by keeping silent about the proposed military escalation in Afghanistan. The actions of the Obama Administration so far clearly indicate that they can move in response to pressure: both good pressure and bad pressure. If there is only bad pressure, it's more than likely that policy will move in a bad direction. In announcing an increase in U.S. troops before his Afghanistan review was complete, Obama partially acceded to pressure from the military. If we don't want the military to have carte blanche, there needs to be counterpressure.

Some Members of Congress are starting to speak up. Rep. Murtha recently said he's uncomfortable with Obama's decision to increase the number of troops in the country by 17,000 before a goal was clearly defined, AP reports. Sen. Nelson is calling for clear benchmarks to measure progress in Afghanistan, and said he may try to add benchmarks to the upcoming war supplemental bill this spring, CQ Today reports.

But these individual expressions of discomfort will likely not be enough to stop the slide towards greater and greater military escalation.

Can We "Reset" Relations with Colombia?

President Obama wants, quite reasonably, to "reset" relations with Russia. He also said, quite reasonably, he would "go through the federal budget line by line, programs that don't work, we cut."

Our relations with Colombia also need to be reset. "Plan Colombia," which was supposedly going to cut the flow of Colombian cocaine into the U.S., doesn't work, neither to reduce the flow of illegal drugs, nor to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Colombia. Since Plan Colombia doesn't work, it should be cut.

An October report from the Government Accountability Office found that coca-leaf production in Colombia had increased by 15% and cocaine production had increased by 4% between 2000 and 2006, and recommended cutting funding. Plan Colombia has cost U.S. taxpayers over $6 billion.

Plan Colombia has also failed to promote human rights. Broadly speaking, the practical political meaning of Plan Colombia in the Colombian political context has been: "Washington supports the Colombian government, and therefore the Colombian government can do whatever it wants without restraint." The human consequences of this political blank check have been disastrous.

A recent report by Human Rights First found human rights defenders in Colombia are frequently accused by the government and its supporters of belonging to leftwing guerrillas, and are secretly investigated for months or years before being "illegally detained," Inter Press Service reports. "The steadfast investigation of spurious criminal complaints against defenders stands in stark contrast to the failure to investigate attacks, threats, and other forms of intimidation perpetrated against them or against civilians more generally," HRF said.