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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.

Could Obama Say a Few Words for Democracy in El Salvador?

We all know that President Obama has a lot on his plate. On the other hand, as candidate Obama reminded us, "words matter," especially the words spoken by the President of the United States, and with El Salvador facing a watershed Presidential election on March 15, President Obama could do a lot for the people of El Salvador and the future of U.S. relations with Latin America simply by saying something along the following lines between now and March 15:

"The United States government will remain neutral in El Salvador's March 15 presidential race, will respect the election results, and will work toward a positive relationship with whichever party is elected."

If you haven't been following the recent history of U.S. relations with Central America in general and El Salvador in particular, that might seem like a pretty banal statement. But in the context of the actual history of massive U.S. interference in the region's political processes, such a statement would be revolutionary.

Before El Salvador's 2004 presidential election, Bush Administration officials attempted to influence the vote by suggesting that if the opposition party won, the status of Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. would be threatened and remittances sent to El Salvador by Salvadorans working in the U.S. could be ended. These remittances have been estimated to comprise 10-20% of El Salvador's GDP, likely surpassing official development assistance, foreign direct investment, and tourism as a source of foreign exchange for El Salvador. These threats were widely reported in the Salvadoran press and have contributed to a lingering belief that the U.S. will not permit the opposition to win the election - a belief currently being stoked by right-wing campaign ads in the country, which are recycling the threats from 2004.

Missing from the Afghan "Surge": A Congressional Debate

A key fact about the recent history of Iraq is absolutely critical to the nascent debate about Afghanistan: there was more to the Iraq "surge" than sending additional troops, so if folks are going to justify sending more troops to Afghanistan on the grounds that sending more troops "worked" in Iraq, we should be talking about the other elements of US policy in Iraq that changed after November 2006, not just about more troops.

Analysts say elements of the real policy changes that took place in Iraq -- changing the troops' mission from offense to defense, increasing support for indigenous forces, and stepping up diplomacy within the nation and among its neighbors -- could be very relevant for Afghanistan, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. They say the mission of troops should shift from hunting insurgents to protecting civilians, and focus money on Afghan rather than US troops. "You can get 70 Afghan soldiers for the price of one American soldier deployed to Afghanistan," noted one analyst. Empowering local leaders may require political reforms -- such as allowing governors to be elected locally instead of appointed by Kabul, which would require reform of the Afghan Constitution.

In particular, regarding "stepping up diplomacy within the nation," the US made deals in Iraq with insurgent groups that led to a dramatic reduction in violence.

So if you want to "replicate the success of the surge in Iraq" in Afghanistan, it seems pretty clear that you are going to have to come to some arrangements with some armed groups that are currently considered "Taliban." If you're not talking to Taliban, you're not replicating the Iraq surge.

Conditioning Part of U.S. Aid to Israel on Implementation of U.S. Policy

It is well-known outside the United States that a key obstacle, if not the key obstacle, to Israeli/Palestinian peace is the relationship between Israel and the United States. To say that the U.S. “supports Israel” severely misstates the problem: the key problem is the perception and the reality that the U.S. almost unfailingly protects the Israeli government from the negative consequences of anti-Palestinian policies, such as the recent military assault on Gaza, so that while rhetorically the U.S. is committed to peace, in practice the incentives that have been created and maintained by U.S. policy have had the effect of constantly pushing the Israeli government towards more confrontation with the Palestinians, rather than towards accommodation. Just as a Wall Street banker who expects a U.S. government bailout will take dangerous risks since he is protected from the potential negative consequences of those risks, so Israeli government leaders, faced with choices between “risks for peace” and “risks for war” will tend to choose “risks for war” since the U.S. government is perceived to provide a blanket insurance policy against “risks for war” while no such insurance is perceived to exist for “risks for peace.”

The key immediate question then for people in the United States concerned about Israeli-Palestinian peace is altering the character of the insurance policy. Just as Washington must demand policy changes in exchange for insuring Wall Street banks, so Washington must demand policy changes in exchange for insuring Israeli government policies. In either case, the failure to demand policy changes spreads systemic risk, since the insurance effectively makes the failed policies into policies of the U.S. government.

Dennis Ross Back at State? Has He Been Vetted for Conflicts of Interest?

NBC's Andrea Mitchell is reporting that Dennis Ross "will be coming back to the State Department as a 'strategic advisor' on the Near East and Gulf region":

He will not be described as an envoy negotiating agreements and will not be involved in Middle East talks. That job will be up to former Sen. George Mitchell, who returns tonight from his first "listening tour" of the region.

But before the papers are signed for Ross' new employment with the US government, he should be asked a few questions about his relationship with the "Jewish People Policy Planning Institute," that group's relationship to the Government of Israel, and whether he has had any relationships which he should have disclosed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Take Concrete Steps to Engage Iran

President-elect Obama pledged he would engage with Iran without pre-conditions. As a recent "expert's statement" chaired by Ambassadors Pickering and Dobbins has argued, talking with Iran would lower tensions in the region; help stabilize Iraq; facilitate Iran’s cooperation in helping to stabilize Afghanistan; and facilitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria. The experts say direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations are most likely to succeed, and that we should adopt policies to facilitate contacts between scholars, professionals, religious leaders, lawmakers and ordinary citizens.

The Obama Administration can take concrete steps immediately to facilitate these contacts. We can open a “U.S. interests section” - low-level diplomatic representation - in Tehran. For the first time in many years, the U.S. would have diplomatic representation in Iran. Even the outgoing Bush Administration indicated that it wanted to do this. The U.S. has an “interests section” in Cuba; Iran has an “interests section” in Washington. There is broad agreement in Washington that there should be more interaction between Iranians and Americans. If there were a “U.S. interests section” in Tehran, Iranian students would no longer have to travel outside Iran to apply for visas to study in the United States, making it easier for Iranians to study here. We can also allow direct passenger airline flights between Tehran and New York.

These steps would bring immediate benefits in making it easier for Iranian citizens to travel to the United States; they would also be first steps towards greater diplomatic engagement between Iran and the United States.

Kinzer: Surge Diplomacy, Not Troops, in Afghanistan

USA Today reports that Gen. McKiernan - top U.S. commander in Afghanistan - “has asked the Pentagon for more than 20,000 soldiers, Marines and airmen” to augment U.S. forces. McKiernan says U.S. troop levels of 55,000 to 60,000 in Afghanistan will be needed for “at least three or four more years.” He added: “If we put these additional forces in here, it’s going to be for the next few years. It’s not a temporary increase of combat strength.”

We should have a vigorous national debate before embarking on this course. Contrary to what one might think from a quick scan of the newspapers, there are knowledgeable voices questioning whether increasing the deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan is in our interest, or is in the interest of the Afghan people.

Bestselling author and former longtime New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer argues the opposite in this five minute video:


Kinzer argues that sending more U.S. troops is likely to be counterproductive. It’s likely to produce more anger in Afghanistan, and more anger is likely to produce more recruits for the Taliban. A better alternative would surge diplomacy instead, reaching out to people who are now supporting the Taliban.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are very different forces, argues Kinzer. The Taliban has deep roots in Afghan society. Many of the warlords allied with the Taliban are not fanatic ideologues.

Want Lower Gas Prices? Lift AIPAC’s Sanctions on Iran

Senator McCain, President Bush, and some of their oil industry friends are urging Americans to support overturning a 26-year ban on offshore drilling as a way to bring down gas prices. Of course, it’s snake oil designed for what the Joe Lieberman campaign affectionately called “low information voters.”

As Dean Baker and Nichole Szembrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research noted in a June 2008 paper,

the Energy Information Agency (EIA) projects that Senator McCain’s proposal would have no impact in the near-term since it will be close to a decade before the first oil can be extracted from the currently protected offshore areas. The EIA projects that production will reach 200,000 barrels a day (0.2 percent of projected world production) at peak production in close to twenty years. It describes this amount as too small to have any significant effect on oil prices.

In contrast, if the United States had continued raising auto fuel efficiency standards annually between 1985-2005 by a quarter of the amount it raised them annually from 1980-1985 — instead of leaving them virtually unchanged — the result would have roughly been the equivalent of 3.3 million barrels of oil per day in new production in 2008 — 16 times the impact of McCain’s Offshore Drilling [MOD], CEPR reports.

What about the impact of lifting sanctions on Iran?

Americans Don't Know: There's a Plan on the Table to Resolve the Nuclear Standoff with Iran

In recent weeks we've again seen an escalation of US/Israeli threats to attack Iran. Among many other examples, the House of Representatives is currently considering a resolution promoted by AIPAC that would effectively demand a blockade against Iran. This resolution has over 200 co-sponsors, although a surge of opposition has prevented it from being passed so far. (The resolution is H. Con. Res. 362; you can ask your Representatives to oppose it here.)

Here's what those promoting military attacks and blockades on Iran don't want Americans to know: there's an offer on the table that could resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear program and allow both sides to claim victory.

In this short interview, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering makes the case for talks with Iran without pre-conditions on multilateral uranium enrichment in Iran.

In March, Ambassador Pickering co-authored "A Solution for the US-Iran Nuclear Standoff" in the New York Review of Books. Pickering and his co-authors wrote: