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.
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.
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.
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.
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.