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.
The "One" campaign against global poverty reports:
The Senate Budget Committee, chaired by Senator Kent Conrad, wants to cut $4 billion from the president's International Affairs Budget -- the part of the budget funding almost all of our anti-poverty work.
This would be terrible policy any day of the week. Recall that on February 12, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told Congress that the global economic crisis was the most serious security challenge facing the United States and that it could topple governments and trigger waves of refugees. Cutting the International Affairs budget means directly attacking the Obama administration's ability to respond to the most serious security challenge facing the United States. In particular, the cut could lead to a freeze in programs that provide life-saving treatment for people with HIV/AIDS.
But attacking the International Affairs budget this week is particularly obscene. President Obama is leaving today for the G-20 "Economic Crisis Summit" in London. The top agenda item is how to counter the effects of the global economic crisis on countries that don't have the capacity to create their own economic stimulus. Cutting the president's international aid request this week will undercut President Obama at the very moment he will be trying to argue for a coordinated international response. Other countries will say: how can you ask us to do more when your Senate is slashing your proposed increase?
As President Obama said last summer:
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.