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JFP 5/20: Obama affirms '67 borders, slams Bahrain crackdown
Submitted by Robert Naiman on 20 May 2011 - 6:40pm
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May 20, 2011
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President Obama's speech on the Middle East
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1) President Obama declared that the prevailing borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war should be the basis of a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, the New York Times reports. While the 1967 borders have long been viewed as the foundation for a peace agreement, Obama's formula created a new benchmark for a diplomatic solution, the Times says. Obama's statement represented a subtle, but significant shift, in American policy, the Times says. The Israeli government immediately protested; Prime Minister Netanyahu had demanded that the reference to 1967 borders be cut from the President's speech.
Some analysts said Obama's shift was aimed at heading off the Palestinian campaign to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN General Assembly in September.
2) Netanyahu appeared to outright reject Obama's call that the boundaries in place on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war serve as a starting point for negotiations, the Washington Post reports. As Obama spoke, an Israeli government committee approved the construction of more than 1,500 new homes in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, whose 1967 annexation by Israel is not internationally recognized. The plan provoked condemnation from Palestinians.
In 2004, President Bush wrote in a letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Sharon which said a full Israeli return to 1967 lines was unrealistic "in light of new realities on the ground." In his response to Obama's speech, Netanyahu said that during his Friday visit to the White House he "expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both houses of Congress."
Palestinians were angered that Obama rejected their efforts to gain U.N. recognition of statehood and failed to back their demand for a halt to Israeli settlement activity before talks resume, the Post says.
3) The biggest policy shift in Obama's speech may have been his public criticism of the "brute force" with which the government of Bahrain has cracked down on its political opposition, McClatchy reports. Calling for dialogue as the "only way forward," Obama said, "you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail." He also denounced the destruction of Shiite mosques in Bahrain. Until Thursday, Bahrain's crackdown had drawn virtually no public U.S. criticism, despite a wide range of human rights abuses.
Obama's commitment to democratic transformation was a "long-awaited step," the country's main Shiite organization, Al Wefaq, said in a statement. "We are looking to real commitment from the U.S.," the statement said. "We . . . are hoping the president continues to speak out when he sees repression by U.S. allies of democracy-seekers in this ongoing process."
4) U.S. operations in Libya hit the 60-day mark Friday, The Hill reports. The 1973 War Powers Resolution requires presidents to secure congressional approval for military operations within 60 days, or withdraw forces within the next 30. On Thursday, six Senate Republicans wrote to Obama asking him if he intends to comply with the WPR. Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Jim DeMint, Ron Johnson, Tom Coburn, and John Cornyn signed the letter.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich has vowed to introduce legislation Monday invoking the War Powers Act in an effort to pull U.S. forces from the conflict. Breaching the 60-day deadline sets a bad precedent for administrations to come, according to critics on and off of Capitol Hill, who are calling on Congress to push back against the assertion of expanded presidential war-waging powers.
5) When President Obama ordered the U.S. military to wage war in Libya without Congressional approval, the administration and its defenders claimed he had legal authority because the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (WPR) authorizes the President to wage war for 60 days without Congress, writes Glenn Greenwald in Salon. That assertion was false - the WPR does not give authority to wage war without authorization in the absence of an attack on the US - but now that argument is inapplicable in any event, because the 60 days have passed.
6) GOP Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is questioning whether we need to keep 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, Amanda Terkel reports for the Huffington Post. "I would tell you that we have to evaluate very carefully our presence in Afghanistan," he said. "And my inclination would be to say that it is a heavy and very expensive presence we have on the ground. That at a point in time where we need to be looking at our asymmetrical threats, what we have in Afghanistan today is not consistent with how we ought to be responding."
7) Changes in IMF policy under Dominique Strauss-Kahn were relatively small, writes Mark Weisbrot in the Guardian. A review of 41 IMF agreements made during the world financial crisis and recession found that 31 of them contained "pro-cyclical" policies: that is, fiscal or monetary policies that would be expected to further slow the economy. Policies attached to the loan agreements for Greece, Ireland and Portugal are decidedly pro-cyclical – making it extremely difficult for these economies to get out of recession. The IMF's influence on Spain is similar. And in Latvia, the IMF presided over an Argentine-style recession that set a world historical record for the worst two-year loss of output (about 25%) – a complete disaster.
8) An Israeli government committee on Thursday approved the construction of more than 1,500 settler homes in east Jerusalem, AFP reports. Peace Now denounced the timing and content of the interior ministry's decision. "The prime minister is sacrificing relations with the US for the sake of his loyalty to settlers," it said. "This is not just miserable timing but a miserable policy which endangers Israel's standing in the world."
9) At least 11 people were killed when hundreds of protesters, angered by a NATO night raid they believed had killed four civilians, clashed with security forces, AP reports. "Death to Karzai! Death to America!" protesters chanted. Provincial Gov. Abdul Jabar Taqwa said no one in his government was informed about the raid and that NATO acted unilaterally.
1) Obama Sees '67 Borders as Starting Point for Peace Deal
Mark Landler and Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, May 19, 2011
Washington - President Obama, seeking to capture a moment of epochal change in the Arab world, began a new effort on Thursday to break the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, setting out a new starting point for negotiations on the region's most intractable problem.
A day before the arrival in Washington of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Mr. Obama declared that the prevailing borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - adjusted to some degree to account for Israeli settlements in the West Bank - should be the basis of a deal. While the 1967 borders have long been viewed as the foundation for a peace agreement, Mr. Obama's formula of land swaps to compensate for disputed territory created a new benchmark for a diplomatic solution.
Mr. Obama's statement represented a subtle, but significant shift, in American policy. And it thrust him back into the region's most nettlesome dispute at a time when conditions would seem to make reaching a deal especially difficult.
The Israeli government immediately protested, saying that for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders would leave it "indefensible." Mr. Netanyahu held an angry phone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday before the speech, officials said, in which he demanded that the president's reference to 1967 borders be cut.
At one level, by putting the United States on record as supporting the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations over a Palestinian state, Mr. Obama was simply endorsing reality: Middle East analysts say a new state would inevitably be drawn on the basis of Israel's boundaries before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which created the contours of today's Middle East.
But the shift moves the United States a step closer to the position of the Palestinians, and is viewed as vital to them because it means the Americans implicitly back their view that new Israeli settlement construction will have to be reversed, or compensated for, in talks over the borders for a new Palestinian state.
Some analysts said Mr. Obama's shift was less strategic than tactical, seeking to lure the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, as a way of heading off their campaign to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
"He's moving into a crisis-management mode, laying out principles to preserve the two-state solution and to prevent a U.N. resolution on a Palestinian state," said Martin S. Indyk, the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
2) Netanyahu balks as Obama speech invokes '67 borders
Joby Warrick and Joel Greenberg, Washington Post, May 19
President Obama's proposals for resuscitating Middle East peace talks drew sharply negative responses from the Israeli government and the Islamist Hamas movement and set up a potentially frosty encounter between the U.S. president and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who will visit the White House on Friday.
Netanyahu appeared to outright reject Obama's call that the boundaries in place on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war serve as a starting point for negotiations, calling the proposed borders "indefensible" and suggesting that the plan would weaken Israeli security and put Jewish settlers at risk.
As Obama spoke, an Israeli government committee approved the construction of more than 1,500 new homes in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, whose 1967 annexation by Israel is not internationally recognized. The plan provoked condemnation from Palestinians and defiance from hard-line Israelis.
In April 2004, President George W. Bush wrote in a letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that negotiations should be "in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 242," which calls for "the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent  conflict."
But in the same letter, Bush also said a full return to 1967 lines was unrealistic "in light of new realities on the ground." The 2004 declaration angered Palestinian refugees and those living inside the occupied territories, as it effectively rejected the Palestinians' claim of a right to return to homes inside Israel.
In his response to Obama's speech, Netanyahu said that during his Friday visit to the White House he "expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both houses of Congress."
Among Palestinians, the reaction to parts of Obama's speech was equally sharp. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah convened an emergency meeting to discuss the speech, while Hamas, the armed Islamist movement that controls the Gaza strip, denounced the president's proposals as "a total failure." Palestinians were angered that Obama rejected their efforts to gain U.N. recognition of statehood and failed to back their demand for a halt to Israeli settlement activity before talks resume.
3) Obama slams Bahrain's crackdown
Roy Gutman, McClatchy Newspapers, May 20, 2011 06:33:06 AM
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - The single biggest policy shift in President Obama's Middle East speech Thursday may have been his public criticism of the "brute force" with which the government of Bahrain has cracked down on its political opposition.
The main political opposition group there welcomed the speech. The Sunni Muslim minority government, in a statement early Friday, ignored the criticism, but said the speech "included visions and principles that agree with the democratic strategy adopted by Bahrain."
"Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform to go away," Obama said.
Calling for dialogue as the "only way forward," he added tartly, "you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."
He also took note of the destruction of Shiite mosques in dozens of Bahrain's towns and villages, where Shiites outnumber Sunni Muslims nearly four to one. "Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain," Obama said.
What he didn't mention, and what rankled many in the opposition, was that the crackdown began after Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops into Bahrain in mid-March to back the Sunni minority government, helping to transform a national uprising on political reform into a sectarian dispute.
Obama's commitment to democratic transformation was a "long-awaited step," the country's main Shiite organization, Al Wefaq, said in a statement. It also backed his call for the release of opposition leaders now in jail and a halt to other forms of repression.
But the organization also expressed skepticism and promised to watch closely to see whether Obama follows through.
"We are looking to real commitment from the U.S.," the statement said. "We . . . are hoping the president continues to speak out when he sees repression by U.S. allies of democracy-seekers in this ongoing process."
Until Thursday, Bahrain's crackdown had drawn virtually no public U.S. criticism, despite a wide range of human rights abuses including the arrests of opposition politicians and journalists, the destruction of religious buildings, the prosecution of medical personnel who treated protesters and the firings of Shiite professionals.
At least six opposition leaders are in jail, and close relatives say at least two have been tortured. On Wednesday, Bahrain began the trial of four opposition newspaper editors on charges that could send them to prison for as long as two years.
Before the government issued its response, a senior Bahraini official challenged several of Obama's assumptions, asking for anonymity to give what he called his personal view.
"There are no political leaders in jail," he said. "The people who have been detained or charged are not there because of their political beliefs. People detained for questioning, and people charged have been charged for criminal acts."
Acknowledging that some of those jailed once sat in Bahrain's parliament, he nevertheless dismissed them as not having been "opposition leaders." "I don't believe they led," he said.
"What about Ebrahim Sharif?" said Khalil al Marzooq, a Shiite who quit parliament to protest the crackdown, referring to a Sunni who heads a small liberal secular party, al Waad, and was detained in March.
Family members of the jailed politicians saw Obama's speech as a step in the right direction after weeks of dismay over U.S. silence. Still, they longed for harsher words.
"I felt happy and relieved after his statement, especially when he asked for the release of the prisoners," said the wife of one jailed dissident, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "But yet, I felt the language used did not reflect the mass brutality and violations we face every day."
She pointed out that there's still been no investigation into the deaths of four people while in detention, and that Obama had failed to criticize Saudi Arabian troops' role in the crackdown.
4) Lawmakers largely silent on war powers authority in Libya
Mike Lillis and John T. Bennett, The Hill, 05/20/11 05:58 AM ET
U.S. operations in Libya hit the 60-day mark Friday, but Congress has grown largely silent on the administration's unilateral intervention into the war-torn North African nation.
The 1973 War Powers Act (WPA) - the statute President Obama invoked when he launched forces in March - requires presidents to secure congressional approval for military operations within 60 days, or withdraw forces within the next 30.
Congress did not authorize the mission - which includes a no-fly zone, bombing raids, a sea blockade and civilian-protection operations - but the deadline has stirred little sense of urgency on Capitol Hill.
House lawmakers are in the midst of a weeklong recess. And the Senate, which stuck around, is also unlikely to address the issue this week, according to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
There has been some congressional action, however.
On Thursday, six Senate Republicans wrote to Obama asking him if he intends to comply with the WPA.
"Friday is the final day of the statutory sixty-day period for you to terminate the use of the United States Armed Forces in Libya under the War Powers Resolution," reads the letter, spearheaded by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). "As recently as last week your administration indicated use of the United States Armed Forces will continue indefinitely."
Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) also endorsed the letter. The White House did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is another vocal critic of the Libya intervention. He has vowed to introduce legislation Monday invoking the War Powers Act in an effort to pull U.S. forces from the conflict.
"At home, people are being told to sacrifice their own quality of life because our government does not have sufficient resources for healthcare, education, retirement security and job creation," Kucinich said. "Yet at the same time we are setting the stage for endless war which will bring ruin and poverty."
Breaching the 60-day deadline sets a bad precedent for administrations to come, according to critics on and off of Capitol Hill, who are calling on Congress to push back against the president's war-waging powers.
Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale University, said the Libya war is "a classic case of what could go wrong with executive war-making."
"My concern is not this relatively small war," Ackerman said in a phone interview. "This is going to be a precedent for the next president."
5) The illegal war in Libya
Glenn Greenwald, Salon, Thursday, May 19, 2011 05:20 Et
"The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation" -- candidate Barack Obama, December, 2007
"No more ignoring the law when it's inconvenient. That is not who we are. . . . We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers" -- candidate Barack Obama, August 1, 2007
When President Obama ordered the U.S. military to wage war in Libya without Congressional approval (even though, to use his words, it did "not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation"), the administration and its defenders claimed he had legal authority to do so for two reasons: (1) the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (WPR) authorizes the President to wage war for 60 days without Congress, and (2) the "time-limited, well defined and discrete" nature of the mission meant that it was not really a "war" under the Constitution (Deputy NSA Adviser Ben Rhodes and the Obama OLC). Those claims were specious from the start, but are unquestionably inapplicable now.
From the start, the WPR provided no such authority. Section 1541(c) explicitly states that the war-making rights conferred by the statute apply only to "a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces." That's why Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman -- in an article in Foreign Policy entitled "Obama's Unconstitutional War" -- wrote when the war started that the "The War Powers Resolution doesn't authorize a single day of Libyan bombing" and that "in taking the country into a war with Libya, Barack Obama's administration is breaking new ground in its construction of an imperial presidency."
Ackerman detailed why Obama's sweeping claims of war powers exceeded that even of past controversial precedents, such as Clinton's 1999 bombing of Kosovo, which at least had the excuse that Congress authorized funding for it: "but Obama can't even take advantage of this same desperate expedient, since Congress has appropriated no funds for the Libyan war." The Nation's John Nichols explained that Obama's unilateral decision "was a violation of the provision in the founding document that requires the executive to attain authorization from Congress before launching military adventures abroad." Put simply, as Daniel Larison concluded in an excellent analysis last week, "the war was illegal from the start."
But even for those who chose to cling to the fiction that the presidential war in Libya was authorized by the WPR, that fiction is now coming to a crashing end. Friday will mark the 60th day of the war without Congress, and there are no plans for authorization to be provided. By all appearances, the White House isn't even bothering to pretend to seek one. A handful of GOP Senators -- ones who of course showed no interest whatsoever during the Bush years in demanding presidential adherence to the law -- are now demanding a vote on Libya, but it's highly likely that the Democrats who control the Senate won't allow one. Instead, the law will simply be ignored by the President who declared, when bashing George Bush on the campaign trail to throngs of cheering progressives: "No more ignoring the law when it's inconvenient. That is not who we are."
One of the questions often asked during the Bush years was why Bush/Cheney were so brazen in violating Congressional statutes given that the post-9/11 Congress would have given them whatever authority they wanted to do whatever they wanted; the answer was clear: because they wanted to establish the "principle" that they had the power to do anything without getting anyone's permission, including the American people's through their Congress or the courts ("These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the President alone to make," decreed John Yoo in his iconic September 25, 2001 memo).
The same is true of Obama here. There is little doubt that Congress would subserviently comply -- as it always does -- with presidential demands for war authorization. The Obama White House is simply choosing not to seek it because Obama officials want to bolster the unrestrained power of the imperial presidency entrenched by Dick Cheney, David Addington and John Yoo, and because that route avoids a messy debate about purpose, cost and exit strategy. Instead -- just as Bush/Cheney invented theories to justify even direct violation of Congressional law (e.g., the AUMF implicitly allowed us to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants in violation of FISA) -- the Obama administration is now, as The New York Times put it, "trying to come up with a plausible theory for why continued participation by the United States does not violate the law." Those potential "theories" -- that the U.S. can stop bombing for a moment, claim the war ended, and then resume bombing on the basis that the momentary pause reset the WPR clock, or that NATO's command means the U.S. is not really at war -- are ludicrous on their face, but highlight how eager the White House is to avoid seeking a vote that might dilute the President's seized unilateral war-making power (Ackerman and Yale Professor Oona Hathaway have a Washington Post Op-Ed today deriding those absurd theories).
It was equally clear from the start that this Orwellian-named "kinetic humanitarian action" was, in fact, a "war" in every sense, including the Constitutional sense, but that's especially undeniable now. While the President, in his after-the-fact speech justifying the war, pledged that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake," it is now clear that is exactly what is happening. "Regime change" quickly became the explicit goal. NATO has repeatedly sought to kill Gadaffi with bombs; one attack killed his youngest son and three grandchildren and almost killed his whole family including his wife, forcing them to flee to Tunisia. If sending your armed forces and its AC-130s and drones to another country to attack that country's military and kill its leader isn't a "war," then nothing is.
It's extraordinary how rapidly and brazenly the initial claims about the war were discarded. The notion that we were simply going to establish a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Benghazi behind the leadership of the Arab League -- remember all that? -- is a faded, laughable memory. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, originally supportive of the mission in Libya, explained the obvious about NATO in an interview this week: "they've crossed a line and are now part of the civil war and fighting on one side of the civil war." One can now say many things about this war; that it is "time-limited, well defined and discrete" is most assuredly not among them.
The excuses offered to justify or excuse all of this are unpersuasive in the extreme. Some point out that Congress is content with having the President seize its war-making powers; that's true, but the same was true of Congress under both parties in the face of Bush/Cheney radicalism (Dan Froomkin wrote in 2007 that "historians looking back on the Bush presidency may well wonder if Congress actually existed"). Nobody back then suggested this inaction excused Bush's lawbreaking. That Congress acquiesces simply means -- like Obama's protection of Bush crimes -- that the President will get away with this lawbreaking, not that it's justified.
Nor do the instances of past illegal wars provide any excuse. Past lawlessness does not justify current lawlessness. Beyond that, Professors Ackerman and Hathaway argue today that Libya will create an all new and dangerous precedent for the imperial presidency:
Once Obama crosses the Rubicon, future presidents will simply cite Libya when they unilaterally commit America to far more ambitious NATO campaigns.
Make no mistake: Obama is breaking new ground, moving decisively beyond his predecessors. George W. Bush gained congressional approval for his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bill Clinton acted unilaterally when he committed American forces to NATO's bombing campaign in Kosovo, but he persuaded Congress to approve special funding for his initiative within 60 days. And the entire operation ended on its 78th day.
In contrast, Congress has not granted special funds for Libya since the bombing began, and the campaign is likely to continue beyond the 30-day limit set for termination of all operations. . . .
If nothing happens, history will say that the War Powers Act was condemned to a quiet death by a president who had solemnly pledged, on the campaign trail, to put an end to indiscriminate warmaking.
That the American people must approve of wars through their Congress is no legalistic technicality (and as my very British NYU Criminal Law Professor, Graham Hughes, dryly said of his arrival in the U.S. and initial exposure to TV debates about criminal defendants "getting off on technicalities": "I had never before been in a country where people refer to their Constitution as a 'technicality'"). The whole point of the Article I, Section 8 requirement is that democratic debate and consent is necessary to prevent Presidents from starting self-aggrandizing wars without real limits on duration, cost and purpose; the WPR was enacted after the Vietnam debacle to prevent its repeat.
This war, without Congressional authorization, is illegal in every relevant sense: Constitutionally and statutorily. That was true from its start but is especially true now. If one wants to take the position that it's not particularly important or damaging for a President to illegally start and sustain protracted wars on his own, then it's hard to see what would be important. That is the ultimate expression of a lawless empire.
6) Jon Huntsman Criticizes Heavy U.S. Presence In Afghanistan: It's Not 'How We Ought To Be Responding'
Amanda Terkel, Huffington Post, May 20, 2011
Washington -- Jon Huntsman may be stepping into the shoes of Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee, becoming a top-tier candidate skeptical of current U.S. foreign policy and calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"In terms of foreign policy, we have a generational opportunity, George, to reset our position in the world," Huntsman said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos that aired Friday on "Good Morning America." "And it must be done based upon our deployments in all corners of the world, wherever we find ourselves, how affordable those deployments are, whether it's a good use of our young men and women. Whether it's in our core national security and interest. We're fighting an enemy that is far different than any we have got before. It's a nontraditional kind of war, and I think we need to step back, recalibrate how we go about protecting our borders and protecting our people, and resetting our position in the world."
On Afghanistan, Huntsman did not specify an exact withdrawal date, although he expressed skepticism that having 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground there was the best decision.
"I would tell you that we have to evaluate very carefully our presence in Afghanistan," he said. "And my inclination would be to say that it is a heavy and very expensive presence we have on the ground. That at a point in time where we need to be looking at our asymmetrical threats, what we have in Afghanistan today is not consistent with how we ought to be responding."
The comments are similar to ones the former Utah governor made in New Hampshire on Thursday, when he called a drawdown of U.S. troops "inevitable."
"The deployments are mighty expensive," he said. 'We've got to ensure that going forward into our new world that we have a foreign policy that is an extension of our core national interests. And does that mean that we're going to have to look at the map at some point and reset our level of engagement and our deployments in some corners of the world. Absolutely it does."
Barbour and Huckabee have taken themselves out of the running for 2012. But two other GOP presidential contenders have also called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, although they are considered long shots to win the nomination. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is one of Congress' most forceful voices advocating an end to the war, and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson has made clear that he believes the country should draw down immediately.
Other candidates have been more tentative. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (R) recently said he believes U.S. troops could be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the next two years if conditions are right, although he defers to the military for specific recommendations. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. in April, former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) criticized Obama for laying out a withdrawal plan that was more rapid than what some in the military were advocating.
7) Strauss-Kahn's Legacy at the IMF: Less Than Meets the Eye?
With Dominique Strauss-Kahn's resignation, it's time to take stock of his legacy – and the limits of his reform of the fund
Mark Weisbrot, Guardian, Thursday 19 May 2011 22.00 BST
Now that Dominique Strauss-Kahn has resigned from his position as managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it is worth taking an objective look at his legacy there. Until his arrest last week on charges of attempted rape and sexual assault, he was widely praised as having changed the IMF, increased its influence and moved it away from the policies that – according to the fund's critics – had caused so many problems for developing countries in the past. How much of this is true?
Strauss-Kahn took the helm of the IMF in November of 2007, when the IMF's influence was at a low point. Total outstanding loans at that time were just $10bn, down from $91bn just four years earlier. By the time he left this week, that number had bounced back to $84bn, with agreed-upon loans three times larger. The IMF's total capital had quadrupled, from about $250bn to an unprecedented $1tn. Clearly, the IMF had resources that it had never had before, mostly as a result of the financial crisis and world recession of 2008-2009.
However, the details of these changes are important. First, the collapse of the IMF's influence in the decade prior to 2007 was one of the most important changes in the international financial system since the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates in 1971. Prior to the 2000s, the IMF headed up a powerful creditors' cartel that was able to tell many developing country governments what their most important economic policies would be, under the threat of being denied credit not only from the fund but also from other, then larger lenders such as the World Bank, regional lenders and sometimes even the private sector. This made the fund not only the most important avenue of influence of the US government in low- and middle-income countries – from Rwanda to Russia – but also the most important promoter of neoliberal economic "reforms" that transformed the world economy from the mid 1970s onward. These reforms coincided with a sharp slowdown of economic growth in the vast majority of low- and middle-income countries for more than 20 years, with consequently reduced progress on social indicators such as life expectancy and infant and child mortality.
The IMF's big comeback during the world recession did not bring the middle-income countries that had run away from it back to its orbit. Most of the middle-income countries of Asia, Russia, as well as Latin America, stayed away, mostly by piling up sufficient reserves so that they did not have to borrow from the fund, even during the crisis. As a result, even a low-income country like Bolivia, for example, was able to renationalise its hydrocarbon industry, increase social spending and public investment, and lower its retirement age from 65 to 58 – things it could never do while it was living under IMF agreements continuously for 20 years prior. Most of the IMF's new influence and lending would land in Europe, which accounts for about 57% of its current outstanding loans.
As for changes in IMF policy, these have been relatively small. A review of 41 IMF agreements made during the world financial crisis and recession found that 31 of them contained "pro-cyclical" policies: that is, fiscal or monetary policies that would be expected to further slow the economy. And in Europe, where the IMF has most of its lending, the policies attached to the loan agreements for Greece, Ireland and Portugal are decidedly pro-cyclical – making it extremely difficult for these economies to get out of recession. The IMF's influence on Spain, which does not yet have a loan agreement, is similar. And in Latvia, the IMF presided over an Argentine-style recession that set a world historical record for the worst two-year loss of output (about 25%) – a complete disaster.
To be fair, some changes at the fund during the tenure of Strauss-Kahn were significant. For the first time ever, during the world recession of 2009, the IMF made available some $283bn-worth of reserves for all member countries, with no policy conditions attached. The fund also made some limited credit available without conditions, though only to a few countries. The biggest changes were in the research department, where there was tolerance for more open debate. For example, there were IMF papers that endorsed the use of capital controls by developing countries under some circumstances, and questioning whether central banks were unnecessarily slowing growth with inflation targets that may be too low.
But as can be seen from what is happening in the peripheral Eurozone countries, the IMF is still playing its traditional role of applying the medieval economic medicine of "bleeding the patient". To be fair to both Strauss-Kahn and the fund, neither the managing director nor anyone else at the IMF is ultimately in sole charge of policy, especially with respect to countries that are important to the people who really run the institution. The IMF is run by its governors and executive directors, of whom the overwhelmingly dominant authorities are the US treasury department, which includes heavy representation from Goldman Sachs, and, secondarily, the European powers.
Until decision-making at the IMF undergoes a dramatic change, we can expect only very small changes in IMF policy. This can be seen most clearly in the current case of Greece: Strauss-Kahn was aware that the fiscal tightening ordered by the European authorities and the IMF was preventing Greece from getting out of recession; but while he pushed for "softer" conditions, he was powerless to change the lending conditions from punishment to actual help. That's ultimately because the European authorities (European Commission and European Central Bank), not the IMF, are calling the shots – although Strauss-Kahn encountered plenty of resistance within the fund itself, too.
The voting shares of the IMF have changed only marginally, despite all the reforms of the last five years. The share of "emerging market and developing countries" – with the vast majority of the world's population – has gone from 39.4% to 44.7%, while the G7 countries have 41.2%, including 16.5% for the US (down from 17.0% pre-reform).
But the voting and governance structure is not currently the main obstacle to changing IMF policy. At this point, the developing countries – and we should add in the victimised countries of the eurozone – are not using their potential influence within the fund. Their representatives are mainly going along with the decisions of the G7. If any number of these countries were to band together in a sizeable bloc for change within the fund, there could be some real reforms at the IMF.
Such an outcome can be seen from the last decade of struggle within the World Trade Organisation, where developing countries have often not accepted the G7 consensus, and have successfully blocked the negotiation and implementation of rules that would hurt them – despite the fact that the WTO rules have been, from the outset, stacked against developing countries. It is true that the WTO operates by consensus rather than a quota-based voting structure, but that is not the key difference between it and the IMF. The key difference is in the role of developing countries and their representatives.
There is talk now of replacing Strauss-Kahn with an open, merit-based process of selection, breaking with the 67-year tradition of reserving the position for a European – most often, a French – official. At the moment, such change does not appear likely to happen. It would be a step forward, but it would be only a symbolic change, and the odds are good that the next managing director – of whatever nationality – will be to the right of Strauss-Kahn. Real change at the IMF is in the hands of the governments of most of the world – but only if they dare to organise it.
8) Israel Approves 1,500 Settler Homes in East Jerusalem: NGO
Steve Weizman, AFP, Thu May 19, 3:38 pm ET
Jerusalem – An Israeli government committee on Thursday approved the construction of more than 1,500 settler homes in east Jerusalem, as Israel's premier prepared to leave for talks in Washington, an NGO told AFP.
A spokeswoman for the Ir Amim non-governmental organisation, which calls for Palestinians and Israelis to share Jerusalem, confirmed the interior ministry planning committee gave final approval for two projects.
The decision authorised construction of 620 homes in the settlement neighbourhood of Pisgat Zeev, and another 900 in a second settlement neighbourhood, Har Homa.
The committee hearing took place just hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due to fly to Washington, where he is to meet US President Barack Obama in the White House on Friday and make a keynote address to both houses of Congress next week.
Israeli lobby group Peace Now deplored the timing and content of the interior ministry's decision. "The prime minister is sacrificing relations with the US for the sake of his loyalty to settlers," it said in a statement. "This is not just miserable timing but a miserable policy which endangers Israel's standing in the world."
"Netanyahu's decision to discuss Har Homa and Pisgat Zeev today is a clear message to the Americans about Israel's real policy which refuses to even discuss (sharing) Jerusalem," Hagit Ofran, of Peace Now's Settlement Watch unit told AFP.
The Palestinians also slammed the decision, with president Mahmud Abbas's spokesman tying it to a key Middle East policy speech by US President Barack Obama. "The decision of the Israeli government... is the immediate Israeli response to President Obama's speech," Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.
Ir Amim spokeswoman Orly Noi said her group had lodged formal objections to the Har Homa plan, which she said would have a particularly serious impact on Jerusalem's southeastern boundary with the West Bank. "On Har Homa, the objection is from us, on political grounds," she said. "The planned construction will extend it... in the direction of Bethlehem, creating really significant changes," she told AFP.
9) 11 killed in Afghan protest of NATO raid
Associated Press, May 18, 2011 5:52 AM ET
Hundreds of protesters, angered by an overnight NATO raid that they believed had killed four civilians, clashed on Wednesday with security forces on the streets of a northern Afghan city.
At least 11 people were killed as the protesters fought with police and tried to assault a NATO outpost in the city of Taloqan, the capital of Takhar province, government officials said. Some 50 were injured, including some police officers.
The NATO raid they were protesting took place hours before on the outskirts of the city. The coalition said four insurgents died in the operation and that two others were detained.
Night raids targeting insurgents regularly stir up controversy in Afghanistan, where angry residents often charge the next day that international forces go after the wrong people or mistreat civilians as they search compounds. Success by NATO in reducing civilian casualties and agreements to conduct night raids alongside Afghan forces have not managed to stem the tide of accusations.
Provincial Gov. Abdul Jabar Taqwa said the four casualties from the raid were two women and two men who were killed when troops burst into a home in an area known as Gawmal late Tuesday night. He said that no one in his government was informed about the raid and that NATO acted unilaterally.
NATO confirmed it killed four people, two of them women, but said all were armed and tried to fire on its troops. NATO said the raid was conducted by a "combined Afghan and coalition security force," according to coalition policy.
A spokesman for NATO forces said that the governor was contacted ahead of the raid. "It is standard practice in Takhar province to contact the Afghan provincial leadership prior to an operation. In this case, calls were placed to the provincial governor six times prior to the operation," Maj. Michael Johnson said. He also reiterated that Afghan forces took part in the operation. "We are aware of the claims of civilian casualties, and are looking into them," Johnson added.
Provincial police chief Gen. Shah Jahan Noori said he had not been informed of the operation and said none of his officers were involved.
On Wednesday, hundreds of people gathered on the road from Gawmal to Taloqan and carried the four bodies on platforms as they marched into the city, according to an Associated Press Television News cameraman at the scene. They shouted insults at Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the United States as they pumped their fists in the air.
"Death to Karzai! Death to America!" they yelled.
The governor, Taqwa, estimated that there were about 1,500 demonstrators.
The protest turned violent as some in the crowd started looting shops and throwing stones at a small German base in the city. Police were out throughout the city trying to calm the crowd, Taqwa said. Gunfire could be heard in a number of neighbourhoods and troops at the German outpost shot off rounds in an attempt to disperse the crowd outside their walls.
The German military said in a statement that the demonstrators threw hand grenades and Molotov cocktails into the base, injuring two German soldiers and four Afghan guards. The German soldiers, one of whom was slightly injured and one somewhat more seriously, were both in stable condition, the military said.
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