Here is some unsolicited advice for the Obama Administration: you essentially have four days to put US involvement in the Libya war on a path that doesn't look like open-ended quagmire.
Otherwise, when the House comes back next week, you're going to get in trouble.
Many people have difficulty imagining the possibility that Congress could give the Obama Administration difficulty over the Libya war. Since 2001, many people think, Congress has rolled over for both the Bush and Obama Administrations on questions of war and peace. Why should now be any different?
The view that Congress has only rolled over misses important history. For example, the legislative fight over a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq was a significant contributor to the fact that we have such a timetable for withdrawal today, even though such a timetable was never enacted legislatively. Congress lost the issue legislatively, but eventually won the issue politically.
But the more important point here that many people aren't thinking about yet is that the political dynamics of the coming debate over the Libya war could be very different from the debates over Iraq and Afghanistan. If the Libya war is going full-bore next week with heavy US involvement, there could be significant opposition in Congress, especially in the House, from both Democrats and Republicans.
Secretary of State Clinton defended the State Department budget in Congress this week by pointing out that diplomatic interventions can prevent expensive wars. Now the State Department has a spectacular opportunity to demonstrate Secretary Clinton's argument by example. It can support robust diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Libya without a further escalation in violence.
Pipe dream? The Wall Street Journal reports today that the price of oil fell on world markets when Al Jazeera reported that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had accepted a plan proposed by Venezuela that called for a multinational commission to mediate the conflict with rebel groups; Reuters reports that Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the peace plan was "under consideration."
Of course, this doesn't mean that peace is about to break out. For example, a leader of the rebels has reportedly rejected the call for peace.
But here are some facts that should create an opening for diplomacy: the armed rebels seem to have very little military prospect of taking Tripoli. The Libyan government seems to have very little military prospect of retaking most rebel-held territory.
When a Member of Congress dies, sometimes other Members name a bill after that Member that advances some cause identified with the Member. So, for example, we had the "Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act" - Kennedy was a champion of volunteer service.
Such naming has multiple effects. Of course it honors the departed. But, like the Spanish hero El Cid, whose companions suited him up and placed him on his horse to drive off their foes, it also gives the departed one last ride into battle. When you name something the "Our esteemed colleague who just passed" Act, you're laying down a challenge - don't leave this one on the cutting room floor. And everyone gets to cheat death a little by giving the departed one last accomplishment associated with that person's name.
The uncompleted challenge of Richard Holbrooke's diplomatic career was a peace deal in Afghanistan. It was the hope of many that Holbrooke would help broker a peace deal between the warring factions in Afghanistan and between their regional patrons that would end the war. This hope was encouraged by Holbrooke's role in negotiating the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.
This unfinished business was apparently very much on Holbrooke's mind as they prepared him for surgery from which, presumably, he had some inkling that he might not return.
"You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan," Holbrooke said, according to family members.
Are peace talks to end the war a pipe dream? Not according to many Afghanistan experts with decades of experience in the country.
A major contribution of the "inside experts" Afghanistan Study Group report (read here ; send to your reps in Congress here), released last week to spur Washington debate towards de-escalating the war at the next fork in the road is that its very first recommendation is this:
1. Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion.
The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.
Predictably, there appear to have been two principal objections so far to this proposal:
1. Oh my God. How dare you suggest that the U.S. should support a peace deal with the Afghan insurgency. You must be some kind of amoral monster.
2. Ho hum. Nothing new here. Everyone already knows this. Why do you tax our patience by stating the obvious as if it were a profound revelation? This is already Administration policy. Move along, nothing to see here.
It should go without saying that these two objections are, as a matter of logic, mutually exclusive. A real peace process leading to a new political dispensation in Afghanistan that ends the civil war could be the worst idea in human history, or it could be a commonplace that everyone already knows and is already Administration policy. But it cannot be both.
There is a tradition among some peace activists of striking a pose of annoyed indifference to the question of how to get out of an unpopular war. "There are three ways to get out," goes one waggish response. "Air, land, and sea."
This is funny and emotionally satisfying, and also represents a truth for peace activists: ending the war is a first principle, not something contingent on whether a particular means of doing so satisfies someone else's notion of what is practical.
On the other hand, peace activists can't be satisfied with being right; they also are morally compelled to try to be effective. And part of being effective is giving consideration to, and seeking to publicize, arguments are likely to end the war sooner rather than later. It's not likely, for example, that discussing ways in which the war might be useful for the long-term maintenance of the "capitalist world system" will turn the Washington debate against war in the short run. If, on the other hand, central to the official story is a claim that the war is a war against Al Qaeda, but senior U.S. officials publicly concede that there is no significant Al Qaeda presence today in Afghanistan, that is certainly a fact worth knowing and spreading.
To any naysayers who say President Obama has broken all his promises, I say, with all due respect: "na na na na na":
The United States and five partner countries have accepted Iran's new offer to hold talks, even though Iran insists it will not negotiate over its disputed nuclear program, the State Department said Friday.
I realize that this may be cold comfort if you took Obama seriously when he said that he was going to renegotiate NAFTA. Okay, that promise was not for real, sorry.
But when he said he was going to talk to Iran, apparently he meant it. Who knew?
It could have gone the other way. The US could have said - we offered Iran talks on how Iran was going to stop enriching uranium, and Iran has clearly said that it has no intention of stopping the enrichment of uranium, therefore, Iran has not agreed to our offer of talks.
And therefore, we have no choice but to proceed with efforts to cut off Iran's access to gas imports.
As everyone knows, there are plenty of folks in Washington - and at least one other capital city - who would have applauded such a course.
But Obama decided to take the high road. We said we wanted talks, and Iran is saying that it wants talks, so let's talk. Why not?
Iran says it wants comprehensive talks. So? Who's against comprehensive talks? More US-Iran cooperation could help make the world a better place on a lot of fronts: Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon.
Making progress in negotiations on Iran's "nuclear file" will not be trivial. But there is a feasible solution, and everyone knows it. As Robert Dreyfuss wrote recently in The Nation:
There has been very little attention in the U.S. press to repression in Honduras under the coup regime. Hopefully, that will now change: Amnesty International issued a report today documenting "serious ill-treatment by police and military of peaceful protesters" in Honduras, warning that "beatings and mass arrests are being used as a way of punishing people for voicing their opposition" to the coup.
An Amnesty International delegation interviewed people who were detained after police and military broke up a peaceful demonstration July 30. Most detainees had injuries as a consequence of police beatings.
Esther Major, Central America researcher at Amnesty International, said:
"Detention and ill treatment of protestors are being employed as forms of punishment for those openly opposing the de facto government, and also as a deterrent for those contemplating taking to the streets to peacefully show their discontent with the political turmoil the country is experiencing."
U.S. media often rely heavily on international human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to report on human rights abuses. So it will be interesting to see how much U.S. press coverage the Amnesty report gets.
If the repression under the coup regime were more widely known, it would be much more difficult for representatives of that regime to peddle their story in Washington that their government is "democratic" and "respects the rule of law." How is the coup's hired gun Lanny Davis going to spin Amnesty's report on police repression of peaceful dissent against the coup?
In serious contention for Dumbest Washington Consensus for September is the idea of cutting off Iran's gas imports to pressure Iran to stop enriching uranium. A majority of Representatives and Senators have signed on to legislation that seeks to block Iran's gas imports, a top legislative priority for the so-called "Israel Lobby." But it's a stupid idea. Let us count the ways.
One: there is no indication that Russia and China will go along with it. Even Europe is split, Reuters reports. Turkey is also likely to be unenthusiastic - a country that has good relations with Iran, has a long border with Iran, and is currently on the UN Security Council. A U.S.-sponsored gas embargo on Iran isn't likely to have much impact if Russia, China, Turkey and half of Europe aren't cooperating - after all, it's not the U.S. that's exporting gas to Iran - unless it is imposed by force.
Two: Iran has threatened to retaliate against a U.S.-sponsored gas embargo by stopping its oil exports to the West. There is a historical precedent that ought to give Americans and Britons some pause: when Britain wanted to punish the democratically elected Mossadegh government for nationalizing Iran's oil, Britain imposed an embargo on Iranian oil exports, enforced by the British Navy. Fine, Mossadegh said, we don't care. Let it stay in the ground. When the embargo failed, the British tried to overthrow Mossadegh in a coup. When that failed, the British asked the U.S. to intervene, and the CIA and British intelligence overthrew Mossadegh. How does returning to the British colonialism script for Iran fit in with the whole outreach to the Muslim world thing?
Some people may have hoped that the problem of the coup in Honduras would magically go away once talks began between President Zelaya and leaders of the coup regime under the mediation of Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias. But of course it wasn't so and it isn't so. For the mediation to succeed, a key ingredient is required: sustained and escalating US pressure on the coup regime, until it agrees to the restoration of President Zelaya.
As the Los Angeles Times explains in an editorial today:
The coup leaders
seem to believe that if they can shoulder the hardships until November elections, all will be forgiven. Not so. The Obama administration needs to make it clear now that elections held under those conditions will not be regarded as legitimate and that such a plan would only prolong Honduras' troubles. Meanwhile, the U.S. should consider imposing sanctions on individuals involved with the coup, such as canceling visas and freezing bank accounts.
Indeed, while everybody in the U.S. supposedly loves President Arias, a Nobel laureate with a track record of helping to resolve deep conflicts in the region under difficult conditions, few people in the U.S. (with perhaps the praiseworthy exception of the LAT editorial board) seem to be listening to what Arias is saying.
As the New York Times reported Sunday (perhaps you missed this in the 17th paragraph):
Words matter - particularly the words used by major media to describe contested political events, words that can bias perceptions towards the interests of the powerful. Are those wielding power in Honduras today a "de facto" government, or are they an "interim" or "caretaker" government?
On Sunday, the following instructive exchange took place between senior U.S. officials and reporters in a State Department briefing on the Organization of American States' response to the coup in Honduras:
QUESTION: Sir, just a follow-up. Can you confirm that the caretaker government has reached out to the OAS and asked to open new negotiations? Does this mean that they're going to consider letting President Zelaya finish out his term? And what of the reports that Venezuelan troops are moving towards Honduras?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I have seen no reports indicating that Venezuelan troops are moving towards Honduras. In regard to the second, we understand that the caretaker government has - I wouldn't call it a caretaker government, I would refer to it as the de facto regime -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: De facto authorities.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: -- or authorities - has indicated to the OAS that it would like to begin a process of dialogue.
In today's press, I checked to see what characterization of the coup regime different outlets were using in their reporting.