The Obama Administration's response to the ongoing Iranian election crisis has been remarkably intelligent.
Rather than make blustering statements in support of one side or the other, President Obama has urged restraint and caution when it comes to US commentary on what is going on in Iran. In a CNBC interview, he told the press,
It is not productive, given the history of US-Iranian relations to be seen as meddling - the US president, meddling in Iranian elections.
Obama shows himself to be a wise student of history by taking this stance. The last time the Iranian people had a functioning democracy was under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Following efforts by Mossadegh to nationalize the oil industry, American and British intelligence agencies organized astroturf protests and eventually had him overthrown. What followed was the brutal reign of the autocratic Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Most Iranians view the Shah's reign as a very dark period of their history, and they harbor resentment against the American government for organizing the coup that toppled their last truly freely and democratically elected government. Which is why if the United States chose to intervene in this election on behalf of the protesters, hard-liners within Iran could easily portray the student movement as nothing more than the sort of demonstrations that acted as tools of the Western governments to overthrow Iran's government in 1953. This would ultimately undermine the pro-democracy movement within Iran and turn public support towards Iranian reactionaries.
President Obama has the opportunity to make history in Cairo on Thursday, the kind of history that President Eisenhower made when he rebuked the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel. Eisenhower's stand won tremendous goodwill for the U.S. in the Arab world. If Obama stands firm on his policy differences with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, he can win tremendous goodwill for the U.S. in the Arab and Muslim world.
In the run-up to the speech, Obama has opened space between U.S. policy and Israeli government policy on relations with the Palestinians and on relations with Iran. The degree to which Obama can meaningfully differentiate the U.S. from the Netanyahu government in terms of policy will be a key determinant of whether he can convince Arab and Muslim audiences that the U.S. genuinely wants a different relationship with the Muslim world than it had during the Bush Administration. In Cairo, Obama will have the podium in the Arab and Muslim world in an unprecedented way. If Obama highlights his strong opposition to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, his support for Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, his sustained diplomatic engagement with Iran, and his willingness to work with whoever wins the upcoming Lebanese and Iranian elections, he can change perceptions of the United States in the region.
On opposition to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, Obama has staked out a clear position. Last week, Secretary of State Clinton said that President Obama:
The Obama Administration has been praised and vilified for its legendary caution, typically depending on whether the speaker supports or opposes the direction in which caution is being applied.
But a recent proposal by the State Department to the Organization of American States regarding Cuba's re-entry to the OAS rises to the level of ludicrous understatement. The US proposal, along with proposals from Latin America for Cuba's re-entry, is to be considered at the OAS meeting in Honduras next week.
The US proposal concedes that "some of the circumstances since Cuba's suspension... may have changed," the Miami Herald reports.
Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962, based largely on its alliance with the Soviet Union.
Do they take newspaper delivery at the State Department? The Soviet Union has not existed for almost twenty years. Does that count as a circumstance that "may have changed"?
The Obama Administration has tacked back and forth. Many in Congress, the Cuban-American community, and the U.S. business community want the U.S. embargo on Cuba to be scrapped or substantially eliminated. But a diehard gang of aging Cuban-American Republican dead-enders is determined to make the Obama Administration pay dearly for any steps towards sanity.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is under intense pressure from Latin America to scrap the embargo. Cuba is the only Latin American or Caribbean nation excluded from the OAS, and the U.S. is the only country in the OAS that doesn't have full diplomatic relations with Cuba.
In March, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said Cuba should be readmitted.
With the passage of the war supplemental by the Senate, President Obama and Congress are "doubling down" on war in Afghanistan. Are we - and the Afghan people - doomed to endure many more years of war?
There is no reason that we need be, according to yesterday's New York Times, which reports that talks between Taliban leaders and Afghan government representatives have accelerated since Obama's election, and that Afghan officials say they have the tacit blessing of Washington for the talks.
Furthermore, the demands being put forward by the Taliban in the negotiations appear, on the face of it, to be eminently reasonable.
Daoud Abedi, one of the intermediaries in the talks, told the Times he had hammered out a common set of demands between the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group. The groups agreed to stop fighting if those conditions were met, Abedi said.
The first demand was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country over the next 18 months. Then the current government would be replaced by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders, including those of the Taliban and other insurgents. Americans and other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. Nationwide elections would follow after the Western forces left.
Is there anything here which appears unreasonable on its face?
- Pullback to bases: this was a demand of the Iraqi government, which the US eventually agreed to a version of.
- Cease-fire: a standard element of any peace plan.
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.
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
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.
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.