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:
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 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.
Thank you, President Obama. At long last - better late than never - a high-level official of the Obama Administration has clearly affirmed U.S. neutrality ahead of Sunday's Presidential election in El Salvador.
Voice of America reports:
Friday in Washington, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon said the United States supports the democratic process in El Salvador and will work with whomever is elected.
Also on Friday, Rep. Howard Berman, (D-CA), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, affirmed that neither Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans in the U.S. nor remittance flows from the U.S. to El Salvador would be affected by the outcome of the election. From the Committee website:
Congressman Howard L. Berman (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued the following statement in response to comments made by members of Congress, widely reported in the El Salvador media on the eve of elections there, that both Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans in the U.S. and remittance flows from the U.S. to El Salvador may be in jeopardy depending on the outcome of the El Salvador elections to be held this Sunday:
"Sunday's election belongs to the people of El Salvador. As Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, I am confident that neither TPS nor the right to receive remittances from family in the United States will be affected by the outcome of the election, despite what some of my colleagues in Congress have said."
A progressive presidency is a terrible thing to waste. It only comes around once every so often. Wouldn't it be a shame if Americans' hopes for the Obama administration were squandered in Afghanistan?
Members of Congress who want the Obama administration to succeed won't do it any favors by keeping silent about the proposed military escalation in Afghanistan. The actions of the Obama Administration so far clearly indicate that they can move in response to pressure: both good pressure and bad pressure. If there is only bad pressure, it's more than likely that policy will move in a bad direction. In announcing an increase in U.S. troops before his Afghanistan review was complete, Obama partially acceded to pressure from the military. If we don't want the military to have carte blanche, there needs to be counterpressure.
Some Members of Congress are starting to speak up. Rep. Murtha recently said he's uncomfortable with Obama's decision to increase the number of troops in the country by 17,000 before a goal was clearly defined, AP reports. Sen. Nelson is calling for clear benchmarks to measure progress in Afghanistan, and said he may try to add benchmarks to the upcoming war supplemental bill this spring, CQ Today reports.
But these individual expressions of discomfort will likely not be enough to stop the slide towards greater and greater military escalation.
President Obama wants, quite reasonably, to "reset" relations with Russia. He also said, quite reasonably, he would "go through the federal budget line by line, programs that don't work, we cut."
Our relations with Colombia also need to be reset. "Plan Colombia," which was supposedly going to cut the flow of Colombian cocaine into the U.S., doesn't work, neither to reduce the flow of illegal drugs, nor to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Colombia. Since Plan Colombia doesn't work, it should be cut.
An October report from the Government Accountability Office found that coca-leaf production in Colombia had increased by 15% and cocaine production had increased by 4% between 2000 and 2006, and recommended cutting funding. Plan Colombia has cost U.S. taxpayers over $6 billion.
Plan Colombia has also failed to promote human rights. Broadly speaking, the practical political meaning of Plan Colombia in the Colombian political context has been: "Washington supports the Colombian government, and therefore the Colombian government can do whatever it wants without restraint." The human consequences of this political blank check have been disastrous.
A recent report by Human Rights First found human rights defenders in Colombia are frequently accused by the government and its supporters of belonging to leftwing guerrillas, and are secretly investigated for months or years before being "illegally detained," Inter Press Service reports. "The steadfast investigation of spurious criminal complaints against defenders stands in stark contrast to the failure to investigate attacks, threats, and other forms of intimidation perpetrated against them or against civilians more generally," HRF said.
We all know that President Obama has a lot on his plate. On the other hand, as candidate Obama reminded us, "words matter," especially the words spoken by the President of the United States, and with El Salvador facing a watershed Presidential election on March 15, President Obama could do a lot for the people of El Salvador and the future of U.S. relations with Latin America simply by saying something along the following lines between now and March 15:
"The United States government will remain neutral in El Salvador's March 15 presidential race, will respect the election results, and will work toward a positive relationship with whichever party is elected."
If you haven't been following the recent history of U.S. relations with Central America in general and El Salvador in particular, that might seem like a pretty banal statement. But in the context of the actual history of massive U.S. interference in the region's political processes, such a statement would be revolutionary.
Before El Salvador's 2004 presidential election, Bush Administration officials attempted to influence the vote by suggesting that if the opposition party won, the status of Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. would be threatened and remittances sent to El Salvador by Salvadorans working in the U.S. could be ended. These remittances have been estimated to comprise 10-20% of El Salvador's GDP, likely surpassing official development assistance, foreign direct investment, and tourism as a source of foreign exchange for El Salvador. These threats were widely reported in the Salvadoran press and have contributed to a lingering belief that the U.S. will not permit the opposition to win the election - a belief currently being stoked by right-wing campaign ads in the country, which are recycling the threats from 2004.