Just Foreign Policy News
June 3, 2009
With IMF Money Included, the War Supplemental Can Be Defeated in the House
Last month, 60 Members of the House of Representatives voted against the war supplemental. But this week the supplemental could be defeated on the floor of the House. The key thing that’s changed is Treasury’s insistence the supplemental include a $100 billion bailout for the IMF – a bailout for European banks facing big losses in Eastern Europe, the international version of the Wall Street bailout. House Republicans have threatened to vote no on the war funding if the IMF money is attached. If all Republicans vote no, and if all the Democrats who voted no last month vote no again, the war supplemental would fail on the floor of the House, 200-228. Call your Representative and urge them to vote no on the war/IMF supplemental. The Congressional switchboard is 202-225-3121; asked to be connected to your Representative’s office.
In Cairo, Obama Can Win With Changed U.S. Policies Towards Palestine and Iran
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.
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1) Gen. McChrystal warned the Senate that casualties in Afghanistan are likely to increase, the Los Angeles Times reports. He voiced skepticism Taliban guerrillas could be persuaded to sever their ties with Al Qaeda.
2) A military investigation concluded US personnel made significant errors in carrying out airstrikes in western Afghanistan May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, the New York Times reports. An official said the civilian death toll would probably have been reduced if US forces had followed rules devised to prevent civilian casualties. Had the rules been followed, some of the strikes by US warplanes would have been aborted.
3) Gen. McChrystal promised the Senate "extreme measures" to avoid Afghan civilian casualties, the Washington Post reports. He promised protecting civilians would take precedence over killing insurgents. When asked to describe "success" in Afghanistan, McChrystal said the first component would be "a complete elimination of al-Qaeda" from Pakistan and Afghanistan. That would prevent al-Qaeda from operating in either country with the Taliban, which he said would not be "destroyed" but rather made "irrelevant."
4) A new poll finds Egyptians view US foreign policy quite negatively and see President Obama as closely aligned with it, WorldPublicOpinion.org reports. Only 6 percent think the US favors democracy in Muslim countries irrespective of a government’s position toward the US, while 53 percent say the US only favors democracy if the government is cooperative with the US. Four in ten think the US opposes democracy in Muslim countries. 69% believe that the Muslim Brotherhood favors democracy. Six in ten think the Egyptian government should be based on a form of democracy unique for Islam. Three-quarters agree with the Muslim Brotherhood’s idea that a body of religious scholars should have veto power over laws it believes are contrary to the Koran.
5) The Israeli government is seeking to deflect the US demand for a total settlement freeze by complaining it ignores secret agreements between his predecessors and the Bush administration that construction in existing Jewish settlements could continue, The Independent reports. US officials say the US is not bound by secret Bush Administration agreements. Haaretz reported the US was "furious" over plans by the Jerusalem municipality, backed by the Interior Ministry, to build a nine-storey 200-room hotel in East Jerusalem, just 100 metres from the Old City, which includes a Palestinian market and kindergarten.
6) Obama said the US should be able to measure whether Iran is serious about nuclear negotiations by the end of this year, the Guardian reports. But he told the BBC that he did not want to put artificial timetables on the talks with Iran. "Hovering in the background," the Guardian says, is the possibility that the west could concede Iran’s right to carry out some uranium enrichment, perhaps under control of an international consortium, in return for more intrusive UN inspections and safeguards.
7) On May 29th, close to 2 dozen people were killed and more than 100 wounded in a suicide bombing in a Shiite mosque in Iran, VOA reports. The militant group Jundullah claimed responsibility. The State Department expressed the U.S. government’s condolences for the victims: "We condemn this terrorist attack in the strongest possible terms, and extend our sympathy to the families of those injured and killed…The U.S. strongly condemns all forms of terrorism. We do not sponsor any form of terrorism in Iran, and we continue to work with the international community to try and prevent any attacks against innocent civilians anywhere."
8) The Iraqi Ministry of Defense halted all mine-clearing operations last December, despite the protests of international relief organizations and Iraq’s Environment Ministry, McClatchy reports. Some estimate that one Iraqi loses a limb, or his or her life, to unexploded ordnance each day. The U.N. estimates that during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, US planes dropped 54 million cluster bombs. Most fell in southern and central Iraq.
9) Cuba’s 47-year suspension from the Organization of American States will be lifted, thanks to an agreement reached Wednesday by foreign ministers assembled in Honduras, the Miami Herald reports. "Here on forward we depend on the sovereign will of the State of Cuba," said Honduran OAS ambassador Carlos Sosa. "If they show interest to return to the organization, they will do so within the normal procedures and a final decision would be made by the OAS plenary."
10) Democrats and the Obama administration are shoving aside issues that divide their party to clear the deck for healthcare reform, The Hill reports. The Obama administration put the Panama trade agreement negotiated by the Bush administration on the backburner after dozens of lawmakers expressed their displeasure.
1) McChrystal warns of greater casualties in Afghanistan
Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal tells a Senate committee that the strategy that worked in Iraq won’t translate to Afghanistan, and that greater cooperation with Pakistan is needed.
Greg Miller, Los Angeles Times, June 3, 2009
President Obama’s pick to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan warned Tuesday that casualties are likely to increase as the military steps up its campaign against insurgents. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal also voiced skepticism that Taliban guerrillas could be persuaded to sever their ties with Al Qaeda; a similar strategy was crucial in McChrystal’s success as commander of special operations forces in Iraq.
"I don’t think that the Taliban have any reason right now to turn their back on Al Qaeda," McChrystal said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, his first public remarks since being selected last month to lead an overhauled U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
One reason is that the Taliban is widely perceived in the region as prevailing against coalition forces. He also cited intermarriage among Al Qaeda members and Taliban-connected tribes along the border with Pakistan. "They’ve created connections that are beyond just organizational," he said.
[…] McChrystal said his strategy will rely heavily on bolstering U.S. intelligence collection, reducing civilian casualties and dramatically speeding up the training of Afghan security forces.
The Obama administration wants to expand the Afghan forces to 134,000 troops from 86,000. But McChrystal made it clear that the number of troops needed probably will rise well beyond that. "Success will not be quick or easy," McChrystal said. "Casualties will likely increase."
2) U.S. Report Finds Errors in Afghan Airstrikes
Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, New York Times, June 3, 2009
A military investigation has concluded that American personnel made significant errors in carrying out some of the airstrikes in western Afghanistan on May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, according to a senior American military official.
The official said the civilian death toll would probably have been reduced if American air crews and forces on the ground had followed strict rules devised to prevent civilian casualties. Had the rules been followed, at least some of the strikes by American warplanes against half a dozen targets over seven hours would have been aborted.
The report represents the clearest American acknowledgment of fault in connection with the attacks. It will give new ammunition to critics, including many Afghans, who complain that American forces too often act indiscriminately in calling in airstrikes, jeopardizing the United States mission by turning the civilian population against American forces and their ally, the Afghan government.
[…] According to the senior military official, the report on the May 4 raids found that one plane was cleared to attack Taliban fighters, but then had to circle back and did not reconfirm the target before dropping bombs, leaving open the possibility that the militants had fled the site or that civilians had entered the target area in the intervening few minutes.
In another case, a compound of buildings where militants were massing for a possible counterattack against American and Afghan troops was struck in violation of rules that required a more imminent threat to justify putting high-density village dwellings at risk, the official said.
"In several instances where there was a legitimate threat, the choice of how to deal with that threat did not comply with the standing rules of engagement," said the military official, who provided a broad summary of the report’s initial findings on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry was not yet complete.
3) New Approach To Afghanistan Likely
Nominee to Lead War Discusses Restructuring and a Focus on Civilian Protection
Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Army Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, President Obama’s choice to lead the war in Afghanistan, said yesterday that violence and combat deaths will intensify as more U.S. troops surge into Taliban-held areas, but he vowed to execute a "holistic" strategy in which killing insurgents would be subordinate to safeguarding Afghan civilians.
McChrystal, a former Special Operations commander, pledged that if confirmed he will take extreme measures to avoid Afghan civilian casualties – a problem that has long tarnished the U.S.-led military campaign – putting civilians at risk only when necessary to save the lives of coalition troops.
"I expect stiff fighting ahead," McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing yesterday. But, he added, "the measure of effectiveness will not be the number of enemy killed, it will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence."
To reduce civilian casualties, McChrystal said, he would review all rules of engagement, limit airstrikes and use more small ground units in search and detention operations.
In his first public testimony before a congressional committee, McChrystal, a longtime Army Ranger who has spent most of the past six years commanding secretive manhunt units in Iraq and Afghanistan, took pains to emphasize the broader counterinsurgency goals of improving security and governance for Afghans.
Still, when asked to describe "success" in Afghanistan, McChrystal said the first component would be "a complete elimination of al-Qaeda" from Pakistan and Afghanistan. That, in turn, would prevent al-Qaeda from operating in either country with the Taliban, which he said would not be "destroyed" but rather made "irrelevant."
4) Egyptian Public to Greet Obama With Suspicion
WorldPublicOpinion.org, June 3, 2009
A new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll finds Egyptians continue to view US foreign policy quite negatively and see President Obama as closely aligned with it. At the same time, Obama has much better ratings than Bush had, and there are signs of thawing feelings toward the US.
Asked how much confidence they have in Obama to do the right thing in international affairs, 39 percent say they have some or a lot of confidence-up sharply from the 8 percent who viewed George W. Bush positively in January 2008. Views of the United States government have also improved with favorable views rising to 46 percent from 27 percent in an August 2008 WorldPublicOpinion.org poll.
However, there has been little change in the views of US foreign policy. Sixty-seven percent say that the US plays a negative role in the world.
Large majorities continue to believe the US has goals to weaken and divide the Islamic world (76%) and control Middle East oil (80%). Eight in 10 say the US is seeking to impose American culture on Muslim countries (80%). Six in ten say it is not a goal of the US to create a Palestinian state. These numbers are virtually unchanged from 2008.
When asked about Obama’s goals, Egyptians’ views are almost exactly the same as their views of US goals. Sixty percent say they have little or no confidence that Obama will do the right thing in international affairs. "Egyptians appear to be saying to Obama, ‘Show me you are really different,’" comments Steven Kull, director of WorldPublicOpinion.org, a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.
[…] Egyptians view American support for democracy with a jaundiced eye. Only 6 percent think the US favors democracy in Muslim countries irrespective of a government’s position toward the US, while 53 percent say the US only favors democracy if the government is cooperative with the US. Four in ten think the US opposes democracy in Muslim countries.
[…] The Egyptian public shows strong support for democracy. Three quarters say it is very important to live in a democracy and another 24 percent say it is somewhat important. Sixty-three percent would like to have international observers monitor elections in Egypt, which in 2005 were marred by violence and widespread accusations of irregularities.
[…] Among the Egyptian public, views of the Muslim Brotherhood are positive. Sixty-four percent express positive views, 19 percent say they have mixed views and just 16 percent express negative views. An even larger majority (69%) believe that the Muslim Brotherhood favors democracy. Only 22 percent think that it is still too extreme and not genuinely democratic.
At the same time, the Egyptian public shows sympathy for some Islamist ideas about democracy. Six in ten think the Egyptian government should be based on a form of democracy unique for Islam, as compared to 39 percent who say it should be based on universal principles of democracy. Three-quarters agree with the Muslim Brotherhood’s idea that a body of religious scholars should have veto power over laws it believes are contrary to the Koran. While two-thirds say a non-Muslim should be able to run for elected office, only 36 percent say a non-Muslim should be able to run for President.
5) Netanyahu cites secret deal with Bush to justify more settlements
Revelation puts more strain on relations with US as Obama heads for Middle East
Donald Macintyre, The Independent, Wednesday, 3 June 2009
The Israeli government of Benjmain Netanyahu is seeking to deflect Washington’s demand for a total settlement freeze by complaining that it ignores secret agreements between his predecessors and the Bush administration that construction in existing Jewish settlements could continue.
The rift between Mr Netanyahu’s government and the US appeared to deepen yesterday, with a clear declaration by President Barack Obama that a freeze – including on "natural growth" of West Bank settlements – was among Israeli "obligations".
But Mr Netanyahu’s government – which has made it clear it will not accept a total freeze – is pushing to restore at least part of the private "understandings" which it is emerging were struck between Israel and the previous US administration despite the Bush team’s repeatedly stated opposition to settlement construction.
The Israeli government is arguing that Ariel Sharon, with reservations, agreed in 2003 to the internationally endorsed Road Map and the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers from Gaza in 2005, only on condition that Israel could proceed with expansion within the physical boundaries of existing West Bank settlements. A senior Israeli official familiar with the current talks with the US said: "When the government of Israel adopted the Road Map[…] it was based on understandings reached with the US. It is hard for the US to say we have to keep to our commitments but ignore the understandings."
The argument was being pressed in talks that Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak was holding in Washington yesterday and is likely to feature in discussions that the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is expected to have with the Israeli leadership here on Monday. Israeli officials are braced for President Obama to repeat his call for a settlement freeze when he makes his major speech on US relations with the Muslim world in Cairo tomorrow.
Israeli officials also complain that the new team in Washington is making "no distinction" between settlements in the larger blocs that Mr Bush told Mr Sharon in 2004 he expected would be in Israeli territory in any final status deal with the Palestinians, and those elsewhere in the occupied West Bank. Although the Bush administration later "clarified" that borders were a matter for negotiation, Israel swiftly assumed it was entitled to continue building within such blocs.
There is no sign that President Obama sees himself bound by any such covert oral understandings reached with his predecessor’s administration – the status and durability of which has reportedly been challenged with vigour by US officials. Mr Obama told National Public Radio: "I’ve said very clearly to the Israelis both privately and publicly that a freeze on settlements, including natural growth, is part of those obligations." He added that Palestinians also had parallel obligations to improve security and end incitement.
The senior Israeli official suggested that Mr Netanyahu was ready to reach an agreement with the US precluding settlement-building that would in his view prejudice final status negotiations with the Palestinians, and that this would include not building on E1, the bitterly controversial planned corridor linking Jerusalem to the large settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. The official rejected reports of a secret coalition agreement between Mr Netanyahu and his hard-right Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to resume E1-building.
But the Palestinians – and for now at least the US – argue that any further settlement construction would prejudice negotiations, not least in Arab East Jerusalem where Mr Netanyahu is determined to keep a free hand in building settlements. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the Six Day War in 1967, but this has never been accepted by the international community.
Haaretz reported yesterday that Washington was "furious" over plans by the Jerusalem municipality, backed by the Interior Ministry, to build a nine-storey 200-room hotel in East Jerusalem, just 100 metres from the Old City, which includes a Palestinian market and kindergarten.
The row has exposed the extent that the Bush administration was willing to sanction settlement-building, despite its publicly stated policy. Dov Weisglass, who was the closest lieutenant of then-prime minister Sharon, said in a newspaper yesterday that the deals originated in a 1990s agreement on "natural growth" which was further refined in 2002, "though the Americans completely denied the existence of the understandings". They have been confirmed by Bush administration assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams.
Mr Weisglass said it had been agreed between Mr Sharon, himself, Mr Abrams and another US official, Stephen Hadley, that settlement growth could continue provided it did not involve new settlements, that no further "Palestinian land" would be expropriated, that expansion would be within the "existing construction line" and that public funds would not be used to encourage settlements. The Bush administration’s secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice, confirmed the agreement, he said.
6) Obama hopes to break Iranian nuclear deadlock by December
US president says cuts in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles may help push negotiations
Julian Borger, Guardian, Tuesday 2 June 2009
Barack Obama said today that the US should be able to measure whether Iran is serious about nuclear negotiations by the end of this year. The US president told the BBC that he did not want to put artificial timetables on the talks with Iran, but he did confirm that the diplomatic approach would be reviewed by December.
Obama also laid out a strategy for those talks, linking them to US-Russian – and ultimately global – negotiations on cutting the use of nuclear weapons as a means of breaking four years of deadlock over Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
"Without going into specifics, what I do believe is Iran has legitimate energy concerns and legitimate aspirations. On the other hand the international community has a very real interest in preventing a nuclear arms race in the region," Obama said.
He recalled his agreement with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to pursue significant cuts in the two countries’ nuclear stockpiles, and added: "To the extent that Iran feels they are treated differently from everyone else, that makes them embattled.
"To the extent that we are having a broader conversation about how all countries have an interest in containing and reducing over time the nuclear proliferation threat, that I think has to be part and parcel of a broader agenda," Obama said.
The remarks are a clear sign that the new US administration sees little future in the carrot-and-stick approach to Iran that the international community has until now adopted towards the country’s nuclear programme. It will seek to broaden the dialogue and come at the problem from a different angle.
Unspoken, but hovering in the background, is the possibility that the west could concede Iran’s right to carry out some uranium enrichment, perhaps under control of an international consortium, in return for more intrusive UN inspections and safeguards.
"Although I don’t want to put artificial timetables on [the negotiation] process, we do want to make sure that by the end of this year we’ve actually seen a serious process move forward. I think we can measure whether or not the Iranians are serious," Obama said.
[…] Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said he was hopeful he would be able to get "serious negotiations back on track". He stuck to the US demand for Israel to halt all settlement building on the West Bank, and shrugged off Israeli government refusals to do so. "It’s still early in the conversation," Obama said.
7) U.S. Condemns Terrorism In Iran
VOA, June 2, 2009
Iran has been experiencing a series of violent attacks in the southeastern city of Zahedan. Zahedan is the capital of Sistan-Baluchestan province, the home to one million members of Iran’s Sunni minority. The area has been restive for years, with reports of narcotics trafficking and economic and cultural discrimination against the Baluchi minority by the Iranian government.
On June 1st, an arson attack on a bank killed 5 people. On May 29th, close to 2 dozen people were killed and more than 100 wounded in a suicide bombing in a Shiite mosque in the city. The armed Sunni militant group Jundullah claimed responsibility for the mosque bombing.
After the attack on the mosque, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly expressed the U.S. government’s condolences for the victims of the events in Iran:
"We condemn this terrorist attack in the strongest possible terms, and extend our sympathy to the families of those injured and killed. We note with concern a recent trend of bombings of Shia mosques in Iraq and Pakistan, as well as in Iran, and strongly condemn any kind of sectarian-driven violence. The U.S. strongly condemns all forms of terrorism. We do not sponsor any form of terrorism in Iran, and we continue to work with the international community to try and prevent any attacks against innocent civilians anywhere."
The United States shares a common interest with Iran in working to preventing terrorist attacks. No political cause justifies the premeditated killing of innocent civilians.
8) Iraq Halts Clearing Landmines Even as Huge Toll Keeps Rising
Jack Dolan and Jenan Hussein, McClatchy Newspapers, Tue, Jun. 02, 2009
Said Jabar, Iraq – Sadiqa Foroon has lost two brothers, her right foot and 32 sheep to landmines and other explosive remnants of the three wars that have raged through her village since 1980. Burns from the mine she stepped on contort the right side of her face. "And my horse is missing a hoof," she said with a weary laugh. "So is my donkey."
Still, every morning she trudges back into the sun-scorched scrubland behind her house – one of the most densely contaminated minefields on the planet, according to international aid organizations – to collect firewood in order to cook for 12 children, and to harvest whatever scrap metal she thinks she can sell.
That scrap trade, and the fear that desperate villagers are selling harvested explosives to Iraq’s many insurgents, prompted the Ministry of Defense to halt all mine-clearing operations last December.
International relief organizations and Iraq’s Environment Ministry opposed the ban, saying it delays desperately needed cleanup work in perhaps the most mine-ridden country in the world.
[…] As the bureaucrats in Baghdad wrestle over turf and treasure, villagers are left to pay the price, local officials said. They estimate that one Iraqi loses a limb, or his or her life, to unexploded ordnance each day.
Most of the casualties go unreported, however, and untreated by the failing national health system, because they occur in far-flung villages in Kurdistan, along the Iranian border and especially in the southern province of Basra, where U.S. forces began the 2003 invasion.
The U.N. estimates that during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, American planes dropped 54 million "cluster bombs," small, grenade-like explosives scattered from a single shell. Most fell in southern and central Iraq.
Deputy Environment Minister Kamal Latif said that an estimated 16 percent of those cluster bombs – more than 8 million – failed to explode and now litter the ground. They rest on top of 25 million landmines that the late dictator Saddam Hussein planted during Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s and before the Gulf War and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
[…] Even if mine clearing does resume, experts working in the field said, the explosives are just half the problem: The near total collapse of Iraq’s rural health care system is the other half.
As sectarian violence engulfed the country four years ago, 75 percent of Iraq’s doctors fled the country, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Warring militant groups frequently targeted them for kidnapping and assassination.
Majeed of the de-mining company said that sectarian fighters had pulled a doctor who’d provided emergency medical care for a Dutch group from his car and shot him to death at an impromptu checkpoint in 2007.
Last summer, the Iraqi Health and Social Care Organization reported that almost all mine victims wound up being treated by their families, and that only 4 percent were getting proper medical care. "Four percent? That’s much too high," scoffed Latif, the deputy environment minister. "I would say it’s 1 percent or less. We have big shortages in this area."
9) OAS member states agree to lift suspension of Cuba
Frances Robles, Miami Herald, June 3, 2009
San Pedro Sula, Honduras – Cuba’s 47-year suspension from the Organization of American States will be lifted, thanks to an agreement reached Wednesday by foreign ministers assembled in Honduras, diplomats here announced. "The cold war has ended today in San Pedro Sula," Honduran President Manuel Zelaya said.
The United States- which had been pressuring the OAS for weeks to condition Cuba’s readmission to the hemispheric group on democratic principles and commitment to human rights – characterized the agreement as good news, saying it does in fact contain important clauses.
Ecuador’s foreign minister, Fander Falconí, told reporters there are no such conditions. "This is a new proposal, it has no conditions – of any kind," Falconí said. "That suspension was made in the Cold War, in the language of the Cold War. What we have done here is fix a historic error."
Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962. More and more Latin American nations had pushed for Cuba to be readmitted to the organization.
Hillary Clinton worked through the day Tuesday trying to convince Latin American nations to allow some conditions but left before reaching agreement.
The U.S. State Department pointed to crucial language within the resolution: "…that Cuba’s participation in the OAS would be the result of a dialogue initiated at the government of Cuba’s request and in conformity with the practices, purposes and principles of the OAS." In 2001, the OAS passed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which calls for member nations to embrace democracy.
"The historic action taken today eliminates a distraction from the past and allows us to focus on the realties of today," said State Department spokeswoman Sara A. Mangiaracina, "and continue with the president’s efforts to support the desire of the Cuban people to determine Cuba’s future consistent with our core principles."
The next step is Cuba’s. Cuba has called the organization a "cadaver," and said publicly and often that it has no interest in joining. "Here on forward we depend on the sovereign will of the State of Cuba," said Honduran OAS ambassador Carlos Sosa. "If they show interest to return to the organization, they will do so within the normal procedures and a final decision would be made by the OAS plenary."
University of Miami Cuba expert Andy Gomez, who was at the OAS conference this week, said the 1962 suspension may have been lifted, but to rejoin the organization, Cuba would have to agree to sign the organization’s democratic charter. "This is meaningless," Gomez said. "This does not mean they are back in."
10) Democrats clear decks for healthcare
Ian Swanson, The Hill, 06/01/09
Democrats and the Obama administration are shoving aside issues that divide their party to clear the deck for healthcare reform, which is likely to dominate the rest of the legislative year.
In doing so, the administration appears to be learning from the experiences of the Clinton administration, which engaged in divisive intra-party battles over trade and gays in the military as it fought unsuccessfully for healthcare reform. It also reflects a pivot from earlier this year, when the White House brushed off concerns that its agenda was too ambitious.
The Obama administration put the Panama free trade agreement negotiated by the Bush administration on the backburner after dozens of lawmakers expressed their displeasure in a May 21 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Weeks ago, it appeared the administration wanted to move soon on Panama, but now the agreement is not expected to be submitted to Congress until Obama outlines a broad strategy on trade.
"Healthcare is what’s on everyone’s mind," said Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who appreciated what he described as a shift from the administration’s intent to move quickly on the deal. "We should focus on the major issues rather than dealing with something small like the Panama trade agreement."
Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), who signed the letter to Pelosi and has taken note of the administration pulling back, said Panama would be a distraction to higher-profile issues. "There’s a lot of us in the House that don’t want to see a Bush trade agreement move," Hare said.
Business lobbyists and House aides said they believe the administration changed its strategy on Panama because of healthcare reform.
"The sense we’re getting is, the reasons they pulled back is the fear of stirring things up when they need everyone to come together," one Democratic aide said. The fact that the administration backed off on Panama indicates "they realize the deep concern about stirring up a fight on something that’s nonessential," the aide said.
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