Nearly across the board, the president's initiatives are going down in flames. Nowhere is this more true than in Pakistan where, Jane Perlez reported Wednesday, the civilian government in which the U.S. has invested billions is perilously close to collapse -- if not facing a military coup.
Now comes word that Pakistan is cutting off NATO's supply lines into Afghanistan in retaliation for U.S. helicopter strikes in Pakistani territory -- strikes made necessary because the Pakistani military can't, or won't, crack down on militants unless they threaten the Pakistani state directly.
As for the war in Afghanistan, it's going very badly.
Further east, the United States seems headed for a disastrous currency war with China, although Beijing's recent diplomatic blunders have sent Asian countries running into Uncle Sam's loving arms.
To the west, Iraq still has yet to form a government after seven months of post-election deadlock, and attacks on the Green Zone are metastasizing in a frightening way.
One rare bright spot is Russia where, despite the complaints of Cold Warriors and human rights campaigners, relations are at their highest point since the Yeltsin era. But much of the good work Obama's team has done could easily unravel, especially if the Senate deep-sixes the new nuke treaty.
As for Iran, it's a mixed bag. Obama has kept Europe on board with tough sanctions, and brought along a few other players. But China is likely to undercut those efforts and relieve the economic pressure, leaving the United States and Israel with few options for stopping Iran's nuclear drive. Meanwhile, the drums of war are beginning to beat in Congress.
Of course, if Obama really wants to make a hash of the world, I can think of no better way than to start launch airstrikes on Iran. But I doubt he's going to do that.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
The United States doesn't always do the best job of promoting itself abroad. Lots of people in lots of different places like to burn American flags and chant anti-U.S. slogans. It's stock footage at this point.
But yesterday the New York Times highlighted an encouraging U.S. cultural diplomacy effort in a pretty unexpected area: French banlieues.
Obviously the U.S. image is a bit worse in other parts of the world, so why do outreach in France instead of FATA? For one, terrorist plots are increasingly being launched by disaffected Muslim youth in western countries who have been shunned by their new societies. Demonstrating that they can actually have a future in the west is thus both good on a social and security level. And if there were any western country in which to combat the ill-effects of racism and bigotry, it's France, which has totally abrogated any responsibility of caring for its growing immigrant population.
President Barack Obama's election certainly played a role in silencing the once ubiquitous anti-American voices in the banlieues (hey, look! It still means something!), but just as important has been the substantial engagement attempts on the part of the U.S. Mission to France:
The United States Embassy in Paris has formed a network of partnerships with local governments, advocacy groups, entrepreneurs, students and cultural leaders in the troubled immigrant enclaves outside France’s major cities...
Residents “have the sense that the United States looks upon our areas with much more deference and respect,” said Mr. Roger, the Bondy mayor.
The embassy also runs an International Visitor Leadership Program that brings 20-30 up-and-coming French entrepreneurs and politicians to the United States each year, and at least one participant raved about the program:
A Moroccan-born Muslim, Mr. Senni traveled to the United States in 2006 as a participant in the visitor program. He was effusive in his praise for the outreach and the optimism it has spread. “Never has France had this type of approach,” he said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has a history of dealing with Parisian suburbs, and it's not particularly flattering. During the 2005 banlieues riots, then-Interior Minister Sarkozy infamously called the rioters "scum" and that they should be "hosed down." Surprisingly, his comments only made the rioters angrier.
Nowadays when Sarkozy ventures out to the suburbs he's accompanied by a major police presence and spends his time focusing on law enforcement issues, and not on the myriad social and economic complaints of the locals. He said in 2007 that the riots were the result of "thugocracy," which sounds like a brilliant future title of a 50 Cent album, and not social issues.
The embassy also brought Samuel L. Jackson to the banlieues to connect with local youths, and I believe he told them that, "I've had it with this mother-******* unemployment in these mother-******* banlieues." Seriously.
The U.S. is freaking out over qurans, shariah law, and Manhattan community centers, but at least some of our diplomats get the importance of engaging on a human level. The U.S. Ambassador to France, Charles H. Rivkin, sums it up: "It’s easier to hate something you don’t understand."
JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Gallup's annual Governance survey finds 57% of Americans expressing a great deal or fair amount of trust in the U.S. government to handle international problems. That is down from 62% a year ago, but remains higher than the percentage trusting Washington to handle domestic problems, now at a record-low 46%.
In some sense, this result is a very strange one during the bloodiest year of an unpopular, decade-long war. Especially considering that this administration actively decided to send more troops to Afghanistan -- however reluctantly -- while the economy was in sorry shape before Obama came into office.
But the polls may say less about the government's performance than where the country's attention and priorities right now. It's likely that the public gives the government decent marks on foreign policy simply because they haven't been paying very close attention to it.
Given the president that Americans' elected nearly two years ago, it's remarkable that foreign policy today seems too peripheral to the national conversation. Obama first distinguished himself from frontrunner Hillary Clinton because of his unwavering opposition to the war in Iraq and made restoring America's image in the world a major theme of his campaign, going so far as to hold a de facto campaign rally in Berlin at the height of the campaign.
As James Traub wrote last March, while most presidents are elected for their domestic plans but remembered for their handling of foreign policy crises, Obama -- at least in the first half of his term -- has often seemed like an international president forced by circumstances to focus on domestic priorities:
When the White House announced last week that Obama would postpone a planned trip to Asia to lobby for his health-care legislation, it confirmed that foreign policy would take a back seat to America's grave domestic and political problems. The economic crisis, of course, had radically reshaped Obama's scale of priorities long before he assumed office; foreign affairs took up less than a quarter of his inaugural address. And then Republican intractability sent the debate over health-care reform into one sudden-death overtime after another. The world beyond America's borders is of course no less salient, and no less threatening, than ever; but Americans are looking at it through the wrong end of the binoculars.
But with the Democratic majority in Congress likely to dwindle or even disappear in November, I wonder if foreign policy might play a larger role in the second half of this term (or at least what's left of it until the presidential election cycle overtakes events in 2011). As Peter Feaver has pointed out, there's less daylight between the White House and Congressional republicans on national security issues than on economic or domestic policy. And in any case, the president has far more leeway to act without congressional cooperation on foreign policy.
With major domestic initiatives likely stalled for the foreseeable future by an increasingly confident GOP, could we see a shift toward a more foreign policy-focused presidency? Lord knows there are plenty of neglected areas, from trade to Latin America to development policy (which Obama took on in another speech yesterday) that could benefit from some high-level attention, not to mention Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, the Mideast talks and climate change.
Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Iraq is still paying the world back for Saddam's actions -- literally. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the Iraqi government has agreed to pay $400 million to American citizens who claimed to have been tortured or traumatized by the Iraqi regime following Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. With a 15-30 percent unemployment rate, ubiquitous violence, and a still lacking infrastructure, why is the new Iraqi regime paying so much money to American citizens when it was all Saddam's fault? Because the payment may help Iraq's case to end U.N. sanctions that have lasted since Saddam Hussein's rule:
Settling the claims, which were brought by American citizens, has been seen as a key requirement for Washington to be willing to push for an end to the UN sanctions.
"There was a lot of pressure on the Iraqi government to do something that gets Congress off their back," says one senior Iraqi official, adding that the settlement cleared the way for US efforts to bring Iraq out from under the UN sanctions.
That's right, Saddam is long gone but sanctions on the still rebuilding country aren't. In fact, Iraq has already paid Kuwait $27.6 billion in reparations and continues to devote five percent of its oil revenues in accordance with the U.N. sanctions resulting from Saddam's invasion. While many countries have cancelled a lot or all of Iraq's debt to them, Kuwait continues to support Iraqi reparations -- regardless of the $22 billion Kuwaiti budget surplus for the last fiscal year.
So if U.S. citizens get paid by the Iraqi government for Saddam's "traumatizing" from 20 years ago, what will the United States pay the families of Iraqi citizens that are actually killed by U.S. forces? Well, the U.S. government is trying to find ways for Iraq to pay for that too.
RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's getting a lot of ink tonight for hinting -- yet again -- that he'll make a bid for the presidency in 2012. Citing the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt's four terms as a model, Putin said there would be nothing illegal about running for a third presidential term after Dmitry Medvedev's term expires -- though he didn't say he wanted the job. (Last week Putin said he was "bored" by foreign policy, which falls under the president's formal authority.)
But that wasn't the most interesting thing Putin said Monday, speaking before a crowd of Russian and Western policy wonks in the resort town of Sochi. He used the occassion to issue a rare shoutout to Barack Obama, calling the U.S. president a "deep, profound person" and saying the two men had "similar perspective on global problems."
"Probably this is the best prerequisite for a higher level of relationship with the United States," he added.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, that's a far cry from last year, when Putin reportedly harangued Obama during an unpleasant "working breakfast" in Moscow.
Yesterday I touched on Fidel Castro's apology for anti-gay measures that occurred under his rule -- including detaining gays in forced labor camps -- calling it a "great injustice." But this is not Castro's only clarification of late. The former Cuban leader seems hellbent on crafting his legacy in a more positive light. Why the re-emergence, and why the rehabiliation campaign, now?
As revealed in La Jornado Monday, Castro was "at death's door" in 2006. At the time, speculation was rife that he had already died. Thus, it makes sense that Castro is pushing himself in the limelight -- faced with death, the old revolutionary wants to clean up his name while he has a chance. There's certainly also a chance that he has mellowed in his later years. As he's no longer facing the threat of assassination, his stress levels have also probably declined some.
Perhaps most interesting are the pictures of Jeffrey Goldberg -- yes, that Jeffrey Goldberg -- accompanying the old revolutionary on various stops throughout Cuba. How Goldberg -- rather than, you know, a journalist with a background in Cuban affairs -- came to be side-by-side with Castro is a total mystery. But I'm sure we can look for Goldberg to illuminate his trip in the near future -- though I imagine it'd garner a lot less interest than some of his other recent writings. (Council on Foreign Relations expert Julia E. Sweig was also on the trip.)
In addition to his comments on gay rights, Castro said during a press conference with Goldberg that he is by no means an anti-Semite:
I was never anti-Jewish and I share with him a deep hatred against Nazi-Fascism and the genocide perpetrated against the Jewish people by Hitler and his followers.
President Barack Obama has made tentative steps to end the hostility between Cuba and the United States, and Castro's words may be a recognition of that. While his brother is now president, it's obvious that Fidel's words carry great weight in the island nation. Maybe it's time for Obama to launch a more audacious foreign policy venture, one that may even bear some results: a direct meeting with Castro. Perhaps the old U.S. nemesis could aim to improve relations in his last years. More importantly, it'd prove that engagement is -- as it should be -- still a part of the Obama administration's strategy, and it would send another signal to the rest of the world that, if you are reasonable, the United States will deal with you.
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
U.N. Security Council members Brazil and Turkey have chosen very different paths since they both voted against the latest round of U.N. sanctions on Iran. While Brazil has pledged to abide by the sanctions, despite their disagreement with them, Turkey's energy minister has vowed to bolster gasoline sales to Tehran. Turkey's gasoline sales have reportedly boomed to over five times their daily average, compared to the first half of this year.
Turkey is not the only U.S. ally looking to increase trade with Iran. In Iraq, a new Iranian trade center has recently opened, and Iran's ambassador has promised to double trade between the two countries, which he estimated at about $7 billion last year.
Russia -- though few might call it a close U.S. ally -- is also getting in on the act. Its state atomic corporation is set to load fuel into Iran's first nuclear power plant next week.
It doesn't look like pressing more reset buttons with Turkey, Iraq or Russia is going to help the U.S. attempt to isolate Iran.
The Knesset voted today to revoke the parliamentary privileges of MK Hanin Zoabi, an Arab deputy who participated in the ill-fated flotilla that attempted to break the Israeli siege of Gaza last May. The scene in the Knesset appears to have devolved into something of a circus: A deputy from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party handed MK Zoabi a mock Iranian passport, accusing her of joining the ranks of Israel's enemies.
As luck would have it, I had dinner last night with Israel's Minister of Minorities Avishay Braverman, a member of the Labor Party. Did rescinding MK Zoabi's privileges represent a breach of Israel's much-touted equality between its Jewish citizens and its Arab minority, which represent one-fifth of Israel's population? While he condemned her actions, Braverman also said, "I do not support this sort of populist action" against Zoabi.
This is just the latest dispute between Braverman and
Lieberman, who have come to represent opposite poles in the debate over Israel's
policy toward its Arab minority. And Braverman left little doubt about his
opinion toward his coalition partner: When asked about the possibility of
population swaps between Israel and a nascent Palestinian state in the event of
a peace agreement, an idea for which Lieberman voiced support, Braverman
said, "It will never happen. Never never...What Foreign Minister Lieberman is
doing is making statements to win a few seats."
And then there is Lierberman's call for instituting a loyalty oath that Arab Israelis would have to sign to sign or losing their citizenship, which some have credited with Lieberman's strong showing in Israel's most recent election. This idea, Braverman said, was shot down by the Labor Party ministers and even right-wing ministers, such as Benny Begin. But before it was rejected, Braverman said, "Lieberman got his headlines."
The defeat of these initiatives is certainly encouraging. Less encouraging, however, is the apparently enduring belief, held by a number of successful right-wing politicians, that flogging Israel's Arab minority is a useful way to win votes. Effective political grandstanding on this issue, after all, could easily transform itself into changes in government policy that could erode Israel's commitment to equality, and take Western support along with it.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
In a move that is sure to set conspiracy theorists aflutter, former Vice President Dick Cheney popped up yesterday in Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Abdullah. Accompanying him was former State Department diplomat and its top interpreter, Gamal Helal, who recently left the government to form a consulting firm, Helal Associates.
While the Arabic press has caught on to this story, I haven't seen it reported in the U.S. media as of yet. But still, it raises a few eyebrows: Cheney, a private citizen who has reportedly been working on his memoirs, doesn't have any obvious reasons to sit down with the Saudi monarch. The details behind the meeting could go a long way toward unraveling what the former vice president plans to do with his retirement. Here's hoping that the inevitable theorizing about his plans doesn't generate more heat than light.
Saudi Press Agency
The U.S. State Department summoned Syria's top diplomat in Washington, Zouheir Jabbour, to rebuke his government for transferring arms to Hezbollah. This was apparently the fourth time in recent weeks that the United States had raised these concerns with the Syrians -- but one of the first times that it had been done publicly. The State Department statement "condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the SCUD, from Syria to Hezbollah."
A few quick points on this news. When this story broke last week, skeptics -- including the United States's erstwhile ally, the prime minister of Lebanon -- were quick to dismiss it as Israeli propaganda. The public criticism of a Syrian diplomat should put an end to the talk that this is solely an Israeli disinformation campaign. The U.S. intelligence community obviously believes there is something behind this story, though the details remain blurry. The question now is whether this transfer actually took place, whether Syria transferred parts of the SCUDs to Hezbollah, or whether they merely had the intention to transfer the weapons.
Secondly, when the State Department wanted to call a Syrian official to task, they had to settle for Zouheir Jabbour, the deputy chief of mission. Where is Syrian Ambassadar Imad Moustapha? On vacation, apparently -- where he has been since this crisis broke last week. As we're in a particularly fraught point in the U.S-Syrian engagement process, this is a strange point for Syria's top envoy in Washington to be taking a breather.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
For those of you who don't subscribe to the bimonthly print edition of Foreign Policy, you're missing a great feature: the FP Quiz. It has eight intriguing questions about how the world works.
The question I'd like to highlight this week is:
What percentage of Americans are self-described isolationists?
a) 18 percent b) 30 percent c) 49 percent
Answer after the jump ...
David McNew/Getty Images
The secretary of state's Latin America trip continues:
While in Montevideo, Mrs. Clinton met with President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay and President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, congratulating him for accepting a Constitutional Court ruling that denied him the opportunity to run for a third term.
Yes, it's definitely a good thing that Uribe isn't ignoring the court ruling and attempting to illegally extend his term, but does it really merit a congratulations?
U.S. President Barack Obama has indicated that he will not make any recess appointments next week, while senators are back in their home states for the president's day holiday. Earlier in the week, Obama had signaled he might make the direct appointments -- circumventing the molasses-slow senate confirmation process, currently holding up scores of nominees, via this constitutionally granted executive privilege -- after senators approved 27 nominees yesterday.
Now, confirmation math is notoriously tricky. The numbers constantly change as the White House nominates and Congress takes appointees up. But some numbers we know for sure. At the one-year marker, George W. Bush had 70 nominees pending. Obama had 171. During Bush's first year, only three nominees waited for confirmation for more than three months. Forty-five of Obama's have waited more than four months; nine have waited more than six.
And the Republican minority has thrown sand in the gears of vitally important national security nominees -- who are, by congressional tradition, generally not subject to the absurd congressional tradition of holds. During wartime, Republicans held up the nomination of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Sec. of the Army John McHugh, a Republican. Even after the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt, Sen. Jim DeMint kept a hold on Obama's nominee to the Transportation Security Administration, Erroll Southers. Even after yesterday, Philip Goldberg, Obama's nominee to lead the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, remains at home -- despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid taking to the floor to demand his confirmation.
So, even if the Senate confirmed 27 nominees yesterday, it is hard to argue it has been keeping pace. As far as I can figure, Obama got nothing in return for not making recess appointments this go-around -- it isn't as if the Republicans will let go a hold on another appointee or send him a fruit basket. And he has only further alienated the labor left and frustrated Dems on the Hill. Nobody's happy, vital security and diplomatic nominees are still pending, and I can't see the decision as anything but bizarre.
There's no two ways about it: The last year of foreign policy had more drama than a Scorsese epic and enough thrills to put Avatar to shame. From the fearsome battle in the Afghan hills to the U.S.-China love-hate relationship, and from the serious al Qaeda threats in Yemen to the hard-to-take-seriously pirates off the Somali coast, 2009 was arguably a much more interesting year for global politics than for movies. So with Oscar nominations due tomorrow, we're taking nominations for our own FP Oscars.
Who would you pick for the best actor of the year? Is President Barack Obama holding his own in an unfriendly world, or does the ubiquitous Brazilian President Lula deserve an Oscar? Is Muammar Qaddafi's persona just too good to be true, or do you prefer the smooth, suave diplomacy (and wacky domestic antics) of France's Nicolas Sarzoky?
You tell us what scandals, dramas, tragicomedies, and personal stories are your picks for the history books in 2009. Listed below are the categories and a few sample entries. Send your own nominations to Joshua.Keating@foreignpolicy.com or paste them in the comments below. May the best news win!
Best picture: What one story encapsulates the year?
Best drama: Spies, dissidents, treachery, and truth. Were the adrenaline-pumping protests following the Iran elections the most dramatic event? Or perhaps it was the long, drawn-out U.S. decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. If you have a humanitarian bent, the crises in Haiti, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan might come a heart-wrenching first.
Best comedy: If it isn't a tragedy, the dysfunction of the U.S. Congress is certainly good for a laugh. Then again, how about the Copenhagen Climate conference that ended in a collective shrug? Or the British MPs who used their expense accounts to buy fancy rugs and re-dig their backyard swimming pools?
Best romantic comedy: Gordon Brown requested meeting after meeting with the U.S. president; Obama just didn't have time. Brown gave him a romantic antique biography of Churchill, and Obama gave him a DVD box set. Let's just say the special relationship isn't all it used to be. But then again, there are other comedies in Europe these days ... Berlusconi anyone?
Best romantic drama: Unclear whether this should be a drama or a comedy, but the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladamir Putin certainly have a relationship worth noting -- as their press photographer has shown time and time again...
Best action: A U.S. ship is seized in the Gulf of Aden and devious pirates take the Maersk Alabama captive on the high seas, demanding a ransom for their deed. But lo and behold! A brave captain sacrifices his freedom to save his crew. And the U.S. whacks three pirates in the end, bringing everyone home safely! Phew!
Best special effects: Hmm, how about that missile launch in North Korea? It hit right on target: the Pacific Ocean.
Best director: Nicolas Sarkozy is a whirling dervish of diplomatic activity.
Best actor: Very few world leaders can also claim their own daily television shows -- and surprisingly humorous ones at that. "Alo Presidente" hasn't exactly skyrocketed Hugo Chavez to fame (his coup attempt back in the 1990s did that), but man has this guy mastered media in the Drudge Era.
Best actress: On a more serious note, few women leaders have been more powerful this year in asserting political freedom than Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi. Or does Hillary Clinton have your vote? As one FP staffer put it, "she's the queen of 'the show must go on.'"
Best supporting actress: Is Carla Bruni the perfect companion for a perfectionist French president?
Best supporting actor: Let's be honest: One man whose entire year has been a story about other people's interests is the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. For all his posturing and pontificating, he was never running the show.
Best costume: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi designs his own clothes.
Worst costume: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi designs his own clothes. You decide.
Lifetime achievement award: Fidel? Kim Jong Il? Mubarak? Most of the longest-lasting players on the world stage aren't particularly savory characters. Got someone better?
We'll post a full list of nominees based on your e-mails and comments on Monday, Feb. 8 and give you a chance to vote. The final winners will be announced at the end of the month.
We promise to keep the musical numbers short.
After months of resistance against international pressure to overturn Uganda's now-notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda's politicians seem to be pulling back. In early January, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni expressed concern that the bill was too harsh and on Jan. 12th noted:
"Because it is a foreign policy issue, it is not just our internal politics, and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles but also takes into account our foreign policy interests."
The U.N. and the U.S. government, along with countries such as Britain, Canada and Sweden, have expressed their strong disapproval of the bill. Their displeasure has had an effect: during a January 19th cabinet meeting, the Ugandan government agreed to form a committee to amend the bill, with cabinet members citing the possibility of aid cuts by Western governments as a chief reason behind their reservations. The bill's author, MP David Bahati, held strong for a little longer. That is, until today when he expressed willingness to change some key clauses of the legislation.
Of course, none of this means that gay Ugandans will be getting a fair shake anytime soon -- especially when 95 percent of those surveyed in the country believe homosexuality should continue to be criminalized.
Although the U.S. government has condemned the bill, the American evangelical influences behind it are widely known. For example, Rick Warren, who advised most of the bill's leading supporters (such as Pastor Martin Ssempa), was barely ahead of Museveni in distancing himself from it. Also heavily circulated were the allegations by Jeff Sharlet that President Museveni, his ethics minister Nsamba Buturo and David Bahati, all have ties to U.S. politicians linked to The Family (a secretive evangelical organization with plenty of political influence).
Now, with human rights activists and journalists fully in the mix, friction over the bill has led to a proxy battle over the U.S.' cultural influence in the region.
WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images
My colleagues here have been weighing in on Google's "bombshell" revelation that China has been spying on dissidents and human rights activists, trying to crack open their Gmail accounts, presumably with the aim of monitoring and disrupting their activities. A lot of commentary is so far focused on the immediate issue at hand -- China's crushing censorship and Google's controversial policy of accomodating it in the hopes of gaining market share (see Jordan Calinoff's excellent dispatch on how this policy has largely failed). Of course, we already knew China did this sort of thing, but having the details so dramatically thrust into the public sphere is shocking. This is going to be a huge, ongoing story, not only because Google and China are two of the biggest and most widely debated news topics in the world, but also because nearly everyone's going to sympathize with the people whose privacy and peace of mind has been violated.
There's a larger story developing though, of a very tense year in relations between China and the West. Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer made that prediction earlier this year, and it's probably happening even faster than he imagined. In addition to this Google story, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already jumped on, there's also a brewing U.S.-China fight over arms sales to Taiwan, China's recent missile test in retaliation, and a guerrilla trade war that now seems more likely to develop into a full-blown trade conflict.
By overplaying its hand with the activists, and messing with a huge global company with a massive ability to get its message out, China has foolishly just thrown away whatever goodwill it has built up over the years through its "charm offensive" -- at least in the West. Now, those arguing across a range of issues that China is a bad actor have been handed an enormous rhetorical club to beat Beijing over the head with. It's going to get ugly.
Today brings a good Washington Post style section profile of the White House's speechwriter on national security and foreign policy, Ben Rhodes, as well as his inaugural contribution to the blogosphere. Our parent publication describes Rhodes' jobs thus:
Rhodes, who wears hats as a foreign policy speechwriter, deputy national security adviser and sometime administration spokesman, is not new to the Obama team. He wrote Obama's statesman-in-training address in Berlin, the nuanced speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, the call for nuclear disarmament in Prague, the Nowruz message signaling engagement with Iran, and the modest, moving eulogy to the slain soldiers of Fort Hood. More recently, he wrote the president's Afghanistan address, acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, and letter to CIA employees following a suicide bombing attack on agents in Khost by a double agent. On Tuesday, Rhodes will be blogging for the White House on national security and foreign policy.
And blog he did. This week, in anticipation of Obama's first anniversary in office, a number of White House figures are writing year-in-review posts. In his, Rhodes named his policy highlights -- they make for interesting reading. For one, he puts the "unprecedented global cooperation" at the G-20 first. (Can't imagine some of the Bush-era guys touting paper agreements with a bunch of Europeans as a banner achivement.) He also describes the president's world-wide outreach, nuclear proliferation efforts, and pressuring of al Qaeda.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
From Unredacted, the very cool blog of the National Security Archive, here is a letter from Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, asking for citizenship from the Soviet Union. He lived in the Soviet Union, mostly in Minsk, from 1959 to 1962; the Soviets rejected his request for citizenship. A PDF of the letter is here -- a bit grainy, but readable. Here's what it says:
I Lee Harvey Oswald, request that I be granted citizenship in the Soviet Union, my visa began on Oct. 15, and will expire on Oct. 21, I must be granted asylum before this date. [Unreadable] I wait for the citizenship decision.
At present I am a citizen of the United States of America.
I want citizenship because; I am a communist and a worker, I have lived in a decadent capitalist society where the workers are slaves.
I am twenty years old, I have completed three years in the United States Marine Corps, I served with the occupation forces in Japan, I have seen American military imperialism in all its forms,
I do not want to return to any country outside of the Soviet Union.
I am writing to give up my American citizenship and assume the responsibilities of a Soviet citizen.
I had saved my money which I earned as a private in the American military for two years, in order to come to Russia for the express purpose of seeking citizenship here. I do not have enough money left to live indefintly [sic] here, or to return to any other country. I have no desire to return to any other country. I ask that my request be given quick consideration.
Lee H. Oswald
In order to return to doing something, you needed to have been doing it before.
That was the point made in the media scrum after the Pentagon reported last spring that 14 percent of released Guantanamo detainees went "back to the battlefield." Numerous commentators -- including Peter Bergen at the New America Foundation -- noted that there was little evidence that the released detainees were ever really terrorists at all. For instance, Andy Worthington estimates that 93 percent never had anything to do with al Qaeda. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, picked up on the battlefield or sold into U.S. detention by warlords.
So, I was incredulous when yesterday Bloomberg News reported that the Pentagon said 20 percent of released Guantanamo detainees had "returned" to the fight -- offering no raw data about that jarring statistic.
What it really means: The number is simply not reliable, and the term "recidivism" is not useful. If someone were legitimately a terrorist they should never be let go. For the United States to release even a single real terrorist is a terrifically frightening possibilty -- more frightening than the idea a radical might return to radicalism after a spell in prison. And if the released detainees weren't terrorists before and became terrorists once released -- that's something very, very different indeed.
Today, Sen. Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Conn., announced that will not seek re-election this year. Dodd, suffering from a low approval rating and bashed for his perceived closeness with fat-cat bankers, wasn't expected to win a sixth term.
Dodd was primarily known as a domestic policy guy, and a powerful one at that -- a longtime Hill veteran, the head of the Senate Banking Committee, and at the center of the financial regulations storm.
But Dodd was also an important foreign policy thinker -- especially regarding Latin America. In the 1970s, just out of college, Dodd served with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. Once on the Hill, he maintained an interest in the region, becoming one of the loudest progressive voices regarding policy for the countries he always insisted were not "America's backyard" but "America's neighborhood." Back in the 1980s, he -- along with Sens. John Kerry and Tom Harkin -- spoke out against the Reagan administration's military and financial support of anticommunist groups, like the contras in Nicaragua. He later advocated for taking a soft-glove approach with countries like Cuba and Venezuela. (This won him plenty of opprobrium from the right, particularly during the Bush administrations.) More recently, he has won plaudits for his vocal support of policies to aid the human-rights disaster in Darfur.
As for Dodd's seat's future -- the Connecticut Democratic and Republican primaries are upcoming. Richard Blumenthal, the state's very popular attorney general, is expected to gain the Dem nod and Dodd's seat in the Senate. He'll likely face Republican Linda McMahon, the head of the WWE wrestling federation. No word yet on her views on Chavez.
The White House has posted the text of the statements U.S. President Barack Obama gave on the attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 and the brutal Ashura crackdown on protesters in Iran.
the American people should remain vigilant, but also be confident. Those plotting against us seek not only to undermine our security, but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans. This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist.
As a nation, we will do everything in our power to protect our country. As Americans, we will never give in to fear or division. We will be guided by our hopes, our unity, and our deeply held values. That's who we are as Americans; that's what our brave men and women in uniform are standing up for as they spend the holidays in harm's way. And we will continue to do everything that we can to keep America safe in the new year and beyond.
We call for the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained within Iran. We will continue to bear witness to the extraordinary events that are taking place there. And I'm confident that history will be on the side of those who seek justice.
The White House included translations of the Iran portion into Arabic and Persian.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
In recent days, a number of press stories have strongly conveyed U.S. officials' demand that Pakistan go after not just the Mehsud tribal grouping, a.k.a. the Pakistani Taliban, but also Siraj Haqqani's network next door in North Waziristan. The messages have been delivered in public and in private from the highest levels -- President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus, Adm. Mike Mullen, and presumably others. (Jane Perlez of the New York Times reports on Pakistan's exasperation with all this pressure here.)
Yes, Haqqani is bad news and his people are killing U.S. troops and probably harboring al Qaeda. But I'm a little puzzled by the impatience the Obama administration is showing. For one thing, Pakistan is still mopping up in South Waziristan, and bombs are still going off in Pakistani cities. And let's also keep in mind that the Pakistani Army had to cut a deal with Haqqani just to safely get to South Waziristan. So it's a little premature for Pakistan to start multiplying its enemies.
Then there's the point that Peter Feaver raises here, which is that Pakistan is hedging its bets because it isn't sure the United States is going to stick around in South Asia and is paranoid about India's rising influence in Afghanistan. Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, writing for FP, relayed the following anecdote, sourced to "a highly placed Pakistani official":
Pakistan's reaction to Obama's speech was to order its top military intelligence service, the ISI, to immediately begin rebuilding and strengthening covert ties to the Afghan Taliban in anticipation of their eventual return to power[.]
My point here is that no amount of hectoring from U.S. officials is going to change Pakistan's strategy -- there has to be a change in how Islamabad sees its interests. A couple stars have to align: India has to somehow allay Pakistani fears, the United States has to convince Pakistan that it's staying in Aghanistan for the long haul, and Pakistan needs to feel confident that it has the situation in the tribal areas well in hand. It would be foolish for Pakistan to rush into a new conflict in North Waziristan based on America's word alone.
Today marks the start of a grueling set of four congressional hearings for U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley McChrystal:
We'll be live-blogging and live-tweeting throughout, and watch for thorough coverage on the AfPak Channel as well.
So, what to look for?
Well, above all: details about the Obama administration's planned escalation of the conflict, including where the soldiers are headed, information about strategic goals, information about the civilian surge and population-centric strategy, questions about the importance of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and questions about relations with the Karzai government and Pakistan.
Also: dissent. Eikenberry and McChrystal aren't particularly fond of one another right now. The ambassador reportedly strongly questioned the strategy the latter helped create, arguing that sending more troops without bolstering the Afghan government might foster dependency and undercut the state; McChrystal, in contrast, wanted to send 40,000, rather than 30,000, troops. One of the unstated goals of the hearings will be to show a united face. But members of congress, as well as the press, will be looking for any cracks.
Josh R. has a great Cable post today on a new CFR/PEW poll that reveals a massive yawning gap between the opinions of the general public and the foreign policy elite on Obama's handling of national security and foreign policy.
The other interesting bit of data from the poll shows a huge jump isolationist sentiment in the U.S. public. As the authors write, "For the first time in more than 40 years of polling, a plurality (49%) says the United States should "mind its own business internationally" and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.":
Yesterday, I wrote about the brief life and presumed death of Rep. David Obey's "war tax," also known as the "Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010." Obey and his cosponsors hoped to make the Afghan war pay-go from here on out, with an income tax surtax (one percent for most earners, and higher for high earners) linked to the cost of war.
I liked the idea precisely because so much of this war (around 40 percent) thus far has been funded with deficit spending during very good economic times, from 2001 to 2006, when high-income Americans certainly could have afforded higher taxes (which were cut by George W. Bush).
Commenters here and elsewhere asked: Why raise taxes during a recession, when the government has been deficit-spending wildly to boost the economy? Tax dollars are tax dollars, not earmarked for one use or another. Raising taxes is raising taxes. Isn't this precisely the time we're supposed to deficit spending?
Well, yes, but not all deficit dollars are created equal, I fear. If we spend an additional $60 billion on the Afghanistan war, it does do some good for the American economy. It goes to American companies to build things like planes and armor, to hiring new soldiers, to American contractors working in Afghanistan to build roads and schools. But, down the road, the United States doesn't get those roads and schools. Soldiers stop fighting in Afghanistan, but continue to collect salaries and benefits. This means the deficit dollar spent in Afghanistan isn't as effective as the deficit dollar spent in, say, Detroit.
For some data on this phenomenon, Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research produced a paper showing that war spending (rather than domestic spending) ultimately costs jobs and GDP.But all of this might be moot. It seems that Congress is considering extending the estate tax, which was due to expire for a year before coming back into force in 2011. The tax only hits estates worth more than $3.5 million. I say extend it, and expand it to include less, erm, ample estates as well. That seems even better than the Obey plan.
It appears the Obama adminstiration will retain the United States's longstanding refusal to sign the 10-year-old Mine Ban Treaty:
"This administration undertook a policy review and we decided our landmine policy remains in effect," [Sate Department Spokesman Ian] Kelly said in response to a question. "We made our policy review and we determined that we would not be able to meet our national defense needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we sign this convention."
The U.S. participated in the drafting of the treaty but has refused to sign, largely because of the use of mines on the Korean peninsula. The announcement comes before a review of the treaty's progress in Colombia next week.
The decision has disappointed mine ban advocates like Senator Patrick Leahy, who called it a "lost opportunity for the United States to show leadership instead of joining with China and Russia and impeding progress."
But the adminsitration's decision is probably a moot point anyway since it's unlikely the White House could get the 67 Senate votes required to ratify the treaty anyway, particularly with tough congressional fights looming on the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, Law of the Sea and others.
Earlier today, Yoani
Sanchez posted questions to U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro regarding U.S.-Cuban relations on her blog, Generación Y. Sanchez, who was recently denied a visa
to visit New York City to attend an awards dinner after she was awarded
a Marie Moors Cabot Prize from the Columbia University Graduate School
of Journalism, received a direct response from Obama himself.
Obama addresses each point with steadfast poise, sticking to his administration's usual positions on the topic. He categorizes Cuban affairs as a domestic and foreign policy issue for the U.S. and emphasizes democratic rule, freedom of speech, and human rights, familiar rhetoric from the president. He also does not rule out a visit to the island in the future, not to work on his tan, but rather as a "diplomatic tool":
I look forward to visit a Cuba in which all citizens enjoy the same rights and opportunities as other citizens in the hemisphere.No word yet if Castro intends to reply. However, his mind may be on other things after Human Rights Watch's release of the report "New Castro, Same Cuba," condemning his regime:
In his three years in power, Raúl Castro has been just as brutal as his brother. Cubans who dare to criticize the government live in perpetual fear, knowing they could wind up in prison for merely expressing their views.Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images
A guest post from Foreign Policy contributor and human-rights activist Rebecca Hamilton.
Last week, the State Department partnered with two U.S.-based advocacy organizations (Save Darfur and STAND) to launch AskUS -- a web 2.0 initiative to connect the Obama administration with citizen activists.
More than 500 citizens emailed and used the Twitter hashtag #AskUS to submit questions on Sudan policy that they wanted Save Darfur to ask; students around the country voted online for the questions they wanted answered. The exercise culminated yesterday with a meeting, web-streamed live and cross-posted on the State Department's Facebook page. Leaders from Save Darfur and STAND asked a selection of the citizens' questions to U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Scott Gration and Director of Multilateral Affairs at the National Security Council Samantha Power.
The event was not quite as "live" as its billing implied. Advocates had to give the administration their questions in advance. One former State Department official I interviewed referred to Darfur activists as "noise we had to manage" -- and I feared that AskUS would be nothing more than a web 2.0 opportunity for the administration to "manage" a vocal and often critical advocacy movement.
As it turned out, the shoe was on the other foot. Activists were given the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, and they pursued that avenue with such vigor that any fear of them being co-opted by their well-publicized access to the White House ceased to be a concern. What was a concern was the administration's inability to provide concrete answers to the advocates' questions.
During the session, Gration explained that there are some aspects of policy that cannot be shared publicly, and presumably no one would disagree that the need to keep some material confidential is inherent in any nation's diplomatic activities. But Gration's backtracking caused confusion among advocates who had eagerly tuned in: Despite the AskUS initiative being promoted as a forum for open dialogue, the administration was cagey on some fairly rudimentary points about its new Sudan policy.
Indeed, the Obama administration's Sudan strategy, rolled out on October 19, focuses on calibrating pressures and incentives on the basis of "verifiable changes in conditions on the ground." Yet during yesterday's meeting, advocates were told that the benchmarks for measuring progress were "a process we're working through."
The best summation of the State Department's first foray into citizen engagement 2.0 is, appropriately enough, encapsulated in a tweet by TechPresident blogger Micah Sifry. Responding to the frustration advocates were expressing in real-time to the vagueness of the administration's answers, he wrote, "Whatever you may think about substance of Gration/Power's answers, State Dept just raised the bar on admin transparency efforts." Indeed.
It's not by chance that AskUS was launched around an issue that has such a strong U.S.-based constituency. Let's hope the next meeting sees activists on Congo, Burma, Sri Lanka, or any of the other many neglected crises, get an invite to the White House.
Rebecca Hamilton is the author of The Promise of Engagement, a forthcoming book on citizen advocacy in Sudan. She is an Open Society Institute fellow and a visiting fellow at the National Security Archives at George Washington University.
Like many in Washington, I spent Saturday night at home watching C-SPAN as the House debated and ultimately passed a major healthcare reform bill. It was about as exciting as the legislative process gets: a special weekend session, with heated debate over a controversial amendment, impassioned statements from virtually every House heavyweight, and a vote that came down to a thin margin, with a single crossover.
This banner moment marks the closest that the United States has ever come to overhauling its woefully expensive, inefficient, and incomplete healthcare system -- and it felt like a victory. But it marks just one step in what promises to be a long and detailed legislative process. Now, the Senate votes on its healthcare bill, then the two bills are merged, and then both chambers vote again. The remaining process will be highly prone to filibusters from Republicans (and, sigh, Joe Lieberman), and will require extensive negotiation. And this comes after months of wrangling in the Senate and House committees.
While healthcare reform takes its time to pass, two other big bills wait on the sidelines, and governments across the globe wait with them. Indeed, the Senate is, in effect, filibustering the world.
The first back-burnered issue is immigration reform. During his campaign, Obama promised that he would enact comprehensive legislation during his first year in office. It was a heady pledge -- President George W. Bush tried to pass reform during his final term in office, and failed. But it won Obama the support of organizations like the National Council of La Raza and plaudits from governments in Central America, Mexico, and Canada. Then, earlier this year, Obama ingloriously shelved it, laying down a big-bill priority rank with immigration reform taking the bronze. Congress hasn't even started to tackle the issue -- no bills, cosigners, or committee votes yet -- spurring disappointment across the United States' borders and further afield.
The second and vastly more important issue is cap and trade. The House bill passed in June, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushing it onto the floor as soon as she had the votes. But leaders in the White House and Congress decided to cool it to preserve votes for healthcare, and Congress won't make law until sometime early next year.
This delay means that the United States will be something of a weak actor at next month's U.N. Copenhagen conference on climate change. Global leaders will hash out the details of a worldwide plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to attempt to stave off anthropogenic climate disaster. Obama will not be one of them because of, well, Congress.
The United States has said any climate change agreements it makes must comport with U.S. law, and U.S. law isn't ready yet. So, Obama has said he will not attend. In the meantime, the United States has actually attempted to weaken many of the most important measures. Washington, under Obama as under Bush, remains the most recalcitrant major player on climate change, even more so than big-emitter Beijing.
European governments, as well as many others, are bewildered if not piqued. During her address to both chambers of Congress last week, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel implored lawmakers to tackle climate change "without delay." It was a futile plea, and half of the lawmakers didn't bother to clap.
This isn't to say that Washington should have different legislative priorities, or should have put climate change or immigration reform before healthcare. It isn't to say that Obama should have stepped out on those issues before Congress enacted law. It isn't even to say that Congress should move faster, though I often wish it would.
It is simply to note that the United States is used to waiting for its legislative process to work. The rest of the world isn't. On climate change, especially, the Senate is not just holding up U.S. legislation, but global action. And it remains unclear what that means for foreign policy.
New York Times journalist David Rohde's account of his kidnapping and subsequent escape from Taliban militants affiliated with the Haqqani network in North Waziristan region of Pakistan makes for riveting reading. It's an amazing story, and one has to admire Rohde's fortitude and survival instincts during his seven-month ordeal.
Read all of it, but I just have one comment about this bit from the epilogue:
My suspicions about the relationship between the Haqqanis and the Pakistani military proved to be true. Some American officials told my colleagues at The Times that Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, turns a blind eye to the Haqqanis' activities. Others went further and said the ISI provided money, supplies and strategic planning to the Haqqanis and other Taliban groups.
Pakistani officials told my colleagues that the contacts were part of a strategy to maintain influence in Afghanistan to prevent India, Pakistan's archenemy, from gaining a foothold. One Pakistani official called the Taliban "proxy forces to preserve our interests."
Meanwhile, the Haqqanis continue to use North Waziristan to train suicide bombers and bomb makers who kill Afghan and American forces. They also continue to take hostages.
We'll see how long this relationship holds, but if you need any convincing that the ISI at least tacitly allows the Haqqani folks to do their thing unmolested, consider this: To get to South Waziristan, where the Pakistani Army is engaged in a fierce battle with the Pakistani Taliban around the Makin area, which is dominated by the Mehsud tribal grouping, some units had to drive through North Waziristan. In fact, they drove right through the center of Miram Shah, the regional capital and Haqqani stronghold where Rohde made his escape -- and there was just one isolated IED attack along the way.
What does that tell us? At a minimum, it tells us that the powers that be in North Waziristan are being very cooperative and not coming to the Mehsuds' aid. And supposedly, the Haqqanis and their local allies, led by another Pakistani Taliban leader named Hafiz Gul Bahadar, have explicitly pledged not to interfere. The Pakistani military has struck a number of much-criticized peace deals with Bahadar over the last few years, and some say the security establishment in Rawalpindi is all too happy to keep this relationship alive so long as the Haqqanis and Bahadar only launch attacks in Afghanistan, not at home.
American officials have been hinting in recent weeks, however, that the Pakistani military is simply tackling one challenge at a time -- the Mehsuds -- and the Haqqanis may be next on their hit list. That's certainly what AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke and Amb. Ann Patterson seem to be telling Frontline, though one can detect a little daylight between the two U.S. diplomats. In Holbrooke's words, the Pakistanis "are quite clear in their own minds that Haqqani poses a threat to both Afghanistan and Pakistan." Patterson says, "[W]e're working with them on these, and I think they increasingly see these [other] groups as a threat as well" -- but Pakistan is not willing to turn on them yet.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is still conducting airstrikes in North Waziristan, which is still teeming with foreign militants and where it's widely thought that Osama bin Laden has hidden out at one point or another during the last few years. This is definitely a story to watch.
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.