British Petroleum has finally figured out how to get under the skin of the American Commander in Chief. President Obama, clearly irritated by BP’s lackluster cleanup efforts, has suggested that the British oil giant place in escrow funds sufficient to compensate those American citizens affected by the spill. (BP has just agreed to put 20 billion into an escrow account.) As a political decision, this is both a necessary and shrewd move on Obama’s part. But the underlying geopolitical realities that this oil spill has brought to the surface cannot be understood unless one thinks a bit more carefully – and creatively – about what the BP debacle really is, and what President Obama’s initial failure to take charge really means.
On the surface, the oil spill in the Gulf is an ecological disaster. On this understanding of what the spill is, the main problem is that gigantic plumes of oil – a precious natural resource – are quickly and relentlessly destroying the environment. As BP’s rogue oil eagerly escapes its underwater prison, our wetlands and diverse wildlife expire ahead-of-schedule and unnecessarily. The theory, then, is one of environmental catastrophe, and the dramatis personae are as vanilla as the theory: Barack Obama, beleaguered American President keen to end the crisis; Tony Hayward, the incompetent CEO of BP who makes for an easy target for the world’s politicians, pundits and public intellectuals; the American public, at once enraged and confused; and the shareholders of BP, hiding in the shadows, hoping that the cost of this crisis will not fall on their backs.
A better theory – more powerful and descriptively accurate – is available. This is no mere ecological disaster, but is, correctly understood, an attack on our political, economic, and cultural infrastructure caused by no single individual or institution but enabled by many. It is now well known that a number of indicators pointed toward the possibility of a spill of this magnitude. And yet BP and the relevant U.S. regulators did nothing. (more…)
As Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in Washington yesterday for a visit let’s look at Afghanistan. If Presidents Obama and Karzai were a couple they might well be seeing a marriage counselor. There has been much baggage between them in recent months. As diplomats might say, their relationship has been strained; what one might call tough love. Indeed, so much so that President Obama has instructed his national security team to treat Afghan President Hamid Karzai with more public respect. President Obama should remember the old military saying that respect can’t be ordered, only earned.
Just last month Karzai said in a meeting with Afghan lawmakers that he would consider joining the Taliban. Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said some of Karzai’s comments were “troubling” and the White House would re-evaluate whether his trip to Washington would be constructive. Subsequently Karzai denied that he ever made the comments.
Officially, of course, things are getting better. According to the latest Congressionally mandated Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, released April 28, stability in Afghanistan is no longer on the decline, and most Afghans believe that despite increased violence, security actually has improved since this time last year. (more…)
With the oil slick from Deepwater Horizon lapping at the shores of Louisiana, all sorts of doubts about the wisdom of offshore drilling are suddenly gushing up to the surface. Environmentalists and liberals long against offshore drilling are latching on to the disaster as hard proof that the potential costs of offshore drilling outweigh any possible benefits. In his recent op-ed for the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote, “President Obama needs to seize the moment; he needs to take on the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd, telling America that courting irreversible environmental disaster for the sake of a few barrels of oil, an amount that will hardly affect our dependence on imports, is a terrible bargain.” Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Florida, agreed, saying that “Drilling too close to the coast poses too great a risk to the economy and the environment of Florida and other coastal states.” Even Governor Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has decided not to allow additional offshore drilling in California in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Obviously, many of these reactions have more to do with politics and popularity than a sustained analysis of the costs and benefits of offshore drilling. But as my colleague John Prandato recently wrote, this is true for almost every aspect of the offshore drilling debate, which tends to be highly political rather than pragmatic in nature. (more…)
Amid the intense domestic coverage of the health care debate came a reminder of the hope that even hardened global figures have for the Obama Presidency and its ability to transform global affairs.
In the hours after Congress acted last Sunday, the White House announced that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was one of the first two global leaders to call and congratulate Obama on his domestic victory.
Now, it is reasonable to assume that the Saudi leader was not particularly concerned about health care reform itself but recognized that its passage would strengthen Obama domestically and perhaps reignite his desire to be remembered as a transformative President not simply at home but also abroad.
In 2008 Obama ran a campaign that, in part, portrayed his very election as a step towards resetting U.S. relations with the international community. Further more, by illustrating his understanding of specific hot button issues ranging from Indo-Pakistani disagreements in Kashmir to the harm caused by the Bush administrations “war on terror”, Obama suggested that he would prioritize tackling the policy matters that had corroded relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world and thus undermined U.S. national security.
His early actions as President, from the appointment of Middle East envoy Mitchell to his historic Cairo speech, collectively suggested that Obama was looking to move beyond simply the reset offered by his election and was seeking a fundamental realignment between the U.S. and the Muslim world that would transform the international arena.
I have to admit that I am struggling to judge the Obama administrations approach to Iran over the past 12 months. At times the President and his team have got the tone and approach right (e.g. the early restrained comments as the election dispute escalated and the way Sec. Clinton engaged the Iranians at an Afghanistan conference in early 2009) but at other moments the administration has seemed to be clumsy or guilty of following a flawed game plan (e.g. the unwillingness to push for a holistic dialogue with Iran spanning issues ranging from nukes to Afghanistan to Iranian security concerns).
I don’t feel ready to prescribe a specific 2010 game plan at this moment but wanted to share one of the more interesting pieces I have reviewed on the internal dynamics in Iran. Michael Fischer outlines four possible ways in which the internal situation could evolve in the months ahead….it makes for interesting reading and this request from Michael is a very reasonable one:
It is important for Iran’s future and that of the world that more attention be focused on these alternative outcomes, so as to avoid the worst of them. Iran needs less our intervention or sanctions than an insistent questioning of who the players and their connections and alliances are.
What do you think about the scenarios outlined by Michael? Are there others that the administration needs to consider?
By almost any standard, the outcome of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last week fell well short of its increasingly humble expectations. Copenhagen was considered pivotal because the “Bali Roadmap” laid out in 2007 circled this meeting on the calendar as the conclusion of the negotiating period which was to create a legally-binding post-Kyoto agreement. But by the beginning of the conference, the goal had been reduced to just establishing a politically-binding framework that would set the world on a course toward reaching a comprehensive international agreement in 2010.
Modest yet politically significant emissions reduction pledges by the US, China, and others prior to the conference contributed to a mood of cautious optimism at the outset of the two-week summit. But on just the second day, the massive rift between developed and developing countries was exposed with the leak of the so-called “Danish text” – drawn up by delegates from Denmark, Australia, the UK, and the US – which would allegedly place most of the power in the hands of developed countries at the expense of developing countries. The text was dismissed by the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, as just an “informal” draft. But China quickly fired back with its own draft text, flipping the blame and the burden onto wealthy countries. A day later, delegates from the US and China traded barbs as the US State Department Envoy Todd Stern told reporters that “there’s no way to solve this problem by giving the major developing countries a pass,” to which Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei responded that Stern either “lacks common sense” or is “extremely irresponsible”.
The controversy stirred up in the first few days served as a precursor for the deep division between rich and poor countries that would plague the remainder of the negotiations. The next week was remarkably unproductive. Countless controversial draft texts fluttered around the Bella Center amid a walkout by African countries and thousands of angry rioters – impatient with the lack of progress – taking to the streets. With the looming arrival of over a hundred heads of state, the symbolic dichotomy of rich vs. poor countries had grown ever clearer and was threatening to derail the negotiations. (more…)
This is my last post for 2009 I thought I would write about Afghanistan but on second thought I will, no doubt, be doing that quite a lot during 2010. Thanks to the Obama Administration’s surge strategy Afghanistan will, from a blogging viewpoint, be the gift that keeps on giving.
So, as we contemplate whether 2010 will be better or worse let’s take a moment to consider 2009. In the spirit of Dave Barry’s classic annual year in review column let’s acknowledge, albeit with some poetic license commentary by moi, a few of the significant events that made, however briefly, the headlines.
Although it started on Dec. 28 2008 the month of January saw massive Israeli air strikes and a ground force invasion of the Gaza Strip. Heavy ﬁghting took place in Gaza City between the Israeli forces and Hamas. At least 1300 Palestinians were killed. On Jan. 17 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced a unilateral ceaseﬁre in the Gaza Strip, declaring that Israel has achieved the goals it set when launching the military operation. On Jan. 21 Israel completes its troop withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Also that month President Barack Obama signed executive orders closing the US detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year; closing the CIA’s secret prisons; requiring a review of military trials for terror suspects; and requiring all interrogations to follow the non-coercive methods speciﬁed in the Army Field Manual.
Of course, nobody knew back then that the camp would end up in Illinois. One can only hope that the inmates are not too acclimated to the Caribbean climate to adjust to a midwest winter.
On Jan 27 Hama declared that it previously was just kidding and broke the ceaseﬁre by attacking an Israeli frontier patrol. Israel immediately responded that it lacks a sense of humor and renewed its air strikes on the Gaza Strip border with Egypt.
On Feb. 3 Iran launched its ﬁrst domestically built satellite into orbit. Iran stated that the satellite is meant for research and telecommunications purposes, but Western states express concern that the technology could be used in the development of ballistic missiles. The U.S. intelligence community, estimating that Iran will show the same swift progress with its missiles that it did with its nuclear program, predicted the next flight will be in 2040.
On Feb. 6, renewing their classic rivalry, a British and a French nuclear submarine collided in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Political leaders from both countries sighed in relief that it was merely submarines and not their respective football fans that collided. (more…)
As President Obama prepares to announce his new strategy for Afghanistan in his address to the world tonight from West Point, it’s worth shedding light on a source of instability that will not be remedied by simply putting more boots on the ground. According to UNICEF, just 28% of Afghan adults are literate, ranking Afghanistan among the most illiterate countries in the world. It is not difficult to draw a correlation between a dearth of basic education and an inclination toward religious extremism. But illiteracy also breeds instability by fundamentally obstructing the flow of information, producing an environment susceptible to a “war of communication”. (more…)
Two years ago this week, on this blog, I wrote the following about politicians who thank men and women in uniform “for their service” without doing anything to improve their lot:
After six years of war, we must pay more than lip service to our gratitude. We must act to ease the burden on our armed forces, and to give strategic vision and moral depth to our national security policy.
It has now been eight years of war in Afghanistan and approaching seven in Iraq. We have a new President, a new Congress, new military commanders on the ground, and a new set of relationships on the world stage. Yet I am concerned that Americans have seen too little progress on the foreign policy challenges that matter most.
The Obama Administration, less than a year into its tenure, has reached a national security tipping point. Despite swift and significant troop reductions in Iraq (coupled with a handover of security duties to Iraqis), invitations to Iran and North Korea to sit down at the negotiating table, and an ongoing policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the new Administration has won few admirers for its national security program. One obvious reason is the lack of clear, immediate payoffs. Other than “resetting” the US public image in European capitals, it is not clear that Obama’s changed approach has delivered any concrete benefits appreciable to average Americans, or to our elected leaders on either side.
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Reinvigoration of US policy in Southeast Asia is an early hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Besides the “soft power” boost from Obama’s boyhood ties to the region, there is considerable low-hanging fruit to gather. The administration’s commitment to multilateralism; willingness to engage former enemies or antagonists; signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation; and a vow that the Secretary of State would attend the annual meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum – the last a dig at Condoleezza Rice, who missed two of the four ARF meetings – all contrast favorably to Southeast Asians’ impressions of second-term Bush administration policies.
In addition, the administration has announced an early menu of more specific innovations and adjustments. To strengthen US relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Obama will participate in the first-ever meeting of a US President with leaders from all ten ASEAN member states, to be held on the margins of this week’s APEC meeting. The US Ambassador for ASEAN Affairs will no longer be based in Washington but will move to Jakarta, where the ASEAN Secretariat is located. A new initiative in the Mekong region and the decision to lift OPIC restrictions on Cambodia and Laos shore up the US presence in the smaller, poorer countries of Southeast Asia that the United States had all but ceded to China in the past decade. But in terms of international attention, the sum of these policy shifts is overshadowed by the administration’s 45-degree turn in Burma policy, to pursue longstanding objectives of promoting political openness there by adding engagement to a sanctions-heavy policy.
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.