Post #77: Keep It in the Ground

On January 17 the New York Times reported that, to appease environmentalists, the Obama administration would “ban drilling in portions of the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.”  But in return, Republicans and the oil and gas industry got federal approval to drill in a large swath of the Atlantic Ocean, a move that I criticized here (#71, on March 19) because it “risks another BP-type disaster. This is no small bone to calm the savage dogs on the right. Department of the interior officials are quick to reassure us that safeguards will be in place before exploration begins and that the leased area is 50 miles from shore. But we’ve been down that road too many times to feel reassured. Recall, for one thing, that the Deepwater Horizon rig was 41 miles from Louisiana’s shore. For another, since the BP spill, no new safety regulations have been enacted by Congress, and in the current climate, and if they are, they will have to come from the administration itself. Who will be president when the time comes?”

Now the administration has reversed its Arctic Ocean decision and granted drilling rights in those seas to Shell Oil. The decision is conditional on Shell being granted additional permits, which of course it will. As happens every time offshore drilling is allowed, the administration claims that resource extraction and safety standards can be effectively monitored, and the energy company claims it will adhere to the highest level of care for the environment.  Such nonsense: common sense and past experience tell us that drilling in the frigid Arctic is dangerous, a spill is only a matter of time, and the cleanup will be far more complicated than in the Gulf of Mexico.

Even some oil company executives have expressed surprise that Shell would undertake this venture, especially when it folded operations in 2012 after its oil drilling rig went aground. From a profit-and-loss standpoint, moreover, drilling doesn’t make sense given the low price of energy these days. But Shell is clearly banking on a carbon-filled future.

The central issue is a different risk: climate change. More drilling means more carbon.  As the veteran environmentalist Bill McKibben writes (www.nytimes.com/…/obamas-catastrophic-climate-change-denial), opening the Arctic to drilling is like allowing cigarette machines in cancer wards. Carbon must be kept in the ground; the alternative is out-of-control global warming.

President Obama wants to leave a legacy of good planetary stewardship.  But as I’ve written before, his notion of “balancing” drilling and protection is only further unbalancing the environment.  It may be good politics, but it’s bad stewardship.

Post #76 – TPP: A Deeply Flawed Partnership

(Note: A longer version of this post was subsequently published at

http://japanfocus.org/-Mel-Gurtov/4318/article.html.)

The American people have become used to government trickery in foreign affairs—wars and interventions based on lies and falsified evidence, “national security” used to justify the whittling away of privacy, classification of documents to hide embarrassing disclosures, massaging of budget figures to mask outrageous spending on arms, and claims of weakness in weapons systems that mask actual overkill capacity.

Now comes trickery in a different domain: trade and investment. It is called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and it has the dubious distinction of being a piece of legislation that has substantial bipartisan support and strong presidential approval.  Eleven countries are awaiting the outcome in Congress as President Obama seeks approval to put the TPP on a “fast track,” meaning skipping hearings, public input, and amendments and going directly to an up-or-down vote.  Once passed, the TPP will do for US corporations operating in Asia what the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did for them in Canada and Mexico—provide new incentives to send jobs abroad, increase corporate earnings, and remove more protections from both overseas and US environments and workers.

The TPP is partnership alright, but not of the sort you or I are likely to appreciate.  Instead of enhancing partnership with working people who need higher wages and job training, and with grassroots organizations that are fighting to protect our natural environments, the TPP will promote the interests of trading and investment firms in the cutthroat competition that has come to define globalization.  It’s all about providing a “level playing field” for US multinational corporations, as Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel recently explained (see http://www.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2015/04/240121.htm). President Obama, who once resoundingly criticized all such mega-trade agreements, is now its biggest fan, proving once again that money talks just as loudly with liberal as with conservative leaders.  (But of course we all knew that from the Clintons’ ties to Wall Street, its favoritism to corporate donors, and its vigorous pushing of NAFTA.  Hillary, by the way, has waffled on TPP.)

Here are some of the specific drawbacks to the TPP.  Every one of them is also true of NAFTA.

 

  • Administration claims to the contrary, TPP will export far more jobs than it will create. It will encourage countries to further weaken their currencies’ value to promote exports to the US, thus widening the US trade deficit and reducing US jobs. At the same time, TPP will encourage US companies to invest abroad, and thus create jobs there. This consequence applies to free-trade agreements generally. Public Citizen, which tracks the impact of trade agreements, gives the example of the US-South Korea FTA since 2013. It has resulted in “a downfall in U.S. exports to Korea, rising imports and a surge in the U.S. trade deficit with Korea that equated to 60,000 more American jobs lost.”
  • By shifting jobs to low-wage countries, TPP will further undermine attempts by workers to unionize. The threat by companies to move from one low-wage country to an even lower-wage country is always there.
  • No provision is made to protect workers sidelined by the effects of the agreement. As Dana Milbank points out in the Washington Post, President Obama lost an opportunity when the TPP was being drafted to insert provisions for worker training and spending on public works (“infrastructure”), both areas that the US spends far less on than the Europeans (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-trans-pacific-partnership-trade-deal-is-an-abomination/2015/04/24/903e5a12-ea85-11e4-aae1-d642717d8afa_story.html).
  • Poor people in agriculture abroad also face the prospect of having to emigrate when corporate exports from, say, the US outprice locally produced goods. (Under NAFTA, the classic case is imports of cheap American corn, which flooded the Mexican market and forced thousands of campesinos off the land.)
  • It will undermine environmental, health, and safety laws because, as with the infamous Chapter 11 of NAFTA, TPP will allow countries that are blocked by regulations in another country from exporting certain below-standard goods—such as fish, fuel, timber, tobacco, and fruit—to sue in a special international court of arbitrators for financial redress on the basis of “restraint of trade.” Under the TPP, the special court’s ruling cannot be challenged in US courts. This crucial provision, called Investor-State Dispute Settlement, reduces environmental and public-health protections to the least common denominator.  (Senator Elizabeth Warren has warned about this provision at washingtonpost.com/opinions/kill-the-dispute-settlement-language-in-the-trans-pacific-partnership/2015/02/25/ec7705a2-bd1e-11e4-b274-e5209a3bc9a9_story.html. On the threat TPP poses to local food safety laws, see Mark Bittman’s article, www.nytimes.com/2015/04/22/opinion/obama-and-republicans-agree-on-the-trans-pacific-partnership-unfortunately.html.)
  • The special court operates in secret. Its decisions are binding on governments, and prevail over local laws and regulations.
  • The approval process for TPP is entirely undemocratic. The public has no “right to know” about the agreement’s contents.  And putting the TPP on a fast track is simply a way to avoid Congressional and public debate.

 

But TPP is more than a trade agreement; it has, at least for Washington and Tokyo, an equally important strategic dimension. The US Office of Trade Representative stated last year:

 

“TPP is as important strategically as it is economically. TPP would bind together a group that represents 40 percent of global GDP and about a third of world trade. Strategically, TPP is the avenue through which the United States, working with nearly a dozen other countries (and another half dozen waiting in the wings) is playing a leading role in writing the rules of the road for a critical region in flux.”

 

Translated into plain English, it’s all about China, the “800-pound gorilla in Asia [that] will create its own set of rules,” according to the President.  And for some governments, such as Japan’s, and influential pundits, such as Thomas J. Friedman of the New York Times, determining the rules of the game to outflank China should be the essence of the argument in favor of the TPP.  As Friedman wrote, agreements like TPP “would both strengthen and more closely integrate the market-based, rule-of-law-based democratic and democratizing nations that form the backbone of the World of Order” (www.nytimes.com/2015/04/29/opinion/thomas-l-friedman-on-trade-obama-right-critics-wrong.html).

A clearer “us versus them” world view could not have been written. You can see why some folks in Beijing see the TPP not as an opportunity for cooperation but as another element in the US strategy to encircle China—and why, in Washington, the selling of TPP requires hyping the China threat, thus reinforcing Chinese suspicions.  To be sure, the Chinese are not standing still when it comes to Asia-Pacific economy; they are lining up their own tariff-cutting, investment-friendly, loan-approving groups in Asia, and those groups will have even less environmental and safety protections built into them than the TPP or NAFTA.

Since they have been invited to join the TPP but not to set its rules, the Chinese are doing what comes naturally these days: creating groups where they have preponderate influence in setting the rules, just as happened at the end of World War II when the US led the way in founding the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and later the Asian Development Bank. The China-backed groups are the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, not to mention a Silk Road Economic Fund.  Of course Washington resents these Chinese “intrusions,” especially since China is signing up countries friendly to the US, including the European Union and possibly Taiwan, in the AIIB.  US officials are encouraging the Koreans and Japanese, among others, to stick with the TPP and not join China-sponsored organizations.  But the pressure isn’t working, nor should it.  Americans believe in competition, don’t they?

Regardless of what China does, Congress should defeat the TPP legislation.  From a human-interest point of view, it fails the test of genuine partnership.  No trade or investment agreement should be undertaken that pays mere lip service to environmental protection, puts corporate profits ahead of human rights, and interprets globalization to mean nothing more than getting ahead of the competition.  There is a national security dimension to this bill, but it has to do with the way trade contributes to inequality in our streets and not to strategic balancing against China.  Think Baltimore, not Beijing.

Post #75 – India’s Shame, and the World’s

A democracy is supposed to have the advantage of affording people of any social class, gender, or religious or ethnic group the opportunity to advance.  In contrast with authoritarian political orders, democracies should be superior in their openness to change, to everyone’s participation in politics, and to equality before the law.  In a word, democracies are based on the politics of hope and the virtues of transparency.  Or so the theory goes.

India defies these expectations.  Though it has democratic institutions and vigorous political competition, at least among elites, when it comes to human development and human security, India falls very short—embarrassingly so when compared with China.  The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which measures human development and reports annually on conditions in nearly all countries (see www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/hdr/2014-human-development-report/), documents the comparison.  Overall, among 177 countries for which data are available, India ranks 135th (in company with Tajikistan, Bhutan, and Cambodia), whereas China ranks 91st (along with Thailand, Armenia, and Fiji).  In fact, there are very few categories of human development in which India does better on average than China, which surely explains why developing countries (and many Indian specialists!) looking for economic models are far more likely to choose China than India.

Statistically, among the most telling indicators of human development are those affecting children and women.  The infant mortality rate is exceptionally high in India (44 of 1000 live births, as compared with China’s 12) and life expectancy for children is lower than in the poorest African country.  Poor nutrition and sanitation, and limited access to health care, are the observable reasons.  Child labor in India, at 12 percent for ages 5 to 14, is also uncommonly high.

Equally shameful is the low status of India’s women, a fact recently brought home in two very different ways.  One is the film (produced in Britain), India’s Daughter, which explores the culture of rape, based on the well publicized incident last December in which a young woman was gang-raped on a public bus in New Delhi.  The woman died of her injuries, the rapists were not the least bit repentant, and the government has banned the film on the specious argument that it will encourage more such assaults. (For a review of the film by an Indian journalist who herself was raped, see www.nytimes.com/2015/03/13/opinion/banning-indias-daughter-is-a-terrible-idea.html?ref=asia).  The low status of Indian women is also the key factor in their limited access to prenatal and other health care (www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/world/asia/-pregnant-women-india-dangerously-underweight-study.html).  As a result, they are, as the article puts it, dangerously underweight.

In short, India is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.  Never mind Sonia Gandhi and other successful Indian women.  For the overwhelming majority of Indian women, degrading treatment, sexual violence, and last-in-line access to the means of well being are the norm.  (China is hardly a model here, but the status of women is certainly higher in China than in India.)

India’s shame is also the world’s.  The latest UN report on the status of women presents the first “Platform for Action” since the landmark 1995 international conference in Beijing.  The report finds that although women have advanced globally by some measures, such as political office holding and education, violence against women is pervasive everywhere. (The report is by the UN Economic and Social Council’s Commission on the Status of Women: www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=E/CN.6/2015/3).  In the words of the report: “Recent global estimates show that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. While there is some variation across regions, all regions have unacceptably high rates of violence against women.”  In India, according to the UNDP, more women than men (54 percent to 51 percent) believe wife beating is justified. Though few countries can match the depth of violence against women that characterizes Indian society, global and regional averages suggest that violence, and acceptance by men and many women of its legitimacy, cut across income levels.

When it comes to preventing violence against women and girls, the UN ECOSOC report repeats all the well-known reforms that are needed—in law, education, community awareness, and police enforcement—but accepts that cultural norms run deep. Thus the report notes that “although States are increasingly recognizing the importance of prevention, very few have introduced long-term, coordinated and cross-cutting prevention strategies, with the vast majority reporting on short-term piecemeal activities.”  This is bad news for women and girls everywhere, and nowhere more so than in India.

Post #74 – After Cuba: Will Obama Follow Up with Venezuela?

A year ago mainstream news reports out of Venezuela suggested that the post-Hugo Chàvez era was going badly for his successor, Nicolás Maduro.  The US media painted a picture of a country that was headed toward a Latin version of the Arab Spring, with popular protests mounting against the government.  But the reality was quite different.  The chief purpose of the protests, led by people who were involved in efforts twice previously to unseat Chàvez, was to destabilize a democratically elected government.  Though the protests were sizable at times and did reflect genuine frustrations among the middle class and the wealthy, the government continued to win elections and command majority support, especially from the poor who have been most helped by the radical social changes first introduced by Chàvez.

Now, in the wake of US-Cuba engagement, an opportunity exists for normalizing US relations with Venezuela on the same basis President Obama proposed to Raúl Castro: We acknowledge our differences and agree to disagree.  But sanctions and confrontation will not resolve the differences.  So let’s talk and resume relations.

I’ll get back to that opportunity in a moment, but first a bit of recent background.

The Maduro government was elected in a country that has a solid history of independently monitored free elections.  Speaking in 2012, for instance, Jimmy Carter said: “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world” (www.globalresearch.ca/former-us-president-carter-venezuelan-electoral-system-best-in-the-world/5305779).  Venezuela also has a vibrant civil society (which includes tens of thousands of worker-owned cooperatives and community councils), and a strong opposition press.  Maduro points to Venezuela’s achievement in reducing poverty and income inequality, which accounts for the fact that the poor go about their lives normally while the rich take to the streets.  In short, Maduro is neither Bashir al-Assad nor Moammar Kaddafi.

Venezuela certainly has its share of problems: scarcity of foodstuffs and other basic commodities, dependence for exports on oil, very high inflation, and an exceptionally high rate of violent crime.  There is plenty of room for progressive change, and according to scholars who have been on the scene, the government last year was addressing these problems while also reaching out to critics.  In doing so, writes Steve Ellner—who teaches in Venezuela—Maduro has come under criticism from the left for not being tough enough on business and opposition political leaders.  (See his article at https://nacla.org/article/venezuela-chavistas-debate-pace-change.)  Now, with an economy in freefall, he has toughened up, perhaps too much so.

Maduro last year charged that the US government and press are “on the side of the 1 percent who wish to drag our country back to when the 99 percent were shut out of political life and only the few—including American companies—benefited from Venezuela’s oil” (www.nytimes.com/2014/04/02/opinion/venezuela-a-call-for-peace.html).  Indeed, the US is Venezuela’s number-one customer for oil and, according to a report in the New York Times, the Maduro government has quietly renegotiated contracts with Chevron and other oil companies to help finance the state oil monopoly, Petróleos de Venezuela, or Pdvsa. In return, companies will regain significant control over how they run their drilling operations.  (See “Venezuela, in Quiet Shift, Gives Foreign Partners More Control in Oil Ventures,” October 9, 2014.)

Nevertheless, official US sympathies lay with the antigovernment forces.  Evidence exists (see http://truth-out.org/news/item/22121-venezuelas-deep-political-education-means-venezuelans-will-withstand-right-wing-protests) of US efforts to destabilize the Venezuelan government in much the same way that it did in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile: funding the political opposition, trying to isolate Venezuela internationally, and carrying out disinformation campaigns with the US as well as Venezuelan press to undermine the Maduro government.  One document from November 2013 is particularly damning.  It shows:

           “that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) collaborated with the Colombian government and Venezuelan opposition leaders to destabilize Venezuela and stoke massive protests. The document, obtained by journalist and attorney Eva Golinger, was the product of a June 2013 meeting between US-based FTI Consulting, the Colombian Fundación Centro de Pensamiento Primero Colombia (Centre for Thought Foundation of Colombia First), and Fundación Internacionalismo Democratico (Democratic Internationalism Foundation). The third tactic outlined in the 15-point strategy document openly called for sabotage . . . ” (http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/22199-focus-how-washington-is-playing-venezuela-like-a-fiddle)

           This report is entirely believable inasmuch as the US was directly implicated in a coup attempt against Chàvez in 2002.  That effort, which succeeded in removing him from power for about 48 hours, was the product of collusion between his opponents and Reagan-era officials in the Bush administration who had been involved in the Iran-Contra scandal (www.theguardian.com/world/2002/apr/21/usa.venezuela).  It took two years before declassified information made plain that the CIA knew in advance of the coup, and while CIA and other US officials supposedly passed on warnings of a coup to Chàvez, questions remain about how much information was actually provided and what connections to the coup group US officials may have had (www.nytimes.com/2004/12/03/international/americas/03venezuela.html?_r=0).  The coup effort collapsed when most Latin governments refused to recognize the new government, which had US support.

          Thus, until very recently “another Chile” in Venezuela did not seem far-fetched.  The Obama administration stoked the fires in March when it issued an executive order on sanctions against several members of the Maduro government.  The order made the extraordinary declaration that Venezuela is a threat to US national security and constitutes a national emergency (www.nytimes.com/2015/04/08/world/americas/white-house-seeks-to-soothe-relations-with-venezuela.html). Those words drew immediate criticism, not only in Venezuela but throughout Latin America—enough to draw a quick retraction from Washington, where it was understood that the incendiary language confirmed Maduro in his warnings about US interference.

Now, in the wake of the Obama-Castro meeting, positive diplomacy seems to be in train: A senior US aide was reported to have traveled to Venezuela to meet with government officials, presumably to clear the air and perhaps even attempt to lower the volume of hostile rhetoric.  Obama reportedly met privately with Maduro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City on April 11, a meeting characterized by a Maduro aide this way: “there was a lot of truth, respect, and cordiality” (www.washingtonpost.com/business/latest-on-americas-summit-pot-bangers-protest-over-maduro/2015/04/10/621062ac-dfe5-11e4-b6d7-b9bc8acf16f7_story.html).

At the recent summit, which Cuba attended for the first time, Obama and Castro shook hands.  After reviewing a history of grievances against the US, Castro offered a surprising apology: “I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution. . . . I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”  And he added: “In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man” (www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/in-historic-face-to-face-obama-castro-vow-to-turn-the-page/2015/04/11/0342929c-e0ab-11e4-b6d7-b9bc8acf16f7_story.html; www.nytimes.com/reuters/2015/04/11/world/americas/11reuters-cuba-usa.html).  Obama responded in kind, noting that differences between the two countries should not get in the way of dialogue and the resumption of normal economic and other relations, and that the process of normalization required patience. It is only a matter of time before the trade embargo and Cuba’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism are removed.

The Cuba-US normalization could not come at a better time for both Venezuela and the US, and indeed for all of Latin America.  As Obama said at the Summit of the Americas: “The Cold War is over. . . . Cuba is not a threat to the United States.”  The same should be said about Venezuela which, unlike Cuba, has a proven record of democratic governance.  The Venezuelan opposition’s destabilizing efforts violate that tradition, as does the government’s reported violations of people’s civil liberties and the right of opposition leaders to protest. A national dialogue in Venezuela is urgent, but the bottom line is that Venezuelans must be allowed to work out their own destiny, free from fear that the US will promote regime change.

 

 

Post #73 – The Iran Framework: A Case Study in Engagement

We have every reason to celebrate the so-called framework agreement with Iran.  It exemplifies the best of President Obama’s foreign policy, namely, engaging adversaries.  Remember when candidate Obama’s argument for engagement during campaign 2008 was ridiculed by Hillary Clinton, among many others?  Now Obama has two major engagement successes to crow about, leaving behind those who are quick to criticize the deals with Cuba and Iran as anything from foolish to treasonous.  Needless to say, neither of those understandings is complete; the devil is always in the details, and there are plenty of them.  But to reach this point after more than 35 years when other administrations have either failed to cut a deal or refused to try is nothing short of extraordinary.  And in the case of Iran, the nuclear agreement comes at a crucial moment, not merely in terms of Iran’s nuclear-weapon potential but more broadly with respect to the chaotic shape of Middle East politics.

John Limbert was a political officer in the US embassy in Tehran when the nightmare hostage crisis unfolded in 1979.  Out of his captivity has come a seminal guide, Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History (2009), that reflects his deep background in Persian studies and his commitment to dialogue and mutual understanding.  His book examines several cases of crisis in Iran and then offers a number of guidelines to successfully negotiating with the Iranians.  At a time when we are hearing loud criticisms of the nuclear deal and efforts by Congress members, and Israel, to undermine it, we should pay attention to what experts like Limbert have to say.

Limbert proposes fourteen negotiating lessons.  I have selected seven of them, and added one of my own.  Comparing the lessons with the framework just concluded allows us to see how effectively the two countries’ diplomats worked together.

 

  1. Avoid legalisms; seek solutions based on “mutually agreeable standards” that Iran can claim as a victory. Having two MIT scientists who knew of one another discuss technicalities was a key to successful talks. That allowed many details of an accord to focus on science, not politics.  As for claiming victory, while Secretary of State John Kerry and other US officials could cite major concessions by Iran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif could boast that Iran will keep its centrifuges and nuclear enrichment program, its major nuclear research site at Fordo, and some of its uranium stockpile.
  2. “Be aware of Iran’s historical greatness” and past grievances based on humiliations by foreign powers. President Obama, in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and elsewhere, has shown his attentiveness to Iran’s history and culture. He has pointed to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s mention of Iran’s unhappy history with the US, and has made respectful comments about Iran’s greatness and right to acknowledgment as a major regional power. (The interview is a must-read: nytimes.com/2015/04/06/opinion/thomas-friedman-the-obama-doctrine-and-iran-interview.html.)  Throughout the years of talks with Iran, its leaders have above all else demanded “respect,” i.e., justice and recognition of Iran’s legitimacy.  The nuclear negotiations have provided that.
  3. Clarify lines of authority: be sure to talk with the right people, but also present a common US position. This was a challenging lesson to follow inasmuch as the ayatollah deliberately kept in the background, letting his negotiators do their thing but without committing himself to the outcome.  On the US side, Republican and others’ sniping presented obstacles for negotiators, in particular when 47 US senators signed a letter to the ayatollah warning that any agreement was subject to Congressional review.  Nevertheless, the “right people” were evidently at the table and were able to craft an agreement that, on Iran’s side, the ayatollah did not negate and, on the US side, amazed even some conservative critics.
  4. Understand Iranian interests. Obviously, removing the sanctions was essential to a deal, but not at any price.  Iran’s insistence on keeping fuel rods at home and not shipped to Russia was essential face-saving, and US negotiators did not allow that position to halt the talks.  Likewise on the centrifuges issue: The US negotiated down their number (from about 19,000 to 6,000), but Iran still has some 5,000 allowed to operate according to CIA director John O. Brennan.
  5. Do not assume the Iranians are illogical, uncompromising, untrustworthy, duplicitous. US negotiators clearly did not. Hopefully, they kept in mind that many Iranians view Americans the same way.
  6. Ignore hostile rhetoric and grandstanding; be businesslike and professional—and be willing to stay the course.
  7. Remember that there were successful US-Iran talks in the past, for example in 2001-2002 over Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban.
  8. Be ever-conscious of the politics of a deal—the fact that on each side, it must be sold to wary buyers and outright opponents who want to see it fail. This is why the “optics” of the deal are so important, with each side having a different narrative of the deal’s strengths so as to make it more attractive domestically.  The message here: Don’t interpret public statements about the deal by the other side as backsliding with the intention to subvert it.

The nuclear deal with Iran, if it holds, could potentially open a new era in US relations with the Middle East.  Though the Saudis, the Israelis, and some other supposed friends of the US will object, a cooperative US-Iran relationship is a critical piece in the overall puzzle to find a path to something resembling stability.  We can see the outlines of cooperation with Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Washington and Tehran have common interests.  Simply put, Iran’s leaders feel threatened by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban.  To be sure, there are also places—Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Libya, and Syria—where the US and Iran are at odds.  But if the nuclear deal can move forward, and termination of sanctions can lead to a fruitful economic relationship, the agenda of cooperation may expand and violence-by-proxy may greatly reduce.  For the US, an end to one-sided relationships in the Middle East would be a blessing, with positive ramifications for Israel and others.

Post #72 – An Enemy of Peace

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has established himself as the biggest enemy of peace in the Middle East.  His thoroughly unwelcome and error-marred speech to Congress on Iran, his last-minute racist scare tactics on election eve in Israel, and his disingenuous post-election statement that he really does support a two-state solution all reveal a man who fears a just Middle East peace and will do everything he can to thwart it.

President Obama has taken the correct position in distancing himself from Netanyahu and, with the usual diplomatic language, making plain that so long as Netanyahu is in charge, the peace process is dead.  Their widely reported strained personal relationship is one thing (note the body language in the photo below from a 2011 meeting); the main thing is that the United States and the Palestinian Authority do not have a negotiating partner.  What Netanyahu said in the last moments of his electoral campaign simply cannot be walked back: that no two-state solution will ever occur while he is prime minister; and that the Arab vote is a threat to Israel’s political system.  This is a man who will say and do whatever it takes to preserve his power and keep the Palestinian people in a subordinate place.

Netanyahu has a lot of help in achieving those objectives, both in Congress and from his embassy in Washington.  The Israel Lobby remains powerful and well-funded, with many resources for ensuring that military and economic aid to Israel continues, that the Palestinian cause is ignored, and that Israel’s nuclear weapon arsenal is never a fit topic of debate.  Netanyahu’s faithful front man–the American-born Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer–is a key figure in the lobby—a man who, like his boss, never takes a backward step when it comes to promoting an expansive notion of Israel’s security needs. He is reportedly working tirelessly to restore Bibi’s credibility and embolden Congress members to maintain sanctions on Iran (www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/us/israel-ron-dermer-ambassador-iran-nuclear-deal.html).  Unless and until the Israel Lobby is reined in, significant change in US policy is hard to imagine.

President Obama correctly stated that “figuring out how do we get through a real, knotty policy difference” is the chief challenge now.  But “getting through” should not mean salving over the differences and reaffirming the unbreakable US-Israel partnership.  Rather, Washington should “get through” by using Netanyahu’s offensive behavior as an opportunity to change course in its Middle East policy.  As I have suggested before (see Post #68, for example), a new course should include reaffirmation of the two-state solution within the pre-1967 war boundaries, major development assistance to the Palestinian Authority, and rejection of Israel’s encroachments on Palestinian land.  Working through the United Nations Security Council rather than continuing to rely on bilateral diplomacy with Israel should also be part of a new US agenda.  And the President should condemn outright the Israeli-Republican axis that has formed to undermine his efforts to engage Iran and craft a just peace between Israel and Palestine.

 

Post #71 –Should We “Balance” Threats to the Environment?

How does a US administration promote greater energy independence, protect its fragile environment, and make both oil executives and environmentalists happy?  President Obama’s answer is to give something to everyone, thus balancing pleasure and pain and hoping everyone will stay off his back.  Thus, he has decided to veto the Keystone XL project, greatly expand protected areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (“Anwar”), and restrict greenhouse gas emissions by federally owned facilities and vehicles. These actions make environmental groups happy and anger Republicans.  In the case of Anwar, however, Obama has thrown the Republicans a large bone: opening up significant Atlantic Ocean coastline to new oil and gas drilling.

To administration officials, this coupling of energy and environmental policy is responsible stewardship, a proper balancing of production and protection.  But is this stewardship or just plain politics?  Sure, it’s wonderful that the Anwar will be larger by millions of acres; I derived a certain pleasure watching Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski go apoplectic on public television as she railed against Obama’s decision.  And the idea of pitting Republicans from different states against one another—Alaska’s “loss” is North Carolina’s gain—is a classic divide-and-conquer strategy.  But in the end, does this balancing act really balance?

First, opening up a huge swath of federally owned shoreline—from Virginia to Georgia—to oil and gas exploration risks another BP-type disaster.  This is no small bone to calm the savage dogs on the right. Department of the interior officials are quick to reassure us that safeguards will be in place before exploration begins and that the leased area is 50 miles from shore.  But we’ve been down that road too many times to feel reassured.  Recall, for one thing, that the Deepwater Horizon rig was 41 miles from Louisiana’s shore.  For another, since the BP spill, no new safety regulations have been enacted by Congress, and in the current climate, if they are issued, they will have to come from the administration itself.  Who will be president when the time comes?

Second, how does this trade-off square with a tougher approach to climate change?  There are literally trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of barrels of recoverable oil in these federal lease areas.  When drilling finally gets underway, supposedly after 2020, what impact will all this new fuel have on the climate?

Third, Atlantic Coast governors anticipate a revenue windfall from the oil leases.  Will that actually happen?  Will the new riches really be used for education, environmental protection, development of “soft” energy sources, and other good purposes?  Or will the windfall mainly wind up in the producers’ pocketbooks?

Fourth, how will the oil and gas leasing decision affect the livelihoods of coastal people who rely on tourism, fishing, and other traditional industries?  We have only to look at the Louisiana bayou for one answer.  Oil drilling and thousands of miles of underwater pipelines to the Gulf of Mexico have contributed to enormous loss of bayou wetland.  Combined with all the levees that keep the Mississippi River’s rich sediment from reaching the delta, the oil companies’ operations threaten to end local people’s livelihood—trawling for shrimp, crab, and various fish—within a generation.   The bayou will be no more.  (See a gem of a book, Bayou Farewell by Mike Tidwell, for further detail, as well as www.mississippiriverdelta.org/discover-the-delta/what-went-wrong/.)

Looking for balance when tough choices must be made is certainly a challenge for any political leader, especially (as in Obama’s case) when faced with divided government.  But just as with the problem of protecting privacy while widening the government’s surveillance net—another contentious issue on which Obama seeks balance—the notion that somehow everyone can be satisfied or at least neutralized doesn’t always wash.  Protecting the environment at a time of looming catastrophe, like protecting civil liberties in the face of terrorism, must have priority.  Some values and objectives defy balancing, period.

Which brings me to a moving presentation in Eugene, Oregon by Mary Wood, Professor of Law at the University of Oregon and author of Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age (http://law.uoregon.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/City-Club-2-Jan.30.pdf).  She is a strong advocate for the public trust doctrine, which evokes “an ancient moral covenant that runs from one generation to the next, to protect natural bounty so that it will pass down the lineage of Humanity.”  Under this doctrine, she says, government officials are “strictly obliged to protect this natural wealth for the citizens.”  Applying the public trust doctrine means, for example, that the public has an enforceable right to protect forests, fisheries, and air from destruction and pollution, and therefore to stop every environmental assault that is creating irreversible climate change.  The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act have clearly been inadequate to protect our natural resources, Wood argues.  “A trust approach treats the resource as common property shared by all states and nations as co-trustees, each having the duty to protect the shared resource. . . . It offers a common platform of responsibility that citizens can use worldwide to hold governments accountable even absent an international climate treaty, which may never come about.”

The public trust doctrine is an important approach to dealing with climate change, one that actually has a long history in the US.  Shortly, a lower-level court in Lane County, Oregon, will hear a suit brought by two teenage girls to define the public trust when it comes to young people’s rights in an era of climate change.  Stay tuned.

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.

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