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Entries tagged "State Of The Union"

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Talking Points: State of the Union, of War, of the Middle East

February 10, 2014 ·

Obama State of the Union 2014President Obama’s State of the Union speech was pretty depressing.  It didn’t start out that way, it was actually a pretty nice strong framework: 'You members of Congress can’t get anything done, so I’m going to check out what I can do on my own, by executive action, without you.' He started by raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers – he can do that on his own, maybe it’ll start a groundswell.  That’s all good, for those hundreds of thousands of workers and their families (even though his is still below the poverty line for a family of four). 

Obama even said "America must move off a permanent war footing." That should’ve been a Wow! moment. But somehow it wasn’t. He did say he would impose "prudent limitations" on the drone war – his signature war. He even said, "We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence."  But the problem is we do strike in other countries "without regard for the consequence." The only "prudent" approach to the drone war is ending it, not just tweaking it a bit.  And that’s what we didn't hear.

We also didn’t hear plans to close down the 700-plus U.S. military bases around the world that create huge social and environmental problems and foment anti-U.S. tensions. We didn’t hear plans for massive cuts in military spending – by closing those bases, cancelling wasteful giant weapons systems, and ending illegal and immoral wars. My commentary on the State of the Union speech analyzes these and more issues we didn’t hear about (plus Iran and a few other things that we did).  And if you want to go back to the day before the speech, and look at what President Obama should have been talking about you can get some ideas from my IPS colleagues and me on inequality, trade and Iran (not) in the Syria talks.

Iran and AIPAC

Netanyahu AIPACThere is some good news on Iran, but we have to be careful.  The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is losing — that’s huge. AIPAC has been waging a no-holds-barred, increasingly desperate campaign to derail the interim agreement between Iran and the U.S.-led "Perm 5 + One" global powers (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States and Germany.)  Last month it looked like the lobby – as is too often the case – was winning. The AIPAC-led campaign resulted in 49 Senators signing on as co-sponsors of a bill imposing a whole host of new sanctions if Iran didn’t behave exactly as they wanted. They were aiming for a veto-proof 67-vote majority – and getting 49 the first couple days made that seem possible. I discussed the threat of the war-mongers scuttling the agreement here in Common Dreams

But then it stalled. Top U.S. intelligence officials – and crucially, the White House – agreed that new sanctions would be a deal breaker. The White House took an uncharacteristically tough position, calling out those in Congress who preferred war to diplomacy. And during the State of the Union speech President Obama powerfully reminded Congress that diplomacy is working, that negotiations are responsible for "halt[ing] the progress of Iran’s nuclear program…Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb." Then the kicker: "Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it." At least three of the original 49 have now pulled back.

So the agreement is in place, and for now it’s holding. That’s all good, but it still faces some danger. Despite opposition from Iran’s own hard-liners (whose position the Washington Post says "mirrors that of Republicans in the U.S. Congress") Tehran has welcomed UN nuclear inspectors, and is in the process of implementing the various requirements of the agreement. (In case you missed it, you can read my analysis of the agreement here in The Nation.) Washington and its allies haven’t yet begun releasing the small amount of Iran’s assets authorized in the agreement, or begun easing any of the few sanctions the agreement calls for reducing.  Hard-core opponents of the agreement, led by Democrat Robert Menendez, remain committed to war over diplomacy. And AIPAC hasn’t given up. The pressure remains. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s refusal to put the new sanctions resolution on the table, President Obama’s threat to veto any new sanctions bill, the 70+ members of the House who have signed a letter supporting the Iran agreement and opposing new sanctions – all could collapse unless public pressure is maintained against AIPAC’s powerful arsenal of bribes and threats. That’s our job – we can’t count on official Washington to do it. Sign the petition here for a start.

Palestine-Israel: The Price to be Paid

John Kerry Iran Nuclear DealThe role of AIPAC makes a necessary segue into talking about Palestine and Israel – I talked about the connection between the Iran talks and Palestine in a discussion on the Real News.  That led immediately to Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts towards a new framework to lay the groundwork for a future agreement.  Oh, you thought he’s finally drafting a real comprehensive, just, permanent peace agreement that would actually resolve all the crucial elements of settlements, borders, refugees, Jerusalem, etc.?  Oh no, that’s so last summer...

That’s when we first heard about Kerry’s new shuttle diplomacy. It never had much of a chance – I called it the "Einstein Round" of the U.S. peace process – the great scientist’s definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Unfortunately that’s still the case – although Kerry has achieved something none of his predecessors ever did: he managed to prevent almost all leaks throughout months of not-in-the-same-room negotiations. Until the leaks – apparently quite well orchestrated – began early in January, apparently to begin preparing Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. publics for the result.

It’s not a pretty sight. According to top PLO official Yasir Abed-Rabbo, Kerry’s 'framework' – as distinct from an actual agreement – would

  • Require Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state (thus legitimizing the second-class or worse status of Palestinian citizens of Israel).
  • 'Solve' the refugee crisis by allowing Palestinian refugees only into the new Palestinian state instead of the UN-mandated right to return to their homes in Israel,
  • Ensure permanent Israeli control and likely annexation of the large settlement blocs with about 80% of the illegal Jewish settlers.
  • Allow permanent Israel control of “Palestine’s” border crossings and air space.
  • Endorse permanent or near-permanent Israeli military forces in the occupied Jordan Valley, perhaps adding U.S., Jordanian and/or even Palestinian security forces to them.
  • Allow Israeli forces 'hot pursuit' into Palestinian territory.

The word from Kerry’s delegation chief Martin Indyk, though, should reassure us all – both sides can sign on to the U.S. framework "with reservations" – meaning it won’t actually have any meaning at all. The framework seems far more tied to Obama and Kerry legacies than to an actual end to Israeli occupation and apartheid. That doesn’t mean that something some people might call a "Palestinian state" won’t someday be declared through this process – it just means that that will be a far cry from a just and comprehensive solution grounded in international law, human rights and equality for all.

As has been the case with earlier U.S. 'frameworks,' the Kerry plan is limited to arrangements only for inside parts of the Occupied Territories. The settlements remain in Israeli hands. The borders – presumably the Apartheid Wall — will become the new "border." Israeli and U.S. soldiers will remain in control of security. A big question will be Jerusalem: The Kerry proposals apparently do call for a Palestinian capital in the city, but it is almost certain it will not mean a real shared capital with the Palestinian flag flying over the center of Arab East Jerusalem. Rather, Israel will almost certainly assert its current revisionist demography – in which the outline of “Greater Jerusalem” extends from Ramallah in the North down past Bethlehem and out east almost to the Jordan Valley – to situate Palestine’s capital someplace like Abu Dis, a dusty village outside of Jerusalem. It abuts what was once the old Silk Road, a narrow potholed street that now dead-ends into the Apartheid Wall.

On the other hand, both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators conditioned their participation in these talks on the understanding that any agreement would require ratification by a popular referendum – something virtually guaranteed to fail on all sides.

In the meantime, the Apartheid Wall continues to be expanded, dispossessing Palestinians from their land as it goes. Settlement expansion continues across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And in Gaza, the siege continues, with 1.8 million people largely locked inside the walled-in Strip, exports prohibited, and imports dramatically curtailed by the Israeli military. The situation has significantly worsened since the overthrow of elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last summer and a resulting tightening of Gaza’s crossing to Egypt, and a massive storm last month created dire new humanitarian crises. You can watch my discussion of the Gaza siege here.

In Israel, the Butcher of Beirut, as he was long known, is no more. After eight years in a coma, during which the militaristic hard-right leader was re-branded a peacenik, Israeli General Ariel Sharon was finally pronounced dead. The tributes poured in, including from Secretary of State John Kerry, who paid lip service to occasional disagreements with Sharon, but reassured Israel that "Our nation shares your loss and honors Ariel Sharon’s memory." For the rest of the world, of course, there is nothing – nothing – remotely honorable in the legacy of Israel’s perhaps most consistent war criminal. You can read the rest of my assessment of Sharon and Sharonism here.

The Good News

On the other hand, beyond the rise of the right and the certain failure of the U.S.-backed negotiations, non-violent economic, political, media and popular pressure is rising against Israel’s violations. The last couple of years’ rise in influence of the eight-year-old global BDS movement, which calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions until Israel stops violating three areas of international law and human rights, has been dramatic. 

Recent victories include the decision by the American Studies Association (ASA), following the examples of the Asian-American Studies Association and the Native American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The decision, supported by an overwhelming majority, led to outrage from supporters of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies, including an effort by the New York State Assembly to withdraw funding from the ASA. But as AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israel lobbies (Jewish and Christian) face so many challenges, that effort collapsed, and the Assembly withdrew the bill under a withering attack from defenders of free speech.

Oxfam’s decision to sack super-star Scarlett Johansson because of her high-visibility endorsement of SodaStream, whose manufacturing plant is located in the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the occupied West Bank, was another indicator of the discourse shift. Another indicator is the new level of access to the op-ed pages of the most influential newspapers. The New York Times published Avi Schlaim’s "Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners," exposing Kerry’s initiative as a "clever American device for wasting time," and three days later published BDS leader Omar Barghouti on "Why Israel Fears the Boycott." The Washington Post weighed in with Vijay Prasad’s "A Caution to Israel" supporting the ASA boycott call.

The Post finally acknowledged that "talk about a boycott of Israel is in the mainstream." And the paper noted, for anyone doubting that seismic discourse shifts are underway, that Kerry himself warned Tel Aviv to be aware of "talk of boycotts and other kinds of things," resulting in a chorus of Israeli outrage. 

Action aimed at changing U.S. policy on 

Pete and Toshi Seeger

Israel-Palestine has never been more engaged.  For anyone interested, in a series of interviews I did with Paul Jay of The Real News, we began with a discussion of how I first got involved with Palestinian rights, after a childhood of active Zionist organizing. (Hint: it has to do with Viet Nam.)

I’m also now on the short-list of candidates to succeed my great colleague and friend Richard Falk as the next United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The selection process is currently underway at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

There’s a lot more to talk about – the still-escalating crisis in Syria and the Syria negotiations, the dangerous moment in Egypt, rising violence in Iraq and the still-raging war in Afghanistan.  Those will have to wait for the moment.

But I did want to leave one more memory of Pete Seeger. It’s hard to imagine going forward without Pete’s unstoppable, grounded optimism, his clear-sighted understanding of the need for songs to move our movements forward. What a gift that we had Pete with us all these years. He remains within the pantheon of our movements’ greats. You can read my appreciation here. Go well, Pete, we’ll carry on your songs from here.

Four Things Obama Should Say During his State of the Union Address

January 23, 2014 ·

President Obama

What should President Obama say during his State of the Union address this year? IPS experts have come up with a few suggestions:

Sarah Anderson commends the administration's commitment to improve conditions for the poorest among us, but urges Obama not to forget to do something about the “overprivileged” as well.

Emily Schwartz Greco, together with William A. Collins, asks Obama to stop talking about lowering the corporate tax rate, since there would be plenty of cash to go around if only everyone paid their fair share.

Ron Carver calls on Obama to stop pressing Congress to grant his administration fast-track authority to expedite the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other global deals that are good for corporations but bad for people.

Phyllis Bennis urges Obama to reverse course in the global Syria talks and let Iran participate in them.

What do you think Obama should say in the State of the Union? Weigh in on these issues and others below, and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter during the address for more commentary from our experts.

4 Things Obama Can Do Now to Fight Climate Change - Without Congress

February 13, 2013 ·

4 Things Obama Can Do Now to Fight Climate Change - Without Congress

1) Say no to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Without waiting for Congress the State Department can deny TransCanada’s request for permission to build a pipeline across the United States carrying toxic tar sand oil to polluting refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

2) Regulate power plants.
Since the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to put controls on carbon emissions. This means the EPA has tools to regulate new and existing power plants and industrial sources that are spewing methane, nitrous oxide and soot into the air.

3) Curb natural gas exports.
The Department of Energy can reject licenses for oil and gas industry to expand their export of liquid natural gas to countries with which we don’t already have free trade agreements. And Obama could direct the U.S. Trade Representative to withdraw from negotiations on the TransPacific Partnership, which would fling the doors wide open to LNG export to countries in Asia.

4) Negotiate a global climate deal in good faith.
Obama should instruct the climate team at the State Department to return to the negotiating table ready to compromise in order to reach international consensus for a strong and equitable 2015 climate treaty.

Obama Could Go it Alone, Bring All the Troops Home, and Stop the Killing

February 12, 2013 ·

Obama State of the UnionPresident Obama said during his State of the Union address that he would focus on things he could do alone — without having to depend on a badly divided, partisan Congress. And the powerful imagery he summoned in support of voting rights — real, implementable voting rights, based on the example of a 102-year-old voting rights hero, could and should indeed be a critical focus of executive energy. His story of Desiline Victor waiting six hours to vote in North Miami even brought members of Congress — at least some of them — to their feet in a powerful ovation.

But Obama didn’t seem to include in the list of “things he could do alone” the solo, individual decisions that are fundamental to the role of commander in chief. And that role could include, without Congress having to have any role in it, bringing home all the troops from the failed war in Afghanistan. Ending it. Totally. Quickly.

Bringing home half the troops this year reflects the pressure of massive public opposition to the war — but it’s far from enough. All 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be pulled out by the middle of this year. And that role of the president, without Congress, could include announcing that the “winding down” of the U.S. war in Afghanistan won't be transformed into an expanding drone war waged in shadows across the world.

When Obama claims that budget cuts “would jeopardize our military readiness,” he is signaling a rejection of what his own nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, acknowledged is the need to cut the “bloated” military budget.

And crucially, when we look at areas in which the President can make executive decisions, independent of the whims of a paralyzed, partisan congress, is there any clearer example than the Obama administration’s strategy of targeting and killing “terror suspects,” along with unknown numbers of civilian “collateral damage” in Obama’s Global War on Terror 2.0? 

We heard a claim about those drone assassinations during his address, that “we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts.”

There's no way that would fly, given recent revelations of the administration’s efforts to claim a legal right to murder anyone, U.S. citizen or not, who they “believe” may be guilty of something they identify as a terrorist attack. So Obama went on. “I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

What about the KILLING of the people he calls terrorists, beyond detention and prosecution? The reference to checks and balances referred back to the Justice Department’s claim that “due process” didn’t necessarily mean anything having to do with courts and judges, the claim that a decision by a “decision-maker” — not even necessarily the president — was enough to qualify as due process sufficient to take someone’s life, way beyond taking their liberty and their pursuit of happiness.

Focusing on the executive actions you can take without Congress is a great idea, Mr. President. But not unless that focus includes reversing the individually taken military actions that brought such disgrace on your administration’s first term.

Phyllis Bennis is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. Her books include Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN. www.ips-dc.org

A Quick Look at the Ecological State of the Union

February 12, 2013 ·

Hurricane Sandy Climate Change Obama Executive ActionsIn the last year, climate change has come home to the United States in a visceral way. During his State of the Union address, Obama should lay out bold plans for the transition to an ecologically sane economy that reduces inequality.

Images of waves crashing into the Statue of Liberty, wildfires engulfing homes in Colorado, and flood water shutting down the Louisiana interstate have rocked the American psyche over the past twelve months.

For me, 2012 meant living through record-breaking heat waves that buckled metro tracks and derailed commuter trains in my adopted home of Washington, DC. Sadly it also meant saying good-bye to the beach on the Jersey shore where my brother and I played as kids.

Since Obama committed the United States to responding to climate change in his inaugural address, saying that a “the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” American families in the Southeast were hit by severe tornados and in the Northeast by crippling snowstorms.

Of course, dealing with climate change in our country is about more than bad weather. We’ve heard about how battered infrastructure and closed businesses strain on national and local coffers. We hear less about how climate change exacerbates inequality — disproportionately impacting the lives and livelihoods of people living in poverty and low-income communities.

A shot at a better life for everyone has to entail a shift away from an “all of the above” energy plan that includes sources that poison people, pollute the environment, and lock us into decades of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The expansion of fossil fuels and the increasingly extreme ways of getting at it — through fracking, deepwater drilling and blasting the tops off mountains — has got to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Obama said that “the path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult” — no less because the fossil fuel industry and the members of Congress to whom they contribute continue to undermine legislative action on climate. But the transition to shared prosperity and a vibrant clean economy can be made easier with sustained leadership from the president and his administration.

Here are a few actions Obama can take without Congress that he can highlight in tonight’s State of the Union address to show he’s serious about the fight against global warming:

  • Say no to the Keystone XL pipeline. Without waiting for Congress the State Department can deny TransCanada’s request for permission to build a pipeline across the United States carrying toxic tar sand oil to polluting refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Regulate power plants. Since the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to put controls on carbon emissions. This means the EPA has tools to regulate new and existing power plants and industrial sources that are spewing methane, nitrous oxide and soot into the air.
  • Curb natural gas exports. The Department of Energy can reject licenses for oil and gas industry to expand their export of liquid natural gas to countries with which we don’t already have free trade agreements. And Obama could direct the U.S. Trade Representative to withdraw from negotiations on the TransPacific Partnership, which would fling the doors wide open to LNG export to countries in Asia.
  • Negotiate a global climate deal in good faith. Obama should instruct the climate team at the State Department to return to the negotiating table ready to compromise in order to reach international consensus for a strong and equitable 2015 climate treaty.

Obama doesn’t have to wait for Congress to act — and we don’t have to wait for Obama, either.

People have already started. They’re putting their bodies in the path of Keystone’s southern leg to halt construction. They’re closing down dirty power plants in the cities where they live and work, and meeting with neighbors to create plans to make their communities climate resilient. And thousands of people from around the country will gather in Washington, DC this weekend to call on Obama to push forward on climate in his second term.

Tonight, as Obama addresses the nation he’ll be laying the groundwork for his climate legacy.  His comments will also shape how the growing majority of Americans who care about global warming perceive him — as a climate champion or an agent of politics as usual.

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