IPS Blog

Leave Afghanistan and Declare bin Laden Dead in One Fell Swoop

Someone recently posted a blurb to a security list I play on, quoting a noted Mid East analyst (whose work I admire, incidentally) as saying that the Democrats can’t leave Afghanistan, because that would make them losers, and as a result, they would lose elections for decades to come.

I guess I was either under or over-caffeinated at the moment, because this is a polite version of what spewed out of my terminal . . .

Get over it, people! This is pure legacy thinking!

The Democrats are forever angsting over being accused of ‘losing China’ or being ‘soft on communism’. Time to get their meds titrated.

Between debt, disinterest and rising casualties, it will likely be far more dangerous politically for Obama NOT to bring the boys home quickly.

And here’s how he can do it.

  1. Frame it as a bad war, started by the bozos across the aisle, which he tried to fix, but – so sorry – it was just too late after years of mismanagement under those duplicitous Republicans. And, really folks, we can’t justify more blood and treasure for people who look and talk funny, and don’t like us anyway. Also, dear voters, let’s talk about all that money we’ll save, and how, as your leader in a new term, I’ll use it to create jobs, rebuild your communities and bake a whole ton of apple pies using my dear, old Nona’s secret recipe
  2. Throw (SecDef) Gates under the bus as an example of what happens when you try to be a nice guy and let those duplicitous Republicans help govern and they go and lose a war for you. Dump Hillary, too, for totally bricking it as SecState, being a general pain in the butt, and for a little righteous payback. I mean, it will be time for a cabinet shuffle prior to the election anyway. Also, with any luck, Petraeus will be collateral damage, just as people start to call for drafting him as the Great Republican Hope in 2012.
  3. Blend this with a righteous maskirovka claiming ‘We got UBL!’ (like we ‘got’ all those other muj who later turn out to be inconveniently alive) and claim victory. By the time anyone burns through the jamming, it will be beyond the attention span of the Average American Voter. (Currently estimated at the length of one Idol episode, or until the beer runs out.) Great October Surprise payback, too. Plus, the thought of Osama jumping up and down in front of a video camera screaming, ‘I’m alive, you idiot infidels!’ is just too funny. Imagine it with a Bart Simpson voice-over. Could set the movement back 20 years and the BBBG (big, bad, bearded guy) might even be tempted to wave at a drone pilot just to be taken seriously.
  4. If it turns out the polls say POTUS needs some tough guy creds (if saying ‘kick some ass’ wasn’t tough enough, although it totally scared me) he can just send the Secret Squirrels over and blow the bejeebers out of Somalia, Yemen or some other third world backwater in the name of freedom, democracy and using up the ordnance so the contractors who own congress can replace it all with newer (and more expensive, if not better) models.
  5. Start practicing the tango with Michelle because you’ll look soooo cool at the (second!) inaugural ball.

Oh, gotta run. The phone’s ringing, and I think it’s Rahm Emanuel offering me a consulting gig.

(Yeah, I know I’m being cynical, but am I being cynical enough? And I DO need the work.)

Tax Wall Street to Pay for Jobs

Yesterday, the Senate rejected an urgently needed jobs bill that would reauthorize several expired necessary stimulus programs, including the extension of unemployment benefits. The bill failed 45-52, with 12 Democrats voting against it.

Senator Ben Nelson, one of the dozen Democrats, reasoned that, “I’ve said all along that we have to be able to pay for what we’re spending…$77 billion or more of this is not paid for and that translates into deficit spending and adding to the debt, and the American people are right: We’ve got to stop doing that.”

Senator Nelson is wrong. The country is not facing a debt crisis, but a jobs crisis. Ordinary people on Main Street are still suffering from the consequences of Wall Street’s reckless mismanagement of capital that led to our current economic crisis. Extending programs like Unemployment Insurance and providing more aid to local and state governments are necessary acts to stimulate our economy. Yet the 12 moderate Democratic Senators are unwilling to address our 9.7% unemployment rate and our weak job growth in the past few months because they are concerned about having too much debt.

If these Senators are serious about stimulating the economy in a budget neutral way, they should pass a Financial Speculation Tax (FST). An IPS report released today, Taxing the Wall Street Casino, illustrates that an FST is the best way of creating the necessary revenue, while also discouraging the irresponsible financial speculation that is common on Wall Street today.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, an FST, a small levy on all financial transactions (0.25% or less) would create about $177 billion in revenue per year. Not only would this tax stabilize our financial markets, but it would also provide more than enough revenue to support a robust jobs program and deal with other urgent needs.

Compared to other proposals on the table, an FST is the plan that would generate the most revenue:

FST chart

The Senate should be looking for ways to jumpstart our economy in a fiscally responsible manner. However, they shouldn’t be doing it at the expense of those who suffered the most from the crisis. A financial speculation tax is the solution to getting those who caused the crisis to pay for the damage that they have created.

Obama’s Speech on the BP Oil Disaster

Obama BP speechObama addressed the nation in primetime last night from the Oval Office to placate fear and anger about the BP oil spill. The president’s somber, seated address was a firm reassurance of a forthcoming solution and continued governmental assistance. He listed ongoing clean-up efforts and successes, forthcoming projects, and federal oversight efforts through the Coast Guard and National Guard.

But it was also a rallying cry. Using provocative language in attempts to galvanize the American public around his new “battle plan,” Obama characterized the challenge of the oil spill clean-up as a “battle” against the oil “assaulting our shores.” This tactic certainly oversimplifies the issue into a black and white, good vs. evil duality, but judgment should be withheld until we see how effectively the administration leverages this duality for progress.

To his credit, Obama acknowledged that mistakes had been made and that imperfections would continue to arise, but asked for feedback and critique to be channeled to a newly created commission. This commission, in charge of retroactively determining the cause of the Deepwater Horizon rig’s explosion and enforcing new regulations on the oil industry, is undeniably one of Obama’s strongest reactions to the irresponsibility of the corporate world thus far. He clarified in a sharp tone that the federal commission would, “act as the oil industry’s watchdog, not its partner.”

In addition, Obama placed considerable financial pressure on BP to compensate gulf coast residents and businesses damaged by the spill, channeling money through a third-party escrow fund. Only 16 hours after the national address, BP executives announced they would offer $20 billion over the course of several years into a private escrow fund for spill claims.

$20 billion will only be a drop in the bucket for the true cost of this disaster. The federal, state and local governments will end up shouldering considerable costs as well. Obama pronounced that we will “fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes…we will offer whatever additional resources our coastal states may need.”

While this may be reassuring rhetoric, Obama needs to take precautions to ensure his bold promises are not a blank check that will damage the Treasury even worse than the Gulf Coast.

Ultimately, a long-term solution will involve the input and resources of the private sector and all levels of government to clean-up and restore the gulf coast. To accomplish this, Obama truly needs to rally the country onto their feet to contribute to his battle plan. He drew the analogy between the enormity of breaking America’s fossil fuel dependency with Kennedy’s space race ambitions to land an American on the moon first. Yes, we succeeded then. But how feasible is landing on the moon during a recession while fighting two wars and facing a debt crisis?

Obama said that it can be done. He has set the stage for an energy transition of monumental proportions, and turned the spotlight on himself for the first act. He needs to act quickly to harness the nation’s outrage/progressive spirit in order to set the wheels in motion for real change in Act Two.

Reader Challenge: Do Burma’s Generals Just Need a Little Love and Understanding?

In Sanctioning Disaster (the June Guernica magazine) author Joel Whitney writes that Obama’s policy on Burma “has something for everyone. It’s a hodgepodge of baby-step diplomacy, self-righteous threats, and crippling economic sanctions.” He then interviews Morten Pedersen, “a Burma scholar lurking in the bibliography of a lot of Burma policy books,” who “insists that the sanctions . . . are undermining [President Obama’s] diplomacy. Oh, and starving the Burmese.”

According to Pedersen, Whitney writes, “the most dire rights violation he found was crushing poverty.” Pedersen himself expands on that.

People especially in the U.S., are quick to say, “If you’re not sanctioning then you are doing ASEAN-style engagement, which is commercial engagement.” The kind of engagement I’m talking about is what I term “principle engagement,” … the entire range of human rights, not just political and civil rights, but also socioeconomic rights. [Besides] it is not possible to target sanctions; because if you target them to hurt the generals, they can pass it on [and] deflect it.

Whitney again:

But such an approach would seem anathema to a Congress that prioritizes condemnation and punishment of the generals over the well being of the people of Burma.

Meanwhile, Pedersen doesn’t think that . . .

[Assistant Secretary of State] Kurt Campbell flying into the capital, talking about how they should conduct the elections [is] gonna lead anywhere. … We simply don’t have the means, the leverage, to change a country like that in the dramatic ways that we tend to focus on. … But we do know that conversations about economic policy . . . from time to time have an impact and lead to changes in governance.

But what exactly (their personal wealth aside) is uppermost in the generals’ minds? Pedersen explains.

You need to accept that national security, as the generals define it, is their key concern. … So when you engage with them you need to. … frame your conversations in a way that . . . accepts that there are security concerns that are legitimate. [Emphasis added.]

Then maybe it can be demonstrated to them, says Pedersen, that . . .

. . . other countries in Southeast Asia have also faced risks [to] their country [such as rebellion or civil war]. Rather than addressing that problem militarily like the Burmese have done, [those other countries] have addressed it economically by pushing economic growth and spreading it to provinces.

Do Focal Points readers agree with interview-er and -ee that human rights are, in large part, economic well-being and that it makes more sense to engage with the generals — odious as they are — rather than beat the dead sanctions horse?

Question: Will Lithium Be Good For Afghanistan?

GhazniAnswer: Only if US policymakers ingest enough of it.

The mainstream media is all agog over the ‘discovery’ of ‘at least $1 trillion in mineral wealth‘ in Afghanistan.

Never mind that this is not ‘news’. (The data has been public for many years.)

Nor that it was conveniently ‘discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists’ just as support for the disastrous American adventure in that ‘country’ seems to be ebbing rapidly.

(I do kind of like the image of those tough guy brass-hats spelunking about in pith helmets with their little rock hammers, though. No doubt they were poking around in a cave looking for UBL and just happened to ‘find’ that $1 trillion by accident. ‘Oh, my gosh, Fred, lookie here. Why Afghanistan could become the Saudi Arabia of lithium.’)

Well, excuse my cynicism, but . . .

There is a school of thought that the ‘discovery’ of significant mineral wealth in Afghanistan may, in fact, be the worst thing that could happen in the near- to mid-term for that disastrous parody of a nation state.

As Ganesan and Vines reported for Human Rights Watch, ‘One theory influential in World Bank circles is that countries with abundant natural resources are more prone to violent conflict than those without, and that insurgent groups are more likely motivated by control over resources than by actual political differences with government authorities, ethnic divisions, or other factors typically viewed as root causes of civil war. Paul Collier, formerly the head of the World Bank’s development research group, now a professor at Oxford University and one of the strongest proponents of this theory, says, “[e]thnic tensions and ancient political feuds are not starting civil wars around the world—economic forces such as entrenched poverty and the trade in natural resources are the true culprits”.’

I’d argue Collier (author of The Bottom Billion and The Plundered Planet) overly simplifies this, and that variables such as geography / proximity, the relative capacity of governance, environmental fragility or robustness and many other factors come into play here.

But multiplying them together, the new ‘wealth’ of Afghanistan seems, to me, far more likely to increase than stabilize or reduce conflict.


  • truly dismal social / economic conditions for the vast majority of the population
  • proximity to other conflict zones such as Iran, Kashmir, Paki and the other ‘Stans’
  • Great Game interests and accumulated toxic residues
  • access to arms and trafficking routes
  • soil depletion, air and water pollution, deforestation, desertification and limited / unequally distributed / poorly managed fresh water resources
  • an amazingly corrupt and ineffective ‘government’
  • a tribal fabric that defies any larger identity / cohesion

Blend up that complex little cocktail and I believe the technical term for the most likely outcome may indeed be, ‘Open Pit’.

But it won’t be a mine. (At least of the mineral variety.)

It will be a crater.

The Afghan Opium War


The Russian government recently convened an international conference in Moscow to call for a dramatic escalation of the drug war in Afghanistan. I went on RTTV (the Russia’s English language news channel, above) to explain why such measures would be ineffective and counterproductive. Indeed, even Patrick Ward (the head of supply reduction for the US drug czar’s office) agrees that forced eradication of opium poppies would push some of the world’s poorest farmers into the arms of the arms of the Taliban.

The Russian government has been urging the U.S. to adopt aerial fumigation on the grounds that it has been such a “success” in Colombia. Apparently, they took press releases of US drug warriors at face value!

Last fall, I had an exchange with Russian drug czar Viktor Ivanov at the Nixon Center about the difficulties of eradicating drug production.

Obama BP Speech Should Signal Shift in Energy Future

This blog post was originally posted on Grist.

Tonight President Obama addresses the nation to talk about how his administration will hold BP accountable for the damages incurred by what has become the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and how he plans to reregulate the oil industry. The American public will be looking for bold action.

Obama has a golden opportunity to show the growing ranks of disappointed progressives and moderates that his administration is about changing politics as usual – if he and his advisors have the political courage to seize the moment. Obama must harness the public outrage at BP and momentum toward economic revitalization to make concrete steps toward U.S. leadership in the global transition away from dirty fuel to clean, renewable energy.

In less than two weeks, leaders from the 20 wealthiest countries (the G20) will meet in Toronto to discuss global economic recovery and closely related matters such as climate change. Outstanding on their agenda – as proposed by Obama last September – is the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies.

Worldwide, developed countries spend up to $100 billion a year making oil, coal and gas cheaper for energy companies through tax breaks, subsidized loans, price controls and other giveaways. Estimates of federal handouts to the U.S. oil industry range as high as $39 billion a year.

The idea behind fossil fuel subsidies is to keep the cost of producing energy low so that company profits are high enough to incentivize continued production. That might have made sense when oil, coal and gas were the only feasible sources of power to run the American economy. You could have even argued for oil company handouts or when the price of a barrel of oil was only $18 – as it was in 1995 when Congress established a royalty waiver program for deepwater drilling. But today the price of oil is more than $70 a barrel. BP just posted a $6.1 billion profit in the first quarter. And scientists, governments and schoolchildren around the world understand that burning fossil fuels is putting the future at risk from climate change. Enough is enough.

Obama should return to his commitment tonight, outlining not only how to regulate the out of control oil industry, but how to shift the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars going to dirty energy each year into safer, cleaner and more secure energy sources in the U.S. and abroad.

But he’s got to get the cuts right. The OECD – a group of 31 industrialized countries – have their eye on consumer subsidies in the developing world. Eliminating tax exemptions that make energy accessible in impoverished countries and communities should be off the table until government handouts to oil, coal and gas companies raking in billions have ended.

And we should make sure that these incentives go to the right place – to deployment of proven technologies like wind and solar, research and development of innovative ideas, and to small and medium sized energy companies that can help decentralize and localize the energy sector, making energy companies accountable to the communities in which they operate.

In his speech to an anxious country, Obama should lay out how federal support for a vibrant clean energy economy will usher in a new era of environmental and economic security.

Getting the right laws on the books, and then enforcing them, is clearly critical to avoiding another environmental and economic disaster like BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion. No question. But until we collectively kick our oil addiction – and dependence on other dirty energy like coal, gas and nuclear power – we can expect to continue reading headlines like Deadly Coal Mining Disaster in West Virginia, Radioactive Waste from Nation’s Oldest Nuclear Power Plant Reaches Aquifer in New Jersey, and Massive Oil Slick Hits Battered Gulf Coast. Obama can help us start tonight.

New Thinking on Cutting the Deficit

The Hill reported Friday on a congressional panel, commissioned by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), which proposed a new mindset toward defense:

The Sustainable Defense Task Force, a commission of scholars from a broad ideological spectrum…laid out actions the government could take that could save as much as $960 billion between 2011 and 2020.

Measures presented by the task force include making significant reductions to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which has strong support from Defense Secretary Robert Gates; delaying the procurement of a new midair refueling tanker the Air Force has identified as one of its top acquisition priorities; and reducing the Navy’s fleet to 230 ships instead of the 313 eyed by the service.

The taskforce also “recommended cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a reduction of 200,000 military personnel, smaller U.S. military presence in Asia and Europe and fewer tactical Air Force fighter wings. Other savings would come from shrinking the Navy to 230 ships from 287 currently, spending less on research, cuts or delays in big weapons programs, and higher health care premiums for the military,” according to Reuters.

Even Frank admitted that getting Congress on board with many of these recommendations would be an uphill battle. The acceptance of the recommendations would depend on a “philosophical change” and a “redefinition of the strategy,” Frank said at press conference on Capitol Hill.

But it’s time for such a change. The vast amounts of money spent on faulty or deteriorating weapons systems and unused nuclear weapons are sorely needed for jobs, infrastructure, and green technology research. And a good place to start consolidating existing defense funds would be through a unified security budget. Writes IPS research fellow Miriam Pemberton (who was also on the taskforce):

The budgets they draw up for the Pentagon keep on growing, and the cuts in military programs they support are almost exclusively designed to be plowed back in to other military programs.

As our nation continues to struggle with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it’s even more important that every penny of our tax dollars is spent wisely. It’s encouraging to hear Obama administration officials taking a fresh look at more balanced and efficient national security budgeting.

You can read the Sustainable Defense Task Force’s full report here.

Reader Challenge: Is Afghan Mineral Find a Game-Changer?

The New York Times reports in U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan.

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

At first glance, it looks like, fate-wise, Afghanistan has finally caught a break. Do Focal Points readers think this will fundamentally improve the country? Or will Afghanistan’s rulers and military siphon off the money? The Taliban have to be drooling. Suddenly, drug trade seems like kid stuff. How will it react?

A Bad Week for the Monroe Doctrine

It is hard to find words that quite describe U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s performance at the June 7 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Lima, Peru. Cluelessness certainly comes to mind, but leavened with a goodly dash of arrogance and historical amnesia.

Clinton leaned on the 35-member grouping “to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community,” urged the OAS to step up the fight against drug trafficking, and scolded the organization for a “proliferation of priorities and mandates that dilute its efforts, drain its budget, and diminish its capacity.” She added that the OAS should “refocus” on such tasks as monitoring elections.

Where does one begin? Well, Honduras and elections for starters.

While Clinton characterized the election that followed the coup against Manuel Zelaya “free and fair,” it was boycotted by 51 percent of the population. The U.S. has been silent about the fact that the new president, Porfirio Lobo, has overseen a reign of terror that, since the June 28, 2009 coup, has seen the assassination of some 130 anti-government activists, including seven journalists. The murders bear a close resemblance to death squad assassinations carried out under military dictator Policarpo Paz Garcia in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Reporters Without Borders recently designated Honduras “the world’s deadliest country for the media.”

“We are living in a state of terror,” says human rights activist Dr. Juan Almendares, a former director of research projects at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Almendares currently runs a free clinic in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told the OAS meeting that the Honduras coup has put the “inter-American order at risk,” and that “My government cannot recognize the new government in Honduras while there are violations against human rights.”

In the old days, the U.S. would have steamrolled any opposition, but now-a-days supporting the Colossus of the North can be a lonely business. Only a handful of countries, including Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Peru, and Guatemala backed re-instating Honduras to the OAS.

Tone deaf was all you could call Clinton’s call for stepping up the war on drugs. A few months ago the 17-member Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, chaired by three former heads of state, concluded “The U.S.-style anti-drug strategy was putting the region’s fragile democratic institutions at risk, and corrupting the judiciary system, government, the political system, and especially the police force.” Former Brazilian president and Commission member Fernando Cardoso said, “The war on drugs is a failed war. We have to move from this approach to another.”

Several Latin American countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay have moved to legalize personal drug possession, and other countries in the region are considering how to move from punishment to treatment.

And what did Clinton mean by that phrase “proliferation of priorities”? There was no question as to how OAS members read it: “Keep your nose out of the Middle East,” not an instruction likely to be followed. Brazil and Turkey’s effort to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully has drawn widespread applause throughout the continent, and a number of Latin American countries have become increasingly critical of Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. Argentina, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil were sharply critical of the Israeli attack on the recent Gaza flotilla, and many called for lifting the blockade of Gaza.

Clinton’s efforts to lobby Latin American nations to support sanctions against Iran fell flat.

What Clinton did not mention was why the Obama administration has not ended the blockade of Cuba, failed to tackle the immigration issue, and remained silent on a plan by Britain to drill for gas and oil in waters north of the Malvinas (Falkland Islands).

Back in February the newly minted Rio Group—which excludes the U.S. and Canada— held a Unity Summit in Cancun and endorsed an Argentinean document accusing Britain of violating international law by allowing the British oil company, Desire Petroleum, to drill near the islands. Geologists estimate that the area could hold up to 60 billion barrels of oil, not much smaller than Brazil’s vast offshore Salto Deposits.

“Our attitude is one of solidarity with Argentina,” said Brazilian President Luiz “Lula” da Silva, speaking for the 32-member group. “What is the geographical, political, and economic explanation for England to be in the Malvinas? Is it possible that Argentina is not the owner while England is, despite being 14,000 kilometers away?”

It increasingly looks as if the Rio Group—rumor is that its new name will be the “Latin American and Caribbean Community”—will eventually replace the OAS, which partly explains Clinton’s plea for the organization to “refocus.” The OAS is “refocusing,” but that means members no longer has to curtsy to the United States, that countries in the region should determine diplomatic priorities, and that Brasilia has as much right to become a player in the Middle East as Washington.

Just to show you how the world has turned upside down, the June 6 Financial Times told its readers that “the safest place to be” in a risky world was Latin America.

In her address to the delegates, Clinton complained that the OAS “has not always lived up to its founding ideals.” Now it is, and Washington is less than happy. All in all, a bad week for the Monroe Doctrine, and a very good week for Latin America.

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