Top challenges for Obama at the United Nations this week, including Tuesday’s climate conference, and then the G20 on Thursday and Friday. In many instances, we can blame the difficult position he will find himself in on the US Senate.
1. Obama came into office with an ambitious agenda to develop alternative energy and cut US carbon emissions. So far Congress has done little on these issues, and no climate bill is expected from the Senate this year nor, perhaps, next. China’s decision to set specific goals for its “carbon intensity” may leave the US behind as the world’s biggest polluter that has no idea what to do about it.
2. If the Obama administration and Russia do not make significant progress in nuclear disarmament and getting a successor to the START I treaty, they will look like hypocrites when they ask the world to sanction North Korea for its nuclear weapons program and Iran for its efforts to enrich uranium. In the wake of Iran’s stolen election and its defiance of the international community with regard to its nuclear research program, the old centerpiece of Obama’s changed Middle East policy– engagement with Iran– has had to be put on hold, and it may even fall off the agenda.
3. In January, Obama announced the most ambitious goal in the Mideast since Clinton, of finalizing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since then, aside from arranging some meetings for his special envoy George Mitchell, he has accomplished nothing worth mentioning on this front. Worse, he has been openly defied by the far rightwing Likud government of Binyamin Netanyahu, who has announced that he will build more housing on Palestinian land for Israeli illegal immigrants into Palestinian territory. Netanyahu can count on majority support in Congress and the Senate because of the clout of the Israel lobbies, especially AIPAC. As Stephen M. Walt pointed out in WaPo, Obama is in danger of being rendered irrelevant and helpless by Israeli intransigence, and few expect Tuesday’s summit to change things. Obama should just announce that he will recognize a Palestinian state in 2011, and that the Israelis had better negotiate with the Palestinians to get a good deal from them, since they will be sovereign on a date certain whether Netanyahu likes it or not.
4. Obama wants his European and NATO allies to commit more troops and more resources to Afghanistan. Despite his popularity on the continent, they are mostly resisting his pressure. Canada is leaving in 2011. Leaks in the British press suggest that PM Gordon Brown wants to reduce the UK’s troop contingent from 9,000 to 4,500 over the next few years. The divisions in Obama’s own administration and its ambivalence about sending more US troops to Afghanistan will only add to European and NATO misgivings about making major new commitments.
5. Obama still has not gotten significant regulation and other reform of Wall Street practices enacted, so that all the shady dealings that caused last year’s massive collapse are still licit. Moreover, bankers are still giving each other enormous multi-million-dollar annual bonuses to celebrate the jobs they’ve been doing (which look to the rest of us pretty piss poor, and, to boot, for which we are now often footing the bill). Many European countries want to impose a cap on these bonuses, putting Obama in the position of defending Wall Street excess to the rest of the world. Instead, he would have wanted to be a leader in reforming the global finance system away from barricuda laissez-faire and ever more unequal distribution of national incomes. Regulatory reform could have come from several directions, but, again, the Senate could and should have been one of them. It hasn’t been.
In short, Obama’s promises of major change on a whole range of issues show little signs of even taking root much less bearing fruit. Some sort of relatively conservative health care reform and a military withdrawal from an unstable Iraq appear likely to be his only near-term successes. Unlike Lyndon Johnson, he has not used his Congressional majority to initiate a whole series of legislative changes. In many instances, he seems to be being thwarted primarily by that legislative millionaires’ club, the US Senate. Domestically, he faces a deadline of the congressional elections of November 2010, which could well weaken his party in the Senate and leave him a helpless giant. Internationally, he confronts a skeptical world waiting to see the dramatic 180-degree turn from Bush administration policies that it so hated, and which so far, with the exception of Iraq and the canceled missile shield, have not materialized in any practical way.
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