Obama’s Major Challenges on this Week’s Global Stage; Is his own Senate the Roadblock?

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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10 Responses

  1. So far, I give Obama a C- on every issue, except foreign policy where he earns an F because there has been NO promised "change."

  2. Sorry, but I don't see Iraq as a change….Saying that we are getting out, and then dragging one's feet is not a change.

  3. Foundationally related to it all are the finally publicized revelations made by FBI Whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, which are distilled in this interview, which raises a whole host of questions. What she reveals provides the reason why she was "state-secrets-gagged" by BushCo. And it is probably a sure bet that her revelations are just the tip of a very large iceberg.

  4. Re: Recognizing a Palestinian state, why 2011? Is there some specific requirement or timing that makes this the best year?

  5. I don't get the excitement over Obama opne way or another. The policies are unchanged in every meaningful way – endless war and world domination abroad, torture and indefinite detention of people when a criminal case can't be made out against them, impunity and secrecy for past perpetrators and thus an implicit guarantee of impunity going forward, feed the banks and the rich at evryone else's expense, and so forth. In what has the Obama administration broken with any policy of the past. Nicer words, nicer smile, a little more cunnning – but what else? If you liked Bush, you ought to like Obama.

  6. Yes, on the entire list of things that Obama promised during the campaign, there has been little progress. His most important accomplishment relates to something that was not part of the campaign, and it's not what happened but what didn't happen–a rerun of the Great Depression, because he was able to get a massive stimulus in place (as you say, as yet unaccompanied by regulatory reform).
    And the time taken up by fighting that battle has cut drastically into the one year in which new presidents have the opportunity to enact significant changes (e.g., both the Reagan and Bush II tax "reforms").

  7. Isn't that what senates are for, protecting privilege from democracy, and expanding the empire? The senate is loyal to its Roman inheritance. Obama fears them, as Caesar should have.

  8. Honest question, but why isn't your blog subtitled, "Thoughts on the MIddle East, History, and Politics"?

  9. By observing the divisions and hard-seated political ideas when he was in the senate, I wonder if he would just leave them behind… say "screw you guys" and push for a mid-term election change of seats.

    In this way, a one time president, who will not be going back to the senate after the term(s), can create a stir in our republic that will change us for the better.

    What appears is that the "leadership" wants to keep its leadership for itself. When the President can point out that after 18 months, I have tried, but failed to convince YOUR reps to enact the change you asked for.

    For instance what if the president doesn't stick to the political party, but asks the populace to change the other leaders before he leaves office so change can occur?

    Right now I see him asking the population for change, the population wants change, but the leadership doesn't. So it appears that he isn't making a change. Just like driving a big ship, you can't just turn left without the crew experienced in turning left. But when the crew says we only turn right, it is time to ask for a new crew.

  10. Where is the fabled Joe Biden?

    link to guardian.co.uk

    September 23, 2009

    How Much Repression Will Hillary Clinton Support in Honduras?
    By Mark Weisbrot – Guardian

    Now that President Zelaya has returned to Honduras, the coup government – after first denying that he was there – has unleashed a wave of repression to prevent people from gathering support for their elected president. This is how U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the first phase of this new repression last night in a press conference:

    “I think that the government imposed a curfew, we just learned, to try to get people off the streets so that there couldn't be unforeseen developments.”

    But the developments that this dictatorship is trying to repress are very much foreseen. A completely peaceful crowd of thousands surrounded the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, where Zelaya has taken refuge, to greet their president. The military then used the curfew as an excuse to tear-gas, beat, and arrest the crowd until there was nothing left. There are reports of scores wounded and three dead. The dictatorship has cut off electricity and water to the embassy, and cut electricity to what little is left of the independent media, as well as some neighborhoods. This is how the dictatorship has been operating. It has a very brutal but simple strategy.

    The strategy goes like this: they control the national media, which has been deployed to convince about 30-40 percent of the population that their elected President is an agent of a foreign government and seeks to turn the country into a socialist prison. However, that still leaves the majority who have managed to find access to other information.

    The strategy for dealing with them has been to try to render them powerless: through thousands of arrests, beatings, and even some selective killings. This has been documented, reported, and denounced by major human rights organizations throughout the world: Amnesty International, the Center for Justice and International Law, Human Rights Watch, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights and others….

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