Foreign Policy

First, do no harm

This afternoon’s House mark-up of the State, Foreign Operations spending bill will show the world just how far and how fast some in the U.S. are willing to retreat from assuming America’s traditional leadership role in global affairs.

The House GOP leadership has allocated the State, Foreign Operations subcommittee 9 percent less funding than was appropriated for the same accounts last year. This puts the subcommittee in a challenging position. Cuts are inevitable.

The subcommittee has already telegraphed what it would like to do. Support for vulnerable countries in some of the world’s most volatile regions will be slashed; natural disaster preparedness and response capacity will be diminished; global health programs and American assistance to refugees will be drastically scaled back – at a time when the world’s most vulnerable people need it the most.

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State and Foreign Operations cuts at odds with voters wishes

In a move that contrasts with voter sentiment, the House Committee on Appropriations is preparing to take up a fiscal year 2013 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill that fails to fully fund the United States’ commitment to the United Nations. The move is entirely at odds with majorities of Republican, Democratic and Independent voters who support the U.S. paying its dues to the UN on time and in full, according to new polling data released by the United Nations Foundation.
 
While the measure presents cuts that are less drastic than proposals made last year, the $48.3 billion bill nonetheless comes up more than $400 million short of where it needs to be to properly fund the Contributions to International Organizations (CIO) and Contributions to International Peacekeeping Activities (CIPA) accounts.  This bill also eliminates all funding for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and UN climate change funds.

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Nuclear weapons: A bad security investment

Most debates in Washington have battle lines that are predictable and largely unmoving. Certainly this is true of most of the budget battles, which often seem the political equivalent of trench warfare—lots of fighting, but the lines don’t move and little gets done. 

There are, however, subjects where bipartisan agreement can emerge. Things get done when members put country over partisanship and assess programs with a more objective cost-benefit analysis and set aside ideological rigidity. The ability to do so should be a litmus test for voters.

America’s nuclear weapons budget is a perfect case in point. A growing consensus has emerged that we should reduce spending on redundant nuclear programs that are hugely expensive, add little or nothing to our defense capabilities, and siphon money away from our troops and more important national security priorities.

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What's next for the Iran talks?

Most agree that it’s a positive sign that the first P5+1 session with Iran got off to a reasonably good start. All parties involved described the talks as businesslike and constructive, with the next meeting taking place on May 23rd in Baghdad. While there was no major breakthrough, and none was expected, diplomacy must start somewhere and last weekend’s meeting was a good beginning.

But there is a long way to go to achieve the U.S. strategic goals of preventingIran from acquiring nuclear weapons and removing Iran’s now rather large stockpile of nuclear material. Iran continues to enrich Uranium to 20% at its Fordow site, which it has pledged to halt once it develops enough for its civilian purposes. Iran is also suspected of testing nuclear weapons components at its Parchin military base and repeated IAEA requests to inspect the site have been rebuffed.

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Blasphemy bans threaten 'Arab Spring', religious freedom

Kuwait’s parliament has just passed draconian legal amendments that impose the death penalty on Muslims for blasphemy. The move to stiffen the penalty came after Hamad al-Naqi, a Shi’a Muslim, was arrested in March and taken into custody for allegedly cursing the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter.  The fate of the amendments and of Naqi rests in the hands of Kuwait’s emir.
 
This action is the latest sign of an alarming trend, not just in Kuwait, but across the Middle East and parts of North Africa. From Tunisia to Kuwait, blasphemy bans increasingly are being enforced and expanded. These bans threaten individual rights to freedom of religion and expression and often have led to human rights abuses.

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We need a credible military option to counter Iran

As negotiations continue between Iran and world leaders regarding their nuclear weapons program, policymakers are struggling to convince the Iranian leadership that they must peacefully end the program. Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is among the most urgent national security challenges facing the United States. Failing to constrain their militaristic ambitions could ignite a Middle Eastern arms race, scramble the precarious balance of power in the region, and would certainly pose a threat to Israel's continued existence.

Over the past year, Congress has authorized a series of progressively tougher sanctions and the president has cobbled together enough diplomatic pressure to convince the Iranian regime to come to the negotiating table. Yet, even though they are at the table, I remain skeptical of their commitment to anything other than preserving their grasp on power.

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Shaping a better, more open NATO

As the barricades go up in Chicago to separate activists from Heads of State arriving for the NATO Summit one thing is abundantly clear: NATO needs to become closer to its more than 1 billion citizen stakeholders. NATO is not only the sum of its intergovernmental political and military parts, but also of the 900 million citizens living in its 28 member states - and the more than 532 million additional citizens in states with partnership or contact agreements with the alliance. These citizens, rather than military forces, police and other means of law enforcement, are at the heart of alliance security.
 
To deepen and extend this shared values-base requires an updated, more open, transparent and accountable alliance, appropriate to 21st century expectations. Decision-making within NATO remains largely the exclusive preserve of the executive branch of government and an array of inter-governmental bureaucracies. It is the only major intergovernmental body not to have an information disclosure policy—even the much maligned World Bank has one of those—while mechanisms for congressional and parliamentary oversight within NATO are inadequate. For NATO’s new Strategic Concept agreed at the previous Lisbon Summit, only the German parliament scheduled a prior committee hearing and no formal parliamentary debate or vote on the Concept took place in any member state.

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Why Israel's two-year budget cycle matters

The decision to hold and then cancel the early elections in Israel last week led to a particularly tumultuous 48-hour period – even by Israeli political standards. Lost amidst all the analyses as to whom benefits most, was a lower-profile agenda item now at risk, which may have more impact on the future of Israel’s political stability than the elections themselves: the two-year budget.

As anyone who has worked in the financial arm of a corporate entity – and certainly a government body – can attest, the annual budget process can range from laughable to painful. For legacy reasons, institutions that need to take longer-term views tend to focus on the upcoming 365 days – primarily because that is how annual budgets are thought about. While there are certain measurements that come with divine inspiration -- seven days in a week, 24 hours in a day, or 90 feet between bases -- others, like annual budgets, are borne of habit and need to be rethought of in a fundamental way.

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Pentagon's contract with Rosoboronexport should stop

With two suicide bombings and an upsurge in Syrian security forces last week, it’s clear that the six-point plan brokered by joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is falling apart. Violence and atrocities in the country are escalating on a daily basis. It’s also clear that the United States needs to do more to stop those who are enabling the Syrian regime’s crackdown. Next week, Congress has a chance to do just that.

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Senator Webb is (still) wrong on Burma

Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.), perennially oblivious to the brutality of the Burmese military government, has always opposed United States economic sanctions on the junta. Despite his attempts to gut them, U.S. sanctions were not only maintained but strengthened and are beginning to produce important results.
 
Now, in a letter to Secretary of State Clinton, Senator Webb is attempting to use the progress made in the April 1 elections as a pretext for repeating his call. In other words, he was first against them because they were supposedly not working and now he is against them because they are. This, despite clear evidence that the regime continues to make war on many of its citizens, recently attacking and killing ethnic minorities in Kachin State.
 
It’s certainly promising that some advances toward a more democratic Burma have been made. This progress should be encouraged. However, there is so much yet to be accomplished and we must recognize that this is the beginning of the road, not the end. The small steps forward on democracy can easily be undone and there are still ongoing and widespread atrocities being perpetrated by the army in Burma’s ethnic national states.

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