Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Playing the blame game for US budget stalemate

Business Times - 31 Mar 2011

Playing the blame game for US budget stalemate


TENSIONS are rising on Capitol Hill. The political rhetoric is getting ugly. And the suspense is growing: Will US lawmakers be able to work out a budget deal as soon as possible so as to avert a shutdown of the federal government?

Now wait a minute. Haven't we seen that movie before? In fact, an earlier version of 'The Coming Government Shutdown' was screened only two weeks ago just before a brief Congressional break. During the last scene, we held our breath as Democratic and Republican lawmakers, after failing to agree on a substantive budget compromise, ended up negotiating a last-minute deal, a so-called 'stopgap' that provided funding for the operations of the federal government until April 8.

That stopgap was the second in what some expect to be a series of several short-term deals between the two parties that - in theory, at least - could keep the government open until the end of this fiscal year.

In any case, the last legislative ceasefire is coming to an end. The lawmakers are back in Washington and both Republicans and Democrats are suggesting that reaching a federal budget accord in Congress by the April 8 deadline appears unlikely. And if President Barack Obama doesn't sign a new spending bill, the federal government would shut down on April 9.

Hence, the 'blame game' we are witnessing now. The leaders of both parties insist that they still want to pass a comprehensive budget deal for the rest of the year and are trying to blame the leaders of the other party for the legislative deadlock.

But the fact remains that the Democrats, who still have the majority in the Senate, and the Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, are substantially apart over where and by how much federal government spending should be cut - reflecting a deep ideological split between the two major political parties.

And let's remember that the current debate is over the size of this year's budget, and is taking place before Congress has been able to start discussing next year's budget plan - not to mention any serious proposal for cuts in the budget deficit.

The Republicans are demanding major cuts in spending on social and economic programmes while Democrats warn that such a drastic step could slowdown the economic recovery and devastate unemployed and poor Americans who depend on government assistance as their main source of income.

The Democrats are pointing their fingers at Republican lawmakers affiliated with the Tea Party movement as the main obstacles to reaching a deal. Arriving in Washington in the aftermath of the resounding Republican victory in last year's mid-term elections, these members of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, who accuse the Obama administration of trying to take control of the economy and transform America into a socialist country, are threatening not to support a budget deal that doesn't include large spending cuts - even if that leads to the shutdown of the government.

House Republicans have called for US$61 billion in cuts from last year's spending levels and they have already approved a budget plan along these lines. But the Democrats - backed by the Obama White House - are making it clear that they will not allow the Senate to approve such cuts.

The two earlier stopgap bills have cut US$10 billion from government spending in this year's budget. And the Democrats are probably willing to cut around US$20 billion more. But the Republicans will only accept a figure that is close to their original US$61 billion in cuts for the fiscal year that ends on Sept 30.

If the US government ends up shutting down, 'it will be because Senate Democrats refused to offer a real proposal that cuts spending and because the White House flatly refused to lead', according to House Republican Leader Eric Cantor. But the Democrats counter that since the Republicans are now in control of the House, they should be blamed if the government shuts down.

During 1995-1996 shutdowns of the federal government, the majority of Americans sympathised with Democratic President Bill Clinton while blaming the Republicans, who were in control of the House of Representatives, for the shutdown. Those public sentiments forced the Republicans to back down and reach a budget compromise with the Democrats.

But recent opinion polls suggest that the American public is divided over which party should be blamed for the current legislative deadlock in the budget negotiations. That political reality serves as a backdrop for the blame game taking place on Capitol Hill.

As Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, told reporters on Tuesday: 'The clock is ticking.'

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sarkozy Gets the Better of Obama

Published on The National Interest (
Source URL (retrieved on Mar 30, 2011):
Sarkozy Gets the Better of Obama

March 30, 2011
Leon Hadar [2]
President Barack Obama has insisted that unlike his predecessor who launched a unilateral invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military strikes on Libya are part of a “multilateral” operation.

It’s true that the Bush administration failed to win the support of the UN Security Council for the plan to depose Saddam Hussein, while the Obama administration persuaded Russia and China not to veto the Council’s resolution approving coercive measures against Muammar Gaddafi. Moreover, at least some members of so-called Old Europe who rejected Bush’s military adventure in Mesopotamia have backed the new adventure in Libya—with France among the principal cheerleaders.

In addition, administration officials cite the green light (or at least a yellow light) that the Arab League has given to the enforcement of the no-fly zone, as evidence that military action against Libya (unlike the attack on Iraq) is supported by the Arab world. By highlighting the supposed multilateral nature of the military campaign in Libya, Obama and his aides have created the impression that Washington is merely playing the role of a short-term friendly enabler in the process.

But there are several problems with this “multilateral” pose. First, multilateral institutions do not operate under the authority of an imaginary “international community.” Policies being pursued by a multilateral institution constitute the sum of the policy decisions made by its member states.

When it comes to multilateral military ventures, action requires an agreement among the powerful members of the multilateral body—those nations with the military resources needed to win a war. Those governments have to decide that taking military action accords with their respective national interests. With apologies to the slogan of the National Rifle Association, “multilateral institutions don’t go to war; their member governments go to war.”

And for most of the post-World War II era, it was America as the hegemonic power that made it possible to bring about the kind of collective military action under which smaller military allies were willing to contribute troops and financial resources. The first Gulf War was the most dramatic demonstration of such U.S.-led multilateral military operations in the post-Cold War era. President George H.W. Bush built an international coalition that included not only the NATO members and Japan, but also several Arab governments, and participants.

Critics have justifiably challenged the assumption that the Gulf War and other U.S.-led military operations helped advance American national interests. But there is little doubt that it was U.S. leadership and the massive U.S. military machine that made the difference in Desert Storm as well as in the military campaigns against Serbia during the wars in the Balkans. For better or worse, multilateralism in all these cases was merely a convenient add-on to U.S. power.

France and other governments refused to support the Iraq war because they recognized that invading Iraq would run contrary to their respective national interests. For strategic, economic, and demographic reasons, they have adopted a different view regarding disorder in Libya

The notion that France, Italy and the other southern European governments (as well as Britain) should take the lead in dealing with the upheaval in Libya makes sense. Considering their strategic interests, instability in Libya—and the rest of the Middle East —should create a powerful incentive for collective action on their part. After all, Libya is in their strategic backyard, occupying the same position that Mexico does vis-à-vis the United States. And these governments have the military and financial resources to protect their interests in Libya. Conversely, Libya should be at or near the bottom of the U.S. global strategic agenda.

President Obama’s initial reluctance to get the U.S. military involved in Libya made strategic sense. If he had persisted in that stance, it could have provided incentives for France and Britain to develop and implement a European-led operation in Libya, with the U.S. providing only very limited logistical support.

Instead, under the pressure of the “humanitarian interventionists” in his administration, Obama decided that Washington would take the initial steps—and the initial lead role—in launching military action in Libya, hoping that France and other governments would end-up “taking over” leadership of the operation.

Obama has played directly into the hands of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has succeeded in drawing the United States into a military campaign aimed at protecting French and general European interests. In the emerging French narrative, they are the ones leading the campaign in Libya, while in reality, the French and the other European allies will continue to free-ride on U.S. military exertions.

Even as NATO officially takes over the management of the Libya operation, it is America as the leader of NATO that will continue to shoulder the major military and financial costs—as it has been doing in Afghanistan. There is a clear danger of being sucked into another quagmire—albeit this time with a multilateral face.

Image by Christophe Grébert

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