ANALYSIS: The US strikes out — Harlan Ullman - Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Arab Spring has exposed huge discrepancies in US policy towards Egypt and Tunisia in support of regime change and its silence towards Bahrain and Sunni/Saudi armed repression against a Shia majority 

How will or can the US deal with a super abundance of crises from the budget and looming fiscal disaster to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistani instability, the so-called Arab Spring and the Libyan campaign?

The Obama White House and Congress agreed to a 2011 federal budget proudly promising and advertising cuts of over $ 38 billion — the largest in US history. Yet, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that less than one percent of the proposed cuts were real — a scant $ 330 million. If the government were a corporation, at the least it would be sued for false claims that duped the public.

That debate will not even compare with what follows over raising the debt ceiling and approving the 2012 budget. Republicans argue that debts and deficits will have catastrophic impact if not rectified now. Their solution calls for draconian spending cuts alone, believing that any tax increases at this point will cripple the modest economic recovery and will relieve any pressure for pairing back excessive expenditures, making little impact on reducing debt and deficits.

The White House argues that both spending cuts and tax increases are necessary to close the huge fiscal gaps. Both sides are correct. Obviously, cutting and taxing are the only means to tackle the monstrous $ 14 trillion debt. However, tax hikes will jeopardise economic recovery and reduce the amounts likely to be cut by making more revenues available to the treasury, alleviating pressure to slash expenditures.

Iraq and Afghanistan, likewise, are headed in the wrong direction. As US troops leave Iraq, violence and instability are far from quelled. The latest Iraqi government attacks on Camp Ashraf that was established to safeguard the anti-Iranian MEK organisation, and whose safety was guaranteed by the US, killed 34 last week, making a mockery of the US’s word and credibility.

While military operations in Afghanistan are punishing the Taliban, extending governance, broadly defined, and development to Afghans lags so far behind as to question whether or not this strategy can ever work. Concurrently, US-Pakistani relations have eroded to their worst level in memory. Whether both sets of negative trends can be reversed or not is far from certain.

The Arab Spring has likewise exposed huge discrepancies in US policy towards Egypt and Tunisia in support of regime change and its silence towards Bahrain and Sunni/Saudi armed repression against a Shia majority. The administration argues that its policies must balance “interests” and “values”, meaning that maintaining good relations with Riyadh and counterbalancing Iranian influence trump our images of freedom, democracy and human rights. As a result, charges of hypocrisy flow and while the administration is correct that no single ‘template’ fits each country, coming up with a rational and effective policy for the region is made difficult if not impossible.

The acute mix of these problems and absence of solutions congeal in Libya. The political goal of ousting Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi by indirect means such as embargoes is detached from the military objective sanctioned by UN Resolutions 1970 and 1973 to protect innocent civilians. The two aims are acting in parallel. No one knows if those aims will converge with the happy result of Gaddafi leaving or diverge leaving NATO and the coalition stuck in a conflict with an indeterminate outcome. The growing criticisms of NATO capabilities to protect innocent Libyans, combined with dissent within the alliance over military engagement in the first place, do not make solution easier.

So what are President Obama and the US government going to do about this? The honest answer, leaving aside empty rhetoric and false promises is, realistically, nothing. Regarding our obscene debt and deficit, the obvious solution is a mix of cuts and taxes starting with simplifying the tax code. Ideology, compounded by the dominant forcing function of the 2012 elections, is likely to prevent effective compromise.

In Iraq, the path of least resistance is to hope US withdrawal will be obscured by other more newsworthy events. In Afghanistan, there is no alternative to another hope that Afghan security forces will be able to assume these responsibilities before 2014 end or the time when the NATO coalition wearies of its commitment. In Pakistan, intransigence on the part of Washington and Islamabad suggests that rougher and not smoother times lie ahead.

Libya and the Arab Spring are profoundly difficult matters. Leaving Gaddafi in power will be intolerable. At some point, the use or threat of ground forces to evict him must be considered, raising the stakes to even higher levels.

The key strategic centres of gravity remain Egypt and the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Progress there could offset damage elsewhere. But will the Obama administration even think about further overloading its plate? Probably not. If this were a baseball game, the odds are that the US will strike out rather than hit the winning home run.

The writer is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council

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