Thursday, May 19, 2011

Obama announces 'new chapter in American diplomacy'

The United States will support efforts for reform across the Middle East and North Africa, including "transitions toward democracy," President Barack Obama said Thursday in what the White House billed as a major speech laying out U.S. policy for the region.
Announcing what he called a "new chapter in American diplomacy," Obama pointed to recent popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere.

"The events of the past six months show us that strategies of oppression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore," he said.
He said people in parts of the region "have seized control of their own destiny."
The "shouts of human dignity are being heard," Obama said.
But the president emphasized that the changes under way will take time. "It will be years before this story reaches its end," he said.
Obama said there is a "deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world" that needs to be reversed.
The president also accused Iran of hypocrisy for publicly supporting protests in parts of the Arab world after violently cracking down on protests at home.
On Libya, the president said that while the United States can't intervene militarily everywhere, it had to act in Libya to prevent an imminent massacre.
Now "time is working against (Libyan leader Moammar) Gadhafi," he said. When Gadhafi goes, "decades of provocation will come to an end" and a democratic transition can begin, he said.Officials said the president will pledge U.S. economic assistance to Egypt and Tunisia.
Obama is "laying out a vision tomorrow for the region of what it can be long term and its role in the world," a senior administration official said Wednesday. He was one of three senior administration officials who briefed reporters about the speech on condition of not being identified by name.
The president is emphasizing U.S. principles such as freedom of assembly, the right to self-determination and respect for human rights while promoting economic development as a significant contributor to helping people of the region realize their aspirations, the officials said.
The focus on economic aid for Tunisia and Egypt is intended to bolster the democratization and economic development efforts of two countries at the vanguard of political reform. The two countries can serve as models for a region undergoing change so that other countries have incentive to undertake similar reforms, according to the officials.
Obama is announcing several programs intended to increase U.S. and international investment, create jobs and spur economic growth in the two countries.
Specific programs include relieving Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt over the next two to three years so the money can be invested by the Egyptian government in economic development plans, and providing $1 billion in loan guarantees to finance infrastructure development and job creation, the senior administration officials said.
In addition, programs through international banking and funding organizations such as the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will be worth a few billion dollars, the officials said.
More broadly, the United States also will work with international groups and allies to help Middle East-North African countries modernize and integrate trade policies, according to the senior administration officials. Currently, nations in the region of 400 million people export about the same amount of goods as Switzerland, a country of 8 million, if oil is removed from the equation, according to a White House background document on the speech.
According to the officials, Thursday's speech was designed to serve as an opportunity for the United States to help people in the Middle East-North Africa region gain a say in their future governance through the changes they have launched.
"It's important to note that some of the protests in the region are deeply rooted in a lack of individual opportunity and economic growth, as well as a suppression of political rights," one of the officials said. "We also know from our study of the past that successful transitions to democracy depend in part on strong foundations for prosperity, and that reinforcing economic growth is an important way of reinforcing a democratic transition."
That means that "one of the most important areas for us to focus on is supporting positive economic growth that, again, can incentivize and reinforce those countries that are transitioning to democracy," the official continued, adding that "we see this as a critical window of time for the United States to take some concrete action to demonstrate our commitment to their future and to, again, reinforce their democratic transition with support for a broader base of prosperity."
Thursday's speech comes nearly two years after a 2009 address by Obama in Cairo, the Egyptian capital, that called for "a new beginning" between the United States and the Muslim world.
Now, many in the Middle East and North Africa consider the Cairo speech a collection of lofty ideals that lacked sufficient follow-through, and they have been looking for Obama to signal substantive and concrete policies that support the aspirations of the region's people.
Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and longtime advocate of Arab reform, said Wednesday that the Middle East is a new environment now, where young men and women are laying their lives on the line for democracy throughout the region. They need to be told their cause is just and how the United States will support them.
If Thursday's address turns out to be "another Cairo speech, forget it," said Muasher, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It was great two years ago, and even then the feedback was mixed, because people wanted to see what he would do. If he doesn't have much to add this time, people will not be fooled by it."
Gigi Ibrahim, a 24-year-old Egyptian activist and blogger, told CNN that Obama's words will have little impact in her country.
"At this point, whatever President Obama will address will really be irrelevant to what the situation is now because we're really building democracy from the bottom up," Ibrahim said, adding that "America is not the model of democracy that we are striving for."
She called U.S. policy on the Middle East "hypocritical" because, she said, the United States "will support a dictatorship if it's aligned with its interests."
That attitude is rife throughout the Middle East and North Africa, noted CNN senior political analyst David Gergen.
With Egypt facing economic crisis, the Libyan conflict at a stalemate, an ongoing harsh crackdown on demonstrators in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at a standstill, there is little belief in the region that Obama or the United States can do much to help, Gergen said.
"I think it's going to be very difficult in the near term to generate excitement about his policies in the Middle East," Gergen said.
In an effort to start changing such perceptions, the Obama administration on Wednesday imposed tough sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six other senior Syrian officials in an effort to stop the regime's fierce crackdown on anti-government protests.
The sanctions also target two top Iranian officials whose unit was a "conduit for Iranian material support" to Syrian intelligence, according to a copy of the executive order issued by the White House.
Obama's speech comes in a week when the White House has focused on Middle East issues. He met Tuesday with Jordan's King Abdullah II at the White House, and will meet Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After his talks with King Abdullah, Obama said it was "more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table and begin negotiating a process whereby they can create ... two states that are living side by side in peace and security."
However, former Sen. George Mitchell unexpectedly submitted his resignation as the president's Mideast envoy Friday, and deadly clashes broke out Sunday between pro-Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces.
Ongoing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and Palestinian steps toward a unilateral declaration of statehood have driven the two sides further apart since Obama took office. They have also placed new obstacles in the path of the administration's push for a mutually acceptable two-state solution.
Additional doubts about the viability of the stalled peace process were raised this month in the wake of a formal reconciliation agreement between the two largest Palestinian factions: President Mahmoud Abbas' party, the West Bank-based Fatah; and the Islamist group Hamas, which rules Gaza.
Both Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization and have voiced strong opposition to the inclusion of the group in any unity government, demanding that it first renounce violence, recognize the state of Israel and abide by all previous agreements.
Netanyahu has called on the Palestinian Authority to pull out of the deal, saying it jeopardizes prospects for a peace agreement.
The Obama administration has "made it clear that Hamas must stop its outrageous use of terrorism and must recognize Israel's right to exist," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. "Any participation in a Palestinian government would require that it abides by those standards, in our view."
In other engagement in the region, Obama helped push Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from office in February and subsequently committed U.S. forces to a NATO air campaign in support of the rebel movement in Libya. The administration has repeatedly called for an end to Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule.
The White House has been much less vocal, however, in dealing with allies such as Bahrain, a small Persian Gulf state that is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Pakistani Workers' Land Of Opportunity: Afghanistan?

It's not unusual for laborers the world over to cross borders, sometimes illegally, to find a safer environment and better wages. But it is strange when their land of opportunity is Afghanistan.

It may be a sign of economic and political instability in neighboring Pakistan that manual laborers are sneaking across into Afghanistan, where wages are double and, in some cases, security is better.

That level of desperation has many fearing that Pakistan may be holding on to stability just as tenuously as Afghanistan.Day Laborers

Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul, is growing faster than the government can measure — mostly in the form of big concrete and brick buildings. But an increasing number of the laborers on the buildings aren't from there.

Enya Atullah, an Afghan working on the precarious fourth floor of a new building, says he knows Pakistani day laborers will do his job for less.

They've ruined our work, Atullah says in Pashto. He says he doesn't make enough because he has to compete with Pakistani laborers, and he hopes the government will come up with a policy to stop them from coming into the country.

An official from the Afghan Ministry of Labor said he had no idea how many Pakstanis are working in the country illegally, and he frankly admitted that the government has almost no control over individuals who cross the border. Most of them are Pashtuns, and they have ethnic and family ties that straddle the frontier.

Of course, Afghan contractors don't mind the migrants, according to one businessman who gave his name only as Amin. Pakistani laborers will work day or night for about half the price of Afghans.

"Pakistani people [are] taking less money than Afghan people," Amin says. "In this case, everybody [chooses] the Pakistani workers, and also maybe they are working during night. All the time, if you are paying money, they are working."

Amin admits to some smugness that Afghanistan, which saw millions of refugees flee to Pakistan during the 1980s, is now in a more advantageous position. It's not so satisfying on the other side.

Uncertainty In Pakistan

It's bad at home, says Azizullha, who uses only one name. He's from Bajur, one of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal areas on the Afghan border. He has been working as a mason in Afghanistan for about three months.

Things are so bad in Pakistan, Azizullha says, that if you get out of the city, there is fear of kidnapping, security is bad and, of course, there are no jobs.

Azizullah says there were foreigners in his home village — by which he probably means al-Qaida and Taliban fighters who cross the border into the Afghan province of Kunar to fight. He says the Pakistani army cleared them out for the most part, but Kabul still feels safer, and he can earn money to support his wife and kids back home.

Azizullah says he feels no certainty about the way Pakistan is headed. In that, he shares the same sentiment as many in Islamabad, Kabul and Washington, D.C.

Gates Says No Sign That Top Pakistanis Knew of Bin Laden

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that he surmised that “somebody” in Pakistan had been aware that Osama bin Laden was hiding in a compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, but that there was no evidence so far that anyone in the country’s senior leadership had known.

“My supposition is, somebody knew,” Mr. Gates said at a Pentagon news conference with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Beyond that, he said, the Obama administration, which has repeatedly said that Bin Laden seemed to have a “support network” while in hiding, had little information.

“We don’t know whether it was retired people, whether it was low level — pure supposition on our part,” Mr. Gates said. “It’s hard to go to them with an accusation when we have no proof that anybody knew.”

Mr. Gates said that his supposition, shared by many other Obama administration officials, did not extend to Pakistan’s top political and military officials. “I have seen no evidence at all that the senior leadership knew,” Mr. Gates said. “In fact, I’ve seen some evidence to the contrary.”

Mr. Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, did not elaborate on that evidence. But hundreds of intelligence analysts continue to pore over the large trove of computer files, whose volume of data has been compared to that of a small college library. Navy Seal commandos recovered the material after they killed Bin Laden on May 2 in a raid on his Abbottabad compound, a short distance from an elite military academy that is Pakistan’s West Point.

Asked if the Pakistani senior leadership should pay a price for apparently not knowing that Bin Laden was there, Mr. Gates replied swiftly. “If I were in Pakistani shoes, I would say I’ve already paid a price — I’ve been humiliated, I’ve been shown that the Americans can come in here and do this with impunity,” he said.

Admiral Mullen echoed Mr. Gates. “I don’t think that we should underestimate the humbling experience that this is, and in fact the internal soul-searching that’s going on inside the Pakistani military right now,” he said.

At the same news conference, Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen each said that there had been too much public discussion about the details of the raid and that there were concerns about security for the families of the Navy Seal members who had carried it out.

Mr. Gates, who met privately with the commandos four days after the raid, said that the commandos, whose names are classified, “did express concern, not so much for themselves but for their families.” Mr. Gates suggested that security measures might be taken as a precaution against potential retaliation by terrorists.

“All I will say is that we have been taking a close look at that, and we will do whatever is necessary,” Mr. Gates said.

In comments last week at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Mr. Gates said that top administration officials in the White House Situation Room who monitored the raid as it was happening had agreed not to release operational details but that the agreement fell apart afterward.

Although Mr. Gates appeared to be referring to an extensive White House briefing that followed the raid, he said at the Pentagon news conference on Wednesday that he was not singling anyone out.

Admiral Mullen said simply that “it is time to stop talking.”

Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned

Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned Wednesday as head of the International Monetary Fund after explosive accusations that he had sexually attacked a housekeeper in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room.

“It is with infinite sadness that I feel compelled today to present to the Executive Board my resignation from my post of managing director of the I.M.F.,” he said in a statement dated Wednesday and issued shortly after midnight by the I.M.F. “I think at this time first of my wife — whom I love more than anything — of my children, of my family, of my friends.”

His resignation comes four days after Mr. Strauss-Kahn was taken off an Air France plane at Kennedy International Airport and arrested in connection with the accusations, and a day after Timothy F. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, called for his resignation.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn, a former French finance minister, had been expected to declare his candidacy for the French presidency soon. He was seen as one of the people figure most likely to oust President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In issuing his resignation Wednesday, Mr. Strauss-Kahn said, “I want to say that I deny with the greatest possible firmness all of the allegations that have been made against me.”

News of the arrest produced an earthquake of shock, outrage, disbelief and embarrassment throughout France.

Though Mr. Strauss-Kahn received generally high marks for his stewardship of the bank, his reputation was tarnished in 2008 by an affair with a Hungarian economist who was a subordinate there. The fund decided to stand by him despite concluding that he had shown poor judgment. He issued an apology to employees at the bank and his wife, Anne Sinclair, an American-born French journalist.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s extramarital affairs have long been considered an open secret. But the legal charges against him — which include attempted rape, forced oral sex and an effort to sequester another person against her will — are of an entirely different magnitude, even in France and elsewhere in continental Europe, where voters have generally shown more lenience than Americans toward the sexual behavior of prominent politicians, most notably the sexual escapades of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s resignation now sets off the jockeying for his replacement. The French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, is considered the leading candidate to succeed Mr. Strauss-Kahn, her friend and colleague. Her straight talk has helped burnish Ms. Lagarde’s reputation as one of Europe’s most influential ambassadors in the world of international finance.

Her main competition, analysts say, is Kemal Dervis, a former finance minister of Turkey. Mr. Dervis is credited with rescuing the Turkish economy after it was hit by a devastating financial crisis in 2001, in part by securing a multibillion-dollar loan from the I.M.F. Before that, Mr. Dervis worked at the World Bank for 24 years.

In the meantime, the I.M.F. said in its statement Wednesday night that John Lipsky would remain as acting managing director.

While at the helm of the I.M.F., Mr. Strauss-Kahn, an economist and politician, had used the European debt crisis to seize, somewhat audaciously, a new and prominent role for the world body. Trying to shed its old image as a hidebound policy task master, the fund refashioned itself as the investment bank of multilateral institutions — doing whatever it took to get the deal done.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn was a leading member of France’s Socialist Party when he was chosen by the newly elected Mr. Sarkozy, a conservative, to be the head of the fund, a job that has traditionally been given to a European.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest came 10 minutes before his plane was due to depart, at about 4:40 p.m., when two detectives of the Port Authority suddenly boarded Air France Flight 23, as the plane idled at the departure gate.

The police were called to the hotel about 1:30 p.m. on May 14, but when they arrived, Mr. Strauss-Kahn had already checked out. At some point, Mr. Strauss-Kahn called the hotel and said that his cellphone was missing. Police detectives then coached hotel employees to tell him, falsely, that they had the telephone, according to the law enforcement official. Mr. Strauss-Kahn said he was at Kennedy Airport and about to get on a plane.