Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Organizing for Action Chairman Jim Messina, who announced following critical coverage that the group would not accept donations from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak.)
What are we to make of Organizing for Action?
OFA—the direct descendant of those other OFAs, Obama for America and Organizing for America—has recently been drawing headlines and inspiring headaches. That’s because it’s an organization with multiple souls. On the one hand, OFA promises to finally do what the Obama team failed to four years ago: Engage and mobilize the campaign’s grassroots volunteer army into a potent force for fighting Republican obstructionism after the election. On the other hand, OFA itself is structured in a way that encapsulates much of what’s broken about our current politics: big-dollar donors trading money for access. Can OFA both exemplify our predicament and ameliorate it?
Last weekend, OFA drew scorching critiques from the editorial boards of the The Washington Post and the The New York Times. Both expressed understandable alarm over OFA’s funding structure: The plan is reportedly to raise half of the organization’s budget in donations of over $500,000, and to reward those donations with quarterly “advisory board” meetings between top donors and the president himself. The Post said the group “should be renamed Paying for Access.” The Times called the funding structure “nothing more than a fancy way of setting a price for access to Mr. Obama.” (The White House pushed back on the report on Monday.)
Common Cause President Bob Edgar was at least as harsh, saying last week that the new OFA “apparently intends to extend and deepen the pay-to-play Washington culture that Barack Obama came to prominence pledging to end.”
As both papers noted, the Obama strategists (including Obama for America Campaign Manager-turned-Organizing for Action Chairman Jim Messina) behind OFA have particular financial flexibility because they’ve organized the group as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare group,” exempt from many requirements under our broken system of campaign finance law. That’s a system that the president has repeatedly recognized needs reform.
All of this invites charges of hypocrisy (always a tailor-made media storyline) and there have been plenty. But the Obama team is facing a challenge that doesn’t lend itself to clear-cut answers: How can you effectively do combat within the system as it exists, while also fighting to transform it? How do you plot a course that’s neither unilateral disarmament against the Right, nor surrender to Politics-As-Usual?
President Obama may be sincerely trying to plot such a course. There’s no doubt he’s sometimes stumbled along the way. As clean elections advocate Jonathan Soros told Bill Moyers last month, “The president has missed a number of opportunities to show leadership on this issue. And I think that’s been both unfortunate and a bad choice politically for him.”
Does this new OFA represent another missed opportunity? With critical fights ahead on issues from guns to immigration, and an all-out and well-funded opposition, I’m glad OFA will be mobilizing the grassroots (and that the president is keeping an eye towards 2014). And I don’t begrudge them the need to raise money, or expect them to fully embody a more progressive legal regime that doesn’t yet exist. Nonetheless, I wish the Obama team had shown a greater measure of audacity, and hope, by embracing a different funding model: focusing more on smaller-dollar donations, and setting out to truly prove, as the Obama and Dean electoral campaigns did, that serious money doesn’t only come from millionaires. (And it’s not as if the White House needed another vehicle to reward $500,000 donors with access; alas, there are already ambassadorships.)
“We are very concerned about the precedent the OFA move creates for future presidents and elected officials at all levels,” Free Speech for People Executive Director John Bonifaz told me last week, “a new way to allow corporations and the wealthy few to gain disproportionate influence and subvert the democratic process.” For Bonifaz, a stalwart advocate for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, February ended on a mixed note. On February 22, the White House released a response to Free Speech for People’s online petition urging that Obama include a call for a constitutional amendment in his State of the Union address. Obama didn’t do so, but the White House response told the petitioners, “You’re right” and “President Obama agrees with you.” That response went live on the same night as the Times story reporting on OFA’s planned reliance on high dollar donors. As Bonifaz told me, “I think the timing of the White House response to our petition is not coincidental and that it demonstrates we need to keep the pressure on for presidential leadership on the amendment front.”
So how should we feel about the new OFA? Another anti-corruption advocate, Public Campaign President Nick Nyhart, says it’s still too soon to tell. If Organizing for Action “makes a difference in what gets done, and there’s little evidence that deals cut with donors undermined other issues or forced compromises,” says Nyhart, then “it was the right decision given the realities of where money politics already are.” If not, he adds, “then we should learn from that too.”
The good news is, the principled pushback from concerned citizens and campaign finance reformers seems to be getting results. In a CNN op-ed published this morning, after suggesting that some of OFA’s critics were confused, Messina wrote, “We have now decided not to accept contributions from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors.” That goes beyond previous commitments by OFA, which—to its credit—had already agreed to more disclosure and restrictions than the bare minimum required by law. (Unfortunately, as the AP reported today, corporations seeking to use their money to earn meetings with administration officials could still do so through the trade group Business Forward, which “has said it will ramp up its operations.”)
As OFA’s new role evolves, it’s good to know its leaders are listening to concerned citizens and critics. They should know that we’ll be watching.
Another attempt to fight back against big business’s clout, the proposed financial transactions tax, is a good idea whose time has come, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
On Friday at midnight, the sequester kicked in, triggering $85 billion in deep, dumb budget cuts that sent “nonessential personnel”— such as air traffic controllers—packing.
Not to worry, though: Wall Street’s day was pretty much like any other. Billions of dollars in profits were made off of trillions of dollars in financial transactions. And the vast majority of those transactions were conducted tax-free.
Moral of the story: What else is new?
Crash the economy? Free pass. Prevent planes from crashing? Pink slip.
We don’t need a team of policymakers to tell us this isn’t good policy, or that it needs changing. But on Thursday, we heard policymakers propose exactly that: a change.
Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), along with Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.), unveiled a bill that would place a light tax on all financial transactions—three pennies on every $100 traded.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
At midnight last night $85 billion in federal budget funds were sequestered by the Treasury Department.
This week at The Nation, we looked at the human costs of the austerity measures about to be imposed on our country. Instead of obsessing over a manufactured deficit crisis, I argued, we should be focusing on putting financially battered Americans back to work. It’s time to stop extortionists like Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson and the Fix the Debt campaign from holding our country’s economic future hostage.
To that end, Washington correspondent John Nichols assesses the terrifying contributions of “money power” like Peterson’s to framing, if not fully instigating, the austerity agenda. In our broken political world, where debates are being shaped by corporations, he asks whether President Obama is willing to stand up to big money in government. On Democracy Now!, he discusses the impending crisis in further detail and the billionaire austerity mongers driving it, “advocating for zombie ideas—ideas that have been slain by the voters, and frankly even by Congress, and yet they walk among us.”
Looking forward, Beltway blogger George Zornick addresses the danger that lies ahead with the White House’s alternative sequester replacement plan. While both sides play the blame game, in hopes that public support will drive the other to come to the table with concessions, he argues that there is reason to be optimistic that Obama’s plan will succeed… but that’s not necessarily a good thing. “There are no good choices here,” writes Zornick, “only less bad ones, and progressives should be wary about confusing political victory with a policy victory.”
For more analysis on the consequences of the sequester and what this means for our people, for our economy and for our future, check back in with The Nation as we continue to take a measure of Congress’s actions and the president’s priorities.
Detroit residents attend a job fair in 2009. Average Americans have lost nearly 40 percent of their wealth. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya.)
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
The media is going sequester 24-7. Anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the across-the-board spending cuts about to hit this Friday is about to have little choice. The brouhaha about the austerity bomb is drowning out any attention to what is actually going on in the economy—which is supposedly the point of the whole debate.
The stark reality is the economy is still in trouble and Americans are still hurting. The economy contracted last quarter, even before Americans got hit with the end of the payroll tax holiday, which will take $1,000 out of the typical family’s annual paycheck. The Congressional Budget Office projects that growth will inch along at about 1.5 percent this year. That translates into continued mass unemployment—with more than 20 million people in need of full-time work—and falling wages. The richest 1 percent captured an unimaginable 121 percent of all income growth in 2009 and 2010, coming out of the Great Recession. They pocketed all of the growth in income, while 99 percent of Americans actually lost ground. That trend is likely to get worse rather than better.
Federal Reserve Governor Janet L. Yellen described the tragic human costs of widespread, long-term unemployment in an important speech this month. Families lose their homes; divorce and depression rise; children are scarred; skills are lost. A young generation is leaving school to sit on the couch.
As George Zornick reports, at least 35,000 attended the rally in Washington, DC, on the National Mall last Sunday for the Forward on Climate march, a project of 350.org, the Sierra Club and the Hip Hop Caucus. “This is the last minute in the last quarter of the biggest, most important game humanity has ever played,” Van Jones told the crowd gathered in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. “President Obama, all the good that you have done, all the good you can imagine doing, will be wiped out by floods, by fires, by superstorms if you fail to act now to deal with this crisis.”
Prior to the rally Bill McKibben—author, longtime activist and president of 350.org—told reporters that building a movement gives the president the support he needs to say no to the pipeline. And the movement showed up, making the rally the largest of its kind in US history—and the message of activists was clear. “Their audience was really just one man, the only one with the power to stop the project: Barack Obama,” writes Zornick.
“Humanity is staring down the barrel of a calamity beyond measure, and the president is one of the few people on earth who on his own authority can do something about it,” we write in this week’s issue of The Nation. While President Obama mentioned climate change in his State of the Union address, he hasn’t committed to any of the big steps needed to avert catastrophe. The Keystone XL, a 1,700-mile pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Canada across the United States to the Gulf Coast, which the president failed to mention in his address, is the most urgent and obvious example of an executive action he could take.
“The stakes in this battle could not be higher. If Keystone XL fails to win the president’s approval, the industry will certainly grow at a far slower pace than forecast and possibly witness the failure of costly ventures, resulting in an industry-wide contraction,” writes Nation correspondent Michael T. Klare. “If approved, however, production will soar and global warming will occur at an even faster rate than previously projected.”
President Obama must choose, not only what his climate legacy will be, but what kind of planet he leaves behind. Find out what you can do to take action and stop the Keystone XL. Through grassroots organizing, the climate movement’s energy has never been higher. Join the fight to push the president to use his second term to protect our precious resources and fight catastrophic climate change.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson speaks to field commanders and fighters of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Wahid Nur faction in Mulagat January 17, 2008. Reuters/Albany Associates/Stuart Price/Handout
The United Nations gets a bad rap. But headlines about deadlock in the Security Council—which limits the UN’s ability to act effectively on issues of peace and security—and the UN’s missteps too often overwhelm the daily work the UN and its agencies do to tackle hunger, disease, poverty and human rights abuse. Many of the UN’s programs are quiet successes; all of them are urgently important.
No one knows this better than UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, the UN’s second highest-ranking official. During the past three decades, Eliasson served throughout the agency and across the globe: as Sweden’s Ambassador to the United States; as mediator on the Iran-Iraq war; as first-ever Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs; as special envoy for Darfur; and, prior to his promotion to deputy secretary-general, as president of the General Assembly.
Eliasson and I sat down earlier this month to discuss the daunting challenges facing the UN; how to build a stronger, more accountable organization; and what the media miss. In our interview, it was clear how acutely aware Eliasson is of the gap between aspiration and reality, and how deeply he’s committed to a twenty-first-century multilateralism. I continue to believe, as Eliasson does, that the UN framework provides the best one for advancing both American interests and international peace. (Just imagine, as we near the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, all that could have been averted if Washington had deferred to the UN Security Council.)
In many ways, the UN has become the world’s geopolitical emergency room. The question is whether it can survive. At the end of the interview, Eliasson brought out a small ziplock bag, unzipped it and pulled out his dog-eared and heavily underlined copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inscribed by Eleanor Roosevelt. “This,” he told me, “is really a treasure for me.” An edited version of our conversation follows.
Every day, the UN provides food to 90 million people in seventy-three countries, and assists over 36 million refugees and people fleeing war, famine or persecution. As we meet, UNICEF is undertaking a large-scale operation in Syria to provide safe water to more than 10 million people. Why do very few Americans know about these UN activities? Is it a failure on the UN’s part to tell its story? The failure of US media coverage? Is there perhaps a legacy of mutual mistrust between the US and the UN?
Jan Eliasson: Well, first of all, recent Pew surveys show we are coming out pretty well when it comes to the UN’s general standing…. They reveal that people increasingly understand that today’s problems cannot be solved at home, they must be solved together with others. Of course then there are complaints, and in some case legitimate criticism of the UN in certain respects. Like in Syria, where the Security Council is not living up to its responsibility to provide peace and security by having a strong unified position…. Like any big organization, we need to do things better. But I do think the legacy of mistrust probably goes back to the positions and the situation in the Middle East: Israel-Palestine, the Zionist resolution, the fact that the Human Rights Council in the beginning dealt almost exclusively with the situation around Israel-Palestine, but also the Lebanon bombings, which gave the Human Rights Council, in US and also Israel, a bad name. And then of course, it doesn’t come naturally for a big country to say that we need international cooperation.…
[Former Secretary-General] Dag Hammarskjold said, our first line of defense is a strong international structure, international system, our system of law…. That is rare to hear that from the United States. They think they’re not as dependent, they have so many other bilateral instruments that they can use…. [But] we should realize that in today’s world the good international solution—let’s say climate, migration—the good international solution is, or at least should be seen as, a national interest … in order for us to deal with the issue of the rising sea level of Manhattan, there has to be an international agreement on the reduction of CO2 emissions.… We do it in our enlightened self-interest …
You have to almost strain yourself to find a problem which is absolutely national. So that’s why I’m still hopeful that in any political culture you would realize that you would have to cooperate. There is one danger, though, today. And that is the outside world is to many seen as a problem. That’s where the problems come from. This is a place where jobs disappear. And then there’s political forces that fish in these rather murky waters and identify the outside world, those outside, as a problem. And that to me could lead to real crisis in the day and age of globalization…
You made overtures to civil society groups when you became Deputy Secretary-General. Is there a good partnership with civil society—and are there even more effective ways to engage and bring in such groups?
We need both the UN and civil society groups on the ground. When I was in Somalia…I got as good information from the NGO community as I did from my own people…. But then there is something deeper, of course, which is a role performed by civil society and that is reminding us in our part of the world that there is a world outside…. And also that we need to be reminded that the UN, even if we want to do very much, we cannot do it alone—we can be sometimes in the lead, but very often a catalyst for action. The problems of today are such that you must mobilize, let’s say Bretton Woods institution for financing, World Bank, you need to mobilize regional organizations, European Union, African Union, you need to mobilize the private sector with technology, employment and so forth, and we need to mobilize civil society and the academic world.
The UN has set up an investigative unit, led by its special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, to look at the legality and consequences of the US drone program. In that context, do you think there is are different approaches to keeping Americans safe—ones that are not as militarized in ways that preclude smart international cooperation?
This is very important issue. I was in Washington when 9/11 occurred and I saw the international support immediately—a unified Security Council on the action in Afghanistan. When you consider immediate actions, whether it is a suicide bomber or someone blowing up a train or other civilians that are killed, you realize that there’s not much room for negotiation or taking a more long-term approach. You have to be very, very clear and tough every time civilians are killed intentionally. There are explanations, but we have to be tough and clear on that.
But on the other hand…this phenomenon also has other roots…. hundreds of millions of young people who are unemployed in already poor countries [are] feeling frustration about their lives and are of course enormously receptive to extremist forces.… They cannot show that their institutions, their leaders even if elected, have given them [a] change of life…
And to me, perhaps even more important, is that terrorism has created “the fear factor,” that in a way probably some of the intentions of the terrorists have come true: that we have become more scared, that we look over [our] shoulder, and that we are more suspicious of people of certain ethnic backgrounds…. The fear factor is planted in you, which in turn leads us to more easily demonize and [identify] another group as a problem. In the case that this leads to, as you know yourself, to certain reductions of civil liberties or human rights. Then, in a way, they have succeeded.…
You have to be tough on the real phenomenon. I get absolutely furious when I see the kids, the women in the marketplace killed, I can’t mobilize any understanding whatsoever. But then you see that there’s also an element of provocation, and that you must not fall in that trap.
As you have noted, the polling and surveys about the UN are relatively good. Yet I come back to the issue of media coverage and how poorly it seems that the UN’s story is told in this country. What could be done to change the narrative?
I have taught myself not to complain about media, because media lives under their own conditions. But of course I ask myself questions…784 million people don’t have clean water…2.5 billion people don’t have sanitation. Thirty percent of humanity do not have toilets.… This leads to 3,000 children under the age of 5 dying every day. Every day. In diarrheas, dysentery, dehydration, and cholera. And I’ve seen them die in front of my own eyes. And I ask myself, “Where is the headline?” It comes up maybe in a feature article every third month or so, somewhere, but you know it’s usually the bomb or the instant event that is noticed. The silent death is not coming out.
And then there is something else…. I feel sometimes so enormously frustrated about coming in, like firemen after the fire, when I wanted to be there when the smoke developed, or when the perpetrator reached for the match…. And then I ask myself, “How about really doing prevention?” Getting in early when the first signal of a conflict is there…. So in other words, come back to media. Have you ever, Katrina, seen a headline in the press, first page, “Disaster Did Not Occur Somewhere”? Rewarding prevention, that would be something. And that I haven’t seen much of.…
You said last year that the UN is “often criticized but I think we are a reflection of the world as it is and not as we want it to be—but we have to bridge that gap, make sure the world becomes more of what we want it to be.” But what are the obstacles?
…People are expecting the UN to be the perfect machinery, [like] a Swiss watch…. Remember that this organization, even if it is for “we the people,” is the nation-states, and many nation-states are not always democracies or well-functioning societies. You must understand the United Nations is a reflection, a mirror, of the world as it is. But my job, and the Secretary-General’s job, and all of us who work here, is to also remind ourselves of what the world should be. The best definition of my job, as I see it myself, is that I should try to, inch-by-inch, lessen that distance between what is and what should be.
In the context of “what is,” the reality of this time, you were sent last October by the Secretary General to Bamako, Mali before the French announced its invasion of that country. What was your role? What did you learn then that informs your view of what role the UN might now play in Mali?
At that time, we discussed a collective action. And then came the move from the north in the direction of Bamako, and then the French were invited by the Malian government to send their troops, which they did. And that’s where we are now. We will most probably be asked by the Security Council to provide a peacekeeping operation, probably mostly composed of African states. This of course builds on the premise that we get a request from the government of Mali, which we haven’t received yet.…
At the same [time] as we do peacekeeping, we must be doing what the United Nations should do—namely, humanitarian work and making sure that human rights are respected. And also hopefully build up institutions. I have found that institution-building is one of the most important parts of the work we do in order to make sure that conflicts do not erupt again. So the operation, which is now starting to take shape, will probably be some kind of peacekeeping in cooperation with the African Union, and humanitarian work which will be necessary not only in Mali but also in the whole region. And then the work to return refugees to Mali. And then, if there is peacekeeping, there are always risks that you will be involved in situations where human rights are abused. So we will have human rights monitors, and then building up civil society institutions.…
And it’s hard to go in until the fighting abates.
We have made it very clear that we will not go in until the situation stabilizes. We cannot go into a combat situation. And we don’t know where the extremist groups will go…. It’s a new situation, where the United Nations is faced with absolutely new challenges, but you have extremism, terrorism and these groups, and we are asked to play a role in the gray zone between peace enforcement combat operations and classic peacekeeping.
For many years, former UN Undersecretary-General Brian Urquhart argued for the need for the UN to have a standing army which could be deployed early and in preventive ways.
…It’s a great idea—he compares it to calling the police in a local community, and that’s a very attractive analysis. But the problem is that it’s not realistic. When I talked to him last about this a couple years ago, we agreed that perhaps the best compromise from his idea, confronted by the realities of the day, is that we have a much better on-call system. You see, like the volunteer fire brigades or something like that…
Yes, a 9-1-1! And these people should be ready to go within…let’s say five days or something like that. We have it in a disaster area. If there’s an earthquake or big flood, then we have people more or less out there quickly. My Geneva office was ready to go in twelve hours…. Translate that to the peacekeeping situation…Because now it takes far too long for us to set up an operation.
Is that something that the UN secretariat could play a role in, or does it require Security Council authorization?
No, I think that could be something that the Security Council and the Secretariat could agree on to have available. For instance, if you can imagine, hopefully, that there will be an end to the fighting in Syria, well, even with an end to the fighting you may very well have a situation on the ground with revenge. What do you do then on the ground to prevent that this explodes again?… I have found in my experience in the UN that there is a role for international eyes and ears. One of the tragedies about Rwanda was that international eyes and ears left.
While serving as President of the General Assembly in 2005, you were deeply involved in the meeting which led to the establishment of the principle of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Do you feel it has for the most part been of value? Or has it been abused in certain ways?
While I was at the UN and undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, there was a discussion about humanitarian intervention that didn’t fly. This was considered flagrant intervention by mostly Western powers. Most countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America felt that we used [it] as a political Trojan horse, a pretext to get in. Then the Canadians set up a commission, with Gareth Evans, then Australia’s foreign minister, I was involved, and were discussing whether one couldn’t turn this around, reframe the discussion. For example, if for reasons of sovereignty you couldn’t have humanitarian intervention, why don’t we then say, and mean it, that sovereignty implies that you protect your own population from ethnic cleansing, mass killing, genocide? Being in charge of a nation, a leader, whether you are elected or not, you have a responsibility as an aspect of sovereignty that your course must commit yourself to protect your population.… I was president of the General Assembly negotiating this. Summer 2005. Then the question arose as to what you can do if it’s a failed state and the population is being slaughtered. Then it was accepted for the first time that the international community has a responsibility to act when a state fails to live up to its responsibility to protect. That’s a big step.…
That political language could mean that solidarity does not necessarily stop at a border, but at human beings in need. But now come the difficulties. Who decides what then to do? And that’s where the biggest and most difficult negotiation came up. We added, which I had nothing against at all, that any action must be made on a collective basis. In other words, not [by] an individual nation…. That’s not covered by R2P. And second, of course, we came to the conclusion that the only body that would have the responsibility for international security would be the Security Council…. We forgot during the Libya debate that, in fact, that responsibility to protect is about more [than] a responsibility to prevent. We lost that first nuance. I didn’t go through that part of the language, we’re supposed to prevent before it comes… so now we’ve been stuck in the debate mostly at the phase of whether we should go in militarily, and that was what the Libya operation led to…. I am the first one to welcome that there was a reference in the resolution to R2P is both to protect, but Russia, China and others felt that NATO went too far in that resolution. So that is still a factor we witness in the Security Council deadlock and debate on Syria.
There is a legacy of mistrust?
Yes, the legacy that this will be used as a reason for regime change, automatically…But most countries would agree that if there’s a humanitarian crisis, then [they need] to have help on their side.… [In] 1991…we couldn’t even dream then of doing that on the human rights field, or in the case of massive ethnic cleansing. But now, 2005, there was this breakthrough, that after all you had to protect your population, and if you failed, the international community has a responsibility. So I believe R2P is there to stay. But in Syria it’s been almost impossible.
Do you see the possibility of a negotiated settlement in Syria?
Well there was a hopeful sign, an important step when [opposition coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib] came forward and said that he would work for [a] negotiated end of this conflict. He took a big risk.
The difference between a negotiated end to this conflict and a so-called military victory is a lot of time. It will take much longer time to achieve a military solution, so-called…. [And the] risk of a wave of revenge, the risk of the pendulum swinging, is greater if you don’t have a negotiated end. I’ve been in those situations…. So this is my faint hope now, that this step taken by the opposition is a sign that we could have an end to this by negotiated means, [with UN peace envoy] Lakhdar Brahimi.
We now have identified 4 million people at risk whom we want to reach either on our own, or through NGOs, or through the Syria Red Crescent, or whatever other methods we can have. Then we have 750,000 refugees in the neighborhood. And when we have this situation, which we regret deeply, that we don’t have a strong Security Council resolution, we don’t have the muscular power we need to bring about an end to the fighting, then there are two things that remain for us to do: one is the political negotiations with two of the best negotiators we can find–Kofi Annan and Brahimi–but with a resolution which isn’t strong enough to bring about an end to the fighting…. The other thing we can do is to do our absolute utmost to help people in this urgent situation, who are in urgent need. And the latest is that we are seeing problems that have to do with…failing infrastructure, electricity grids gone, schools gone, and water facilities…. I have been all over the world and seen the cholera epidemics in situations like this—so we launched this very strong program to bring fresh water [to] the people…
In your view, are there enough women throughout the UN system –at all levels of authority? What can be done to increase the number of women who are sent as envoys and special representatives?
I must admit, it’s a conspicuous and sad absence of women in negotiations that I’ve seen. I don’t think I’ve ever…in my six negotiations, mediations, seen a woman on the other side. Horrible. On the other hand, when Salem Salem negotiated in Darfur, we invited the women’s organizations as privileged observers to the negotiations. And it wasn’t welcomed by all people on site, but we did so. And of course there is Security Council Resolution 1325 on women’s participation in peacemaking and peace building, which [is] binding. So those are signs forward…. Even in situations like Sudan, you would expect that you wouldn’t have free debate and courageous women or human rights activists, but I saw women’s organizations and human rights activists, not only in Darfur but also in Khartoum.
You’ve said that there are so many crises, that others don’t get attention they demand and deserve. What is being overlooked? Of course, there is Syria and Mali. But you’ve also talked about the silent crises—like the water crisis. Is there something in terms of your idea of media that is also amplifying what needs to be prevented? Is there something we should be paying attention to now to warn and rally people?
There are two areas where I don’t think we have developed enough international instruments…. [First,] organized crime, you have narcotics, a $300 billion [industry]; you have illegal arms trade [of] about $150 billion, prostitution, human trafficking [at] $10 billion…. They are so powerful now that they influence states to a degree that never before. I won’t say names but there are states that are called narco-states. And I have, in my work in certain parts of the world, met prosecutors, judges, who want to fight this but do it at the risk of their own lives and families’ lives…. if this continues with this pace and our methods of dealing with it [being] so weak, it could continue to undermine democracies or institutions…
[Second,] migration. It could be a very positive thing if we do it right, because it’s a sign of mobility, vitality, the free movement of people and ideas. But of course with the economic stress, this is seen as a problem, you built walls, and then you have illegal migrants, that discussion you have in your own country. And above all you risk having the discussion that you point to those outside as a problem and you demonize them and you identify them in ethnic or sectarian terms. On the other hand, it’s such a fantastic force. First of all, to my own daughter is now becoming an American citizen.…
Then I would come back [to] my ideas about prevention. And [the] idea that we could have a system that we are bound to act in the early stages.
But is it financial capacity? Is it political will?
We don’t seem to reward prevention.
In any part of life.
It’s a human trait. Even psychologically, you don’t want to see the problem…. Like I had a wound here, I didn’t care about it until it got infected. I didn’t care to do it right from the beginning…. Prevention is not rewarded. You wouldn’t be rewarded as a journalist if you said, “This is so nice. This prevention.”
It’s about the crisis.
I as foreign minister, I can tell you, when I suggested something in government a couple of times that we should do this—climate, for instance, we have to do it or otherwise five, ten years from now we’re going to be in horrible shape. Well, what is five, ten years from now? It’s two mandate periods for us. So you are stuck with the mandate period. Business. You ask your business friends—the quarterly curse. So we have to reward prevention.
We could speak for hours, but…one of the new trends [is] the emerging powers. Brazil, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey…. Not only emerging economies, they’re emerging powers in the political sense. And this is why there is a little bit of, you know, unrest—tensions in the UN about these countries not being part of the Security Council.
It’s been an ongoing discussion.
When I was President of the General Assembly, this was the area where it was so difficult to make any progress. We did Human Rights Council. We did the peace building commission. We did the counter-terrorist strategy. A few other things. But the Security Council Reform, no.
Why has no one has been prosecuted for the housing crisis? We have the task force to do it, now let’s put it to work, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman co-chairs the Residential Mortgage Backed Securities working group. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)
This week’s State of the Union marked a year since President Obama announced the formation of the Residential Mortgage Backed Securities working group, a task force created to investigate and prosecute fraud and criminal activity by Wall Street that led to the housing crisis.
The task force, co-chaired by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, was something I applauded last January along with many progressives, who view it as a path to justice and relief for homeowners. We support it because it is vital that the mortgage servicers, lenders and big banks that dragged millions of Americans into foreclosure be held accountable. That was true then, and it’s true today.
Many are frustrated that the cases brought so far by the task force, against Bear Stearns and Credit Suisse, were in civil court, not criminal, and we have yet to see a “perp walk.” As last month’s tremendous Frontline documentary “The Untouchables” reminded us, four years since the financial crisis, no Wall Street figures of consequence in jail are for financial crimes—an outrage that should boil the blood of anyone committed to the rule of law.
We should all be asking questions about who is to blame and why. The issue in front of us now, though, is, how can we push to get results?
Barack Obama gives his 2013 State of the Union address. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak.)
During his State of the Union Address this week, President Obama put forth a bold call for jobs and growth, including a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to nine dollars an hour. Although progressives should push for a living wage that exceeds the president’s proposal, his leadership on the issue offers a starting point for people to organize around in states and communities. On PBS’s NewsHour on Wednesday, I talked about why raising the minimum wage is so vital to those living in poverty in the United States—and how reducing inequality is the only way forward to get our economy on track. “We need to look at and understand that inequality is perhaps the greatest threat to economic recovery and democracy, and in that context we must take action,” I argue.
But aside from a clear rejection of austerity and a push to strengthen the middle class, the president also called on Congress to prioritize immigration reform and gun control.
“Obama’s determination to devote so substantial a portion of his State of the Union Address to the gun debate that is still in formation, and his willingness to make specific and repeated demands for House and Senate votes, provided another indication that he will not let this issue go,” writes Washington Correspondent John Nichols. The president spoke powerfully about Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old who was shot and killed in Chicago just three weeks after singing at his inauguration. “Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence,” said the president. “They deserve a vote.” As Nichols writes, Obama’s emotional call signals his commitment to taking action on gun violence, and his repeated statement, “they deserve a vote,” forcefully condemns the obstructionism that dominates Congress.
While there’s much for progressives to applaud in the president’s address, Aura Bogado reports why Obama’s call for immigration reform is troubling—and why some undocumented immigrants expected more from him. The president emphasized the need for a pathway to citizenship, but only with restrictions like background checks, fees and fines, and English language requirements. “Some of those restrictions might stand in the way of undocumented immigrant workers who labor long days with little pay, and little access to time or educational opportunities that would allow them to learn English,” writes Bogado. And, as Bogado told Democracy Now! this week, with a record number of deportations under his administration, “what people were hoping to hear was a halt to deportations.”
As for the Republican response, Marco Rubio’s rebuttal to the president was, if nothing else, “remarkable for being unremarkable,” as George Zornick observes. And the only substantive part of the speech was an attack that was riddled with lies about the Affordable Care Act. Zornick fact checks Rubio’s claims and reveals how he’s “explicitly trying to scare people into thinking they’re about to either lose their health insurance or get fired because of Obamacare. But none of this is true.” Take a look at Zornick’s full analysis of Rubio’s rebuttal—and how he failed to make the case that Obamacare is hurting middle-class Americans. Also, as I told ABC News’s The Note on Friday, while Rubio’s water moment dominated coverage of his speech, what we should really be focusing on is his opposition to the Violence Against Women Act.
For more analysis on the State of the Union Address and what this means for our economy, infrastructure and future, listen to my conversation with Brian Lehrer on WNYC this week. And check back to The Nation as we continue to assess the president’s priorities.
The only thing Marco Rubio proved with his rebuttal to the State of the Union was that he is not ready for prime time, Katrina vanden Heuvel tells ABC.
Editor’s Note: Katrina vanden Heuvel answered five questions for ABC News’s The Note, reposted here. You can read the original interview here.
1) What was your reaction to seeing Sen. Marco Rubio grab a bottle of water as he was giving the Republican response to the State of the Union? He must have known how that would appear, no?
What I saw on Tuesday night was yet another Republican “savior” who is not ready for prime time. Doing TV isn’t easy—in some ways you have to feel for him over the water bottle. But really he’s lucky, because what we all should have been talking about was Rubio’s vote Tuesday to oppose the Violence Against Women Act. The idea, in 2013, that anyone could vote against the Violence Against Women Act and still be considered a serious national political figure is ridiculous and should be the headline. Instead we’re talking about water bottles.
2) Should bipartisan legislation actually pass to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, does that help shift Latino votes away from Democrats and toward the GOP at the polls in 2014?
It could win some votes in the short term, but long-term the Republican Party will need to go much further, particularly on economic issues, to capture Latino voters long term. I’m more concerned about the legislation itself, and whether it goes far enough to meet the needs of guest workers and other groups whose fate is muddled in the current legislation. President Obama can also draw distinctions with the GOP by taking action by executive order on issues that would never pass congress, like ending the deportation of undocumented parents immediately.
3) What do you make of all the talk about Governor Chris Christie’s size? Is his weight a legitimate concern for voters if he decides to make a run for the White House in 2016?
Like Gail Collins, I welcome Chris Christie’s candidacy as a possible renaissance for William Howard Taft biographies. But seriously, Chris Christie should be far more concerned about the foreclosure rate in New Jersey and the impacts of his austerity cuts. His policies will prove far more damaging to his candidacy than his weight.
4) Former vice president and environmental activist Al Gore has received has received some flack for selling Current TV to Al-Jazeera. Does the sale bother you?
I think we need more good journalism and investigative reporting on our airwaves, period. Al Jazeera English has played host to some intelligent discussions, which we need more of. If they can use this as an opportunity to bring more investigative reporting, long-form journalism and informed debate to the airwaves, then we should all welcome them to the arena. (By the way, I thought Time-Warner cable showed political and journalistic cowardice by dropping Current because of the Al Jazeera deal.)
5) The last few years have been tough for many print publications. In December, Newsweek stopped producing a print edition. Do you expect that The Nation will reach a point when it will follow suit?
Never! The Nation turns 150 in 2015. We’ve survived I think, for 150 years by staying truly independent, and by filling our pages with unfiltered takes on politics and culture. Magazines of opinion like The Nation continue to matter because they are a critical counterforce against the tabloidization, consolidation, dumbing-down and fact-challenged “debate” that dominates our political culture.
Today The Nation is now available weekly on more than a dozen digital platforms with more than 1.1 million readers. We have more print subscribers today than we did a decade ago, and we firmly believe—as our readers do—that the printed word is an essential part of the mix.
Banks that are too big too fail are too big to exist, Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in her last post.
Barack Obama gives his State of the Union speech. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak.)
If the great debate in America in the years after the great recession has been between austerity and growth, on Tuesday night President Obama shifted it back to where it must be—to jobs and growth—if our fragile recovery is to be sustained.
With 20 million Americans in need of full-time work, the president was right to issue the Kennedy-esque call, “It is our generation’s task…to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth—a rising, thriving middle class.” But, left unanswered was how this White House or Congress plans to create jobs at the scale demanded? With single women, minorities and the young faring the worst, with wages sinking and with the top 1 percent capturing fully 93 percent of the nation’s income growth coming out of the Great Recession in 2010, how do we reset our course and compass and find “the North Star” the president spoke of? There was talk of a twenty-first-century WPA—a “Fix-it-First” program to put people to work on urgent repairs, like the 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across America and the floating of a long-discussed idea of a private-public Development Bank. But while Obama was clear that “deficit reduction is not an economic plan,” he also showed an unwillingness to boldly ignore deficit hawks (see Simpson-Bowles).
But what captures our attention and imagination on the morning after are the president’s humane initiatives, the ones millions have organized for. There was Obama’s rousing call to raise the minimum wage and indexing it to rise automatically each year with the cost of living: “Tonight, let’s declare that In the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.” (He mentioned the poor and poverty seven times.) His call for universal pre-school and pre-K and cost controls on higher education. His urging that Congress pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. His singling out of the overdue renewal of a strengthened Violence Against Women Act. His honoring of the 102-year-old Desilene Victor who waited six hours to vote last November, and with it a vow and a plan to fix our flawed voting systems. His determined, spirited, though oddly vague words about immigration reform.
And then for the first time in ten years in a SOTU speech there came the remarkably emotional mention of gun control. “They deserve a vote,” Obama called out to those assembled in the hall. The families of Newtown and Aurora, Gabby Giffords, the children of his hometown Chicago and Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old majorette who marched in his inaugural parade and was gunned down last month. (Her parents of were seated next to the first lady.)
The refrain—“They deserve a vote”—was a powerfully effective way to box in Republicans (and Democrats) and frame the issue of the overt or silent filibuster—which the GOP has cynically abused. (Mark my words, the refrain of “they deserve a vote” will sometime soon make a powerful commercial in Kentucky when and if Mitch McConnell leads a filibuster on new gun laws.)
And while the president spoke of winding down wars—he announced that 34,000 troops will be home from Afghanistan by this time next year, ahead of schedule (but still too slow)—the glossy veneer of words applied to the lethality of an escalating drone war on a widening global battefield was hard to stomach. The president still clings to a failed free trade policy, to an “all of the above” energy policy even as he embraces alternatives, and his foreign policy “vision” is still heavily trained on fighting terrorism (even the ballyhooed cyber-security program).
Tomorrow, Washington goes back to work. It confronts a manufactured crisis in the looming sequester and debt ceiling fight. What must be remembered the morning after is that America isn’t broke. It’s the priorities that are broken. And what’s too often missing from our media coverage is what matters—a recognition that the inside-the-Beltway crowd has a misplaced obsession with short-term deficits and debt rather than the real crisis of our time: joblessness, growing inequality and building a more sustainable, Main Street economy.
In his odd, water-lunge response to the SOTU, Senator Marco Rubio failed to rebrand, renew or reinvigorate his party. Instead, he sounded like he might have been giving the speech from the lobby of Havana’s Tropicana hotel, circa 1958. Offering the same stale platitudes—is giving the SOTU response a certain death wish for presidential contenders?—Rubio talked the talk of small business but planted himself firmly on the side of the wealthiest, the corporations and polluters who refuse to pay their fair share. He also revealed himself to be the champion of cruel and senseless cuts that will only undermine an already beleaguered middle class—and cast even more into poverty.
What’s needed now is bold citizen mobilization to make real the humane proposals launched at the State of the Union, while challenging the limits of the current economic debate. Toward the end of his remarks, President Obama spoke to the ideal of self-government: ‘…we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.” It is time to make a difference, reclaim self-government and challenge the cruelty of austerity and its correlary—extreme and corrosive economic inequality.
Even as Obama hit home on gun control, immigration reform languished, Aura Bogado writes.