How are your New Year's resolutions working for you?
Mine are going well. I find that the key to success is setting realistic goals. More than a week into 2010, I'm still keeping my New Year's vow to gain weight, spend less time with my friends, watch more TV, and update my Twitter feed more while I'm driving.
Government policy initiatives aren't quite the same as New Year's resolutions, but in recent weeks the Obama administration has offered hints about its top objectives for 2010. It's part spin-doctoring. Politicians must manage expectations. One of the reasons Obama's approval rating has taken such a huge hit in recent months is the gap between the nation's high expectations and the nation's currently dreadful economic reality. I'm not saying Obama has done a good or bad job domestically. But I do think millions of people overestimated the ability of short-term policy changes to steer a giant country out of a long-term, systemic economic mess.
President Obama's big domestic New Year's resolution appears to be acting to reduce the budget deficit, and to do it in a way that signals seriousness to deficit-sensitive independent voters. This is a Congressional election year, after all.
Overseas, Obama's objectives include getting out of Iraq as quickly and as quietly as possible, while delving deeper into Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and anywhere else that would-be al-Qaida operatives are cramming explosives under their nutsacks.
During his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in November, Obama hinted broadly that seriously addressing international human rights is also on his agenda for 2010.
Quoth Obama: "Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.
"The same principle applies to those who violate international law by brutalizing their own people. When there is genocide in Darfur; systematic rape in Congo; or repression in Burma there must be consequences."
The meaning of the first paragraph is clear enough. The arms race in East Asia is a reference to North Korea's nuclear arms buildup. The bit about the Middle East is a reference to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, Israel's large nuclear arsenal, and the possibility that an Iranian nuclear weapon might inspire the Saudi royal family to trade in a couple of their surplus yachts and palaces for a nuke of its own.
The bit about Darfur, Congo and Burma surprised me a little.
Last time I checked, there's no real clamoring in this country, or within the United Nations, for stronger international action in any of those areas. Moving them higher on the agenda, or even just drawing attention to them, has a high political risk-to-reward ratio. Fail and you're rightfully criticized as an ineffectual blowhard. Succeed and nobody cares because, like, unemployment is still really high, and, OMG, Khloe Kardashian has gained, like, 7 pounds since she got married.
The Sudanese government's genocide in Darfur has been met with silence and inaction for years, not just by the U.S. but internationally. China has embraced Sudan's government because Sudan has untapped oil wealth that China's eager to consume. As long as China has a veto on the U.N. Security Council, the international community has no muscle to stop Sudan. Is the U.S. going to jeopardize relations with China over Darfur? Fat chance.
Congo already has the U.N.'s largest international peacekeeping force (20,000 people, in a country the size of the part of the U.S. that lies east of the Mississippi River) roaming its territory, but the systematic rape Obama bemoaned continues. We're barely holding onto the international coalition in Afghanistan. There's no way we're going to get nations to send more troops to Congo.
Obama's best opportunity on his shortlist is Burma. The U.S. is trying to get Burma's military dictatorship to loosen its death grip prior to next year's scheduled elections. And we actually have leverage: Burma has billions in international banks that the U.S. can tie up with a stroke of Obama's pen.
Obama said, "There must be consequences." If a U.S. president can't create consequences, who can?
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