David Rohde

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The jobs answer that Jeremy Epstein – and the middle class – deserved
David Rohde
OCT 18, 2012 21:36 UTC
Since asking the candidates at Tuesday’s presidential debate how they would improve his job prospects, college junior Jeremy Epstein has been lionized on Twitter, repeatedly interviewed on television and declared a nerdy sex symbol.
Unfortunately, as they have throughout the campaign, Romney and Obama avoided details when answering Epstein’s thoughtful question. Instead, they lampooned each others’ records and policies. Such answers are to be expected, arguably, in the waning weeks of an extraordinarily tight presidential campaign.
But an analysis of Obama’s and Romney’s specific proposals and the positions of their key advisers – particularly when it comes to creating manufacturing jobs – shows that voters do face a critical choice. This is, in fact, an election that will send the federal government in one of two very different directions when it comes to long-term job creation.
In his answer at the debate, Romney referred to his five-point plan that he said will create 12 million new jobs in the United States. The plan, which is detailed in a white paper endorsed by four leading conservative economists, is a full-throated endorsement of using tax breaks and market forces alone to revive the American economy. While Romney is tacking toward the center in the race’s final weeks, it is fair for voters to assume that he will slash the size of government, and rely on a free-market approach to the economy.
The white paper, for example, calls for reducing federal spending to 20 percent of GDP by 2016, its pre-financial crisis average. It hails Romney’s proposed across the board 20 percent tax break. And it calls for a sweeping reduction in government regulation, specifically repeal of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulations and Obamacare. The word “manufacturing” does not appear in it.
The Romney camp seems wary of even a light-touch attempt to boost manufacturing. During this spring’s Republican primaries, R. Glenn Hubbard, lead author of the white paper, dean of Columbia University’s business school, and a top Romney economic adviser, criticized a proposal by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum to use tax policy to bolster American manufacturing. In February, Santorum proposed that government aid the sector by exempting manufacturing companies from corporate income taxes.
“By proposing special tax breaks for manufacturing, Mr. Santorum follows Mr. Obama’s incorrect lead and introduces a significant economic distortion,” Hubbard wrote in a March Wall Street Journal editorial. “In a world with highly mobile capital, tax policy needs to be neutral toward different forms of business activity and not succumb to the temptation to pick winners and losers.”
If Romney is likely to embrace a no-government approach, it is fair for voters to assume to assume that Obama will do the opposite. Obama also tacked to the center in Tuesday’s debate, but he and many liberal economists embrace an entirely different view of economic theory and American history.
Members of the administration and liberal economists credit the role of government research and defense spending with creating everything from the Internet to high-speed semi-conductors to the completion of the human genome project. That level of basic research, they contend, created the foundations for enormous growth by private sector online, pharmaceutical and computing companies.
“There is a long history of government involvement in supporting innovation and growth in many ways,” Gary Pisano, a Harvard Business School professor, told me in an interview today. “Sometimes, it is very broad, like land grant colleges. Sometimes, it is very specific like granting railroads right-of-way in the American west. It has had a role. We can’t deny it.” (A separate interview I did with Pisano about his new book Producing Prosperity: Why America needs a manufacturing renaissance earlier this week is below.)

A second Obama term is likely to involve heavy government role in promoting manufacturing. An investment in community colleges would theoretically create the skilled machinists, for example, that are needed for advanced manufacturing. A National Institute of Manufacturing – modeled on the National Institutes of Health – may even be created.
Ironically, whoever wins the presidency is likely to enjoy a sharply improved economy.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that even if the so-called “fiscal cliff” is not averted in January, the American economy will create 9.06 million jobs between 2013 and 2017, nearly double the number created in the last four years. In an even more optimistic prediction, Moody’s analytics says that whoever is elected president, 12 million jobs will be created by 2016.
Whether they deserve it or not, the winner will claim that the improving economy is an endorsement of their economic vision. In short, the decision is an important one. It is also stark.
Obama has at times gone too far in intervening in the economy. The administration’s disastrous investments in Solyndra and other alternative energy companies was a classic example of government trying to pick winners and losers. But we ought not to conclude that just because certain types of government investing go awry there is no role for government at all.
I agree with Pisano’s outlook that government, in fact, plays an enormous role in the economy. The carried interest tax break is a massive subsidy to the private equity industry. The home mortgage interest deduction is an enormous boost for the middle class.
And in today’s globalized economy we compete with economic rivals who aggressively subsidize their leading industries. Having no government assistance in manufacturing is the equivalent of unilateral disarmament in today’s de facto trade wars.
I believe there is a broad, long-term role the government can and should take in reviving manufacturing, but it should not engage in picking winners and losers. Both candidates’ plans have their shortcomings. In the end, I err toward the approach that is less ideological. On job creation and reviving manufacturing, Obama is more realistic.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (R) speak directly to each other during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012.   REUTERS/Win McNamee/POOL
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Romney’s extreme foreign policy makeover
David Rohde
OCT 11, 2012 20:48 UTC
It began two weeks ago with a little-noticed speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, where Mitt Romney distanced himself from Tea Party Republicans and defended the legitimacy of American foreign aid programs. And it continued in a speech on Monday at the Virginia Military Institute, where Romney – after months of hailing only Israel – called Turkey and pro-democracy Arab Spring demonstrators American allies as well.
“As the joy born from the downfall of dictators has given way to the painstaking work of building capable security forces, and growing economies, and developing democratic institutions,” Romney said, “the President has failed to offer the tangible support that our partners want and need.”
Just as in domestic policy, Mitt Romney is softening his rhetoric in foreign affairs. Moving away from more strident stances on supporting Israel, increasing U.S. defense spending and fearing the Arab Spring, he is adopting a more measured tone. The question, of course, is whether voters will embrace the new Romney or see him as an opportunistic chameleon.
Romney’s campaign won’t acknowledge any official shift, but recent press reports have noted the rising prominence of Richard Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser and veteran diplomat viewed as a relative moderate in Republican foreign policy circles. Williamson led a call with reporters before Romney’s speech on Monday and appears to have had a hand in his recent change of tone. Rhetorically at least, the role of neo-conservative advisers – such as former George W. Bush administration officials Liz Cheney and Dan Senor – seems to be waning.
In an hour-long phone interview on Wednesday, Williamson denied any shift – or division – within the Romney campaign. But he presented a far more nuanced version of Romney’s approach to the Middle East than displayed on Romney’s trip to Israel in July. The Israel trip was organized by Senor, the neo-conservative former Bush administration official.
In a wide-ranging critique of Obama administration policy, Williamson laid out an approach that went beyond backing Israel. As Romney did in his speech on Monday, Williamson said a Romney administration would work with its allies to ensure that Syria’s rebels receive missiles that will allow them to shoot down government attack jets and helicopters. And he said a Romney White House would do more to back post-Arab Spring countries as they try to democratize.
In a critique that sounded more as if it were coming from the left than the right, Williamson accused the Obama administration of relying too heavily on drone strikes in counterterrorism operations. He said a Romney administration would do more to address the political, economic and social conditions that foster extremism.
“Drone killings, targeted killings, is not a foreign policy,” he said. “It’s not even a strategy to deal with Islamic extremism and terrorism.”
An opinion piece that Romney published in the Wall Street Journal last Sunday made a similar argument. The Republican nominee accused Obama of failing to use “the full spectrum of our softer power” to help “those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression.” And in his speech on Monday, Romney criticized Obama for not doing more to aid the economies of post-Arab Spring countries.
“The dignity of work,” Romney said, “and the ability to steer the course of their lives are the best alternatives to extremism.”
That rhetoric is a far cry from the language Romney used in a speech in Jerusalem in July. At the time, he called the Middle East a region of “rising tumult and chaos” and warned darkly of the election of an “Islamist president” in Egypt. In last week’s Wall Street Journal piece, the new Romney called the Arab Spring “an opportunity to help move millions of people from oppression to freedom.”
Colin Kahl, a senior foreign policy adviser in the Obama campaign, scoffed at Romney’s changes. He said the Republican nominee was frantically trying to soften his image.
“The Romney campaign is in a desperate final few weeks of trying to reinvent themselves,” he said. “I think more in tone than in substance, you saw a slight shift.”
Kahl has a point. Romney’s recent speeches have been an odd combination of sophistication and pablum. In one passage, he rightly calls for working with Turkey and backing moderate Muslims in the Middle East. In the next, he calls for showing “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel. Romney correctly highlights the central role that economic growth can play in countering extremism, but then simplistically states that the answer to the region’s complex problems is reducing trade barriers.
Don’t expect that to change. In the interview, Williamson flatly denied that there were any contradictions in Romney’s stances. Instead, he vowed that Romney would continue to aggressively attack Obama on the subject through a pivotal final Oct. 22 presidential debate on foreign affairs.
“If he thinks he’s going to be fine,” Williamson said, referring to Obama, “he’s going to have another bad day.”
So far, the Obama campaign has struggled to derail or discredit Romney’s new shift to moderate ground. As in domestic policy, Romney stays vague on details and offers contradictory rhetorical tidbits that appeal to divergent voters. Hailing Israel pleases the Christian right. Supporting Turkey charms Republican internationalists.
What Romney actually believes is impossible to know. The former Massachusetts governor may not be a better president than Obama, but in the last two weeks he has been a better politician.
PHOTO: Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney delivers his foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, October 8, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
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Come down from the mountain, Mr. President
David Rohde
OCT 4, 2012 17:49 UTC
The Barack Obama of last night’s presidential debate was eerily similar to the man who delivered a muddled acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. The incumbent was cautious, tired and on some level – it seemed – turned off by the manipulation of facts that is the ugly heart of politics.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, seemed to relish it. The challenger was fresher, faster and folksier than a sub-par president. Obama seemed startled and frustrated by Romney’s deft shift to the center and audacious effort to portray Obama as the extremist: Obama is a defender of the big banks; Obama is gutting Medicare; Obama funneled $90 billion to fat-cat contributors in the renewable energy industry.
Fact-checking by Reuters and other news organizations shows that Romney glaringly twisted the facts. What was more surprising – and troubling – was Obama’s tepid response.
As in Charlotte, Obama was extraordinarily careful last night. While Romney adopted a wholly new political tack, Obama used the same tired rhetoric, calling for a “balanced approach” to reducing the deficit, all Americans “playing by the same rules” and Romney favoring “those who are better off.”
I can’t think of a single new policy idea that Obama unveiled last night or in Charlotte. The president and his speechwriters must develop more lucid, pithy ways of describing his policies. That may be distasteful, but it is real.
Romney, on the other hand, dramatically shifted to the center. As Matt Miller of the Washington Post pointed out, Romney and his aides will be lauded as geniuses if he wins. Instead of shifting to the center after securing the nomination, as candidates have for decades, they are dashing to the center in the race’s final weeks.
Whether voters believed Romney or not remains to be seen, but last night he was a Rockefeller Republican moderate who embraced the need for regulation, Social Security and his governorship of Democratic-leaning Massachusetts. All of the hard-right, Tea Party red meat of the primaries vanished. Whatever the veracity of his statements, credit Romney with having a plan last night, taking a risk and executing well.
Obama and his aides may have decided to sit back, hold steady and maintain the presidential high ground. They may have gambled that Romney would make a gaffe, trip up or somehow stumble. Clearly, they lost that wager.
In the end, there is a problem that goes beyond debate tactics. Obama is failing to lay out a clear agenda for his second term. Yes, specificity is the enemy of any politician. But Americans need a reason to vote for Obama, not just a reason to vote against Romney.
I don’t know the true dynamics inside the White House, but from the outside two forces seem to weaken Obama’s presidency: insularity and overconfidence. To the surprise of many, the Obama White House has proved to be as isolated as that of the George W. Bush administration.
In the Obama White House, a small circle of aides plays a central role in all major decisions, according to press accounts. The president rarely engages with outsiders. Since taking office, he has developed few strong relationships with leaders of Congress or foreign heads of state. And like all presidents, he lives in a bubble.
As David Gergen noted after the debate, Obama joined the long line of incumbent presidents who seemed thrown off their game when their opponents bluntly challenged them in their first re-election debate. News stories have euphemistically referred to Obama being “distant” or “aloof.” The president – like all of his predecessors – is reported to have a staggering ego.
Surviving the pressure, brutal criticism and isolation of the presidency clearly requires self-confidence. But both performances created the sense that Obama needs to work harder for this win.
Lastly, David Brooks raised another possibility after Obama’s weak performance in Charlotte. Is the Obama administration, he asked on the PBS NewsHour, intellectually exhausted?
For me, this is the most troubling scenario. Four years of brutal partisan warfare in Washington could leave the administration out of touch and bereft of new ideas.
In the weeks ahead, we’ll find out if that is true. Romney may have inadvertently done the president a favor by publicly humbling him. Obama needs to come down from the mountain, take more risks and be a more daring and deft politician. More aloof calculation could cause voters to send him packing.
PHOTO: President Barack Obama (R) listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the first presidential debate in Denver, October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
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How a place like Brazil can be a job creator for the U.S.
David Rohde
OCT 3, 2012 20:09 UTC
VITORIA DE SANTO ANTAO, Brazil – Last year, Kraft built a gleaming new factory on the outskirts of this town in northeastern Brazil. When I visited it last month, my heart sank.
The state-of-the art, $80 million facility seemed to be yet another example of the inevitable shift of jobs from a declining America to emerging powers like Brazil, China and India.
When I looked closer, though, it was clear that the globalized economy at work here is not a zero-sum game. There are opportunities for Americans as well. We simply need to let Europeans teach us how to seize them.
After decades of poverty, northeastern Brazil is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. The birthplace of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Pernambuco state is attracting hefty domestic and foreign investment.
The Brazilian government is constructing a new World Cup stadium here at a cost of $500 million, replete with hotels, shopping malls, apartment buildings and a university. State-run companies have hired 40,000 workers to construct one of the country’s largest refineries, port and shipyard complexes at a cost of $13 billion.
In a former sugarcane field, Fiat is building a $1.7 billion auto plant that will produce 200,000 cars a year in 2014. Chinese, South Korean, Filipino and Russian companies are here as well.
Last year, Kraft joined them. The Chicago-based conglomerate is the world’s second-largest food company. Over the years, it has purchased Cadbury, Toblerone and other rivals, but some analysts and investors – including Warren Buffett – have criticized it for trying to grow too quickly.
Kraft’s new factory here employs 700 Brazilians and churns out tens of thousands of tons of Tang, chocolate wafers and Oreo cookies for sale to northeastern Brazil’s growing middle class. If all goes as planned, expansions will triple the size of the factory and its workforce to 2,200 over the next five years. For now, this corner of Brazil is a winner in globalization.
Cities and towns across northeastern Brazil competed to be the site of the new Kraft plant. Each offered larger and larger concessions to the company. In the end, the town gave Kraft the land for the factory for free, and the state gave the company a 90 percent tax break. Kraft, like other multinationals, is a big winner in globalization as well.
A tour of the factory was filled with surprises and lessons. Andre Imianoski, a young, friendly and professional Brazilian engineer, told me this was Kraft’s first LEED environmentally certified facility in the world. There were solar panels from Spain, high-speed packaging equipment from Italy and German-made machinery that churned out tens of thousands of sweet-smelling, chocolate-covered wafers.
Ninety percent of the machinery in the factory was made in Europe, and there was little American-made equipment. European companies, it seemed, had adjusted to the loss of manufacturing by producing complex machinery for factories in emerging market nations.
After the tour, I learned that by far the largest foreign investors in Pernambuco were European companies, not American ones. Between 2004 and 2011, Kraft, Alcoa, Pepsi and four other American companies invested roughly $244 million in the state, according to Brazilian officials. During the same period, Fiat, Nestlé, Novartis and two dozen other European companies invested over $4 billion.
Doing business in Brazil is extremely frustrating, costly and time-consuming, according to Brazilian and American officials. Success requires patient, long-term investment. While European companies focused on the long term have flocked to the northeast, American managers focused on short-term profits and their companies’ daily stock price have focused on the saturated markets São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. That is a lost opportunity for the United States.
“They’re missing out,” says Usha E. Pitts, the senior American diplomat in northeastern Brazil. “There is so much potential here for American companies that are in it for the long haul.”
Kraft deserves credit for its move here, but another step it is taking has been questioned by some analysts. Last year, its management decided to divide the multinational behemoth into two companies. A smaller entity called Kraft Foods Group will focus on the saturated North American grocery market and have $19 billion in annual revenues. (Read: low profits and limited rise in stock value.)
A new company called Mondelez – an invented name that marketers hope will connote “delicious world” to global consumers – will focus on emerging markets and have projected revenue of $36 billion a year. (Read: high profits and enormous growth in stock value.) Its star product is the Oreo, which is now the world’s top-selling cookie, generating $2.3 billion a year in revenue.
Kraft officials say the split will allow them to better manage the sprawling company and serve investors. I worry it is a Wall Street-inspired maneuver to inflate stock values that will cost American jobs. As part of the division, over 1,600 Kraft employees in the U.S. and Canada will lose their jobs.
“Perhaps, though, such serial deal making is sweetest for Kraft’s investment bankers,” Wall Street Journal columnist Spencer Jakab wrote in August.
Multinational corporations shifting their attention to emerging market countries is inevitable. Kraft manufacturing plants will never return to the United States. But that does not mean there are no opportunities here for patient Americans. European companies have shown the path. Exporting to the growing middle classes of Brazil, China and India is one way for the American economy to thrive again.
CORRECTION: This piece originally misstated that the stadium being built in Pernambuco is the largest new stadium for the World Cup. It is not.
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The BRIC laggard
David Rohde
SEP 28, 2012 13:40 UTC
SAO PAULO – For decades, Denis Dias’s parents could never break into Brazil’s middle class. They started a bakery and a pizzeria in the 1970s and 1980s, but the country’s economic instability and hyper-inflation consumed their businesses and their hopes. His father ended up owning a newsstand. His mother worked as a maid. And Denis attended dilapidated state-run schools.
Over the last 10 years, Denis and at least 35 million other Brazilians have achieved their parents’ dream. Denis is a corporate lawyer at a Brazilian energy company and a new member of Brazil’s middle class, now 100 million people strong. Denis, his company and his nation have ridden the exports of iron ore, soy, oil and other natural resources to prosperity.
But Brazilians ranging from Dias to business leaders to government officials say Brazil must develop a more sophisticated economy and effective government if it hopes to continue its rise. While attention has focused on political turmoil in India, China and Russia, Brazil has quietly emerged as the economic laggard of the BRIC countries.
“Brazil is not competitive,” Dias lamented. “We need to change.”
Two weeks ago, Brazil’s finance minister announced that the country’s economy grew at an anemic 0.6 percent in the first half of 2012, far below South Africa’s 3.2 percent, Russia’s 4 percent, India’s 5.5 percent and China’s 7.6 percent during the same period. Even Latin American rivals Mexico, Chile and Colombia are growing faster, as is the United States.
Other indicators are worrying as well. In 2011, the World Bank named Brazil 126th out of 183 countries in its “Ease of Doing Business” rankings, a drop from 120th the previous year. Fears are high here that the country’s unsolved structural problems will prevent it from returning to the 4 percent average annual GDP growth it enjoyed over the last decade.
“Brazil will continue growing at pretty anemic rates,” said Pablo Fajnzylber, the World Bank’s lead economist in Brazil. “It will likely not go back to that 4 percent.”
To become a sophisticated economy with consistent growth, experts say President Dilma Rousseff must double Brazil’s spending on infrastructure, radically reform an education system that produces far too few skilled workers and engineers, ease high taxes and byzantine regulation, and curb corruption.
The ruling Workers Party defends its performance. In an impressive economic feat, middle-class Brazilians – defined by the government as a family of four making $600 to $2,500 per month – rose from 38 percent of the population in 2002 to 53 percent today, according to the World Bank.
A combination of strong economic growth and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s famed “bolsa familia,” or “family allowance” program – the largest conditional cash transfer program in the world – reduced poverty by 40 percent. Extreme poverty – defined as families struggling to obtain enough food – dropped by 50 percent, and Rousseff has vowed to eliminate it.
Dias, the corporate lawyer, moved from Brazil’s working class to its elite. His wife, who has an MBA from a Brazilian university, works for a local company that helps American franchises open in Brazil. Their newborn son will attend an elite private school, not a decrepit government one.
With Denis’s help, his 60-year-old mother has turned the house where he grew up in south São Paulo into a palace of Brazilian-style consumption. There are four televisions, four bedrooms, three bathrooms and two refrigerators, as well as an Xbox, DVD player and laptop computer.
“When I was a maid, I would work for 10 days without going home,” Dias’s mother, Lourdes, said as she proudly showed off her comfortable home. “Now the working conditions are much better, the payment is much better, and you have a choice who you can work for.”
Maria de Fatima Silva, a maid and 53-year-old mother of three who lives in the neighboring Monte Azul favela, agreed. As São Paulo’s middle class has expanded, bidding wars have erupted over maids, a longtime Brazilian prestige symbol.
Silva said that her earnings have doubled from $250 a month to $500 a month over the last decade while her work days declined from eight hours to six. At the same time, rising wages and the work of a non-profit group vastly improved living conditions in her favela.
“Now, it’s better,” she said, praising life in Brazil. “I used to work more and earn less. Now, I work less and earn more.”
But what comes next, many Brazilians are asking, as the country’s economy slows. Rousseff, a little-known former Marxist guerrilla who later became an economist, served as the chief of staff of charismatic former President Lula. Like her predecessor, she has proved more centrist and pragmatic than expected.
In August, she announced a $60 billion project to double the country’s highways and railways. In an ideological shift for her party, she invited Brazil’s private sector to participate.
New educations reforms are designed to ease a dire shortage of engineers that has prompted Brazilian companies to hire engineers from Spain and other struggling European countries.
And a core problem remains Brazil’s tax system, one of the most onerous and convoluted in the world. Dias, the corporate lawyer, said citizens and companies are increasingly frustrated with paying tax rates that rival those of Western Europe and not receiving commensurate services.
“People are getting really disappointed,” he said, “because it doesn’t achieve results.”
For the last decade, Brazil’s achievements have been impressive. But now, its barriers to growth, government corruption and low education levels are catching up with it. To extend its prosperity, it needs to shift from relying on natural resources to developing human ones.
PHOTO: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff participates in the meeting of the Economic and Social Development Council at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
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Republicans betray their foreign policy tradition
David Rohde
SEP 19, 2012 18:20 UTC
The release on Tuesday of Mitt Romney’s surreptitiously recorded comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict confirmed a sad truth about today’s Republican party. The GOP has gone from the party of strategic foreign engagement to the party of simplistic chauvinism.
The problem goes beyond Romney’s private comments at a Florida fundraiser in May. Repeatedly over the last week, his surrogates laid out a view of American foreign policy at odds with the party’s tradition of sophistication in foreign affairs.
It started with Liz Cheney. A day after four Americans were killed in Libya, Cheney accused the Obama administration of abandoning allies around the world and failing to intimidate Islamic militants.
“In too many parts of the world, America is no longer viewed as a reliable ally or an enemy to be feared,” Cheney wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Ask the mobs in Cairo who attacked our embassy, or the Libyan mobs who killed our diplomats at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.”
In a speech in Florida on Saturday, Paul Ryan continued on the same theme: Strength is the answer.
“If we project weakness, they come,” Ryan said, referring to those who might attack the U. S. “If we are strong, our adversaries will not test us and our allies will respect us.”
And Romney’s statements at the fundraiser displayed an astonishingly one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Echoing the arguments of right-wing Israelis, Romney declared that the Palestinians “have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace” and could not be trusted to police their own territory, and that “there’s just no way” for a two-state resolution.
“You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem,” Romney said. “We have a potentially volatile situation, but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”
Is this the party of John Foster Dulles, George Shultz and Howard Baker?
The broad, unspoken undercurrent of these comments is that the Middle East – from Palestinians to Libyans to Egyptians – is a monolith. That Arabs only understand strength. And that the region is backward. Those are dangerous, ignorant and counterproductive fallacies.
First, when it comes to Islamic militants, the idea of “intimidating” them is nonsensical. Radicals who long to die in battle will not be deterred by threats of death. Exceptions exist, but most believe they are fighting a vast Christian-Jewish-Hindu conspiracy to obliterate Islam from the face of the earth. We are dealing with a delusional enemy, not a group of Soviet Politburo members.
Yes, military force has a role in countering militancy. But force alone is not a cure-all.
Iran’s rulers must be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but pre-emptive air strikes will slow their weapons program, not eliminate it. Allowing sanctions and rising popular discontent to erode the regime’s hold on power is the best course.
Second, across the Middle East, the problem is not that the United States is seen as weak. It is that it is seen as a menacing, all-powerful force that uses its unrivaled military might to impose its will.
A June Pew Center public opinion poll in Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, found that clear majorities believe the U.S. acts unilaterally in the region. The American government is seen as being behind every major event in the Middle East – from the rebellion in Syria to the Muslim Brotherhood’s election victory in Egypt. The perceptions are illogical but real, and while conspiracy theories ought not influence policy, our problem is arrogance, not inaction.
Third, the Arab world is not a monolith. Nor are the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Clear majorities in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan support democracy, according to a July Pew public opinion poll. But after decades of the U.S. backing Arab dictators, many believe that the U.S. supports Israel more than it supports democracy.
Recent anti-American protests distort American views of the Arab Spring. The day after the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Libyans in Benghazi and Tripoli protested against the killings and apologized. “Sorry people of America this is not the pehaviour [sic] of our Islam and profit [sic],” one sign said. ”Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam,” read another placard.
Across the Middle East of the post-Arab Spring, moderates and hardliners are engaged in a historic struggle for power. Its outcome will affect the United States, its allies and the world economy for decades. Rather than falsely promising Americans that the U.S can ignore the problem, the U.S. must reimagine American influence in a changed region.
As I have written in the past, a clear message has emerged in interviews with Muslims across the Middle East and South Asia since 2001. They do not want to be dictated to by Americans. Nor do they want Islamic hardliners to impose an extreme version of Islam on them. Instead, they yearn for a third way where their countries can be both Muslim and modern.
I believe a new, more pragmatic and less military-oriented American policy in the Middle East will achieve more than the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did. In some instances, drone strikes, covert operations and lethal force may be necessary. But investment, education and training, and normalized relations, are just as important.
Today in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, young people yearn for American high-tech investments, trade and education. Public opinion surveys show an admiration for American technology, pop culture, democratic ideals and ways of doing business, particularly among the young. The rule of law, individual rights and consumerism are three of our most potent weapons against extremism.
The United States should ally itself with groups that support and abide by democratic norms, oppose violence and uphold international human rights laws, whatever their faith. Rather than boasting of our might, the core focus of American policy in the region should be how to quietly, consistently and effectively strengthen moderates over the long term.
The process will not be easy. We must learn to differentiate among groups. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political parties that won elections in Egypt and Tunisia are not ideal. But our true enemies – and theirs – are violent Salafist militants. We must judge groups by their actions, not by stereotypes.
The statements by Romney, Ryan and Cheney were, of course, political. All three were trying to create a compelling campaign narrative that appeals to voters: Obama is weak, military might alone can end terrorism, and foreign policy conundrums can be easily solved.
Yet for decades after World War Two, Republican presidents used a sophisticated combination of military force, diplomacy and economics to counter America’s enemies. They deftly created alliances, used American investment to help allies prosper, and patiently persevered. Over the last week, Romney, Ryan and Cheney betrayed that proud tradition.
PHOTO: U.S. Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney leaves a campaign fundraiser in Salt Lake City, Utah, September 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young
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Honoring a slain ambassador
David Rohde
SEP 13, 2012 20:32 UTC
Whoever murdered Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his staff in Libya this week is our enemy. And so are the bigots who made a lurid amateur video denigrating Islam.
Whether the video prompted the deadly attack in Libya is not yet known. Militant groups may have planned the killings. And the two acts are not equivalent: murdering four people is unjustifiable and incomparably worse than making an insulting video.
But both acts are the products of delusional extremists trying to drive a wedge between the United States and the Islamic world. Muslim and Christian extremists may seem to have nothing in common, but they are united in their desire to divide us. Stevens, an affable 52-year-old diplomat famed for his humility, integrity and willingness to listen, would not want us to help them, according to colleagues and friends.
Mark Ward, a senior USAID and State Department official who worked with Stevens in Libya, said his wishes would be clear. “He would say to the American people please don’t turn your back on Libya,” Ward said in an interview Wednesday. “They’ve been through 40 terrible years, they’ve just held elections and they’ve rejected extremism. This is absolutely not the time to let a couple of lunatics throw us off our resolve.”
According to Ward, Stevens’ message to Libyans would be to arrest the suspected perpetrators, provide them with defense lawyers and give them a fair trial. ’’Do the right thing,’” Ward said of the way to honor Stevens. “If there is one thing [his] life should stand for, let it stand for the rule of law.”
Fred Abrahams, a senior advisor with Human Rights Watch who frequently met with Stevens while working in Libya, agreed. He said the ambassador wasn’t naïve about the country’s vast problems but saw Gaddafi’s overthrow as historic opportunity to establish the rule of law Libyans yearned for after 42-years of chaotic Gaddafi rule.
“Just as the U.S. should not be blamed for the offensive film of a few deluded whackos, Libya should not be blamed for the unjustified violence of a few ignorant extremists,” Abrahams said in an email Thursday. “And maybe this will spur the Libyan government to rein in the militias that have troubled Libya since Gaddafi’s fall — Chris would have wanted that.”
Abrahams and Ward pointed out that the Libyan government condemned Stevens’ killing and that many Libyans – including Islamists – have as well. He and Ward both pointed to the country’s July elections as a more accurate expression of the country’s popular will.
At the ballot box, conservative Islamic religious parties fared comparatively poorly in Libya after sweeping post-Arab Spring elections in Tunisia and Egypt. A coalition of Libyan liberals led by war-time opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril won 39 of the 80 seats reserved for political parties in the new national assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party came in second with 17 seats.
To the surprise of many observers, Jibril’s liberals won seat in areas considered conservative strongholds. Thirty-two women won seats as well. The ultimate balance of power, though, will be decided by 120 candidates who won seats reserved for independents.
The reaction from other corners has been disappointing. Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued statements that condemned the video more forcefully than they did the killings of the diplomats. The tepid responses are unjustifiable and reflect a widespread assumption among conservative Muslims that the United States government tacitly supports the video. In societies where leaders have tightly controlled public debate for decades, American explanations about the need for freedom of speech are viewed skeptically.
And in the United States, a predictably petty campaign spat emerged, with Mitt Romney and other conservatives accusing President Obama of responding to the attacks too meekly. Liberals, in turn, ridiculed Romney and questioned his mental state.
Among average Americans, the murder of Stevens is likely to reinforce a widespread desire for the United States to get out – and get out now – of the Middle East. After losing 7,978 American lives and at least $1.2 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are understandably exhausted with the region.
I agree that our military invasions have been disastrous but believe there are other tools we can use, from diplomacy to trade to technology, to support moderate Muslims. A historic struggle between conservatives and liberals is underway across the Islamic world. It is vital that the United States find a way to more consistently, cheaply and effective support moderates in the region.
In many ways, Stevens embodied that new approach. The northern California native worked as Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and then gave up a career as an international trade lawyer to become a diplomat. He then spent twenty years working as a diplomat across the Middle East. In Libya, he coordinated aid to the Libyan opposition during the 2011 uprising. After becoming ambassador, he spent hours listening to Libyans and differentiating among them.
“He represented what you hoped would be the model of a new American diplomat,” said Ward, the former colleague. “He was much happier rolling his sleeves up and going to work and talking to Libyans.”
The best way to honor Stevens is to bring the perpetrators to justice, condemn the bigotry on all sides and increase our interaction with the Muslim world, not decrease it. That is the most powerful way to counter the conspiracy theories, prejudice and stereotypes spawned by extremists. Bigots on both sides want us to fear, dehumanize and denigrate each other.
Three weeks before he died, Stevens re-opened the American consulate in Tripoli and announced that visas would be issued to hundreds of Libyan businessmen, journalists and students to visit the United States. He said that increasing trade, educational ties and interaction between the two countries was vital.
“Relationships between governments are important, but relationships between people are the real foundation of mutual understanding,” he said. “So, my message to Libyans today is ahlan wasahlan bikum. You are welcome to visit America, and there’s the door!”
We should open doors, not close them.
PHOTO: Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, sits down at a meeting discussing cooperation between the two countries on issues of human rights, in Tripoli June 27, 2012. REUTERS/Anis Mili
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Parsing Romney’s and Obama’s middle-class pablum
David Rohde
SEP 7, 2012 12:30 UTC
Throughout the last two weeks of political conventions, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and a vast array of surrogates accused their opponents of gutting the American middle class.
Paul Ryan and Bill Clinton did it blatantly. Michelle Obama and Ann Romney did it subtly. And all speakers tried to portray themselves as in touch with the middle class, from the Romneys eating “lots of pasta and tuna fish” to Barack Obama’s proudest possession being “a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster.”
In the process, though, both parties gave politically skewed definitions of the middle class, simplistically blamed each other for its struggles and presented pat solutions for the complex problems it faces.
In Republican oratory, the middle class consists of small-business owners who are being crushed by taxes, regulation and a bloated government. In truth, only about 11 percent of American heads of household are self-employed​.
In Democratic speechifying, the middle class is made up of hard-working teachers, police officers and union members being laid off by miserly Republicans. Yet those Americans, however hard they work, depend on successful businesses and banks for their prosperity.
In reality, the middle class is a dizzyingly complex demographic. It includes the 50 percent of Americans, for example, who work for large companies with more than 500 employees. And it includes drillers and farmers in North Dakota who are collecting hefty paychecks and cashing in on bumper crops in the state, which has a 3 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in the nation.
The middle class is not in free-fall, as some Republicans argued. And the middle class is not the country’s sole economic engine, as Democrats suggested. Overall, the American middle class today is struggling to surmount torpid wages, global competition for jobs, low home values and spiraling healthcare and education costs. The middle class is stagnant.
What follows is the first of several efforts to sort through Republican and Democratic portrayals, pronouncements and promises for the middle class. More will follow between now and Nov. 6.
Middle-class taxes
In his acceptance speech, Romney said Obama had raised taxes on the middle class. And multiple Obama surrogates – including Vice-President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren – said that Romney would raise taxes on the middle class by $2,000. All of their statements were misleading.
Since taking office, Obama has, in fact, cut middle-class tax rates. Romney, though, was probably referring to the $960-to-$1,200 annual penalty that an estimated 3 million middle-class Americans who fail to obtain health insurance will be expected to pay under Obamacare. In its ruling upholding the healthcare law, the Supreme Court declared the penalty a tax. Definitions of the middle class vary, but most experts view it as the middle 50-60 percent of Americans, or roughly 114 million working-age adults. The penalty will apply to approximately 3 million of roughly 57 million middle-class Americans.
Biden’s and Warren’s claim that Romney will increase middle-class taxes is pure speculation. Romney has promised that he will cut tax rates across the board by 20 percent but not reduce overall tax revenues in the process. Independent experts have said it will be extremely difficult for Romney to achieve this goal, and the Republican nominee has declined to give specifics. But the New York Times notes that Romney could decide, instead of increasing middle-class taxes, to add to the deficit, take away preferential rates on savings and investments or make smaller cuts to marginal tax rates. And Romney has repeatedly promised not to raise middle-class taxes.
“Crushing the middle class”
Romney blamed Obama for a decline in middle-class incomes and a rise in family expenses.
“In the richest country in the history of the world, this Obama economy has crushed the middle class,” Romney said in Tampa last week. “Family income has fallen by $4,000, but health insurance premiums are higher, food prices are higher, utility bills are higher, and gasoline prices have doubled. Today more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before.”
Romney’s figure of $4,000 includes 13 months of wage decreases that took place before Obama took office, according to FactCheck.org​, a non-partisan organization run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Romney is right, though, about food prices, which have risen by 6.2 percent.
Gas prices have, in fact, doubled, but the global recession sparked by the financial crisis artificially lowered them just before Obama took office. Healthcare premiums are up by 9 percent, but independent experts attribute 1 percent to 3 percent of the rise to Obamacare.
And while the total number of Americans living in poverty has never been higher, that is because the U.S. population has grown over time. Today 15 percent of Americans live in poverty, a figure significantly lower than the 23 percent that did when poverty rates were first calculated in 1959. In short, the middle class has definitely suffered under Obama, but not to the extent Romney claimed.
“Tax breaks for millionaires”
In his acceptance speech, Obama said that Romney’s proposed tax cuts for the wealthy would add to the deficit and fail to spark economic growth. “I don’t believe that another round of tax breaks for millionaires,” Obama said, “will bring good jobs to our shores, or pay down our deficit.”
Experts generally agree that the more educated a workforce, the higher its earnings, according to the Washington Post. But economists are divided over tax cuts for the wealthy. There is broad agreement that reducing taxes for the wealthy has led to increased deficits in the past, but there is disagreement over whether tax cuts for the rich spur economic growth. Some economists say it does not, while others insist that it does.
“So what’s the job score?”
Bill Clinton declared that 24 million private-sector jobs had been created during the 28 years Republicans held the White House over the period since 1961. But, he said, Democrats produced nearly twice as many private-sector jobs – 42 million – in the 24 years they were in power during that 52-year period.
Clinton’s figures are accurate, according to Bloomberg Businessweek​. But other experts have found that if job creation starts being counted one year after a president takes office – and his policies take effect – the numbers are more even. And many economists argue that the U.S. economy is so large that short-term government policies enacted by any president have a limited effect. Administrations are given too much credit for a growing economy, they say. And too much blame for recessions.
With low TV ratings and the vast majority of voters having already made up their mind, the conventions are unlikely to decide the election. The unimpressive jobs report issued on Friday – only 93,000 new jobs in August – could blunt any momentum the Democrats gained.
In the end, both candidates stayed disappointingly true to form. Romney was cautious and vague. Obama was cautions and incremental. The middle class heard some debate, but mostly got pandering.
PHOTO: Confetti bursts following the speech of President Barack Obama during the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 6, 2012.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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Make immigration a campaign issue
David Rohde
SEP 4, 2012 15:58 UTC
John Weston, Eric Buckland and Mike Bloomberg don’t have much in common.
Weston is a farmer struggling to keep in business the 1,000-acre farm his family has operated in Western Maine for seven generations.
Buckland is an entrepreneur who runs a small high-tech manufacturing company in North Carolina’s famed Research Triangle Park that makes handheld retinal scanners.
And Mike Bloomberg is the billionaire mayor of New York who doesn’t have many struggles at all.
This week, though, all three were deeply disappointed in Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. After Bloomberg released a detailed report and held press conferences on Monday urging both candidates to make immigration a serious issue in this year’s presidential campaign, the response from both campaigns was dead silence.
That neither campaign responded to Bloomberg’s challenge suggests that the brief moment when the choice of Paul R. Ryan as Romney’s running mate might hearken a serious debate about America’s future seems to be passing. There is still time for a change, but this is increasingly a campaign about polarizing the country, not unifying it.
For both campaigns, leading a serious discussion about how to fix immigration is apparently not their priority. “I think the campaigns each want to play to their bases,” said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s chief policy adviser, “and are ignoring mounting evidence that shows immigration should be part of our economic policy.”
Obama’s enactment by executive order of a program that allows illegal immigrant to apply for deportation deferrals attracted thousands of applicants this week. The move will also clearly help Obama attract Hispanic voters, a key factor in this year’s election.
But Obama’s initiative doesn’t fix the underlying system. On Monday, with the backing of corporate executives, elected officials and a hundred university chancellors, Bloomberg called for a massive overhaul of U.S. immigration policy. Citing a report that immigrants start more new business than native-born Americans, Bloomberg called for four changes:
- Automatically grant green cards to any foreign graduates students who receive advanced degrees in the STEM area – science, technology, engineering and math.
- Create an “entrepreneur visa” for foreigners who want to come to the United States, have a detailed business plan and have persuaded venture capitalists or other qualified investors to invest in their idea.
- Increase the percentage of visas granted on the basis of economic need from the current 7 percent.
- And create a guest worker program for seasonal and labor-intensive industries like farming and resort hotels.
From a tractor in Maine and hospital in North Carolina, Weston and Buckland both cheered. Months before Bloomberg made his proposal, both men complained that Washington’s failure to enact immigration reform was slowing their businesses.
In a February visit to his company, Buckland told me that U.S. immigration policies blocked him from hiring the talented foreign-born graduate students he desperately needs at his small company, which was spun out from the Duke University Biomedical Engineering Department.
He was encountering a shortage of qualified applicants, he said, because low rates of native-born Americans were studying STEM fields. When Buckland advertised for software and optical engineering positions, he received only five to 10 applicants, and 75 percent of them were foreign-born.
“We need that talent if we’re going to compete globally, period,” Buckland told me in a phone interview this week. “The ability to find talented software engineers has been one of our largest challenges.”
Buckland said he was 18 months behind where he had hoped to be in developing software programs that help doctors operate the scanners his company manufactures. He said the sole focus on even greater tax breaks for investors as a way to spark economic growth was misguided.
“Do we have enough technical talent to grow our knowledge economy?” Buckland asked. “My answer is no.”
In Maine, Weston, whom I know through his sister, a former classmate, is trying to innovate as well. When the New England dairy farm business collapsed in the 1980s, his father looked for a new business model. He was desperate to keep a family farm that has operated in Fryeburg, Maine since 1799 in business. He chose vegetable farming and retail sales.
Since attending the University of Maine, John has expanded on the idea. He got portions of the farm certified as organic and opened up two large retail stands to cater to wealthy tourists visiting the area. Business grew, but the younger Weston had a problem: Americans were no longer willing to be farmworkers.
“As the generations changed, it stopped,” he said. “You could do retail work, which was much more attractive.”
Instead of hiring illegal immigrants, his father hired summer farmworkers from other countries through the current U.S. guest worker program. The two men from Jamaica employed at the farm this summer work far harder than Americans, according to Weston, picking vegetables at twice the rate American workers had in the past.
Weston said that since the recession, the Department of Labor has instituted ever more stringent requirements that he prove no Americans will do the work. Each year, Weston pays hundreds of dollars to advertise the jobs in papers in Maine, New Hampshire, Florida and California, and files dozens of pages of paperwork to prove it. He was audited last year and fears that a technical flaw in his application will result in no workers and the possible closure of his farm.
“What ultimately frustrates me is how hard the government is fighting farmers that are asking for help,” Weston said in an email this week. “Rather than try to offer productive solutions, their time and money are going into creating ways to make farming more difficult.”
At the same time, talented researchers educated in the U.S. are leaving because they can’t get visas. In a May report, Bloomberg’s think tank described how other countries were providing incentives to attract talented and hard-working foreigners.
In a phone interview this week, Zhang Yuanbo, one of the cases described in the report, said he had decided to return to China after getting a Ph.D. in physics at Columbia University. The American visa process was so slow, convoluted and discriminatory that he gave up.
“There is much more research money now, it’s much better than the states,” he said in a phone interview from China. “There is more opportunity in China.”
Back home, politicians focus on blocking illegal immigrants from crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. Demands for building a massive wall spanning the border are popular among Romney’s conservative base.
Feinblatt, the Bloomberg policy director, said border crossings are at their lowest level since the 1970s. A recent New York Times article said that the improving economy in Mexico, growing middle class there and weak U.S. economy has resulted in zero net migration between Mexico and the U.S.
“Rather than making political calculations,” Feinblatt said. “Both candidates should be making economic calculations.”
I agree. We no longer rule the roost. We need to work with the world, not fear and fight it.
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Trying to have it both ways in Syria
David Rohde
AUG 23, 2012 15:43 UTC
Amid the daily reports of clashes and killings in Syria, a subtler message is emerging: America is increasingly irrelevant.
Inside Syria, opposition fighters complain that the United States is doing little to help them, according to intrepid reporting by correspondents for Reuters, the New York Times and Foreign Affairs. Instead, funds and arms from Qatar and Saudi Arabia are turning jihadists into a growing presence. Among international observers, Washington is seen as insignificant.
“On the ground, really, this administration has been essentially irrelevant, locked into its own perpetual debate on what to say and what to do,” said Peter Harling, Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group. “I think generally this administration in the Arab Spring has spent a huge amount of time trying to analyze events instead of shaping them.”
Those comments, of course, may thrill many Americans — and White House staffers. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans want nothing more than to get out of the Middle East. One of Obama’s primary pitches to voters this year is that he gets America out of foreign entanglements, not into them.
There are ways, though, to aid the Syrian opposition without becoming militarily entangled. One of the many tragedies of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan is that they distort our views of how we can have influence in the region. Our options go far beyond whether to bomb or not to bomb.
America’s effort to help the Syrian opposition with non-lethal aid is a reflection of this odd moment in American and Middle Eastern history. Many Syrians think the U.S. remains all-powerful and could easily topple the Assad regime, while many Americans doubt America’s ability to do good beyond its shores and understandably call for domestic focus.
To its credit, the administration is providing $82 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees and $25 million in non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition. But fear of even non-lethal American aid getting into the wrong hands has created a byzantine system that dilutes its effectiveness, slows delivery and alienates our best potential allies in Syria — secular members of the opposition.
In a Washington Post story published on Monday and interviews this week, Syrian opposition members scoffed at claims by State Department officials that the United States had provided them with 900 satellite phones. The phones, which cost $1,000 each, can be used for communications between opposition forces and for broadcasting atrocities by government forces to the outside world.
“Everywhere we turn, no one is able to locate these phones,” said a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who spoke on condition of anonymity in a phone interview Thursday. “They’re definitely not getting into our hands.”
American officials said that the 900 phones and other elements of $25 million in assistance have been distributed, but members of the Syrian opposition are not given the details. In past conflicts, U.S. officials found that openly providing American assistance to opposition groups endangered the recipients, undermined their legitimacy among the local population and created rivalries between groups.
American officials are aware that as a result, the U.S. does not get credit for the assistance it provides. But they pointed out that many people in the Middle East continue to resent any American role in the region.
Even the publicly known assistance is tightly managed. In an effort to control the distribution of satellite phones, the State Department and the British government have hired a British non-profit, ARC, to vet and train opposition members before giving them the devices, the Post reported.
American officials hope that the U.S. program — known as the Office of Syrian Opposition Support — will also train Syrian activists on how to govern Syria after Assad is gone. The goal is to have a U.S.-backed group of secular Syrian moderates who can counter the influence of jihadists in a post-Assad Syria.
Syrian opposition members, who have been battling the Assad regime for 18 months, say they need no such training and that the approach has slowed distribution enormously. They also expressed resentment of the American belief that the U.S. could have influence in a post-Assad Syria after being unwilling to openly back the rebels.
“If you do not participate in the revolution to take down the Assad regime,” said the Syrian National Council member, “I find it very difficult to have a discussion with you to talk about the post-Assad Syria.”
Fighters inside Syria expressed the same sentiment. Michael Weiss, who reported inside Syria for Foreign Affairs in early August, said that fighters praised Turkey, Libya and countries that had sent aid, not the United States. They expressed exasperation at an American tendency to see all Muslims as potentially closet fundamentalists.
Abu Bakr, a Syrian rebel commander interviewed by Reuters reporter Erika Solomon in early August, was typical. He said he was a committed Islamist who was determined to overthrow Assad. But the growing numbers of radical Muslims from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Eastern Europe and even the Pakistan-Afghanistan border who had joined the rebels in recent months alarmed him.
“Let me be clear. I am an Islamist, my fighters are Islamists. But there is more than one type of Islamist,” he said. “These men coming fought in insurgencies like Iraq. They are too extreme, they want to blow up any symbol of the state, even schools.”
He and other rebels said that they were grateful for the jihadists’ support, but worried that when the war ended, jihadists might have different aims than most Syrians.
“Our goal is to make a new future,” Abu Bakr said, “not destroy everything.”
Abu Bakr is the kind of Syrian moderate we should be backing — and trusting. If the United States is going to back the Syrian opposition with non-lethal assistance, it should do so more openly. The Obama administration’s cautious approach reduces the impact of the aid and hides American support for the Arab Spring that most Arabs cheer.
The U.S. approach in Syria reminds me of American civilian aid programs designed to strengthen moderates in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Over and over, tight American control of projects and a lack of local involvement limited their effectiveness.
We must embrace Syrian moderates and openly declare them our allies. Whether or not we should provide them with military aid is a separate debate. But if we are going to provide non-lethal aid we should do so wholeheartedly. We cannot say America is behind you — secretly.
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David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times. His forthcoming book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East" will be published in March 2013.
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