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Editorial Roundup: Excerpts from recent editorials

January 30, 2014

Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:


Jan. 29

Chicago Tribune on how Obama should capitalize on two takeaways from his address:

State of the Union addresses are about big ambitions, and Tuesday night’s didn’t disappoint. Barack Obama’s many priorities — job creation, middle-class earnings, infrastructure spending and all the others — are the unfinished business of a president aware (and no doubt uneasy) that, in three years, he belongs to history.

How many of those aspirations can he achieve? Of 24 proposals in last year’s address, Washington Post fact-checkers rate five as accomplished, four as partially complete and 15 — notably gun control, immigration reform and a minimum wage hike — as dead letters. And at first glance, this year’s prognosis wouldn’t be that upbeat:

The Obamacare rollout soured many Americans on government-as-change-agent. Twitchy members of Congress avoid bold votes in election years. And Obama’s approval ratings have tumbled. From the Post’s report on its new poll with ABC News: “Just 37 percent (of respondents) say they have either a good amount or a great deal of confidence in the president to make the right decisions for the country’s future, while 63 percent say they do not. Those numbers are the mirror image of what they were when he was sworn into office in 2009.” Ouch.

Tuesday night, Obama didn’t dwell on his lost 2013. There was an oblique nod to his gridlock with Congress last year: “Let’s make this a year of action.” The subtext: He has to wonder whether, if his signature health overhaul doesn’t succeed, his presidency totals one year of managing through a financial crisis, followed by a biblical seven years of lean.

That’s why his staffers have been broadcasting the message that Obama will try to circumvent Congress by marshaling his powers of office. Presidents of both parties have done that although it’s often a frustrating way to rule: Congress can thwart (or refuse to fund) executive orders that lack the force of law. And subsequent presidents can undo those orders as breezily as they were written.

Listening to Obama, though, we heard two takeaways that should be his realistic agenda before the acceleration of presidential campaigning in 2015 certifies his lame-duckery. The point isn’t that he can get Congress to do his bidding; he cannot. On these two issues, though, he can help Republicans and Democrats realize that it’s in their best interests to do as he asks. ...

That’s a spectacularly accurate if too limited prediction of all that a reform to federal taxes and transfer programs could deliver. Even before his presidency began, Obama was saying the right things about the unsustainability of entitlement benefits; in budget wrangles with Republicans he has agreed to Medicare reforms.

Imagine the potential power of a president who’ll never run again gathering his economic priorities into one package. A path to debt reduction, encouragements to hire more workers, elimination of tax deductions and credits that tend to benefit the wealthy, incentives to drive new growth: In one afternoon, Obama’s policy team could draft an omnibus plan for financing federal operations, expanding the nation’s workforce and assuring that today’s benefits will exist for tomorrow’s retirees. Stable and lower tax rates, paid for by scaling back those runaway deductions and credits, would benefit individuals and employers alike.

During Obama’s presidency, efforts at a “Go Big” finance deal always have flopped. Now, as a second-termer with goals he wants to accomplish, he’s liberated. He can bundle his proposals in bows appealing to both parties. Granted, with Obama inclined to govern by executive order rather than joust with Congress, this wouldn’t be easy. But it could be done. Democrats and Republicans proved that with their tax mega package late in Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Immigration reform, coupled with a rescue of federal finances and entitlement programs? Good for Obama, good for the historians who’ll grade him — and good for the future of America.




Jan. 26

Kansas City Star on seafood:

Your dinner has arrived, a nice piece of fish, delicately cooked, served perhaps over a bed of rice or, wow, maybe quinoa.

Was it wild salmon you ordered? Would you be surprised and disappointed to learn that you got coho instead?

As the nonprofit organization Oceana has put it: “Recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish like red snapper, wild salmon, and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.”

Seafood fraud has been documented in recent years by newspapers, Consumer Reports and others.

And now two senators want the Obama administration to do something about it.

Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, wrote last week to President Barack Obama urging action on seafood fraud.

“This fraud is ripping off consumers,” they wrote, “posing health risks by disguising species that may be harmful for sensitive groups, and harming our oceans by making it easier for illegally caught product to make its way into the U.S. market.”

A big part of the problem, according to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office, involves a lack of coordination and communication by three agencies most responsible for seafood inspections: the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Customs and Border Protection. (It may only add to the confusion and inefficiencies to note that the Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction over catfish.)

Upwards of 90 percent of all seafood consumed domestically is imported, the senators noted, but the FDA inspects less than two percent of those products.

In 2011 Oceana conducted a study of seafood in the Los Angeles market — fish sold at grocery stores and restaurants, including sushi purveyors — and reported that 55 of all samples it collected were mislabeled, and every fish sold with the word “snapper” in the label, 34 out of 34, was misidentified and out of whack with FDA guidelines.

Markey and Wicker say they will work toward solutions in Congress, but expressed hope that Obama’s agencies would do a better job of working together on the fraud. They should get on it.

Fish consumers deserve accurate descriptions of what’s on their plates.




Jan. 29

The New York Times on President Karzai’s Perfidies:

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan seems to have decided that there is nothing lost, and maybe something to be gained, in destroying his relationship with the United States. While such behavior may serve his interests, it does not serve that of his long-suffering country.

An image of a funeral in Afghanistan that the government tied to a recent American airstrike actually took place in 2009.

Karzai has long been at odds with the United States. In the last week, his government distributed an inflammatory, falsified dossier, including graphic photographs, to try to document accusations that the American-led NATO coalition had caused great carnage, including civilian deaths, when it conducted airstrikes in Afghanistan on Jan. 15. The Times found that much of the same material had been posted on a Taliban website and that at least two of the photos were more than three years old. No one disputes that civilians died in the attack, which hit Wazghar, a village in a valley with Taliban fighters, but coalition and Afghan officials differ on the death toll. The coalition says two children were killed when two compounds producing the heaviest Taliban fire were destroyed; the Afghans say 12 to 17 civilians were killed.

Karzai — like most citizens of his country — is fed up with airstrikes and especially civilian deaths, an understandable frustration after a dozen war-torn years. But, according to the United Nations, most civilians are killed by the Taliban. Instead of dealing with the issue honestly, Karzai is increasingly using it to demonize the United States. Over American protests, he is said to be pushing forward with plans to release 37 detainees, who are regarded by the coalition as dangerous insurgents. He has refused to sign a security agreement that would allow some residual American troops to remain in Afghanistan after the bulk of the forces withdraw by the end of this year.

Some Afghans have pushed back against Karzai’s conspiracies and destructive ways but not enough. The candidates running to succeed him owe voters a vision of how they will improve governance and work more productively with the United States and its allies, who have spent billions of dollars to underwrite Afghanistan’s economy and will be asked to do more in the years to come.




Jan. 26

The Seattle Times on how Washington needs to do more to free Kenneth Bae:

American prisoner Kenneth Bae wants the U.S. government to help get him out of North Korea. The former Lynnwood resident issued his plea recently in a news conference, the first time authorities there have let him speak to reporters.

The United States has tried and should keep trying. The State Department’s special envoy for human-rights issues, Ambassador Robert King, was invited to Pyongyang last August to negotiate for Bae’s freedom. The regime rescinded its offer at the last minute.

Under heavy guard and wearing a gray uniform with the number 103 on his chest, Bae apologized for his crimes. He also revealed he might soon be returned to prison after months of treatment in a hospital for various ailments.

The 45-year-old tour operator’s nightmare began in November 2012 while he was escorting five Europeans into North Korea. Bae was detained, then sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp for “hostile acts” against the government.

Speaking on CNN Wednesday morning, Bae’s mother and sister from Washington state expressed fears that anything they say about this latest prison video may be misconstrued by the North Koreans.

They echoed Bae’s apology and said they are worried about his health. His wife and three kids need him home.

For months, U.S. officials maintain they’ve worked with the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang and requested amnesty for Bae on humanitarian grounds. An offer to send an envoy still stands.

The U.S. government should also consider what’s worked in the past, too. On separate occasions, former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea to bring home American prisoners.

Last month, Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran and tourist, was released after he confessed (under duress) to crimes committed during his time serving in the U.S. military.

The North Koreans could show the same mercy to Kenneth Bae, but they may need a stronger nudge from Washington, D.C.




Jan. 26

The Telegraph, London, on full circle in Egypt:

Three years ago this week, vast crowds gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to bring about the end of the regime of Hosni Mubarak. That they were able to do this owed much to the support of the Egyptian military, which kept its authoritarian instincts in check after presiding over a state of emergency that had lasted for 30 years.

It is extraordinary, therefore, that many of the demonstrators gathered in the same square yesterday to celebrate the third anniversary of the “revolution” want a military hard man as their next leader. Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s defense minister, who last summer helped engineer the removal of Mohamed Morsi, the elected Muslim Brotherhood president, is now favorite for the post himself. He is hailed as the heir to Gamal Abdel Nasser, a comparison he is anxious to promote, even if al-Sisi lacks the charisma of Nasser, both in Egypt and in the wider Arab world; nor, mercifully, does he espouse the anti-Israeli rhetoric that led his predecessor into disastrous conflicts.

The country has, then, come full circle these past three years: from military regime to short-lived democracy and back again. The Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged from decades of undercover activism as a banned organization to win the election, is proscribed once more and its leaders under arrest. Those high hopes voiced by many young, Western-inclined people in Tahrir Square in January 2011 have been dashed and were always fanciful.

True, 98 per cent of Egyptians (on a 38 per cent turn out) voted in favor of a new constitution earlier this month, but this offered just the veneer of popular choice since dissenters were arrested. Several journalists remain in prison under vague charges of “falsifying information”. It is repression as usual.




Jan. 29

The Australian on President Obama’s missed opportunity:

IN his fifth State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama promoted the theme of “opportunity for all”.

Lately, the American Dream has taken a beating, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. “Opportunity is who we are,” he said, nominating the restoration of social mobility as “the defining project of our generation”. Not surprisingly, good jobs are the key. While Obama’s rhetoric was typically burnished, his policy proposals won’t meet the economic challenges the US faces. Little was said of how Washington would address the outsized fiscal problems of a nation living beyond its means; a populist riff on inequality, with a pitch to raise the minimum hourly wage to $US10.10 ($11.50), will not encourage small businesses to hire more workers.

After the most dismal year of his tenure, the challenge for Obama in his address was to inject fresh energy into his administration ahead of November’s mid-term congressional elections and rescue himself from the “lame duck” tag he has been receiving. That would be the inevitable consequence of the Republicans adding control of the Senate to that of the House of Representatives -- a real possibility, given the way the polls are going: 63 per cent of Americans say they lack confidence in Obama’s decision-making. Yet the President’s hairy-chested pledge that this would be his “year of action” -- to act unilaterally to bring about the changes he believes are essential -- is clearly designed to draw the line under what many see as having been his “annus horribilis”. It’s hardly churlish to wonder, as he embarks on his sixth year in office, whether “inaction” has been Obama’s default setting.

Even with all the elegance of his speechmaking, it is not going to be easy for him to achieve the “real change” he famously spruiked back in 2008. The reality is that the same political difficulties await Obama as they did when he delivered a rousing State of the Union on the power of government last year. Then, he faced US politicians buoyed by a huge election victory. Everything seemed possible, yet he achieved little. Most of the pledges he made remain unfulfilled, including key issues such as universal preschooling. Only on climate change and the environment was he able to use executive orders to bypass congress.

If anything, Obama is now worse off, because looming ahead are the mid-term elections. The US President has clearly judged that his best bet is to be confrontational with Republicans. Yet Americans simply do not trust him and his popularity, the bedrock of his presidency, is now in the doldrums. He may be boosted by the improving US economy and signs of progress on his signature Obamacare health policy, but on the economic front there is no urgency to rein in a billowing debt.

For all Obama’s confident talk about foreign policy, the challenges are enormous. His pride about the success of US diplomacy in achieving the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is at best premature and at worst based on a total misrepresentation of reality: it was Russia that came to Washington’s aid when Obama had foolishly been rebuffed by congress -- a sign of how weak his presidency had become. Similarly, his self-congratulation over bringing US troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan is premature, with rapidly escalating violence in Iraq testimony to Washington’s policy failures there, and Afghanistan’s future overshadowed by deep uncertainty as Kabul holds out against any agreement to keep a residual force of US and allied troops there after the end of the year to help keep the Taliban and al-Qa’ida at bay.

Obama’s address, with its surface appeal and spin-perfect phrasing, will not change the lives of Americans. All the fiscal, diplomatic and structural economic problems remain, although one should never bet long-term against the ability of the mightiest democracy to remake and reinvigorate itself through migration, innovation, risk-taking and hard work. He has a few months left before the summer recess of congress and the start of serious election campaigning. If the Republicans gain control of the Senate, his tenure will enter a lamentable endgame -- something that would be a disaster for both the US and its allies.



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