Obama, Erdogan Seek Common Ground on Middle East

September 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Spetalnick and Laura MacInnis

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U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shake hands in New York September 20, 2011. World leaders have gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.  

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sought common ground on counterterrorism and Middle East policy on Tuesday even as Washington pressed Ankara to ease tensions with close U.S. ally Israel.

Their talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly came as a showdown loomed this week over Palestinian statehood at the world body, another source of rising tensions in a region in political upheaval.

Washington has watched with concern as NATO ally Turkey’s once-friendly ties with Israel have deteriorated rapidly over Israel’s 2010 killing of Turkish activists in a Gaza-bound aid convoy. The crisis has underscored Israel’s growing isolation and the new limits of U.S. influence in the Middle East.

“The president underscored his interest in seeing a resolution of that issue between those two countries and encouraged continuing work toward that end,” White House adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall told reporters after the meeting, saying Obama also emphasized the need to calm tensions throughout the region.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama would make the same points to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he meets him on Wednesday.

The two leaders also discussed Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s unrelenting crackdown on anti-government protests has alarmed neighboring Turkey and led to U.S. calls he step aside.

Obama and Erdogan agreed on the need to increase pressure on Assad and agreed to consult on possible further steps that “could include sanctions, political pressure, other measures,” Rhodes said.

Obama and Erdogan, in their public comments to reporters, focused on deadly attacks in Turkey on Tuesday that they agreed underscored the need for cooperation on counterterrorism.

“This reminds us that terrorism exists in many parts of the world, and Turkey and the United States are going to be strong partners in preventing terrorism,” Obama said.

An explosion from a suspected car bomb ripped through a street in the Turkish capital, Ankara, near a neighborhood housing government buildings, killing three people.

Also on Tuesday, Kurdish guerrillas attacked a police college in southeastern Turkey, killing four people in a passing vehicle, broadcaster CNN Turk reported on its website.

NEED ‘TO WORK TOGETHER’

Erdogan said the United States and Turkey needed to “work together in planning, use technology so that we can continue to take more steps in trying to fight against terrorism.”

Turkey is in talks with the United States to provide a base for a fleet of U.S. Predator drones now stationed in Iraq. It is reported to want surveillance drones to carry out operations against Kurdish separatist rebels based in northern Iraq.

The Obama administration is seeking to preserve close ties with Turkey, an increasingly assertive economic and military power in the region that has become a champion of democracy movements roiling the Arab world.

Ankara backed efforts that led to the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and aids U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan, and plays a crucial role in neighboring Iraq.

Obama praised Erdogan for “great leadership” in promoting democracy in the region. But problems remain.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Turkey on Monday not to do anything to worsen its relationship with Israel.

Israeli-Turkish relations have spiraled downward in recent weeks with the release of a U.N. report on the 2010 flotilla raid, in which Israeli commandos raid killed nine Turkish activists, and Israel’s refusal to apologize to Ankara.

Erdogan’s government has expelled Israel’s envoy, frozen military cooperation and warned that the Turkish navy could escort future aid flotillas — raising the prospect of confrontation between Turkey and the Jewish state.

Erdogan has also kept up a stream of harsh rhetoric against Israel, using a tour of Arab states last week to support a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations and chide Israel as a spoiled client of the West.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney)

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Who’s Serious Now?

April 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Paul Krugman

2011-04-05T160723Z_1858491697_GM1E74600HJ01_RTRMADP_3_USA-BUDGET

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks at a news conference held to unveil the House Republican budget blueprint in the Capitol in Washington April 5, 2011. The plan calls for sweeping changes to government health programs as it slashes taxes for corporations and individuals. 

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, sounds upset.

And you can see why: President Obama, to the great relief of progressives, has called his bluff.

Last week, Mr. Ryan unveiled his budget proposal, and the initial reaction of much of the punditocracy was best summed up (sarcastically) by the blogger John Cole: “The plan is bold! It is serious! It took courage! It re-frames the debate! The ball is in Obama’s court! Very wonky! It is a game-changer! Did I mention it is serious?”

Then people who actually understand budget numbers went to work, and it became clear that the proposal wasn’t serious at all. In fact, it was a sick joke. The only real things in it were savage cuts in aid to the needy and the uninsured, huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and Medicare privatization. All the alleged cost savings were pure fantasy.

On Wednesday, as I said, the president called Mr. Ryan’s bluff: after offering a spirited (and reassuring) defense of social insurance, he declared, “There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.” Actually, the Ryan plan calls for $2.9 trillion in tax cuts, but who’s counting?

And then Mr. Obama laid out a budget plan that really is serious.

The president’s proposal isn’t perfect, by a long shot. My own view is that while the spending controls on Medicare he proposed are exactly the right way to go, he’s probably expecting too much payoff in the near term. And over the longer run, I believe that we’ll need modestly higher taxes on the middle class as well as the rich to pay for the kind of society we want. But the vision was right, and the numbers were far more credible than anything in the Ryan sales pitch.

And the hissy fit — I mean, criticism — the Obama plan provoked from Mr. Ryan was deeply revealing, as the man who proposes using budget deficits as an excuse to cut taxes on the rich accused the president of being “partisan.” Mr. Ryan also accused the president of being “dramatically inaccurate” — this from someone whose plan included a $200 billion error in its calculation of interest costs and appears to have made an even bigger error on Medicaid costs. He didn’t say what the inaccuracies were.

And now for something completely wonkish: Can we talk, briefly, about politicians talking about drugs?

For the contrast between Mr. Ryan last week and Mr. Obama on Wednesday wasn’t just about visions of society. There was also a difference in visions of how the world works. And nowhere was that clearer than in the issue of how Medicare should pay for drugs.

Mr. Obama declared, “We will cut spending on prescription drugs by using Medicare’s purchasing power to drive greater efficiency.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Ryan held up the existing Medicare drug benefit — a program run through private insurance companies, under legislation that specifically prohibits Medicare from using its bargaining power — as an example of the efficiencies that could be gained from privatizing the whole system.

Mr. Obama has it right. Medicare Part D has been less expensive than expected, at least so far, but that’s because overall prescription drug spending has fallen short of expectations, largely thanks to a dearth of new drugs and the growing use of generics. The right way to assess Part D is by comparing it with programs where the government is allowed to use its purchasing power. And such comparisons suggest that if there’s any magic in privatization, it’s the magical way it makes drug companies richer and taxpayers poorer. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs pays about 40 percent less for drugs than the private plans in Part D.

Did I mention that Medicare Advantage, which closely resembles the privatized system that Republicans want to impose on all seniors, currently costs taxpayers 12 percent more per recipient than traditional Medicare?

But back to the president’s speech. His plan isn’t about to become law; neither is Mr. Ryan’s. And given the hysterical Republican reaction, it doesn’t look likely that we’ll see negotiations trying to narrow the difference. That’s a good thing because Mr. Obama’s plan already relies more on spending cuts than it should, and moving it significantly in the G.O.P.’s direction would produce something unworkable and unacceptable.

What happened over the past two weeks, then, was more about staking out positions than about enacting policies. On one side you had a combination of mean-spiritedness and fantasy; on the other you had a reaffirmation of American compassion and community, coupled with fairly realistic numbers. Which would you choose?

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