Last night, US presidential candidates President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took the stage in a town hall style debate in which self-described “undecided voters” posed questions about both domestic and foreign policy. The debate was predictably dominated by domestic concerns like the economy and job shortage, though the candidates did spar about the country’s relationship to China as well as the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi attacks.
“Americans don’t care about foreign policy.” It’s a truism that has shaped presidential campaign rhetoric for both the Democrats and Republicans this year. It is also why, we are told, international news often gets sidelined in favor of the latest socialite news involving, say, Kim Kardashian. And if international policy news isn’t great for the news industry, then it probably doesn’t produce votes either. The result is that we are saturated with 24 hour news coverage – and lots of political rhetoric – that reinforces the truism that Americans just don’t care.
Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Clinton issued a statement on Internet rights for all, pledging to file a formal State Department protest regarding this month’s alleged Google China censorship and hacking. Now that there exists a real potential for damage in the physical world as a result of attacks in the cyber world, what makes us call something an attack, or an act of war? There are constant probes occurring online against private and governmental targets; our concern or lack thereof will determine our national response. Continue reading
In the last two weeks, the political situation in Honduras has begun spiraling out of control. Coup leaders, led by Roberto Micheletti, have significantly raised the stakes since the return of exiled president Manuel Zelaya on September 22. Zelaya, ousted on June 28 in a late night coup, surreptitiously returned to his home country and found asylum in the Brazilian embassy without the Honduran military’s knowledge. His supporters immediately rushed to the embassy, demanding the military allow him to retake the presidency.
The military and police have responded with shocking brutality, Determined to keep Zelaya out of power, they have killed at least one protestor, beaten several others, and shut down news outlets that gave Zelaya an outlet to speak. With Brazil willing to host Zelaya indefinitely, the potential for violence remains high.
The Obama Administration has had difficulty dealing with the Honduras situation. Certainly Central America is not high on Obama’s foreign policy priority list. Ever since George W. Bush decided to remake the Middle East, Latin America has played a secondary role in American foreign policy.
Though the U.S. is planning to exit Iraq, the military is still stretched trying to fight a war in two separate countries. During his presidency, George Bush was well aware that restoring the draft to continue his illegal war of aggression would have led to a massive revolt of the US citizenry. The image of young men burning their draft cards has not yet left the American memory. The unpopularity of the Iraq war would quickly have led to massive acts of civil disobedience. No parent wants to bury her child to enrich the already over privileged elite.
Obama’s promise to remove American troops from Iraq and refocus on Afghanistan was a major talking point during his campaign. Using rhetoric and bravado, he vowed to refocus on capturing Osama Bin Laden and challenging Pakistan to end their status as a haven for so-called terrorists. While this may seem at first glance as decreasing the responsibility of the military, the scale of the operation that he has planned is just as large as fighting a war on two fronts.
Afghanistan may be a challenge for the US, however. Americans are dealing with a people that have history of resisting occupation forcefully. From Alexander the Great to the Soviets, many have had to make a bitter retreat after entering and losing an extended war of attrition. Simply announcing itself as a saviour on a mission to usher in peace will not bring about submission in a region that passionately demands the right to determine its own destiny. Continue reading
Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy rhetoric on the campaign trail was filled with testosterone-rich words like “destroy” and “kill.” She even ran the now-infamous “red phone ad,” where she implied that her then-opponent, Barack Obama, was unprepared to deal with a situation that might call for a military response.
Her muscular posturing and hawkish Senate record drove much of the leftist, pro-peace wing of the Democratic party into the waiting arms of Barack Obama, and eventually won him the nomination.
During the general election, though, Obama’s cooler, pro-diplomacy approach and McCain’s attempt to echo and even ramp up Clinton’s militarism were overshadowed quickly by domestic issues. Bailouts and calls for a “new New Deal” outweigh foreign concerns on the front pages.
But when Clinton entered the State Department on Wednesday, having been confirmed 94-2 as the new Secretary of State, all eyes were on her, and on Obama’s decision to appear first at that department, not the Treasury or Defense. Continue reading
My father’s warning to me 9 years ago, faced with my first US election as a voter, has come true today: you’re voting for yourself, and your father and your family, and your country. President Obama’s inaugural address confirmed for me today that a vote in the United States is a unique international privilege, because it is a say in the future of the entire world.
This is unfortunate. Because when the President addresses “The Muslim World” as a monolith, this being the same President you voted for because he inspired you to put your cynicism down for a second and really imagine a push for actual justice, nationally and internationally – when you hear him lump an embarrassment of diverse cultures into a single entity, you have to wonder how inflated that balloon of hope can get before it bursts.
He said that the U.S. is at war – so the rhetoric of the War on Terror will live on. He seeks with this Muslim World a “new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” and this comes right before he says that “those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict…or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you build.”
Damn. That’s so true and yet I can’t help but feel that the Muslims are being rhetorically rounded up and taught to behave, or else. Continue reading
This is a review of Steve LeVine’s The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea. Random House. 2007.
Steve LeVine has worked as a freelance journalist for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Financial Times, and Newsweek – in places such as the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Drawing on his considerable journalistic experience, he sets out to chronicle the history of the Caspian Sea.
Different characters intersect in the book: Nobel family of Sweden, American middlemen acting on behalf of the Soviet Union to make deals with American and British petroleum companies, oil executives begging their government to pressure Soviet leaders to allow drilling, and Central Asian leaders resisting pressure from Moscow to allow Moscow-supported companies to open the oil fields.
However, the central character of the book is oil. It is, perhaps, the only thing (after changes in regimes in ex-Soviet Union republics) that makes Moscow so determined to reclaim its influence in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, even threatening the destructions of oil drilling sites in these countries if they do not seek the opinion of Moscow before signing deals with Western companies.
LeVine describes Russia as a troublemaker, which has tried to use pipelines built in the Soviet era as leverage to force its former colonies to submit to the former master. However, the Russian attempt to rebuild influence is contained by the Clinton administration, whose policy on Caspian Sea and oil in Central Asia was shaped by Rosemarie Forsythe – who served as the Director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs of the National Security Council, and Bill White- the Deputy Secretary of Energy.
The struggle between Russia and the United States for more influence in Central Asia is familiarized by the invocation of the struggle between Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century, when both sides were lobbying Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan to consolidate the supply of oil to the West or to the Russian empire. The competition between two superpowers is a re-play of an old game. It is only natural for Russia to struggle to secure its backyards against the ex-colonies, who are full of hatred on Moscow due to forced abandonment of nomadic lives and migration imposed by Stalin and subsequent leaders and are therefore siding with another major power in the world, LeVine argues.
LeVine questions whether the United States is genuinely interested in bringing freedom and democracy to the region, and whether it is interested in actually monitoring the business practices of American oil firms in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. He believes that the United States helped mobilize support for pro-Western politicians to launch the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia to overthrow pro-Russia governments. However, when it comes to pro-America allies in Central Asia, the commitment to expanding freedom and democracy becomes secondary to strategic interests, LeVine argues. The book exposes the common practice of paying bribes to despotic leaders in the newly independent republics. Yet the book also urges readers to re-examine what constitutes corruption: Should lobbying of American oil companies such as Chevron and Exxon and Mobil in the Congress and Senate on behalf of Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan be considered as offering bribes to Baku and Almaty?
The book relies on several hundred interviews conducted between 1992 and 2007, as well as autobiographical writings of key political players from the United States, the Soviet Union and ex-Soviet republics. The combination of these primary sources provides first-hand views of officials and businessmen going about their deals, and offering their opinions of the future of the Caspian Sea. However, the lack of sources originating in Russian and Central Asian languages greatly limits LeVine’s scope.
On the whole, the book illustrates the history and importance of Caspian Sea through a series of dramas whose character include oilmen, dictatorial leaders of ex-Soviet republics, Russian politicians who have tried to maintain their influence among their neighbors, and government officials of the United States who have worked to expand their influence in the region since the collapse of the communist party in Moscow. The result is the fascinating account of the region, a region which will continue to become increasingly crucial when it comes to the global supply of oil.
This is a review of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present by Michael Oren. W.W. Norton, 2007
It is believed that America only began to get involved in the affairs of the Middle East after the Suez Crisis in 1956, which caused the decline of the influence of the British in the region. For most people, America intensified its influence after the Yom Kippur war, when Richard Nixon agreed to export American weapons to help Israel defeat Egypt and Syria.
Michael Oren has some different ideas wherein America’s role in the region is concerned. Oren is a historian and author whose latest book aims to help readers understand the motives driving American politicians, Christian leaders, and members of the media, to get involved in Middle Eastern affairs. He also concerns himself with the eternal question of whether or not American involvement is positive or negative.
Modern scholars suggest that the first direct conflict between America and the Islamic world, barring the Hizbollah attack that killed 240 American troops in 1983, was the attack against Saddam Hussein in 1993. Oren challenges this notion. The first conflict between the two civilizations took place from 1776-1815, he asserts. Barbary pirates from Morocco, Libya, and Algeria attacked American business ships and held sailors captive. Oren believes that the decision of James Madison to send dispatches to attack ports in North Africa affirmed American status as a global power. Success in stopping the attacks also boosted American confidence in using force to protect overseas commerce, Oren claims.
The book also rebukes what Oren calls “the myth of the Israel lobby”, which has become a much-debated issue. Oren believes that the American support for Israel is not simply tied to Jewish lobbies, which have been accused of using millions of dollars to influence Washington D.C to establish a pro-Israel policy. Neither, he says, is America pro-Israel due to the work of John Hagee, Pat Roberston, and other right-wing Christians.
The influences of the above preachers and lobbyists are real and cannot be ignored. Yet Oren ultimately offers a different explanation for the seemingly unconditional American support to the Jewish state: which is what Oren describes as a grown-up, realist view of the right of Israel to exist, stemming from American desire to protect Jews from persecution following the pogroms and the Holocaust.
Oren also suggests that the Arab attacks against Jews, militarily or rhetorical, further serve Israeli interests on the ground. Arab assaults, Oren says, are portrayed as a fundamentalist Islamic jihad against people of different faiths and civilizations, creating an image of Arabs as a people who do not desire peace.
Oren only devotes one section to the history of American attachment to the Middle East after the Second World War. He focuses on a general interpretation on the nature of the U.S – Middle East relations. He is right to predict that the United States will have much more challenges ahead, especially from Iran, as well as the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Overall, Oren finds years of American involvement positive in that modern education and health care are funded and/or encouraged in the region, and in the belief that America is a nation that strives for peace and security for the Middle East.
Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses ipod Praise for America’s good intentions is obviously Oren’s most controversial statement. America’s intentions may be as good as Oren claims, but so far, the results are rather mixed (as evidenced by poor political, economical, and educational conditions in many Muslim countries); Oren could have done a better job addressing the present situation.
The Mouse That Roared trailer This book drew upon a wealth of materials from various archives and literature. However, these materials were all written in English, which may have limited the author’s scope. In addition, the book suffers from a lack of source materials on more recent events. Oren claims that it would have been difficult to obtain diverse resources, but the book would provide a more multi-dimensional view of how people in the Middle East perceive American involvement if at least secondhand resources in French, Arabic, or Hebrew were consulted.
Despite such shortcomings, my ultimate pronouncement is that this book is terrific. It is a must-read manual for diplomats and peacemakers who have been puzzled by the “seemingly irrational actions” successive American governments have displayed when Israel-related issues appear at the UN Security Council. It provides a great deal of explanations for the continuous American vetoes on resolutions demanding Israeli withdrawal from West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
Oren’s highlighting of the fact that American involvement in the Middle East can be traced back to 1776 is by itself an invaluable reminder of how short our memory can be wherein American foreign policy is concerned. People interested in a refresher course would do well to pick up Oren’s book.