Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Perry (and Washington) On US Foreign Policy

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry was in New York today giving a speech where he accused President Barack Obama of not only single-handedly setting out to destroy the United States, but to destroy Israel as well. The backdrop for Perry's speech was the United Nations General Assembly meeting where the Palestinians are widely expected to petition the UN for full member-nation status. Perry contends that the Palestinians wouldn't be taking such a step if Obama hadn't thrown Israel under the bus.

"Simply put, we would not be here today, at the precipice of such a dangerous
move, if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn't naive, arrogant, misguided
and dangerous,” Perry said.
As we've seen from last week's special election in Queens, New York to fill the seat of disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner, potentially sabotaging America's relationship with the world's billion-plus Muslims by vetoing Palestine's petition to the UN just isn't enough to make some people believe that Obama isn't anti-Israel. Perry's fellow presidential candidate, businessman Herman Cain, has also said that he would make support for Israel the bedrock of his presidency.

Since candidates, particularly Republican candidates, love to wrap themselves in the words of the Founding Fathers, it’s a good time to print what George Washington himself had to say about “foreign entanglements”:

A passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld.

Now none of what I'm saying should be taken as an anti-Israeli position; I think that the only places US presidential candidates should be speaking of defending so passionately are parts of the United States itself. But if we are talking foreign policy, I can easily think of a list of places of far more strategic/economic importance to the United States than Israel that these candidates should be focusing on, for example:

– the country with which we share thousands of miles of border, which is currently locked in bloody battle with the militias of a group of powerful drug cartels.
China – the nation many feel will soon join America in the Superpower Club.
Canada – the other nation with whom we share thousands of miles of border, who also is our largest trading partner and a major energy supplier; just because the Canadians are quiet doesn't mean we can ignore them.
The European Union – gripped by an economic crisis that could drag our country into a recession, or a depression.
Saudi Arabia – the country that still exports more of the black sticky stuff we're addicted to than anyone else in the world.

Those are just five off the top of my head. You could probably make a case for Russia, Brazil, India, Japan and even Somalia as having more real importance to the United States than Israel. Yet an outsized portion of our foreign policy efforts remain focused on the US-Israel relationship. And at least in the early days of the campaign, it seems like Israel will take center stage in our foreign policy debates as well.

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Kids 'n' Guns

Imagine a contest that brings together young scholars from different parts of a country, what do you suppose an appropriate prize would be for the winners? A new iPad? A scholarship of some sort? A set of encyclopedias? Well, if the country is Somalia and the group sponsoring the event is the Islamic insurgent group al-Shabaab, the correct answer is cash, and an AK-47.

According to a report on the BBC, those were some of the prizes awarded to boys aged 10-17 in a Koran-reciting contest for children from Shabaab-controlled areas of Somalia. The winners received the equivalent of $700 and an AK-47, second place won $500, and an AK-47, while the third place team received $400 and a pair of hand grenades (yeah, still trying to figure out the logic of that one). The prizes were in keeping with al-Shabaab's philosophy that young men should study the Koran with one hand and hold a gun with the other.

Sadly, child soldiers are nothing new for Somalia. Children are employed as fighters not only by insurgent groups like al-Shabaab, but also by the US-backed Somali Transitional Federal Government, the supposed legitimate rulers of Somalia. Still, potentially giving a 10-year old an automatic weapon as a prize for scholarly achievement is pretty screwed up no matter the reality of the situation. According to the BBC, a similar contest in the Shabaab-controlled port city of Kismayo gave out a rocket-propelled grenade as a top prize.
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Monday, September 19, 2011

Turtle Bay Train Wreck

So if all goes as threatened tomorrow, the legs could get kicked out from under US diplomatic efforts across the Middle East/Islamic world. That's because Tuesday was the day set by President Mahmood Abbas to petition the United Nations to admit Palestine as a full member-state, a petition the United States has already publicly promised to veto on behalf of Israel.

Last week the Saudis issued a dire warning via the pages of the New York Times that a veto would make the United States “toxic” across the region and could put an end to the decades-long US-Saudi love affair. It was a warning so dire, that you're almost inclined to ignore it, to simply dismiss it as another bit of hyperbole in a region long noted for such verbal excess. But things have changed in the MENA (Mid-East/North Africa) region. The “Arab Spring” has made despots take note that you sometimes actually have to listen to your people. And while the House of Saud has managed to stave off overthrow, they have done so with a mix of security crackdowns and by passing out tens of billions in social aid to the growing Saudi underclass; no wonder they're worried about how “toxic” America might become.

The Arab street is sure to take a veto as yet another put-down of the long oppressed Palestinian people; but I'm viewing a veto as an incredibly hypocritical move on the part of the United States, for two reasons. First, the US has spent much of 2011 cheerleading (in the case of Egypt), threatening (in the case of Syria) or bombing (in the case of Libya) on behalf of some notion of self-determination among the oppressed Arab peoples. Yet in the case of Palestine, we're taking the opposing position – continuation of a status quo that fundamentally denies Palestinians many of the rights that we're saying the Egyptians, Syrians and Libyans deserve; all, apparently, because it doesn't fit into our preconceived notion of how the Palestinians should gain these rights and because Israel opposes it – neither is a terribly convincing argument in favor of a veto.

To make matters worse, a veto of Palestinian membership would go against the precedent that the United States itself set for such situations with Kosovo back in 2008. The Kosovars had been engaged in a multi-year, UN-overseen process of negotiating a settlement of final status with Serbia (Serbia wanted Kosovo to remain part of the country, the Kosovars wanted to split), when the Kosovo side decided that the talks were going nowhere and unilaterally declared their independence from Serbia. The United States, along with Great Britain and France, were quick to recognize the independence of Kosovo, even though it was in explicit violation of the UN-led process and seemingly out of step with the norms of international law – the argument was that the Kosovars' right to self-determination had to be respected more than some UN “process”. Then there's Palestine, which has been involved in two decades of negotiations started in 1993 under the Oslo Accords with Israel as part of the “two-state solution” that would see the creation of a nation of Palestine. From the Palestinian point of view, that day will never come; the negotiations, when they even happen, seem endless, and in the meanwhile Israel continues to expand “settlements” in the West Bank that every year gobble up a little more of the land that would one day become the Palestinian state. And despite American insistence that all parties return to the negotiating table, there is zero reason to expect there to be any substantive movement, let alone a real breakthrough, so President Abbas has decided enough is enough and is using the UN declaration as an end-run around a moribund process.

Given the precedent we unwillingly set with Kosovo, the United States should be a vocal supporter of Palestinian membership in the UN, but instead, we are promising a veto. And before you say that the difference is terrorism, it is worth noting that the Kosovo Liberation Army, which became the government of Kosovo, was and is considered a terrorist organization by Serbia and as late as the 1990s was also considered a terrorist organization with possible ties to al-Qaeda by other countries, including the United States.

But while the Kosovars were supposedly within their rights to short-circuit continued negotiations they found pointless, the Palestinians are committing a breach of international law by taking the same action. Saudi Arabia's Turki al-Faisal is likely right in saying the veto will fuel anti-American anger in the Arab street, the rest of the world may just take note of the rank hypocrisy of the move.
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No, That's My Breakfast....

Passengers being detained for having suspicious materials is not an uncommon occurence in this era of heightened airline security. But it becomes newsworthy when the passenger in question is Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and the material in question is his jar of Vegemite.

Rudd was detained briefly on his way to the UN General Assembly meeting via Mexico City when airport screeners found a jar of Vegemite in his carry-on bag. Vegemite is a brown yeast spread that is beloved in Australia and generally reviled in the rest of the world for its "unique" taste. Rudd was allowed to to continue after he explained that they were in fact examining his breakfast and said via Twitter that the "only problem traveling to New York is they tried to confiscate our Vegemite."

Vegemite gained global attention thanks in large part to the song "Down Under" by the 80's Australian band Men at Work, as seen below:

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Monday, September 12, 2011

The Saudis' Stark Warning

While the United States was otherwise absorbed in a day of self-reflection over the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an influential member of the Saudi royal family issued a stark warning that the long-standing US-Saudi love affair may soon come to an abrupt end.

That was the take-away from Turki Al-Faisal's Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times, over why the United States should not oppose the creation of an independent nation of Palestine. The Palestinians are widely expected to use the United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month to put a formal end to talks with Israel, unilaterally declare their independence and petition the United Nations for full membership; the United States is also widely expected to use their veto the UN Security Council to squash Palestine's bid for membership on behalf of Israel. Al-Faisal warns though, that such a move would make the United States “toxic” in the Arab/Muslim world, and that this would force the Saudis to then drastically scale back their cooperation with the US and to pursue “a far more independent and assertive” foreign policy in the region. Al-Faisal goes on to say that this would result in Saudi Arabia not formalizing relations with the fledgling government in Iraq, parting ways with the United States on Yemen and suggesting it could lead Saudi Arabia into direct conflict with Iran, among other possible outcomes.

Two things make this more than just the ramblings of another dreary government official in the editorial pages. The first is Turki Al-Faisal's position within the Saudi hierarchy: he is both the former head of the Saudi intelligence services and former ambassador to the United States, roles that have made him the usual go-to guy to do the rounds in the American media when the Saudis want to announce a shift in policy; the second is the overall bluntness of his op-ed. Typically writings like these are couched in diplomatic language, which is vague enough to allow for just about any possibility, Al-Faisal was much more definitive: this will happen, this decision will have that effect, and so-on.

Given the speaker and the tone, it is a message that Washington should take to heart, though it is a pretty safe assumption that they won't.
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Saturday, September 10, 2011

America and 9/11

In my latest post over at The Mantle, I take a look at America's reaction to the 9/11 attacks ten years later. You often hear it said that the attacks “changed everything”, but did they really? And do Americans have an unhealthy obsession with wallowing in the tragedy of the attacks? Surf on over to The Mantle to read my views.
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Irene Outage

Apologies for the lack of recent posts (I'm hoping that you in fact noticed the lack...). Hurricane Irene clobbered the East Coast a couple of weeks ago, this website included. We're trying to get things back on track here, even though your humble editor remains marooned in a hotel...Regular posting on the site should continue.
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