Stop trying to combat terrorism

It has been nine years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the US, and we are still talking about fighting terrorism and killing terrorists. However, if we really want to end terrorism, we should start not by combating it, but by understanding it.

Misguided policies are usually at the root of terrorism. Governments in Central Asia, for example, are still pouring money into anti-terrorist campaigns putatively aiming to end terrorism. Instead, they strengthen the state vis-a-vis the people who hate it, and strengthen calls for terrorism by giving the people ever-better reasons to engage in it. Miroslav Jenca, head of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia, told Xinhua that the instability in Central Asia was a breeding ground for terrorist activity. “[T]he wider region is fast becoming the main front on the global war against terror.” But tactics so far have done nothing. Is it because they are insufficiently integrated into a region-wide or global campaign? No, it is because they ignore the reasons people are so discontented. People in Central Asia, from western China to eastern Uzbekistan, are repressed and harassed by their governments and treated like scum. Separatism, Islamic militancy and other hostile outbursts against the state are almost inevitable in such conditions. Do governments not know that, or do they simply want to fight a war with no end in order to extend their governments into more people’s affairs and take away more people’s freedoms? As we ponder that question, Uzbekistan holds 14 human rights activists in jail and 25 men under arrest for terrorism in Tajikistan have escaped from prison.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are just two examples of state failure accelerated by overzealous anti-terrorist campaigns. The US government has helped fund counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia in return for bases by which to attack terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US Department of Defense says the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF has helped “set the economic, political and security conditions for the growth of an effective, democratic national government in Afghanistan.” But merely to look at the headlines, we see huge corruption and ineffective governance in Hamid Karzai’s government; violence against foreign soldiers and locals by Taliban, whose membership does not seem to be waning despite the pressure on them; and a battle for hearts and minds that is tumbling down the sinkhole of counter-insurgency. Perhaps I am being unfair, assuming that nine years is long enough to bring about results. But while the public in countries contributing troops to the ISAF grows restive, the Taliban and other so-called “terrorist” groups are not shrinking. Is this War on Terror showing any meaningful reduction in terrorism?

Muslims in Canada have been arrested under terrorist charges, including recently. Many of the “Toronto 18” accused of a terrorist plot in 2006 have been charged. It is likely that their desire for violence came from their seeing Muslims around the world suffer. One notoriously talked about beheading Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Terrorism in Canada, including attempting to kill a pro-war prime minister, suggests to me the Toronto 18 plot was an expression of rage against Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. History lends itself to this analysis. In 2004, bombs went off in Madrid three days before a general election that were obviously a protest of Spain’s involvement in Iraq. With little regard to Spanish politics at the time, some accused the Spanish people of caving in by electing a new government and immediately ending Spain’s commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, pre-election polls suggested Spanish voters had been at best lukewarm on the war and the government who had led them to war. For two days following the Madrid bombing, the government tried to manipulate information and blame the Basque militant group, ETA; the public’s finding out it was in fact an offshoot of al Qaeda added anger to shock. A few days after the election, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an article headed “The world must unite against terrorism”, in which he called the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq a victory for the terrorists. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. A more important question is, was it the right thing to do? He proceeded to conclude that Britain must not follow suit. A year later, Britain suffered its own terrorist bombing, almost definitely to end the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq.

Muslims are accused of becoming radicalised in madrassas, some of which are funded by the Saudi royal family to spread its brand of Islam around, and perhaps to spread Islamic extremism. I am no fan of religion of any kind, least of all the Saudi Wahhabist variety. But similar schools with similar messages have existed for centuries. The influence of Saudi-funded mosques and missions is a shadow compared to what Muslim terrorists actually rebel against: repression, murder, injustice and occupation. (Incidentally, the Arabic word “madrassa” does not mean “place where people go to get transformed into jihadist suicide bombers” but “school”.) The US has always been nominally against those things, but its foreign policy says otherwise.

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. It is usually an expression of anger and frustration at a state (unless it is performed by a state) by people who believe they have no better option. The enormous overreactions to terrorism are evidence that it works. We need to stop throwing money and lives into the bottomless pit of killing terrorists and begin listening to them and their supporters and changing foreign policy behaviour accordingly.

Perhaps we could take all the money we are spending on guns, drones and bombs to kill terrorists and put them toward public health in that part of the world. We could spend it building friendly relations among people of our countries, rather than just the elites getting together to carve them up. How about the ISAF and NATO and the Coalition of the Willing leave Iraq, Afghanistan and those other countries altogether, at least until the people welcome them back? Watch the terrorists’ grievances and claims to legitimacy wash away.

Tony Blair is the world’s greatest threat to rational thinking

Mr Blair, you will have us on. Tony Blair joked the other day in an interview with the BBC that radical Islam is the world’s greatest threat. He said that Islamic fundamentalists will stop at nothing to get their hands on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and that since 9/11, we “could not take chances on this issue”.

For the sake of clear heads, I would like to exercise disagreement. First, a quick history lesson. The whole Islamic radicalism threat to the world was the creation of the colonial powers, Britain, France and the US foremost among them, and Israel. Resistance to colonialism and occupation in all its forms has been a feature of intellectual and political life in the Muslim world for a long time now. Where it started is debatable, but the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and largest political Islamic group, was founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. It did not rise out of the sand. The Brotherhood, which brought us Hamas, was formed in reaction to European colonialism in Arab and Muslim countries. By no means are all its adherents or actions violent, but it nonetheless strikes fear into the hearts of white people who do not understand it, as well as reactionary governments like Egypt’s.

Since then, the United States especially has repeatedly penetrated the Middle East with its well-meaning but disastrous policies, culminating in the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Muslims see Israel’s repression and killing of their co-religionists as an extension of this policy. As I have written elsewhere, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was most stark after the Six Day War, which, incidentally, is when US support for Israel took off. If anyone wants to know why terrorists attacked the US so ferociously, they need but pick up a history book. They will see support for brutal regimes, oil plundering, cruise missiles and dead Arabs. Unfortunately, when the history books were most needed, on 9/11, they were not consulted.

Let us next consider Mr Blair’s fear that radical Islamists will acquire nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Having learned how unlikely that is from people who think and research for a living rather than speak, we can largely discard that idea. The most dangerous place for Islamist violence at the moment is Pakistan, where it is truly a major problem. However, even in Pakistan, the nukes are under lock and key, and they cannot be detonated with a simple strike of a hammer like everyone seems to think. Furthermore, even the most devout of the violently religious have shown they are not desperate to kill everyone in the world, just enough that they can achieve their political goals. Of all the reasons that were given prior to taking out Saddam, Mr Blair has settled on one: “his breach of United Nations resolutions over WMD.” The irony that Mr Blair’s government broke international law in order to uphold it was apparently lost on him. He says he is sorry for the faulty intelligence, but not for the war.

As important as his warnings of Muslim evil are, Mr Blair’s assumption is that we should focus all our efforts on combating Islamic extremism. Never mind what one man thinks: what do YOU think? Do you think that Islamic extremism is more dangerous than AK-47s, which have killed some hundred million people? Is it more of a threat to your life than climate change, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters? Even the people of Pakistan are more at risk from floods than Muslim suicide bombings. Or if it is better to attack people’s ideas, why not push to eradicate nationalism and racism? If we want to avoid preventable death, we can start by ending those bad ideas. Radical Islam should be much further down the list. Finally, a truly radical idea that Mr Blair would likely scoff at: end the state’s ability to wage unnecessary war. But that one is just utopian.

Look at the war in the heart of Africa and tell me Mr Blair’s pet project kills more people or creates more suffering. If you want to stop something, stop the killing and rape in the Congo.

But perhaps when Mr Blair says “the world” he means Europe and North America. After all, scary Muslims chanting foreign languages seems a greater threat to the local ways of life to read any conservative newspaper’s editorial section nowadays.

If Islamic extremism is getting worse, it is because of the same reasons Muslims have been angry at Europeans for the past two hundred years since Napoleon, and during the Crusades: perceived foreign occupation. How many Muslims have to be bombed until the decision makers realise that?

The main reason Tony Blair wants us to believe that radical Islam is going to kill us all is to provide justification for his failed policies. We humans have a bias that makes us seek out legitimacy for our actions long after we have taken them. If we close our minds, which politicians almost have to do to keep their consciences under control, our beliefs get stronger with time. We can see the clues: in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom and throughout the massacre in Mesopotamia, Mr Blair and his contemporaries warned endlessly of “terrorists'” acquiring WMDs; now he is repeating the refrain. (You will find he still has company.) Thank you, Mr Blair, for your humour, but I think it is lost on us.

Terrorism is overblown? You bet it is

Weeki Wachee Springs--Potential Terrorist Target

Is the threat of terrorism overblown? Could it be? I am still studying the American public’s answers to that question, but to scholars who study it, there is little doubt. The infinitesimal odds of dying in a terrorist attack are rarely made clear to many Americans, but if they were they could cast some doubt on the usefulness of the Department of Homeland Security (national security through colour code), the truthiness of political discourse and how threatening al-Qaeda actually is. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them is clear and sensible thought for a world of headless chickens.

John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University, who also wrote “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons” for the journal International Security a couple of years before the Soviet Union collapsed, begins his book by throwing out empty rhetoric about “the age of terror” in which we live and ushers in some perspective. Statistically, including 9/11, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s is similar to the number killed by deer or allergies to peanuts. One is more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist, and yet our reactions to the one successful terrorist attack on American soil have been so absurd that after invading two countries and killing hundreds of thousands, the American public still fears another surprise attack.

This attack could take the form of nuclear weapons, perhaps from the ever-present boogeymen of Iran or North Korea. But as Mueller points out in Foreign Policy (and in Overblown), terrorists’ exploding nuclear weapons all over the place is almost impossible. We have been afraid of them for more than 60 years, and since then not one has gone off accidentally, been sold to a terrorist or found its way to Manhattan. Chemical and biological weapons, too, fail the terrorist test: they are simply too difficult to develop and wield with any effectiveness. And why would they? The 9/11 hijackers had no WMDs because they did not need them.

And yet, the panic over nuclear or WMD terrorism, or any other kind, was high for years following 9/11. On Feb 11, 2003, FBI chief Robert Mueller told the Senate Committee on Intelligence “the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified” and claimed somehow to know that “al-Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning.” When he went back to the committee two years later, he never mentioned the secret FBI report that said that after more than three years of intense hunting, the agency had not found a single terrorist sleeper cell in the US, even though the 2002 intelligence estimate said there were up to 5000 terrorists connected somehow to al-Qaeda. Perhaps this oversight was induced by paranoia, as was presumably that which led George Bush to talk about nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in the same breath.

The media have contributed generously to the terror potluck. Politicians and bureaucrats have an incentive to issue vague warnings from time to time in case there is an attack and they are accused of not preventing it. In Mueller’s words, “[s]ince 9/11 the American public has been treated to seemingly endless yammering in the media about terrorism. Politicians and bureaucrats may feel that, given the public concern on the issue, they will lose support if they appear insensitively to be downplaying the dangers of terrorism.” It is as if each news program, each politician, each government spokesperson baits his competitors into saying more about terrorism, how wonderful America is, and how bad our enemies are going to get it. But our enemies are not the only ones who have suffered at our hands.

9/11 has cost money. Nearly $10b per year is spent on airport security, not including Homeland Security’s $50b budget. A sense of urgency to protect every possible terrorist target has meant a big increase in government spending with the usual billion dollar riders tacked on to each bill. (Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs, in the photo above, was happy to receive funding for preventive counterterrorism. Fortunately, his water park has not yet been a victim.) Visa restrictions have kept out scientists, engineers and businesspeople who could have helped the US economy. But never mind those costs: they are for security. No price is too high for a colour-coded warning system. The true costs of 9/11 are in the wars that would not have been politically possible without it. Hundreds of billions will have been spent on Afghanistan and at least three trillion will have gone toward Iraq after it is all over. Surely if those wars have saved lives and prevented terrorism, they are good wars. But all accounts say they have not.

9/11 has cost lives. One estimate is that more than 1000 people died between September 11 and December 31 of 2001 after they canceled planned trips by plane and took their cars instead. Another study found that in the same time period, 17% of Americans outside New York continued suffering shell shock. More obviously are the two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, which have claimed thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis in the name of nebulous ideals, false security warnings and failed intelligence.

Professor Mueller provides refreshing views not only of the present unwarranted panic but of historically parallel ones too. Pearl Harbour was described by observers at the time as catastrophic, devastating, crushing, “the greatest military and naval disaster in our nation’s history”. More realistically, however, it was an inconvenience. A colossal overreaction ensued in which a hundred thousand Americans were killed for the loss of 2403 in the initial attack. 120,000 Japanese people, two-thirds of them American citizens, were sent to detention camps without trial. Much more historical analysis provided in Overblown describes additional speculative fears and their consequences that, with hindsight, were exceedingly foolish.

John Mueller is part of a line of thinkers, from sociologists and other scholars to Michael Moore and George Carlin, who explain the destructive effects of the fact that, in the latter’s words, Americans panic easily. From Afghanistan and Iraq to freedom at home, this panic has for years led to the trading of lives and liberties for the illusion of security. Professor Mueller does not touch on the less obvious effects of 9/11 that we are dealing with to this day. For instance, while I believe the Iraq War would not have happened without 9/11, I also believe it is the continued fear of al-Qaeda and militant Islam and the Middle East and anyone who wears a turban that is pushing some Americans toward war with Iran. The mentality seems to be, “You think 9/11 was bad? When Iran gets a nuclear weapon…” Such a belief is only speculation, though. Overblown offers a much-needed clearer-headed response to terrorism than to try to blow it up.

Karzai’s Compromises

Hamid Karzai is quite the shrewd politician. He realises that his foreign friends with the big guns could be leaving Afghanistan soon, and is expending considerable effort to ensure that he remains in power after they leave.

Renewed efforts to shore up local Afghani defense forces are meeting with the approval of Karzai and General David Petraeus, who knows as well as Karzai that the US and its allies are on the way out. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a hilarious political euphemism, once called the groups they are trying to form “community defense initiatives“. Such local forces are, in effect, militias or paramilitary units that are supposed to fight the Taliban or keep it at bay (or, to the truly deluded, dismantle and destroy it). But there are a couple of reasons why that might not happen.

First, it is unlikely that these local forces feel much loyalty to Hamid Karzai or his government, which is seen by many Afghans as a puppet of foreign occupiers. Even if Karzai were seen as legitimate, ordinary Afghans are not likely to respect a government that forces them to pay large portions of their income in bribes for public services. They may even join the other side. There is no reason to think they would be less loyal to the Taliban than anyone else who might pay their salaries. These bands of fighters will not protect Afghanistan but only their friends and family. If there is a more effective route to doing so, for instance getting paid better by income from poppy farming, which might come from anyone, they could take it.

Second, Karzai is making deals with the Taliban, too. The consummate pragmatist, Hamid Karzai realises that the Taliban is strong, stronger than he, and without thousands of ISAF troops behind him, his future is uncertain. The US government has blacklisted many Taliban leaders by name, which means placing them on a UN list presumably so that they are not allowed to fly or talk to officials anywhere the US or UN have enough influence to stop them. Hamid Karzai asked the UN to remove as many as 50 of the names from the blacklist so that he could talk to them. Besides the fact that they are not all terrorists (whatever American authorities say), Karzai is reaching out to those who will want to wrench power from him when he is weak.

Hillary will visit Kabul soon for an international conference on Afghanistan after her present trip to Islamabad. (Her visit and its urgency were heralded by a suicide bombing in Kabul yesterday, not far from the US embassy.) She will likely discuss the US’s plans for reintegrating low level Taliban, the militias, anti-corruption efforts and aid, all of which are meaningless if there is no strong commitment to them for the next ten or twenty years. But we do not have ten or twenty years. The Barack administration plans to begin, carefully, to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2011, a year before an election. 2011 and 12 could be interesting years for the short term future of Afghanistan; however, its medium and long terms are in the hands of Afghanis. A British withdrawal is scheduled for 2014; however, if British forces suffer inordinate casualties due to increased pressure from Afghan fighters, the curtain may fall before then. Karzai will attempt to make it look as if he was the strong leader who demanded that the foreign troops leave. The real reason ISAF troops are leaving, however, is because the citizens they answer to are no longer convinced it is in their interest to shore up another corrupt dictator of a failed state.

If all these deals and olive branches and community defense initiatives work, it could mean that the US government claim that Afghanistan will fall apart if it leaves might turn out false. Again, Karzai is a shrewd politician, which means he is a power broker, and his remaining in power for now might mean an end to the decades of conflict Afghanis have had to endure. Either way, Karzai’s actions are a clear indication that relying on the ISAF to always be there would be foolish.

Public Opinion: Afghanistan and Vietnam

Currently, my greatest interest is in how public opinion legitimises war. There is considerable evidence that, although military decisions are made behind closed doors by small groups, wars would not get fought if the people were vehemently opposed to them. Public approval, disapproval, demonstration for and against, discourse and apathy all factor into political calculations in a democracy (and to an extent in other forms of regime as well), and wars have major political consequences. Far from being inherently peaceful, democracies are sometimes more violent against non-democracies, turning wars into crusades against evil. The Cold War is one example: the Western public was convinced of its justifications for fighting the godless communists and their evil empire. World War Two was perhaps an even clearer example. The mythology of those quests remains to this day, continuing to influence culture.

The Leader of the Free World’s most destructive war since WW2 was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War started and escalated with strategic decisions but ended with a public decision. The American people had had enough. Approval for the Vietnam War among American voters was highest in 1965, a year after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Lyndon Johnson’s landslide electoral victory. It fell nearly every year after that. Although American soldiers usually defeated the Vietcong, the American government did not defeat the antiwar movement at home. Why did support drop?

One obvious reason is that Vietnamese and Americans were dying in the thousands. By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 US troops and some two million Vietnamese people died. The people could not see why American soldiers should be drafted just to die. Coffins with flags on them are a major cause of war weariness.

Another is some of the spectacular embarrassments the US war effort incurred. 1968 was particularly bad. In January was the Tet Offensive. Though a tactical victory for the US and its South Vietnamese allies, it was a propaganda victory for Ho Chi Minh. A spectacular surprise attack by the communists, the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war that reversed US escalation in Vietnam. Soon after the Tet Offensive came the massacre at My Lai. The US Army brutally killed some 400 or 500 Vietnamese villagers, all civilians and mostly women, children and elderly. When the news of My Lai came out, Vietnam war protests increased, as more moderates became vocal objectors.

By 1973, the US was out. Thirty years later, it was back in; except this time, it found itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack is pulling most troops from Iraq but he is placing more in Afghanistan. The American public’s attention has largely refocused on what the president likes to call a war of necessity. The US public initially agreed with a US invasion of Afghanistan, but it could be waning.

There are differences between the two wars, but here we are concerned with public opinion. Americans are lukewarm on Afghanistan, about half approving of their country’s presence there. 60% of Canadians would choose not to extend the Canadian military’s role in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled 2011, even though there is no reason to believe a mere one more year will stabilise the country. About two-thirds of Germans want to bring the troops home. 64% of Britons polled think that the war is unwinnable, and 69% that the government has not done all it can to support its soldiers. With an election coming up, these figures are crucial.

Soldiers in Afghanistan and even Iraq have not died in nearly the same numbers as in Vietnam. But we are of a different generation. We are living in a time of fast food, high speed internet, immediate results and easy victories. If the Western allies who are again fighting an opponent they do not entirely understand do not show markedly improved results soon, governments will fall and the war in Afghanistan will end.

How long will the public approve of this war? Will they care enough about its stated goals to continue to support it? Is there any chance public opinion on the war will rise in the US, UK, Germany or Canada, even with some tactical victories? History suggests that, if there is an Afghan Tet Offensive or a Pakistani My Lai, the West will suffer another humiliating defeat in another faraway land.

Another perspective on drone attacks

In my last post, I argued that the US government’s crocodile tears at the execution of an Iranian protester were hypocritical in light of its accidental killing of civilians in drone attacks in Pakistan. I was attempting to provide perspective that the US government did not have. However, perhaps I was in need of perspective.

According to Pakistan’s Daily Times, civilians in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas should and do support such drone attacks. Farhat Taj says that, having discussed the matter with hundreds of residents of Waziristan, the people “see the US drone attacks as their liberators from the clutches of the terrorists” (the Taliban and al Qaeda). She also says that the civilian casualty figures commonly quoted, six to seven hundred, are misleading. Her whole report is an eye-opener.

An earlier article in the same paper describes the Awami National Party, the ruling party of Northeast Pakistan, as highly supportive of drone attacks and American involvement to oust the Taliban et al. (although that may be because the latter are a threat to its power). Another party, the Pakistan Muslim League, was opposed to drone attacks but nonetheless encouraged the US to help revive the economy. So continued American involvement is not all bad for anyone but the Taliban.

For more perspective on why the Taliban are so unpleasant, one might start with Robert Fisk. In his book The Great War for Civilisation, Fisk explains that the Taliban imposed the kind of state they knew. They grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan, terribly poor, their mothers and sisters reduced to servitude, with no education or entertainment or hope but the Quran. It is no wonder they turned to a particularly brutal and purist form of Islam when they took over Afghanistan. They are still imposing it where they are today.

Is assassination by drone the best way to end their rule and bring peace to Central Asia? If combined with the right political and economic strategy, it may be.

Barack’s foreign policy: change or continuity?

Two very learned men have recently written treatises analysing the Barack administration’s foreign policy. Tariq Ali is a socialist, a historian and an editor of the New Left Review. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a realist, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Though these men are not actually debating each other, I have chosen to put them in a post and let them duke it out. The question before them is, does Barack Obama’s foreign policy represent a break with that of his predecessors, or a continuation of it?

Tariq has no doubt: Barack has not broken the trajectory of US imperium. The end of the disastrous Bush administration being over, we all believed change was in the air. “Rarely has self-interested mythology—or well-meaning gullibility—been more quickly exposed.” The Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), is still “the central battlefield for the imposition of American power around the world.

Zbigniew, however, is less dismissive. Though he has not scored many major successes yet, Zbigniew notes, Barack has reordered American foreign policy with respect to all of its most important features, presenting “a strategically and historically coherent worldview.” But what, in effect, has changed? Let us delve deeper.

Whither the peace process?

Both men recognise Israel as central to American foreign policy. Tariq points out that Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, carefully timed to fall between Barack’s election and his inauguration, elicited not a word from the new president about the plight of the Palestinians. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the Israelis, who vocally championed their war against “Hamas”. Barack picked the “ultra-Zionist” (Tariq’s words) Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Like every US president, Barack has called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to settlement building and the renunciation of terrorism. But settlement building, which necessarily includes demolishing Arab houses in the Occupied Territories, is continuing, Palestinians are getting angrier, and peace seems as remote as ever. With no change in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, we can expect more of the same.

Zbigniew reminds us that the reordering of Barack’s foreign policy includes the essential ideas that Islam is not the enemy and the War on Terror is not the focal point of American foreign policy anymore; and that the US will be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it has to be if the fighting is ever to end. Jews and Arabs will never achieve peace on their own. “[T]he Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same.” But Zbigniew agrees with Tariq that the push for peace, the necessary stimulus only the US government can provide, has not been forthcoming. He outlines the international consensus on the necessary conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace: no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a shared Jerusalem; a two-state solution along the 1948 partition lines but that incorporate some of the larger West Bank settlements; and American or NATO troops stationed along the Jordan River to keep the peace. Barack has publicly urged these ideas, “[b]ut so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

Questions on Iran

The structures of both articles are similar: both begin with Israel-Palestine, close with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and right in the centre is Iran. Zbigniew calls Barack’s declared intentions to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme a step in the right direction. “[H]e has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that ‘all options remain on the table.’” But two questions are central to this issue. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate? They are not about to give up uranium, but they may be persuaded not to produce the bomb. Second, are the Americans? “It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.” Barack will not get what he wants with Iran by holding out one hand to shake and the other to punch.

Zbigniew expresses skepticism with sanctions, but admits they may become necessary. As a statesman, he points out that the US government should think strategically about their long term relations with Iran. Do they want Iran to become an ally once again? Or are they intent on treating it with hostility and potentially further destabilising an already unstable region? Despite all these questions, Zbigniew maintains that Barack has, so far, shown leadership on Iran.

Tariq writes from the premise that, regarding Iran policy in Washington, Israel is calling the shots. Because Iran continually (verbally) threatens Israel, and because the Israel Lobby ensures that a challenge to the Israeli monopoly on WMDs in the Middle East is intolerable, Barack has few friendly words for Persia. Barack initially considered “a forgive-and-forget dialogue with Tehran“. But when the protests began in Iran, “the opportunity for ideological posturing was too great to resist.” Barack sanctimoniously lamented the death of a protester in Tehran on the same day an American drone killed 80 civilians in Pakistan. Like George Bush, Barack is using his political capital to impose more sanctions and opprobrium on Iran. The air strikes, looming menacingly, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out, says Tariq, “if only because once the West at large—in this case not only Obama, but Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel—has pronounced any Iranian nuclear capability intolerable, little rhetorical room for retreat is left if this should materialize.” Along with Israel’s apologists, the Saudis want to cut off Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate it. Kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia is not new and is a clear indication that Barack has not broken with the past.

Escalation in Central Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last, but not least important, of Barack’s priorities that our unwitting debaters touch on. Tariq has always been a critic of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and sees Barack’s policies in the region as “widening the front of imperial aggression with a major escalation of violence, both technological and territorial.” In an article in 2008, Tariq takes apart the canard that Afghanistan is a “just war”, and he castigates Barack for keeping his promise to send more troops and firepower to crush the native resistance. He also takes the president to task for making no changes to the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Hamid Karzai. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Afghani guerrillas are not relenting and still control most of the country; drone attacks are up and killing more innocents; drug production is up, so global crime syndicates have an interest in continued instability in the region. In his scathing review, Tariq likens the AfPak war to Vietnam.

Zbigniew begins his section on Central Asia with “the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.” (I wonder if they do not already feel this way.) He does not advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan but neither recommends attempting to obliterate the resistance. The Northern Alliance and the Afghani government should be reaching out to the Taliban with concessions, attracting the ones it can and then defeating the remainder. The reality in the region “demands a strategy that is more political than military.” Barack should also strengthen the transatlantic alliance on Afghanistan and draw China in as a partner with a stake in regional stability.

Conclusions

Despite their different ideological points of view, Tariq Ali and Zbigniew Brzezinski are in agreement about one thing: Barack has not brought any big changes to the world through his foreign policy. Tariq’s thesis is that Barack has not broken with his predecessor. His rather cynical tone indicates that only the rhetoric has changed, and even the rhetoric continues to portray the typical manichean impulses of US governments: America bears a “special burden” in carrying the world; “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering“; “The Palestinians must renounce violence“, and “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off” for American occupation. In other words, lower your expectations. The emperor has only changed his clothes.

Zbigniew propounds that, while he has restructured American foreign policy, which may lead to long term gains down the line, Barack has yet to make the changes everyone anticipates. His job will be to manage the complicated web of relationships, (if possible) break away from the domestic lobbies that his foreign policy is beholden to, and pursue the audacious vision he has set out in speeches. “[H]e has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

My opinion is that the long term vision of a democratic and prosperous world that the US government has always claimed to pursue is so ethereal, and is causing such short term damage, that it is not worth the pain. Tariq’s article is a reminder that we must always consider our vision in light of the costs of our policies, and not simply the other way round. In this way, I agree with him. However, Tariq is not a statesman, and he does not consider the strategic side of the foreign policy equation. Zbigniew reminds Barack that he needs to effectively cultivate the strategic relationships with China, Russia and the like if he wants the US to remain the undisputed hegemon. He believes that American power can be a force for good in the world, and while I agree that it could be, it is often far more destructive than constructive. In the end, I believe that, if Barack wants to help the world, he should play to his strength, bringing people closer together, and leave the troops at home.

Ali, Tariq. “President of Cant.” New Left Review 61. January-February 2010. http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2821

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “From hope to audacity: appraising Obama’s foreign policy.” Foreign Affairs 89.1 (2010): 16. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Web. 25 Feb. 2010. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65720/zbigniew-brzezinski/from-hope-to-audacity