Obama’s diplomacy

For the second time in two months, Barack Obama stood up before the Muslim world and declared his intention to improve relations between the United States and the followers of Islam. In his speech in Cairo on Thursday, the American president persisted with his message that relations can be based on “common interests and common respect.” He used the very same words in Turkey, on his first foreign trip as president, on April 6. Two such speeches, two visits to Muslim countries – all in the space of two months – underline the personal risk that Obama is taking.
His actions are not the flights of fancy of an inspired fool: The US president is intelligent, talented and daring. As leader of a superpower, he also knows that some battles are not won by arms. His country faces challenges on many fronts – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and wherever Muslim fanatics might dream of a new September 11. He knows that his predecessor’s head-on collision with the world of Islam brought nothing but pain and tears to both sides. Obama’s aim is to gain time so that the United States can disengage from Iraq, beat the Taliban in Afghanistan, isolate them in Pakistan, curb Iran’s nuclear program and deprive extremists everywhere of popular support. Diplomacy is war by other means.
Obama’s display of good will is necessary to extricate America from the quagmire. However, it is complicated by the fact that he has to reach both the skeptical public in Arab and Muslim countries, which is waiting to see results after the declarations, and autocratic governments that need US backing. And though Obama appears to be expressing a tougher US line toward Israel, few believe that the Palestinian issue will soon stop being the touchstone for relations between the United States and the Muslim world.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition (and Kathimerini), 6 June, 2009

Character is destiny

On Saturday, Jacob Zuma was sworn in as the third president of post-apartheid South Africa, following the legendary Nelson Mandela and the bookish Thabo Mbeki.

South Africa, with a population of about 50 million people, is Africa’s economic and industrial powerhouse. Its future will have a decisive effect on the stability and welfare of the entire continent.

In the past two decades, South Africa achieved a miracle: It passed bloodlessly from a regime of institutional racism to a noisy, multicultural and exemplary democracy.

The nation has shown great progress since the first free elections of 1994, but major problems remain unsolved: inequality among rich and poor (not necessarily always on the white/black axis), violent crime and 5 million people infected with HIV.

Zuma has now been called upon to solve these problems at a time when the global economic crisis is rocking South Africa – reducing demand for its industrial products as well as its gold, platinum and other resources. The new president’s character, however, is another cause of concern, as he is as different as one can be from Mandela and Mbeki.

His predecessors were men of learning and persuasiveness, who managed to combine their anti-apartheid struggle with a decidedly Western image: Mandela, a member of the Xhosa aristocracy, was a lawyer before his 27-year imprisonment, during which time he continued to read and learn. Pipe-smoking Mbeki has a Master’s degree in economics from the University of Sussex.

Zuma is a self-educated, polygamous former cowherd and firebrand trade unionist who stokes up crowds with his trademark guerrilla song: “Bring me my machine gun.” He won the presidency after a long struggle against corruption and rape charges, for which he has been cleared.

So it is natural that many in South Africa and abroad should worry that after the “gentlemen” Mandela and Mbeki, the populist Zuma could destabilize the economy and upset the delicate racial balance in the country. The recent troubles in which poor black South Africans carried out a pogrom against even poorer Zimbabwean immigrants (accusing them of taking their jobs), showed how fragile the situation is and how little patience remains for a more just distribution of national wealth.

And this is precisely where one might hope that Zuma’s election could be cause for optimism: Only someone like Zuma, who appears to be closer to the people than to the governing elite, could carry on with the prudent, conservative economic policy that Mandela and Mbeki followed without provoking a revolution. Because the ruling African National Congress has not lived up to expectations of solving all the country’s problems, it has to appear to change itself radically in order to remain in power.

In Zuma’s case, we might say that we have proof of Heraclitus’ view that “character is destiny.” If Zuma were not so popular nor so determined to pursue power, he would not have endured the war declared on him by the establishment under Mbeki in the past few years. He not only won, but there is even the possibility that, because of this character, he may be just the person his country needs in order to secure a peaceful continuation. Time will tell.

If we look at the character of a number of leaders with regard to their career and the course of their country, we may find reasons both for hope and for despair. For example, Barack Obama, with his seriousness, patience, academic achievements and desire for consensus, may be just the person the United States need to lead them out of economic crisis and two wars. In Russia, the low-key Dmitry Medvedev and strongman Vladimir Putin appear to be finding a balance with each other; at the same time, they are keeping a tight hold on the reins of power, while gradually developing their country and its institutions. In Britain, Gordon Brown, on a burning deck, is trying doggedly to steer through the economic storm that his government did not see coming.

If we turn to Greece and look at the people who are in power or in pursuit of it, then we see why we are in so much trouble. It appears that here it is not leaders’ characters that are their destiny but their name. And a name – whether it be Karamanlis or Papandreou – means very little if it is not accompanied by the character of a leader.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 11 May, 2009

Empire and the law

The impassioned debate currently taking place in the United States as to whether to hold an inquiry into the revelations that captives in the “war on terror” were tortured, indicates that America is at a turning point that will determine the image and substance of its democracy.

The United States has not left any physical marks that will allow the people of the future to grasp the power and influence of the mightiest military and economic power the Earth has seen. It did not build pyramids nor Parthenons nor great roads and aqueducts, like so many empires before it. The great achievements of the Americans have been mostly intangible: the development of technology that empowered the individual, the spread of open markets and the globalization of trade and affluence. Above all, though, the United States was the driving force in the spread of democracy and human rights in countries whose citizens were suffering. Even though US governments cooperated with brutal, autocratic regimes and took part in regional wars, the image of justice that they radiated created a standard that every nation wanted to reach.

With the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1989, it appeared that the model represented by the United States – that of democracy and capitalism – had triumphed. This illusion did not last long: The terrorist attacks of 2001, the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003, the collapse of the global credit system, the widespread recession and the rapid climate changes shook the new order.

The United States found itself facing an unprecedented challenge: How could it protect its people and its interests without endangering the ideals on which the Americans’ global influence depended? It was a great misfortune for the United States – and the rest of the world – that George W. Bush was president at this critical time.

He did not waste time before deciding that what was good for America was good for the world. He adopted the dogma of “preemptive war,” along with extrajudicial killings, the kidnapping of suspects in foreign lands and harsh interrogation tactics (i. e. torture). Not only did these violate US and international laws but, in the eyes of the world, the American model lost the precious sense of its moral superiority. What once took place in the dungeons of dark regimes was now being carried out by Americans.

Beyond its moral decline, however, the Bush government’s greatest crime was its violation of the law. Scrapping punishment for those who break the law leads directly to arbitrary behavior, corruption and widespread cynicism. It destroys the fabric of society.

It’s irrelevant whether torture helped gain valuable information (as its supporters claim) or whether it lead simply to forced and useless confessions born of fear and despair (as others counter). Nor can we know whether the fear of torture dissuaded anyone from committing a terrorist act. What we do know is that undermining civil society is far more dangerous than the threat of terrorism – both for the United States and the countries whose governments might like to do the same.

In his desire for political consensus, President Barack Obama would like to avoid a confrontation with Bush administration officials and the CIA. But this is not a matter of personal choice. Just as the administration officials and CIA agents had no right to break the law, the president has no right not to order an investigation and the possible punishment of those responsible. (Let’s not forget that the revelation by US newspapers of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, painful though they were, saved the reputation of the American media and, to a great extent, cleansed their country’s name of the taint.)

Only the imposition of the law – however belatedly – can heal the wounds of its violation. And only by adhering to the law can a society show its true face.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 27 April, 2009

The EU’s Turkey test

Who would have thought in the years since 2005, when much of the Muslim world erupted in fury over a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, that this facile experiment would set off a chain reaction that would undermine the Western world’s values of free speech and tolerance? And yet, after a four-year hiatus, the cartoon furor is back – this time not as farce but as tragedy.

On Friday and Saturday, the eve of a visit to Ankara and Istanbul by the new US president, Turkey’s Islamist-inspired government went eyeball-to-eyeball with its NATO allies, rejecting the appointment of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the Western alliance’s new secretary general because of his country’s support of free speech. Once, in more optimistic times, we might have expected that Turkey’s stand would lead to Ankara’s isolation among its NATO allies and be taken as proof that the Turks are a long way from being ready to join the European Union. Turkey would have been pressed to change its position. But we are living in a new world now, one in which even the most sacrosanct values of Western democracies can be thrown out for the sake of a transitory political compromise. Turkey finally agreed to Rasmussen’s appointment only after Barack Obama met with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, for an hour before the NATO summit. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had received “guarantees” from Obama that one of Rasmussen’s deputies would be a Turk and that Turkish commanders would be present at the alliance’s command, according to the Hurriyet Daily News. The New York Times reported that Ankara was assured that talks on two chapters in its European Union accession talks would resume. These are among eight chapters that were frozen in December 2006 due to Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member which has been under partial Turkish military occupation since 1974.

It’s the timeless lesson of politics: The weak, even if they have justice on their side, are repeatedly trampled over by the mighty. In this case, Turkey will move closer to joining the EU while doing nothing to recognize the existence of Cyprus. Obama went a step further yesterday, calling on the EU to accept Turkey as a member. To rub in the magnitude of Turkey’s triumph, Rasmussen is expected to “address the concerns” of the Muslim world – as The New York Times put it – regarding the cartoons. In other words, the new leader of the Western alliance is expected to say he is sorry for having upheld the principle of free speech in his country. (A frightening footnote: London’s Daily Mail revealed on Friday that the BBC is sitting on an interview with a Danish cartoonist who is at the heart of the controversy, apparently too scared to broadcast an opinion that might anger Muslims.)

For Greece and Cyprus, it was already bad enough that Obama is in Turkey today and tomorrow, highlighting that country’s importance to the United States in the region. If the European Union is indeed planning to cave in to an ever-more-assertive Turkey’s demands, rather than forcing Turkey to adapt to the EU’s principles, then the whole world will come to regret the Europeans’ and Americans’ selling out their core values and principles in order to appease a nation that has never shown any ability to compromise nor cooperate on anything but its own terms. Well-meaning people everywhere – including in Greece and Cyprus – have supported Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, on the understanding that when Turkey meets its commitments to the EU, it will be a Turkey that will have changed radically for the better, to the benefit of its neighbors, its partners and its own people. If the EU now chooses to dilute its principles in order to appease Turkey (and its backers in the United States and Britain), then the current leaders of the EU will have managed to destroy the most democratic, the most just, the most progressive social, political and economic experiment the world has seen. That seems a monumental and unforgivable loss for the sake of very short-term gains.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 6 April 2009

Cold shoulder, hot opportunity

Judging by the disappointment of Greece’s political and diplomatic establishment, President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey looks like a diplomatic triumph for our neighbor and perennial rival. It is obvious that the fixed relationship between Washington, Athens and Ankara – exemplified by the 7:10 ratio agreement, which meant that for every 10 dollars in aid that Turkey got, Greece would get seven – has been broken. Washington has made no effort to hide the fact that it does not consider Athens important enough to burden Obama with an unnecessary visit simply for the sake of appearances. This realpolitik has reached the point where – inexplicably – even the wise, respected and moderate spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, has been left off the agenda for Obama’s visit.

As much as this may hurt Greeks’ and Greek Cypriots’ sense of justice, they cannot expect an American president who has shown that he does not fear to overturn decades of domestic and international policy to spend any time worrying about another country’s sensitivities. And Obama certainly does not need a visit to Athens that could provoke the kind of street theatrics that made Greece look as if it was being burned to the ground when President Bill Clinton visited in 1999.

It is difficult to face the fact that Greece is more or less irrelevant to developments in the wider region. But if we want to step back from an emotional reading of the situation, we might see that things are not all that bad for Greece.

The chief benefit of Obama’s cold shoulder is that it gives Greeks the opportunity to rid themselves of the delusion that all they need to do to solve their problems is to grouse enough so that Washington takes their side. It should have been clear since Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 that Washington’s studied neutrality would never work to Athens’s benefit. The Macedonia issue proved this beyond doubt. Greece must now understand that it has to stand on its own and use its diplomatic and political initiatives to function as a valuable member of the European Union. Only if Greece becomes self-confident and self-reliant will it be able to turn events to its advantage, whether this be in relation to Ankara, Skopje, Moscow, Brussels or Washington. It was such self-confidence that allowed Turkey to block US plans to invade northern Iraq from its territory, yet keep relations with Washington alive.

But the most important legacy of Obama’s visit to Turkey will be the extent to which the United States is prepared to press “a key NATO ally” to go against its own interests in order to serve Washington’s strategies. Obama’s greatest concerns on his visit to Turkey – behind the obvious window dressing of his participation in a meeting aimed at promoting dialogue between the West and Muslim countries – are Washington’s exit strategy from Iraq, the containment of Iran and renewed international involvement in Afghanistan. For this reason, issues such as Kurdish rights and aspirations, both in Turkey and Iraq, recognition of the Ottoman Empire’s genocidal campaign against the Armenians, Cyprus and the patriarchate are likely to be mentioned in a way that will save face for both sides but not get in the way of what Washington considers the real issues.

Now Greece must take stock of its own long-term interests, plan its strategy and get involved in regional and European developments. Turkey’s relationship with the United States is indeed more intense right now, but this could serve as a catalyst that will increase the terrible tension between Turkey’s ruthless secular state and an Islamist government already wounded by unexpected losses in the local elections of March 29.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 3 April 2009