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

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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

Chickens and eggs

There is sorry irony in the fact that Amnesty International accuses the Greek police of human rights violations and the use of excessive force against demonstrators and detainees, at a time when the state appears incapable of enforcing law and order anywhere. The sad thing is that Amnesty International is not exaggerating: Police and coast guard officers are often brutal when dealing with people who have fallen into their hands, whether they be violent demonstrators, crime suspects, passers-by or terrified illegal immigrants. The irony is that these strong-arm tactics do nothing to frighten the hooded youths who occupy university premises with impunity and rampage through Athens and Thessaloniki’s shopping districts at will; they do nothing to stop the rise in robberies and other forms of organized crime, which keep boring deeper into our daily lives and deepest fears.
Perhaps it is only to be expected that when officers are incapable of performing the task for which they were ostensibly hired and trained, they will take out their frustration on whoever falls into their clutches. Or is perhaps that the lack of discipline that makes officers brutal is also the reason for their incompetence? What comes first: the chicken or the egg?
But why should we be so hard on our police when all they do is reflect a much broader problem in society. Whether they be politicians, judges, professors, bureaucrats, doctors, journalists, policemen, waiters or plumbers, too many of us do not do the jobs that we have undertaken – always expecting someone else to do better than us to set things right. We are experiencing system failure, where confusion of laws and responsibilities, incompetence at the personal and institutional level, a lack of accountability and the total absence of a vision for the future conspire to break the nation down into warring tribes with no purpose but to impose their will on everyone else.
We can see the steps that brought us to the slippery slope. But, gliding effortlessly in our decline, we can only guess where all this will stop. Which individuals, armed only with personal integrity and moral duty to society, will take it upon themselves to stand against the willful destruction, to try create a beachhead of civility on what has become an enemy shore?
Last weekend, the rector and other academic leaders of Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University declared that the youths (including “hooded ones”) occupying university premises had a deadline of “Monday or Tuesday” to leave. On Saturday, in broad daylight, the youths rampaged through the city’s heart before returning unimpeded to their “asylum.” On Tuesday, at a much-anticipated debate that was expected to end the sit-in or lead to police being summoned to the campus, jeering protesters threw an egg at the rector. The meeting ended with university authorities pathetically promising to consider the protesters’ demands. The egg flew, the rector ran. But would the egg have flown if the hoodlums were not already sure that the chicken would fly?

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 3 April 2009

Hoods and revelations

It should come as no surprise that as our country is buffeted by the waves of the international financial crisis, our “political and news media elite” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is consumed with passionate intensity over an effort to clamp down on the use of hoods by violent demonstrators. We have grown accustomed to internecine strife over irrelevant matters whenever there is a far more serious danger to deal with. Citizens have just been hit with a one-off tax and public sector wage freeze that is expected to net close to 500 million euros, global conditions are expected to slash tourism revenues by between 10 and 30 percent (which means a loss of 1.3-3.9 billion euros), the country will need to borrow close to 50 billion euros this year (at a cost about 3 percent higher than more creditworthy countries, meaning more billions down the drain), and the image that Greece projects to the world is that of anarchists rampaging through the streets and Culture Ministry employees blocking access to the Acropolis and other sites and museums.
If the anarchists and strikers cause a further drop in tourism and an increase in the cost of our borrowing, this will mean even more billions of euros lost. One would reasonably expect the country’s political and economic representatives to be poring over plans to increase productivity and competitiveness, with a special emphasis on attracting tourists through superior services (seeing as we can’t compete with cheaper countries outside the eurozone). Before we even begin to think about the structural reforms that no government has dared to implement, we might think it logical to prevent any further damage to our economy and to our country’s international image. Instead, the government’s belated effort to impose law and order has been overshadowed by a furious discussion over its decision to make the wearing of a hood an aggravating circumstance when this takes place in conjunction with the commission of a violent crime.
The debate reveals the superficiality of the government’s thinking, because it pits the authorities against a symbol of disaffected youth (whether violent or shy), and, like the war against long hair, bell bottoms or rock n’ roll, it is bound to fail. Nothing can conquer teenagers’ fashionable fetishes. The roots of crime are elsewhere, not in the criminals’ dress. And the opposition parties, for their part, seize on a secondary issue – that of the hood – so as not to be forced to take a stand against the rising tide of criminality – and the widespread tolerance of this – that is destroying the very foundations of our society. So who is wearing the hood?

Milestones&Footnotes in AthensPlus, 20 March, 2009

Society’s dangerous passivity

Nothing is more precious, nothing more precarious than peace. At this time, Greece is going through its most difficult phase since the restoration of democracy in 1974. The evidence of a breakdown of law and order is present everywhere, from the resurgence of domestic terrorism to a multitude of armed robberies taking place each week. The immediate cause of this is the collapse of police operations over the past few years. The underlying cause is the astonishing public apathy in the face of the mounting danger.
Northern Ireland knows very well the dangers and tragedy of a society consumed by violence. That’s why, straight after the murder of two soldiers and a policeman by rebel splinter groups of the Irish Republican Army, thousands of people gathered in silent protest in the streets of Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Lisburn and Downpatrick. Many such protests had taken place during the three decades of intercommunal strife that preceded the 1998 agreement that lead to peace. But whereas those protests expressed hope in their demand for peace, reports from Northern Ireland this week betrayed a sense of desperation among most people lest their hard-won peace be destroyed.
In Greece there is neither hope nor despair, only a deafening silence. True, our country is not in danger of sliding into intercommunal violence. But every day we are witness to how violence is becoming a part of our lives. Much of the blame lies on government and state authorities for allowing people to get away with breaking the law all the time: allowing cars to park wherever drivers choose; turning a blind eye to violence at sports events over many decades; being too timid to deal decisively with urban guerrillas or extremist political groups; allowing no-go areas such as Exarchia in Athens or the village of Zoniana in Crete; being incompetent or indifferent in dealing with common, everyday criminality. The effect has been that people feel they can commit crimes with impunity, whereas those who are outraged by the crimes know that they cannot seek recourse anywhere. This leads to increased brazenness of criminals and resignation among members of the law-abiding public.
Right now we are in a state of apathy, perhaps not understanding the threat that violence poses to our society. But if civil society does not press the government into action, things will get worse, creating a chain reaction of violence. Either the state will be forced to take strong, anti-democratic measures, vigilante groups will spring up or criminals will triumph.

If the people do not cherish peace, they will have a harder battle to restore it once it is gone. And not only our politicians, but our very society will shoulder the blame for the catastrophe.
Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 13 March 2009

The contagion of chaos

Perhaps the most alarming bit of news in the past few months – which were already frightening enough – was a report in last Sunday’s Kathimerini that the police have decided to reassemble their intelligence gathering capabilities in a bid to cope with the resurgence of domestic terrorism. “It is impossible for us to devote the resources needed to protect every possible target,” said a high-ranking source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Therefore, we have to concentrate our efforts on trying to collect information.” This begs the question: If police were not trying to infiltrate the nascent terrorist groups, what on earth were they doing? How can they now present the basics of police work as a strategic decision?

The report provided the answer: the department responsible for collecting information on terrorism suspects was dismantled after the Athens 2004 Olympics, when an unprecedented security blanket had been cast over Greece, with the cooperation of foreign intelligence and security services and with the most sophisticated – and expensive – technology. After 2004, however, the government appeared to take its eye off the ball of public security, either through complacency or incompetence – or fear of being accused of authoritarianism. With the November 17 gang behind bars and the Olympics over, Greece let its guard down.

The bad omens, however, were quick to appear. On October 24, Revolutionary Struggle, a group that appeared a year before the Olympics in the wake of November 17’s capture, launched a bomb attack on police buses. Several attacks followed, including an anti-tank missile being shot into the US Embassy. Last Wednesday, the same group claimed that it had planted a bomb at Citibank’s offices and at a branch of the same bank. If the first bomb (60 kilograms of ammonium nitrate) had gone off, it would have brought down the whole building and ushered in a new era of blind, mass terrorism, as opposed to the largely symbolic attacks of the past.

All this time, no one appeared to take anti-terrorism operations and general police work with the necessary seriousness. This created a climate of impunity for criminals and insecurity for citizens. A policeman’s fatal shooting of a teenager in December set off riots in which the police force appeared either indifferent or impotent, thereby encouraging all forms of lawlessness: Police became a target and an excuse for further criminality. The result has been an increase in domestic terrorism, violent protests that sometimes verge on terrorism (such as setting fire to a train), a rise in violent crime (including gangland killings and kidnappings) and the brutal assault on a woman labor organizer. Sports hooliganism, too, has been spinning out of control, adding to the sense of insecurity across society.

When things begin to go awry it is very difficult to set them right, especially after a long period of neglect. With civil disobedience becoming entrenched as part of political protest, any vigorous police action is likely to lead to clashes and a further radicalization of youth and political groups. Despair over the worsening economy will lead to more tension on the streets, making police officers’ work even more difficult. As a remedy, the government is talking about the need to consolidate police stations, reducing the number of precincts from about 1,000 to 400, thereby reducing administration and sentry demands in a bid to free more officers to do real police work. This, however, will have no effect if the police do not quickly take effective action against organized crime – which includes domestic terrorism and underworld gangs – while at the same time intensifying foot patrols in neighborhoods. Crime spreads like a virus. And the government has allowed pockets of chaos to spread for far too long. Now it must curb crime without jeopardizing the nation’s hard-earned civil liberties. But only victory against crime can guarantee those liberties.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 13 March 2009