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

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

Cutlasses into ploughs

(This is from November 2008. I pulled it out of the drawer because of the recent intensification in piracy, including the capture of an American captain by Somali pirates)

The hijacking of a supertanker by pirates hundreds of miles off Kenya earlier this month has thrown the spotlight on a phenomenon that had been growing in recent years but to which few had paid much attention. After nearly 200 years of law and order in marine transportation, the rise of piracy appears to be something of an anomaly. But history shows that piracy – the plundering of merchant vessels and the ransoming of their crew and passengers – has always posed a threat to shipping. Piracy flourishes when there is no strong empire that can rule the seas or when a country does not have a government capable of securing the well-being of its people or of maintaining order. In Somalia today there is no credible central government; no one is capable of – or interested in – maintaining order in the coastal areas. Anarchy and neglect push the people into ever greater desperation. Ambitious young men can choose between poverty and crime.

Pirates have a special place in the world’s folk tales and in the collective memory of people like ours, whose history, human geography and architecture has been shaped by piracy. (For example, for centuries no one could build settlements along our coast, for fear of pirates – unless the settlers were pirates themselves).

The oldest reference we have from a somewhat historical source is in Homer, where piracy is presented as the natural consequence of the collapse of the Cretan naval empire. After Minos, the Athenian empire and then Alexander the Great’s fleet maintained some kind of order. Political forces have always exploited pirates in order to harm the interests of their enemies.

We see this through antiquity right up to our recent past. In the Caribbean in the 17th century, for example, France and England encouraged pirate attacks on ships of their common enemy – Spain. Only after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, when Britain became the sole sovereign of the seas, was piracy stamped out.

Ancient Rome presents an especially interesting case. In the last years of the Republic – the 1st century BC – the Romans were undisputed masters of the land and showed little interest in policing the seas. But while they were involved in endless civil wars, piracy developed to such an extent that pirates would also carry out raids inland and more importantly, had also disrupted Rome’s food supply. With less wheat getting in, prices rose so much that fears of famine grew. That’s when – in 67 BC – the general Pompey was granted unprecedented absolute powers to raise a mighty army and fleet and stamp out piracy. The Roman elite was alarmed by the concentration of so much power in the hands of a single man, but Julius Caesar, to further his own plans, pushed the people into demanding Pompey’s appointment. Such was the public’s faith in the great general that his appointment alone sufficed to bring down the price of wheat in Rome. In three months, through methodical and effective campaigning, Pompey had ended the pirates’ reign.

But the road toward supreme authority resting with one man had been opened. This would quickly lead to the end of the republic and the beginning of empire. Caesar and then his adopted son Octavian, who was destined to become the Emperor Augustus, exploited this. Augustus later established an imperial fleet, which maintained order on the seas for nearly 300 years. When the empire weakened, the pirates took control of our region again for more than 1,400 years.

Today, the Somali pirates’ actions are leading to a rise in ships’ insurance premiums and the higher cost of shipping goods via longer routes. These costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. A multinational fleet of warships has assembled off the Horn of Africa. But however much naval forces may try, the only way to beat piracy is to promise Somalia a better future. The secret of Pompey’s success was that when he had captured 20,000 pirates he neither executed them nor did he release them so that they would go back to their old ways. What he did was give them land – and they settled down and became peace-loving farmers.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 24 November 2008

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