Sunday, October 27, 2013

Trust US

Revelations this week that the US may have monitored the phone calls of up to 35 world leaders have been making significant diplomatic waves in American relations with several powerful countries, and prove that the Edward Snowden saga is far from over. This week the German newspaper Der Spiegel published a damning article outlining the evidence for, extent of, and political effects of the NSA’s alleged surveillance program run out of the US embassy in Berlin, with targets including the cell phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel herself since 2002. Outrage is mounting in allies as far afield as Mexico, France, and Germany as citizens question an already unpopular superpower’s intentions.

While surveillance centers operating from within embassies technically enjoy diplomatic immunity for their actions, when they get caught as they have now the backlash is swift and harsh. The United States is already viewed throughout the world as a self-centered bully, willing to push its policies on supposed friends and pressure countries into taking actions they would not normally. The current scandal only serves to augment the image of the US as an irresponsible, overbearing hegemon. That an intelligence agency would secretly listen in on the phone calls of not only the citizens of our allies but their leaders themselves is politically unethical and extremely damaging. Today reports are surfacing that President Obama himself was told of the surveillance of Chancellor Merkel in 2010 and has repeatedly re-approved the program, further damaging US-German relations although he denies the allegations.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Brunei's Step Backward - The Case for Secularization

Earlier this week, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei announced a policy shift towards strict Sharia law to be enforced in six months. For those who don’t know, Sharia is the set of moral laws traditionally adhered to by those of the Muslim religion. Considered draconian, at least by today’s standards, Brunei’s new laws will include punishments such as flogging, amputation of limbs, and stoning for crimes ranging from drinking alcohol and having an abortion to thievery and adultery. While Sultan Bolkiah has enforced these laws previously, to a lesser degree, this shift is a substantial step backwards for the country. Sharia law, while being perfectly reasonable as a moral guide, has no place as a legitimate penal code in 2013, especially for an entire state. The laws are more disadvantageous to women than they are to men, strip individuals of many personal freedoms, and change the nature of a great religion from being a spiritual means to happiness and peace, to one of persecution and innumerable boundaries.

A public caning

Sharia law used to be sovereign penal code in the majority of predominantly Muslim countries. Much of Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia were once ruled under these laws. Secularization – at least to a certain degree – swept through these regions throughout last century, and many countries began to limit their use of Sharia as a legal guideline and encourage it more as a spiritual one. Many countries that have kept Sharia as an influence to their legal system now use it only in personal status cases such as divorce. In several countries, certain regions remained under strict Sharia, while others began to secularize and move away from it.

Today, only a few countries remain under strict Sharia enforcement – Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Mauritania, and Qatar, to name a few. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar are wealthy countries that have prospered despite the overwhelming influence of religion in modern day life, this is not a universal trend. Many of the other countries with stricter Sharia enforcement, such as Yemen, much of Indonesia, and, to some degree, Afghanistan, do not enjoy this level of wealth – or, for that matter, the same level of peace and security. That’s not to argue that all countries that have adopted more secularized approaches to their legal systems are prospering wonderfully – in fact, the vast majority are still struggling to reach the next rung on the ladder of development – but it does point out a possible hindrance to development in predominantly Muslim nations.

Sultan Bolkiah

Which is why the case in Brunei is so discouraging. According to the CIA World Factbook, in 2012, Brunei was ranked 11th in GDP per capita. They have enjoyed incredible success in exporting natural resources, and by most standards, citizens there live relatively prosperous lifestyles. Introducing stricter Sharia law is not going to improve Brunei’s economic situation; in fact, it will likely harm it. The quirk of Brunei’s new laws is they will only apply to Muslims, who make up roughly 67% of the overall population. Dividing the population by laws in this way will only exacerbate tensions between religions that have plagued much of the region in recent months. Not to mention, many of these Sharia laws may restrict women’s ability to work, harming GDP and productivity levels for the country.

Sultan Bolkiah is worth approximately $20 billion himself, making him arguably the wealthiest head of state in the world today. Perhaps he is having trouble looking past his own pile of money at the potential damage introducing these laws may have on his country. Christianity underwent the Protestant Reformation centuries ago, paving the way for secularization on a mass scale. I think the world has been better because of it. Isn’t it time countries like Brunei began to secularize themselves?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Malala Yousafzai and the Fight for Female Education

The girl enters the studio stage left, and the crowd goes wild. She is dressed in traditional Pakistani garb, poised, smiling, and impossibly mature. The next 16 minutes make you alternately want to cry, scream, cheer, and laugh. In an interview destined to go viral, Malala Yousafzai left host Jon Stewart speechless with her beyond-her-years wisdom and eloquence. In the past few weeks, Malala’s name – and her cause – have been inescapable, especially after she became the youngest person ever on the short list for a Nobel Peace Prize. She has met the Queen of England, taken tea with Angelina Jolie, had a biography published about her life (at 16, no less), and put a face on the struggle to educate girls, especially in the developing world.

It is striking that at only 16, Malala has achieved global celebrity not even Hollywood starlets could dream of, and all without a stint in rehab. In a documentary about the Taliban in Swat Valley, the viewer is offered a glimpse of Malala just a few years ago: markedly shier, she hides her face behind her hands as she cries on camera. The reason for her tears: the next day, a Taliban ban on girls in school will take effect, and her schooldays would come to a (brief) end. Her father smiles and pats her back, telling the cameraman that he simply could not risk his daughter’s life because he “fell in love with her” the moment she was born. Four years later, Malala says of the moment, “We don’t learn the importance of anything until it’s snatched from our hands… Education is power for women, and that is why the terrorists are scared of education.”

Friday, October 18, 2013

Iran Nuclear Talks: Global fusion or global fission?

In the early years of Pres. George W. Bush’s presidency, things had never looked better for US-Iranian relations. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was elected for a second term in 2001, and he was known as a reformer looking to reconcile Iran with the US for the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Although the terms “liberal” and “reformist” are relative – especially in Iranian politics, which are always guided by the Grand Ayatollah – he offered a glimpse of a “dialogue among civilizations” rather than Samuel Huntington’s famous Clash of Civilizations.

Pres. Khatami’s words were more than rhetoric. Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States at the hands of Islamist extremists, he was one of the first world leaders to offer his condolences to the American people and subsequently offered important policies of military support for the US invasion of Afghanistan. He promised that Iran would return any American military personnel that landed in Iranian territory, close its borders to Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaida, ask the Northern Alliance to facilitate US efforts in Afghanistan, and cooperate with Pakistan to assist in the creation of a new government. Since the invasion in 2001, Iran’s interests in Afghanistan have largely lined up with those of the US, and the country has provided important infusions of aid and investment throughout eastern and central Afghanistan.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Destroying Our Foreign Policy from the Inside

As I write this, it appears that a deal is in the works to avoid the U.S. default everyone has been so worried about for the past several weeks. Thank goodness. The economic repercussions of the United States government failing to approve a debt ceiling increase that would allow us to pay for things we have already agreed to pay for would have not only impacted our domestic economy, but would have sent shudders through the entire global economy. Should the deal be reached today that would avert this, we can go back to discussing all the other unfortunate consequences that our government's actions the past several weeks have had, and will continue to have, on our role in the global political arena. And let us be clear about this: these consequences are just as significant as the default itself, and may plague us for just as long.

In light of the impending doom that failure to reach an agreement would bring at midnight tonight, people from around the world have voiced their disappointment in the U.S., and for good reason. China has been particularly outspoken, taking turns lampooning and lambasting us for our apparent nonchalance at the effect our default would have on China's economy. Being our largest creditor (China owns roughly $1.3 trillion of U.S. debt), our decisions over the next several days could easily dismantle the Chinese economy along with our own.

But there are other important points to be made. A New York Times article points to Greece, where the U.S. and the EU have taken the stance that Greece's irresponsibility at managing their finances resulted in their current financial malaise, and they should be responsible for finding ways to ameliorate it themselves. Austerity and other financial hardships that will likely impact much of the Greek population should not be off the table. However, the United States has demonstrated that they too - or, should I say, the representatives who the U.S. population has elected - are incapable of responsibly managing debt and finances.

Finally, after two lengthy wars in the Middle East and an aggressive pro-democracy approach, the United States is now left to look itself in the mirror and see its own democratic government in complete, embarrassing disarray. The image we are projecting for the rest of the world to see is one of a government that is elected by its people only to spurn them during policymaking and legislation farther down the road. I have seen little indication over the past few weeks that these representatives of the people care about anybody but themselves - political gridlock is the new norm, with complete disregard to those it may be hurting. How is it that the United States can continue to advocate for democracy around the globe when ours is so detrimental to our society?

The greatest threat to American influence is America itself. Our biggest threat to our foreign policy is our own government. Perhaps the debt ceiling issue will be resolved, but what has been demonstrated over the past several weeks is at best an appalling lack of foresight and at worst a complete lack of urgency when looking at what may lie ahead for us. And while avoiding a default is of the utmost importance, it's hard to call it a victory - the consequences of coming this close have already affected us, and will remain visible for weeks to come regardless of whether the default comes or not.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Christopher Columbus was a Jerk

I had a wonderful day off from work today. Went for a run, out to breakfast with a friend, long day in the park: essentially just what I like to do with an extra day to myself. But despite my idyllic October Monday away from work, I can’t help but feel uneasy about the man behind today’s national holiday. I felt my unease trying to explain to a non-American why the deeds of Christopher Columbus warrant a national day of goofing off. It really hit home when I read an excellent web-comic by one of my favorite blogs The Oatmeal. That feeling of unease came from one simple fact: Christopher Columbus is a huge d-bag, and his history of rape, murder, and enslavement of the native people of the Americas is something I like to celebrate about as much as I like the thought of a staple-filled enema.

In case you don’t have time to read the full web-comic (and I highly recommend you do, it is after all the inspiration for this article), it’s essentially a long history of why exactly Cristóbal Colón was a human rights violator on a grand scale, and you should all know how I feel about human rights violators. The guy even has a section of his Wikipedia article titled “Accusations of Tyranny and Genocide.” Maybe I’m reading the wrong Wikipedia articles, but that seems like a tough accusation to come by unwittingly. Columbus’s initial voyages to the “New World” started off with a trip to the Bahamas where he lovingly wrote of his friendly interactions with the Lucayan natives he met there, who even helped rescue some of his men who landed on the island in a shipwreck. When the time came to return to his Spanish overlords and convince them to fund another voyage, he brought along twenty-five new Lucayan friends, only seven of whom survived the voyage. Yet Columbus’s next two extended voyages to the Caribbean were about to make his first eighteen victims pale in comparison.

When Columbus returned to the Americas, he was set up as Governor of Hispaniola, to rule from the capital of Santo Domingo. He was sent back to the Bahamas with a fighting force of 1,500 hundred men to eke out all the gold and wealth they could find. Now, he had gotten Queen Isabella super hyped up over the idea of a “New World” containing riches beyond imagining, so Columbus had to drum up some riches pretty darn quick or find himself rotting in the dungeon of a Spanish prison. His super-original-not-to-be-repeated-dozens-of-times-throughout-history idea was to greet the Lucayan native friends he made from his first voyage, and demand they hand over all their wealth. While they were at it, Columbus demanded his men have sexual rights to the native women. When some of the natives had the nerve to be like, “Uh, no way, bro,” Columbus hacked off their ears and noses as a warning to the rest of the Lucayans.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Obama Suspends Aid to Egypt

In a far cry from President Obama’s 2009 speech at Cairo University, new plans are in the works to further distance the United States from Egypt, a longtime pillar of U.S. national security and partner in the Middle East. An anonymous official in the Obama Administration revealed today that the United States would drastically reduce its $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt, a move borne out of pointed frustration toward Egyptian military leaders.

Coming on the heels of recent clashes between Morsi supporters, opponents and security forces, the suspension of aid in some part functions as diplomatic disapproval of the heavy-handed and lethal tactics employed against demonstrators and the increasingly authoritarian behavior displayed by Egypt’s interim leadership—the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).  Just this Sunday, over 50 people were killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Since the military coup on July 3rd that overthrew President Morsi—Egypt’s first democratically elected president—hundreds of people have been killed and thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters arrested during the ensuing social and political unrest. The Egyptian army has detained Morsi in a secret location since his overthrow, and the Ministry of Social Solidarity is on the cusp of banning the Muslim Brotherhood as a civil society organization after a court called for the ban and a freeze on the organization’s assets back in September. Backed by popular outrage, the SCAF is doing everything in its power to suppress both violence and the Islamists that came to power in June 2012.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Netanyahu's Misguided Attack Against Iran - One Step Back for Nuclear Talks?

U.S.-Iran relations in recent weeks have been at their highest point in probably the last 4 decades, leaving many optimistic about continuing progress in nuclear talks. Iranian President Rouhani and President Obama have had the first President-to-President talks in years, and eagerness from Rouhani on improving Iran's relationship with the western world seems genuine and refreshing, compared to the bellicosity and harsh words former President Ahmadinejad was know for. But despite these improvements, U.S. ally and stalwart in the Middle East, Israel, has not been convinced. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has remained steadfast in his disapproval and leeriness of Iranian intentions, continuously referring to Rouhani as "a wolf in sheep's clothing." Although it has not appeared to affect talks between Iran and the U.S., it is not guaranteed that it won't in the future.

In possibly the worst move in recent weeks, Netanyahu gave an interview to the Persian arm of the BBC news channel on Thursday night regarding Iran, drawing serious ire from not the Iranian government, but this time the Iranian public. Ironically, Netanyahu's appeal to the Iranian public to stand up against their government backfired entirely; Netanyahu ignorantly referenced the Iranian people's inability to listen to western music or to wear denim jeans, while also repeatedly discrediting the most recent presidential election and saying the Iranian public "deserved better."

Obviously, this interview was not warmly received by the intended recipients. Iranian youth took to twitter and other social media outlets ridiculing Netanyahu, showing pictures of their jeans, iPods, and other western cultural items. Furthermore, Netanyahu referenced 2009 antigovernment protests - specifically a women who's death was caught on camera and ignited sympathy and anger from around the world - without seeming to have recalled (or cared) that the women who had died was in fact wearing jeans in the video. The question all of this leaves is whether Netanyahu had ulterior motives in giving the interview, something perhaps unseen by someone like myself or the countless other individuals who saw it, or whether he truly was so in the dark on contemporary Iranian culture that he could make such inaccurate comments.

Given that Israel is significantly closer in proximity to Iran, and that the two have experienced an arguably worse relationship over the years than the U.S. has, it is understandable that Netanyahu has been unmoved by what others would see as optimistic progress in the recent nuclear talks. And, in defense of Netanyahu, the talks as of yet have been preliminary, and it will be important to see President Rouhani step up to the plate and begin implementing serious changes in the way Iran runs its nuclear program. Until then, talk is just talk, and it won't be the first time promising nuclear attacks have failed. However, there is serious reason to believe Rouhani is committed to changes - due to crippling economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European countries, Iran's economy is in serious trouble, and improving relations with the western world could over time substantially mitigate this. And Netanyahu's stubbornness when it comes to Iran, while not hurting nuclear talks yet, is certainly not helping them. Expressing concern and raising legitimate qualms is a reasonable thing for a country in Israel's position to do; publicly making inaccurate, disparaging remarks is not. It is in the best interest of Israel, and the United States, that Netanyahu begin to trust the talks more and join the nuclear talks as a productive state, and begin helping move things along more.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Iraq: The Middle East’s Ticking Time Bomb

On December 18, 2011, Iraqis watched in mixed fear and jubilation as the last US tanks rolled across the border into Kuwait, marking an official end to the American-led invasion in 2003. Two years later in 2013, those fears seem to have borne out while jubilation is in short supply: civilian deaths are reaching levels not seen since the Iraqi civil war of 2007-2009, and massive attacks have become a regular facet of everyday life. In September alone, there were nearly 1,000 deaths, 800 of which were civilians. Even this was shy of the 2013 high of 1,057 deaths in July. Sectarian, regional, and tribal divides have widened, not subsided, and the Maliki government itself is a hotbed of corruption, poor governance, and has lost the public’s faith as a democratic institution. The current path of Iraq indicates at best a pattern of cyclical violence, and at worst a nearly unstoppable march back to civil war.

Qasim Ahmad Tahan carries the body of his 5-year-old son Walid.
Courtesy AP.
Yet chances are, you haven’t seen Iraq in the headlines in a while. Violent acts have become so frequent that they hardly make it on Twitter reports. On Monday alone, 15 car bombs went off in Baghdad, which, as the BBC’s Michael Knights points out, “would have been an unprecedented event...[i]n any other country.” In Iraq, it was the 38th attack of this kind in the last 12 months. Given that the current security crisis began but did not end with the US occupation of 2003-2011, American policymakers should be scrambling to figure out a way to aid the Maliki government in combatting the violence. With a civil war next door in Syria and unrest in Egypt, instability is spreading like disease throughout the region in the wake of the Arab Awakening’s derailing by autocrats. Combined with US war weariness with Iraq itself, it appears that the US can or will do little to stem the tide of what is becoming a river of blood.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

U.S. Government Begins Shutdown

In what now seems like a horrible embarrassment for America, the U.S. Congress last night failed to come to a 12th-hour deal to fund federal agencies. After successive negotiations and new demands from House Republicans, the last-ditch effort to avoid a government shutdown ultimately broke down into a stalemate between House Republicans and Senate Democrats, both of which hold majorities in their respective legislative bodies. As the first shutdown in 17 years, one crucial element stands out: between polarized politics and uncompromising lawmakers, the failure to come to an agreement on funding everyday government operations ushers in a new chapter in the recent history of the American political landscape, one where extremism and obstructionism can prevail.