George Bush held a summit last week with a key ally. But if you blinked, you might have missed it. It lasted for about an hour. There was no joint statement or big press conference. It was one of the least newsworthy events in Washington.
South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun had been hoping for more. He wanted a trip to Crawford, Texas. He wanted a splashier welcome in Washington. He would even have settled for a trip to Graceland, like the one that Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi enjoyed last month.
It should have been a big event. Washington and Seoul have lots of issues on the table. They are trying to coordinate policy on North Korea. They are negotiating a transfer of wartime control of the military in Korea. And they are currently bogged down in multiple rounds of talks on a controversial free trade agreement (FTA).
From South Korea’s point of view, this is all big news. The relationship with the United States is dominating discussions in Seoul and in the Korean newspapers. I received three requests for columns about the summit and fielded a succession of questions for Korean Broadcasting Service.
But when I tried to offer an op-ed on the summit to U.S. outlets, I received either a negative or no answer at all.
There are two main reasons for this discrepancy in media attention.
The United States figures much more prominently in the perspectives of other countries than they figure in Washington. This asymmetry mirrors the larger imbalance of power in the world.
The more intriguing reason for Roh’s meager welcome in Washington is how President Bush’s own personal preferences shape American media reporting. George likes Junichiro, and the press went wild over Koizumi’s trip. George doesn’t like Moo-Hyun, so the press failed to find anything interesting to report on over here. Sometimes the U.S. government controls the media with sticks, such as detaining AP photographer Bilal Hussein for five months without formal charges. Sometimes the control is more carrot-like, such as providing great photo opportunities of Koizumi belting out Elvis.
When Ceasefires Fail
Okay, the press followed Bush’s lead on the summit with Roh Moo-Hyun. But that was a minor sin compared to the much graver failure to devote sufficient space to Sri Lanka.
As FPIF contributor James Ross points out, Sri Lanka is on the verge of a major war. What had been a promising ceasefire inked four years ago—between the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers—gradually fell apart as both sides stepped up violations last year. The fighting that began in earnest in April has left hundreds dead and over 200,000 homeless. “Along with the European Union, India, Norway, and Japan, the United States should promote the establishment of a UN human rights monitoring presence in Sri Lanka modeled on the current, very successful Nepal mission,” writes Ross.
Another ceasefire—between the World Bank/IMF and its critics—broke down before the mid-September meeting in Singapore of the two multilateral institutions. FPIF columnist Walden Bello was one of the civil society representatives banned from attending the meeting. Public input into this meeting promised to be particularly critical, Bello points out in this week’s column, since several much-debated reforms were on the table, including the reallocation of the voting power of IMF members.
On the World Bank side, meanwhile, several civil society organizations have been focusing on funding for energy projects. Check out the report from the Sustainable Energy Economy Network of IPS on how the energy framework of the World Bank “sells the climate and poor people short.”
Also, grab a copy of the latest World Policy Journal (summer 2006) for an illuminating piece by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh on how Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs have steered us wrong on the poverty and development debate.
There was a flurry of anniversaries in the last couple weeks. The end of August marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s savaging of the Gulf Coast and the Bush administration’s reputation for “homeland security.” One year later, it’s become abundantly clear that Katrina was not simply a domestic issue. As I write in “Katrina: The Final Frontier,” U.S. global policies abroad did not exactly generate the hurricane winds. “But Washington’s attitude toward climate change and international cooperation certainly sowed the winds, and we continue to reap the whirlwind.”
Hard on the heels of Katrina was September 11. FPIF’s Middle East editor Stephen Zunes has done an excellent job of deconstructing President Bush’s speech on the occasion. FPIF’s peace and security editor Miriam Pemberton published an op-ed in the South Florida Sun Sentinel urging diplomacy rather than military solutions and a focus on threats at home rather than abroad. In the recent Foreign Affairs, John Mueller concludes that the terrorist threat has been woefully exaggerated: “The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists.”
Finally, we’ve introduced a new graphic feature. Postcard From will feature a photo and commentary that transports you to a different part of the world. This week, visit Syria with Farrah Hassen and learn more about the country that may be next on the U.S. hit list.
FPIF, September 18, 2006