Getting to Yes

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Articles

I was on Wisconsin public radio last week, being interviewed on the state of U.S. foreign policy. All the callers were in perfect harmony. We all agreed that the last eight years have been a disaster for the United States, that we must move away from militarism and toward diplomacy, that we must, well, you get the drift. I commented to the host that the country would be in better shape if Wisconsin were in charge.

Then a fellow called and said, “What kind of bubble do you all live in? We face a threat in Iran just as dangerous as Nazi Germany. Talking with the Iranian leader isn’t going to do squat.”

I was happy that he called. It’s no fun just talking with folks who agree with you. I spent a couple minutes discussing the false analogy between Iran and Nazi Germany. But in retrospect, I should also have talked about the bubble.

We’ve seen a lot of bubbles in recent years. There’s been the Dot Com bubble. The real estate bubble. The stock market bubble. But no one has talked about the foreign policy bubble.

Let me define the foreign policy bubble this way. We Americans think we live in the greatest country on earth. We think this because we never go anywhere else to test this proposition, except to places like Club Med or on cruises to the Caribbean (talk about bubbles!). Because we’re the greatest country on earth, we have the right to disregard the opinions of other countries, which aren’t as great as we are. And we can impose our values on everyone else – after all, why should anyone complain about having greatness thrust upon them? In this perfect bubble, our self-regard builds on itself, higher and higher, until the estimate of our worth far outstrips its real-world value. Then, all it takes is a little pinprick for the bubble to pop.

The Vietnam War was one such pinprick (oops, we lost, how could that happen to such a great and powerful country?!). The Iraq War is shaping up to be another bubble-burster.

What I should have said to that fellow on the radio is: America is a big bubble right now. If you can, try to listen to what people outside this bubble are saying to us. I know it’s difficult. During the real estate bubble, it was hard to resist the urgent recommendations to buy, buy, buy. It’s not just that the world is fed up with U.S. foreign policy. We have become blind here in the United States to our relative decline. Check out the public transportation system in Japan. Consider the health care on offer in Canada. Sample the schools in Finland. They put us to shame. According to the latest UN Human Development index, we’re number 12, down four slots since 2006. It’s hard to see all this inside our foreign policy bubble.

The caller was right, of course. Many of us currently inhabit a different bubble: a bubble of hope. We think that it is still possible to change the course of American foreign policy. We think that we can tame the rogue elephant that the United States has become and make it cooperate with the rest of the world. We think we can turn around the persistent no’s of Washington – no to Kyoto, no to arms control, no to negotiations – and finally get to yes.

In that spirit, Foreign Policy In Focus and the Institute for Policy Studies, our parent organization, worked closely with YES! Magazine on its recent issue on U.S. foreign policy. I look at how we can transform the way America relates to the world in The Way to a Just Foreign Policy. “Social movements have in the past mobilized the American public behind dramatic shifts in U.S. policy,” I write. “The civil rights movement and the women’s movement have both remade U.S. society. The successes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would have been inconceivable a mere generation ago. They are remarkable people, but they also stand on the shoulders of powerful social movements. Today, we need a different kind of social movement—one that focuses on U.S. foreign policy. Such a movement, drawing heavily on the peace and global justice efforts, would aim for nothing less than a transformation of the U.S. role in the world. This would be no mere change of politicians or adjustments to a few policies. It would be a change of truly global proportions.”

Part of this change involves a shift in resources away from the defense budget and toward human needs. In Raiding the War Chest, Miriam Pemberton writes that “our country has a massive international-relations repair job ahead in the post-Bush years. This job comes down to acknowledging that our military-led response to 9-11 has made us less safe by creating more terrorists than it has defeated. Furthermore, we must convince the rest of the world’s peoples that we are ready to engage with them in a different way. Whatever is said along these lines won’t be credible unless, as the saying goes, we put our money where our mouth is.”

We don’t stop there. In this issue of YES! Magazine we take you around the world as Emira Woods looks at the militarization of Africa, Erik Leaver assesses the prospects of withdrawing from Iraq, Nadia Martinez describes a new policy toward Latin America, Stephen Zunes argues for an approach that is good for both Israel and Palestine, and Ben Manski and Karen Dolan chronicle some recent wins in the realm of municipal foreign policy.

It’s a powerful collection of essays that combine idealism and realism, hope and skepticism. Get a copy of YES! Magazine or visit its Website as soon as you can.

By the way, if you, or someone you know, want to join our particular bubble, we have a new job opening at IPS for a outreach and production coordinator. And if you’d like to see our bubble in action, we have a couple events around the book Lessons From Iraq: Avoiding the Next War, co-edited by Miriam Pemberton and William D. Hartung. There will be one in New York City on June 17 and another here in Washington, DC on June 22.

Military-Industrial Bubble

If there is one institution in the United States that embodies the bubble mentality more than any other it’s the Pentagon. The Department of Defense is like Paris Hilton: awash in money and problems. And we’re not just talking reversals in the field. “Headaches mount on the home front as well,” columnist Frida Berrigan explains in Trouble at the Pentagon. “The head of the Air Force was recently embarrassed and forced from the cockpit. Billions of dollars have been misplaced or misspent. Huge cost overruns bedevil weapons contractors. And, private contractors have formed a cubicle mercenary force, outnumbering uniformed personnel and federal employees in many DoD agencies.”

Iraq is a mess, and so is Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a chorus of voices in the world of punditry and policymaking has urged Washington to focus its attention on Pakistan. There, in the country’s equivalent of the Wild West, the Taliban and al-Qaeda and a range of homegrown extremist organizations are flourishing. Hardliners urge military responses. But Pakistan has been negotiating with these organizations for the last two months in the hopes of hammering out a series of truces with the warlords. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

FPIF contributor Mehlaqa Samdani says it’s a good thing. “While concerns about the Taliban regrouping remain valid,” she writes in Preparing for Peace in Pakistan, “it is in America’s long-term security interest not only to support the multidimensional peace plans being formulated, but refrain from words and actions that could jeopardize the process.” Such actions include the recent U.S. air strikes that accidentally killed 11 Pakistani paramilitary.

Not so, argues FPIF contributor Sharad Joshi. “Concessions offered to the Taliban can potentially strengthen its capabilities and bases in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which borders Afghanistan and contains the volatile North and South Waziristan provinces,” he writes in Is Pakistan Appeasing the Taliban? “From these bases, Taliban militants have a history of infiltrating and launching cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. Pakistan’s approach to the Taliban amounts to appeasement. The United States should not abet this strategy by taking off the table such sticks as cross-border raids on Taliban bases.”

Stay tuned. We’ll soon be publishing the next round in this strategic dialogue.

Yes We Can?

Barack Obama has been the candidate of hope and change so far in this election. But sometimes he demonstrates a marked preference for the status quo.

Consider his recent speech before the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “Embracing policies that largely backed those of the more hawkish voices concerned with Middle Eastern affairs, he received a standing ovation for his efforts,” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in Obama’s Right Turn. True, “he pandered less to this influential lobbying group than many other serious aspirants for national office have historically.” But this was only a glimmer of hope in an otherwise hawkish speech that “appeared to place all the blame for the ongoing violence and the impasse in the peace process on the Palestinians under occupation rather than the Israelis who are still occupying and colonizing the parts of their country seized by the Israeli army more than 40 years ago.”

Jonny 5 agrees. He’s a rapper with a new group The Flobots. Jonny 5 talks with FPIF’s Saif Rahman about a range of foreign policy issues, including Obama’s take on the world. “I ordered my Obama t-shirt the day they announced he was running, but I don’t support him uncritically. Jim Wallis says that real change happens when there’s social movements beating down on open doors. So we need to be building up the social movement and hope for, and personally I hope that he’s elected so that we have an open door and a more receptive ear. But it’s not going to keep him from taking a ‘hard-line’ on certain issues that he thinks he need to take, like Israel-Palestine,” Jonny 5 says. “There’s a larger movement happening in this country that does involve telling the truth about who we’ve been and at the same time be hopeful about who we could become as a country. The movement is way bigger than any candidate or any party.”

South Korea’s Beef

Last week, a million people poured into the streets of Seoul to protest an agreement that allows U.S. beef into the South Korean market. The new South Korean president Lee Myung Bak has been at the center of this firestorm of protest, because he made the agreement with the Bush administration. With Tony Blair gone from the scene, the race is on to become the next (and last) poodle of the Bush administration.

“To the rest of the world, South Korean protests over the safety of U.S. beef are portrayed as an expression of simmering anti-Americanism,” writes FPIF senior analyst Christine Ahn in South Korea’s Beef with America. “Without a doubt, anti-American sentiments have historical roots. But Koreans also have a legitimate claim to fear the safety of U.S. beef.” Her summary of South Korean concerns should have us all boycotting burgers.

And, finally, the United States just can’t keep its hands out of the hornet’s nest in Lebanon. “On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. military intervention in Lebanon, and 25 years after a second U.S. military intervention that left hundreds of Americans and thousands of Lebanese dead, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a resolution by a huge bipartisan majority that may lay the groundwork for a third one,” writes Stephen Zunes in Lebanon Intrusion. “At a minimum, this move has crudely and unnecessarily inserted the United States into Lebanon’s complex political infighting.”

FPIF, June 16, 2008

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