Reasons to be Cheerful

Posted January 10, 2014

Categories: Articles, Featured, US Foreign Policy

The beginning of a new year is when optimism courses through the blood. Even in the foreign policy realm of dreary realism and apocalyptic musings, January is when pundits and policymakers entertain temporarily vaulted hopes that wars can be stopped, deals negotiated, reputations salvaged, and the planet saved. This year, though it marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, has seen its fair share of bright-siders. At Foreign Policy, Ken Roth looks back at the human rights victories of 2013. Here at Foreign Policy In Focus, Medea Benjamin gives us last year’s high points of activism.

I spend most of the year doling out the bad news. So, before I continue in my role of Cassandra, let me take a moment to look beyond the grim headlines. I don’t want to cherry-pick. Whether it’s rising temperatures or the terrible violence in the Central African Republic, there are plenty of reasons to believe that we’ll continue on our downward spiral. But a few trend lines suggest otherwise.

So, in this first column of 2014, I will follow in the grand tradition of Ian Dury. Here, then, are reasons to be cheerful: one, two, three.

The Decline of U.S. Militarism

When you are standing right up close to the U.S. national security state, it doesn’t look like it has declined in power by one whit. Congress managed to pass a budget deal at the end of December that awarded the Pentagon a $22.4 billion increase for 2014. It sounds almost like a joke. The Pentagon was bracing for half a trillion dollars in cuts over the next ten years as a result of sequestration, and instead it got a fat holiday bonus.

The power of the military is not just measured in dollars. The U.S. military is fighting — or supporting proxies — in 74 countries around the world. Our Special Forces are on the groundin more than 100 countries.

And we continue to top the list as the world’s leading arms exporter. We are the world’s NRA.

But once you step back a little way, you can see that U.S. militarism is on the decline. The Pentagon gets a bonus this year and the next, but after that the belt-tightening is set to begin. There are 43,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but that’s down from the peak of 101,000 troops in June 2011. Most of the rest will be out by the end of this year. If Kabul doesn’t sign a security pact with Washington, the United States might implement the same “zero option” it applied to Iraq.

As a result of congressional reluctance, U.S. public opinion, and a last-minute deal brokered largely by the Russians, the United States did not attack Syria last year.

Drone strikes, which the Obama administration radically increased in his first term, have declined significantly. In 2013, the United States conducted 27 strikes in Pakistan, which compares to 128 in 2010. The decline is thanks to both protests within the country as well as activism targeting drones outside the country. True, drone attacks are increasing in Yemen, but the tactic has lost some of its luster in policy circles.

It’s one thing for the United States to draw down its forces in the Middle East. It has, after all, announced that it will do just that. But what about the “Pacific pivot”? Won’t U.S. militarism just pop up in the east?

Although there’s a new U.S. Marine presence in Australia and a projected base expansion in Guam, the much heralded Pacific pivot doesn’t amount to any net increase in U.S. militarism, just a rearrangement of existing forces in the region. Indeed, once the military cuts go into effect for real, we might see a net reduction in the U.S. footprint in the Pacific.

In other parts of the world, the United States is closing bases in Europe and keeping its hands generally out of Latin America. The situation looks worse in Africa, but at least there are countervailing forces — the UN, the African Union — that reduce the scope of U.S. unilateralism. And last year, Obama offered Russia a plan to implement sharp new cuts in both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.

The president has not suddenly realized that he should act like a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The decline of U.S. militarism is related, first of all, to the economic difficulties our overextended superpower faces. And, like all presidential administrations, the Obama team has discovered the declining utility of military force. Steven Pinker has chronicled the much larger reduction of violence in the modern era, and the U.S. government might finally be catching up with this trend.

The Return of Diplomacy

It’s not just the overall decline of U.S. militarism that’s important. It’s what seems to be replacing this militarism. The Obama administration has rediscovered diplomacy. It has remembered that it can actually sit down with adversaries rather than simply bomb them into submission or freeze them out with crippling sanctions.

Nowhere has diplomacy returned with greater force than with Iran. For more than a decade, the rumors of an impending attack on Iran — by the United States, by Israel, or by both — have circulated in policy circles and on the Internet. In 2007, John McCain went so far as to turn a Beach Boys hit into an anthem of a different sort with the refrain, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.”

But the tide has finally turned. This week, Iranian negotiators will meet with their counterparts from six countries — the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany — to implement a deal that reduces international sanctions as Iran restrains its nuclear program. To secure this deal, the Obama administration has had to face down both congressional opposition and the infamous American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It’s not a done deal. But it sure beats the alternative.

The administration is also hopeful that it can achieve the Holy Grail of diplomacy — a breakthrough agreement between Israel and Palestine. Secretary of State John Kerry has made 10 trips to the region, spent hours of negotiations with both sides, and achieved, well, nothing yet. It’s going to take a lot to get a fair deal out of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (particularly with Republican senators hardening his position). Still, as in any hostage-taking crisis, the best strategy is to keep them talking.

Détente with Burma is proceeding nicely, and quiet negotiations seem to have averted crisisin Tunisia. But we still haven’t sat down with North Korea or Cuba. There’s still time for the Obama administration to make a full pivot to diplomacy and secure its foreign policy legacy.

The Resurgence of Social Justice

As he was closing out the year, President Obama gave one of his hardest hitting speeches on the economy in which he declared that “inequality is the defining challenge of our age.” He’ll be following that up in his State of the Union address with what he plans to do about it. It’s likely to be rather modest — extension of unemployment benefits, a hike in the minimum wage — but it’s a far cry from his emphasis on bailing out the bankers in his first months in office.

More significant are the people pushing the president to take these stands. He has been outclassed on the issue by none other than Time’s Man of the Year and the guy on the cover of theForbes issue devoted to the richest Americans.

Pope Francis is not the first pontiff to decry the soullessness of capitalism. But he has trulycaptured the world’s imagination with his words and deeds. For instance, instead of washing the feet of 12 priests in the traditional ceremony in Rome’s St. John Lateran Basilica, he traveled to a prison where he washed the feet of 12 youth, including two Muslims and two women. Here’s a guy who not only stands with the marginalized but bows down before them.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” the pope declared in a statement in November. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” He added that “Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

Warren Buffett, who is just behind Bill Gates on the Forbes list after adding $12.5 billion to his fortune in 2013, is an even more unlikely critic of inequality.  “Inequality is getting wider,” Buffett said back in September. “The rich are doing extremely well and business is doing well. Business profit margins are terrific compared to records historically. But…the bottom 20 percent of households, 24 million or so, live on $22,000. I don’t want to try to live on $22,000 with a couple of kids.” He is pressing for government to do what’s necessary to reduce inequality and help those left behind.

It’s great to have the rich and the powerful talking about reducing poverty. But the backlash from Catholics, Congress, and rich cronies has been intense. The Occupy movement, after elevating the issue to the mainstream, has melted away. Someone still needs to hold the feet of the powerful to the fire on this issue.

Those are the top three reasons to be cheerful heading into 2014. Of course, I’m also delighted about the release of political prisoners in Burma, the closure of labor camps in China, the passage of the Domestic Workers Convention, the debate on surveillance initiated by the Snowden revelations, and much else.

I’m also well aware that every achievement comes with a caveat (or two or a dozen). It’s not like Iraq and Afghanistan are stable countries in the wake of U.S. withdrawal, the U.S. national security state remains nearly as bloated as before, and the U.S. militarization of the stratosphere proceeds apace. An intransigent Congress or hardliners on the other side could undo all the moves toward diplomacy. The economic disparities between countries have narrowed, but the economic inequality within countries has risen. U.S. foreign assistance remains paltry.

All of these caveats contribute to my continued pessimism of mind. But at least during these first few days and weeks of the new year, my optimism of spirit will prevail.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, January 8, 2014


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