Sunday, November 23, 2008

A modest proposal for Obama foreign policy

Ian Williams: A modest proposal for an ethical US foreign policy
November 23, 2008 Tribune, UK,

WITH the election of Barack Obama, the changes may be so minimal that they can all too readily be believed. The swarm of Bill Clinton’s former foreign affairs advisors around the President-elect suggest that, if we want to avoid disillusion, it may be wise not to entertain too many illusions about how much his policy will change things.

So far, apart from ritual pinches of incense on the altar of the Israel lobby, Obama has not been tied to any of the tired and failed formulae of anti-communism or anti-Islamism pushed by the neo-conservatives. So here are some modest proposals to give American foreign policy, in Robin Cook’s phrase, an “ethical dimension”.

Cuba is not a threat to the United States, even though it may be a threat to the political aspirations of national candidates through swing-state Florida. The Cuban-American GOP delegation to Congress held their seats despite the Obama-driven Democratic surge in the state. Obama won the state anyway. However, it is not just rabid Gusanos who worry about human rights in Cuba, although a more balanced perspective would show that there are far worse culprits who get a free pass. Anyone for an embargo on China?

It is also clear that the embargo that Cuban American fundamentalists have lobbied into existence harms ordinary Cubans while providing excuses for their government’s incompetence and dogma-induced inefficiencies. There is diminishing support, even among exiled Cubans, for policies that harm their relatives back home. Others showed signs of being more concerned about George Bush’s blight on American prosperity than his Cold-War rhetoric about Castro.

Quite apart from its effect on bilateral relations with Havana, American policy towards the island reinforces the Latin American, Caribbean and global perception of Washington as the bullying imperialist. The week before Obama’s victory, the United Nations General Assembly passed its 17th consecutive annual resolution condemning the embargo, with only Israel and tiny Palau joining the US in dissent. Both the former are heavily dependent on the latter’s largesse. In the case of the Israelis, their support for the American embargo on Cuba sits uncomfortably with its contrived indignation against the Arab embargo against Israel.

In any case, maintaining the Cuban embargo for any length of time risks eroding the fresh global image that Obama can presently wield.So what can an Obama administration do, without pandering to or overlooking Havana’s human rights abuses? Well, it could kill several birds with one declaration. Not only should Obama announce the closure of the shameful internment camp in Guantanamo Bay, he should commit the US to hand over the whole base to Cuba – immediately following democratic elections. Such a pledge would be as popular in Miami as in Cuba.

Perhaps while waiting for Raul Castro to do the patriotic thing to redeem the enclave with an election, Obama could offer to hold the base area in trusteeship as a free trade zone, employing local Cubans. Perhaps Bacardi could relinquish its vexing and ill-founded claim to Havana Club and build a distillery there, putting truth in its occasional claims to be a Cuban rum.

Combined with the relaxation on travel to the island and on the restrictions on remittances that he has already promised, Obama making good on his pledge to shut Guantanamo would reduce the paranoia about American intentions that is one of the mainstays of whatever domestic popular support there is for the regime in Cuba.

In Georgia, Vladimir Putin (and perhaps Dmitry Medvedev, too) may not have been as villainous as the press depicted. But they put up a pretty good Brezhnevian show once they had started, not least in their invocation of principles, such as self-determination, that have hitherto been lacking in their practice, as the Chechens could testify.

Medvedev flung down a clumsy challenge to Obama with his threat to move missiles into Kaliningrad. Obama should certainly reconsider the whole missile defence scheme, not least the bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. Missile defence is a boondoggle for Boeing and the aerospace industry exploiting the faith-based fervour of the devotees of the Project for a New American Century. Obama can do his budget and his foreign policy a big favour by shooting these pork barrels out of orbit.

But some response to Medvedev’s provocation may be called for. I understand that many of the Volga Germans deported to Central Asia by Stalin have since moved to the Teutonic ambience of Kaliningrad, or East Prussia as it was known until ethnically cleansed by the KGB in 1945. Obama should suggest to Angela Merkel that, if Ossetians and Abkhazians can get Russian passports because it was once all Soviet territory, then Berlin should offer citizenship and full German and European Union benefits to residents of Kaliningrad

That might even work and remove an anomaly from the map of the Baltic, but in any case it should remind Putin (and perhaps Medvedev, too) that you cannot pick and choose when to apply principles which you may cite expediently. But then, that is a lesson that one hopes Washington may learn as well.

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