All 2 entries tagged Foreign Policy

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October 08, 2006

Why is Foreign Policy so reliant on bombs, not brains?

We have 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of the population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality… we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation. – George Kennan, US Foreign Policy advisor, 1948

I would characterize current U.S. nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous – Robert McNamara, former US Foreign Policy advisor, 2005

It doesn’t sound like much has changed, then. Foreign policy seems to be the most influential, potentially dangerous and ideologically-divided type of politics, yet it is also the area of politics in which there is the least debate and where elites have the greatest say over our lives. In 2003, the Parliamentary debate on war in Iraq was an unprecedented exercise in debate before destruction. Only because of the incredible pressure put upon the government was there any debate in the Commons. They won because the Conservative opposition wished to play up the divisions in the Labour Party.

Daily Mirror, 6th October 2006The effect of poor foreign policy has been clear to see from the headlines this week. The Muslim population of Britain and other Western countries have been angered not only by the closed world of foreign affairs, but also by the blinkered reporting of it by newspapers, television and radio. Jack Straw’s remarks this week tackled one of those issues denied a hearing because different communities are afraid of stepping on each other’s toes. Henry Porter in the Observer and Martin Kettle in the Guardian both defended some of Straw’s words, while warning of the likely reaction from those who hadn’t read what he actually said in his newspaper article and radio interviews. But the – fairly predictable – reaction to Straw’s comments wasn’t the fault of a nervous Muslim population (in fact most moderate Muslims have shrugged it off), but was the fault of a British population not used to such open discussion of delicate issues. The media doesn’t prepare us for the identification of acceptable difference that is needed in a modern, diverse society where things aren’t only in shades of grey, but in full-blown technicolour. And the media isn’t helped when the government restricts debate of things like the replacement of Trident, nuclear power and our foreign policy generally.

When Tony Blair talks of a ‘roadmap’ for the Middle East, only he and his transatlantic allies seem to know what this roadmap is, and only they helped define it in the first place. There was little discussion here in the UK and in America of what would be required, just as there was little involvement of citizens in Israel and Palestine, and that’s been reflected in the fragility of the process. Similarly, no-one seriously thought to ask what should replace Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and only a few hours was given over to Parliamentary debate about the inevitable invasion.

Jack StrawTo refer back to George Kennan’s remarks in 1948, is it the case that military planning is done without reference to human rights and democracy? Events since 2001 suggest that it could well be. 2,973 people died on 11th September of that year, and the reaction to it has – at least in terms of casualties – been seriously overblown. Iraq Body Count – an independent body – suspects that between 43,799 and 48,639 civilians have been killed in Iraq since 2003, far more than in New York and Washington, and far more than were murdered by Saddam Hussein. Where is morality in this situation? Yes, one can blame the ‘insurgents’, ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’ for many of these deaths, but it is clear that the British and American invasion triggered them.

George Bush does not seem a sentimental man, and Tony Blair does only when he’s performing for the cameras. But has sentimentality gone the same way as informed debate amongst ordinary people and our governments? The past five years and the closed-door world of Western foreign policy suggest that it has.


September 01, 2005

Hurricane Katrina: A Disastrous Response to a Natural Disaster

Whatever happened to this year’s silly season? Instead of stories about cats stuck in trees and people living to 115, we’ve had a summer of terrorism, politics and national disasters.

A ‘bad’ summer has just been worsened by the worst hurricane in living memory, with predictions of thousands dead and a million homeless and jobless. A story such as this would perhaps not shock us too much after similar-sounding scenes in war-torn Darfur, annual monsoon seasons and the Boxing Day tsunami in South-East Asia.

But Hurricane Katrina shocks more because it has happened in the Southern U.S. state of Louisiana, and to a lesser extent its neighbours. An American life is clearly – and perhaps in contradiction to the media’s treatment of the war in Iraq (notice the recent stampede that killed nearly 1,000, but gained relatively little reportage) – not worth more than those killed in the tsunami, or in other disasters occurring around the world. But because of the geography of this disaster, it jars more heavily: How has the situation got this bad in the world’s most powerful and resourceful nation?

Watching the pictures of refugees outside the Louisiana Superdome, it is unbelievable that such devastation of life has been allowed in one of the most industrialised nations in the world. Certainly, evacuations were announced two days before Katrina hit the mainland. But something clearly has gone wrong. A helicopter counting those stranded on rooftops gave up when they reached 10,000. And this is three days after the hurricane.

For a country proud of its ability to deal with emergencies (9/11, the San Andreas Fault and the regular hurricane season), Katrina has revealed major problems in the United States’ ability to cope with something on this scale. Today, President Bush said the level of devastation was worse than that suffered on 9/11. He is correct. While 9/11 affected a number of skyscrapers and extinguished the lives and livelihoods of thousands, Hurricane Katrina has caused the same devastation to an entire city with a population of around 1,200,000.

Questions which will be answered in the future include how will the U.S. economy deal with the overnight loss of over a million jobs? A presidency will be considered poor if over 8 years this many jobs are lost. But in one day? The effects on the economy may take some time to understand.

And then there is the eternal problem of oil. Half of the United States’ gasoline comes from the Gulf Coast, and much of it via Louisiana. One estimate suggested a gallon of oil may rise from $2.30 to $4.00, with a knock-on effect which will surely extend to Europe’s prices. In Louisiana, petrol prices have already risen to up to $6.00. Bush has warned that oil supplies across the country may become erratic.

Political questions will also have to be answered. The response to Katrina has been, it appears, shambolic. The poorest citizens of New Orleans – 80% of which is still under water – were those left behind, with no public transport to evacuate them to safe areas. Reports suggest someone committed suicide in the Superdome due to the horrific conditions in the most iconic shelter in the city.

Where, also, are the armed forces? ‘Iraq’, is one plausible suggestion. But it seems unbelievable that such large-scale looting is being permitted considering the military strength of the United States. And they should surely be there in numbers to rescue the 50,000+ who have been without food and water for 72 hours. Food aid, more typically seen in Africa, is urgently needed and is seemingly non-existent.

All this seems to boil down to a lack of preparedness and a shockingly poor response from the federal government. President Bush’s response has not matched the gravity of the situation. Let’s remember that thousands are likely to have died, and 0.5% of the country’s population has been made homeless. The refugees are being diverted to Texas, which Mr Bush supposes will rise to the challenge by opening its doors to disaffected people.

This reliance on people’s generosity is perhaps a little naïve, in a country which as Robert Putnam analysed in ‘Bowling Alone’ has a sense of society which is more dis-United than any other democracy’s. Where are the government refugee camps? It seems questionable whether 1,200,000 people can be accommodated in the homes of other Southern Americans, and those who will lose out will surely be those most in need.

Americans’ aversion to a welfare state may very likely extend to a reluctance to offer long-term help to a city which must rebuild itself from the ground-up. I’m afraid I rather expect a response along the lines of ‘it’s not my problem’.

The US seems willing to allow itself to divide by class just as well as the most corrupt African states: the poor and unfortunate will be those given the least help.

A large degree of environmental evidence suggests that New Orleans should not be rebuilt in its former state. Many feet below sea level, and beneath the level of the Mississippi River, it seems ill-conceived, and as one commentator pointed out today, was the result of trade being considered more important than environmental safety when the Pioneers founded it.

But the city must be rebuilt somewhere, in some form. Yes, the short term focus must be on rescuing the survivors whose lives are in immediate danger. This has been badly managed so far. Where will these survivors go once rescued? How will they become economically independent again?

For a country at the pinnacle of technological and – its ideological supporters would have us believe – cultural progress, the United States’ response to Hurricane Katrina has been appalling.

President Bush is, in mishandling the rescue operation and the long-term security of the people of New Orleans, slowly handing the 2008 Presidential election to the Democrats. Indeed, Mr Bush needs to quickly work towards the return of normality before his and his party’s reputation for handling disasters – let alone his legacy – is irreparably damaged.

But furthermore, fewer people will be looking at the USA and its people in awe tonight, which will greatly endanger the premise of the country’s foreign policy. For it is not just the lives of those in Louisiana which are being destroyed – the reputation of the United States of America is being compromised by its inability to deal compassionately with its own people.

Link: Wikipedia entry on Hurricane Katrina


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