Security Foreign policy

How United Is the Arab Front?

Arab stone design, courtesy of Eusebius@Commons/flickr

The Arab community has always publicly supported its Muslim counterparts. As a result there is an alliance among these states in opposition to Israel and the occupation of Palestine. However, it appears that behind the facade of Arab unity lies a game of dirty politics, where each state acts in self-interest often in contrast to the projected image of unity and loyalty.

A recent article by The Times publicized Saudi Arabia’s green light to Israel to use its air space to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.  This is surprising as it pits Muslim states against each other openly and brings the reality of Arab loyalty into question.

In order to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, Israel has the choice of three routes. The northern route involves passing the Syrian-Turkish border. The central route goes over Jordan and Iraq, while the third southern route goes through Saudi Arabia and Iraq or Kuwait. So let’s assess where these Middle Eastern states stand.

International Relations Foreign policy


Muammar Al-Qadhafi tours the Security Council Chamber, courtesy of UN Photo/Evan Schneider

In a recent article on Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Herbst pointed out that the United Nations is not living up to its basic values: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He also criticized the lack of democracy in the organization and particularly among its member states. He also mentioned that the UN provides international legitimacy to dictators that have no legitimacy at home.

But Jeffrey Herbst also forgets to point out the following: The UN cannot function on its own. It needs its member states to act. Even though the UN publicized and tried to address the atrocities in Darfur, its member states failed to act.

The real question is: Why do member states not act? And the answer is simple: Democracy.

Democracy does not only mean having a democratic political system, it also means accepting that the international system is democratic, for better or worse, following the “one country one vote” principle.

Some western countries wish they still had the same power as they had when the UN was created after of the Second World War, at a time when their former colonies followed their lead on almost every issue. Now this time is over and the ‘neo-colonialist’ approach no longer works.

As an example of democracy in action at the international level, African countries are now able to elect a country like Libya to the Human Rights Council, because the continent has a comfortable amount of votes in almost every body of the UN.

Now that the organization applies the “democratic” rules so praised by the founders of the United Nations, it is normal that every member state gets the same power and can have more or less the same impact on the UN, regardless of whether it is governed by a dictator like Mugabe or by a social democrat like Tarja Halonen.

Indeed the presence of Libya in the Human Rights Council is representative of the willingness of a part of the world to have its word on Human Rights and some western leaders need to accept that not everyone is pursuing the same objectives or the same values as Europe and North America. They will certainly not simply acquiesce to those values or related demands without a fight.

The time when the UN was a mere tool of US foreign policy, as its former UN Ambassador John Bolton saw it, is now well and truly over.

Welcome to the new era of multilateralism.


When Dictators Have ‘Image Problems’

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama with Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his wife, photo: Lawrence Jackson/wikicommons

You’re ranked the 14th worst dictator in the world; you preside over a country with a per capita GDP that is higher than that of Italy, but your people’s living standards are among the lowest in the world; your son is widely accused of spending his daddy’s (read: country’s) money on a USD 33 million private jet, a USD 35 million Malibu mansion, speedboats and a fleet of fast cars; and you win 96.7 percent of the vote in a presidential election, and then international observers publicly doubt the election’s credibility.

Well, if all that applies to you, you really have an image problem.

Luckily, there are professionals who can amend such glitches. We recently learned that former Clinton aide and DC lobbyist Lanny J Davis took on the noble task of recasting the image of Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (described above). And all that for the modest sum of USD 1 million.

Davis says that he only agreed to the contract because of Mr. Obiang’s promise to introduce a series of reforms. These include a more effective use of the country’s vast oil resources for the benefit of the people, social sector development, institutional reform, improved relations with human rights organizations and environmental conservation initiatives.

For years, the US government has been accused of soft-pedaling the record of this unusually corrupt and unscrupulous dictator, whom Condoleeza Rice in 2006 called “a good friend.” Also the Obama administration has been accused of looking the other way when it comes to corruption and human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea so as not to alienate this oil-rich African state. A significant amount of the country’s substantial oil resources is exported to the US, and the bulk of investment in the country’s oil industry comes from US-based oil companies.

True, you can hire DC lobbyists for almost anything these days. But the fact that Mr. Obiang hired Lanny Davis makes the story particularly controversial.

Davis is an old friend of both Hillary and Bill Clinton (they went to law school at Yale together), and he had worked on Hillary’s campaign. This naturally raises suspicions that the US State Department, and hence the Obama administration, doesn’t mind too much that Obiang’s image is getting a professional overhaul. After all, people may ask, couldn’t Hilary ask an old friend to perhaps find himself another client instead?

More disturbingly, Davis had been criticized in the past for touting himself as an ‘independent news analyst’ and devout Liberal; for speaking regularly on US television networks and writing op-eds in influential newspapers while his audience is often left in the dark about his clients.

Truly, Lanny Davis himself has an image problem. But unlike Obiang, he doesn’t seem to care.


Soldier, Human or Both?

Just let it out
Just let it out! Photo: SuperFantastic/flickr

As the controversy surrounding Rolling Stone‘s profile of General Stanley McChrystal (and the comments of his staff) winds down, NYT columnist David Brooks offers up an interesting thought about soldiers, or really, anyone who is a subordinate: They complain.

And they’re human.

Venting is part of being human. And even though members of the military are held to a higher behavioral standard than a common employee, is it really that extraordinary that McChrystal and his aides had some not-too-flattering words for the US president and his administration?

From Brooks’ article:

Military people are especially prone to these sorts of outbursts. In public, they pay lavish deference to civilian masters who issue orders from the comfort of home. Among themselves, they blow off steam, sometimes in the crudest possible terms.

Now, as to the intelligence of the military folks who decided to blow off steam in front of a reporter (it seems that McChrystal was done in more by hearsay than anything else), that’s a whole other post.

But, do we hold members of the military up to too high a standard by expecting them to remain ‘strong and silent’? Shouldn’t they be allowed to kvetch, vent, gripe and do whatever they need to do (within reason) to let off steam?

Since, at least in the US, they volunteered to put their lives on the line for their country, shouldn’t they have the right to complain…even if it is about the commander-in-chief and his administration?

Another question: Does complaining about someone or something automatically equal a lack of respect for that someone or something?

Again, I think it was absolutely asinine, especially in the day-and-age of gotcha journalism for McChystal’s aides to repeat his words in front of a reporter, but if you’re in the type of high-pressure situations that military members find themselves in, perhaps kvetching is understandable.

Because even though they’re in the armed forces, they’re humans too.

Environment Foreign policy

Double Standards

Demonstrator at rally for Bhopal victims, courtesy of Ascanio Vitale/Flickr

The ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and and the 1984 Bhopal disaster have been hot topics in the news as of late. Both events have reproduced a popular debate regarding multinationals using and abusing their host countries, particularly within the environmental context. But rather than analyzing the power of the multinational companies in relation to the state, what appears more noteworthy is the conflicting attitude of the US. This in turn has influenced the hierarchy of states that exists on the world stage.

What I find interesting is how aggressively the US has condemned BP’s activities, even in the face of damaging trans-Atlantic relations. Yet, it has been so passive about the extensive damage done by American Union Carbide Chemicals, now Dow Chemicals, in Bhopal.