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Thursday, October 25, 2012

and on they droned(on the third american debate)

Update at the bottom, due to some more thoughts on this. More a rebuttal of an argument i made while writing it.


I was a funny child; whenever I was on the phone and someone asked me what I was doing I would say, “Talking to you.” Am not so funny anymore plus I keep getting robbed so am not really sure how to use a phone anymore but when asked what I was doing the other day I said truthfully “paying too much attention to American politics.”

Well this week the presidential candidates had a debate on foreign policy. I felt this would be important because it  matters to all of us what the biggest economy and military plan to do with themselves and  I wondered about the men themselves. I, like almost all Kenyans, have a bias towards Obama. As American as he is, and he really is very American, there is still a nagging pride in the fact that his father was Kenyan. Intellectually I know it will make no difference in my life but pride is sometimes emotional and so I’m biased. Not so biased that I won’t listen to the other guy though so I watched the debate. And I listened to what they had to say making an assumption that what they said they meant and that it wasn’t just political posturing. This is what I heard and what I thought about it.

Disclaimer: I am no expert on many of these issues, I haven’t read enough or heard enough for my opinion to be worth much. Also I will probably change my mind on some of these things as time goes on and I learn more about the world we live in but as of today these are my truthful thoughts on American foreign policy and what I believe it means for the world.

They talked about Iran and the possibility of Tehran getting a nuclear weapon and how that would mean Armageddon for the rest of the world. Romney kept mentioning how Iran was 4 years closer to a nuclear weapon, he said it over and over and I kept thinking, so is Kenya and the Persian empire is now 2,500 years closer to a nuclear weapon too. However on this they seemed to agree, Iran cannot be trusted with a nuclear weapon. Their president who everyone admits doesn’t really control the country has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, something that both candidates ran with Romney even called for him to be indicted for genocide incitement. Ahmadinejad did say that Israel should be wiped off the map and maybe he meant it literally. It was a stupid thing to say, hateful and wrong whatever he meant even if, as he tried to explain, it was literally replacing the country name on the actual map of the world with the name Palestine, saying it like that was insensitive and worse, much worse since he knew he was talking about a state that has had good reasons for their continued paranoia. And he is a smart enough man to know how his words would be heard and what they would mean.

But what do we really know about nuclear weapons? Who actually uses them? India and Pakistan have been having border skirmishes for years and neither of them has gone any step closer to using those bombs. North Korea has the bomb. This is a country whose government is a bit cuckoo and the Kim dynasty is not one anyone trusts. I always felt that Mutually Assured Destruction was the safest route to nuclear weapons never being used. The only time they were used the technology wasn’t widespread. No one has used them since. The debate coincidentally was held on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis another moment when the world did come close to using these weapons. If a country used a nuclear weapon on another right now the world would turn its back on the first country. Calls to arms would be made immediately and there would be no stopping the decimation of that country’s population. What if the weapons made it into the hands of terrorists which is the main fear? In 9/11 3,000 Americans were killed by terrorists. By 2011 a study by Brown university stated that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hadclaimed the lives of nearly 132,000 civilians.  No one is stupid enough to risk the bomb but men smarter than me with more information and better advisers fear this, so it has to be true. And they say it with such confidence that I can’t help believe what they are talking about.

On a related topic they were both asked if an attack on Israel would amount to an attack on the United States. Anyone with even a passing interest in American or Middle Eastern politics will know that America has a terrific bias towards Israel. Part of it is guilt over what happened in world war 2, part of it the influence of the Jews who settle in America, part of it comes about by being raised with a bible that calls that place the promised land every chance it can, part of it is the truth that the only solution left is one where there is both an Israel and a Palestine and large parts of it are things I don’t know and can’t understand. To their credit neither of them answered affirmatively they said they would stand with Israel. This amounts of course to I got your back like you would a friend in a street fight but you would temper it by asking questions about the reasons behind this street fight. I mean if your friend slept with a man’s wife you’d still get him out of there but maybe slap him around a bit just so he knew it was serious. Since this is politics Romney tried to score some points by saying Obama skipped Israel on a Middle East tour he took, a sign of waning support the Arab countries would surely have noticed. This allowed Obama to score some points by saying Romney went there on fundraisers but when he, Obama, visited Israel he would go to the holocaust museum to remind himself of the nature of evil, he would visit a town near the border where Hezbollah had rained down missiles and talk to parents who heard missiles fall outside the windows of their children’s houses. “That’s how I spend my travels.”

Except, drones.

Not enough time is spent talking about drones. Pilotless planes that are controlled with joysticks in Missouri and fly over Pakistan dropping missiles on suspected terrorists. The official way to count collateral damage is that if you are between 17 and 30, male and within a half mile of the terrorist being killed you will not count as collateral damage. There are reports of rescuers being targeted  of the funerals of drone victims being bombed by other drones. Parents don’t let their children go to school in some parts of the country, no one gathers in large groups. People feel terrorised and scared that this day will be their last. They hear the drone of the devices flying overhead and can’t sleep, they know what it means. Pavlovially they have been taught to fear. Here thanks to US foreign policy there are parents who hear missiles fall outside the windows of their children’s rooms and maybe this is how he should spend his travels. Getting a reminder that pain and suffering isn’t an exclusive feeling of Israelis and Americans, remembering that the whole world has children. And that the use of terror, even if inadvertent is no longer an exclusively terrorist weapon anymore. For all the reasons to debate vigorously this drone war all that was said about it was a one sentence endorsement from governor Romney before they moved on to more pressing matters.

They talked about Libya and Syria. The governor gave the results of a study by Arab scholars where they said that the best ways to fight extremism was to increase development in the areas of economic development, education, gender parity and the rule of law. Obama invoked his experience as commander in chief and if you watched this you can see why the word invoked fits in so well. As soon as he said that he had learned some things as commander in chief the room went silent. There was no bickering or interrupting. The camera focused in on him as he spoke gravely with an air that said volumes. It said almost none of you have done the things I have had to do, you can’t really understand them and now I will try to make them known to you. From what he had learned he knew to invest in counter terrorism, Israel, women, economics(at this point he went off the rails talking about American economics again) however it’s not always what you say, he rattled this off with such gravitas I would be surprised if anyone tore their eyes away from the screen.

On Syria they seemed to agree. Assad has, to quote Prop Joe, more bodies on him than a Chinese cemetery at this point and the war is spilling into Lebanon. However Gadaffi had more American blood on his hands than anyone except Osama the president pointed out and I wondered if this was part of the reason they got an invasion while Syria is allowed to suffer alone. Military intervention is of course a very complicated process including thousands of variables. But in a perfect world shouldn’t the only variables behind humanitarian intervention be how many people were killed by their government? Will the government continue to do this unless they are stopped? And if the answers to those questions are a lot and yes shouldn’t those be the reasons for humanitarian intervention. I don’t want to call for another war but the number in Libya was 10,000 before an intervention was considered necessary, here with 30,000 dead and another country being caught in the cross hairs even a no fly zone isn’t being considered as governor Romney implied when asked. This in my mind raised questions about Libya, why was the world quicker with intervention there? If it is as they would have us believe because Gadaffi was killing his citizens why does Assad get differential treatment? Obama did say that the Syrian people should determine their own future  and so we are consulting our allies in the region including Israel and turkey he went on to contradict. And  Romney saw the Syrian problem as an opportunity to control Iran by putting in place a government that would be friendly to US interests. When I hear things like this I think of bananarepublics . Am not sure of this now but thinking back I can’t remember either of them talking about putting in a government that would best represent the Syrian people’s hopes and dreams, though their hands off approach is admirable considering the trigger happy nature of past middle east decisions.

On Libya Obama talked about going in and finishing the job. Saying he was glad he made the decision to stay until Gadaffi was finished. Which made me wonder if he had seen the video of Gadaffi’s death.


 If he had seen the rage on display there, watched as a man with half his face bloody was hurt and humiliated. That death was not a great time for anyone in the world. It was not a moment of pride but a reminder of the bestiality and rage that can reside inside each of us. It was a side of humanity that we cannot rejoice in if we want things to get better. Later he talked about the death of Osama and told a very moving story about a young woman, who is probably 14 or 15 now whose father, died in the twin towers and gave her words of love and encouragement. He said that she found solace in knowing that Osama had died. I am in no position to relate to what happens when a loved one is killed, there is probably rage and a need for revenge, and I can imagine that you would feel better knowing that it happened but is there a need for the president at this time to inject this narrative of revenge into public discourse? Is it ok for him to state that the people with the most American blood on their hands are dead and that the reason for that death is him and so he deserves a vote? Is this what Americans want to hear from their politicians? Because if it is they understand death and revenge and the need for them to go hand in hand extremely well. And if they do why are they not paying more attention to drones?

And of course by and by they got to the subject of American exceptionalism. This is the idea that America is somehow better than other countries. That they have the strength and the moral authority to decide where the world should be and that their vision is the best. Mitt Romney talked about their strength and their allies, their 42 allies, he said that they wanted peace in the world. And then he said something that struck me as beautiful in defence of elections he said, “People tend to vote for peace.” I hope we do. Maybe its security we vote for more. Peace on my shores the rest of the world can live in tatters, but maybe we all tend to vote for peace, that would be a beautiful world. Obama called America the one indispensable nation in a statement that says more about exceptionalism than I can. However he did point to a track record of more diplomatic instead of military involvement. Citing sanctions against Iran during the debate, crippling sanctions that had caused the currency to devalue by 80%, sanctions that meant that oil production was at its lowest ebb since the war with Iraq. Sanctions that Romney said were not crippling enough. According to Robert Fisk when America imposed sanctions on Iraq after the first gulf war 500,000 children died. This is the part of sanctions we don’t hear about, there is no food being brought in, and there is no medicine being imported. When a country is cut off from the rest of the world they die slowly and painfully but they die. And the people hurt aren’t the ones making the decisions; the rich men will always have what they need. The point of sanctions in a country that is not democratically run is more of a propaganda point, look how bad the government is for you, now rise up, riot and protest until they hear you, which doesn’t really work in dictatorships. Am not sure about the moral rightness of crippling sanctions but better this than war.

All through the debate they talked about other nations as being their friends. This word was ubiquitous. I find it strange to use it to reference allies; it belies a closeness that isn’t ever really there between nations. It’s like the guy with 1,000 Facebook friends who uses this as a matrix for how much true friendship he has. It’s an insistence, as if saying it enough will make it real. How can a country that has as Obama pointed out more military spending than the next ten countries combined really have that many friends. Maybe we are all just scared, and they definitely are as they feel the need to flex muscle and grow it on and on. Military spending that Romney wants to up by among other things cutting Obama care. For some reason he seems to believe that the greatness of a nation is shown in how much muscle it has and not in how much it takes care of its people. Universal health care in a country that is the richest in the world should be a given. It shouldn’t still be debated all these years later. It is for this domestic issue more than any other that I find myself unable to support a Mitt Romney presidency.

Romney also went on the offensive blaming Obama for being willing to talk to the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, saying this made him look weak. Winston Churchill once said better jaw and jaw and jaw than war and war and war and no one could call him or the nation he led when he led it weak. He, Romney, criticised Obama, for an apology tour he made. Obama had said America dictated and derided other countries while the truth was, “America has not dictated to other nations it has freed them from dictatorship.” This statement is nonsense. And even if it wasn’t there is still a need to apologise, to make amends because they have to have more in their national discourse than revenge and furious righteousness. Am not sure if he believed what he was saying, but the fact that he could say it with such bluster is another reason I would not support a Mitt Romney presidency.

There were moments of humour and it’s nice to close with one to leave a nice taste in the mouths of anyone who has read this far. Romney talked about the size of the navy and how they have less ships than any time since 1917 to which Obama responded, “we have fewer horses and bayonets  ... we have these things called aircraft carriers…planes land on them, we have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines”

I don’t get to vote in this election if I did I would vote against American foreign policy, against drones and especially against this unvetted use of them where no one does the counting of the bodies and this craziness where no one remembers children and innocents are dying. This unfortunately is not what this election is about. They spent more time bringing the debate back to domestic economic issues than on almost any other topic.

The number of times Europe and Africa were mentioned? Once, in the same sentence.

So, what are your thoughts on American foreign policy?


the update

so, as expected i have some ideological backtracking to do, terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons is a genuine concern. It was amazingly shallow of me to believe that there aren't people in the world who wouldn't care about what happens after they made their last stand. There are people who believe enough and are such fanatics, or just don't care that they would be comfortable with the deaths of millions of their own if it made a point. I once read a book about Chairman Mao and his thoughts about the great leap forward, a failed economic experiment that resulted in a famine that killed tens of millions of chinese. Connected to this he said his country could afford a nuclear explosion they were just that many. So i take back the argurment that Mutually Assured Destruction is foolproof. it only works if people aren't crazies and that is not a guarantee the world will ever give us.