Oct 15th 2012

Picturing a Real Foreign Policy Debate

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

Presidential election debates rarely clarify substantive policy differences between the candidates. On those occasions when that does happen, the insights characteristically are downplayed or ignored by the media -- as occurred last week. Foreign policy debates are especially prone to leave obscure the key issues and fog our vision of each candidate's positions. Tuesday's Obama-Romney debate promises more of the same mix of platitudes, bromides and patriotic flourishes. In disorderly times, the land fills with loud patriots -- as a Chinese sage warned.

Here is a set of questions which, if the candidates actually are pressed to answer, promise some illumination. Hope springs eternal.

· The American intervention in Iraq has proven a failure. Despite our enormous investment in blood and treasure, the country is sliding toward autocracy, sectarian conflict remains, al-Qaeda has put down roots and the Baghdad government is more responsive to Tehran than to Washington. What lessons have you drawn that should guide our thinking about any future military intervention where core national interests are not threatened? What lessons in regard to "nation-building"?

· The American occupation in Afghanistan, too, is manifestly a costly failure -- except for our initial success in toppling the Taliban government and uprooting al-Qaeda. In retrospect, would we have been wiser to have left at that point? What today are the objectives of retaining a large residual force -- and what is the measure of success?

· The United States is engaged in a tense confrontation with Iran over its nuclear activities. Is that our only concern or do we have other interests and aims there? Can they be achieved without regime change?

· Are American and Israeli interests vis a vis Iran identical, as you both have indicated? If not, please indicate where they diverge.

· The Arab Spring and its aftermath have posed difficult choices for the United States as it tries to reconcile its commitment to democracy promotion with its realpolitik interests in the region. Our allied government in Bahrain has cracked down violently on the democracy movement there with only the mildest expression of concern from Washington. That action has seriously heightened tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite around the Middle East. Please explain your thinking as to why this is the desirable policy.

· The removal of secular autocrats in places seems to clear the way for the rise of various fundamentalist Islamic movements. What ideas do you have as to how the United States can protect its national interests in those circumstances. Can you suggest benchmarks by which to differentiate among various Islamist political elements? Give examples.

· Almost all experts agree that Saudi Arabia is the main sources of funding, educational support and training for the propagation of extreme Islamist ideologies across the Muslim world. In some instances, we find ourselves fighting the very people schooled and inspired in this way. How do you reconcile this reality with our continuing close cooperation with the House of Saud?

· The plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation continues to be a primary source of anti-American feeling across the Middle East. Yet the United States remains steadfast in backing an Israeli government that shows no signs of moving towards reasonable terms of settlement. Should this change?

· Governor Romney, you have declared that Russia is the United States' greatest strategic threat. Please explain your remarks.

· Mr. Obama, do you agree with this appraisal?

· The long-running "war on drugs" is a manifest failure. Most experts agree that the heart of the problem is demand in the United States, not supply from abroad. Is it time to recognize that it is our problem and not theirs?

· Since the Merida agreement whereby the United States has pushed Mexico to launch a more aggressive campaign against drug cartels, it has suffered 50,000 deaths, has seen the breakdown of civil order over large parts of the country -- and drug shipments from south of the border remain robust. Was our policy erroneous? Should it be fundamentally changed?

· Best estimates are that the marijuana trade accounts for about 60 percent of the drug cartels' revenue. In light of this and the overwhelming medical opinion that marijuana is less of a threat to individual health and public safety, is it time to bite the bullet on its legalization? A similar scenario is playing out in Honduras. There, American Special Forces and units of the DEA are engaged in armed combat with drug dealers with civilian deaths collateral damage. Is this a sensible way to deal with America's addiction to drugs?

· In Honduras, we gave tacit backing to the unconstitutional coup whereby the current president, Mr. Lobo Sosa, came to power. We have lost credibility in Latin America as a consequence. Mr. Obama, why did you act this way? Should we continue on this same tack? Is the profitability of American business interests in Honduras one factor? if so, should private interests prevail over the national interest?

· Since Mr. Lobo's accession, identified drug flights into Honduras have risen from 6 per annum to 82. What does this tell us?

· The United States military is actively engaged in 23 countries at this moment. They range from Honduras to Mali to Pakistan. The Army, and Special Forces Command in particular, also undertake numerous non-military activities traditionally assigned to the State Department. Do you see this as a healthy development? What are the justifications?

· The United States currently has Special Forces numbering 6,000 in Afghanistan. Why are they needed in such large numbers? Does their very existence influence judgments as to whether we have enough of an interest there to warrant an American military intervention makes sense?

· Three of the last four Secretaries of State have been women. Do you see advantages to having a woman at the helm of our diplomacy? President Obama, are you prepared to pledge that you would reappoint Hillary Rodham Clinton if you are elected? Governor Romney, are you prepared to pledge that you would appoint a woman if you are elected?

· All analysts agree that the most important changes in world affairs in the 21st century, and the most serious challenges to the United States, will be the result of the rising strength and influence of China. How does your thinking relate China to the other issues that we have been discussing? How does the network of military bases that we are reestablishing in Southeast Asia and Australia figure in your strategy?

· Can you think and use chopsticks at the same time? Please demonstrate.

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Jun 19th 2021
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EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
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May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
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EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
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EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
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May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "