Monday, September 29, 2008

Arab Perspective: Global voices: US foreign policy

Al Jazeera is asking a global panel for their thoughts on the US presidential election and on the two candidates, Barack Obama, the Democratic hopeful, and his Republican rival, John McCain.

This week, with the first presidential debate between the two men dominated by foreign policy, we asked people how they thought each candidate performed and their thoughts on how the candidates' policies would affect them. Awab Alvi, dentist, Pakistan

In recent terms Pakistan has come under an extensive scrutiny and was important enough to come into discussion during the first presidential debate.

McCain kicked off by offering a more soft and understandable approach. He suggested taking the people of Pakistan into confidence on the "war on terror" and moving forward hand-in-hand to eradicate the menace of terrorism.

"We've got to get the support of the people of Pakistan ... he [Obama] said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan," he said.

Obama quickly reacted: "Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan. If the United States has al-Qaeda, bin Laden [and] top-level lieutenants in our sights - and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act - then we should take them out."

McCain is definitely on the right track to talk about confidence building measures with the people of Pakistan, which at the moment is at its lowest in ages, but contrary to what he suggests, Bush administration has repeatedly failed to do exactly that in eight years, for which he must also accept responsibility.

Might we suspect these to be glamourous words just to win an election? I hope not, but eight years of uselessness will not salvage a sinking boat.

Committed to change?

Pakistan is at the centre of the US
"war on terror" [GALLO/GETTY]
Senator Obama on the other hand seems more committed to change, he suggests a strong hand to remove the terrormongers once in for all.

It took the Americans a few months to hunt down Saddam Hussein, but it's been seven years and the mountains in Afghanistan have yet to cough up Osama Bin Ladin and his deputies only to now have them hiding in Pakistan.

If this was not gross mismanagement then I wonder what is.

It was good to see Obama lash out at McCain for supporting a dictator in Pakistan, saying "We had a 20th century mindset that said 'well, you know, he may be a dictator, but he's our dictator' and as a consequence, we lost legitimacy in Pakistan."

McCain responded "I don't think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when [former president Pervez] Musharraf came to power. Everybody who was around then, and had been there, and knew about it knew that it was a failed state."

This was a very lame response by McCain, as it definitely displayed the failures in the Bush administrations, failure to gauge the problem and the wrong decision to support the wrong individuals.

They continued to fork over billions of dollars without proper accountability and supported 'their friend' till he coughed up his last breath and succumbed to democracy.

No clear 'victor'

I must admit that apart from picking apart a few statements from within the debate, I do not come forth with a clear victor in regards to the issues of Pakistan.

Only in an attempt to bring this presidential debate into a wider perspective for the people in Pakistan, one just feels there is a desperate need for change.

Pakistan stands at a fork in the road. If the same old policies are followed, with the same blind-sighted relationship maintained with crooks and dictators running our country, the menacing war on terror will only get worse.

Obama represents a fresh change, as per my neutral review of the debate, it is my understanding that if they both support approximately the same line of action for Pakistan, I would carefully put my eggs into Obama's basket.

He talks with more commitment to the challenges ahead while simultaneously suggesting a "tough guy" approach on Pakistan.

Marco Arnez Cuellar, media producer, Bolivia

The first presidential debate showed no substantial changes in foreign policy beyond the expected.

Among disagreements about insurance, taxes policies, and other domestic issues, candidates showed the structural orthodoxies of American foreign policy.

Indeed, they skipped talk about Latin America. Since there is a financial crisis, and current South American governments are becoming more independent from Washington policies, it challenges United States (US) to deal with a changing context.

Morally, US foreign policy is compelled to shift from an open interventionist approach to a more dialogical, negotiated and diplomatic strategy, as suggested by Obama.

On the other hand, Senator McCain focused on strength security trough UN Security Council, and promoting the continuity of many foreign policies.

Shift to left

Not surprisingly, both candidates lack real change proposals. Since the US pretends to head worldwide politics, we can see only conservative reforms without changing the mainstream of its politics and economy.

"Since Latin America is shifting to the left, candidates must show themselves to be skillful to face this new scenario"

Marco Arnez Cuellar
I think neither McCain nor Obama are looking forward to readdress foreign affairs.

The US leadership consists of establishing relationships with worldwide democracies, but also defining what "democracy" is.

Ironically, a humourist said once: "The US is the main supporter of our current democracies .... as much as of our former dictatorships"

It is possible to foresee that after election the US new government will continue focussing on the main issues that ensures the preservation of power relationships over Latin America: terrorism, dugs control, immigration and trade.

But, since Latin America is shifting to the left, candidates must show themselves to be skillful to face this new scenario.

Indeed, US authority in economy is being challenged due to the breakdown of financial system.

Some Latin American governments as Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, have shown themselves as irreverent towards US policies.

The emergence of UNASUR (South American Nations Union) and the predictable end of unipolarity threats the historical leadership of the US.

I think what is looming is a conflictive scenario in foreign policy between United States and Latin America until the Washington government changes its paternalistic attitude to the world.

Mahardhika Sadjad, 22, student, Indonesia

I believe that there are two important issues that need to be addressed by America’s upcoming president.

The first is the fact non-state actors are playing a larger role in international affairs and thus, America must be able to embrace popular support, not only from governments, but also from individuals and groups around the world.

The next candidate must be the candidate with whom the world can relate to, and who can in return relate to the world.

In an interview with Time Obama said: "I work from a basis that there are some universal hopes and dreams and fear that people carry with them ... we've got to be honest and mindful of the fact that different countries have different cultural histories."

A 'different face'

To many Indonesians who feel that the Western world has often imposed what it believes must be universal values, Obama's background represents a face of America that acknowledges diversity and tolerates existing differences.

Second of all, the US's unilateral actions during the "war on terror" have created doubts regarding US willingness to co-operate for a common interest.

Obama has fans in Indonesia, where
he lived as a child
Obama also represents a US that believes in diplomacy and multilateralism, two aspects missing in current US foreign policies.

As he emphasised during the presidential debate, Obama believes that we cannot deal with terrorism or rogue nations by attacking other states.

His view that the US needs to focus on diplomacy to raise support for better co-operation is a view that many all over the world share.

McCain on the other hand during the debate, when stating his views on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, expressed his belief that the US should continue to display its hard power with the hope that potential allies will follow suit.

Unlike Obama, McCain represents the current administration, and not the maverick he proclaims to be.

For too long, we have seen the US grasping on to a double standard when talking about democracy, peace and co-operation.

I believe the US needs to start listening to what the rest of the world has to say.

The US also needs to understand that while it has extensive influence across the globe, this also means that its interests can be affected by the changes from other places.

Lina Ejeilat, 24, student, Jordan/New York City

It doesn't matter who the next president is; their policy towards the Middle East will be the same.

This was the comment I heard often in Amman months ago, when the wave of Obamamania was beginning to reside and the excitement of the primary season was beginning to wear off.

The unchanging policy towards the Middle East generally means unwavering support for Israel. That issue undoubtedly remains a key concern for many people in the Arab World.

I was a little child when I began hearing about the "lobby" and understanding that the US is always biased towards Israel. And even though I was often annoyed by conspiracy theorists and cynics, I often found that their arguments are not entirely unfounded.

Few 'concrete answers'

I was not blown away by the performance of either, although everyone is saying that Obama did better overall.

"I realised that whether we like it or not, everything the US does affects the rest of the world tremendously"

Lina Ejeilat
It took some time before they finally started addressing each other directly and delivering more concrete answers on issues.

I liked what Obama said about the importance of improving things at home, giving people better education, better health insurance, and a stronger economy.

Obama was continuously focused on the American middle class even in a debate about foreign policy, and ultimately, it's all connected.

You can't but grow tired of McCain's statements like "I know how to heal the wounds of war."

Being here for the past two months got me thinking about things I didn't pay attention to before - I started thinking about all the money the US government gives to my country and many others in aid while the US economy is crumbling down.

I was also thinking of how quick we were in Jordan to adopt the US business and financial model, and how scary it is to think of its proven flaws and their impacts.

Most importantly though, I realised that whether we like it or not, everything the US does affects the rest of the world tremendously.

We cannot say all US presidents will be the same for the Arab world because there's a lot more support for Israel that tips the balance.

For someone like me, even though I'm increasingly interested in how domestic politics here are handled, I guess the most relevant aspects of what was said were inevitably the Iraq-related points, the attitude towards Iran, and oil.

I'm not sure Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan is in the best interest of the region at this point, I'm also not sure how to feel about Iran's growing influence and his approach to it, but I think Obama can do the US image in the world a lot of good at this point.

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