Thursday, April 28, 2011

Obama's Dilemma in the Middle East: Trapped by a History of Failure

The President can be criticized for playing an overly cautious hand with regard to the Middle East. Unlike the prior President he "does not shoot from the lip"--does not see the world in the John Wayne cowboy style of his predecessor. On the campaign trail he was anything but cautious calling for Afghanistan conflict as the right one and undermining his rival Hillary Clinton's decision to support the unpopular Iraq war begun, as we all now know,using falsified and misleading information. Obama seemed as if he knew what he was doing in the Middle East and could be trusted to steer the region towards peace, particularly when he gave his historic speech in Cairo. While stopping short of promoting democracy in Egypt he picked his words carefully to encourage those dedicated to change, living under the ossified dictatorial systems in that region to count on the US support, he spoke unequivocally that, "governments needed to "reflect the will of the people... Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."

That was June 2009 and now, less than two years after that occasion we have seen uprisings first in Tunisia, and brutally put down in Iraq, and a second set taking place in Egypt Libya and now Syria. Reading Ryan Lizza's excellent piece in this week's New Yorker we see how difficult Obama found it to commit to backing the rebellions--most painfully in Iraq for fear of discrediting them as being perceived as US backed, but you have to wonder why the hesitation with regard to Egypt, Libya and Syria, where unarmed people were being slaughtered. Obama seems to want it both ways, as Lizza argues,

"Obama’s reluctance to articulate a grand synthesis has alienated both realists and idealists. “On issues like whether to intervene in Libya there’s really not a compromise and consensus,” Slaughter said. “You can’t be a little bit realist and a little bit democratic when deciding whether or not to stop a massacre.”
Where was the support he voiced in Cairo for human rights to be supported "everywhere."? During the time when we needed the staunch visionary Obama retreated back to his role as constitutional law professor, “When you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you’re going to get yourself into trouble,” he said in a recent interview with NBC News. This troubling equivocation can be partly explained by Obama's not well concealed view that we are in danger of "imperial over stretch" as the Pentagon budget remains the only area of the budget to receive year on year increases as we continue to fight two wars. There was also concern that is best expressed by the phrase better the devil you know that the one you don't which had some play inside the corridors of power until the prime time news screens ran with the horror of unarmed people being mowed down in the streets by their own "people" dressed up as soldiers. It further needs to be pointed out that there is also a world weary recognition that the US public has been led down this road before and as health and educational budgets for all levels of government tighten and force many families to choose between between food and rent--there is a recognition that enough may well be enough in the area of foreign adventures. Obama trapped by his own soaring rhetoric is now tasked with figuring out the new role the US must play (even with trillions of dollars in deficit) in the world. The problem is that the rhetorical flourishes he does so well all are on the side of the grand not the cautious mode he prefers for day to day governing. Republicans in constant state of denial about anything except the need to cut government spending and no tax increases (especially for the wealthy) have a blind spot for military spending and for the US former glory. They will have no hesitation in trying to pick apart what they perceive as Obama's lack of 'gung ho' patriotic war like spirit even as we seek to extricate ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan on terms that might appear to the many who gave their lives for their country and the cause of peace, as "dignified."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Educators Need to Respond to a Changed World

I have been traveling in Turkey this past month and while there had a chance to think through the issues the world is suffering which might be characterized as "a highly stressful period" here are just a few items:

• Japanese Earthquake /Tsunami
• Nuclear Power Plant melt down
• Libyan uprising
• Ivory Coast uprising
• Syrian crackdown

Apart from the usual worries about higher inflation, oil prices and general instability of the US and most of the European economies teetering on a double dip recession—we have got to wonder whether this is going to be the pattern for a while—just a general increased turbulence. Continuing with the turbulence metaphor the question arises-- is this like flying through a stretch of 'bumpy air' or is this is going to a fairly permanent state for the rest of the 21st century world-- a constant shift from crisis to crisis? My short prediction is yes—we are entering a period of extended crisis.

Two main factors seem to be driving this new semi-permanent state —our relentless pursuit of cheap energy, even at the expense of our own safety and the expanding thirst for democratic freedoms particularly from young people trapped in states whose rulers made a devils' bargain to provide cheap oil to the west in exchange for a lifelong grip on power. The comfortable part of the west --that receives most of its information through the corporate media --have cocooned ourselves in our nice cars and homes with the belief that there are few consequences for this state of affairs—we are lulled by infotainment shows and share (bolstered by the high tech gadgets we are so tempted to buy) an exaggerated belief that our ever expanding technology prowess will eventually resolve all problems favorably. What we are failing to recognize are two other very destabilizing factors- —a dramatic rise in population particularly within the Muslim world, and a new generation coming to maturity who lack the fear that virtually paralyzed their parents equipped with new tools of 21st century literacy and organizing--cell phones and facebook accounts together with improved English speaking ability. In Turkey 50% of the population is under 28 and there are similar numbers in the rest of the Middle East. In Turkey also many of these young people have moved to large cities like Istanbul (now over with a population of 13 million, also making (according to Wikipedia "the largest metropolitan city in Europe) believe they are entitled to a better future than their parents' generation. In the west we are good at reporting the daily headlines not as good at recognizing the big picture and how it has changed.

What are we to do? First admit that our institutions, particularly governmental and international bodies, educational and media organizations were built for a different world and are almost as overwhelmed with change as those Tepco Nuclear engineers who assumed they could deal with the emergency even though they well knew they had built the plant on one of the most active fault lines in the world— (the so called "ring of fire"). There had been no planning for a tsunami (a predictable outcome of an earthquake on the sea bed). We can expect more of the same kind of news reports we are currently receiving from Japan about other major areas as stories from once far away places such as the Middle East, Asia because of our globally interconnected world cause reverberations throughout societies that previously saw themselves as insulated affluent enclaves. These new stories have no neat endings--that begin with uncertainty and and end there too--a case in point today--they are flushing radioactive water into the oceans and polluting the air with the same poisionous smoke. Result? We are not told. These are the new 21st century news stories--narratives that follow no predictable curve. In the case of the Japanese Nuclear plant meltdown it is as if we were captive in a cinema watching an awful end of the world Stephen King movie but guess we are not--this is real. Our willingness to close off part of our minds to the reality is perhaps more evident with regards to the Middle East --did we honestly believe that dictators could exist in the same age as Facebook, Twitter and cellphones?

As educators we have some special responsibilities here too--to point out where the prevailing assumptions no longer match current realities and to not provide our students with easy answers--how ever tempting--but with a series of questions that we all have to confront about the world we have so comfortably remained closed to for too long. More about this set of new 21st century challenges in subsequent blogs.