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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

USA Called Out (Published by Cumhuriyet, Eng Ed, 2/1011)

The US severely needs to overhaul its image.  In the 2010 annual BBC World Service Poll, 70% of Turks indicated that they had a negative image of the US, up from 63% a year ago.  As a matter of fact, the US holds an average (all countries surveyed combined) reputation of around 40% positive, lower than both India and Brazil.   You would think Turks didn’t grow up watching Dynasty and Star Trek and envied the American lifestyle we saw on TV in the 80’s and 90s!
Nowadays, any conversation about politics on the streets of Istanbul leads to the mention of dissatisfaction with the ruling AKP and lamenting the US for its support of Kurdish separatism- all within the first five minutes.   The common Turkish man’s misery seems to be indexed to the US involvement in Turkey’s affairs.  Why do Turks think they are miserable? Is it because the US bestrides the Middle East like the Colossus?  
Rather, it is because Turks know who is supporting the current government and why:  AKP has tolerated the US policy of supporting a Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq, which would have been unacceptable to any other political faction.  
The AKP regime has a dismal human rights record:  According to an October press release by the European Parliament, it has not detained any of the 400 government officials against whom the EU has received “credible allegations of torture of detainees from prisons and from police detention facilities or even at peaceful demonstrations”.   According to a Human Rights Watch report published last November, there are 50 documented cases of unarmed protesters being treated harshly as terrorists, violating the public’s freedom of expression.
The reason people of Turkey, Egypt, Yemen are so unhappy with the USA is tied to the US policy preference for “stability” over democracy.   While the US State Department makes claims of promoting democracy around the world, its realpolitik has involved support of oppressive regimes which are willing to promote the US economic interests.  The oppressive Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia, Mubarek and Saleh are examples.  This realpolitik of “stability” over democracy is severely problematic: 
The late 20th century observed the US shifting from use of diplomacy to a “war on terror”, a “crusade” which began with Al Qaeda but is supposed to defeat all terrorist groups. The US approach shifted from one derived from moral and civic principles into one with a punitive orientation.  Domestically, color coded terrorism alerts fortified the population’s conviction that there is a continuous threat.  By 2004, a Pew research study found that 41% of the American public perceived “War and terrorism” as the number one problem for America.  Economic issues were rated a distant second at 26%.   Today, the Transportation Security Administration (the folks in uniform at the airports) are an over 50,000 force with a budget of more than 7.8 billion dollars, and they yet have to catch a single terrorist.  A large industry feeding the “war against terrorism”, supplying weapons, transportation, software, etc. continues to churn even today, under the Democratic Obama regime.  Egypt is second to only Israel in buying the most weapons from the US.
A result of the war on terrorism and the subsequent need for security is that Washington is now making a foreign policy trade off:  It is trading off a more altruistic mode of support for local democracies with support for dictators who protect US commercial interests such as the priority access to the Suez Canal in Egypt, giving American military vessels expedited transit.   The dictatorial regime willing to offer incentives to the USA, however, sets off a cycle of oppression, building pressure over the years as in Tunisia and Egypt.  This continues until a tipping point of tolerance is reached then leads to a sudden collapse.   
Why does this vicious circle of predictable events happen?  In order to protect the status quo in the region, US backed dictators such as Ben Ali, Mubarek, and Saleh have blocked opposition and handicapped domestic democratic processes.  A political power vacuum is therefore likely to follow when the dictatorial regime eventually collapses. This is because grassroot organizations have not been allowed to form and the only entities available are groups of protesters who would find it difficult to organize on their own, or worse, fundamentalist Islamic contingencies such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who are relatively organized.   The collapse can leave a country vulnerable to fundamentalist Islamic influences.
When the protesters called for regime change in Egypt, they were also protesting against the US neo colonialism and an end to the fulcrum balancing the USA on one end and Mubarek on the other.   The image of the US has become closely tied to the illegitimate and oppressive regimes it supports.   When these regimes collapse, the US is also likely to lose not only face but also strategic partnerships.   This is a Type II error on the part of the US, where the wolf at the door is missed. 
To avoid the pitfalls of a negative international image and the possibility of losing dialogue with allies, the US must refocus its foreign policy principles to support the will of the people.   It must support democracy and encourage its allies to actively promote democratic processes.    In Egypt, it is still not too late-  the protesters can be helped to organize.
Long after Mubarek is gone, American interests will remain in Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere.  The extent to which the US pays serious attention, and not just lip service, to the what the people on the streets want instead of investing in autocratic regimes, it is likely to find friendlier ears in the future administrations.      

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