Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Examining America's Asia-Pacific Policy

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

Ever since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, American foreign policy under both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama has been preoccupied with the Muslim world. 

U.S. forces have been fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have also battled, from the air and sea, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Islamists, in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere.

All the while, in east Asia, China’s economic and military might has been growing by leaps and bounds. 

Apart from its huge land army, China is now the world’s second-ranked naval power, behind only the United States, with a fleet including about 80 major warships, 53 submarines, 50 landing ships and 86 missile patrol boats. In September its first aircraft carrier went into service.

 Why has the country built such a large navy? China claims sovereignty over a large area of the Pacific Ocean off its shores, bringing it into dispute with several neighbouring countries

Ships from China and the Philippines have recently confronted each other over a reef known as the Scarborough Shoal, in the South China Sea. Called Huangyan Island by China, it consists of a series of rocks and reefs some 160 kilometres from the Philippines and 800 kilometres from China.

Another quarrel involves the Spratley Islands, further south. Comprising about 750 pieces of land, all or parts of this archipelago are claimed by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Even tiny Brunei is involved.

While these islands are in themselves economically unimportant, the surrounding waters contain significant reserves of oil and natural gas. Last year Chinese naval vessels fired on Vietnamese fishing boats in the Spratleys.

China and Japan both lay claim over a group of five tiny islands in the East China Sea currently controlled by Tokyo. Known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, and the Senkaku Islands in Japan, their nearby waters are believed to harbour valuable mineral resources, including oil and natural gas.

In September the Japanese government itself bought the islands from a private owner, setting off demonstrations in Beijing and 19 other cities in China. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said that Beijing would “never yield an inch” over the disputed islands, reported the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Whoever controls these various island chains will, of course, reap the benefits from the surrounding waters.
China’s recent assertiveness worries its neighbours. The United States, in response, has indicated its intention to strategically “pivot” its attention to the Asia-Pacific region. Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in September that the disputed Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands were “clearly” covered by a 1960 treaty obliging the United States to come to Japan’s aid if attacked.

Also, almost as soon as he won re-election, Obama set off on a trip to Cambodia, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) in mid-November, to “wave the flag” and increase American visibility in the region, as a counterweight to Beijing. He sought to reinforce America’s strategic and economic interests.

“The United States of America is a Pacific nation and we see our future as bound to those nations and peoples to our west,” said the president while in Burma. “And as our economy recovers this is where we believe we will find enormous growth. As we have ended the wars that have dominated our foreign policy for a decade, this region will be a focus for our efforts to build a prosperous peace.”

Obama knows that if America is to compete globally in the 21st century, it must take greater steps to engage economically and politically with this part of the world, as well as containing Chinese geopolitical ambitions.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Gaza War and the New Egypt

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The latest war between Hamas-ruled Gaza and Israel appears, for the moment, to be over. And Egypt has played a key role in negotiating a cease-fire, since unlike the United States, it can talk directly to Hamas, its kindred ideological spirit.

Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, visited the enclave during the fighting and the country’s new president, Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, has emerged as a major regional player.

“I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a Cairo press conference announcing the accord.

So let’s step back a little. So far, last year’s “Arab Spring” has brought Islamic movements or parties to power or increased influence in virtually every country in the region, including Libya, Tunisia and even Jordan. In the current civil war in Syria, they are playing a major role in the struggle to bring down the Assad regime.

For decades, American foreign policy in the Middle East was predicated on keeping these movements out of power. We were told they posed a danger, not only to Israel, but to world peace. Yet now, Morsi is lauded for his positive role in ending the fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Indeed, an Israeli Foreign Ministry source told the New York Forward newspaper that Cairo’s role in mediating the conflict has brought into sight a day when Egypt will take over from Israel responsibility for Gaza.

“We would be quite happy for Egypt to take over as many responsibilities as possible that Israel currently has over Gaza.” This would involve controlling security and, to some extent, supplies.

So this begs the question: If the election of President Morsi is now viewed positively in Washington, why did the U.S. work so hard in keeping the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak in power all those years, citing the threat of a fundamentalist takeover as the reason? (Even Moammar Gadhafi was seen as a “lesser evil.”)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Two Competing Views of Israel in the Middle East

 Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

There are two competing narratives when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian (and wider Arab-Israeli) conflict.

On the one hand, those on the political left, adhering to the thesis propounded by Marxists and post-colonialists, view the entire Zionist enterprise as an imperialist project, the seizure of indigenous Arab lands by white Europeans.

They view Israel as a ‘settler state,’ one similar to the former white-dominated Rhodesia or South Africa.

For them Israel’s defenders are, to quote the late academic Edward Said, “Orientalists,” motivated by a “Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.”

The other story, subscribed to by the vast majority of Jews, in both Israel and the diaspora, entails the return of a people who originated in the land to reclaim its patrimony.

They contend that Jews in Christian Europe were not only not considered “Europeans” by many people in the host nations where they lived, but were, rather, subject to recurrent waves of violence, culminating in the Holocaust. As well, they add, more than half the Jews in Israel are in any case Mizrachim, Jews native to the Muslim lands of the Middle East, who had been forced to flee their former homes.

Which of these two stories do Israel’s Middle Eastern enemies themselves endorse? Obviously, many of those in left-wing and nationalist movements, including some Palestinian groups, prefer the first. They fancy themselves secularists and so avoid using religious terms, preferring the word “Israeli” to “Jew.”

But, somewhat ironically, the rise of Islamist movements such as, among others, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, prefer a religious reading of the quarrel. Their literature is replete with references to ‘Jewish’ treachery and evil, going all the way back to Qur’anic times – hundreds of years before the establishment of the modern Jewish state.

They may not realize it, but they in fact confirm that Jews are native to the area, and not some recent foreign implant. As well, they demonstrate, by using the word ‘Jew,’ that their issue is not with the Israeli presence in areas occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, but with the very idea of a non-Muslim entity in the region.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Don't Cry for Me, America"

Henry Srebrnik. [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

Ever since his defeat on Nov. 6, many people, including even fellow Republicans, have been writing Mitt Romney off as a bad candidate and a sore loser. He’s been mocked for declaring that Barack Obama won by giving out “gifts” to voting groups such as African-Americans, Latinos and younger women.

“The Obama campaign was following the old playbook of giving a lot of stuff to groups that they hoped they would get to vote for them,” Romney is reported to have said. Talk of sour grapes! After all, he planned to give a lot more “stuff,” also known as lower taxes, to millionaires and billionaires.

According to the Huffington Post, Romney also blamed the “liberal media,” including CNN and NBC, for supposedly favoring Obama during the presidential debates.

Romney was definitely not an ideal candidate. In an age when politicians are supposed to “connect” with voters and “feel their pain,” he came across as a wooden plutocrat whose attempts at compassion didn’t ring true. It was clear he had led a charmed life financially.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the week before the vote, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, lauded the President for his concern as they toured the devastated beaches, it was the last nail in Romney’s electoral coffin.

What is really telling about Romney’s failure to realistically gauge how things were going was his delusional certainty that, despite all this, he would win the election. He hadn’t bothered to write a concession speech.

Romney even had a fireworks display ready in Boston harbour once his victory was announced, one that would have been visible from his election night party at the Boston Convention Center!

But in fact the election wasn’t even close. Obama secured 332 electoral votes to Romney's 206, with battleground states like Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia all ending up in the president’s column.

I think this speaks to Romney’s contempt for the American electorate, on par with his comments earlier in the year that “47 per cent” of Americans were simply lazy moochers expecting government handouts and so would, of course, should they manage to get off their sofas, vote for Obama.

It’s an arrogance born of extreme wealth: Romney saw in Obama a mere “community organizer,” someone who got lucky in 2008 – and who would certainly not stand comparison with a titan of finance!

But we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the ex-governor. He can spend the next little while crying over the tens of millions of dollars he’s accumulated at Bain Capital and elsewhere – and since some of it is stashed away in the Cayman Islands, there’s also the prospect of a nice Caribbean holiday.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Radical Right-Wing Forces Make Gains in Europe

Henry Srebrnik, (Summerside, PEI) Journal-Pioneer

While most of us have been fixated on the American election these past few months, there have been a number of recent contests in Europe which should give us cause for concern.

As deeply indebted nations face massive unemployment and austerity, some voters are turning to parties long outside the ideological pale.

In hard-hit Greece, one in every four people is without work. Youth unemployment is above 50 percent. The far-right Golden Dawn Party, led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, ran a campaign during the spring 2012 Greek election based on the dire economic situation, as well as virulent anti-immigration rhetoric.

It won 6.92 per cent of the vote on June 17, taking 18 of the 300 seats in parliament, the first time it has managed to elect members to the legislature. A survey taken in September found that 22 per cent of Greeks now view the party favorably.

Golden Dawn calls for the deportation of all non-Greek immigrants, broadly defined as anyone not of Greek ancestry, and its followers have been blamed for violence against recent arrivals, including attacks on immigrant-owned market stalls and shops. Its officials say they have persuaded a major restaurant chain to begin replacing immigrants with Greek workers.

The press quoted Elias Panagiotaros, one of the new legislators from Golden Dawn, as stating that Greeks "have the right to protect themselves and their property from all these illegal savages."

In Ukraine, parliamentary elections held on Oct. 29 saw the Svoboda (Freedom) All-Ukrainian Union, an ultranationalist, right-wing movement, win 38 of the 450 seats in the national legislature, with 10.44 per cent of the vote. In the previous parliamentary election, in 2007, the party was supported by just 0.76 per cent of the electorate.

Leader Oleg Tyagnibok insists that "Svoboda is simply and only a pro-Ukrainian party." His party has benefited from frustration over the country's stalled economy and dissatisfaction with the government of President Viktor Yanukovich, which favours closer ties with Moscow.

While Svoboda has emphasized national sovereignty and warns of encroachment by neighboring Russia, some of Svoboda's members are neo-Nazis, and this has elicited warnings about the rise of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine. Tyagnibok has himself in the past referred to the "Jewish-Russian mafia, which rules in Ukraine."

Tyagnibok maintains that nationalist parties are enjoying a renaissance in Europe because of people's financial problems: "Economic failures make people look for reasons."

In Hungary, too, dissatisfaction with the state of the economy has led to the rise of a right-wing nationalist party. Jobbik, known for its anti-Semitic and anti-Roma (Gypsy) rhetoric, won 16.67 per cent of the vote, good for 47 of 386 seats, in the April 2010 election and is now the country's third largest party.

Its leader, Gabor Vona, in 2007 founded the radical nationalist Hungarian Guard, which was banned by authorities a year later on the grounds that the activities of the organization "were against the human rights of minorities as guaranteed by the Hungarian Constitution."

The next parliamentary elections in Hungary must be held by spring 2014.