It has struck me recently that the build-up to the American election has been surprisingly light on international matters. True, John McCain’s recent trip to the Middle East showcased many of his opinions regarding that region, and we’re never too far from hearing how soon the Democrats are going to get ‘out of Iraq,’ but on the whole the pre-election extravaganza has ignored comprehensive foreign policies and focused instead on the economic policies which seem more and more to be the only real concern of Western governments. Even as the Western world retreats into its portfolios and employs only increasingly ‘soft’ power, though, the rest of our supposedly globalized world is demanding more and more ‘hard’ attention.
Up-and-coming countries like Iran, Venezuela, and China, among others, have for years been engaged in a game of political chicken with the West. They go through the motions of international dialogue and diplomacy, make the occasional empty gesture or promise and allow in a couple U.N. mandated observers, and then bluntly dismiss or blatantly disregard whatever agreement, resolution, or treaty comes their way.
Whether it’s the U.N., the so-called ‘Quartet,’ or anything in between, whoever attempts to engage these countries – a sort of anti-establishment clique of countries, practicing their own terribly effective form of international ‘civil disobedience’ – will simply find themselves and their efforts ignored. One might call them ‘Ghandi Countries,’ if the issues on which they were standing so firm didn’t include repression of human rights and illegal occupation.
With the politically-charged Olympics being held this summer and the aftermath of the recent Iranian elections soon to be seen, it can only be a matter of time before some, at least, of the diplomatic double-daring comes to a head. Of all the international shake-ups in the coming year, though, one stands clearly in the center of the international eye: the U.S. November elections.
To put it bluntly: as matters stand now, the ‘West’ is well on its way to abandoning all power and influence in the world it has created. A peaceful shift of power is on the horizon, and all the West is doing about it is calling more meetings. Do not misunderstand me; I certainly do not advocate the use of actual ‘hard,’ military power against, say, Iran. But as it is, we’ve seen that no amount of political or economic pressure is going to stop independently-powered states like Iran or China from pursuing their desired goals. If they’re Ghandi-esque in their use of International Civil Disobedience, then Ghandi had an AK-47 on his back, just in case.
If the West went all the way and actually forced an ultimatum on Iran, threatened to cut the country off completely, threatened perhaps even military force – went, as it were, ‘all-in’ – I have no doubt that Iran would call their bluff. That is, needless to say, a scenario no-one wants to see.
So then, what do the American elections actually matter? Sure, the U.S.A. has lost huge amounts of standing in the world over the last seven years, but the President is still in many ways (and symbolically at least) the ‘leader of the free world.’ Whoever wins in November will have to face the storm to come, and lead the charge against it. And yet if no-one in the West has any hope of successfully engaging nations like China, Iran, and Venezuela, how much does it really matter who stands in office?
Any good general knows that picking his battlefield is the first step to victory. If it wants to remain significant, then the West- and, in particular, America – needs to actively, forcefully, and unwaveringly engage one of these nations which has been challenging it. Political importance needs to be re-won one battle at a time. And the simple fact is that there is only one battle which the United States can possibly win, only one country whose imperialism and challenges it can hope to stem: Israel.
Despite Secretary Rice’s many trips to the Middle East, and despite the much-vaunted Annapolis peace conference, America has never really, effectively questioned or challenged the increasingly bold and blatantly aggressive policies of the Israeli government. Though it is not popular to say so, and though Israel is officially a ‘Western democracy’ with close ties to Europe and a spot in bed with the United States, Israel clearly fits in with the anti-establishment ‘Coalition of the Unwilling;’ like Iran&Co., it has a long track record of ignoring international agreements and U.N. resolutions, but in this century Israel’s unfazed flouting of civil liberties and human rights agreements has reached a new level, and world-wide condemnation of Israel has grown accordingly. The building of the ‘security wall,’ the strangulation of Gaza, and the expansion of West Bank settlements and apartheid-style infrastructure leap immediately to mind, but even now a new and vitally important development is being pushed ahead by Olmert’s government. The world endorsed, at least to a point, the ‘anti-Hamas’ measures in Gaza, and never made enough of an issue about the ‘Western Wall’ to matter, but the world – and America in particular – has the opportunity now to stop yet another power grab before it is too late.
I am referring to Israel’s increased presence in and control over occupied East Jerusalem. Even during the build-up to and actual duration of the Annapolis conference, Olmert’s government has pushed steadily onwards with the building and expansion of illegal settlements in the Arab, occupied parts of the city. Jerusalem itself is a central factor in any peace negotiations, and it is inconceivable that any solution, least of all the intrinsically unworkable two-state solution that Israel and the U.S. claim to support, can include Jerusalem as an entirely Israeli city. And yet should Israel proceed at pace, it will soon, in practice, have finally annexed the whole of the world’s ‘holiest’ city and hottest real estate.
And how does the world respond? Thankfully, with almost universal outrage and condemnation. In recent weeks the matter has reached pressure point, drawing worldwide attention and discussion. However, though the United States has condemned the settlements as obstructive to a final, Annapolis-based peace agreement, it has completely failed to act in any tangible way to stop the construction. The matter is a fairly clear-cut and manageable one; the international community considers the settlements to be illegal, built as they are on occupied territory, which means that there is none of the discord and uncertainty that surrounds, say, the state of the Gaza Strip following Hammas’ elections. Moreover, while discussing illegal settlements in the whole of the West Bank would be a rather daunting task, engaging Israel specifically on the expansion of East Jerusalem settlements is a far more concentrated and achievable task. It is a battle that can and ought to be fought –but isn’t.
Even more disheartening than what the U.S. government is doing now, though, is what it will do when the White House moving crews are finished. After 8 years of idleness or ineptness, concerning Israel/Palestine at least, the new President will be ideally placed to take this issue, so relevant and so relatively simple, and make a real issue out of it. Israel has been aggressively ignoring the pleas of the rest of the world, has spat in the face of established rights, liberties, agreements and treaties, and in so doing has placed itself in the same ‘anti-establishment’ camp as China and Iran. America has the ability to stop, or at least impede, these newest plans for annexation; imagine Israel without its American allowance, without its champion in the U.N., being in fact challenged by its staunchest ally! America alone has the power to proactively, forcefully, and effectively challenge Israel on the matter of settlements in Occupied Jerusalem – and therefore, one might argue, the responsibility. And if the current government won’t do it – and it’s fair to assume that it won’t – then that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of its successor.
But will the next president have the courage or moral standing to take the chance? From what we’ve seen, the answer is a familiarly vague No. While in Jordan only a matter of days ago, John McCain – a phenomenal candidate by most any reckoning despite his party’s recent presidential history, and increasingly looking to be the most likely candidate, too – effectively gave the settlements his blessing in saying that he supported Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Clinton seems to be incapable of doing anything the democratic platform doesn’t tell her to, and though Obama has, in his senatorial past, shown a surprising fairness and foresight in his evaluation of all things Middle Eastern, that admirable trait has now all but disappeared.
If America wants to really make Iran, Venezuela, China et al understand that it’s serious about human rights and international treaties, it needs to apply the same criterion across the board. Crack down on Israel, let the world know that the West and its values can’t simply be paid lip service and ignored, and all those meetings, treaties, and agreements floating about suddenly begin to actually mean something, finally have some substance behind them. Worried about the protesters in Tibet, or the students in Iran? Force a solution in Palestine, and suddenly we acquire something that the West hasn’t had for a long time: the moral legitimacy and soft power to act on other issues.
Of course, I don’t pretend to think that any of that actually will come to pass, as I frankly doubt that any of the three candidates will take the opportunity when it’s given to them. The results in November have the potential to redirect the course of the 21st century – but probably won’t deliver. We are fast approaching an un-greased turning point, on which the wheel of the world will get stuck. When politics are involved, no-one wants to be the candidate to get his hands dirty, even to change the oil – and thus does the machinery of nations fail.
But, just in case, I’ll end with hope, and a wish. Mrs. Clinton, Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama: These are interesting times we live in. Please, in an age of political Olympics and nuclear double-dog-dares, in a century when every word and movement could have repercussions, don’t let your election become sterile. Don’t hold back from progressive action in the Middle East, and don’t shrink from real, hard diplomacy for fear of real results. Whichever of you finally does win, please, let November actually matter – not only for the United States, but for the rest of the world, as well.
Robert Isaf (USA, AC07-09)
North American Editor (United Words)
The article as word document: Why November Won’t Matter
– United World College Student Magazine –