Burma, Cuba, and Iran: the pros and cons of Obama’s rapprochement

deal with it

 

 

2015 has been a big year in Obama’s administration, one that ultimately will shape his presidential legacy. While he did not do so well on the first term, and even on the first half of his second term (thanks to the government shutdown in 2013 and intense bipartisan politics being played in the Congress), his performance became hugely bolstered through the passage of fast-track authority, which enables the administration to finish Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before 2017 and other proposed mega-regional free trade agreements in the future, as well as the improvement in relations with countries formerly dubbed as ‘sponsors of terrorism’ – while not being hypocritical that US does have its own particular record – and in this specific case, Burma (or Myanmar, you name it), Cuba, and Iran. I will not talk so much about other foreign policy accomplishments that he had done in his presidential period, but these three countries, oftentimes tied together in almost any media report as ‘centerpieces’ in his foreign-policy rapprochement, deserve some particular attention. While Obama’s efforts, which emphasize diplomacy and compromise rather than the overt use of military force, have won plaudits, there are always concerns about what these countries, upon the re-engagement, are doing, and will possibly do, in the present and in the future. In all Polyannaist terms, nonetheless, we do really expect – while keeping our realist mindset on track – that the ‘opening’ of these countries will also lead to the betterment in the surrounding regions, and the world.

 

BURMA

myanmar

Source (for all map images): Lonely Planet

Population: 60 million (almost), GDP (nominal): 60-65 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: since the limited reforms introduced in 2011 by the quasi-civilian president Thein Sein, sanctions have been gradually lifted the country has managed to attract more foreign direct investment from numerous Asian countries (other than the long-standing investor China), such as India, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, European Union, and obviously, from United States. Tens of billions of dollars have been poured in various industrial projects, while construction boom, mostly focused on high-rise buildings, is currently taking place in major cities, particularly in Yangon. For all the doubts among much of the international communities, World Economic Forum did even organize an investment summit in early 2013. Middle class is emerging in major cities, an important component in the country’s path towards eventual democratization. Hundreds of political prisoners are also since then released from prisons, and political participation is also turning into a more competitive arena as well, with numerous parties now participating in the country’s parliament based in Naypyidaw.

Cons: human rights abuses continue to take place, and the notoriety surrounding the country’s treatment of ethnic Rohingyas, as evident in the massive refugee crisis occurring in the seas between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The government continues to deny the citizenship status of the whole ethnic group, numbered at over 1.7 million strong. Other than Rohingyas, the government remains in belligerence with several ethnic-based insurgency groups in the border, particularly those near India and China (some of the peace accords struck with them in 2012 and 2013 failed). There are also concerns that the political reforms seemingly stall, with the latest regulation reserving 25% of the parliament seats to the armed forces, while a presidential candidate has to secure more than 75% of parliamentary support, an obstruction to the country’s most leading politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, to contest the electoral race scheduled to take place in October this year. It is obviously undeniable, in fact, that she can not become a candidate, but whether the next president will proceed with the ongoing reforms remains a big question that has to be solved.

Obama’s visits to the country: 2012 and 2014

 

CUBA

cuba

Population: over 10 million, GDP (nominal): 80 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: relations between United States and Cuba in 20th century were mostly characterized by Cold War conflicts, and CIA’s numberless covert plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, the country’s leading political figure, until his replacement by his brother, Raul, in 2008. Limited reforms have been introduced since then, most astonishingly, the layoff of over 500,000 public employees in 2010 (which indirectly also led to the growth of entrepreneurs). The rapprochement, initiated in May 2012 as part of a ‘spy swap’ program, had since become a wide-ranging thaw among the two countries, culminating with the December 2014 meetings between Raul and Obama, assisted by Pope Francis. Bilateral meetings between Raul and Obama continued further with Organization of the American States (OAS) Summit in Panama City in April 2015, which, for the first time, oversaw the handshaking between the two leaders.

Cooperation among the two countries extends not only among the leaders, but also in people-to-people level. Cuban medical researchers, which ‘doctor diplomacy’ is widely utilized in Cuban foreign policy, have pioneered a medical breakthrough in cure of cancer, and the cooperation has recently begun between the countries’ scientists. The re-opening of US embassy in Havana last week, as one expects, will push American businesses and tourists, gradually, to invest and interact with the locals living in the country in the future. Furthermore, the country can advance even further in its ‘doctor diplomacy’ strategy, now already dispatching more than 40,000 medical experts across the developing world.

Cons: two major takes. Firstly, US has continued to retain the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, where the infamous CIA rendition program is still taking place there. Further negotiations between Washington and Havana have to be conducted in order to solve this decades-old, lingering problem. Another concern is the extent to which Cuba, still ruled by one-party regime, will introduce its political reforms, and also allowing more competitive political atmosphere. Such political opening will take years, if not decades; if reforms go too fast, a political crisis will be a real, legitimate threat. Gradual phases of tutelage will be a more recommended pattern to guide the country’s path towards political openness, and that will be left to his successors in 2018 (the time Raul resigns, as he will be 87 years old afterwards).

Obama’s visits to the country: zero

 

 

IRAN

iran

Population: 80 million, GDP (nominal): 400-500 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: the nuclear deal, eventually achieved two weeks ago, was another highlighted achievement that Obama had achieved in his administration after over 6 years of uneasy numerous processes of negotiation, together with European Union, IAEA, China, and Russia. The deal itself will require Iran to highly limit (but not completely freeze) the nuclear program, obligate the country to open up for inspections by IAEA, as well as provide progress reports, up for international joint reviews, for a period of 10 years. While the accord was achieved ‘not with trust, but through verification’, the deal will enable the gradual lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled the country for almost one decade, potentially adding an annual oil revenue of more than 100 billion US$ that Tehran critically needs to support the long-term development. Still, a complete normalization of US-Iran relations will not be expected in a short term period, somehow.

Cons: There remains this question of regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two long-time arch-enemies, in Middle East. The two countries have played proxy wars and conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and in numerous other Shia-Sunni conflicts across the region. Unlike the two countries above, Tehran plays a powerful influence in Middle East. It continues to retain support to Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus (and most recently, a new law has been signed in Tehran to authorize 1 billion US$ of financial support to the beleaguered country annually), while the civil war in Yemen, despite the truce, has not led to a full pause. There remains doubt, also, of what will happen once the deal expires in 2025; such uncertainty will have a major implication on global geopolitics in the decades to come, especially when one expects Iran to be economically and politically in even stronger position than now. An Iran-Saudi rapprochement, possibly brokered by Washington, will have to be attempted in a few years to come to prevent a larger regional conflict to take place.

Obama’s visits to the country: zero

 

As much as these efforts have resulted in significantly positive impacts on US relations with the world in the second decade of 21st century, these deals also carry Obama’s name in a huge stake in the long-term future. What if the direction becomes worse rather than better? There is too much one can hardly speculate, even in the 10 years of time; this also carries an important question, furthermore, of what the future US presidents will relate to these countries in a post-Obama setting. Will the presidents maintain the ‘diplomacy-first’ strategy, or will the stance become much harder and more hawkish? In such situations of fixed uncertainties, wisdom will be the sole guidance one has to employ to understand the problems, and proactively solve them. For all the flaws that have occurred, at least, engagement is the continuous form of remedy in international relations that Obama has exercised (so far).

 

 

 

 

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Building Palestinian Democracy, One Brick At A Time

rawabi

 

The story of Rawabi, the first eco-friendly planned city in Palestine, and how Bashar al-Masri, the mastermind behind the project, is – at his own unease – struggling to promote democracy and civic participation in a country already torn by Israel’s continued repression and a fragile, unstable authority.

Read the full article – released in May 2014 – in Foreign Policy.

 

Excerpt:

 

Masri and his associates are working feverishly to attract the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Google, and other major technology companies. “We really want many of the same high-tech firms that are in Israel and Egypt and Jordan to come,” he says, his voice tinged with desperation. But convincing the tech giants that this is the right time to invest is easier said than done.

Their caution is understandable. The impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority is just one of the many complications that make Masri’s project seem utopian. Just take the problem of water. Israel controls the supply of water to the West Bank, and the Israelis have repeatedly delayed conclusion of an agreement that would enable the construction of a pipeline to supply Rawabi. That, in turn, has resulted in the repeated postponement of move-in dates for the city’s would-be residents.

The Social Laboratory

singapore surveillance state

 

Almost the whole world erupted into anger when Edward Snowden leaked NSA’s super-secret surveillance program in 2013, which gathers sensitive data of not only nearly the whole Americans’ daily communications, but also wiretaps upon numerous world leaders’ private conversations. Nonetheless, this ambitious, and pretty much dangerous, idea of supervising the entire world’s communication systems can be traced back a decade earlier, as one of many strategies devised to anticipate any possible terrorism attacks.

And it turns out that there’s already one country which extensively uses this system in all aspects of the society’s life: Singapore.

The city-state, populated by 5.4 million people, continuously keeps itself at a ‘siege mentality’, given its geographically infinitesimal size compared to the rest of the others. Given such existential perils, where everything, if unanticipated, may bring turmoil to this tiny nation, Singaporean government realizes it necessary to impose very strict controls on the whole populace. And so appears the idea of Total Information Awareness (TIA), an all-out cyber-security big-data mining campaign by which government agencies extensively monitor data flows in social media, and even use all their keywords and tags to produce sophisticated algorithm which can predict ‘all kinds of possible perilous scenarios threatening the country’s existence in near future’. Hundreds of people have been arrested arbitrarily for posting ‘sensitive’ information on the public, thanks to the campaign, imposed in all aspects of societal life.

When Americans feel they are increasingly ‘intimidated’ by their own government, Singaporeans instead, willingly or reluctantly, ‘welcome’ it (realizing their ‘tiny-red-dot’ position in this planet). Read the full article in Foreign Policy.

 

Excerpt:

 

Because of such uproars, many current and former U.S. officials have come to see Singapore as a model for how they’d build an intelligence apparatus if privacy laws and a long tradition of civil liberties weren’t standing in the way. After Poindexter left DARPA in 2003, he became a consultant to RAHS, and many American spooks have traveled to Singapore to study the program firsthand. They are drawn not just to Singapore’s embrace of mass surveillance but also to the country’s curious mix of democracy and authoritarianism, in which a paternalistic government ensures people’s basic needs — housing, education, security — in return for almost reverential deference. It is a law-and-order society, and the definition of “order” is all-encompassing.

Ten years after its founding, the RAHS program has evolved beyond anything Poindexter could have imagined. Across Singapore’s national ministries and departments today, armies of civil servants use scenario-based planning and big-data analysis from RAHS for a host of applications beyond fending off bombs and bugs. They use it to plan procurement cycles and budgets, make economic forecasts, inform immigration policy, study housing markets, and develop education plans for Singaporean schoolchildren — and they are looking to analyze Facebook posts, Twitter messages, and other social media in an attempt to “gauge the nation’s mood” about everything from government social programs to the potential for civil unrest.

In other words, Singapore has become a laboratory not only for testing how mass surveillance and big-data analysis might prevent terrorism, but for determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society.

Standalone mogul

apple daily

 

Profiling Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s most sensational and outspokenly anti-Communist news outlets established by Jimmy Lai, founder of fashion giant Giordano, as it undergoes a series of shadowy threats from numerous underground organizations, one alerting concern also currently being faced by numerous independent journalists living in the semi-independent city-state of what they perceive as ‘Beijing’s increasingly tightening grip on the city’s media industry and freedom of expression’.

Read the full article in Foreign Policy.

 

Excerpt:

 

Lai is the most powerful critic of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, if not the world. Next Media now employs more than 4,000 people, according to company executives, and also owns popular entertainment magazines and web portals. His flagship tabloid, Apple Daily, founded in 1995, introduced Hong Kong to an irreverent mix of salacious Fleet Street-style journalism and political activism. Lai brought large-character tabloid headlines, web-cam “scoops” of celebrities backstage, irrelevant animations of breaking domestic and international news stories, and front-page calls for protests. But his biggest cause is what in Hong Kong is called “universal suffrage” — the right of citizens, not a council, to choose their chief executive.

Whoever wanted to silence Lai and his activism has instead increased public support for his cause and driven traffic to his websites. Just hours after the fourth triad-style attack, on July 1, tens of thousands of peopletook to the streets calling for genuine democratic elections in 2017.According to internal figures shown to Foreign Policy, traffic to the Hong Kong website has surged to about 20 million page views each day, and that’s not including a staggering 10 million daily views of the news and animation videos.

But Lai’s dream of universal suffrage for Hong Kong is looking less and less likely — and the city’s famously open and cacophonous media landscape is under threat. Hong Kong’s independent-minded journalists are complaining that opinion columns are being tampered with, popular columnists sacked, and news self-censored by tremulous editors. This media crackdown reflects a trend of Beijing tightening its control on Hong Kong. “The Chinese Communist Party’s growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on the Hong Kong media through its ‘Liaison Office’ is increasingly compromising media pluralism there,” Reporters Without Borders said in a February report. Hong Kong has slid to 61 out of 180 countries and territories on the organization’s World Press Freedom Index, down from 18 in 2002.

And the challenges keep coming. This year, as the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from Britain to Beijing again approaches, the 66-year-old Lai faces a different kind of threat. Now, two Western financial institutions — banks nurtured in the laws and freedoms of the British Empire — appear to be boycotting Lai’s Hong Kong media business in service of Beijing.

Our Man in Africa

hissene habre

JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images

 

A 12,000-word article from Foreign Policy which details about United States government’s involvement in supporting a bloodthirsty authoritarian regime in Chad, and how, in the eventual face of international scrutiny, supported the trial of the ex-leader, Hissene Habre, for the war crimes US government had actually indirectly assisted.

Click the link here to read the full story.

 

Excerpt:

 

The first step was to put Habré in the presidential palace.

The CIA’s station chief in Khartoum, a French speaker, made the initial approach, meeting Habré and his advisors in Sudan. Soon, weapons and cash were wending their way to Habré’s rebel camp on the Chad-Sudan border. The CIA would send supplies through regional allies to Khartoum; then Sudanese intelligence, which was closely allied with the CIA, would move them by train to Nyala, the former British Administration Headquarters in Darfur, where Habré would pick them up and drive them across the border.

The possibility that the assistance would help Habré terrorize his own people was hardly considered. “Little to no attention was paid to the human rights issues at the time for three reasons,” a former U.S. intelligence official who worked with Habré explained in an email. “(1) We wanted the Libyans out and Habré was the only reliable instrument at our disposal, (2) Habré’s record suffered only from the kidnapping (the Claustre Affair), which we were content to overlook, and (3) Habré was a good fighter, needed no training, and all we had to do was supply him with matériel.”

On June 7, 1982, Habré and 2,000 of his fighters fought their way into N’Djamena and declared the founding of Chad’s “Third Republic.” He consolidated power with brute force from the beginning: POWs from rival militant groups were executed, political opponents were captured and shot, and civilians thought to be sympathetic toward his opponents were targeted in reprisal operations. Oueddei fled to Libya, where Qaddafi would retrain and rearm his forces. And soon the United States was ferrying C-141 StarLifters loaded with weapons to Chad to arm Habré for the next step in its proxy war with Libya.

 

 

The notoriety of ‘topeng monyet’

Topeng_monyet

 

 

Once again, Indonesia grabs another international spotlight for this notorious street circus.

View the full slide show in Foreign Policy.

And here’s what the website says:

Now, Indonesian authorities are cracking down on masked monkey performances like these, denoucing them as a form of animal cruelty and an international embarrassment. “Have pity on the monkeys,” Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo said recently, “they are being exploited by their owners.” 

Widodo plans to unveil an anti-topeng monyet campaign next year, while authorities are working with animal rights groups to treat and relocate confiscated monkeys to a special enclosure at the local zoo. In the future, topeng monyet handlers could face up to seven years in prison for violating the animal abuse law.

Well, matter-of-factly speaking, there is ‘only’ one Joko Widodo who stands up to this issue.

7 things that Putin really loves… (17+)

Aktivistin der Frauengruppe "Femen" demonstriert auf der Hannover Messe vor Putin und Merkel

 

Putin, I don’t put any silicone here! It’s real boobs!

 

Foreign Policy’s Passport blog – which oftentimes bears resemblance with your typical celebrity tabloids – has compiled some of the weird passions that Mother Russia’s most ‘beloved’ president has zeal in (and many, in fact, are proofs of American exceptionalism):

1. He loves Steven Seagal, and wants him to represent Russia’s weaponry industries.

2. He can be as stiff as a statue when dealing with a nude protester people thought could have instead been a PETA poster child.

3. He ‘probably’ gets inspired from Yellow Submarine – and he really boarded it.

4. He plays solo piano and sings Blueberry Hill!! (and Russia Today had even its full coverage).

5. He has a penchant for biker gangs. (and he only wants those in love with Mother Russia.)

6. He has an obsession in Super Bowl rings that he even collected one.

7. He loves puppies. Huge puppies, indeed.

 

Aktivistin der Frauengruppe "Femen" demonstriert auf der Hannover Messe vor Putin und Merkel

 

In an instance, people mistake Putin for being ‘another statue you see in Madame Tussaud museums’.

 

Read the full article in Foreign Policy. Access more of these pictures in Der Spiegel. And watch precisely how Putin sings an American blues.