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).

 

 

 

 

Why America’s decline is dangerous for global security

america's allies

 

As I’ve said before in previous posts, no superpowers are absolute sages. Either their good deeds – providing aid packages and investment worth billions of dollars – or bad deeds – overthrowing other countries’ regimes by force, everything is done under the context of ‘global interest’, actually referring back to the superpowers’ own sake. Nonetheless, when the ‘big brother’ grows frail, what will happen to its key allies, or at the least, those leaning towards them? Will the rise of another global hegemony ensure that their countries will maintain their ‘business-as-usual’ approach? In politics, the answer is uncertain.

In regard to America’s influence, we can see both the positive and negative sides it has spread across the globe. We see democracies flourishing, global trading increasingly interdependent, and globalization itself more intense, but at the same time, we still see Western-backed plutocrats in power, Western-waged geopolitical wars, and international rivalry with a few competing emerging regional powers, say Russia and China. None of these countries, despite being US allies, is completely reluctant to surrender all its rights to the Globocop as well. However, the most fretful question – in early 21st century context – is: when American influence increasingly declines, especially as seen from Obama’s increasingly timid, hyper-cautious, and anti-military stance in his approach towards global problem-solving, what will happen to those which are depending on its global might?

A lot of fretful things, indeed, have happened. Russia, led by Putin, has led the pivot by firstly annexing Crimea, the geopolitical point of contention between Ukraine and the latter. Baltic states, Poland, and other NATO members, are being scared of a possibility of Putin leading another ‘conquest’ towards their countries. Japan is afraid of China, especially when it comes to the ownership of a chain of uninhabitable rocks known as Senkaku (in Japanese) or Diaoyutai (in Mandarin). South Korea is apprehensive about its aggressive North, and any probability of China leading another military intervention should North Korea collapse (which is an imminent risk many experts concern). Taiwanese people are particularly afraid of such prospect, as Taiwanese economy is becoming increasingly dependent on China’s, leading to their greater fears about ‘future reunification’. Southeast Asian states, particularly Vietnam and Philippines (and most recently, Indonesia), are in deep uncertainties in regard to the ownership of South China Seas, which, by its entirety, is claimed by Beijing. India doesn’t want to provoke a nuclear war with China, but it also doesn’t want to let go some of its territories in Himalaya. Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia in particular, do not want to see a nuclear-powered Iran leading any future invasion (but which threats are being calmed down after Hassan Rowhani’s charismatic leadership).

 

Still, despite some animosity, support of American global influence remains a Hobson’s choice.

 

Read a complete analysis on The Economist.

Infographics: mapping Syria’s rebellion

Syria's rebellion

Originally intended to maintain peaceful purposes, the protests occurring all along Syria in early 2011, beyond everybody’s expectation, turned into a continuous wave of civil war which has been lasting for more than two and a half years, and is still ongoing.

Estimation of the casualties is possibly up to 100,000; millions more have been, either internally or externally, displaced, and the exodus it results has also caused further chaos in neighboring countries like Lebanon and Turkey. To worsen the situation, there has also been disintegration in the rebel forces themselves. Exacerbated by Obama’s dangerous plan to include military intervention after reports of use in chemical weapons surfaced in global media, which case was only resolved after further negotiation with Russia’s Putin administration, the fate of this once stable country is nowhere in sight.

Al Jazeera has a complete report, compiled in infographic, about the complicating structures of the rebels who, despite overlapping hidden agenda, do share one similitude: they are all vying for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The trouble with John Kerry

rand-paul-filibuster

 

 

How can you ask a man to be the first one to die for a mistake? – Sen. Rand Paul, referencing John Kerry’s popular statement he gave in 1971 while testifying to the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee about his strong anti-war sentiment, regarding American military intervention in Vietnam War. With Obama’s decision to have finger in the hot pie named ‘Syrian Civil War’, and with John Kerry’s unprecedented support for US military to trounce Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the situation becomes increasingly dangerous, and at the same time, hypocritical of Kerry’s previous stance itself.

Read the full article in Business Insider.

What the shootings teach me about America

 

“And till now you won’t change your destination, will you?”

Destination. That flowery word motivators like to convey the most. My mom, in a slight satirical tone, told me as we were watching the recent news of shootings in Connecticut, in a seemingly tranquil and seldom heard-of town named Newtown, in which 28 persons (most of whom were children and toddlers, which President Obama implied emotionally in his speech, waiting for such sacrosanct celebration like Christmas) succumbed to the so-called ‘mad genius’ Adam Lanza’s bullets. She believes – altogether my dad – that America becomes increasingly a ‘mad nation’, having been troubled with what sounds like history-repeat-itself mass shootings (the prior deadliest one went to James Holmes), plagued with what resonates like ‘The-House-of-The-Dead’ syndrome (the latest one being a Florida man who bit off an old loiterer’s face to torn pieces of badly damaged tissues), imbued with what people here call ‘morality crisis’ (they dislike seeing at Obama legalizing gay-and-lesbian marriage), and marred by the country’s murky economic prospects (up to 10 million productive-age Americans face severe unemployment, homelessness, and chronic starvation). Pretty sounds like a series of zombie apocalypses, from economic to gory matters, were ready to shatter United States to ruins.

 

 

As a matter of confession, I always have those guts about moving myself to the United States (until the numismatics reminds me of the limits). Perhaps VOA plays it much in influencing what I call it myself ‘a dream’, but ‘a castle in the sky’ by my parents instead. VOA, through its programs in Metro TV, frequently broadcast the daily lives of Americans, particularly migrants, living throughout the country. There are successful Indonesians, having set up lucrative small-and-medium businesses, become artists, contributed to the advances of science, studied in Ivy League, and spoken American English like the natives do. There are cool guys and pretty gals, smart and sociable, brilliant and community-conscious, helping out other Americans. There are volunteers, young and old, willing to assist migrants, regardless of their origins. Also to encounter are medical practitioners and software engineers who hail from India – many of them Sikhs, science students from China, hip-hop artists from Latin America, Muslim nurses, professors from Russia or Eastern Europe, mixed-blood Filipinos, refugees from war-ravaged nations ranging from Sudan to Myanmar, these are merely a handful of examples that illustrate the true diversity of this country. So colorful that I can’t describe further here.

 

 

In addition, I also frequently heard ‘America’ through talks of mouth, either pro or contra. My Mandarin tuition teacher, Miss Jennifer, proudfully recounts her eldest son (now studying in Colorado), and of how he showcases his self-initiating skills, particularly in the volunteering field. He helps providing food and clothes to old Taiwanese migrants (who barely speak English at all) in Salt Lake City, and teaches them basic English words. He also now serves as, unless I’m mistaken, one of the assistants working for a US senator. On the other hand, there was also a narration of devastation. My dad’s friend once shared his unfortunate experiences with him, regarding his eldest son. Having been sent to a college there, in no more than a couple of years, he had turned out himself into a drug addict, and, more conservatively speaking, a punk (his ears were way pierced so often, making me imagine those of Jean-Paul Gaultier, and his hair was like that of a ‘half-baked’ emo). Back again, like a longitudinal wave, up and down, positive and negative, I listened to another tale of encouragement (don’t get me into another Tony Robbins stuff). I realized that one of my school’s English teachers (also once my class tutor), Miss Tan Tjin Tjin, had her two sons study there. More deliberately, thanks to their achievements, they always took turns in receiving scholarships. One of them had even gained Master’s degree. Back then to another recitation of pessimism. My dad’s another friend was deported by the Immigration Department, even though he had gained a job, quite low-paid, there. As a matter of fact, just like him, 12 million Americans place – and are stilll placing – their high hopes on Obama, one who previously had paradoxically reversed his immigration reform promises by deporting more illegal immigrants than Bush’ 2-term administration had ever done only in 4 years. Statistics prove: 1.4 million migrants were forced to go home from 2008 to 2012, compared to slightly 1 million in Bush’ era from 2000 to 2008.

 

 

Up to day, America remains in my mind, a so-called ‘land of dreams’ in context of pursuing university studies. My school frequently conducted study-in-USA seminars – you may think our headmaster is a ‘Western agent’ – inviting staff from either American consulate in Medan or directly from the embassy right in Jakarta. I did always participate, and, if I could count with my fingers, I had been there for, say, approximately 4 or 5 times. The obstacles, on the contrary, were mammoth, particularly burgeoned by my parents’ overprotective nature. I had asthma, and despite all the amenities offered by the universities (say, Student Service Center, or international student clubs), rest assured, my parents were barely convinced. Also befuddling them, in addition, was monetary consideration. A flight ticket to any single city in United States (exclude the head-scratching, aeons-old visa application process) would cost, most economically, 20 or 30 million IDR. Exclude the living costs; my parents would never grant me permits to do work-study program. Exclude all the other factors way around, like, getting acquainted with ‘morally bent’ friends (those who would laud you, in the very first moment, for taking up bongs) or bully you until the ante-penultimate that you do not ‘follow up’ their standards (say, doing sex). “America, from the beginning, has been on its own Queer street,” my parents told, “but feel free to aim your heart at whatever countries you aspire to proceed your further studies – only if you are sufficient enough to grab scholarship on the graduate program by your own.”

And there is the carnage. As though seduced in the arms of Morpheus, these psychopaths – most of whom were socially inept yet exceptionally intelligent youngsters – do the real-life Counter Strike thingy. Columbine massacre was a kick-starter, or else, if anything, a ‘tipping point’. The presidents, from Bill Clinton until Barack Obama, had repeatedly pledged ‘no other persons doing the buffalo-smash-the-china-shop incidents’, and the embryos of Columbines instead came to life. Cho Seung-hui had, in the context of sarcasm, succeeded in forcing the entire cabinet of South Korea (including the President, Roh Moo-hyun) to issue full apology and request full security protection to the entire Korean expatriates all over the world following his ‘globe-trotting’ killing spree, where 32 lives originating from 4 continents were taken off by his handguns. James Holmes initially ‘entertained’ the audience in the premiere of the Nolan’s last Batman yarn by posing as Bane, before he threw off bottles containing toxic gases, and commenced his bloodbath. Adam Lanza (you ain’t put a blame on his Asperger’s syndrome) mercilessly ended the opportunities and the dreams the kids, as Obama emotionally stated in his speech last Saturday, to ‘celebrate Christmas, to experience teenage dreams, to make friends, to have mates, to proceed to universities and develop careers’. The whole world might trigger the conclusion, believing that ‘Americans solve problems by means of weapons’.

 

 

Meanwhile, in another perspective, anti-Americans believe this is largely the karmic consequences the people have to take in tandem to what the country itself has imposed to the world. Some Facebookers complain in VOA Indonesia why ‘the US government could not express empathy as equivalent on the Palestinian children killed by Israeli Defense Forces as they had on the innocent, innocuous kids killed in Connecticut’. They even expressed that a vigil made in an Islamic boarding School in Central Java to commemorate the deceased as ‘unsentimental’, ‘unfair’, and ‘overtly exaggerated’. A sense of segregated humanity is deeply heartfelt here.

Nonetheless, millions of people, other than me, still put faith in the so-called ‘American dream’. Surveys have even forecast US population could accommodate another new 200 million people – majority of them migrants – within 4 decades, into a soaring rate of 500 million. The airs of pessimism may be high, with all the burgeoning troubles the country needs to solve. Talks of fiscal cliffs reach deadlock, shootings take place, gun-right lobbyists (the so-called ‘bad-ass’ NRA) against anti-gun activists, and still millions of dreams, added with that gusto emulated by the new-coming migrants, ignite up the optimism.

Back to that question, on the very beginning.

I answer my mom, with no pretense of being wise-ass, “There are only two types of countries in the world. One that stakes your life everyday to stay alive, and one that deadens you to a prosaic, sluggish death.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the most revered among the empiricists, called the former ‘perfectly controlled mess’ (as in case of Lebanon), and the latter just other ‘miserable’ copy-cats of Switzerland. America, just like Indonesia here, is in the Venn diagram.

Simply put, America is, as I can imply, a melting pot of constantly shifting shapes. When it shifts, frictions, like this shooting rampage, always take place. It is those that will continue shaping America in all ways possible. If you understand what I mean.