Mitt Romney is in Europe this week, attending the opening of the Olympic Games in Britain and visiting Poland and Israel as well. The trip comes immediately after Romney's first foreign policy speech in months, made to the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. The VFW address was a rehash of the usual crypto-racist Republican rhetoric about Obama - he doesn't "want America to be the strongest nation on earth", he apologizes and appeases, he dislikes Israel, etc, etc. Vice President Biden responded by calling Romney's speech "empty rhetoric and bluster", and criticized it for not "offering any alternatives" to the President's foreign policy.
Of course, given that the differences between the foreign policy ideas of Obama and Romney are virtually nil, Romney might be forgiven for failing to enumerating them. The whole debate over foreign policy "credentials" is entirely empty and farcical, theater designed to obscure how little choice is actually on offer. Two men on stage at a debate, each arguing with each other, "No! I like Israel more! I will kill more terrorists! I will save the country from Iran!" It's pointless except as a demonstration of ideological hegemony, a display of the limited parameters within which politics in the US take place.
Members of both parties have talked about the large differences between the current administration and the last - Democrats as if Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy had just been re-elected, a sentiment actually echoed by Republicans (a fair portion of whom have recycled the views of the John Birch Society for a new century).
But what exactly were the huge changes heralded by the Obama presidency? Despite the rhetoric of the inauguration, the talk of extended hands and unclenched fists, there hasn't been any great difference between the current and previous administrations. Afghanistan is still occupied, Iran is still the enemy (and subject to economic attacks, assassinations, and cyberwarfare), special forces soldiers and drones wage undeclared war in dozens of countries, from Somalia to Pakistan to the Philippines, dictators and death squads are still the US ally of choice from Bahrain to Colombia, interventions under the auspices of the never-ending War on Drugs continue to ruin lives, and cruise-missile humanitarianism has destroyed another country in Libya.
About the only significant difference is that the US soldiers are no longer occupying Iraq - although in the context of the rest of the actions taken by the Obama administration it would take extreme amounts of wishful thinking to portray this as a sea change in US foreign policy (on par with thinking that Nixon beginning the US withdrawal from Vietnam signaled the end of foreign wars waged by the US). Obama's 2002 declaration that he is not opposed to all wars, just dumb wars, mades his position clear - he's treading the same path as George Bush and the rest of his predecessors, he's just going to do it better.
Defenders of Obama like to talk about how he has improved the American image overseas - meaning Europe, since at this point he's joined his predecessors in being burned in effigy by crowds in the third world - and repaired longstanding alliances with countries like France and Germany, in contrast to the rude brushing-off they received during the Bush years. But the reality is nothing important came of the tiffs between Bush, Chirac, and Schroder, over the Iraq war (or more likely, over whose companies would receive the first contracts to rebuild post-invasion Iraq). US troops were not asked to leave Germany, and neither France nor Germany did anything at all challenge US foreign policy, and in fact such things are inconceivable without quite radical changes in the composition of the French or German governments. The entire episode is a footnote.
If Europe ever truly grows apart from the US, it will not be because the President is viewed as a boor and a rube. Individual people may be representative of larger trends in governments or economies, but they are not the cause of those trends, which is why talk of foreign policy "credentials" is pointless - something apparently lost on the liberals who are already gleefully repeating the story of Romney's London Olympics gaffe. Of course, those same liberals also manage to overlook that the Romney shares his positions on Iran and Afghanistan with their favored candidate.
Rhetoric is about all that distinguishes the two at this point (even more so in foreign affairs than domestic). In an interview today with the right-wing Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, Romney slammed Obama for failing to support Israel, and claimed that the President would like Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders, which he called "indefensible". Leave aside for a moment the fact that supporting an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders was officially the US policy for years, including during the Bush administration. Regardless of that, the idea that there is any pressure being exerted on Israel by the Obama administration towards that purpose was disproved by leaked information in the Palestine Papers, which in fact indicated that Israel essentially had a free hand in dealing with the Palestinians and Palestinian land under its control. As if to underline this, Obama today pledged an additional $70 million in military aid to Israel, perhaps preemptively responding to Romney's criticisms by describing the aid as representing the US's "unshakable commitment to Israel".
We can see that the differences are scarce. Can anyone seriously argue that if Romney were to succeed Obama, US drones would be killing significantly more people than they are today? Or maybe that he would quietly shelve the "kill list" and cease supporting Bahrain and Saudi Arabia?
Such things are absurd to imagine. It's equally absurd to describe Romney and Obama as somehow being polar opposites, and to call the decision between them anything other than a vote on exactly how upfront you want your leader to be with his jingoism and disdain for the poor. It's absurd to portray such a contest as offering any semblance of the choice supposedly so prized by western capitalist democracies.
So whoever you vote for, remember that any verbal slip-ups, gaffes, or embarrassments overseas won't affect much of anything. Nor will your vote itself.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Racism in Israel
Critics of Israel have long argued that the methods and policies used in its occupation of Palestinian land constitute a racist system of apartheid, as in South Africa or the American South. Defenders of Israel of course deny this, usually responding that Arabs in Israel can vote and are members of the Israeli government, (of course, there were many nonwhites within the apartheid South African government as well, but never mind) among other things. More fundamental criticisms of Israel's nature as a settler state invite accusations of anti-semitism.
Recently, however, members of the Israeli government have been much more open and forthright in their racism - this time against the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees and migrant workers. Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu has described African migrants in Israel as "illegal infiltrators" that threaten "our existence as a Jewish and democratic state." Knesset member Miri Regev, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, described refugees as "a cancer in our body" while addressing a mass rally that would shortly devolve into a riot targeting an African neighborhood in Tel Aviv.
Interior minister Eli Yishai was even more open during an interview with the Israeli daily Maariv. Speaking about the African migrants, Yishai said "Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man." Most of the African migrants in Israel originate from Sudan and Eritrea.
Following this interview, some right-wing media organizations in Israel frantically attempted to spin Yishai's words, claiming that they had been mistranslated by Haaretz, one of Israel's leading newspapers. They claimed that the full context of the quote had not been given.
However, Yishai's other comments on African migrants are telling. He has referred to South Tel Aviv, an area with a considerable African population, as "the garbage can of the country", and has repeatedly claimed that refugees and migrants are behind a massive crime wave, including rapes of Israeli women. This is not borne out by data from the Association of Rape Crisis Center in Israel or the Israeli police. Perhaps to explain this discrepancy, Yishai said that Israeli women who have been raped by migrant workers choose not to report the crimes "our of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS." In response, William Tall, the representative in Israel of the UN High Commission for Refugees reminded Yishai that there was no AIDS epidemic in the African migrant population of Israel.
In the past, Yishai has lambasted the UN for failing to solve Africa's problems, and forcing Israel to shoulder the burden instead. In making such a claim, Yishai either ignores or has forgotten Israel's long-running involvement in Africa, involvement that includes interests in African "blood diamonds" to interventions in Somalia.
Most relevant to a discussion of racism in Israel are the many years of Israeli-South African cooperation during the apartheid period. The two nations were so close that Israel offered to sell nuclear weaponry to South Africa - while many Israeli weapons were produced with uranium from South Africa. The Israeli government has tried to obscure and deny these connections in recent years, but the documentary evidence remains.
Looking at Israel today, what can we see? We see a state with a segregated system of roads. We see a state whose Ministry of Education creates civics lessons discouraging any relations between Jewish girls and Arab boys. We see a state where public remembrance of past crimes is criminalized. We see a state engaging in globally-condemned de facto annexation of territory acquired by conquest. We see a state where dissenters are threatened with death and told they deserve to be raped. We see a racist society that is growing less doubtful about its defects by the year.
Of course, some people see the only democracy in the Middle East.