The 21st Century American Paradigm Shift

If recent polling data is any suggestion of what may occur on election day, then I would be forced to say that the United States is undergoing a massive political transformation.  With no toss-up states, Obama has a 353-185 lead in the electoral college.  In order to lose, the Obama-Biden ticket would have to drop at least one state it currently has a greater than 5% lead in as well as losing every other state still up for grabs.  A supermajority is becoming an increased possibility in the Senate, with at least six to nine pickups looking likely for the Democratic party.  Democrats are also looking at a possible fifty-seat swing of power in the House, with between twenty and twenty-five Republican seats being strongly contested.

Eight years of neo-conservativism in the White House is demonstrably a complete failure.  From the disastrous war in Iraq to, what some writers have dubbed, an “economic 9/11” on Wall Street, Americans have started to tap into their inner empiricist.  You don’t need a political science degree to know American legitimacy is in the basement and you don’t need an M.B.A to know that it’s bad when the Dow Jones drops 777 points in one day.  These simple facts are being translated into very real polling data, like the one conducted earlier this week by CNN/Time/ORC, which cataloged the lowest approval ratings for the President (22%) and the Congress (15%) in the history of the poll.

The last time that a Presidential approval rating was this bad, Harry S Truman was running the country into the ground during the Korean War in 1952.  Should it really be surprising that when the conservative vision of a 1950’s utopia was replicated, it failed just like it did the first time?  It’s called “neo-conservativism” for a reason – it’s been tried before.  A socially reactionary agenda coupled with an imperialist war abroad – am I talking about Korea and the misogynist 1950’s or Iraq and the homophobic 2000’s?  It’s gotten hard to tell. Hopefully, Americans have realized that we cannot keep riding the wave of power that filled the United States after World War II, demanding this and that of the world.  Our hegemonic glee has spread to every aspect of American society, whether we’re waving flags or gambling billions on absurdly dangerous derivatives or engaging in cowboy diplomacy, and it has finally – finally – come back to bite us.

Before you say that I’m acting more anti-American than an ex-patriot living in Paris, let me say this: It’s a good thing.  People need to see policy options fail before they can truly move past them.  From Truman to Nixon to Ford to Reagan to Bush to Bush, the last forty-eight years have been dominated by conservative presidencies and congresses.  In that time, the United States has been engaged in at least eight major military conflicts including Beirut, Nicaragua, and Panama.  We’ve grown highly dependent on foreign energy sources, importing the highest rate of goods in the world without matching exports.  We’ve been become self-obsessed and provincial.  Saying that someone is from another country is almost universally a mild-mannered insult, sparing only Britain.  We proposed an amendment to ban gay marriage, while fighting two wars abroad.  Unilateral ‘democracy-building’ is a Pyrrhic victory at best, a devastating loss at worst.  We’ve seen it happen for a long time.  People seem to be aware that it doesn’t work.

I think – maybe – things are finally going to change.  The stunt-driven nature of the McCain campaign has put the desperation of the Republican party on national display, as the remnants of its philosophies are torn to the ground.  What does social conservatism and American exceptionalism get you?  An experienced senator, whose war-obsessed mind has made him confrontational and unpredictable, and a young, attractive robot, who is well programmed by the ideals of conservative thought and a blind ambition for power.  What does the alternative provide?  An inexperienced senator, who is a former-editor of the Harvard Law Review, a former law professor from the University of Chicago, and an eloquent spokesman of pragmatic politics.  His running mate is a long-time senator, who is a populist orator with perhaps the most definitive foreign policy record of his generation.

Is Senator Barack Obama naive?  Maybe.  But, how could he not be – the word ‘experience’ is tantamount to saying that you were part of the ‘same administration’ that has held the majority of power since World War II.  I’m not sure that ‘experience’ is automatically a qualification any more.  There has to be foresight to accompany that experience, because otherwise you are always looking to the past, to history.  People say that history is doomed to repeat itself if you forget it, but that’s not always accurate.  It should be – history is doomed to repeat itself, if you only use the knowledge of it to justify standing still.  The only way that populations can solve problems is by constantly solving them – the conservative paradigm stopped solving problems and it just created more.  It seemed like we could hold that same stance, riding the legitimacy explosion of the United Stated coming out of World War II.  We saved the world from evil.  We got to define all of the institutions of the global era – the IMF, the World Bank, the UN, everything.

But then, globalization happened.  All the talk of cosmopolitanism coupled with the “I vote fiscally conservative” rhetoric couldn’t hack it anymore.  The global marketplace reared its head and started snapping back at American power.  We probably could have maintained it, if we hadn’t acted so poorly with the reins of global governance.  But, we shouldn’t be too surprised about it, as we’re just part of a long chain of countries who fell from dominance over the last few thousand years.  The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Mongols, the Chinese, the British, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Russians.  They’ve all fallen – but they were never defined by the fall.  They’ve always been defined by how they got back up.  So, the question is – how will America get back up?

If Senator McCain is elected, our fate may well be decided negatively.  Falling from power while kicking and screaming, clawing at the world by threatening everyone he meets, will only ensure that we will have more work to do later.  McCain’s positions during the debate on Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Russia would have us at the brink of war all over the world.  He still thinks that America can either yell at or ignore every other country on the planet.  He hasn’t learned from his mistakes.  Just look at his answer to Jim Lehrer’s question, “What have you learned from the Iraq War?”  McCain answered as if he was reenacting a White House press conference during Vietnam.  “We are winning!” “The surge worked!” “You don’t understand the difference between tactics and strategy!”  Was that Robert McNamara or Richard Nixon talking?  McCain’s stance on the economy was not much better.  He acted like the Congress was a naughty teenager who stole daddy’s credit card and he was going “cut spending”/not give any more allowance until Billy worked off the debt.  Meanwhile, the opportunity costs of Iraq are raging into the trillions.  Did anyone else notice that McCain didn’t really understand the difference between millions and billions during the first debate?  He kept deriding Obama for authorizing $813 million dollars on social welfare programs, when Obama pointed out the billions of dollars being pumped into Iraq each month.  It’s a “B” John, like in the phrase ” ‘B’ecause you continue to support American exceptionalism, I will continue to campaign against you.”

America needs to give Barack Obama the chance to do otherwise.  I know that he is not a lifetime politician and I know he doesn’t have the intense swagger of a military man, but the best person you can put into power in our time of shifting paradigms, is someone pragmatic and uplifting.  Look at FDR and Lincoln and Wilson.  Obama knows it – he tried to bring it up on a few occasions during the first debate.  He drew the obvious distinction between himself and his opponent; McCain was the old imperialist, Obama was the new international lawyer.  Republicans have derided Obama for being a celebrity.  It’s funny, because Americans are showing, for a change, that they don’t just love people who are famous for being famous – they are genuinely interested in a man who has valuable ideas.  That is the greatest paradigm shift that any population can have.  Hopefully, that will be the American paradigm shift of the 21st century.

Somali Pirates, Russian Tanks, and Islamic Extremism

While news about the American presidential election and the proposed bailout of Wall Street has dominated the front pages, many people have missed an interesting story about the hijacking of an Ukrainian cargo ship off the coast of Somalia.  According to the New York Times, the cargo ship, known as the Faina, was carrying a variety of heavy arms including “tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition” when it was taken over by Somali pirates last Thursday.  The hijacking occurred two-hundred miles off of the Somali coastline, which is a nearly unpoliced stretch of over two-thousand miles that many reason consider to comprise the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world.  Since 1991, when the government of Somalia collapsed into a failed state, there has been little monopoly over the use of force and pirate attacks are common, with over twenty-five occurring this year alone.  The hijacking business is quite lucrative, as pirates routinely receive multi-million dollar ransoms to release crews and cargo.  American warships, reported to be five in number, have cornered the pirates near the Somali shore in order to monitor the weapons and oversee the hostages.  The owners of the ship are currently engaged in negotiations with the pirates and a Russian frigate is on the way to the region to “assist” the United States.

Sugule Ali, the leader of the pirates, granted a 45-minute interview via satellite phone and spoke a great deal about the pirates’ motivations and objectives.  “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”  Indeed, the failure of the Somali state seventeen years ago has resulted in an international free-for-all in their shipping lanes. Commercial fishing vessels from Europe and Asia routinely plunder the tuna-rich waters, which provide an essential income and food supply for the Somali population.  As for Sugule’s contention that arms are funneled through their coastline, he does not need to look far for proof.  He currently possesses 30 Russian T72 tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, and Zu-23 anti-aircraft guns, although there are conflicting reports as to where the arms were destined.

Kenyan officials in Mombasa have publically stated that the heavy arms were part of a legitimate arms deal they had undertaken in for their military.  Other reports say that the arms were inbound to the Southern Sudan via Kenya, but it is not clear for whom they were intended.  Sugule preempted concerns about the pirates selling the weapons by saying that, “Somalia has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these weapons,” he said. “We don’t want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money.”  Sugule claims that pirate operations finance a great deal of the food supplies for local villages, which in turn pool resources to finance the pirates.  Without a real state in Somalia, the population is forced to engage the black-market through piracy and the arms trade in order to survive and protect their assets.

This story is interesting because it paints a highly accurate picture of the political realities at play in Africa.  Somali pirates, who are hired to hijack ships to pay for food, seize a shipment of Russian arms inbound to either Kenya, Somalia, or Sudan, to either aid or repel Islamic extremists, depending on where this particular shipment was going.  American and Russian battleships surround the Somali pirates to ensure that the arms reach a favorable destination, which could be anywhere in a region where loyalties can change instantly with some financing.  Islamic extremists wage a daily war against the transitional Somali government and their Ethiopian allies, fueled by arms imports from Russia and China.  The Sudanese wage genocide in Darfur as black Africans are targeted in the south by the Arab-dominated north.  The Kenyans secretly funnel arms and money to their black African relatives in Southern Sudan to strengthen their claims to independence in the upcoming elections against the Arabs.  Worse, the Americans and the Chinese have competing stakes in the oil supply of Darfur and the Russians don’t want to get left out of the market either.  All the while, international corporations openly take the natural resources of the region, forcing locals to arm themselves and resort to piracy.

In this highly volatile region of the world, the negative externalities of each state fuel the political strife of them all.  Violence for one is violence for all.  As such, the United States, Russia, and China have to stop fueling the African arms race.  The immense power that comes with the delivery of modern weapons to Somalia and Sudan is preventing the stabilization of those regions, whose governments have crumbled in the wake of 20th-century colonialism and the proxy-building that followed.  Amidst the power vacuum that has been created, Islamic extremism has once again taken root in a place without an effective governance structure.  It’s occurring everywhere – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, the West Bank, Gaza.

The United States, instead of attacking a relatively strong state like Iraq, which had the power to prevent power-sharing with terrorists, should have been working to cut off the arms supplies into the weak states of Northeastern Africa.  In reality, the United States is probably helping to funnel arms into the region – there’s a reason it’s the world’s number one arms dealer.  The Clinton and Bush era of using NATO as a bully pulpit against the Russians has come back to bite us as well.  Putin has become increasingly angered by Americo-European advances into Russia’s backyard, like the deployment of SAM missile batteries in Poland.  Putin knows that Bush is a sap and has exploited him from day one, when Bush “looked into his soul.”  Russia has grown emboldened, as its recent adventure into Georgia showed, and it is quietly arming the 21st century’s proxy wars.  This time around, they won’t be in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, but in the failed states of Africa.

There is a perfect storm of violence brewing in Africa, combining governance failures with an externally funded arms race and a culture of ethno-religious extremism.  We cannot ignore the signs.  The international community must invest in African governance now, before a regional war erupts.