Monday, 31 January 2011


In contemporary society education systems have 'politicized' and 'hyper-commercialized' role, following the 'business model' footprints, a model that serves only narrow interests and has questionable and uneven returns for its investors. Education's use by governments as a social engineering tool is an issue connected with the evolving social structure and thus with social discontinuity, and of course potential social upheavals.

In the US, conservatives today under the Tea Party label and in the last several decades under different stripes complain that education is highly politicized with a 'Liberal bias', given that the vast majority of educators, especially in colleges and universities consider themselves centrists or leftists. What conservatives want of course is a system to serve their values and interests. By contrast, a percentage of progressive educators complain that the educational system is an appendage of the corporate structure and it has lost the Renaissance and Enlightenment ideal of educating the individual for the purpose of 'self-discovery and creativity to the benefit of both the individual and society'. What they aspire to is a system that never actually existed in the real world but only as an ideal.

Whether in the US with its tragic history of racism that had a profound impact on the educational system especially in the southern states throughout its history, or in Europe where nationalism and ethnic identity have deeper historical roots, education has always reflected the value system of the dominant (privileged) social classes and regimes catering to the privileged social group.  Whether monarchies, liberal bourgeois democracies of the 19th century, interwar dictatorships like those of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, or contemporary elected governments of the right, center of center-left that rhetorically promote pluralism in education, all have manipulated educational systems, though not individual faculty, courses, or specific schools, through fiscal policy for political purposes, above all, as a means to social engineering.

The larger question is how does the commodity that contemporary education produces, namely the student who in today's marketplace is a surplus commodity as an extension of social capital intended to yield a return on investment, fit into society? And how does this commodity play a catalytic role in political and social transformation? As I have argued before, today's college graduate as a surplus commodity finding it difficult or impossible to realize the goal of upward mobility using education as the vehicle will become an agent of change in the cyber-eco-bourgeois evolution, if not revolution in the inevitable process of social discontinuity, inadvertently hastened by rapid advances in cyber-tech development and inescapable social engineering.

But is the educational system, in today's society that much different in terms of its politicized role than it has been in the history of the western world at least - not that the rest of the world is very different even without a Renaissance and Enlightenment to influence concepts of education's role - and is it not true that some scholars believe it is great that education is a means to social engineering (how a society educates its people. After all, how else can society organize itself and make progress - a concept that a number of philosophers including Alfred North Whitehead and modern 'systems theory' advocates have raised? A critic of educational systems that contributed to societal stagnation, Whitehead wrote: "In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which at one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generation exhibit merely pedantry and routine. The reason is, that they are overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful—Corruptio optimi, pessima."

Does the contemporary educational system suffer from 'inert ideas', from hyper-politicized process, from ubiquitous business influences in education, or is it a reflection of society at large as it always has been? From ancient times to the present, education has invariably reflected the values of the dominant social classes and served established institutions; this is true as much for ancient Egypt and Greece as it is for ancient China - judging by the social class of students, the curriculum and uses of educated people.

Society accorded educated people status, in part because they already enjoyed social status, whereas today in societies of mass politics and mass education that produces surplus commodities from all classes, of which a limited number can be absorbed by the market, the prestige and status issue is problematic. An African-American working class child in Cleveland becoming a biology professor can only use education and career up to a certain degree to transcend race and class. Education in the times of Pericles, Augustus Caesar, Charlemagne and Henry II as primarily the domain of the nobility, primarily designed to serve that privileged class, primarily a status symbol of the dominant class whose value system it reflected meant something much more than today because it was for an exclusive club in a highly stratified society.

Renaissance coinciding with the Black Death changed the western concept of education that was almost the exclusive domain of noble males serving monarchy and church. Education in Tudor England under Edward VI underwent changes to reflect not only the changes that the Reformation was ushering in Europe, but the transition from Medieval to modern era with characteristics of humanism and nationalism influencing educational institutions, while the Commercial Revolution and Black Death made it necessary to train lawyers, while the gradual rise in the population as the Black Death was waning made it necessary to train more doctors. Education in Tudor England was different than it was during the the Victorian era whose values and societal structure educational institutions reflected technological, economic and social changes.

In 1837 when young Queen Victoria took the throne, children of working class status worked (see Henry Mayhew, London Labour & the London Poor) under appalling conditions because labor received subsistence wages. By the end of the Queen's reign the second industrial revolution had created economic, political, and social conditions that made compulsory education a necessary reality for 19th century England as well as other western countries. It is not the case that the Western world did not know about compulsory education, for the idea was first introduced in Plato's REPUBLIC, repeated  by German theologian Martin Luther, popularized by the Enlightenment and bourgeois revolutionaries in France at the end of the 18th century, and advocated by various intellectuals from liberal and leftist ideological orientations in the 19th century, some daring to go as far as to suggest women must be included! Nevertheless, in the US, the state of Mississippi was the last in the union to introduce a compulsory law in 1918, and in agrarian societies around the world the concept made no sociopolitical and economic sense until the 20th century.

In the West during the Cold War, 'politicized education' was what existed in Communist countries where students were required to take courses in Marxism-Lenism, and pass exams in same, while courses in a number of areas from religion and theology were omitted from the curriculum. Communist governments argued that the purpose of education was to strengthen the revolutionary regime and the development of socialist society. Critics in the West called Communist education 'indoctrination', and to a large degree it was exactly that. However, to what degree was and is education as a system in 'open societies' (not in individual disciplines, courses, teachers, or certain books/articles), a tool of indoctrination designed to create a citizen obedient to the regime and conformist to the economic system, social structure, and culture?

During the Cold War, the US supported Muslim schools as tools of anti-Communism. After 9/11, however, it turned adamantly against the 'Madrasah' that has its roots in the 9th century. US, EU and other countries now regard such Muslim educational institutions as the source of militant indoctrination and training that must be stopped. The educational system in the Muslim world has always reflected the value system, traditions, history, and institutions of the country and/or region, no different than in the West, and very influential in the process of cultural diffusion during the Renaissance. Islamic education that has historically made many contributions to western education was virtuous during the Cold War and worthy of support as a social engineering tool because it served NATO-US political purpose, but the source of evil and terrorism today because it teaches that the Judeo-Christian West is the enemy.

Can there be an educational system that is free of social engineering, one that is free of political or business manipulation, an educational system that promotes free thought, creativity and self-discovery? Optimists believe that a 'world citizen consciousness' is emerging and it will prevail over ethnocentrism,  nationalism, and regionalism/localism, no matter what the state does with education as a tool of social engineering. This is also a position that UNESCO has adopted, among others that aim at 'spiritualizing/universalizing' education, gearing it toward more 'green-sustainable development goals'; a system designed to promote human understanding of all people on the planet. As much as I admire UNESCO and the globalist goals of many scholars, the rhetoric in all seriousness would be more fitting of beauty queens uttering one-liners on the runway.

In the real world where real people live, education remains a tool for a) career and income, b) social status and upward mobility, c) a better quality of personal and social life. What are the obstacles to those goals in the early 21st century? Simply put, money for the most part. More and more working class people cannot afford not only college education, but even to have their kids finish high school in a modern super-concentrated socioeconomic pyramid.

Until the 1960s in most advanced capitalist countries an undergraduate degree was a guarantee for upward mobility, a good career and income, a good bet that the children also would go to college, and better quality of personal and social life - a chance to move to the suburbs. In the early 21st century, a college degree, well known in society as a 'dummied-down' degree, is as good as a high school diploma in the 1960s. Graduate and professional degrees are more useful, but not by much for here too the 'post-graduate commodity' is in surplus amid a market that cannot possibly absorb the overly-educated product.

Only the select few who have attended the very best graduate schools and have some connections have real opportunities, while the rest must wait their turn for years, or turn to another career in order to pay the rent. US government informs graduates to be prepared to change careers - not jobs - an average of seven times in their lifetime! Such is the situation with the surplus commodity that mass education has over-produced in a two-tiered system, one serving the well-connected elite with few cases of working class students so they can still cling to the claim of 'democratic, fair, and pluralistic process' - all the meaningless politically-correct jargon educators and politicians use to convince society that 'democracy works'!

One could argue that we ought to judge educational systems by their results, the way we judge companies by quarterly profit reports. But what if the educational system 'cooks the books' the way companies do? And even if they are honest, that may not be as simple, given that some countries produce excellent students who are then lost to the brain drain process - the exodus from their countries for better opportunities elsewhere, mainly in the advanced capitalist nations that pay well. We may also use the status of the economy as criteria to determine if education best serves society. But is it not the case that government policies may be such that they retard economic growth and deny opportunities to educated people?

Is it the fault of the US educational system because the financial elites in their quest for greater profits sunk the US and world economy into recession in the past three years? Is it the fault of Italy's educational system, one with a very high percentage of educated people, that the economy cannot absorb the surplus students? Is it the fault of the educational system or the government for doing very little to stimulate a jobs growth economy and using the educational system to keep unemployment low?

On the one hand, mass education - in the case of US prisons as well as mass education - serves to keep the unemployment level down, and that too is a significant (utilitarian) part of social engineering, no matter where one stands regarding the ethical dimension of the issue. If modern societies were to declare that society will not need any more pharmacists, doctors, biologists, English majors (to quote Garrison Keillor), and, oh yes, history and philosophy majors,  the legitimate question to ask is what role will the 'surplus commodity' of college-educated people play in shaping the future of society?

In previous postings, I have addressed the issue of faculty who have a shared responsibility along with corrupt and business-style university administrations interested in self-promotion and personal career advancement without advancing the education of students; faculty and administrators as willing collaborators in social engineering. One problem here is human nature itself, namely, that somehow in many institutions 'lighter elements invariably float to the top of the ladder in positions of authority', while those with some weight remain on the bottom to the detriment of the entire system. Besides human nature however, the institutional role of the private sector and (central and local) government in education as structural impediments to a sound system is really a reflection of larger society. Again, the question is what role will the surplus educated commodity play as part of the emerging cyber-eco-bourgeoisie in the distant future as agents of social change?

Saturday, 29 January 2011

YEMEN: High Stakes in the US War on Terrorism

Global media and political focus is currently on Egypt, more than any other country in North Africa-Middle East region. The world is watching Egypt with anxiety, very intense anxiety on the part of the conservative Arab states, the US, and corporations doing business in the Middle East. President-for-life Mubarak, loyal servant of US interests, accommodating toward Israel and the reactionary Arab states; facilitator and promoter to domestic and foreign millionaires, Mubarak is making it very difficult for Washington's wish to have a smooth transition toward another pro-West regime to succeed the current one.

Given the financial markets reaction and the spike in oil price to Egypt's uprising, the situation is very serious because people with financial and political power are concerned of a wider Middle East social explosion hitting the oil-rich Arab states. US and Western media coverage of the explosive situation from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond has been predictably focused on the question of 'how does this affect the West' and how can the West (mainly US strategic and economic interests) help toward a harmonious resolution that secures continuity of  a pro-West Middle East. Does this mean that the average person engaged in demonstrations in North Africa and Middle East is hitting the streets because of intense anti-Americanism, because they are poor and see no prospect, or are there many complex factors at work from ideological and political to social and economic? 
Although the current uprisings are not directly aimed at the US and they are more about economic hardships, deplorable conditions existed before 2011 as did the same authoritarian regimes. On the other hand, so did the widespread Arab perception of US neo-imperialism. Social unrest throughout the Middle East-North Africa is very much about anti-neo-imperialism and pro-social justice on the part of people who know that the 'war on terrorism' is a pretext used to repress opposition just as they know that their corrupt governments are virtual Western puppets in power to enrich themselves and a small clique of domestic and foreign interests. This much is true for Egypt, as it is for Yemen as it is for most of the region currently engaged in uprisings.

Amid Egypt's upheaval, there is Yemen where al-Qaeda poses a threat, as does a northern Shiite rebellion that al-Qaeda and Sunni Muslims oppose as an Iranian operation, and a south Yemen secessionist movement, thus completing tribalism and religious antagonism. Complicating the general picture of the popular anti-government uprising, al Qaeda has declared holy war on the Houthi-led Shiite rebels: "To our Sunni fellows in northern Yemeni provinces of Saada, Al- Jouf and Amran, we announced jihad against Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite advocates." To add to the absurdity of al-Qaeda fanatics, they went so far as to suggest a Christian-Shiite alliance! "America and Iran became one alliance against the Sunni people..." Adding to al Qaeda's harsh criticism of Shiites who are mainly in the north, the organization's attacks have been mostly in the Sunni south and east where they can more readily recruit among the young!

In the last six years, there have been clashes between Yemeni troops and rebels, largely because tribalism remains a very strong element against a weak central government. Even if the current pro-US government retains the area around the capital Sanaa, the country's fragmentation owing to tribalism and religious divisions is a possibility - this would be a situation like what existed before north-south Yemen unification or perhaps like Afghanistan where Hamid Karzai controls the capital but not much else. Under such scenario, al-Qaeda would be playing a role that could further destabilize Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In short, the stakes in Yemen could potentially be much greater in geopolitical terms than in Egypt because the Muslim Brotherhood as possible worst case scenario for the US and Saudi Arabia is more acceptable than al-Qaeda having a larger influence in Yemen if the current pro-US collapses and the country is divided geographically, tribally, religiously, and politically.

Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia that spread across North Africa and the Middle East, opposition of more than 10,000 people gathered in Yemen's Sanaa University during the last ten days of January 2011 - continuing to this day 30 January - demanding economic and political reforms and calling for the overthrow of the authoritarian government. While opposition is mainly concentrated in the old 'Southern Yemen' areas, there were several thousand protesters gathered in other parts of the peninsula. The capital Sanaa is the core of social unrest that the government confronted with force as has been the case in Egypt and other Arab countries in the last few days. Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh has used pro-government demonstrators along with security forces to counter the popular opposition, but that tactic designed to show that he still has popular support may run out of steam.

President Saleh blamed Al Jazeera and Qatar officials for inciting unrest, stating that:  "What the channel is doing only serves the Zionist (Israeli) entity and terrorist groups such as al-Qaida as well as the enemies of the Arab seeking to ignite dissent and threatening the future of the next generations." What makes Saleh's stamement interesting is that he is the closest ally that the US and conservative Arab states have in the country's history, although his statement that al Jazeera is both a Zionist and al-Qaeda propaganda tool was intended to rally public support behind the government.

Wikileaks revealed that the Yemeni regime, which has been closely obeying US policy on the 'war on terrorism', has taken credit for attacking allegdly al-Qaeda-linked militants when in reality it was the US that carried out the air raids. President Saleh had in fact given the US an "open door to combat terrorism" and he permitted the US to secretly ship arms to the Saudis for use in Yemen. US politicians and administration officials have argued that Yemen is the country where the US must stop terrorism (naturally, oblivious to the failed war against al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan). Obama doubled US military and 'security assistance' to Yemen, and US military trained the Yemeni security forces to fight terrorism. On 17 December 2009, the US launched two cruise missiles in order to take out 'terrorist targets', but instead killed Yemeni civilians (the numbers vary from 41 to 160). Amnesty International released photos of the incident. There have also been cases of US security forces in Yemen targeting individuals in Yemen, a country with which the US is not at war, thus making such clandestine operations illegal.

Giving the US a free hand in Yemen to do as it wished with its 'war on terrorism', Saleh was free to rule as a virtual monarch, paving the way for a life-long personal rule after which his son would succeed him; all while crushing political freedoms and doing very little to reform the anemic economy that ranks among the poorest in the world. As long as the Yemeni regime gave the US 'open door' policy to combat 'terrorism', Washington was unconcerned that it was backing Saleh's corrupt and tyrannical government - now of course Obama is on the side of the people demanding reform, as long as they do it peacefully and with a modicum of restraint. Unlike Obama, the political opposition al-Islah (Reform) party demands Saleh's removal from office and replacement of his government.

With 40 percent of its population living on less than $2 per day, with illiteracy at 50 percent and unemployment at 35 percent, Yemen is the poorest nation in the Middle East and one of the poorest on earth. Despite some oil revenues (25% of GDP), Yemen suffers severe water shortages, making agricultural development and animal husbandry as well as industrial development very difficult, especially under Ali Abdullah Saleh who has been in power for 32 years and has failed to move the country toward economic modernization. After becoming North Yemen's leader in 1978, Saleh ruled the Republic of Yemen (merging of north and south in 1990). As divided as it is in a nation characterized by tribalism and religious division, Yemeni political and popular opposition, despite negotiations with the government, will probably not accept reforms under the current regime. The opposition is calling for radical changes, but the question is under whose unified leadership in a country with a very weak central government and strong religious and tribal loyalties?

And just in case Yemen falls under a nationalist regime that is not pro-US, or even worse, if Yemen becomes fragmented, does the US then send troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen to combat terrorism in the Arabian peninsula? And what if the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia are next?  What then? Is there an alternative to the proved failed military solution that involves US Special Operations Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency operatives in Yemen engaging in covert operations without full Congressional oversight? Is there a alternative to perpetually backing authoritarian regimes like that of Yemen's Saleh, and using 'war on terrorism' as a pretext? Is US democracy better served when US government is perpetually engaged in the cycle of highly costly (in every sense of the word) military conflicts, including clandestine operations such as those in Yemen that have contributed to the social uprising?

Friday, 28 January 2011


The specter of widening Middle East sociopolitical unrest is now real enough to cause concern in US and EU that have historically backed tyrannical Arab regimes that the people in the streets are now fighting. Social unrest has spread from Tunisia to Algeria - a country that one Arab journalist compared with Colombia in terms of systemic corruption and illegitimate economic activity; to Jordan, Lebanon, and the latest and most intense social unrest in Egypt and Yemen, the last two the poorest among the rebelling nations.

All of them characterized by widespread institutional corruption under repressive authoritarian regimes serving the interests of small interest groups in their respective countries, the question is how long before social unrest strikes at the heart of the Middle East, at Saudi Arabia and then, the entire house of cards will come crumbling down and with it the oil-based economy. Stability will eventually be restored if such a scenario were to unfold, but not before a great deal of global financial, economic, and political instability that could bring more insurrections.

It is difficult to place the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Yemen, Jordan, and Lebanon into a unified theoretical mold; just as it was to place the Iranian Revolution while it was taking place. These uprisings are not necessarily about creating a socialist society - none that is evident at this juncture while social unrest is unfolding. They are not liberal-bourgeois trying to create 'Western-style democracies', because there is no broad popular ideological and political support in that direction, no matter what the US and EU want for the day after. They are not proletarian like the Bolshevik Revolution, or peasant revolutions like those under Mao or Ho Chi Minh, because the social structure and traditions of these countries is strikingly different than early 20th century Russia or China
The uprisings are not military-social revolts like that of Nasser who was a curious mix of a non-aligned nationalist reformer fighting the vestiges of British colonialism in Egypt. They are not religious like that of the Iran's ayatollah Khomeini; they are not ethnic separatist like those of Kurdish rebels in Turkey, Iraq and Iran; they are not nationalist anti-imperialist like those that the Middle East experienced in the interwar and postwar era; nor are they inspired or supported from external sources as was the case of Communist regimes assisting revolutionary movements; they are not 'Robin Hood' revolts like those of Villa and Zapata; and they are not backed by Osama Bin Laden & Al Qaeda, despite the links with Yemen and other Middle East countries - their only goal after 10 years seems optimal public exposure for the sake of satisfying some spiritually cathartic purpose.

If they are none of the above, in what unified theoretical mold do Middle East social uprising fit? How can we make sense of them realistically without becoming lost in political science theoretical jargon that works faster than surgical anesthetic for the brain? The current Middle East social uprisings have certain common characteristics: they are carried out by Muslims from the right, center, and left political spectrum; they are multi-class struggles involving Islamists and secularists against political, military and socioeconomic elites that use repression as a permanent governing tool; they lack a coherent ideology as a mass movement but agree on the common goal of fighting against political tyranny and social injustice; they use the modern means of communications, including web and cell phones, but they are not dependent on such means as Yemen proves - the poorest country in the entire region.

As grass roots movements, they contain elements of the above and they include a popular base mostly from the lower middle class and working class, and in many cases women - to have women confronting male soldiers and policemen in the streets adds another dimension to the social dynamics of these uprisings. The common goal of the masses in the streets in all the Middle East countries is to dethrone authoritarian regimes and their institutions that enrich a few families in the respective countries and foreign corporate interests. Because these Middle East authoritarian governments are inexorably linked to the US and EU politically, militarily, and economically, the people in the streets are rebelling against the 'foreign neo-colonial masters' of the region as well.

But why now, why social upheaval in the Middle East in 2011? Is it economic recession, endemic political corruption, or a myriad of social causes, all elements that were present last year, last decade, etc. Is it internal dynamics alone, America's 'war on (Islamic) terrorism', and other external forces (contagion) play a role in the spreading of the uprisings? Although the Middle East experienced over twenty multiparty parliamentary elections between 1985 and 1996, twice what it experienced since 1960, the vast majority of the population did not see such elections as expressions of democracy in the manner that the majority of the people in Western countries are convinced that democracy is in essence the ballot box and the freedom to speak (within the constraints of implied self-censorship) and of course to shop, yes to shop with guaranteed customer satisfaction or your money back - thank God for shopping to keep people 'happy'!

Observance of human rights, regular elections of top and local leadership, freedom of the press are some of the main criteria the West uses to judge if a country is 'democratic'; owing to Liberal ideological assumptions, deliberately ignoring any mention of social and economic justice.
The weak state structure under strong authoritarian rulers resting on the armed forces and police is one of the things that almost all of the Middle Eastern countries experiencing social unrest have in common. The realization on the part of activists involved in social unrest that may turn into revolts is that their countries have a potential to realize optimal economic and social development. However, they know that such progress is obstructed by a small clique around authoritarian regimes supported by external forces - by Syria, Iran and the West in Lebanon; by US and France in Tunisia; by Saudi Arabia and US in Yemen; by US and EU in Egypt, Jordan, and Algeria.  

Social unrest, uprisings, revolts and revolutions have their own internal dynamics and can only fit into theoretical models long after they have taken place and a new government is in place - and even then the theoretical model never accurately represents the empirical experiences that defy theories. With that caveat, it is safe to predict that no Middle East country is likely to wind up with a leftist regime. In the early 21st century, Marxist ideology rooted in revolutionary action is deemed anachronistic. This is owing to the collapse of Communist regimes and the reality that existing Communist regimes, especially China are thoroughly immersed in the market economy. Moreover, largely because of Islam's prominent influence, Marxism in any form as ideology or movement has historically had only a marginal role in the Middle East.

A social uprising that may evolve into a genuine widespread popular revolution can start out centrist and move to the left, or start out left and move to the right, or it may be the case, as in Iran that a charismatic nationalist-Islamist leader may emerge out of coalition from disparate groups to unite them and seize power. The only question for the US and EU is the evolution of social unrest, whether it will result in a pro-West regime or into another Iranian nationalist nightmare as far as American and European governments are concerned. The most likely scenario in the Middle East and the one that the West fears is indeed the 'nationalist' style regime whether it is on the Iranian model or the Nasser model. The people in the streets recognize the potential for a better society, and they can easily be led by someone who promises a strong nation - for nationalism is the greatest strength that has helped revolutionaries throughout history into power and/or toward power consolidation. Nationalism remains the drug of choice for the masses, for it transcends ideology, religion, ethnicity, race, and social class.

The State Department is taking no chances with the possibility of Arab nationalism arising from the current widespread social unrest that could spread even wider, or it could just end within days and make a return at a later time. 'Twitting', 'Facebook', 'U-tubing' diplomacy is intended to reach people that use such means throughout the world. US is trying to make sure that it establishes good relations with friendly pro-West successors to the old and utterly corrupt pro-West authoritarian rulers. In Egypt Mohamed El Baradei, former International Atomic Energy Agency, cannot wait for Hosni Mubarak's corpse to get cold - and after three decades in power Mubarak may survive until next fall, or he may go into freeze mode if the various opposition groups currently divided converge to send him on a mission to find Tunisia's former president. Other than offering status and legitimacy, does El Baradei represent anything different institutionally than Mubarak, domestically or internationally, even now that he is with the Muslim Brotherhood? Is this real change for Egypt? Today, next week, sooner or later, the fate of the Arab Middle East rests with nationalist regimes that may not be as accommodating to the West as the current authoritarian ones.  

Thursday, 27 January 2011


Are there two Americas today? Is there one America where the privileged minority lives in which structurally and institutionally things are just fine overall, but could be better with moderate adjustments in order to maintain the status quo? The 'other America' is where the majority of the population lives, including 44 million living below the poverty line, where 58.5% of the entire population lives at least one year in their lifetime below the poverty line, where home sales hit an astounding 47-year low in 2010, where official unemployment just under 10%, where income for workers and the middle class is continuing to decline, where social security benefits, wages and salaries continue declining, where the size of the once strong middle class continues to weaken and the prospects for resurgence in the middle class is highly unlikely.

Then there is the runaway the defense budget whose numbers make any rational mind dizzy. In 130 countries there are 700-1000 US military bases (depending on how one counts dependent territories).  Two decades after the end of the Cold War the US retains the highest defense budget in the world, a budget threatening the future of scientific research, vital social programs, and the very fabric of American democracy in the Jeffersonian sense. This is 'other America' where the majority lives, the America crying out for structural reforms now, the America tragically divided between the radical right - Tea Party etc., those who have dropped out of the two-party system, and those wondering if the Democrats are really any different in substance than their Republican opponents and those still hoping for another FDR messiah to save them from Tea Party Armageddon.

The question of which America is more 'real' is not existential, nor is it an issue of which America is more 'essential' to the national interest, for such concepts are ideologically and politically defined. This is a more elemental question of what kind of society American citizens want for themselves and for their children; it is a fundamental question of values on which institutions they believe need to be eliminated, reformed, or created anew to meet the needs of this century. Do the American people want a society like the one the Obama team and the GOP opposition described where sacrifices come from the middle class and labor, sacrifices that the GOP wants at an even greater lever in order to enrich defense contractors and corporate America; or do people want a
a human-centered American society to replace the corporate-militaristic centered America currently in a long decline and increasingly less democratic?
After the November 2010 mid-term elections, I wrote on a few occasions that the Obama administration would move politically to the right in order to win the presidential election of 2012, while still employing politically trendy rhetoric in order to keep the centrist and left popular base that elected him in 2008. The state of the union address in 2011 provides further confirmation that the Obama team has decidedly moved to the right and it will most likely secure the next election, unless there is a major scandal or an unexpected problem in the economy. Another reason that the Obama administration will win is that Republicans are recklessly playing into Democrat hands by moving father to the right, even after the Giffords tragedy, overestimating the popularity of Tea Party conservatism. Meanwhile, Obama is safely bringing along Democrat voters to the center-right, as they have nowhere else to go, thereby co-opting and deradicalizing the left within the Democrat camp.
In the state of the union address, Obama did not say anything to cause unsettling concerns in the financial markets. On the contrary, he said everything to engender confidence and stability, judging by stock market reaction and financial analysts views. He said nothing to cause the defense or intelligence establishment worries; he appeased the fiscally-conservative Democrats by proposing cuts in domestic spending, and he stuck to the optimistic theme of a more creative/innovative, harder-working, and above all unified America striving to regain control of the future; but whose future, that of the America dominated by the elites enjoying institutional (economic, political and social) privileges, or the other America where the majority lives and hopes for a better tomorrow?

Obama's 'neo-corporatist' political strategy - as I labeled it more than a year ago, will most likely work to secure the White House for a second term, but that will only widen the gap between the 'two Americas'. That the IMF came out to raise world GDP growth for 2011, largely driven by larger than expected US growth, was a great coincidence politically beneficial to the administration.  Overall, the theme of optimism and national unity similar to the 'SPUTNIK'-driven American spirit was great populist rhetoric intended to inspire greater sense of optimism, competition and working together as a nation - great rhetoric but for the benefit of which America? While recognizing that the US has to spend more on infrastructural development and innovation, Obama keeps hammering the 'competitiveness' issue, as though it is possible for the US labor force to compete (in terms of wages and benefits) with the BRIC nations that have very low wages  and benefits.

When Obama speaks of 'competitiveness' and the 'Sputnik-driven spirit' that will generate jobs, it is hollow rhetoric for millions without jobs today; and jobs is the only thing that translates into policy effectiveness for a president who insists that he is working to rebuild 'middle class America'. It is hollow and hypocritical rhetoric behind which there is no jobs-growth and income growth policy to make the speech become reality, but instead more corporate welfare and tax breaks for the privileged Americans. The hollow rhetoric means that the middle class and workers (the neglected America that pays for the privileged minority) need to support Obama's version of trickle-down policies that benefit the top income earners, especially the top 2% whose pockets the Obama administration has lined not only with corporate welfare programs but also through tax cuts that are financed by the middle and lower income earners who are paying higher taxes.

The reality of a $14 trillion national debt and $1.5 trillion annual shortfall projected for 2011 is no easy thing to defend for any president, and it is not the fault of any individual, but a systemic problem that the political and financial elites caused over the long-term. Slashing the costs of Social Security (the average recipient gets $13,000 annually or below the poverty line) and Medicare in order to bring the US fiscal house in order is a policy that proves beyond any doubt that the government represents the minority of privileged Americans to the detriment of the majority. Most people know that public money by the trillions has gone to sustain a fraudulent and corrupt financial system and a wasteful defense sector - two wars in the Middle East costing taxpayers $1 trillion, while aerospace corporations are complaining that even modest defense cuts mean more job losses! Obama's willingness to close tax loopholes in order to offer tax cuts to corporations is indicative that this president wants to win the more conservative Democrat votes in 2012 and he is moving rapidly to the right of his party, regardless of the negative impact on the weak middle class and struggling workers.

The "one-nation" state of the union speech was a politically safe way to go for the Obama team; a speech that included all the elements of populism and no risk with progressive policy proposals that would give amunition to the mainstream media and to the Republicans. The speech was also a good one as it anticipated the Republican response that offered nothing but pessimism to the American people, and those who follow political campaigns know that no candidate wins with messages of pessimism. While Republicans recognized Obama had moved more to the center and away from some progressive positions he had embraced in 2008 as a candidate, they recklessly still opted for a doom and gloom strategy that will deprive them of the White House for another four years after the next election.

With all its flaws amid serious structural financial, economic, and social problems that are perpetually pushed under the rug with borrowed money from abroad, and intense global competition from the BRIC nations, Obama's optimistic rhetoric and his expedient political strategy is far better than what the Tea Party-inspired Republicans are offering, which is doom and gloomHouse of Representatives Speaker John Boehner stated that: "A partial freeze is inadequate at a time when we're borrowing 41 cents of every dollar we spend, and the administration is begging for another increase in the debt limit." In his GOP response, Rep. Paul Ryan made two basic mistakes: a) he blamed the Democrats for the nation's federal deficit, when all public opinion polls indicate the American people know that both parties are responsible for the situation; and b) he insisted the US was headed toward disaster owing to the health care plan, a proposition that only a minority on the far right accept as true. By arguing that the US is headed toward 'the day of reckoning' like Greece owing to health care spending, Ryan and the GOP have proved that their consultants these days come from the ranks of Tea Party fanatics who are completely out of touch with reality at home and abroad. America compared with Greece! Has the GOP lost all sense of reason and common sense?

That the Republicans chose House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan to deliver the response to Obama was a signal of where they intend to take their party. That they did not study past responses to state of the union addresses to see if offering doom and gloom to the American people 'sells' politically is a mistake that will cost them if this is all they bring to the table for the 2012 elections. Having nothing to offer to rebuild America, Republicans are offering Armageddon rhetoric best left to Christian fundamentalist ministers who are far more charismatic and know how to deliver their message and for what purpose.

Obama will be a two-term president, contrary to what many pundits - Gingrich, and even Obama himself -  were speculating even a year ago. The larger question is can 'the other America' that the two parties do not represent do better than Obama who will be a much more conservative president in the second term and will continue with short-term policies to strengthen finance capital at the expense of the middle class and labor? Obama’s policies have helped to sustain an otherwise crippled financial system, his administration’s policies have resulted in a dramatic rise of stock market averages combined with optimism about a more stable future, and a relatively stable dollar whose real value would be very low if it were not a reserve currency.

In the short term, Obama wins because the Republican alternative entails further socioeconomic and political polarization - a larger gap between the two Americas. Stemming from arrogance of power and perhaps intentional ignorance of deeper structural problems that are summarily dismissed as inconsequential (after all, we do live in the age of fast-food and disposable culture), political expediency always prevails. Does solving long-term structural problems and rebuilding a new anthropocentric democratic America really matter when presidents are elected once every four years thanks to generous contributions of privileged Americans? Presidents and politicians are only interested in election and reelection and have about the same focus as corporations placing emphasis on the next quarterly report. The only way that there can be structural economic and social reforms is to have structural political change first, otherwise, systemic stagnation will continue along the path of decline that is too slow to notice day by day.

Monday, 24 January 2011


US Public Diplomacy has gone 'Twitting', using Twitter, U-Tube, Facebook, & Flickr as means of instant global communication. A trend in its nascent stage, this is yet another case of technology influencing modalities in foreign affairs, and it is not necessarily 'more democratic' as government would like people to believe. But to what degree does techno-modality influence substance and to what degree does it yield the desired results, given that the web is a universe of disparate ideas and opinions from every conceivable side, one adding a different nuance or contradicting the other.

Although the origins are Wilsonian, American scholar-diplomat Edmund Guillon institutionalized public diplomacy in academia at Tufts University inauguration of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy in 1965. He correctly argued that traditional diplomacy would be supplemented by public diplomacy intended to mold public opinion at home and abroad as significant foreign policy dimensions. While it may be very difficult for many people to accept, especially in the US, it is my view that Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci influenced the concept of western public diplomacy - a concept originated by Vladimir Lenin, influenced by Rosa Luxemburg. Gramsci argued that 'interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed – in other words, that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic-corporate kind." (Selections from Prison Notebooks). 
Agreeing with Gramsci, Louis Althusser adds that civil society institutions, which include the educational system, values, religion, political parties, etc. (Ideological State Apparatuses, ISAs), mold individuals to see themselves as 'free-willed subjects' when in fact they are molded by ISAs. "Soft power" influence by the state is exercised through ISAs and that is exactly where public diplomacy fits in and where 'Twitting' plays a role within that structure.

While technology is changing the modalities of foreign policy, the essential question to ask is the degree to which the web (short of sabotage acts and spying) has an impact on the substance of foreign policy and its targeted domestic and foreign audiences. Given that the US diplomacy has gone 'Twitting' to keep up with tech changes in mass communications, it would be foolish to expect the rest of the world not to follow America's lead in public diplomacy as well as web spying, sabotage and espionage - cyber-missile that may be more effective than a ballistic one. "Twitting" is a mechanism that allows foreign ministries to have instant response and to reach the world through the web on any issue, respond to any news or official publication, or promote any position to influence government policies, commodity markets, financial markets, etc. 
Whether it comes to responding to Wikileaks revelations, reacting to the volatile sociopolitical situations in Haiti and Tunisia, or trying to promote Hu Jintao's state visit, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has the web at his disposal as yet another tool of public diplomacy within the larger ISA structure. The beauty in 'Twitting' is that any government using it can claim that it is employing a 'democratic' process, intended to be 'open' with the public.

The case of China demonstrates how public diplomacy reflects the molding of mass public opinion ideological state apparatuses in both countries. Misconceptions on both sides are the result of ISA structures. For example, Americans generally admire China and its culture, but see it as an adversary at the very least and a threat at most. Chinese also admire America and its people but see it as an adversary if not a threat as well. While the Chinese believe they are a developing nation with a very large poor population, Americans generally see China as a wealthy overall, if not the wealthiest nation on earth trying to sideline the US.

Both Chinese and Americans see each other's country as very important - America is the most important country for the Chinese behind Russia, EU, and Japan. Nevertheless, the Chinese believe that the US is pursuing a containment policy - economic, military, and political containment - of China, and US is doing so by lining up other nations in the containment campaign. Most Americans polled believe that their country will become second-best to China during this century, a view that Americans entertained in the late 1980s and early 1990s about Japan. How does the common person formulate such views in China or the US, views that have some element of truth but which are largely the result of public diplomacy and ISA structures, which of course include "Twitting" as part of the 'open and democratic' process.

On the eve of Obama's State of the Union address one year before he would be nominee for president, it is of interest to ask how popular is Obama and the US in the rest of the world, and to what degree has public diplomacy helped his image as well as that of the US. While the US has a steadily positive image in the advanced countries (G-7), it is sub-Sahara Africa and the former Soviet bloc nations that see America in the best possible light and the Middle East that has the least favorable view of the US. A couple of months after Obama took office, about half of respondents in a global public opinion poll were optimistic overall, especially about US policy in the Middle East. A year later, only 16% remained optimistic. Even worse for the US, when Obama took office, 29% of respondents in opinion poll viewed Iran's nuke program as a positive development, while a year later 57% believed that Iran's nuke program would be a plus for the Middle East. 

Amid a very serious and deep global recession (2008-present), public diplomacy has not worked any better to convince the world that the market economy best serves the public interest. A BBC poll finds that in 27 nations only 11% believe free market capitalism works and oppose further government regulation, while 23% respond that it is a detrimental system and about half believe government regulation can address the market's flaws. Just as disappointing I am certain both to financial markets and governments, especially US & EU, the majority believe that globalization and foreign investment are growing too fast and not serving the broader societal interest. In some global and US public opinion polls, corporations are viewed as enjoying inordinate power over governments, in others, only a small percentage want greater government regulation to control the role of corporations in society. Naturally, those familiar with polling know that the types of questions and the way they are asked makes a big difference in how a person responds to secure the desired result for the sponsor of the opinion poll, which is itself a tool withing the larger framework of ISA structure.

For many centuries throughout much of the world, religion was at the core of ISA structure; religion intertwined with politics was the most efficacious instrument of influencing public opinion. In the age of high tech mass communications, the "Twitting" is not merely a new tool, but a new religion designed to capture peoples' hearts and minds. The question is for whose ultimate benefit is this new 'Twitting' religion working, and does it have any traces of 'democracy'?

Saturday, 22 January 2011


China controls about 96% of the world's rare earth mineral resources, and that is something that affords it distinct economic and strategic advantage over the other Great Powers dependent on such minerals.  Besides the US, other governments as well as the WTO have repeatdly complained to China about its near global monopoly of such minerals, but there is not much the world can do about what China possesses, except to apply pressure by using all the leverage available.

In January 2011, news reporting, and news analysis and commentary by pundits regarding the 'timing' of the Chinese test of the first flight of the prototype J-20 stealth aircraft is predictable in the US and western mainstream media. If I was a newspaper editor, or a TV or radio news producer, I too would opt for the same semi-sensational nationalist, moderately militarist angle that 'sells' with the public, namely, castigating China for testing the J-20 prototype while the US Defense Secretary was on an official state visit. However, it is not at all unusual for governments to conduct military tests right before or even during high-level official visits if they wish to send a symbolic message to their counterpart and/or third parties. 
Without the benefit of Chinese official internal memos between ministries, news reporters, analysts and pundits base their interpretations of what took place on their own political, ideological, or professional affiliation. One can only speculate of what message Beijing wanted to send to Washington (Japan, Russia, Taiwan, and South Korea) by conducting the J-20 aircraft test while US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting Beijing, and a few days before President Hu Jintao was scheduled to meet with Obama in Washington.

Beijing could have postponed the test, and there is a very remote possibility that the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) conducted it without informing the president, indicating a disconnect between the military and civilian leadership. This theory has been a long-standing favorite theme in the West, although it is a theory for which there is lack of hard evidence. Nevertheless, China deliberately chose to go through with the test (official explanations about the weather and scheduling issues notwithstanding), recognizing that it would not sit well with the US, and knowing that it would send a strong message to the entire world about rising Chinese military power.

Gates claimed before a public gathering in Japan that the PLA did not inform President Hu Jintao about carrying out the test. This seems highly unlikely because China is not Turkey or some Third World nation where the military enjoys a preeminent role over civilian leadership. This is not to deny that the PLA is a very powerful force in Chinese society, although in the last decade or so the PLA's role in political institutions has been reduced, there has been a sharper division of civil and military elites, and the PLA has become more professionalized while military budgets increased, all in an attempt by the civilian leadership to concentrate power in its own hands.

Arguing that the PLA embarrassed the civilian leadership and demanding a moratorium on N. Korea nuclear and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) tests (program to be completed within five years), Gates was sending a message both to Pyongyang and Beijing about what constitutes a threat to US strategic interests, about what is and what is not acceptable military balance of power in East Asia. In my view, he was fully justified to make such a public statement, given the close alliance between US and Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, and given Beijing's obvious demonstration of military power. The degree to which news reporters and analysts understand the substance behind the rhetoric is a separate issue.

At the very least, Gates' claim was intended to express public disapproval mostly for the 'consumption' of US and global public opinion, as well as to apply pressure on Hu, who chairs the Communist Party's Central Military Commission, to impose greater control on the PLA. Despite the vast changes of the PLA, American Cold Warriors in and outside of government associate the PLA with the Cultural Revolution and with Chinese hardliners, when in fact decisions rest with the civilian leadership. Gates also used the opportunity to protest the slow negotiations for N. Korea and new developments in China that impact on the Asian strategic balance of power. Given that Gates visit in China coincided not only with the J-20 test flight, but far more significant with the Ministry of Land and Resources purchase of 11 rare earth mines, the question for news reporters, analysts, and pundits is whether they focus on the issue of lesser value to the US and China.

Just as there was a global struggle for control of minerals, especially strategic minerals, during the Cold War (concealed behind ideological rhetoric on the part of both the Communist bloc and the West), similarly there is a struggle in the 21st century for access to rare earth resources. Given that China controls 97% of the world's rare earth resources; given that about 40% of same resources until recently were black market operations; given that the Hu regime regards rare earth resources as key to future economic and military development, and given that Beijing announced that it was cutting exports of same by 35% (far less than the West deems needed to meet current demand), the US govt.  has every right to complain about the side issue of J-20 and PLA influence in policy. Again, how the media manages to rally public support for such issues is another issue, one that does not necessarily reflect the actual merits of the disagreement between US and China.

The rare earth resources issue is also tied to Chinese policy of providing financing to foreign businesses interested in signing multibillion dollar contracts for construction of everything from high-tech factories to commercial inter-oceanic vessels. In short, China took a page right out of the US Export-Import Bank way of doing business to make sure that its economy benefits well into the 21st century; a policy that also applies to rare earth resources in the form of value-added products benefiting Chinese manufacturing and defense. 
Used for everything from hybrid-car batteries to missiles, China has been using the rare earth resources (terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium, lutetium, neodymium, europium, cerium, and lanthanum) that some have called "industrial MSG," or the "21st century gold" to lure foreign investment in high tech sectors into the country and limit the export of the precious raw materials. The concern is about China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology proposal to sharply curtail, in some cases ban, export of these resources, thus forcing capital investment to come to China and affording it an advantage over its competitors.

Rare earth resources are a major bargaining chip for China; a resource that affords Beijing considerable leverage that worries not just the US but Japan and the EU (all of them rear earth resources beggars) who are seriously concerned about the future of their industrial defense sectors in comparison with China's. Beijing is also using the rare earths issue linked to J-20 in order to influence US arms sales to Taiwan, especially in the wake of the solidification of the US-Japan-S. Korea military alliance to counterbalance N. Korea for which no solution can emerge to the North-South antagonism without Beijing's cooperation. 
The US is well aware that the Chinese are using N. Korea to send a message that China determines the balance of power in Asia and wants the US to lessen its military aid to Taiwan ($6.4 billion in sales in February 2010). Another area of US-China competition that could and probably will eventually evolve into cooperation is space exploration, especially given the importance that Boeing and GE place on Chinese contracts. China cannot make progress in GPS and space exploration without US government and private sector cooperation. Both countries are using the considerable leverage they each have to gain optimal benefits in their interdependent relationship.

Naturally, the US and its allies are trying to use all their leverage, and they have immense leverage as China's customers and suppliers of raw materials and technology it lacks, in order to maximize influence in commercial, fiscal, monetary, trade, and strategic policy. In this struggle for influencing policy, the US and the West have tried using the inordinate pollution generated by rare earth resources, a rather weak argument given that the US history with the Kyoto Protocol and overall history toward environmental standards that it has used as a tool to prevent other countries from industrializing - at least as far as those polluting are concerned. Both Washington and Beijing realize that the only constructive road for the mutual development of both and the rest of the world is 'business-like' negotiations, free of ideological baggage and old Cold War rhetoric that only slows down cooperation.

China needs to continue to purchase not just US government bonds, but bonds of weak Eurozone members so that advanced capitalist countries continue to function under a regime of relatively low inflation and sustainable pattern of balance of payments transactions, a goal that also serves China's economic interests. China also needs to adjust its monetary policy so that it does not have an unfair competitive advantage with its trading partners, while it expects its trading partners to ease restrictions on technology transfers and to share their technology (everything from aerospace to energy and information tech); this despite concerns about military applications of such technologies. Just as the US and EU have a relationship based both on competition, at times antagonistic, and cooperation, similarly China needs the US and its partners as much as the latter need China. The question is to what degree would the political leadership, now and in the future, of China, US, Japan, and EU would pursue enlightened co-existence and cooperation policies, instead of opting for confrontation at any level from economic to diplomatic, or even the unthinkable indirect military conflict over a third country like N. Korea?

Friday, 21 January 2011


Geography plays a very important role in a country's history and this is even more so for coastal countries like Tunisia with strategic importance surrounded by powerful neighbors. Land of the Berbers, Tunisia was founded by Phoenicians (modern day Lebanon) 29 centuries. Known as Carthage, it became a major Mediterranean merchant power until the Roman Republic destroyed it in three major wars (Punic Wars). After a brief invasion and occupation by vandals and Byzantines, in the 5th & 6th centuries, Arabs swept across North Africa in the 7th and 8th century, converting the area into Islam and placing it under the caliphs of Baghdad. Largely nomadic in social organization, Tunisia became a thriving country in North Africa from the 13th to the 16th century, a period that roughly corresponds with the Italian Renaissance and the European Commercial Revolution.

The emergence of Spain as the preeminent naval power in the 16th century resulted in the decline of Tunisia parts of which Spain occupied until the Ottoman Turks imposed their rule of the country from 1574 to 1881. Given that the Europeans had become the creditors of the Ottoman Empire and its Muslim and Christian satellites that became bankrupt as they became commercially and financially dependent on Europe, French, British and Italian financiers took over Tunisia's finances until May 1881 when France invaded and colonized the country, holding it until 20 March 1956. France recognized Tunisian independence under the leadership of nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba who founded the Neo-Destour Party and who would remain president for life.

The country's external financial dependence as a dependency of the EU and US left it very vulnerable to global economic trends of inflation and economic contraction. Throughout the 1970s, Tunisia suffered student and labor unrest led by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). Several hundred demonstrators were killed, but the country celebrated a false sense of political liberation in April 1980 when a new government under Mohamed Mzali took over and released jailed political prisoners, and allowed the all political opposition parties  to form, including the Destourian Socialist Party, aligned in a National Front with the UGTT, that captured the National Assembly with 94.6% of the vote. By the mid-1980s inflation was out of control and Tunisia imposed IMF-style austerity measures that resulted in new rounds of social unrest at a time that the PLO was very active in Tunisia that allowed Yasir Arafat to enter the country, only to suffer Israeli bombings just outside of Tunis where PLO fighters were training.

In 1986-1987, President Habib Bourguiba gradually removed the PLO from the country, he dismissed Prime Minister Mzali, and Islamic fundamentalists. He insisted that Tunisia was faced with 'a terrorist conspiracy sponsored by Iran', so he severed diplomatic relations with Tehran and began to fill prisons with political opponents. In September 1987, Bourguiba placed interior minister General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali as prime minister, but six weeks later Ben Ali staged a coup becoming president for life until the January 2011 riots forced him out of office. Ben Ali ran unopposed in elections winning 99.9% of the vote, thus assuring the public of his legitimacy. Behind Ali was the US and Europe providing military and economic aid. United States has been providing economic and military aid, with the understanding that Tunisia would be open to foreign capital investment and militarily allied with the west including declaring 'war on terrorism'. To some degree, Saudi Arabia and Israel also backed the Ben Ali regime, although France, Tunisia's largest trading partner has been by far the largest supporter. Ben Ali relied on French advisers for policy direction in all matters from security and intelligence to financial and commercial policy.

Cooperating with US and France as well as IMF and World Bank, the dictatorship of Ben Ali has been able to keep itself in power ruling with an iron hand and a fist of gold he amassed by looting the country. Ben Ali allowed foreign investors to enjoy Tunisia as a safe heaven in which to invest and a source of cheap labour. Ben Ali relaxed foreign investment laws, allowing major areas of the economy to fall under foreign control.The press in Europe and US rarely had anything but praise for the Ben Ali regime, hardly mentioning that it was an authoritarian regime that was looting its people suffering abject poverty. Wikileaks, recently revealed the secret cables from the US embassy in Tunisia about the rampant corruption and popular indignation owing to abhorent living conditions and a mass political movement gathering storm. Nevertheless, no US official uttered a word in public about the situation until the uprising. Even worse, Nicolas Sarkozy had been praising the Ben Ali regime in the last three years, no matter the warnings from human rights organizations about Tunisia. In April 28, 2008 he declared: "Your country is engaged in the promotion of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms ..." The same year,IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn praised the regime as "the best model for many emerging countries.” This a comment from a 'French Socialist'!

In December 2010, social protest broke out after rising food and basic goods prices along with high unemployment forced workers and students into the streets in this small North African nation suffering under one-president rule and external financial control since their independence. Tunisia's popular uprising quickly spread across to corrupt and West-backed authoritarian regimes Algeria, into North Africa and the Middle East. After Ben Ali was forced out of the country, taking a great deal of loot with him, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Jordan announced they were lowering food prices, all in an effort to prevent social unrest from spreading. However, the most vulnerable country is Egypt with 79 million people under the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak who is the agent of domestic and foreign millionaires as well as the US whose interests he serves in return for their support. Egypt may not explode right after Tunisia, but it will explode soon, as the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as well as disparate opposition groups will eventually coalesce to bring down the regime that has brought more than 10% inflation, and has not solved the problem of widespread poverty and unemployment - even the IMF has acknowledged that the wider region with Egypt at the core would need to add 100 million jobs in the next ten years.

Trouble across North Africa has spilled over to the Arab world and it will do so on a much larger scale. With Iran as the most powerful Islamic nation in the Middle East, a destabilized Arab world will entail global instability, at least as far as the US, EU, Israel, and the reactionary Arab states are concerned. Market volatility will be the least of the consequences as energy prices will hit the roof. This is a scenario for a disaster that could be avoid if major structural reforms take place now that the Tunisian uprising has sounded the alarm. However, disaster will take place because the political elites in the Middle East and North Africa serving foreign investors and western geopolitical interests are far too comfortable in the power they have historically enjoyed to undertake reforms, just as foreign investors and the US are interested in supporting these authoritarian regimes because they serve tangible economic and strategic interests.  The only certainty is that the status quo will go up in smoke in the oil-rich Middle East.


Throughout modern history the domain of foreign affairs in the hands of able diplomats who have distinguished themselves in the profession largely for tactics rather than substance has captivated the public, especially academics and politicians. During the era of Catherine the Great, Nikita Ivanovich Panin was considered by some the most brilliant diplomatic mind in Europe. In the end, however, what exactly did Panin accomplish for Catherine's empire running against the rapid changes of the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and French Revolution?

After Panin forged the
Northern Accord designed to create a Russia-Prussia, Poland, Sweden and British alliance against the Bourbon-Habsburg League, it was evident that it was not in the interests of Great Britain to go along with Panin's grand diplomatic scheme. Britain was a commercial empire industrializing and needing markets, while Russia was a stagnant agrarian society relying of serf labor. The objective conditions of Russian and British society entailed that diplomacy had obvious limitations. Another 'great' diplomat was Austrian statesman Prince Klemens von Metternich, (Kissinger's hero) responsible for putting together the Congress of Vienna. Metternich's ultimate goal was to preserve the status quo in Europe, not to have the map redrawn, not to have any more revolutions; in short, to force time to stand still  because Austria feared the minorities from having an uprising and breaking up the empire. 
Metternich's system collapsed as soon as the Greek War of Independence erupted and Russia, France and especially Great Britain intervened to assist the rebels against the Ottoman Empire because it would give them a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. Like Panin, Metternich was fighting against objective societal conditions profoundly influenced by the French Revolution and the rapidly changing economic conditions. In both Panin's and Metternich's cases skill would have been to go with the trends instead of opposing them and ultimately succumbing to them.

Woodrow Wilson was also a master at foreign affairs, but in the end many historians regard his skillful negotiations in Paris as one of the long-term causes of WWII. While historians credit him with the League of Nations that Albert Einstein supported, in the end Wilson is remembered for all that went wrong in foreign affairs at home (isolationism) and abroad, and that includes the very weak League that future administrations did not support and that left France virtually isolated. By contrast to 'great' names in foreign affairs, people working behind the scenes managed to leave a much richer legacy than those history has in the forefront.

Harry Dexter White, assistant treasury secretary (eventually blacklisted and force to leave the US) and special assistant to the secretary of state Leo Pasvolsky (both working in the early 1940s) left a far reaching influence in how the US would become the hegemonic power in the postwar era. Credit of course goes to Secretary of State Cordell Hull who hired Pasvolsky and to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau for hiring White, all responsible for putting together the Bretton Woods system designed to manage the postwar global economy under the aegis of the US that emerged as the single power to guarantee financial and political stability.

Today we have independent consultants, think tanks, university research groups, lobbies of all sorts, NGOs, newspapers, magazines, academic journals, etc., all of them trying to have a voice in foreign policy, government has options of where and how to obtain advice. The question is what constitutes a 'great' diplomat in our time, given that there are so many well educated and well-informed people.

Without a set of criteria to determine what makes a 'good' or 'great' Secretary of State or National Security Adviser, people will simply conclude that whoever enjoyed the most publicity, or enjoyed the closest relationship with the White House, or projected an image of power was 'great'. Criteria: a) Vision toward a goal (established by the entire cabinet not just the head of foreign policy); b) plan and strategy (set by the head of the office of foreign affairs, but relies on the bureaucracy); c) execution of policy and tactics also rests largely on the bureaucracy and input by the disparate elements in government that have overlapping responsibilities.

2. There are many highly educated and experienced  people working in the domain of foreign affairs and intelligence services, regardless of whether they have the depth and breadth of experience and credentials that Kissinger and Brzezinski had. The idea of comparing these two foreign policy makers to Thomas Jefferson or Cordell Hull is to test the moral compass and national interest criteria based on tangible lasting results that benefit the entire society.

3. Foreign policy perimeters are set by the President and his cabinet, which is influenced by a wide range of interests from business to military interests. Often it is the case that commercial policy may conflict with defense policy, and ultimately the president decides if it is in the national interest to place commercial interests above security considerations. How that policy is executed of course depends on the head of foreign affairs operations.

4. Foreign policy reflects in large measure the general course of a government's ideological orientation, domestic policies, and the country's history of foreign affairs. However, this is not always as clear cut as it appears because there are contradictory interests within the same society that deem a particular foreign policy may harm their interests and advance those of a rival group (s).

5. While it is always great to have a very intelligent individual (s) at the top of foreign policy position (s) because it helps with vision, strategy, and tactics, the vast bureaucracy behind the foreign policy apparatus is such that the intelligence or gravitas level does not make much difference, especially for major powers like the US. Russia, China and the rest of the world would follow the exact same policy toward the US whether the latter had Kissinger or a banana-eating monkey running the State Department.
In his recent visit to the US, Chinese President Hu Jintao could care less who ran the State Department, for what matters to him is policy not personalities. If the policy is unfavorable to China but the secretary of state an experienced diplomatic genius, how does that serve Chinese interests? Believe me, a monkey pursuing favorable policies toward China is preferable to Kissinger trying to deceive and double-deal after he just concluded a treaty with Beijing.

6. History shows that some very intelligent individuals with the responsibility of shaping foreign policy, including Kissinger, were detrimental to the national interest both in the short term in in the longer run, not as they and the administration defined it at the time, but in broader terms as many now see it in hindsight. How smart was it of Kissinger to constantly misrepresent facts to North Vietnam during negotiations when it was obvious the war was lost; how smart was it to be deceitful about Laos, or to play one side against the other in the Arab world so that Israel benefit in the short term but suffer perpetual war; how smart was it to have a hand in assassinating Salvador Allende and to support the Pinochet dictatorship, and similar regimes around the world, including the Greek Junta (1967-1974), as well as tyrannical regimes from Africa to Latin America; how smart was it to spend hours with journalists trying to mold public opinion, when in the end the facts came out that he was a master of deception? 
Looking back at Kissinger's career, did this man that the Obama administration invites to all sorts of functions do anything to the benefit of the US national interest, or did he only advance a handful of narrow interests, including his own, given that he became a registered foreign agent for China through his consulting firm? Many throughout the world consider Kissinger a war criminal responsible for the kind of secret and double-dealing diplomacy that Wilson condemned almost 100 years ago. I have no doubt that to some people a war criminal may be a 'great' diplomat, but that only reflects on the individual's moral standards and on the fact that such people place power above human lives.

As far as Brzezinski is concerned, was it in America's best interest that he sidelined Cy Vance who was an honorable man and highly respected within the State Department as such? Vance was much closer to Jimmy Carter's political spirit in trying to pursue human rights and balance a traditional Democratic foreign policy with immense business and right-wing ideological pressures that Brzezinski opportunistically served. When I was conducting research at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta during the 1990s, the staff had nothing but resentment toward Brzezinski not only as a diplomat but as an individual. I was not surprised when Brzezinski opportunistically became a vehement critic of the Bush administration, all of a sudden rediscovering the Carter-Vance progressive foreign policy spirit and opposed to the raw militarism of the reckless Bush administration.

In the end, we judge diplomats the way we judge politicians, namely, the power the project to society, instead of the constructive results they deliver to society, let alone any moral dimension they may carry as part of their policies. People worship power to the point of blindness and I fear they will do so until the end of time.