October 24, 2012
The American election from outside

Among the complaints I have received about my notes touching the American election are:
•Mind your own business.
•Israel should take care of itself.
•The United States has done enough for you.

You don't understand American politics.

•Domestic issues will shape the election, not foreign policy.

I have little doubt that domestic issues will be primary in the minds of most American voters, I do claim an understanding of what happens in my other country, and it is my business as well as that of just about everyone else in the world.

The United States, since World War II, has involved itself in other countries' affairs, perhaps more than any other country. It has claimed to be "leader of the free world." It was creator and remains the principal actor in international alliances, most notably NATO, whose membership and self-defined mandate has gone far beyond the North Atlantic. The United States is a major source of United Nations funding. It is difficult to identify a country whose policies it has not sought to influence, or a country that has not sought to influence American policies of concern to its own government and people.

Currently Israel is especially prominent on the American agenda, while American intentions are high on the concerns of Israeli officials and citizens. A count of country mentions in the recent debate between presidential candidates ranked Israel second only to Iran. The two countries are linked in the concerns of people who wonder with fear and trembling about what is going to happen.

Much of what the United States has done has been positive. The best example is Western Europe, coddled and pushed in the directions of being democratic and peaceful. The European Union and its well deserved Nobel Peace Prize represent the pinnacle of political achievements since the dark days of the 1940s and all those centuries before.

Were I to rank countries on the quality of social services, including public health, education and transportation, domestic peace and security, well managed government and public finance, the countries at the top of my list would be those of Western Europe. (Don't read that to include all of Western Europe, only most of it.)

Americans who bleat about the curses of European socialism are doing nothing but expressing the worst of their culture's parochialism and ignorance of other places.

Israel has also benefited from American generosity. Like America's relationship with Western Europe, its relationship with Israel has also paid off for the United States by way of its allies' cooperating--occasionally against the sentiments of their own public opinion--with US preferences.

The record of the United States is far from unblemished. We need go no further back for examples of extreme damage coming out of good, but innocent (in the sense of ignorant, rather than not-guilty) intentions than the most recent decade in this region. There are no credos due aspirations to reform Iraq and Afghanistan coming from George W. Bush, and Barack Obama's ringing endorsements of democracy and equality in Cairo along with his later abandonment of Hosni Mubarak and involvement in the Libyan civil war.

Numbers of casualties and responsibilities of the United States are impossible to pin down in the settings of many causes and tendentious counting. Iraq is an example, with official American estimates of those killed since 2003 on the low side near 100,000, while some non-governmental estimates range over one million. Also problematic is linking Obama's call for democracy with the onset of Arab spring. But he can be counted among those encouraging the fantasy of democracy in the Muslim Middle East, and therefore he must take some responsibility for the 50,000 or so deaths so far estimated for Libya and Syria, and the lesser violence but no lesser uncertainties of what will become of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt.

US Secretary of State Clinton's comment that violence is a regrettable, but temporary problem on the way to democracy should be close to the top of any one's list of what should be condemned. American indifference to death, dislocations, and who knows how much injury and personal suffering recalls some lesser figures of world history. I may be cursed for mentioning Bush and Obama in the same sentence with Josef Stalin and Pol Pot, but they, too, claimed good intentions.

None of this brings me any closer to a preference about the current political campaign.

It is common to fault Barack Obama for an excessive tilt toward Palestinians, along with a syrupy embracing of a superficial knowledge of Islam and Muslim culture. His condemnations of Israelis for the failed peace process, and the quick abandonment of one of the region's most responsible and pro-American leaders in the expectation of democracy and equality in Egypt should be at the top of any one's minus column in the evaluation of the American president.

Yet this need not lead one to a simple decision in favor of his opponent. Mitt Romney has signed on to Israeli views of a failed peace process, due largely to Palestinian infighting and intransigence. That might be one good reason for someone concerned about Israel to vote for Romney. However, for those who are sure that Romney would be better--and could not be worse as manager of the world's greatest power--there were moments in the most recent debate to suggest that he might not be any different. His endorsement of Obama's abandonment of Mubarak can lead us outsiders who feel the impact of the United States to expect no great improvement from a Romney administration.

Whatever we think about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, America is the business of everybody, including those without access to its voting booths. American accomplishments and disasters due to an assertion of world leadership since World War II put it high on all of our agendas. "Foreigners" have a right--perhaps an obligation--to make themselves heard in its political debates. We may have little confidence in the knowledge, experience, or wisdom of American voters with respect to one or another region of the world, but aspirations and actions of the American government provide ample justification for expressing our opinions.

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Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

irashark@gmail.com

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at October 24, 2012 12:06 AM