Foreign Policy Debate Ignores Honduras, Congo and Repression in EgyptJihan Hafiz, Adrienne Pine and Kambale Musavuli discuss the Presidential debate on foreign policy
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.
On Monday night, President Obama and Candidate Romney held their final debate.
Now joining us to discuss their take on the debate is, first of all, Jihan Hafiz. Jihan joins us. She's in Washington. Normally she covers Cairo and, more recently, Spain for The Real News Network. And she's worked for many different television networks over the last few years.
Also joining us, also in Washington, is Kambale Musavuli. He's a human rights activist originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he's a student coordinator and national spokesman of the Friends of the Congo.
And also in Washington and joining us is Adrienne Pine. She's an assistant anthropology professor at American University, and she researches the Honduran resistance movement and such and has written extensively on the issue.
Thanks very much, all of you, for joining us. So, Adrienne, kick us off. How did you react to the debate?
ADRIENNE PINE, ASST. PROF. ANTHROPOLOGY, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Well, I have to tell you, Paul, as an anthropologist, what the debate most resembled to me was a cockfight. And I mean that in all of its metaphorical glory. It was a war of who could be more hypermasculine than the next, when we heard words like crippling repeated over and over again, vigorous, strong. And in effect what it ended up being was a competition to see which candidate could lead the United States as an empire in a more vigorous, masculine fashion. So we heard talk and, sort of embarrasingly, colonialist rhetoric, so Mitt Romney talking about if United States doesn't lead, then other countries will, and that will bring us to a darker place. The symbolism underneath that is [incompr.]
JAY: Now, one thing Romney said, which is—I see as already being picked up in the conservative blogosphere as sort of a good zinger, is he says, we get rid of dictators, we don't dictate to the world. As someone who covers Honduras, I wonder what you make of that.
PINE: Well, since you bring up Honduras, I figure I might as well mention the one mention of all of Latin America, which was from Romney, to his credit. But his mention was that we should make better use of Latin America. And, you know, that's hardly a multilateral and respectful approach to democracy in Latin America. And, of course, that reflects both Romney's view and Obama's view. Romney, of course, as we know, has received his start-up money for [incompr.] what came from death squads from El Salvador, and he was angry at Obama for not supporting the Honduran coup enough. So we have both candidates who are—you know, have shown incredible hostility toward the democratic aspirations of Latin Americans, as, of course, with people around the world.
JAY: Kambale, one of the words I didn't—I don't think I heard a single time was the word Africa. Did you hear it?
KAMBALE MUSAVULI, STUDENT COORDINATOR AND NATL. SPOKESMAN, FRIENDS OF THE CONGO: I don't know. They did mention Libya,—
JAY: Yes. I'm sorry. You're right.
MUSAVULI: —given the situation with Muammar Gaddafi and, of course, the ambassador who was killed [incompr.]
For me, actually, you know, the one thing that really caught my eyes is as they discussed Libya—and they also mentioned northern Mali strife—that there was no mention of the Congo. The Congo is the second-largest African country in size [incompr.] population, and it has the deadliest conflict in the world today, and that has taken the lives of an estimated 6 million human beings. Since April of this year, half a million people have been displaced by a rebel group supported by one of the United States' ally, Rwanda. So to have a debate on foreign policy and knowing the importance of the Congo for the U.S. military, when we talk about its strategic minerals, one wonders why there is a silence around the discussion with the Congo.
So I hope that the American people can look more at the challenge that the Africans are facing and notice that with the two presidents—two candidates, actually, [incompr.]
JAY: Jihan, you've been covering Cairo for the better part of a year. There's—both candidates talked about how they supported the decision for the fall of Mubarak, and they were on the side of the people, and President Obama has made that point, that the United States is on the side of the people from Tunisia to Egypt. In covering Egypt, do you find that to be the case?
JIHAN HAFIZ, REPORTER AND PRODUCER, TRNN: Well, I found it a bit shocking that President Obama said that the aspirations of young Egyptian people rested on finding a job. And he sort of went into ramble about what people—the people of Egypt want, when in fact the U.S. government, since the relationship between it and Egypt began, has funneled over $50 billion to military spending.
And President Obama—I found this also a bit shocking—he mentioned that they weren't going to support a government that was going to allow tanks to run over people. Well, actually, the Egyptian government's military did run over people and did massacre close to 30 people last year, close to this time last year.
And the truth of the matter is, in Egypt, no one trusts the American government, it would seem, unless they're former—they worked for the government.
And I think it also—it looks at Egypt from a very, I would say, close-minded perspective, because it didn't represent the fact that what the people there were revolting against was in large part U.S. foreign policy, as well as economic policies in Egypt that came from the United States. And they barely spoke about the political prisoners, the continued repression, those who were murdered, the fact that Egypt can no longer hold a national soccer game, because every time they attempt to do that, it's stormed by Ahlawy Ultra fans, where 74 people were massacred. And this is an incident that, again, the people of—those who continue the revolution say was orchestrated by the government.
So it completely disregards the fact that there's still a struggle and an ongoing revolution in Egypt for equal rights and justice. There are still workers who are striking, who are threatening resignation because they have not achieved their rights, which was also one of the main reasons for toppling Mubarak. And it just seems very disconnected with the reality on the ground throughout the Arab world, which is the desire for self-determination, respect, and dignity.
Now, there's not—the U.S. and the Arab world, yes, they do have their differences, and Mitt Romney was talking about how the world is looking to the United States because they hold a mantel to bringing peace to the planet. The truth of the matter is, where I've traveled and covered for The Real News, saying you're a United States citizen also [incompr.] defending yourself because of the foreign policy of the U.S. government for the past 50, 60 years in that region. So I thought it was very—somewhat shallow to what people are actually fighting for and still dying for in that region.
JAY: Right. Adrienne, the whole level of the debate was banal, to say the least. But one of the comments was even—was actually in the realm of, I guess, stupid. Romney at one point says that the United States has 42 friends and allies. The Daily Caller website contacted the Republican headquarters and asked, well, who are the 42? It turns out it's NATO countries, major allies, and NATO contact countries. But it's missing countries like India, even Sweden and Finland. There's 193 countries in the United Nations. If you do the math, I think you come up with 151 countries in the world are enemies. But I also—Romney didn't call—I mean, sorry, President Obama didn't call him on this. What did you make of that level of substance?
PINE: Well, you know, I think it's representative of the level of debate overall in this country. Unfortunately, the debate that we're allowed to have on a stage that's so tightly controlled already—I mean, if we talk about the way that the presidential debates are formatted, we're not letting the other presidential candidates in. It's a private corporation that runs these debates. And that makes it easier for us to—for the candidates to talk about nothing, so that the commentary that we hear about them has more to do with what they're wearing than the issues, because in fact these are issues.
I mean, it's like a high school level with how many countries are we friends with, and we're not getting at a lot of the things that are most important for people around the world—I mean, first of all, not touching on the majority of the continent of Africa, not touching on Latin America whatsoever, not talking about the drug war and the violence that it's causing around the world. And instead, you know, what you see are candidates that spent the weekend trying to memorize a lot of numbers and some zinger lines so that they could look clever, and not showing any intellectual capacity whatsoever. And I don't say that as a sort of—you know, in a snobby professorial way, but I didn't see any thought happening in this debate. What I saw were a series of scripted, memorized lines and errors like the ones that you just mentioned, which is, frankly, embarrassing.
And if we're talking about NATO, yeah, that's a conversation we should have. That should be the conversation we're having about Libya and not just, you know, what happened in the past few weeks.
JAY: Right. Kambale, there's tens of millions of Americans, both citizens and residents, who are immigrants or at most maybe one generation away from being immigrants, meaning that many Americans are quite aware of the rest of the world. And I'm not saying there aren't Americans who have been here for generations that also know a lot about the world, but there's a lot that don't, and many of those are Africans that are in the United States now. How do you think they would see this debate?
MUSAVULI: Well, unfortunately, Obama does get a free pass sometimes because of his background, given he had a Kenyan father. But we do also have Africans who are critical of his presidency, the fact that no—in these debates, that there was not really a strong analysis on what he's going to do about bringing about peace.
You know, I did hear Romney mention a little bit about the democratic principles that the U.S. abide by, but I did not see any one of them actually explaining how they are going to go about it on the African continent.
So, as Jihan mentioned earlier that, you know, the U.S. foreign policy has been about the same for 50 years, I can actually argue that for the past 125 years U.S. foreign policy toward Africa has been the same, where the United States continues to support strongmen in Africa, dictators, despots, at the detriment of the population. And in these debates we do not hear anything about how the U.S. can change that.
JAY: Kambale, do you see any difference between the two candidates in their attitude towards Africa?
MUSAVULI: I do not see any. And that's the shocker for me, because I was asking myself: did Romney do his homework about actually what is happening on the African continent, that there are so many faux pas that Obama has done—the one sending the American troops to support Museveni of Uganda to chase after a indicted rebel leader at the ICC while the U.S. is not a member of the ICC? That's one false step that he could actually challenge Obama on. He can challenge Obama on U.S. policy toward Rwanda, where our taxpayers' money is funding the Rwandan military that is supporting rebels in the Congo, according to the United Nations.
JAY: Right. Okay.
MUSAVULI: He could challenge so many different issues. But they did not do their homework [incompr.] actually. They showed that it's business as usual as it comes to foreign policy.
JAY: Right. Jihan, you were doing some shooting today, talking to immigrants about their attitude towards the elections. What—did you hear anything on foreign-policy issues?
HAFIZ: Yes, for sure. I mean, in northern Virginia there is a population of mostly Northern African, Arabs, and Latin Americans, specifically Central American communities here, who have been very targeted either by the police or by ICE. And so I felt like a lot of their responses were cautious to that fact, that they could be—they're being surveillanced, regardless if this is an independent media station or not. And so they tended to lean closer toward Obama.
But when I asked them, what has Obama done for your community, and more specifically in relation to U.S. foreign policy, what has the Obama administration done in your country, they were saying, oh, well, not much, but that doesn't matter, because they don't focus—the U.S. administrations don't entirely focus on the well-being of their countries, they mainly have bilateral agreements that cater to their interests; which was the case when speaking to the Palestinian communities, Sudanese. They were all disappointed in the fact that Obama made lofty comments and statements in Egypt in 2009. And, actually, the relationship with the Arab world to the United States seems to have deteriorated as a result of these uprisings.
There was also some younger people I spoke to from both Latin America and from countries in the Arab world, and they were saying they will not watch the debates. They're all first-generation Americans, they're all registered to vote, but they voted for Obama last time and they will refuse to vote this time because they see it as extremely useless. This election will not help them get jobs after school, will not contribute to changing foreign policy in their countries.
JAY: Right. Adrienne, just a quick question before we wrap up. What's your take? Do you think there's some significant difference between the two candidates? Even if one's quite critical of the Obama foreign policy, is there a difference between him and Romney that matters?
PINE: Frankly, I didn't see any difference in this debate. What it seemed like was that when one responded to the other—.
JAY: Well, Adrienne, just one sec. Less about the debate and more about what we know about the—who they are and the kind of foreign-policy advisers they have and such.
PINE: Oh. Same answer. I mean, I really throughout the campaign have not seen significant differences between these candidates on foreign-policy. I think there are more differences on domestic policy. But in terms of foreign policy, they're competing to see who is closer to Israel, they're competing to see who can [incompr.] around the world and, you know, who can support more coups in Latin America and around the world, and they seem to agree on most everything.
JAY: Right. Okay. Well, thank you all for joining us tonight.
MUSAVULI: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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