Contextual Content

Obama’s foreign policy challenge

After news of Barack Obama’s electoral victory on Tuesday night, celebrations were seen worldwide and international leaders were falling over themselves to issue statements of approval. Eric Margolis believes that that reaction is fueled by the view that the Bush administration has created a mess that the world hopes Obama can rectify. In the first part of our interview, former GOP supporter Margolis explains why he is "elated" by Obama’s victory and dismayed with his former party. Margolis outlines his belief that Obama’s biggest challenge will not be in confronting non-state actors like al-Qaeda, but rather in deescalating the heightening tension with Russia which the Bush administration has created with a series of recent provocations. Secondly, he will have to put forward a consistent position on relations with China, something that Bush has yet to do despite China’s meteoric rise in international influence during his tenure. With respect to the economic crisis’ impact on US foreign policy, Margolis offers that US power is projected to a greater extent through its dollar, as expressed through the strategic funding of allies within foreign countries, than through its military. As such, the US will have to acclimatize itself to a reduced level of influence in the world if the economy does not recover.

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Story Transcript

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HOWARD ZINN, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: I like the idea of The Real News, because we are in desperate need of independent sources of information and analysis.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: It’s a few days after the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. One of the issues he will have to confront is something today’s guest has written a book about, Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. Our guest today is Eric Margolis. His book is American Raj. Thanks for joining us, Eric.

ERIC MARGOLIS, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: So, first of all, let’s just talk about your reaction to the election of Barack Obama. And just to give it a bit of context, you were a Republican for much of your life, you go back and forth between Canada and the United States, you’re an international journalist, and you’ve spent many years in Afghanistan. So with that as a bit of context, what do you make of the election of President Obama?

MARGOLIS: Well, as a North American, I was elated by Obama’s victory, first of all because I felt the Republican Party has become a theocratic party dominated by religious fundamentalists. It’s become a regional party of the South, the Deep South, and the remote regions in the Midwest. It is no longer the party of the east coast that it once be. I call myself an Eisenhower Republican, and I’d say my party left me in the year 2000.

JAY: You still considered it your party with Reagan as president?

MARGOLIS: I did. I did, though I didn’t agree with many of his policies, particularly his foreign policy. But I was still a Republican. But I became a rogue Republican when the Bush administration took power. And I was happy to see Obama, because Obama to me represented many of the best qualities of the old Republican Party.

JAY: Well, I mean, we were talking before—the head of the Republican National Committee was at the national press center yesterday or the day before, and he started going through Obama’s platform—more troops in Afghanistan, tax cuts for most people, moderation, etcetera. And at the end of it his joke was Barack Obama ran the best moderate Republican campaign since Eisenhower.

MARGOLIS: Well, it’s true. One could say he’s the reincarnation of Nelson Rockefeller, who was hated by the right-wingers in the party. But certainly, I think, you know, no party, in my view, should stay in power more than eight years. It becomes rotten, corrupt, and brain-dead. So you have to throw the rascals out—the old American political tradition. It’s good that the Democrats came in, that the centrist Democrats came in. And there are so many problems to tackle. We need an absolutely new foreign policy in the United States. The Bush administration has left the new Obama administration in an absolutely horrible mess. The world is elated and waiting for Obama to come and solve all these problems.

JAY: Well, so talk about what you think are the most critical hot spots that he’s going to have to deal with.

MARGOLIS: Well, aside from the financial tsunami which has afflicted the States—.

JAY: And as you do your little hot-spot survey, I think one of the things that’s not getting talked about enough is the geopolitical fallout of the financial tsunami. You know, what happens when Pakistan’s economy unravels? What happens when the Ukraine goes bankrupt and other countries? The issues of war and these kinds of tension get so much sharper [inaudible]

MARGOLIS: The answer to that is very simple, that America’s power is expressed more through its dollar diplomacy than it is through its military power. And once America no longer has the ability to dish out billions and billions of aid and buy dictators and support them and factions and things like that, it’s going to find major diminution of its power, and also of its military power too—the Pentagon has already starting to cut budgets. So there’ll be a big change. But as I see it around the world, the major issues for the United States—let me just start with, first, the most important: it’s not Osama bin Laden; it’s not al-Qaeda; it’s Russia. Russia has thousands of warheads pointed at the United States. The US almost picked a war with Russia some months back, in Georgia—a totally unnecessary squabble over a two-by-nothing area that I think was whipped up to help McCain’s election chances. But whatever the case, the US cannot kick sand into Russia’s face; it cannot humiliate Russia. It’s got to find [inaudible]

JAY: But it’s more than Georgia. It’s missiles in Poland and—.

MARGOLIS: It’s Ukraine. It’s the up-and-coming confrontation over Ukraine. It’s this incredibly stupid emplacement of an anti-missile system 184 kilometers from the Russian border.

JAY: And we saw a story just the other day: the Russians have just moved short-range missiles up to the Russian border near Poland.

MARGOLIS: That’s right. And I don’t blame them. I would have done the same thing in their place. This is unnecessary. It was supreme stupidity by Bush, a provocation, as the Russians would say. Obama needs to get on the phone to whoever’s running Russia, whether it’s Medvedev or Putin, and say, "Look, let’s settle this like gentlemen, and let’s calm down. This is nothing worth breaking a sweat over," take this anti-missile system out, tell the Georgians to settle down, and decide what’s going to be done with Ukraine. It needs to be demilitarized to a sense that while it remains independent, it’s not a launching platform for an attack against Russia.

JAY: Now, in terms of what we’ve seen so far from Obama on Georgia, on this whole issue of the encirclement of Russia, I mean, so far, when he was asked, "Is Russia an evil empire?" he says, "Well, maybe they’re not an evil empire, but they do evil." His rhetoric was somewhat more restrained than McCain, but not that much. As far as we know, he’s not giving up the basic plan to have Georgia and some of these other former Soviet Bloc countries in NATO. So where do you see hope for Obama in this?

MARGOLIS: Well, I hope that when he gets better acquainted with the facts and has strong advisers around him that he’s going to back off from some of these provocative and aggressive policies. There’s no need for these countries to be in NATO—it’s a provocation to Russia. The other, second-biggest problem is China. The Americans still have not devised the proper formula for dealing with the emergence of China as a new world power. Are we going to oppose them militarily? Are we going to contain them? Are we going to play ball with them? What are we going to do about Taiwan? Very important to have a clearcut, sensible, moderate policy and to end Republican Party fantasies of somehow waging war against China.

JAY: And we’re in this new situation which I think everyone has to rethink: what is the geopolitics as we move into [what] looks like a continuing and deepening financial meltdown. There are reports of thousands and tens of thousands of factories closing in China now, unemployment starting to go up. Of course, China still has a lot of foreign currency reserves. They have—I don’t know what the number is; I think it’s apparently close to a trillion American dollars. But if the Americans continue into this deep slide, which I don’t think’s an "if," the repercussions for that in China—. And then what does that mean for US-China relationships?

MARGOLIS: Well, it’s going to put trade tensions, I’m sure. China is funding most of America’s foreign affairs. I mean, it’s paying for the war in Afghanistan; it’s paying for the war in Iraq. What happens if China cuts off these loans, these IOUs? It’s a very unstable situation.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the war that Barack Obama says he wants to fight, or at least, certainly, he campaigned as the one that he thinks the United States should be fighting, and that’s in Afghanistan. So in the next segment we’ll focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’re with Eric Margolis, and I’m holding up his book, American Raj, partly to plug it, but not just to plug it: Eric has generously donated a good quantity of these books to people who donate to The Real News Network. So if you go click "donate," you’ll find out exactly what the way to donate and get the book as a gift. And I’ve read most of it, and I’m going to read all of it, and so far it is captivating. So you will want to donate, and you will want to get the book. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Eric Margolis.

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