Sunday, 7 September 2008

Interview with John Sitilides*

I would like to ask you about the coming elections, and specifically about US foreign policy: which are the real, concrete factors or agents (single or collective) that determine and set the agenda of US foreign policy? How can the election of either one of the two candidates influence the current US foreign policy?

First of all, I would say that in planning of US foreign policy there are larger strategic interests that transcend any presidential campaign (this one or anyone in recent years or decades, and that is to ensure that our policies protect and defend the United States of America, that we protect our allies and those who support and share our values or interests around the world, that we promote democratic free market systems and see where American interests can accrue to the benefit of as many countries around the world as possible. That, I think, is generally the foundation for the foreign policy of any great power –in this case the US- and then the question becomes, “When should we have those larger principles?” How can you actually follow through our knows in your policies with various countries: the allies, partners, “adversaries” or, in the worst case, actual enemies. So that’s the much larger perspectives on strategic respective on determining foreign policy. Now, as it pertains maybe to more general issues, prior to this campaign, certainly –I would say- over the past 7 years- the fact that the American homeland has been made vulnerable to attacks from radical Islamic terrorists- has transformed our thinking on foreign policy in very significant ways. An overarching goal of the US now is to see to it that the international network of Islamic extremists be defeated –in terms of their ability to strike at the US as well as other western targets, or potentially to disrupt world shipping, or the economic stability of the international order as we have come to know it. In that sense, we have much of a shared interest with our allies and partners to defeat this enemy that threatens to destabilize the international order in the years and decades to come. That is the overarching issue, and it is on that basis that the US has now revisited the issue of the Middle East, where this radical Islamism is rooted and to see how we can work with our allies and partners to promote the kind of reform in this part of the world that defeats radicalism and militant fanaticism from within and also promote improvement on the quality of life of the citizens in that part of the world so that you don’t have father the suicide terrorism and for supporting these networks. This obviously begun in Iraq, you see it played out in the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, you see it now in trying to work with the EU and the UN security council, to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capacity that we fear will greatly destabilize the Middle East and potentially disrupt oil supplies.

You have mentioned the main US enemy which is terrorism, which is also portrayed as a global menace. Nonetheless, it is oftentimes argued that the US led “War on Terror” has not been effective in achieving its chief goal, that is, to protect freedom and safety. It is also argued that the real antidote to terrorism would be to combat the very structures of injustice that nurture terrorism, such as the economic or political inequality between the East and the West. Because one mustn’t ignore the fact that “terrorism” does not only consist in Islamic fundamentalism but it also has a political agenda. How do you commend?

One of the problems that we in the secular West have is understanding the importance of religious fanaticism in shaping the ideology of these terrorist organizations. Because we try to deny the importance of religion in the West, we would like to believe that all groups and all individuals are motivated in the end by a rational balance of incentives and disincentives. I personally fear that we don’t understand the enemy very well. This enemy is, to a certain degree, able to recruit members and support because of social injustices and that is an issue that needs to be addressed, not only because there is father to terrorist activities but also because there is a moral and humanitarian basis- even if you didn’t have terrorism- for seeing to it that as many people as possible are able to enjoy the highest quality of life possible. It’s a humanistic perspective.

Nonetheless, several social liberties are being suspended within the US themselves –under the rule of the PATRIOT ACT, for example…

Well, you have a couple of things here. We forget that the problems that we are dealing with, with this number one enemy is rooted in the early part of the 20th century, with the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, that was specifically formed to combat western secularism. It is rooted in the sense that the Islamic world is falling behind the West because of a rootlessness within Islam and that it was necessary to go back to the roots of Islam of the 7th-8th century and the apostle of this ideology is Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian who came to the United States in post WWII America in the late 1940’s and was utterly horrified by what he saw as sexual promiscuity, open homosexuality, racism and the like, and said “this is the disease of the planet: Western secularism. These are facts. It was Qutb who wrote a 26 volume testament to the need to destroy western secularism and liberty as we know it. In this school of thought, there is no humanistic law, there is no constitutional law, there are no civil liberties, there is only one thing: the will of Allah. Whatever the Qur’an does not prescribe, it is not to be considered by human beings. That is the root of the enemy we face today. And then you can bring in all of the other social injustice issues which –remember- the leaders of these terrorist organizations are never concerned with. They will never send their children to commit suicide bombings. They go and get dishonored women; they get mentally disabled men, etc. So we are dealing with two issues here: firstly, we are dealing with an ideology at the top and the social injustice at the bottom that is exploited by those at the top to wage war against the West. That’s some of the aspects of the terrorism issue. On the civil liberties issue, you raise a point that is still a part of a very contentious debate in the West. You mentioned the PATRIOT ACT, but this ACT does not call for the US Government to detain individuals for up to 52 days without pressing any charges: that’s the European law. In the US it’s two days. So in Europe you have far more questionable civil liberties issues; Britain has tens of thousands of cameras that daily photograph people. We don’t have this kind of regime in the US. So there’s a very real debate about what constitutes “civil liberties issues”, very dew people in the US have had their “civil liberties” threatened or harmed in any way whatsoever. There is a sense by people that maybe their phones are being tapped; they would be if they are receiving phone calls from suspected terrorists in Pakistan. And to whatever degree this so called debate, the US Congress –Republicans and Democrats- have now voted in support of wire tapping, the Supreme Court has allowed for this kind of wire tapping for the purposes of national security, and as many people have said the constitution of civil liberties do not constitute a suicide pact. We are balancing the need to protect civil liberties as much as possible while dealing with a brand new enemy that is attacking us in ways that we have never experienced before. And the idea that you simply stick to the way that things were pre-9/11 for the sake of civil liberties that have harmed a miniscule portion of the population -and however little, they still need to be defended. By and large, most people in the US and the West are able to enjoy the greatest liberties that this planet has ever known, while our governments are working together to defeat a new enemy.

Does, therefore, the US represent the values posed by Fukuyama’s “End of History”? Does the US offer a global model of democracy and freedom, promoted by free market?

I have great regard for Dr. Fukuyama, but I think that even he would admit that he probably needs to revise the title of his noted essay and book. We all went through the 1990s, merely skipping through history, thinking that with the end of Communism everything would now be hunky dory, that the world had now come around to understanding that free-market capitalism was the only way to achieve progress and we forgot to notice that there is inciting hatred in certain parts of the world for the way the West has prospered and dominates the world. And so it’s not the End of History at all, history continues and apparently there will always be ideological wars, free market democratic capitalism has been the single most successful system in the world, but we will remain under attack –before from communism and totalitarianism, now –unfortunately- from radical Islam- and this is going to be a war that the West will have to wage cohesively and in concert with our partners around the world for probably decades to come. So history has clearly not ended.

We have noticed that both McCain and Obama asked the continental Europe for more support in the War on Terrorism. How realistic do you think this is, taking into account that continental Europe was against the waging of this War from the start?

Senator Obama did not ask for support on the general War on Terror, Will the US at some point pull out its combat troops and what will be the time line –and that will be determined by which candidate will be elected.

How does the US missile shield in Europe serve American interests?

I would say that it is not an American issue but it rather consists in NATO’s interest. The US is not putting missiles anywhere where the country doesn’t agree to have them stationed.

Why has the missile shield been chosen to be stationed in Eastern Europe, specifically in Poland and Czech Republic –two foreign soviet countries?

I don’t have a specific answer for you, but I think geography would largely dictate that question. If you put a missile defence in France, you leave all of Eastern Europe exposed. The issue is how do you defeat the missile in its trajectory as it is rising from Iranian territory, and you do that from a NATO territory that is closest to that trajectory.

How do you commend on Russia’s intense reactions to the US shield in Eastern European ground?

I think that the Russia issue transcends the missile defense issue. There are large number of issues regarding Russia –both from an American perspective and a collective European perspective- that will be critical elements of foreign policy through the years to come. There is a concern expressed by some that the US-led efforts to promote an allied defense in Europe are “provoking” Russia. What the US is clearly trying to do is to indicate to Russia that this is not an anti-Russian shield. There are other issues that are of greater concern to the US concerning Russian behavior. One is Russia’s seeming willingness to engage in close relationships with some of the most notorious human rights abusers –such as Zimbabwe, Iran, Venezuela- that it is not a constructive partner of the UN Security Council to promote the kind of liberty and freedom in the international system that the West believes the best advance is human prosperity and advancement. It is willing to sell weapons to any country –whether friendly or hostile to the West and it is now seemingly willing again to turn off the energy tabs to European countries that acted in ways that Russia doesn’t’ like. So my question is: why is the US always supposedly the moral agent of a problem in Russian relations with the West? How come no one ever asks whether Russian actions are provocative to the West? Why is America to blame if Russia feels she is surrounded or pressured? The Russians are clearly big boys on the global scene. They are making decisions that they know will be met with reaction or with disdain in the US or Europe. This is the way foreign policy works, and we won’t always agree on issues but hopefully we can work together to resolve some issues and find ways to ensure that our disagreements don’t lead to conflict.

You talked about Russia being allies with some “rogue” states that suppress human rights. Nonetheless, the US is good friends with Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest suppressors in the world.

You are absolutely right. And I think that in the weight of 9/11 and the recognition that the Wahhabist sect of Islam that has so poisoned the Muslim world and has infected the minds of radical islamists and the young people that engage in suicide attacks against fellow muslims in countries like Iraq, that we are hostage to Saudi Arabia because they control 25% of the world’s oil reserves and the deal that had been struck in 1945 between Franklin Rosevelt and the king of Saudi Arabia that we would protect Saudi Arabian oil reserves in exchange for free -or rather reliable- access to Saudi oil supplies, we thought worked 45 or 55 years until we realised that it wouldn’t protect America from her enemies. And now you see one because of the threat of radical Islam that is financed to a large degree by petrol dollars in the Persian Gulf and also now because of the environmental issues as well, there is finally a very strong US and Western push towards alternative energy that will one day end our dependence on Saudi and other regional oil supplies. And then we can deal with Saudi Arabia the way a country with such a notorious human rights abuses should be properly treated.

* John Sitilides has specialized in federal strategies, international affairs and media relations in Washington, D.C., California and New York for more than two decades. As Principal of Trilogy Advisors, a government relations company, he has leveraged his professional resources in the corporate and government sectors to craft, implement, and oversee positioning strategies on land development, wetland regulation, water infrastructure and other national issues to create maximum value for private