eyes on the U.S.

Worse Than American Expansionism? American Isolationism: A European View

Op-Ed: Barack Obama wants to end a “decade of war” by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. But as the United States increasingly focuses on its own problems at home, its allies will be vulnerable to an ever more uncertain world.

Alan Posener

This was the U.S. president's reason for bringing troops home from Afghanistan: to officially end an expansive era in American foreign policy—‘‘a decade of war‘" as he put it in a speech to the nation, when some ‘"would have had America overextend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad."

"America," Obama concluded, "it is time to focus on nation building here at home.""

But those who felt euphoric at this death knell to neo-con policy may want to think again -- even more dangerous than American expansionism is what hits after the euphoria subsides: American isolationism.

For the US military, troop drawdown in Afghanistan is happening too fast, while for war-weary Americans back home, it's not happening fast enough. Arguing about it is a waste of time, however, because what's dictating the timing — the president's own fate — is more pressing than Afghanistan's fate.

By the elections in November 2012, Obama will have brought enough soldiers home to convince supporters of the seriousness of his intentions, but not enough to let Afghanistan collapse.

‘"We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place,"" Obama said in his speech. Read: We're giving up on trying to democratize Afghanistan. Just as long as it doesn't return to being a safe-haven for al Qaeda—and drones and special forces like those presently operating in Pakistan can deal with that.

Phasing out democracy exports

Obama can wind down George Bush's project to export democracy even more easily as his potential opponent in the presidential elections is taking a position of even greater distance from Bush's transformational foreign policy, e.g: ‘"We believe the best long-term national security strategy is rebuilding our core here at home."

Jon Huntsman, who many think stands the best chance of winning the Republican nomination, wants to cut military budgets and focus resources on facing the Asian (read: Chinese) challenge and becoming more competitive economically. And on Friday, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted against US involvement in Libya. While the vote is merely symbolic and not binding for the president, it is a sign of the changes in Republican priorities.

The main change is a return of the right to its roots. Because despite what left-leaning Europeans claim, what historian Arthur M. Schlesinger dubbed the ‘"imperial presidency"" applied to Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson: all Democrats.

Since Wilson's wanting ‘"to make the world safe for democracy,‘‘ it is the Democrats who have tended more to internationalist policy and Republicans to a more skeptical realpolitik. Wars in Korea and Vietnam started by Democrats were ended by Republicans.

Republican Ronald Reagan, demonized as a warmonger, in fact led only one war: the invasion of Grenada. His successor George H.W. Bush freed Kuwait, but preferred to leave Saddam Hussein in office rather than take on the responsibility of rebuilding Iraq.

His son promised during his first electoral campaign to reduce the size of the army and not to use it for nation building.

Post Bin Laden, 180° turn

Osama Bin Laden's 9/11 attacks engendered a 180° swerve that gave neo-cons the opportunity to turn their concept of safety through democratization into the official foreign policy of the Bush administration.

Many Republicans pointed out – rightly -- that this neo-con policy was neither new nor conservative, but merely a rehash of Wilsonian ideas.

However that may be, the ‘"unipolar moment‘‘ stayed just that: a moment, and no one was going to turn this into a ‘"new American century."" Americans actually don't relish the role of world policeman, and the US is not in a position to pursue a long-term imperialistic strategy.

As President Obama said in his Afghanistan speech, in clear reference to the neo-cons: ‘"We stand not for empire but for self-determination.""

We shouldn't however lose sight of the reason for this new-found modesty: ‘"It's the economy, stupid!"" Debt and deficit levels haven't been this high in the US for 60 years. While the EU agonizes over the possible bankruptcy of Greece, the US Department of the Treasury announced last week that unless Congress raises the legal debt ceiling by August 2, the United States would not be in a position to service its debts.

The European Union, which Commission president José Manuel Barroso has described as a ‘"non-imperial empire,‘‘ cannot escape the fact that it has problems at its outer perimeters, in Belarus, Ukraine, Turkey, civil wars in Syria and Libya, the complex process of the Arab spring, that it cannot deny. It's also going to have to learn the lesson of Libya: that in the future the US is not automatically going to assume leadership when it comes to defending the interests of the West.

For his policy in Libya, Obama coined the phrase ‘"leading from behind‘‘ but Europeans haven't felt much leadership from any direction.

The greatest danger in America's withdrawal from the world is that undemocratic forces will seek to fill the void. This represents an unprecedented challenge for Europe. And it does not bode well that Germany, when put to the test, torpedoed EU foreign and security policies to which loyalty was so often pledged.

Read the original article in German

photo - PhotoDu.de

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!