Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tensions Rise as Primary Elections Near

Audience members got a two-for-one special, breakfast and a show, last Wednesday, December 16 during the Democratic U.S. senatorial candidate forum held at the Chicago Union League Club. “He’s had only two jobs, and the one before [State Treasurer] was president of what is now one of the worst performing banks in the nation” argued David Hoffman, commenting on opponent Alexi Giannoulias’ poor management of the family owned Broadway bank. “Since the beginning of his campaign, he has been falsely attacking me and my family,” Giannoulias shot back. Giannoulias continued to criticize Hoffman for funding his campaign through investments in the Wall Street banks that received federal bailout money whilst calling for more oversight of such banks. The other two candidates, Cheryle Jackson, President of the Chicago Urban League and the only woman participant, and Jacob Meister, a Chicago attorney and the only openly gay candidate running in the election, stood idly by as Giannoulias and Hoffman seemed in a world of their own.

Following their opening statements, the candidates fielded a wide range of questions posed by the audience including the inherent corruption in Illinois and proposed transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Thomson maximum security prison, as well as, Health Care, Afghanistan, and peace in the Middle East.

Every candidate seemed in consensus on the issue of corruption in Illinois, arguing the need to deal with the issue from a state perspective rather than look to Congress or Senate for solutions. The four Democratic candidates agreed that transferring Guantanamo detainees to the mostly vacant federal prison in Thompson, IL would be profitable and create new jobs. However, favored Republican candidate Congressman Mark Kirk rejects the transfer of prisoners claiming that such a move would establish a radical Islamic breeding ground in Illinois and mark Chicago as a magnet for future terrorist attacks. No one, however, elaborated to discuss the controversial U.S. policies in Guantanamo Bay such as, suspension of habeas corpus, the absence of due process, holding inmates indefinitely without conviction, and the semantics of torture used for interrogation purposes.

As the Senate continues to deliberate over the Affordable Health Care for America Act recently passed by Congress, all of the candidates voiced their support for a public option to be included in the bill. President Obama’s recent speech strategizing U.S. military endeavors in Afghanistan and necessary troop escalation shed some light on how the candidates would react in tough foreign policy situations. While candidate’s Giannoulias and Meister supported Obama’s decision and noted Pakistan’s essential cooperation, the others disagreed. Hoffman commended the President for his speech, but disapproved with the troop surge emphasizing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s claim that a troop increase in Afghanistan is an expansion of U.S. focus beyond Al-Qaeda and terrorism. Jackson went as far as to demand a rapid troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Keeping the debate on the Middle East the candidates’ next dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. All of the candidates were in favor of a two state solution to the problem and advocated for increased U.S. leadership in the peace process. Jackson encouraged open communication between Israel and Palestine, whereas, Giannoulias called for isolation of Hamas, removal of the democratically elected authority from power, and instituting a more moderate regime in its stead. Giannoulias and Meister both made it a point to mention that Israel’s safety and security is U.S. priority for peace in the Middle East.

Polls show Giannoulias as the favored candidate in the Democratic Party, and Congressman Mark Kirk as the primary nominee in the Republican Party. With the primary elections fast approaching, scheduled for February 2, 2010, candidates will be fighting intensely to dominate public attention and garner support from the large group of undecided voters.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


When he was serving as Senator, Obama opposed the war in Iraq and the troop surge proposed by the Bush administration. Now, as President, how can Obama, having recently received the Nobel Prize, appear as a symbol of international peace by supporting the deployment of 30,000 additional troops, along with the infinite number of mercenary and private military forces not mentioned, to war in Afghanistan? We have spent almost a decade fighting in Afghanistan with the intention to seek and destroy Osama Bin Laden, a 6’5” Saudi on dialysis, and related perpetrators of 9/11. Seemingly, after 8 years our strategy or purpose for spending an estimated $3.6 billion per month on the war in Afghanistan (still worried about health care costs) has changed drastically, and without accurate inquiries by the media. Since military conscription is no longer applicable, most Americans today remain dissociated from the fact that this is the longest war in U.S. history.

Last Tuesday at the West Point Military Academy in New York, President Obama gave a speech detailing his administration’s military strategy for war in Afghanistan. The reasons for continuing to wage war in a country that has defeated more super-powers than any other nation in modern history seemed vague and unconvincing to the hundreds of cadets in attendance, many of whom may certainly be included in the 30,000 troops to be deployed, or re-deployed to Afghanistan. After remarking on the large disparity between the numbers of soldiers in Iraq versus Afghanistan, Obama declared that our national interest, security of the U.S. and safety of the American people are dependent on additional forces being sent to aid our currently deployed military personnel in stabilizing Afghanistan.

The proposed 18 month deadline for U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan coincides with the winding down of the war in Iraq. During his speech, President Obama stated that the war in Iraq is being brought to a responsible end. Troops will begin to be withdrawn starting next summer and completely out of the country by end of 2011. Contrary to President Obama’s vision is that of Afghan President Karzai, according to a press conference he spoke at today with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Karzai claimed that assembling a substantial security force from among the Afghan people that can provide order and stability to the country without U.S. military support would take much longer than just 18 months, much longer indeed. He argued that more international support and U.S. military presence is needed for another 20 years until the Afghan people can fend for themselves. How President Obama and President Karzai, the elected leader of Afghanistan and go-to moderate backed by the U.S., can formulate two radically different strategies is beyond me.

Not publicized by the media nor mentioned by President Obama during his speech last week was a clear description of U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Simply looking on a map would reveal the geo-strategic importance of Afghanistan to U.S. interests in the region, specifically, forming an alliance of regional states to oppose Iran and securing access to energy resources in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Widely unknown to the general public is the existence of two crucial natural gas pipelines, namely IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) and TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India pipeline). Through continued military efforts in Afghanistan, the U.S. can control TAPI and run it through Kandahar province, coincidentally the most notoriously violent and terrorist filled area of the country, or use an alternate pipeline leading directly to the Arabian Sea. Consequently, the establishment of TAPI would reduce the energy reliance of Central Asian states on Russia, and more significantly, easily bypass a troublesome Iran.

While securing energy resources in the region may not have been the initial reasons behind the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, they are certainly part of the underlying motivations and paramount to the comprehensive strategy only partially discussed last week. I find it very deceiving for the Obama administration to withhold this issue from the American people. Also, the fact that none of the major media outlets have publicized even a shred of information relating Afghanistan to energy resources or U.S. geo-strategic interests in the region is alarming.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


Earlier this week Switzerland, the world’s foremost neutral country, sidestepped impartiality by approving a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets. The referendum put forth by the powerful Swiss People’s Party (SVP), a traditionally conservative right wing party, was approved by a 57% majority. The SVP sponsored the ban claiming the construction of minarets represents the “creeping Islamization of Switzerland.” The ban was advertised through suggestively racist posters that juxtaposed a fully veiled woman in the foreground of what appear to be missile shaped minarets. Such xenophobic posters are nothing new from the SVP’s earlier campaigns to institute harsher immigration laws in the country.

The head of the SVP, Ulrich Schluer, argues that minarets are a symbol of the political aims of Islam. In an interview with Russia Today, Schluer contends that the “minaret is seen as a symbol for political attitudes, for political demands. For instance, to introduce step by step elements of the Shariah right, also in Switzerland.” He defends the ban by referring to various Imams and leaders of mosques, in Switzerland, that have openly stated their goal is for implementation of Shariah law. Rather than symbolize the spirituality of Islam, the minaret, historically used to initiate a call to prayer, is now perceived as a political icon. As a result, the future construction of minarets can be construed as a politically motivated objective to introduce other laws into Switzerland, specifically Shariah law.

There are an estimated 200 mosques in Switzerland. According to the Swiss government, most Muslims are former refugees from the Yugoslav wars waged during the 1990s and comprise approximately 6% or 400,000 of Switzerland’s 7.5 million citizens. The implications of such a ban are not only heartfelt by Swiss Muslims, but for Muslims all across Europe.

Fellow Europeans fear an extremist reaction within their own countries. Concerns have been raised over whether or not Sunday’s vote in Switzerland may provoke more anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe. Will the ban in Switzerland promote passage of similar policies in neighboring countries? The European Union is already hard pressed in trying to preserve each countries distinct cultural allure amidst a large influx in foreigners. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the act, remarking on the widespread Islamaphobia afflicting Europe since France’s widely publicized dispute over the burqa, a full length covering worn by Muslim women. Supporters of the ban mentioned that Prime Minister Erdogan has in the past equated mosques to Islam's military barracks, referring to minarets as Islam’s bayonets.

Worldwide criticism over the ban has emerged from Pakistan and Indonesia, to the Vatican. Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey openly rebuked approval of the ban claiming it restricts religious freedom, while other financial officials in Zurich fear losing wealthy Arab and Muslim investors. The UN, along with other international rights organizations, has denounced the Swiss populist vote citing the government’s violation of international conventions on religious freedoms and individual human rights.

President Obama, notorious for having an open dialogue with the Muslim world, demonstrated by his land mark speech in Cairo not long ago, has yet to give any official response on the U.S. position towards Sunday’s vote in Switzerland.

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