Bush’s Best Foreign Policy

President Bush is on an African farewell tour of sorts and the enthusiasm — whether genuine or state-sponsored — is reportedly quite prominent. Reuters correspondent Barry Moody writes,

Back home, Bush is suffering some of the lowest approval ratings in his seven-year tenure and has been buffeted by criticism of his handling of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ailing economy.

Not surprisingly he is enjoying the different reception in Africa.

Beaming repeatedly during a press conference with [Tanzanian President and current African Union head Jakaya] Kikwete, he made a point of referring to his welcome on the streets, which he described as “very moving”.

Moody’s piece does note that Muslim Africans are less than enthusiastic about the president’s trip and have even staged protests, which leads me to ask what factors are left out when explaining the praise for Bush’s accomplishments in Africa. And, in fairness to the president, they are real, noteworthy accomplishments:

Bush has spent more money on aid to Africa than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and is popular for his personal programs to fight AIDS and malaria and to help hospitals and schools.

Bush has stressed new-style partnerships with Africa based on trade and investment and not purely on aid handouts.

His Millennium Challenge Corp. rewards countries that continue to satisfy criteria for democratic governance, anti-corruption and free-market economic policies.

Bush signed the largest such deal, for $698 million, with Kikwete on Sunday.

Because of the U.S. anti-malaria program, 5 percent of patients tested positive for the disease on the offshore islands of Zanzibar in 2007 compared to 40 percent three years earlier, the Tanzanian leader said.

Bush’s legacy in Africa would be saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of mothers and children who would otherwise have died from malaria or AIDS and enabling millions of people to get an education, he said.

So, what other factor may increase Bush’s popularity in sub-Saharan Africa?

Islam.

Or rather, Bush may be unwittingly popular thanks to the perception that America under Bush is an “anti-Muslim” power. Let’s set aside the president’s “religion of peace” rhetoric or the fact that the US, wisely or unwisely, has supported Muslims in various conflicts around the world. Despite all efforts by the administration to contrary, the language of Islamic fundamentalists has colored the thinking of many in the developing world, and just as Muslim radicals on one side assail Bush, Africa’s Christians, animists, and moderate Muslims like Kikwete on the other side praise him. In fact, these two factions represent a “cold” civil war present throughout much of African society today.

Islam in AfricaThough it often goes unmentioned in the Western press, sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing a Huntingtonian struggle between the Christian and Westernized elites who represent the status quo, and the Muslim and Arabized masses that swell as Islam moves ever southward. While we do hear about the conflicts in Sudan and Nigeria, we hear less about conflicts stemming from Muslim demographic and cultural shifts in other African countries. Even in a comparatively stable multiethnic country like Tanzania, there remains a fear of fundamentalism and the real possibility of terrorist activity. (In case one forgets.) In countries where the Muslim population is a growing minority, such as Sierra Leone or the Ivory Coast, tensions are even higher.

Seen in the light of this cultural conflict, Bush’s Africa policy serves a dual purpose: promoting development and fighting fundamentalism. For example, American aid which provides for improved government services has the added benefit of undercutting fundamentalist organizations that use charity to attract the poor. Similarly, an effective mix of modern approaches to combat HIV/AIDS can rebut the fundamentalists who tout that only sharia is the answer to Africa’s AIDS crisis. Lastly, improved trade between the US and Africa can deny fundamentalism the impoverished soil it needs to grow and thrive, a point a certain would-be president ought to consider while he rails against the evils of free trade.

In conclusion, aid for Africa is, by far, Bush’s best foreign policy initiative, and the only one his successor has a moral imperative to continue and improve upon, even if the next president isn’t seen as a foe of fundamentalism.

A Peace Conference to Make War

Writing in the NYT, historian Michael Oren looks at the comparatively low-profile Annapolis Middle East Peace Conference and makes the case that the various parties — Israel, the Arab world, the Quartet, and beyond — were drawn together by the specter of a nuclear Iran:

… [I]n spite of its glaring handicaps, Annapolis must be deemed a triumph — not of peacemaking, paradoxically, but of girding the region for conflict. Though no doubt sincere in their desire to neutralize the Arab-Israeli irritant in Middle Eastern affairs, participants in the conference were above all motivated by their fear of a radical and relentlessly aggressive Iran. This fear has deepened with the success of the Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza, as well as the expansion of Iranian influence westward into the Iraqi vacuum.

The inability of the international community either to entice or deter the Iranians from producing nuclear weapons adds urgency to the need to unite those countries threatened by those bombs. That, and not American fiat, brought 49 states and organizations to Annapolis; that, and not the yearning for an Israeli-Arab accord, impelled a Saudi prince to sit alongside an Israeli prime minister.

Not unexpectedly, the Iranians reacted ferociously to Annapolis. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pronounced it a “failure” and the government-controlled press promised to “bring down Islamic wrath” on its participants. But such rage merely betrays the anxiety induced by Annapolis in Tehran. For the first time a coalition of Western and modern Arab leaders has coalesced and declared its commitment to resist “extremism” in the Middle East — a well-known euphemism for Iran.

What’s more, new efforts have begun to confront Iran outside of the United Nations and woo Syria from Iran’s orbit. An international conference may not be the ideal formula for attaining Israeli-Palestinian peace, but it can provide a powerful forum for expressing solidarity in the face of war.

The sight of Arabs and Israelis not quite breaking bread together, but at least sitting to discuss policy in a large forum, is heartening, though I’m not so certain I’d agree with Oren that Annapolis was the start of a grand anti-Iranian coalition. In fact, I might even call it wishful thinking from an Israeli perspective. It goes without saying, however, that tensions created by Iran — and by the ongoing war in Iraq — would increase the likelihood of cooperation among the countries of the region.

Iran is symbolic of a myriad of security concerns. Firstly, as presumptive figurehead of Shia Islam, belligerent moves by Iran are seen, rightly or wrongly, by Sunni-majority Arab states as increasing the hostility of their Shia populations. The Saudis in particular most look at the role Iran has played in helping Shia insurgency in Iraq and worry about similar conflicts arising in the north of their country.

Secondly, because Iran is at least structurally democratic, and because Iran has always supported, if not led, Islamic parties like Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran represents a revolutionary political threat to the monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Jordan) and tribal autocracies (Syria) of the region. Paradoxically, although Iran is an avowed enemy of liberalism, it is also a supporter of democracy in the Middle East, and because Iranian democracy is married to sharia, it is much more palatable than the variety Iraqis are struggling to swallow, which comes with burdensome expectations such as rights for women, pluralism, and free speech. Thus, the dissatisfied masses of the Arab street may see Iran’s Islamic Republic as a worthy political model to emulate, especially if Iran succeeds in developing nuclear weapons.

This brings me to the final point. A nuclear-armed Iran doesn’t loom as a hegemonic threat in the region — hence the low likelihood of an anti-Iranian coalition — but it does represent a tipping point that will make real the threat of proliferation in the Middle East. If Iran’s nuclear weapons are opposed by the Arab states, it’s not because the Arabs fear the Iranians would use them against Sunnis, or even that Iran would use them against Israel, but because it would compel the Arab states to race against one another (and Iran) to develop and stockpile their own arsenals. Neither conventional arms nor the American security umbrella would be seen as enough to guarantee the sovereignty of Middle Eastern countries.

One might argue, if Israel’s nuclear arsenal didn’t provoke proliferation in the region, why would Iran’s be any different? The difference, and the Arabs know it, is that Israel’s arsenal was developed as protection against a grave existential threat, namely, the Arabs themselves. Though officially secret, Israel’s weapons are the rattlesnake’s rattle of the Middle East, warning the other nations, “Don’t Tread on Me.” The fact that Israel’s arsenal is such a special case is why few Arabs countries defend Iran’s nuclear program on grounds that “well, Israel has the bomb too.”

Iran, on the other hand, faces no credible security threat — even if having America at her doorstep has doubtless elevated the perception of threat — and instead seeks to acquire nuclear arms to prove that the Islamic Republic is a great power, perhaps even a world power. In effect, Iran’s desire to be perceived as “strong” would “conventionalize” nuclear weapons among the oil states and bring with it the expectation that every country’s military should have the bomb. And fear of that situation, and the uncertainty it will bring, is enough to make even Arabs and Israelis sit down and talk.

Carl Sagan, Reasonable Atheist

During my crosstown commute this evening I watched a recording of a late-1980s television broadcast, “God, the Universe, and Everything,” featuring Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke. The trio and their host discussed the nature of the cosmos and of God, with a brief detour into Clarke’s fractal fetish. I’m struck that in contrast to fellow avowed atheist Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan addressed questions of God and faith during the program without resorting to philosophical mouth farts. And so it was with his appearances on “Cosmos” and other programs. Even Sagan’s final work, 1996’s The Demon-Haunted World sets forth its arguments against religion in a reasonable way, and chooses to devote most of its energy to fighting pseudoscience.

It could be that Dawkins is more confrontational (I would in fact call it nasty) because times are different and the religious are now perceived as more of a “threat” to science by the atheist-humanist crowd. Though, as memory serves me, the debates involving politics and religion, and by extension, science, were awfully contentious during the 1980s. Margaret Atwood’s Christian fundamentalist-bashing dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale was released in 1985 and greenlighted for a movie shortly thereafter. At the same time, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism was already well-known in the West. We had already experienced kidnappings, terror bombings, and had to contend with fundamentalist leaders like the Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued his famous fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989. So if we discount the reality of “threat” to nonbelievers, and the effect it would have on tone, then the difference between atheists like Dawkins and atheists like Sagan seems to be one of style, substance, and perhaps even decency.

Where have all the nice atheists gone?

Richard Dawkins, Cranky Atheist

This week I watched “The Root of All Evil?,” a 2006 BBC documentary adapted from Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, in which Dawkins, as host, unleashes a long, unrelenting sneer against the three Abrahamic faiths. Ours is a time when religious extremism threatens lives, liberties, and political stability in several regions of the world, so a polemic aimed at such extremism, especially in militant Islam, should be welcomed. But Dawkins is after a bigger target than Islamic death cults: he attacks religion in all its aspects, from its ability to offer consolation to the sick and dying, to its capacity to develop social capital in communities of faith, to the notion that religious morality stems from anything but the fear of God. Someday, a philosopher may make a passionate, convincing brief in favor of atheist humanism, but this isn’t that argument, and after watching him for two hours, Dawkins clearly isn’t the man for the job.

For such a brilliant man in his own fields, Dawkins’ pontifications on religion are tired and stale. Note that for lack of time or personal animus, Dawkins ignores Asian faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism and instead spends most of his time criticizing Christianity. The usual litany of atheist attacks on Christianity are advanced during the documentary, including a focus on the Old Testament and Paul’s views on the faith while ignoring the Person and the Values of Christ. Catholicism is attacked as little more than an institution in favor of miracles and opposed to birth control, while the Church’s progressive values or nuanced ethical beliefs (such as those outlined in Veritatis Splendor) are wholly ignored. Not surprisingly, profound Christian thinkers from Soren Kierkegaard to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to C.S. Lewis go also unmentioned in the documentary, lest Dawkins be forced to deviate from his “Christian ignoramuses” script.

And if I were to judge Christians based solely on the Christians shown in Dawkins’ documentary, I, too, might find Christianity a ridiculous or disturbing faith. The segments with the Hell House producers and the Paul Hill supporter are eye-rolling at best and infuriating at worst. That said, Dawkins even made me feel a twinge of sympathy for creepy (and now disgraced) megachurch pastor Ted Haggard when Dawkins likens one of their church gatherings to a Nuremberg rally when the documentary itself seems to favor Haggard’s claim that it was “like a rock concert.” Now, calm scholarly sort that I am, I’m not a fan of the megachurches or pop Christianity, but I recognize that they represent another attempt at community-building like the Catholic mass or black American church. Watching Dawkins scowl his way through Haggard’s flock, I couldn’t help but also picture him frowning during a parade or a football game or any other event where a group of people come together in shared feeling. And thank God he wasn’t around at the March on Washington to liken it to Nuremberg.

In fact, Dawkins is not only afraid of Christians in large groups, he’s also against the notion of Christian families. And Jewish families. Muslim families too. For him, and a psychologist he speaks to during the film, childhood religious instruction is a form of child abuse. Dawkins argues that since we’d never call a child of two Conservatives a “Tory child,” why do we label a child according to his/her parents’ religious affiliation? I’m not sure if this is a sign that British society is radically different from the United States or evidence that Dawkins is out of touch, but in America (and here in China too) parents shape the identities of their children across the board — from religion, to politics, to their self-conceptions as members of a race or ethnic group, and we most certainly speak of, among other things, Christian families, Democratic families, and black families. To suppose otherwise is to posit an ideal society where children are alienated from their parents by the power of the State and indoctrinated by would-be Philosopher Kings — an arrangement we’ve wisely chosen to avoid, knock on Popper.

Finally, a key theme in Dawkins’ documentary is to contrast faith and rationalism, stressing the advantages of the former while seemingly exasperated as to why anyone would still be religious in this day and age. Along the way, he actually offers several misrepresentations of science and humanism, draping those of his mindset in an almost — dare I say? — religious mantle.

For instance, Dawkins offers up an anecdote from his college years as proof of the inherent open-mindedness of science and willingness to accept newly discovered truths. According to Dawkins, a professor of his had staunchly defended a particular scientific theory only to have his arguments rebutted by a visitor, who was then thanked by said professor for setting him straight. Yet such gracious acceptance of rival theories tends to be rare (if not nonexistent) in most of science, where adherents of a particular theory will often fight tooth and nail with rivals lest they be overtaken in the latest paradigm shift. In my own former field of political science, for example, I can’t imagine the rational choice types and the perestroikans sitting down to break bread like Dawkins’ exemplary professor.

Similarly, when discussing the nature of morals, Dawkins puts forth an intriguing (though familiar) argument about mankind’s genetic predisposition towards altruism then muddies the water by tying this plausible evolution of cooperation to the way our social attitudes about race and homosexuality have liberalized over the years. (The implied contrast is: religion frowns upon these things, so let’s hear it for natural morality.) What exactly Dawkins is trying to say by linking ancient, inborn morality to modern secular cultural morality — which cannot be inborn unless we accept some version of Lamarckism — is unclear.

While Dawkins and I might agree that minorities and gays and lesbians deserve to be treated with respect, he offers real no argument to explain why his views are justifiable, desirable, or indeed anything but arbitrary choices. He goes on to outline the process of how secular moral views are spread in the media and mass culture, yet this merely explains why they’re popular, not why they’re correct. Moreover, it’s foolish to act as though secular moral views progress on a straight line — as Dawkins seemingly does by deeming said views “progressive” — or that, in the absence of religion, we would automatically follow a morality in line with Mr. Dawkins’ tastes.

This brings me to the most ridiculous little bit in all of Dawkins’ documentary, the quote which inspired Dawkins’ BBC producers to give the documentary such an inflammatory title. After talking to Michael Bray, a supporter of abortion doctor murderer Dr. Paul Hill, and noting what a nice person Mr. Bray seemed to be, Dawkins quotes American physicist Steven Weinberg:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.

This quote no doubt impresses Dawkins, since he repeats it often. The problem with Doctors Dawkins and Weinberg is, the numbers just aren’t on their side.

Update: Post edited to reformat and clear up a couple of paragraphs.