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Obama Steers America Away From 'Cold War' Politics

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Dave Griffith
Dave Griffith

The decision of President Obama to shelve plans for a new missile defence shield in Eastern Europe marks a major shift in American foreign policy.

For years after the end of the 'Cold War' the United States still persisted with the rhetoric and actions of that era. George W. Bush and his 'axis of evil' speech was textbook confrontational politics. In trying to be a 'new' Ronald Reagan by mirroring Reagan's 'evil empire' speech of the 80's Bush learned that tough stances were easy, but  backing up the talk is a whole lot harder; especially when Plan A is threats and military action and Plan B is also threats and military action.

This may have been good politics on the domestic front in the United States where tough talk and decisive action has always gone down well with a sizable chunk of the voters. The massive military-industrial complex is a significant employer and foreign exchange earner. But this all comes at a price when you are turning foreign friends into enemies by the million. 

Every great power needs an enemy when they are at peace to keep the people focussed on external threats instead of internal issues and justify continued spending on armaments. For decades following the Second World War the Soviet Union had filled that role for The United States and the Soviets in turn held up America as the enemy of the Eastern Block for similar purposes.

With the break up of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, a new enemy had to be found. George Bush senior was handed a gift with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, but it had a limited life span. The Clinton Administration was focussed on Serbia for a while. With George W. Bush the focus went back on Iraq which was subsequently invaded with tenuous at best evidence as justification.

So with Hussein's Iraq overrun and Osama Bin Laden under 'cave arrest' on the Afghani-Pakistan border, the two most likely candidates to fill the role of 'Americas most feared' were North Korea and Iran. They were parts two and three of George W. Bush's 'axis of evil'. Economic hardship has managed to keep North Korea largely under wraps, so that leaves the perennial favourite - Iran. The Islamic connection strikes a chord with Americans understandably unhappy with Al-Qaeda's militant Islamic agenda. There is also the unfinished business of the humiliation of America following the 1979 revolution in Iran and the taking of the U.S Embassy hostages.

So Iran was installed as the new No.1 bad boy. It was an easy choice, with a President who was even better than Bush at creating headlines for the wrong reasons and a shadowy nuclear programme with underlying potential missile threats. It was the Iranian development of short/medium range missiles that prompted the Bush Administration to raise the threat of long range missiles combined with nuclear development as a reason for creating a new missile defence shield in Eastern Europe.  Russia, understandably has never been happy with this situation.

Iran does not have the capacity to launch ballistic missiles against America. It certainly does not have the inclination to deliver missiles to Western Europe. It can only threaten Israel, who is quite capable of returning the dose with interest. The nation of Israel may be largely destroyed in a nuclear strike, but it would still exist. So what would be achieved except for the guaranteed destruction of Iran? The idea that Iran would commit national martyrdom by firing a nuclear missile at Western Europe or Israel is absurd.

Iran and other unidentified 'rogue states' being the main reason that the missile defence shield needed to go up in Eastern Europe was always tenuous. The argument that it was being put there as a reminder to an increasingly assertive Russia carries greater weight. The fact it could cover Iran too was just a bonus.

Iran is an educated nation. The recent post-election protests there show that there is a sizable portion of the population that support a more moderate Iran. Sanctions are not a viable option either. We know from years of sanctions on neighbouring Iraq that the people suffer and the regime stays strong. The shortages and suffering is often successfully blamed on outsiders. Look at Zimbabwe. The economic crisis is almost entirely of Mugabe's making but he manages to put the blame on the United Kingdom. This blame of others only works effectively if the state controls the media. In the internet age the effectiveness of state censorship is becoming increasingly limited.

The people of countries with differences can now talk to each other directly without relying on the politicians and media middlemen for accurate information. People that communicate well with each other seldom end up in conflict.

The Republicans response to the missile shield cancellation is predictable. Former Presidential candidate Senator John McCain described the decision as "seriously misguided" and went on to say that "given the serious and growing threats posed by Iran's missile and nuclear programmes, now is the time when we should look to strengthen our defences, and those of our allies". Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was "short-sighted and harmful to our long-term security interests".

This outdated attitude that defence can only be secured by military proliferation against threats that are perceived to exist is pure 'cold war' ideology and belongs in the past.

The other Republican notion that if the missile defence shield was to be given away then it should at least be used as a bargaining piece to extract concessions from the Russians might have been practical 25 years ago. Back then Reagan used the 'Star Wars' space defence programme as a bargaining tool in missile control talks, but the world, politically is a very different proposition these days. The polarising effect of the East-West stand-off is gone and there is a more fluid alignment based on issues rather than ideology. 

What the Obama has realised is that national security is not only maintained by Weapons and threats. There far more positive and cost effective measures to employ for the same end that sometimes get overlooked in the rush to appear decisive and strong.

The fact that Obama has announced it is cancelling the new missile shield 'without strings' has immediately put a halt to the slide in relations with Russia.

Russian President Medvedev called it "positive" and that there were now "good conditions" for US-Russian talks on tackling missile proliferation. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said it was a "correct and brave" move. This kind of language has not been heard from the Russian leadership regarding the United States for a long time. It is not a concession or surrender on the part of the U.S, but rather mature diplomacy using a broader range of thinking than we have seen from a U.S administration in a long time.

One of the refreshing things from an international perspective about the Obama administration is that there is largely silence from the United States on the world stage when compared to the Bush years. When they do have input it is measured and thoughtful. In the Bush heyday, the headlines were constant, and often bizarre in their ability to offend a foreign audience.

Millions of us out here in the international community hope that Obama's positive move in steering America away from the 'cold war' politics of the past is long lasting and heralds a new beginning. Only a positive engagement by The United States with the rest of the world will start to heal the damage done in the Bush years. Time will tell but the early signs are good.

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