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Don’t betray us, Barack — end the empire

The film director Oliver Stone and the historian Peter Kuznick on how the US president can learn fro

"Suddenly, a season of peace seems to be warming the world," the New York Times exulted on the last day of July 1988. Protracted and bloody wars were ending in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua, and between Iran and Iraq. But the most dramatic development was still to come.

In December 1988, the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, declared the cold war over. "The use or threat of force no longer can or must be an instrument of foreign policy," he said. "This applies above all to nuclear arms."

He proposed cutting offensive strategic arms in half, jointly safeguarding the environment, banning weapons in outer space, ending exploitation of the third world and cancelling third world debt payments. He called for a UN-brokered ceasefire in Afghanistan, acknowled­ging that, after nine years, the Russians had failed to defeat the Afghan insurgents despite deploying 100,000 troops.

Still, he was not finished. He held out an olive branch to the incoming administration of George H W Bush, offering a "joint effort to put an end to an era of wars".

The New York Times described Gorbachev's riveting, hour-long speech as the greatest act of statesmanship since Roosevelt and Churchill's Atlantic Charter in 1941. The Washington Post called it "a speech as remarkable as any ever delivered at the United Nations".

Gorbachev saw this as a new beginning for America, Russia and the world, but US policymakers had something very different in mind, hailing it as the triumph of the capitalist west after the long decades of the cold war.

In September 1990, Michael Mandelbaum, then director of east-west studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, rejoiced that "for the first time in 40 years we can conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about triggering World War III".

The US would soon test that hypothesis, beginning two decades of costly and destructive imperial overreach, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Middle East. It squandered a historic opportunity to make the world a more peaceful and just place, instead declaring itself the global hegemon. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the entire gaggle of neocons was extolling American power and beneficence. "We are an attractive empire, the one everyone wants to join," crowed the military historian Max Boot.

Buzzsaw of opposition

Fast-forward to 2008, when Barack Obama swept to office on a wave of popular euphoria, mesmerising supporters with his inspiring biography, lofty and exhilarating rhetoric, welcome rejection of unilateralism and strong opposition to the Iraq war - qualities that made him seem the antithesis of George W Bush.

Bush and his empire-building advisers - the sorriest crew ever to run this country - had saddled him and the American people with an incredible mess. After two long and disastrous wars, trillions of dollars in military spending, torture and abuse of prisoners on several continents, an economic collapse and near-depression at home, disparities between rich and poor unheard of in an advanced industrial country, government surveillance on an unprecedented scale, collapsing infrastructure and a global reputation left in tatters, the US did not look all that attractive.

Obama has taken a bad situation and, in many ways, made it worse. He got off to a good start, immediately taking steps to reverse some of Bush's most outlandish policies - pledging to end torture and close the detention facility at Guantanamo as well as the network of CIA-administered secret prisons.

But he ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from opportunistic Republicans and conservative Democrats over these and other progressive measures and has been in retreat ever since. As a result, his first two years in office have been a disappointment.

Instead of modelling himself after Gorba­chev and boldly championing deeply felt convictions and transformative policies, Obama has taken a page from the Bill (and Hillary) Clinton playbook and governed as a right-leaning centrist. While trying naively to ingratiate himself with an opposition bent solely on his defeat, he has repeatedly turned his back on those who put him in office.

Surrounding himself with Wall Street-friendly advisers and military hawks, he has sent more than 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan; bailed out Wall Street banks while paying scant attention to the plight of the poor and working class; and enacted a tepid version of health reform that, while expanding coverage, represented a boondoggle for the insurance industry. And he has continued many of Bush's civil rights abuses, secrecy obsessions and neoliberal policies that allow the continued looting of the real economy by those who are obscenely wealthy.

Obama has also endorsed a military/security budget that continues to balloon. Recent accounting by Christopher Hellman of the National Priorities Project found that the US spends over $1.2trn out of its $3trn annual budget on "national security", when all related expenses are factored in.
Still, triumphalist rhetoric abounds. "People are wondering what the future holds, at home and abroad," Hillary Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations. "So let me say it clearly: the United States can, must and will lead in this new century."

Despite such blather, the US has been relegated to the role of a supporting actor in the extraordinary democratic upheaval sweeping the Middle East. Decades of arming, training and supporting practically every "friendly" dictator in the region and the use of Egyptians as surrogate torturers have stripped the US of all moral authority.

Backbone required

Whatever good may have been done by Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009 has been outweighed by US policy, capped by the indefensible US veto of the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory as not only illegal, but an obstacle to peace. (The resolution was sponsored by at least 130 nations and supported by all 14 other members of the Security Council.)

Nor can anyone take seriously the US outrage about repressive regimes using force against their citizens after US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have directly or indirectly been responsible for the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the forced emigration of millions.
Where the foreign policy establishment sees only international peril, Obama should see an opportunity - the chance to reinvent himself - to reconnect with the Barack Obama who marched against nuclear weapons while at college and then promised to abolish them in a speech he gave in Prague in April 2009.

He should look to John F Kennedy for precedent. After two nearly disastrous years in office, Kennedy underwent a stunning reversal, repudiating the reckless cold war militarism that defined his early presidency. The Kennedy who was tragically assassinated in November 1963 was looking to end not only the US invasion of Vietnam, but the cold war.

We know from Bob Woodward that during policy discussions regarding Afghanistan, Obama was often the least bellicose person in the room. He has much to learn from Kennedy's scepticism towards military advisers and intelligence officials. As Kennedy told another celebrated journalist, Ben Bradlee: "The first advice I'm going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that, just because they are military men, their opinions on military matters are worth a damn."

There are many ways in which Obama can begin overseeing the end of the American empire and the insane militarism that undergirds it. He has been urged to do so by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, who has pressed Obama to stiffen his spine and pursue bold initiatives. "America needs perestroika right now," Gorba­chev said, "because the problems he has to deal with are not easy ones."

The former Soviet leader's solutions included restructuring the economy to eliminate the kind of unregulated free-market policies that caused the current global economic downturn and perpetuate the unconscionable gap between the world's rich and poor.

But, Gorbachev warned, the US can no longer dictate to the rest of the world: "Everyone is used to America as the shepherd that tells everyone what to do. But this period has already ended." He has condemned the Clinton and Bush administrations' dangerous militarisation of international politics and urged the US to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Obama, having wrapped himself even more tightly of late in his cocoon of Wall Street- and empire-friendly advisers, has shown no inclination to heed Gorbachev's advice. He would be wise to do so, because the older man oversaw the dismantling of the USSR in a smoother and more peaceful way than anyone believed possible, and so knows something about bringing the curtain down on a dysfunctional empire that has long overstayed its welcome.

If Obama would seize the opportunity for peace that the Bushes and Clintons seem so intent on strangling in its cradle, perhaps the vision that Gorbachev so brilliantly articulated in 1988 can finally become a reality.

Filmmaker Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick, Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, along with teacher Matt Graham, are finishing a 12-hour documentary "The Forgotten History of the United States," covering the period from 1900 to 2010. This will be premiered later this year in the United States from Showtime. Sky Television is scheduled to premiere the series in the United Kingdom.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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"Overnight, my school emptied": the story of a European border checkpoint

At a busy checkpoint between Turkey and Bulgaria near the Greek frontier, a long history of displacement and exile emerges.

“Bye-bye, komshu,” said the taxi driver. The Turkish word for “neighbour” is used throughout the Balkans.

We had reached the vici­nity of the Kapikule/Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint and he could go no further. We had driven past the mile-long queue of lorries waiting to be processed into the ­European Union. Some drivers waited for days and had come prepared: fold-up stools and portable stoves lined the road. I wondered what the sealed bulks of the lorries contained, and how much of it was fully known to their drivers.

A week earlier, I had crossed the other way – into Turkey – and witnessed a distressing bust by Bulgarian police of young Kurdish stowaways. The lorry driver seemed genuinely shocked, and he was in trouble. Lone women crossing this border in rented cars were regarded with suspicion, too: a Rom­anian woman had recently been caught with hard drugs inside the seats. In another recent incident, a smuggler had accelerated through customs and run over a border cop standing in his way. The smuggler was now in jail, the cop in a coma.

“Hello, arkadash,” said the new taxi driver as he loaded up my bag. Arkadash is Turkish for “mate”, also widely used in the Balkans. This driver had two cars: one with Turkish number plates, for domestic use, and another with Bulgarian plates, for border
purposes. We drove into customs. Slowly.

I was leaving behind the ­mosque-studded border town of Edirne and would soon reach the factory-filled border town of Svilengrad. Ruined factories, that is. For centuries, before the wounded leviathan of the planned economy collapsed, Svilengrad had produced silk. Today, it produced nothing. It was a transaction terminal for the pleasure-seeking populace of the three border nations: Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. Here were casinos called “Pasha”, “Ali Baba” and “Saray” that promised “shows, prizes and many more surprises”. On the outskirts of town, in a former border army building, was a refugee camp that promised nothing.

The twin border cities of Svilengrad and Edirne sat in the fertile plains of Thrace where a section of the Roman Via Diagonalis passed and where everything grew: vines, sunflowers, cotton, wheat, and what early travellers described as the best watermelons in the Levant. Now the Greeks came across the border to both cities, to get what they needed, cheaply – including haircuts in Bulgaria and fake Levi’s jeans in Turkey. The checkpoint with Greece was just a few miles to the west, and from the last sleepy Greek town, Kastanies, across the swollen waters of the Evros-Maritsa River, you could see Edirne sprawled like a concubine in the haze of the Thracian plains.

The three border rivers (Arda, Tundja, Evros-Maritsa) flooded almost every year: if a dam upstream in Bulgaria opened a sluice, both Turkey and Greece would be flooded. Indeed, this border has seen many spillovers and upheavals over the years, including the catastrophic “exchange of populations” after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when borders were redrawn and many in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey found themselves in alien territory overnight. They had to run for their lives across the new lines.

The road under the wheels became bumpy, a sign that we had crossed into Bulgaria. Ahead of us in the haze rose the communist-era apartment buildings of Svilengrad. In my youth, this area – like all towns, rivers and mountains that fell within 30 kilometres of the national border – was a militarised zone.

The border was a taboo subject. Hidden by Balkan peaks and electrified by Soviet technology, it was everywhere, like the state. The border was that which never slept. It was near the Black Sea beaches where, in my childhood, we went for holidays along with the East Germans, Poles and Czechoslovaks – some of whom went swimming towards Turkey, or made a run for the land border and got shot by Bulgarian guards. It was near the mountain villages where we went to pick berries and climb fir trees from which you could see Greece.

“Do you go to Greece?” I asked Ibrahim, the taxi driver. He had once been a schoolteacher.

“What would I do in Greece?” he replied, smiling. “I don’t speak Greek. This is my patch, here, Turkey and Bulgaria.”

Ibrahim was an ethnic Turk but his family had lived in Bulgaria for many generations. Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks account for roughly 10 per cent of the population, a natural effect of the long cosmopolitan centuries of these once Ottoman lands. But in the summer of 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ibrahim and another 340,000 Bulgarian Turks passed through this checkpoint with all their worldly possessions. It was the largest exodus in Europe since the Second World War – but in peacetime.

They had been left with little choice in communist Bulgaria, where assimilation campaigns had been waged against them and other Muslims at frequent intervals during the Cold War. The last such campaign forced ethnic Turks with Muslim names to change them to Christian (Slavic) ones. In some parts of the country, even the names of the dead were changed in registries and on gravestones – an act of violence that strikes me as especially cruel.

This self-wounding campaign by the communist state was a diversionary tactic: despotic regimes need enemies. Ethnic minorities are easy prey. Those who resisted were told by the state to clear off to Turkey, and Bulgarian officials opened this checkpoint. Until then it had been closed to all Bulgarian citizens and was used only by Western travellers to Turkey or Turkish Gastarbeiter to Germany.

Ibrahim had been a young teacher in a town at the foot of the Balkan Mountains. “But what is a teacher without kids? Overnight, my school emptied,” he said.

Ibrahim decided to follow, although he spoke no Turkish. He departed alone, leaving behind his mother and sister, who couldn’t face a life of exile and took the new names instead. For the first few years, he lived in a leaking tent in a huge refugee camp in Edirne – where he saw some of his former pupils. He attended evening Turkish classes and eventually found his feet.

Many of those who had crossed the border that summer returned to Bulgaria after the collapse of the communist regime in 1990, reclaimed (or bought back) their houses, and started again. But many remained in Turkey and made new lives for themselves. Families were split down the middle. Today, entire neighbourhoods of Edirne and Istanbul are populated by Bulgarian Turks; one nation’s loss became the other nation’s gain. Then there were those, like Ibrahim, who continued to live a split life.

“Because my memories are all here, you see,” he said, without malice. “My mother, my sister, the old neighbours. But my wife, my kids, my business, are there.” He gestured back towards Turkey.

How do you feel, I asked him, when you see the refugees today? He shook his head. “It’s your pride that goes, you see. Back home, you were a person. With a history, with a future. When you become a forced exile . . .” He trailed off. “The life of an exile is worse than war.”

We arrived at the hotel in Svilengrad where I had booked a room. Ibrahim took out my bag and placed it on the pavement. “Bye-bye, arkadash,” he said; and standing by my bag, I watched him drive down the broken road back to the border.

Today, the Kapikule/Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint is said to be the world’s busiest land crossing. But back in 1989 Ibrahim had crossed this checkpoint alone, on foot. I will always think of him like this: a young teacher with a suitcase, walking through no-man’s-land, into the unknown.

Kapka Kassabova’s “Border: a Journey to the Edge of Europe” is published by Granta Books 

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda