Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Perceptions of the United States

Last night I took a long walk after dinner into unexplored areas of Baku. I walked to the end of the promenade by the Caspian Sea – and then turned up the hill and just kept walking. And walking. Past the train station. Past the familiar stores. Into areas where everything was unfamiliar. It’s not difficult to keep oriented in Baku, because you have large landmarks like the Caspian Sea.
At a certain point, I noticed an area marked off with chains and barriers. Not surprisingly, I realized that this was the U.S. Embassy. I have lived here now for nearly four months – but I’ve never been close to the embassy. As I understand it, a new embassy – much farther from the center – is being built. This is part of a global effort by the U.S. government to build its embassies in super-secure locations.
I realize the point for this – but I think this effort is indicative of just how counterproductive U.S. policy has been for the last seven years. We are trying to make ourselves more secure through strength, but a better policy would be to make other nations hate us less. People who do not travel outside the United States cannot realize the depths to which the United States has fallen in the estimation of many ordinary people in much of the world. I am not talking about terrorists or radicals. I am talking about middle-class citizens, who regard the United States as a hypocritical bully. The citizens of Azerbaijan, which if anything has a stronger relationship with the United States than many other nations in the region, often wonder why U.S. citizens hate Muslims. They regard the people of the United States as spoiled and foolish. The U.S. military is poorly regarded. People know that it has been greatly weakened by the debacle in Iraq.
Of course, people also like the potential that the United States represents, the ideal of democracy. But people doubt that these ideals are relevant as the United States conducts its foreign policy. Democracy is great at home – but inconvenient when other nations actually attempt to govern themselves.
People here – and I imagine in other countries too – have interesting perceptions about how the United States is governed. Many people are pretty cynical about how real the democratic ideals are even at home. Two conversations come to mind:
My hosts in Lenkoran had been visiting a relative in the hospital, a soldier who was there for some reason. (I wasn't sure if I understood the word that the mother said. It sounded like hemorrhoids – but I didn't want to ask any further. It seemed indelicate.) Anyway – she mentioned about what a rough time he's had in the army & how glad he was to see his visitors. He started crying. The "tradition" of abusing and beating new recruits is quite alive & well here. In Russia, it has been horrific in the past – with soldiers literally beaten or tortured to death by their "superiors." For what? To impose discipline? Just institutionalized sadism.
Anyway – the conversation moved easily to war (I'm against it) and foreign policy. And then the Iraq war & US – Iran relations (Iran is quite a large player in this part of the world). And finally to the US presidential election. I told them my preferences, and explained a little about the election process. Obama is favored, I told them, and I support Obama. They agreed that he is the better candidate – but they told me that the Masons will never let him hold power.
Yes, the Masons. They control everything in the United States. The daughter – who has lived in the United States for three years – said the Masons are very powerful in the USA. In fact, you see Masonic lodges in practically every town! The mother said that the only two presidents removed from office in recent years – Nixon & Kennedy – were the only presidents who weren't Masons.
"I read this somewhere," she noted.
Earlier in the evening, I had an interesting conversations with two close friends of Maxmud , the father of the household. They came over for dinner because the women-folk were out at some event. So we had a "men's night." While Maxmud fixed the shashlik (like kebabs), I talked politics with Rafael & the other man (whose name I forget. I will call him Anar.) We also talked about Iran, Iraq, and how far the US has fallen in the estimation of the public here. Anar was particularly concerned about the news of the night – about the rocket tests that Iraq had conducted.
Of course, there was always the chance that Israel, rather than the US would begin a war with Iran. But – the US was to blame for this – because of its unconditional support of Israel. (A position, by the way, that I completely agree with.) Why does the US support Israel? The Jews, Rafael triumphantly concluded. The Jews run the government in the USA.
So – there you have it. The Masons & the Jews. I'm not sure how this works, because as far as I know, Jews cannot be Masons. (For the record, I am neither a Jew nor a Mason. So – my information is perhaps suspect.) Perhaps it's some sort of power-sharing agreement. Or perhaps the Masons have changed their bylaws.
Seriously, the most interesting thing for me is that these discussions were not held with ordinary shopkeepers. These are really the intelligentsia of Azerbaijan. Mahmud is a film director. His wife is former teacher who now runs a human rights organization. Their son is a highly placed assistant to the current president of Azerbaijan. Mahmud's brother is a general in the country's security forces. Rafael is an ecologist & scientific researcher.
(I didn’t take a picture of the U.S. Embassy – because I thought I might get branded as a terrorist and hauled in for questioning. But here are some other pictures I took last night. A fountain in the neighborhood of the embassy. And two lovers by the Caspian Sea.)