Pulitzer Center Update

Round four: Winning essays

In July 2008, The Pulitzer Center partnered with Helium to produce its forth round of the Global Issues/Citizen Voices Writing contest. Contestents chose from multiple writing prompts related to international issues and Pulitzer Center reporting projects to sculp their winning essays. Read the winning essays below.

What would be the most dramatic difference, in terms of U.S. foreign policy, between a President John McCain and a President Barack Obama?
winning essay by Brian Bolin

Iran is viewed by many as America's most serious current threat and yet its youthful population is among the most pro-western of any Muslim country. What's behind that paradox, and what are its lessons for U.S. policy?
winning essay by David Chapronière

Why does the U.S. government support independence for the breakaway Serb territory of Kosovo but oppose independence for the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
winning essay by Matthew J. Geiger

Drugs, oil and possible war: What's driving the conflicts along Colombia's borders with Venezuela and Ecuador?
winning essay by Don K. Potochny

What would be the most dramatic difference, in terms of U.S. foreign policy, between a President John McCain and a President Barack Obama?
Winning essay by Brian Bolin

With our country starkly divided by an increasingly unpopular war, the 2008 Presidential candidates' positions on foreign relations and national security are prime selling points in the contentious election. Each man has accused the other of being out of step with the American public and the international community, and each has campaigned extensively on their positions on the war in Iraq, the Isreali-Palestinian conflict, and strategies to deal with burgeoning nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea. The most dramatic difference between the two senators' plans hinge on the use of diplomacy, and the role of military force in international conflict resolution.

Sen. McCain advocates keeping troops on the ground in Iraq for the long term, famously stating at a campaign event in Derry, NH that he would be "fine" if American troops stayed in Iraq for "a hundred years". His plan includes building permanent bases in Iraq and stationing troops there as part of an American military presence in the Middle East. Sen. Obama has run on an aggressive plan to bring troops home, with full withdrawal within 16 months of his inauguration according to his official website. Obama has also promised not to leave any permanent bases, and to leave only a handful of troops to secure American embassies and interests.

The candidates' differences on Iran generally boil down to a disagreement on whether or not it is appropriate to enter into discussions with the nation's controversial leadership. Obama has indicated that he is willing to sit down with Iranian president Ahmadinejad and work out a diplomatic solution to the Middle Eastern nation's nuclear ambitions. McCain has attacked his opponent for his position, claiming that Iran is a major threat to U.S. national security and that talks should not happen until Iran promises to cease nuclear enrichment. McCain has indicated that military force is "on the table" in regards to Iran, while Obama has indicated he is unwilling to jump to a military solution without exhausting talks.

Obama's willingness to engage in diplomacy also extends to other nations, such as Cuba, which has been under U.S. embargo since 1963. McCain strongly opposes normalization of relations with Cuba due to its communist regime. The two men similarly disagree on North Korea and on Russia, with McCain going so far as to calling for Russia to be ejected from the G-8. Obama has expressed concern about the turn Russia has made away from democracy, but indicated he would not go as far as McCain in punitive action against the nation, but would encourage the nation to make a return to a more open democracy.

When it comes to Israel, the differences between the senators begin to blur. Both men support Israel's right to defend itself from attacks from Hamas and other pro-Palestinian groups, but both men are viewed with skepticism by both sides of the conflict. Obama's views on diplomacy with Iran and his assertion that peace with the Palestinians must include sacrifices from both sides is somewhat poorly received in an Israel fresh off of 8 years of an extremely Israel-friendly Bush administration. McCain has also called for concessions in peace talks, most notably, and controversially, in an interview with Jewish newspaper Haaratz, where he indicated he would support re-drawing Israel boundaries to their 1967 lines, which would require withdrawal from the West Bank, a position that is extremely unpopular in the Jewish state.

Ultimately, the final difference seems to be a matter of change versus a continuation of our current course. With very few exceptions, McCain's foreign policy is a continuation of the Bush administration ideals of aggressive military spending and deployment, non-negotiation with enemies, and a continuation of the Iraq war. Obama favors more diplomatic solutions, and a quick end to the Iraq war. The decision voters make in November will determine the course of American discourse in the world at large, and to our relationship with our enemies.

Iran is viewed by many as America's most serious current threat and yet its youthful population is among the most pro-western of any Muslim country. What's behind that paradox, and what are its lessons for U.S. policy?
Read winning essay by David Chapronière

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Iran is a country of paradox and dichotomy: Pro-west youths are juxtaposed against an oppressive theocratic democracy. Women can - in contrast to certain other Middle Eastern countries - have their faces uncovered in public, wear make-up, and take up education and employment, but must cover their hair and have certain rights curtailed. Iran is an oil-rich state with an unstable economy and an apparent quest for nuclear energy. And the country is perceived by many foreigners as an Arab Middle Eastern state, whereas its people largely regard themselves as Persian.

That the US and its allies see Iran as a threat is not surprising, given President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's anti-west and anti-Israel hyperbolic rants. The problem, however, is that the foreign policies of the US and its allies appear to target the entire nation, and not just its leaders.

Naturally, a state's foreign policy should inform its citizens of the outside threats against them as well as the allies they can rely upon. Yet the language of foreign policy, and its percolation through the media to the world's public, is key to how accurate is the overall perception of an outside threat. The general perception of Iran could be seen to be at odds with other conflicts and diplomatic pressures in the global war on terror and the west's open criticism of political oppression and human rights abuses.

In South Africa, for example, apartheid was of worldwide concern. In Afghanistan, the fight is against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. In Iraq, the focus was on Saddam Hussein and his cronies. In Zimbabwe, fingers are pointed at Robert Mugabe and his henchmen. In all of these examples, the main concern of western leaders was or is with the majority population being controlled by a minority dictatorship - often a key consideration in modern western foreign policies. Yet such consideration seems to be lacking in the case of Iran. There appears to be little talk from western governments of their fears for ordinary Iranians controlled by the doctrines of the ruling radical clerics.

Many Iranians, such as the more liberal, educated middle classes, are becoming more openly critical of their president and the clerics. Among these is a youthful population looking west for democratic inspiration.

Iran has a majority young population, with around two thirds under age 30, and within this group a not-so-quiet cultural revolution against the authorities is taking place. This demographic has a surprisingly open freedom of speech and expression, and more surprisingly the authorities are doing little to curtail that freedom for fear of an uprising. While the clerics do exert some control (such as ensuring men and women do not openly touch or take part in team pursuits together in public, and young women keep their hair covered in public), some young men and women (in the latter case strictly forbidden) are now expressing their views through US-style rap and hip-hop, with explicit and politically charged lyrics, and publishing them over the internet and performing them illegally in public. Compare this with youths in other countries, where the more obvious consequences of disenfranchisement are violence, social disorder and/or a move towards religious extremism.

There remains, though, suspicion in Iran towards the west, more particularly the US and the UK. The risk of current western foreign policy towards Iran is that, should matters turn for the worse, how does the west keep influential Iranian youths onside? Here, perhaps the west would do well to utilise its more accepted policy of attacking the renegade leaders and expressing concern for the needs of the people, and not merely bleat repeated rhetoric against the whole nation.

The fact remains that young Iranians, just like young people elsewhere in the world, are impressionable. If, say, a US-led coalition were to attack Iran and innocent people were killed, the currently pro-west Iranian young could just as easily turn against the US and its allies.

US foreign policy-makers should recognise that a more progressive and liberal Iran lies in the hands of Iran's young population. There is an opportunity here to build bridges with a dynamic and democratically charged majority in an influential Middle Eastern state.

To ignore that could prove to be the west's undoing: the real danger is that, by taking action against the nation instead of focusing on its pantomime-villain president and oppressive clerics, today's impressionable pro-west Iranian youths could become tomorrow's anti-west suicide bombers.

Why does the U.S. government support independence for the breakaway Serb territory of Kosovo but oppose independence for the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Read winning essay by Matthew J. Geiger

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In February of 2008, Kosovo took the final steps necessary to establish itself as an independent sovereign state. In turn, the process sparked civil unrest among Serbians while support from the United States lead Serbs to burn the US embassy in Serbia. Despite the consequences, the US continues to support the newly formed independent state as is consistent with the democratic belief that all people deserve the opportunity to choose their government. On the other hand, other bodies seeking independence, such the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, do not enjoy America's blessing. Under closer examination, the decision to support Kosovo's independence and not the independence of other states involves more than ideological considerations.

Considering Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia maintain similar histories of forced rule by various groups with spotted periods of independence, their regions have equally legitimate claims to independence. Only from 1946 to 1989 did Kosovo enjoy autonomy in recent history. Abkhazia had long enjoyed being an autonomous state, even when it was a member of the USSR, while South Ossetia has been fighting for its independence since the nineteenth century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both states declared themselves independent sovereign states, but Georgia refused to recognize their independence. Furthermore, with their own cultures and languages, these ethnicities certainly have not been fully assimilated into their parent nations where these groups take on a minority status and are often marginalized. Given their similar circumstances and histories of autonomy, it appears only reasonable that all three states deserve their independence.

Looking at the issue in broader terms of international conflict, however, reveals a situation that is far more complex. In 1999, US lead NATO forces began military operations against the former state of Yugoslavia in order to halt the systematic genocide of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. By reacting to the state sponsored terrorism conducted by Slobodan Milosevic, the United States politically and morally bound itself to achieving stability in the region. Ultimately, the solution to ending ethnic violence was to divide the region into several small sovereign nations; therefore, supporting an independent Kosovo is consistent with US policy. Moreover, it is viewed as a means of preventing future conflict and building stability in the region despite recent outbreaks of violence.

On the other hand, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which was created by former Soviet states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been prone to unstable relations and infighting, thus, characterizing the region as unstable. As such, supporting the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would likely further divide the region and weaken diplomatic relations with the US as Georgia has aggressively pursued its right to hold onto these territories through military action. While Kosovo's independence has the potential of helping bring greater stability to the Balkans, recognizing the independence of Abkahazia and South Ossetia would likely create further instability in an already fragile region.

Furthermore, this apparent conflict of interests has Cold War roots as Russia supports the independence of the two Georgian territories, yet fiercely fought to hold onto Georgia. As a former Soviet state, Georgia falls within Russia's immediate sphere of influence, thus, reinforcing the political strength of Georgia remains an objective of US foreign policy. As high crude prices bolster Russia's economic power and an antidemocratic movement engulfs Russia, there is the possibility Russia may move to reclaim some of its former territories. By encouraging instability in the region and allying with the two breakaway territories, Russia has the potential to form closer relations with its former territories and reassert its influence over the region. From Russia's perspective, America's support of Georgia might be considered a means of maintaining and expanding US influence.

Moreover, although America is dedicated to the spread of democracy, it must pursue what it perceives to be in its interests. While opening government to the people and helping minorities gain political representation is a means of securing democracy for the world and the homeland, democracy can only be enjoyed and embraced by a people when there is stability and peace. With the oppressive history of Russia fresh in our memories, a less influential Russia is viewed as beneficial to the United States and democracy. Under Georgian rule, the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not enjoy the right of sovereignty, but would be less susceptible to the suppressive influence of Russia while greater stability in the region leaves the territories with the possibility of achieving democratic representation within the Georgian state.

Drugs, oil and possible war: What's driving the conflicts along Colombia's borders with Venezuela and Ecuador?
Read winning essay by Don K. Potochny

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Deep inside the lush jungle in northeastern Ecuador, a Byzantine pattern of pipelines moves solvents to distribution centers throughout the country. For drug traffickers that lurk on the other side of the San Miguel and Putumayo rivers, the pipelines represent an abundant supply of Petroleum ether (white gasoline). The white gas is used by Colombian cocaine cartels to transform coca leaves into pure cocaine.

Ecuadorean police and military officials estimate that 10,000 gallons of white gas are illegally brought into Colombia on a daily basis. Seventy percent of the 10,000 gallons is used as a solvent in cocaine laboratories.

The primary beneficiary of ramped up cocaine production is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist revolutionary militia that has fought a civil war with the Colombian government for nearly forty years. FARC finances its military operations by producing cocaine, mostly in areas along the Ecuador-Colombia border.

Besides tapping into ecuadorean pipelines with home made spigots, FARC rebels also rob gas trucks and facilities owned by Ecuador's national oil company, Petroecuador. Storing the gas in fifty-five gallon oil drums, the rebels transport the white gas across the border or they take it to drug laboratories that are increasingly being set up in Ecuador. The smuggling of white gas has become a strong point of contention between Ecuador and Colombia.

Since the United States stepped up support for the Colombian government with a seventeen billion dollar cocaine eradication program, the rebels have been forced to head deep into the Colombian jungle that borders Ecuador. The use of herbicide on coca crops has continued in the jungle region, leading the rebels to organize relocation camps just inside of Ecuador's border.

FARC's position inside of Ecuador created unprecedented tension between the Ecuadorean and Colombian governments. After months of increased acrimony, Colombian troops raided FARC positions inside of Ecuador on March 1, 2008. Colombian officials have long complained the rebels were allowed to take refuge in both Ecuador and Venezuela.

The March first raid killed FARC's Number two in command Raul Reyes. The death of Reyes, couple with the March 26 death of longtime FARC leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, considerably weakened FARC's leadership hierarchy and forced rebel troops to regroup deeper inside of Ecuador.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez immediately inflamed the animus between Ecuador and Colombia after the March 1 raid by threatening military action against Colombia. Ecuador broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia and ordered troops to its shared border.

Chavez's influence in the region has grown as his country's oil coffers have expanded. Venezuela earned $ 29.8 billion in oil revenue during 2004. Chavez expects oil revenue to top $75 billion in 2008. The dramatic increase in oil revenues has given Chavez the resources to upgrade his military. While still not on par with Colombia's, Venezuela has invested in modern aircraft that negates some of Colombia's strategic advantages.

Exacerbating the tensions, Colombian refugees are streaming into Ecuador to escape the crossfire of a drug-fueled civil war and herbicide dispensing anti-narcotic planes. Ecuador has initiated a lawsuit in World Court to outlaw the US funded herbicide campaign within six miles of the Colombia-Ecuador border. The country has for years tried to diplomatically resolve the dispute with Colombia. By taking the issue to the World Court, Ecuador may be fanning the flames of a regional war.

Colombia, Ecuador and Peru have a history of conflicts over disputed borders and parcels of oil rich real estate. In 1998, Equador and Peru signed a landmark peace treaty that ended a fifty-seven year old dispute over a small section of the Amazon jungle. During the lengthy dispute, the countries went to war three times.

Venezuela is now involved in the volatile oil and cocaine mix. Venezuelan military repositioning and financial support for anti-Colombian groups like FARC has increased instability in the region.

The region is once again on the brink of war, a victim of the incendiary combination of drug and oil money.