The final frontier of this voyage.
I cross over from Poland at what must be the nicest border town I've ever experienced: Chocholow (PL). Border crossings are often fairly sleazy affairs. Here the town - a regular farming village - is 2 kms from the frontier. The only recognition given to its international status is a pension ($5) and excellent restaurant (http://www.sliwa.chocholow.pl). Plenty of traditional wooden houses set against the Tatre mountains. What more could a cyclist desire?
Southern Poland and northern Slovakia have the only mountains I encounter on this trip. Most of the route, however, meanders in river valleys and along rail tracks. It's the most scenic section of the 8-week trip. This is a land of wooden houses and churches, cobbled squares and castles, with an abundance of heavy industry dotting the landscape.
The Slovak Republic is a country that has been beat up by history, not unlike the other nations along my trip (one might say that Russia's wounds were mostly self-inflicted). The people here are friendly - not so outgoing as the Polish - and I continue to notice tight-knit families, with less generational divide and general disfunctionalism than in the US, not dissimilar to China.
I also witness more vestiges of Soviet life and thinking. In towns, not too much service with a smile. I notice village-wide PA systems, something I've not heard since visiting Viet Nam. Many rural roads are lined with fruit and nut trees which drop their apples, plums and the like to rot at roadside. Where they purposely planted - a directive from central planning - to create jobs or provide nourishment in times of famine. Now a wasted resource.
Slovakia has a fine system of bike routes, well-signed, for both on- and off-road. I begin to see more recreational and touring cyclists. Hiking maps of 1:50,000 scale are available, with cycle routes marked, but these are too detailed for my needs on this brief trip.
I then hop over to Zilina for a 2-day stay with another SERVAS host and sample various cuisine and libation. After 7 weeks of beer drinking, I've found a country which produces vast quantities of international quality wines and dirt-cheap prices. From Zilina small roads and a detour get me to some attractions: the Slovak Bethlehem, a carved miniature wooden village in action, with mechanical figures chopping wood and the like, a Christmas type manger scene which shows a town at work; Cicmany, a village - real sized - known for its wooden houses painted with geometrical designs. I overnight at Trencin, the towering castle over looking the riverside campground. (Slovaks in cabins, Germans in camping cars and me and some other cyclists in tents). Two more days along river valleys and a 30-minute view of an 8 towered nuclear power facility and I arrive in Bratislava, the capital, underrated and not too touristic.
Old town Bratislava is laidback and pleasant for walking. More cafe seats per square meter than any other place I've visited. The city is ringed by Soviet style residential blocks. I stay with SERVAS hosts in one of them. There are shops inside the complex and it is built into a hillside and is quite humane, the human density not too stifling. This completes my very pleasant SERVAS trip.
Just a few more hours to Vienna - a total voyage of 4,100 kms. I've heard it said that your last cycle tour is always your best. So it is.
27 August 2003
The questions I've been asked most frequently on this trip (other than the personal ones: why I live in China, do I speak Chinese, etc.) relate to the current US war, the one in Iraq. I'll provide my comments here, which are in the form of an analysis rather than an opinion, as to the reasons for this foreign policy endeavor.
US foreign policy has one over-riding principle: do what is in the best interests of the US. For the past 50 years at least since the end of WW II, policy has been consistent with this principle. Many wars and covert actions have been undertaken, none in my opinion justified on moral or practical grounds. Each president has acted more or less like each other one. They have different styles and use different tactics, but at the end of the day, I believe, most of them, given the circumstances of 2003, in this post 9-11 environment, would have acted much the same as the current occupant of the White House. As much as liberals would like to call this "Bush's war," it is a war consistent with the overriding principle and approved by a great majority of the public. In a polity where many issues split the country down the middle -- capital punishment, gun control, drug law reform, health reform, abortion, etc. -- the attack on Iraq received a 70-80% approval, depending on how the survey question was phased.
Wars are often fought on simple - actually simplistic - premises, a favorite being to rid the world of evil, or at least the evil men who do evil things. This was one of the major rationales for the US attack on Iraq. I believe many of those who advocated this purpose as legitimate believed it to be so. Few Americans would describe Hussein in terms much different from "evil," and regime change was indeed one of the two stated reasons for war. The other and related reason was his alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The fact that Hussein has not been proved to have had such WMD or that North Korea was more dangerous in this regard are not important. There's no rule that says that US foreign policy has to be fair, logical, humanitarian, ethical, a benefit to the world or anything else. The only criterion it must meet, historically, is that is serves the interests of the US. To see how the war serves US interests one must go beyond the stated reasons for engagement.
What are US interests? As defined by Republicans, they include Republican possession of the White House. Once the Supremes put Bush in the White House, it seemed clear that his advisors' number one priority became his re-election (Democrats would say election) 4 years later. Wars might help or they might hurt presidents' political futures, and one certainly does not wage war without an eye on the electoral timetable. The Bush family had unfinished business in Iraq. The alleged attempted assassination of Bush Senior surely influenced Bush Junior's opinion of the Iraq leader. Furthermore, the US economy was in a down cycle, kept there partly by reluctant investors and consumers uncertain over war. But once the military build-up as prelude to war was underway, there was no way war could be averted. There was nothing Hussein could do regarding the UN inspection teams or his own political future that would avert way. How could the US president withdraw troops from the Persian Gulf without a war and not look like a total fool. The dispatch of the first troops meant that war had started.
There have been plenty of evil leaders around the globe that didn't attract US wrath. Indeed, many were friends, Hussein among them at one time. But those friendly leaders did not sit on huge oil deposits either. The major US interest in Iraq obviously concerns oil, cheap oil. To say the war was not about oil is to ignore the obvious.
When it comes to oil pricing and supply, the US is mostly left out of the loop. The Saudis call the shots; the US watches. If the US, however, had a friend in Iraq, it could very well have at least some influence on world oil. The US supports the unified pricing of oil and the functions of the oil cartel. If the US chose to go it alone, to be isolationist in oil matters, it would need virtually no Middle East oil. Venezuela and Mexico could provide the US with the imported oil it needs. US domestic production could provide the rest. There's Texas and Alaska. If the prices were high enough, it would be feasible to uncap domestic oil wells, which have become economically unviable to operate with low oil prices.
Who then depends on Middle East oil? Our good friends and sometimes friendly competitors, the Europeans. If the US had some influence on oil pricing and supply, it would necessarily be a more important political actor on the European stage. Europe (first Western, now the whole of) has been seen more a friend than a foe of the US. But Europe is changing. Who knows what the European Community will become, perhaps more competitive and less subservient than the US would desire. It seems logical to me, if a bit convoluted, to say that a war in Iraq is not divorced from US-European oil matters.
US foreign policy is often accompanied by an almost evangelical zeal. America likes to export its culture and values around the world - and much of the world likes much of what it imports from the US. Americans do believe their country is the best in the world. The war in Iraq is about one set of values - liberal democracy and US-directed capitalism and globalization - deemed to be better than another - those of a fairly ruthless dictator.
So when I am asked, as I have been so often on this trip, for my views on why the US attacked Iraq, I respond as above. A variety of issues conflated to produce a foreign policy that met with the country's approval.