Challenge before Obama
PRESIDENT Barack Hussein Obama’s inauguration on Jan 20 reminds one of the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt 75 years ago in 1933.
He also took over from a thoroughly inept and unpopular predecessor, Herbert Hoover.
But he had one advantage. Not much was expected of him. The electorate voted for him simply because it wanted change. So low indeed were the expectations that Walter Lippmann dismissed him as an ambitious dilettante, “a highly impressionable person without a firm grasp of public affairs and without very strong convictions. He is an amicable man … but he is not the dangerous enemy of anything … a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.”
Obama faces the gravest challenges that any president can face and people, at home and abroad, expect a lot of him. There was little precision in his campaign speeches. On South Asia, he tended to be simplistic. On the issue of Arab-Israeli relations he supported the extreme Israeli position on Jerusalem one day only to hint another day that failure to support Israel on all points does not imply hostility towards it.
Since his election last November he has received advice from varied sources. One stands out. It comes from a person of deep insight; who lived up, when in high office, to advice he now delivers; and who has touched a core issue which most ignore — Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union.
The ravages of George W. Bush and his overbearing understudy Dick Cheney in various parts of the world made most overlook a wrong of fundamental importance that they had inflicted. They had undermined the legitimacy and stability of the international system. As well as wantonly felling some precious trees, they upset the ecology and peace of the entire wood. John Bolton, their permanent representative to the United Nations, famously said that treaties were just “political documents”. In law the United Nations’ Charter is also a treaty. International law and sovereignty of nation-states were freely violated. Human rights were treated with contempt.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 removed the sole challenge to the United States’ hegemony. Far from moderating the outlook of neo-conservatives, it fuelled their ambitions. Their hour came when Bush and Cheney won power in 2001. They relinquished it last Tuesday leaving the legacy of a world order shaken to its roots; an estranged Russia, a sceptical Europe and an enraged Muslim world. China is none too pleased either.
Therein lies the relevance of both Gorbachev’s diagnosis of the state of the world and his advice of the repairs it needs now, which he delivered early this month. “I am convinced that the root cause of the current widespread upheaval is the inability and even unwillingness of political leaders to correctly evaluate the situation after the end of the Cold War and jointly chart a new course. The ‘winner’s complex’ — the fanfare of triumph sounded by the West after the Soviet Union left the international arena — obscured the fact that the end of the Cold War was not a victory for one side or one ideology. It was instead a common challenge, a call for major change.”
George F. Kennan sagely remarked that “expanding Nato (eastwards) would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” That error was perpetrated with great zeal by the Bush administration.Gorbachev’s recipe is simple but of great consequence — abandon the notion that there is “a single power centre” and engage with the world. This implies that the United States must shed its unilateralist approach. “We need to encourage equitable dialogue, democratise relations among nations and push back militaristic tendencies in politics and thinking. This amounts to a new agenda for international politics.”
At the centre of this engagement lies reconciliation with Russia. Its cause was espoused stridently by none other than the Libyan leader Muammar Al Qadhafi in an article published a month ago, shortly after he returned from a state visit to Russia. He made an interesting suggestion. “As America reassesses its role in the world under a new president, it should consider a return to the Monroe Doctrine, which called for non-interference in problems or relations with Europe, and non-expansion by European countries of their colonial hegemony towards America. This principle of non-interference should be extended by and for all countries of the world.”
That is unlikely to happen. Europe is divided and needs the United States, no matter how indifferently it is treated by the sole surviving superpower. That said, the principle of non-interference and “non-expansion” of influence has much to commend itself for. Such abstinence must be accompanied by engagement before policy is made. On a host of problems that beset the world today national, or even regional, solutions will not work. They need an international consensus.
Will Barack Obama change course and to what degree? He is not a free agent. No leader is. But he is also an advocate of change and sincerely desires change. It is his own worldview that will prevail. If legitimacy devoid of the support of power is a fragile asset, power devoid of legitimacy incites revolt and is a recipe for instability and disorder in the international system. The world yearns for a just order.
The writer is a lawyer and an author.
The war on education
THIS week we saw many terrible pictures in the newspapers of buildings in Gaza reduced to rubble by the vicious Israeli air strikes that killed over 1,000 Palestinians, 400 of whom were women and children.
Palestinian women tend to have large families, larger than Jewish ones, and out of the fear that Arabs will outnumber Israelis in the next 40 years, Israel is deliberately targeting women who have the power to bring life into the world.
But those weren’t the only pictures of destroyed buildings we were confronted with. For in an outrageous move, militants in Swat had given the government a deadline of Jan 15, 2009, after which they demanded that all girls’ schools be closed in the area. When the government vowed to reopen schools in the already besieged area, the militants blew up more girls’ and boys’ schools, adding to the casualties in their violent campaign against education. The pictures of people standing around and gawping at the rubble were all too reminiscent of what happened to schools, mosques, hospitals and homes in Gaza.
But where were the protest marches? The placards, condemning this all-out assault on one of the basic rights of the people of Pakistan? Where were the effigies being burnt, the slogans, the tears of outrage? When it is Israelis killing Palestinians, we’re ready to fight, but when it’s militants bombing children’s schools, we’re suddenly silent. What’s wrong with this picture?
It’s not enough that they’ve destroyed over 180 schools, forcing more than 50,000 girls and boys to sit at home instead of learning how to read and write. They’ve also ordered that women should not leave their houses. This reminds me of Taliban rule in Afghanistan 10 years ago, when women and girls were treated atrociously in the name of extremist Islam; it also reminds me of a piece I wrote for the South Asian literary website Chowk, called ‘A Heavy Price To Pay’:
“Our men — if anything, they are doubly weighted by the burden of watching us being buried alive. There is no joy in our houses, no life in our hearts. We are the living dead.
“They have told us that the only life for us is in the house, taking care of our children, doing the washing, cooking, cleaning. If they could, they would gouge out our eyes so we could not see, our ears so we could not hear. But see and hear we do, and with every heartbeat we record more and more of this injustice in our hearts.
“I, too, used to have dreams!...
“Now, all I can do is watch the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening through the panes of blacked-out glass in my house. And count the days that go by, and listen to the crackle of artillery fire in the distance. When I pray, I ask God if this is the way He wanted it to be for us. Sometimes I think about the Prophet (PBUH), and how loving he was to his wives. He treated them as precious gifts, not dirty pieces of offal to be thrown out with the morning’s garbage. How I wish I had paid more attention to the plight of my sisters in Afghanistan! When they, too, were made prisoners in their own homes, surely they must have screamed — but I was too foolish to hear their voices and heed their warning. ‘We are modern!’ I told everyone proudly. ‘We are Pakistanis! We will never stand for that kind of treatment.’
“May God forgive me for my arrogance.”
When I wrote those lines in 1998, I never dreamed that they would become a reality for so many of my sisters. But today, in 2009, I see that my words were not the product of an overactive imagination or an unnecessary paranoia. They are prescient, warning words that filtered into the unconscious part of me, which recognised violence and misogyny as one of the most contagious diseases of the heart in this part of the world.
But why should I care what happens to the poor girls and boys of Swat, or Afghanistan, or Balochistan, or Sindh? My parents were enlightened people, who never stopped me from getting an education. They spared no expense to send me to private school, helped me with my homework, and forced me to study when I was feeling lazy. They made sure I got to school each day, safely and quickly. Due to their diligence, today I have a graduate school degree from the best university in the world. We’re different from those poor tribals in far-flung areas. Why should what is happening in Swat affect us?
The answer lies in the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than 28 or 30, I can never be totally healthy… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made.”These words were quoted in Reverend Sharon Watkin’s speech at the National Prayer Service, a day after Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States. She went on to say, “You yourself, Mr President, have already added to this call, ‘If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child…. It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work’.”
That same attitude, if we hold it towards the little children of Swat who aren’t being permitted to learn how to read, would go part of the way towards making our country — our broken, tottering country — work. Because even if I have an education, even if I sleep safely at night in a warm bed on a full stomach, I am not whole or healthy as long as there are people in Pakistan who do not share the same privilege. Realising that we are all connected to one another — that what happens in Swat, in Peshawar, in Sindh, in Balochistan affects all of us — is what it means to be a citizen of this country. It’s what it means to be a Pakistani.
Every day in Karachi I see little children walking along the roads, wearing government school uniforms, carrying book bags on their backs and in their hands, smiling, laughing, or looking weary at the long hours they’ve put in learning how to read and write. It’s a beautiful sight. But until I see a photograph in the newspaper that captures children in Swat doing the same thing, I can’t be happy — and we, as a nation, won’t be free.
The writer is a Pakistani novelist.
Will the US now treat the world better?
THE tears are finally drying — the tears of the Bush years, and the tears of awe at the sight of a black president of the United States. So what now? The cliche of the day is that Barack Obama will inevitably disappoint the hopes of a watching world, but the truth is more subtle than that.
If we want to see how Obama will affect us all — for good or bad — we need to trace the deep structural factors that underlie United States foreign policy. A useful case study of these pressures is about to flicker on to our news pages for a moment — from the top of the world.
Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America, and its lofty slums 13,000 feet above sea level seem a world away from the high theatre of the inauguration. But if we look at this country closely, we can explain one of the great paradoxes of the United States — that it has incubated a triumphant civil rights movement at home, yet thwarted civil rights movements abroad. Bolivia shows us in stark detail the contradictions facing a black president of the American empire.
The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has a story strikingly similar to Obama’s. In 2006, he became the first indigenous president of his country — and a symbol of the potential of democracy. When the Spanish arrived in Bolivia in the 16th century, they enslaved the indigenous people and worked millions to death. As recently as the 1950s, an indigenous person wasn’t even allowed to walk through the centre of La Paz, where the presidential palace and city cathedral stand. They were (and are) routinely compared to monkeys and apes.
Morales was born to a poor potato-farmer in the mountains, and grew up scavenging for discarded orange peel or banana skins to eat. Of his seven siblings, four died in infancy. Throughout his adult life, it was taken for granted that the country would be ruled by the white minority; the “Indians” were too “child-like” to manage a country.
Given that the US is constitutionally a democracy and its presidents say they are committed to spreading democracy across the world, you would expect them to welcome the democratic rise of Morales. But wait. Bolivia has massive reserves of natural gas — a geo-strategic asset, and one that rakes in billions for American corporations. Here is where the complications set in.
Before Morales, the white elite was happy to allow American companies to simply take the gas and leave the Bolivian people with short change: just 18 per cent of the royalties. Indeed, they handed almost the entire country to US interests, while skimming a small percentage for themselves.
Morales ran for election against this agenda. He said that Bolivia’s resources should be used for the benefit of millions of bitterly poor Bolivians, not a tiny number of super-rich Americans. He kept his promise. Now Bolivia keeps 82 per cent of the vast gas royalties — and he has used the money to increase health spending by 300 per cent, and to build the country’s first pension system. He is one of the most popular leaders in the democratic world. Millions of people are seeing doctors and schools for the first time in their lives.
I suspect that a majority of the American people — who are good and decent — would be pleased and support this process if they were told about it honestly. But how did the US government (and much of the media) react? George Bush fulminated that “democracy is being eroded in Bolivia”, and a recent US ambassador to the country compared Morales to Osama bin Laden. Why? To them, you are a democrat if you give your resources to US corporations, and you are a dictator if you give them to your own people. The will of the Bolivian people is irrelevant.
For these reasons, the US has been moving to trash Morales. By an odd quirk of fate, almost all of Bolivia’s gas supplies are in the east of the country — where the richest, whitest part of the population lives. So the US government has been funding and fuelling the hard-right separatist movements that want these regions to break away. Then the whites would happily hand the gas to US companies like in the good old days — and Morales would be left without resources. The interference became so severe that last September Morales had to expel the US ambassador for “conspiring against democracy”.
Bolivia illustrates the tension. The rise of Morales reminds us of the America the world loves: its yes-we-can openness and civil rights movements. Yet the presence of gas reminds us of the America the world hates: the desire to establish “full spectrum dominance” over the world’s resources, whatever the pesky natives think.
Which America will Obama embody? Obama has made it clear he wants a dialogue, rather than the abuse of the Bush years. The structural pressures within the US system that drove hostility to a democratic civil rights leader like Morales have not dissolved in the cold Washington air. The US is still dependent on foreign fossil fuels to keep its lights on, and US corporations still buy senators from both parties. Obama will still be swayed by those factors.
But while this is a reason to be frustrated, it isn’t a reason to be cynical. Why? Because while he will be swayed by those factors, he will also subtly erode them over time. Obama also says he wants to peel back the distorting effect of corporate money on the US political system. But we will see.
— © The Independent