December Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 15 years ago

Never before has the result of an American presidential election triggered such an emotional response on such an enormous scale: when Barack Obama was informally declared as the winner in the early hours on November 5, a palpable wave of joy rapidly made its way right around the world. There were two main reasons for this reaction.

For anyone even vaguely familiar with African-American history of the past 400 years, it was impossible not to be profoundly moved by the prospect of a black man in the White House. Although slavery was abolished a century-and-a half ago, at the time Barack was born to an American mother and a Kenyan father in 1961, negroes (as they were then known) in the United States were still striving for the right to vote and other basic attributes of citizenship. Existence through much of the southern US was subject to a form of apartheid.

Those engaged during the early 1960s in the largely (but by no means exclusively) black struggle for civil rights could not have conceived of an African-American president within their lifetimes. It is hardly surprising that for many veterans of that hugely significant movement, rapture at Obama’s triumph was mingled with disbelief. Benjamin Todd Jealous, a contributor to the American magazine The Nation, described the reaction around him as TV channels projected Obama as the winner:

“Some stood in shock, unable even to applaud. Others hooted, high-fived, cheered and hugged … But it was the third response that was most captivating. They melted – some to the floor, some against the wall, some into another person’s arms. They sobbed with the force of centuries …

“There was a woman standing next to me who, with pleading eyes, kept begging for reassurance. ‘It’s real, right? He won, right? They can’t take it away, right?’

“No one can take it away. This moment … cannot be taken away because it was not given. It was earned.”

Millions upon millions of African-Americans reacted in similar fashion. And Obama was all too aware of the weight of history as he made a victory speech in front of a crowd of 200,000 in Chicago, invoking the ghosts of Abraham Lincoln, who ended slavery in the mid-19th century, and Martin Luther King Jr., who 100 years later had a dream that one day people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.

Quibbles that Obama isn’t really representative of African-Americans because he is not descended from slaves are beside the point. No one should doubt the deep historic significance of his achievement thus far – almost no black American does – and this aspect cannot seriously be dimmed by any disappointments to come in the policy sphere.

The second biggest reason for American and international euphoria was the prospect of seeing the back, at long last, of the exceptionally atrocious Bush administration. Despite America’s abysmal record in this context, arguably no previous administration has been abhorred quite so vehemently and on such a grand scale. In fact, in the circumstances there is some cause for surprise that the Democratic candidate did not win by a considerably healthier margin. But for the economic crash and, to some extent, the Republican Party’s pathetic vice-presidential choice, it is not inconceivable that a McCain administration would have been preparing to take over next month.

Quite apart from Sarah Palin’s inane (albeit entertaining) contributions to the campaign, John McCain effectively cooked his own goose when he nonchalantly declared, as one financial pillar after another crumbled, that the fundamentals of the economy were sound – thereby indicating that he was either lying or simply clueless.

Inevitably, efforts to tackle the economy will take priority for the incoming Obama administration. In fact, the president-elect has already been engaged in putting together initiatives and stimulus packages. He is also fully cognisant of the numerous other challenges that await his attention, ranging from his nation’s dysfunctional health system to two wars that are going nowhere, in more than one sense. The uncommonly long interval between his election and inauguration has given him the opportunity to take his time in putting together a team. To widespread dismay, he seems intent on populating the top tier of his administration with second-tier holdovers from the Clinton years.

They bring with them considerable baggage. The naming of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff was followed by a gratuitously racist comment from the appointee’s Israel-based father: “Obviously he’ll influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to be mopping floors at the White House.” Emanuel promptly apologised to Arab-Americans, but he would probably have been required to do a lot more had the snide reference been directed at a different ethnic group.

On a different level, the choice of Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers as treasury secretary and chief economic adviser has sparked considerable concern, given that both of them are counted among the architects of the deregulatory mechanisms that are considered responsible to a large extent for this year’s crisis. Meanwhile, the retention of Robert Gates as defence secretary is even more alarming, given that it implies something worse than the restoration of the Clinton administration: it establishes a link with the justifiably reviled Bush administration. It has been interpreted as a concession to the fact that the US is at war in two theatres. Besides, whatever Gates’s shortcomings, he clearly is no Donald Rumsfeld.

He has been supportive, of course, of a conflict Obama has decried in the past as a stupid war. But it would be unreasonable to expect that to count as a disqualification, given that the vice-president-elect Joe Biden, likely secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and any number of other Democrats closely involved in the Obama transition were, at one point or another, enthusiastic about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Many of them have not substantially changed their minds. What explains this phenomenon is Obama’s apparent obsession, of late, with emulating Abe Lincoln’s so-called team of rivals: the abolitionist president accommodated several of his adversaries within Republican ranks in his cabinet.

One presumes the president-elect is well aware that the experiment wasn’t particularly successful. However, the Obama camp has let it be known that the incoming administration’s guiding vision will flow directly from the new president, and that the members of his team are being chosen not for the views they hold, but for their potential effectiveness in getting the job done. It is an interesting concept, and one can understand why the one-term senator from Illinois did not wish to establish himself at the helm with an inexperienced crew. But, notwithstanding Obama’s supreme confidence, the project could mire his presidency in internecine strife. It is also somewhat alarming that not a single progressive has thus far been inducted into his governance team.

It is possible, of course, that Obama will be able to use the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity offered by the prevailing conditions to tame capital and reorient the economy, making it more equitable and less dependent on the whims of mammoth corporations and billionaires who run them. It is possible that he will succeed in changing his nation’s status as one of the only truly rich countries that denies its citizens universal healthcare. To strive for such achievements, he will need to follow the path not of Lincoln but of Franklin Roosevelt, who assumed power at the height of the Great Depression.

However, it was popular pressure from trade unions and other political organisations that pushed Roosevelt towards progressive measures such as huge public works projects. By analogy, the thoroughly effective grassroots activism that propelled Obama into the White House will need to be kept alive to ensure he delivers on the hope he helped to engender.

Among the reasons why his triumph was applauded so enthusiastically more or less around the globe was the impression that his conduct of foreign affairs would differ very substantially from the incumbent’s deplorable lack of diplomatic graces and his refusal generally to accept that disagreements between allies can be a beneficial component of international relations. The biblical, black-and-white injunction that you’re either with us or against us was never likely to make friends and influence people. This was a reflection, of course, of Bush’s manichean vision, and even heads of government who felt obliged to humour his narrow limitations will heave a sigh of relief on January 20.

So far, Obama hasn’t had to do much to generate a tremendous amount of goodwill worldwide. In the longer term, his success on the international front will be evaluated on the basis of words and actions, rather than aura. There is obviously enormous room for improvement on every front, ranging from relations with Russia (which could be improved at a stroke by abandoning the absurd project of installing a so-called missile shield in Eastern Europe) to a civil discourse with hitherto ostracised nations in the neighbourhood, such as Cuba and Venezuela, and the attitude towards Iran. Obama was roundly criticised during the campaign – by Hillary Clinton as well as John McCain – for expressing a willingness to hold talks with leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Raul Castro. It must be hoped that he’ll be bold and resolute in this respect, even with Clinton as secretary of state.

He also copped a certain amount of flak for advocating what was interpreted as a more aggressive approach on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. He had said, inter alia, that should there be reliable intelligence about the presence of, say, Osama bin Laden and should Islamabad be unwilling to act, he would order US forces to strike. Criticism of Obama on these grounds is somewhat disingenuous, because any US president would do the same. Besides, the Bush administration has been mounting such attacks for seven years, ostensibly in pursuit of “high-value” targets, with Islamabad’s tacit approval. Pakistan’s president and prime minister have expressed the hope that the Obama administration will stop sending in the deadly Predators, which more often than not claim the lives of noncombatants, including women and children, even though press reports suggest these air strikes are based on a tacit agreement between Islamabad and Washington.

Obama’s general attitude towards the war in Afghanistan provides greater cause for concern than specific comments about Pakistan, given that he tends to view it as a worthy and winnable struggle, whereas various NATO commanders with direct experience of the conflict have been expressing rather more realistic views, and Hamid Karzai’s overture to Mullah Omar suggests he no longer has much faith in the military ability of the forces that empowered him. The perception of a complex nexus between Islamist militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is perfectly reasonable, but it equally stands to reason that the sort of strategy that has floundered in Afghanistan would prove equally disastrous in Pakistan. Last month’s carnage in Mumbai are likely to reinforce the impression of Pakistan as Terrorism Central, but this is not a problem amenable exclusively to a military solution, particularly one imposed from abroad.

Ultimately, peace and stability can be established in this part of the world only as part of a regional settlement, with the US involved as a facilitator rather than as an active ingredient. Obama has also expressed some interest in pursuing a solution to the Kashmir imbroglio. In ideal circumstances, it should be possible for New Delhi and Islamabad to put this dispute behind them by themselves, but circumstances in this region are never ideal, and a nudge or two from the new president may go a long way. Similarly in the Middle East, Israel will need to be pushed, however gently, towards conceding basic Palestinian rights if the ugly status quo is to be transcended.

In a broader context, however, Obama needs to understand that in order to effectively diminish the terrorist threat, he must clearly denounce the neoconservative doctrine of pre-emptive war and distance himself from Bush’s hugely counterproductive “war on terror”. In Iraq, last month’s agreement on a US withdrawal by 2011 sets the stage for a steady withdrawal of US troops. They should be allowed to go home, instead of being redeployed in Afghanistan. And in these straitened times, one way that the US could cut its losses in the economic sense would by shutting down military bases in various parts of the world. Full-spectrum dominance was never a realistic prospect, but the events of recent years have proved that beyond reasonable doubt.

Meanwhile, with a month or so to go before his inauguration – an event for which a crowd of four million is expected in Washington – it would be unfair to prejudge Obama. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s racist outburst against the president-elect was interpreted as an indication that Al-Qaeda was worried about its limited appeal being eclipsed by the risen star of American politics. If so, that’s a healthy sign. What lies ahead will depend on how the new president translates the vacuous marketing slogans of his campaign into policies that meet popular aspirations at home and abroad. He will be accompanied into the White House, whether he likes it or not, by a number of ghosts: the spirits, among others, of African-American martyrs such as Dr King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. I suspect they could become extremely restless if they find that the quantum of progressive change is overwhelmed by the level of reactionary continuity

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.