December issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

It may have been purely coincidental that Barack Obama’s 10-day journey to Asia was scheduled within days of the midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections in which his party was subjected to a painful — albeit predictable — bashing early in November 2010, but the US president must have been relieved to get away. After all, whatever awaited him in India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan couldn’t possibly be more challenging than the Tea Party.

A midterm comeuppance is by no means unusual in American politics: Ronald Reagan faced it, as did Bill Clinton, and both of them went on to comfortably win second terms in the White House. George W. Bush did not, largely because of the “war on terror” he had launched in the wake of 9/11; most of the voters did not stop to think whether it made much sense to take up arms against an abstract noun, they just did their patriotic duty. It was only when the Iraq war went seriously awry that Bush’s Republican Party faced the consequences in voting booths.

Bush must have been beginning to feel unwanted in 2006, when he undertook a state visit to India, and he is likely to have cherished Manmohan Singh’s assurance that Indians loved him. The extent to which that was true is questionable, of course, but there can be little doubt that Bush’s offer of a civilian nuclear deal went down very well indeed, not least because Pakistan was not at the receiving end of any comparable gesture.

Obama was thus aware that, in some Indian eyes, he had big shoes to fill. The idea may seem strange to anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Although, to his discredit, Obama has failed to differentiate himself substantially from the policies of his predecessor, in terms of personality and intellectual grasp, it hardly seems reasonable to posit any sort of equivalence between the two men. Yet it was inevitable that the incumbent’s visit to India would be subjected to close comparative scrutiny.

That the charm offensive worked wonders can largely be attributed to the warmth generated by the first lady. Michelle Obama’s reasonably credible dance moves alongside Indian schoolgirls in Mumbai proved to be a particularly smart move in terms of public relations. And if the president turned out to be less flexible on the dance floor, he had something up his sleeve that was bound to go down well with Indians: broad support for New Delhi’s desire to be elevated to permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.

It was the first time that a US president had explicitly expressed such a view. The sentiment was couched in general terms in the context of UN reform, a notoriously gradual and fraught process. As such, it does not mean very much — although it’s obviously preferable, from Delhi’s point of view, to only implicit support, or none at all, for one of its key aspirations on the international stage. Besides, it had the added benefit of irking Pakistan, perhaps adding to Islamabad’s irritation over the fact that it didn’t figure on Air Force One’s flight path.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about Pakistan’s knee-jerk response, even though it stands to reason that India, by virtue of being home to roughly one-sixth of humanity, deserves a place on the Security Council. Concerns about its human rights record, while worth airing, can hardly be considered an insurmountable barrier, given that nations already on the council have much to answer for in that sphere: China, Russia and the US haven’t exactly set a shining example. As for Britain and France, perhaps what matters most is not so much their dubious record in this sphere, but the fact that they are on the Security Council at all: a seat for the European Union, surely, would make much more sense.

Obama, meanwhile, did not specify whether in his view India’s place on the council should be accompanied by veto powers, whereby any single permanent member can, by lifting a hand, defeat a resolution (this is precisely how Israel, for instance, is invariably guarded against censure). A number of Indian commentators have expressed the view that a Security Council seat without veto powers would be pretty much meaningless for India.

That’s a valid point of view. Were the Security Council eventually to be expanded — by including India as well as representatives from Africa and Latin America, in all likelihood South Africa and Brazil — it would be merely a token gesture unless the new entrants were to be given veto powers. A vastly preferable alternative, of course, would be for veto powers to be rescinded altogether, with decisions based on, say, a two-thirds majority and requiring approval by at least a simple majority in the General Assembly.

It is hard to imagine any reasonable proposal along those lines being approved by all the existing permanent members of the Security Council. And let’s not forget that it took more than 20 years for the People’s Republic of China to take over the seat that had been offered to the Chiang Kai-shek regime when the UN was founded.

To Pakistan’s considerable consternation, Obama decided against raising the Kashmir issue at any Indian forum. As a presidential candidate, he had expressed the wish to resolve that particular dispute — and, if anything, recent events in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir ought to have firmed that resolve. But he obviously recognised that any reference to human rights violations in that territory would go down badly with his hosts. He restricted himself, therefore, to mildly berating India over its political and economic ties with Iran and Burma (India was evidently not among the nations that had been pressuring Rangoon to free Aung San Suu Kyi). Obama also brought up the contentious matter of nuclear proliferation, suggesting that any Security Council member would be obliged to take an unequivocal stance in that context; while Iran was clearly on his mind, as well as the fact that neither India nor Pakistan is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), there wasn’t so much as a passing reference to Israel, of course.

Before his trip, Obama had made it clear that one of the primary motivations for his journey was the intention of opening up burgeoning Asian markets for American manufacturers. The problem with that concept, of course, is that the US does not manufacture all that much anymore: almost every variety of consumer good today appears to be made in China. The American military-industrial complex does boast a still formidable arms industry, though. Of course, it’s hard to square the US president’s status as an arms salesman with his purported soft spot for the non-violent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr And the discrepancy is not lost on him. It was Gandhi, after all, who, when asked what he thought of western civilisation, quipped that “it would be a good idea”, while Dr King, exactly a year before he was assassinated in April 1968, designated his homeland, in the context of the Vietnam War, as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.

That’s a status the US has never lost in the interim. Neither Gandhi nor Dr King would be particularly impressed by the fact that the US doggedly maintains military bases more than half a century after the wars that served as an excuse for them, in South Korea and Japan. And neither of those countries is particularly thrilled by this imposition. The tendency suggests that there will be American military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan for generations to come — and if the idea perturbs Obama, he sure hasn’t let on.

Michelle Obama’s reasonably credible dance moves alongside Indian schoolgirls in Mumbai proved to be a particularly smart move in terms of public relations. Photo: AFP

Michelle Obama’s reasonably credible dance moves alongside Indian schoolgirls in Mumbai proved to be a particularly smart move in terms of public relations. Photo: AFP

There is no base in Indonesia, but the US military has lately rescinded its ban on cooperating with Kopassus, the special forces of the Indonesian army, which have been responsible for a litany of human rights abuses. These abuses were particularly common during the reign of General Suharto — who assumed power on the back of a CIA-supported bloodbath that particularly targeted Indonesian Communists shortly before young Barack moved to Jakarta with his mother and Indonesian stepfather.

It wasn’t an extended sojourn, but Obama has warm memories of the time he spent in Indonesia, and his return to the country last month therefore had the aura of a homecoming. Given that Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, it was more or less inevitable that Obama would use his visit to renew the commitment he made in a characteristically eloquent peroration in Cairo last year. He was berated thereafter for not living up to his words, which appeared to presage a new beginning between the US and the Muslim world after the Bush years.

The president subtly conceded as much in his keynote address in Jakarta, while reiterating that America is not, and never has been, at war with Islam. It would be unfair to doubt his sincerity in this respect, especially in view of his knowledge that any overtures to Muslims would deliberately be misinterpreted by some of his more obdurate domestic foes as evidence that Obama is a covert Muslim. An equally obdurate Israel, meanwhile, has offered many an opportunity for Washington to demonstrate its evenhandedness in the Middle East. None of the opportunities has been exploited, notwithstanding the knowledge that a less biased stance on the Palestinian question could be a game changer as far as the Muslim world is concerned — despite Iraq and Afghanistan.

For all that, the Obamas were generally a hit in Indonesia. The G20 summit in Seoul afterwards must have come as a bit of a downer, given South Korea’s scepticism about a free-trade agreement and China’s reluctance to revalue its currency in order to suit American economic interests. It goes almost without saying that, placed in a similar position, the US would behave in the same way: it would refuse to tinker with economic essentials in order to please China.

China’s rising power was clearly one of the subtexts of Obama’s Asian journey. Some analysts see it as an acknowledgement that America’s regional clout has declined, while others have portrayed it as an effort to stave off the inevitable. India, of course, is a long-standing Chinese rival that looks with understandable trepidation at Beijing’s substantial investments in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The US can hardly afford to antagonise China, but Obama’s overtures to India could be seen as a form of reassurance. Reviving the American economy would no doubt serve as a more solid basis for countering Chinese power. But exerting soft power is the easier option. And relatively mild criticism of Pakistan’s anti-terrorist efforts was par for the course during Obama’s Delhi sojourn.

He also pointed something that the more intelligent Indians already recognise: that India has the biggest interest in a stable and peaceful Pakistan. The biggest interest next to Pakistan, that is.

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