Thursday, January 15, 2009

As Obama Becomes President (1)

It must be acknowledged that Senator Barak Obama, now the President-elect of the United States of America, has scored many firsts which even his most ardent critics have acknowledged as impressive. The aspects of his victory which drew most attention included his age, race and the subtle nuances and initial hesitation by a section of Americans and others around the world.
Some may seek cosmic explanations for Senator Obama’s spectacular emergence on the political scene just as they did over the achievements of Usain Bolt in the Beijing Olympics track events and Lewis Hamilton in Formula One motor racing. These people have become the new millennium’s outstanding manifestations of change and hope thrown up by nature to the consternation of those comfortable with the old order.
But Senator Obama’s own spectacle is pre-eminently mysterious. It calls for explanations that go beyond sheer brilliance, hard work, or even good luck. Everything so amazingly rallied together to work for his historic election one is tempted to believe there must be something prophetic about the Obama phenomenon. And I think prophecy can offer us a reliable explanation since it makes its pronouncements about a given significant event well in advance. No matter how strict or liberal our use or understanding of the term, “prophecy,” it will always seem credible to note that an unlikely event someone had talked about many years ago came to pass exactly as he had said it.
In 1963, in front of Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C, the great civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr., delivered his prophetic “I Have A Dream” speech. It was a speech which reaffirmed the equality of all men as espoused by the founding fathers of America. But it was prophecy or the dreams of King which made that speech resonate till today. “I have a dream,” one prophetic element of that speech said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
King spoke those prophetic words on August 28, 1963, at the height of racist segregation in the US. He was shot for dreaming so wildly. For decades, the world wondered if King’s dream will unarguably ever come true. Even with the later emergence of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as US military chief and Secretary of State respectively, the world still held its breath. Then came August 28, 2008, Senator Barak Obama officially won the Democratic Party’s ticket to run for the presidency of the United States. He defeated the formidable Hillary Clinton. It was a ticket Obama won “by the content of his character” rather than “by the colour of his skin.” Thus, what King prophesied about on August 28, 1963 was fulfilled on August 28, 2008, exactly 45 years later. And with Obama’s victory over John McCain in the presidential polls, Martin Luther King’s prophecy was solidly validated.
In a sense, therefore, King’s word, quoted above, could be said to be a prophecy whose time came in Obama’s election. Not surprisingly, Senator Obama’s simple campaign theme, “Change,” was overwhelmingly bought by the American electorate. They damned all misgivings about his apparently disadvantaged circumstances. In his campaign he promised new approach in doing things in Washington. Consequently, there are high expectations among Americans and the world that he is indeed going to make some positive difference, especially in the face of the current economic downturn in the U.S and other parts of the world. But in reality how much “Change” can we expect President Obama to bring to America and the world? How far could he go against the awesome power of the establishment he wants to change?
The long campaign for US presidential office had forced the candidates to pander to countless interests in and outside the U.S. to whom they made promises. On the home front, Senator Obama had made pronouncements on various socio-economic issues and policies which were at variance with those espoused by the Republicans. His statements on the various issues in the Middle East, the hub of American foreign policy under President Bush, were most interesting and probably equally more difficult to match with decisive actions.
While some of Senator Obama’s pronouncements during the campaign may be considered as mere electoral rhetoric, some addressed serious and fundamental issues which he could not run away from while in office. These issues will haunt him and the ever-alert American media and enlightened commentators would constantly remind him and even taunt him to act on them according to his words.
President Obama’s personal vision is expected to bear on government machinery and policy formulation in line with his declaration that the buck stops at his table. But it is common knowledge that governance is never a one-man show. There is the kitchen cabinet, the establishment and entrenched bureaucracy to carry along, and their enormous influence would certainly bear on policy formulation and execution.
The establishment is the product of all that America stood for since its inception as a sovereign nation. It is incrementally enforced by successive administrations, led by Republicans or Democrats. This formed the bedrock of American political culture. The individual could make a significant mark on governance as every one expects of Senator Obama, but that cannot dislodge the main elements of the system and a President Obama had to come to terms with this. In the last half a century or so, there has been virtual monopoly of governance by the Republicans and, therefore, it is the Democrats that would want to change the status quo. But going by the inability of President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton, during their tenures, to unravel the entrenched and vested ways of Washington as molded by the Republicans, it is clear that Mr. Obama has an uphill task ahead of him.
The President-elect is cautiously picking his team from Clinton and even from the Bush administration to form a bipartisan cabinet or a “national” government. This suggests that he wants to carry the establishment along and run a consensus-based administration. This is a handicap, and it is difficult to see how he could change the establishment by accommodating it in the heart of his cabinet. There may be changes in tactics and strategies. It could be at the end of his half term or even second term, before Obama could be assessed properly. His liberal supporters are now crying out that he has sidelined them in appointments announced so far. But it may be too early to draw any conclusions.
President Obama’s albatross in the external front are the so called global war against terror, the twin problems of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as frosty relations with Syria, Iran and Lebanon. There is also the nagging issue of Israeli-Palestinian / Arab relations; and the new cold war in Eastern Europe triggered by American/European intention to build a missile defence shield in Russia’s neighbourhood. The fight against HIV-AIDS scourge and climate change are other issues the US is being looked upon by the rest of the world to provide unambiguous leadership and demonstrate clear commitment.
The Bush administration has hastened to fashion out a security agreement with Iraq which seems to pre-empt what President Obama intends to do. This may explain why the President-elect is already playing down the time frame. Rather, he now says he wants to ensure “responsible” withdrawal and would listen to his commanders on the ground. Well, some of the commanders who, in their appearances before the Congress, never agreed to suggestions for a withdrawal time frame, are still very much on the ground in the Middle East. How would Obama accomplish his desire for early withdrawal of US troops? Would President Obama so soon revise the agreement which by its provisions requires no less than one year notice to do so? What about Guantanamo Camp which the President-elect promised to close down? Bush is working hard to dispose of the inmates so that President Obama would meet a fait accompli on the ground and be denied the credit of cleaning up the place which has seriously dented U.S image as a respecter of human rights and decency.
More intricate will be the handling of the Afghanistan / Pakistan war front the momentum of which is shifting to Pakistani soil. Pakistan which had been reluctant to allow fighting on its soil has been forced to concede some grounds in an effort to prove its innocence in the recent acts of terrorism in India. This concession is at the expense of its own internal security, national prestige and, to some extent, sovereignty. Even then, the Afghanistan/Pakistan border remains the rugged terrain that had defied all odds since the abortive campaigns of Alexander the Great. Allied soldiers fighting in that area would not only be fighting the tough local fighters who withstood Russian military hardware, but also the hostile terrain itself. As in Vietnam, the tough terrain would usually give the locals advantage, in spite of the sophisticated weaponry amassed against them.
Quite predictably, the Israeli–Palestinian problem has remained static in spite of the intense shuttle diplomacy employed by President Bush and the fulltime involvement of Mr. Tony Blair. It has been motion without movement. As such, there is hardly any tangible legacy of the Bush administration regarding this problem. The bottom line is sincerity and impartiality in intervention. This was commendably demonstrated by President Jimmy Carter but was hardly discernible in nearly all the subsequent approaches made by leaders who succeeded him.