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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 15, March 28, 2009

Obama’s USA

Thursday 2 April 2009, by Shree Shankar Sharan


Obama is certainly a new phenomenon for America in more honestly diagnosing the country’s major problems and bringing a change from the Bush policy—to change the diagnosis to suit favourite remedies.

Security and democracy, two watch-words of her policy which should do honour and invest pride in any country if it honestly implements them, have earned her hostility and the ire of major chunks of the international community. The Americans, caught in a seemingly unending war with Iraq on a false accusation of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and falsely linking it with the traumatic demolition of their World Towers by kamikaze Arab, though not Iraqi, pilots of hijacked planes, have discovered the untruthfulness of their President or of American politics and decided to cast their lot with an unknown newcomer into the American Presidential election, Obama, of Kenyan and American origin with a middle name of Hussain got from his Muslim father. It is because they feel insecure not so much from the rest of the world or Islamic world or China, after the sunset in Soviet Russia but the management of their own government by their own known leaders. Obama’s choice is a great tribute to the maturity, highmindedness and judgment of the American people of all races but particularly the Whites, whose vision has made America what she is. America has turned a new leaf in the history of democracies in the non-partisan and non-parochial exercise of her power to choose.

Has Obama justified the confidence? The confidence will come if he enhances America’s security without dragging her into another bit of useless bloodletting in an avoidable war and pulls the US out of its current recessionary crisis and rescues the eight per cent unemployed and does not let it grow.

This will not be achieved by the power of weapons but the power of ideas that have a universal appeal. Yet Obama’s answer is to deploy American troops more strategically and achieve military victory in Afghanistan and destroy the Al-Qaeda, that may be hiding on the Pakistan-Afghan border, by remote military strike. Since as President he bears the responsibility for America’s security, a military gesture was unavoidable. But a conference with Muslim leaders from all parts of the world should have been treated as of equal importance. America ‘s safety cannot be secured by military victories alone. It must win the confidence of Muslims lest their alienation from the USA grows wider and deeper and becomes unbeatable.

As for the strategic action in Afghanistan/Pakistan there are equal chances of its short-term success and its long-term failure. It is my view that the US will be sucked into an endless quagmire of Middle-Eastern treachery and intrigue if it makes the eradication of the Taliban the political objective of its military strategy. It did so once but only a few years later had to come back to achieve the same objective again. Afghanistan was once the far outpost of the Hindus, then a seat of Buddhism, and lastly a bastion of orthodox Islam. All through it has maintained a character of its own. By its isolation from the rest of the world and its aversion to outside influence it has preserved a fiercely nationalistic policy and not a long time ago contested its border with Pakistan along the Durand line.

The British tried to bend them but failed and left them alone after obtaining whatever concession they needed. It also fought Russia albeit with American aid. There is no profit to be had from rewalking the Bush path and trying to impose on Afghanistan America’s own chosen political philosophy by force of arms. The Pathans, would you believe(!), yielded to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence under Badshah Khan, also known as the Frontier Gandhi, who founded the non-violent army of Red shirts and inspired the Awami National Party. The Pathans took a leading part in the struggle for independence but to the gun they will not yield. They need a subtler art of persuasion than fear.

The setting up of madarsas in Pakistan to motivate the hill people for jihad in defence of orthodox Islam has been one of America’s major blunders. They acquired popularity because it only lent scholastic support to the Afghan/Pathan traditional perspective on life. The madarsa provided them with a deadly mix of religion and politics which their pre-partition leaders had carefully kept apart. The Americans, less careful than the British and less farsighted of future consequences, helped to indoctrinate with a stiff dose of Islam an already orthodox and insular people and made matters graver by arming them to the teeth without a care as to what they will do with their ideology and weapons after the war was over. The ground had been made receptive for the rule of the Taliban with Pakistan too willing to support. A tough people always opt for a tough way of life and tough goals

It suited the Pakistanis to lord over their Afghan neighbour as a mentor, a guide, a strategist and an ally both in training, manning, arming and sinking Afghanistan in perpetual backwardness. If the Americans were shortsighted, the Pakistanis were blind as to future repercussions of a dangerous policy, happy with the huge aid that America gave them and happy to divert some of the funds, arms and terrorist fighters to the insurgency started in Kashmir.

The Frankstein the two raised has turned against both the Americans and them to harass the former and crush all modern institutions in Pakistan. America has demanded a payback from Pakistan for their massive military and non-military support to it while driving the Russians from Afghainstan. The US has also to regret turning their face the other way when Pakistan was setting up her nuclear weapon plant with Chinese aid. They now dread nuclear weapons falling in the hands of terrorist groups—a worry to the whole world.

The government agencies of Pakistan were also closely involved in aiding the Afghan policy both to be able to draw upon the American largesse, have their own cut, strengthen the Pak Army, wage a proxy war of insurgency in Kashmir and operation cover-up to cover up the reality. It was natural for links to develop between the jihadis and these agencies including the ISI. They cannot be wished away in a day. As the Indian saying goes, those who dig a pit for others also fall into them.

It is logical that an aggressive Taliban would disturb the peace of its neighbours by launching a cultural invasion. Those who stand to suffer the most by its obscurantism are all Islamic countries that surround Afghanistan. Iran unfortunately is busy dealing with its own brand of mullah-dominated politics and its anti-Americanism. In Pakistan it is extremism, rather than the liberal elements, which seem to be getting stronger with well-timed display of their military muscle right under the nose of the civil authority. Yet to bolster Pakistan, rather than Iran, still seems the better option to Americans as it has not gone under to extremism as Iran has.

A more immediate issue than the Taliban is to dig out Bin Laden from his hideout in the Pak-Afghan border, since he poses a direct threat to American, Western and Asian security, specially India directly or through satellite organisations. The US, in its anxiety not to open a new war theatre in Pakistan has to use an unwilling Pakistan to do its job for it. It is not certain how long the game can go on without the USA‘s direct intervention in northwestern Pakistan. By wasting its time and resources in the Iraq war it lost precious time in devising ways to deal with the world’s top terrorist. The options are not too many and the chances of success limited.

Promoting development, rather than promotion of democracy, should be the non-military aim of American policy, involving as it will most of the existing power and social structure. This is the central change that should be happen in America’s worldwide policy.


In the twisted history of Afghanistan as of other comparable parts of the world, democracy means different things to different cultures. In the transition from a feudal to a democratic polity it could seem more to steal from development allocations or a wider sharing of corruption between the powerlords. Democracy could mean intimidating or seducing voters with money rather than force and for several years simply fooling them till the day they wake up. Democracy not earned by your sweat or blood seems less worthy than it is.

The most intractable problem is what to do with and how to end the jihadis being turned out in large numbers by the madarsas in Pakistan which have been imbued with dangerous ideas of global jihad. The idea has been lapped up by the Muslim youth troubled by racial or religious discrimination in the West, or against Indian (Hindu majority at the Centre but Muslim in the State after a clear electoral verdict) governance in Kashmir or Serb treatment of Muslims in Kosovo or the arrogant and belligerent attitude of Israel towards Palestinians each of which is divorced from its historical context and dubbed as anti-Islamic and worthy of being fought down by jihad.

They have much to be angry about. Besides the heavy air and ground war in Iraq against a defenceless people emaciated by the international sanction against her after the first Iraq war and sundry terrorists, Muslims all the world over (just as liberal and enlightened opinion among non-muslims) have been incensed by the insolent, trigger-happy, crush-under-the boot behaviour of Israel towards the Palestinians whom they drove out of their own country (repeating Jewish migration earlier out of Palestine), and now trouble them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip which have been recognised as Palestinian territory by the Oslo settlement. It is a classic case of the oppressed turning into an oppressor.

There has been no sanction against Israel even against her worst policies of apartheid and massacre of Palestinians in their own home by air or ground attack. Israel’s policies are fast losing global goodwill which negates the worldwide shock at their own tragedy in the German holocaust half a century ago. The reaction of sending rockets or human bombs to Israel by Hamas as assertions of Arab pride and refusal to compromise with Israeli swagger cannot be called excessive or over-reaction though it complicates and delays a final settlement. The most visible step the US could take to befriend the Muslim world is to announce sanctions against Israel at the next violation of human rights of Palestinians and also restart the peace process notwith-standing its powerful Jewish lobby.

The absence of US policy to be even-handed between Israelis and Palestinians is at the root of the hatred of America in Muslim countries. The cure for the hatred will have to begin where it started, namely, in Palestine. Israel faces no real threat from its powerful Arab neihbourhood which have made peace with it. The terrorist attacks it sometimes faces is only comparable to the terrorist attacks on India emanating from Pakistan which have not precipitated an Indo-Pak war but are combated only locally. There is a lesson in restraint by India for all countries. Besides, poor Muslims can be drawn away from jihad or terrorism by better investment and development and better employment opportu-nities in their country as India has successfully attempted in Kashmir.


As for reviving the American economy, Obama faces a very complicated problem. The US crisis is not an individual failure of a company or a group of them. It is the manifestation of the very nature of capitalism which has a cyclical character of growth and recession. Obama has departed from Keynesianism and Roosvelt’s New Deal by focusing not so much on public works and government spending to boost demand but on infusing capital in failing companies and banks to go on lending and manufacturing, and deciding to cut down on loss of jobs because of loss of demand. The aid from the government is to be monitored, though this mode of revival has whetted demands for more aid from those who have already received quite a bit. There has been hesitation to nationalise even temporarily banks or companies to control their management by the Opposition dubbing it as Socialism or European socialism. Whether infusion of capital into private institutions with a stronger regulatory mechanism without taking the next logical step of a takeover will work or not has yet to seen, though the stock exchange has started moving upward in the last few days.

Obama has also proposed a huge deficit budget running into trillions of dollars. Since there is massive investment of foreign money in the US including huge Chinese trade surpluses, their continued investment in the US is of crucial importance. Obama has been seen wooing Chinese and Japanese goodwill which suggested good economic sense.

A good policy announcement is the greening of America’s energy.

Within the limits of curing the ills of capitalism through capitalism, and avoiding a socialist image, Obama seems to have his sights on the right policies. If they fail he will be compelled to take the political risks of takeovers. There cannot be good politics without good economics.

The USA has seldom spoken of India after they spoke out and helped us to pin the blame on Pakistan for the Mumbai attack. But she has moved on to more urgent and immediate issues. But in our first high-level meeting we did not talk of the emerging larger picture in South Asia and how India sees it, being itself at risk, but mouthed truisms of a stable Pakistan, strangely not for the good of her people but for chasing terrorism and harped on the nuclear deal in which Obama would have no interest and the Mumbai terrorist attack in which all that could be said has been said.

Surely some greater wisdom on international issues, some glimmer of idealism that once informed the Indian foreign policy of non-alignment, some caution on what should not happen and some sympathy for the people of Pakistan, including Pathans who favoured the Congress, and not the Moslem League before partition, would have raised our stature both in the US, in Pakistan and globally. Following narrow national interest exclusively is to diminish India’s global image. India will compel attention only by playing more principled and path-breaking politics in the international arena.

Shree Shankar Sharan is the President, Awami Eka Manch, Patna/Delhi

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