Aijaz Ahmad


Will he be forced to scrap the trajectory he has been following and re-make himself into a latter-day FDR (Roosevelt), as many are hoping?


That the toxic years of the Bush administration are about to end is a great relief. And, we need not dwell on the obvious historical importance of an African-American getting elected President of the United States, a polity substantially founded on the genocide of one race and the slave labor of another. Millions of words have been written on this.


In the politics of race, Barack Obama has benefited from two sides of recent U.S. history. There is the legacy of the civil rights and black liberation movements of the 1960s for which Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X paid with their lives, as did many others, while millions marched and sang and Transformed large sections of American society over the years. Thanks to that legacy and the changes it wrought, 66 per cent of those between the age of 18 and 29 and 52 per cent of those in the 30-44 age group voted for Mr. Obama. He is neither a product of that legacy nor one who associates with its militant ideological stance, but he is undoubtedly a beneficiary of it.


The other development can be dated back to the 1970s when an increasing number of successful black politicians started emerging at city and State levels, frequently from the right wing of the political mainstream and often under the aegis of the Republican Party. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice rose from within that milieu, not to elected office but to positions of immense power just below the Presidency, heading the armed forces, the State Department and the National Security Council.


Mr. Obama’s first great success was that he deftly positioned himself as a beneficiary of the earlier radicalism of black politics as well as a representative of the later turn toward the Right, simultaneously. Assured of the black vote and having to win a majority in a country that is overwhelmingly white and substantially racist, he distanced himself from questions of race altogether and from the radical pastor of the church he used to attend.


Accused of being a Muslim, thanks to his middle name, he responded with repeated assertions of his deep Christian faith and instructed his campaign staff that no one in visibly Islamic gear must ever be seen near him on television. He visited churches and synagogues but never a mosque, even though mainstream newspapers such as The New York Times and International Herald Tribune urged him to do so. These domestic positions of Mr. Obama resonate in his foreign policy stance as well. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad addressed the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Obama criticized the U.N. for permitting him to do so. Even though the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate itself confirms that Iran has had no nuclear weapons program since at least 2003, Mr. Obama speaks as if such a program actually exists. And he says time and again that he would use all aspects of American power, including military power, to stop this purported program. One of the most alarming aspects of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy plank is his unwavering commitment to escalating the war in Afghanistan and his repeated declarations that he reserves the unilateral right to widen U.S. bombing campaigns in northwestern Pakistan, with or without the consent of the Pakistanis. The Bush administration’s military unilateralism may well outlast his Presidency.


By contrast, his pursuit of support from Israel and the Israeli lobby in the U.S. has been relentless. Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli writer and peace activist, described Mr. Obama’s appearance at the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the chief organization of the Israeli lobby, as one that broke all records for obsequiousness and fawning.  His refusal to allow Jimmy Carter, a former President, to speak from the platform of the Democratic Party Convention for fear of a backlash from the Israeli lobby, demonstrated similar obsequiousness and a cynical kind of pragmatism.


Mr. Obama subscribes to many such positions. By the time real campaigning took off, the polls showed that Bush Jr. had become the most unpopular President in post-War U.S. history. The real productive economy was already collapsing well before the most recent financial meltdown. The Iraq war had created a moral malaise across the country. Mr. Obama responded with stirring populist rhetoric. Evocative words such as “Change” and “Hope” as well as the intoxicating chant, “Yes, We can” were used successfully to galvanize a demoralized nation, especially its young people.


This was accompanied by a broad promise to rebuild a broken nation, its infrastructure, its education and health systems and to revamp its tax structure to favor families earning less than $250,000 a year. The effort to forge a cross-racial coalition of the young, the poor and the unemployed as well as the middle classes gave him a progressive veneer in a nation that had had far too much of neoliberalism. Facing defeat, the solid right wing that had previously accused him of being a Muslim and a black radical now started calling him a “socialist” as well, but to no avail. Winning the elections was always going to be much easier than defeating Hillary Clinton. As the financial meltdown worsened, John McCain’s chances plummeted further.


Mr. Obama won as a progressive populist. However, his campaign also raised far, far more money than any other U.S. presidential candidate in history. His camp likes to claim that most of the money came from small donors. The fact is that while fewer than 2,600 contributors to Mr. McCain list their occupation as “chief executive” nearly 6,000 of Mr. Obama’s contributors are chief executive officers. Huge sums came from Washington lobbyists and lawyers, the communication industry and the electronics industry, healthcare-related private interests, nuclear and pharmaceutical industries, and so on. When lobbyists alone have given $37 million, it is naive to believe that they would not be rewarded. The same applies to all the big corporate donors.


Mr. Obama’s voting record is not inspiring either. That he made a speech opposing the impending Iraq war in 2002, before he came even into the Illinois Senate, has been cited ad nauseum. Since becoming a U.S. Senator in 2005, however, he has voted in favor of every war appropriation bill that the Bush administration brought forth. He was the Editor of the Harvard Law Review, taught law at Chicago University, and was a civil rights lawyer before coming into politics. However, as a Senator he had no difficulty in voting for the Patriot Act 2, possibly the most sweeping attack on civil liberties in recent U.S. history. Together with Mr. McCain, he voted in favor of the recent bailout plan which gifts hundreds of billions of dollars to the very financial institutions which caused the recent meltdown. And now as President-elect he has urged the Bush administration to bail out General Motors as well.


That past is a mere prologue. As President-elect, Mr. Obama awarded the senior most White House position to Rohm Emanuel who holds American as well as Israeli citizenships and is associated with the most conservative wing of the Democratic Party. In 2006, he co-authored a book with Bruce Reid titled The Plan: Big Ideas for America. The authors write there: “We need to fortify the military’s thin green line” around the world by adding to the U.S. Special Forces and Marines, and by expanding the U.S. Army we must protect our homeland by creating a new domestic counterterrorism force like Britain’s M15. Mr. Obama has adopted the plan for just such an expansion and it is possible that Mr. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security was inspired by the thinking of men like Mr. Emanuel.


No other senior appointment has been made as yet. However, the names in circulation “of men such as Richard Holbrook and Dennis Ross for Secretary of State, and Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers for Treasury” are not reassuring. Mr. Obama’s Brain Trust and Transition Team are studded with such names. Paul Volcker, the legendary chairman of the Federal Reserve, has made a comeback as Mr. Obama’s key adviser on the economy. This caused the Wall Street Journal to quote a “Republican supply-side economist”; John Tammy, as saying that “Volcker whispering in Mr. Obama’s ear will make even Republicans comfortable, because he is a hero of the Right”. So are Mr. Rubin and Mr. Summers, who were Treasury Secretaries under Bill Clinton.


The enormity of the ongoing economic crisis may yet force Mr. Obama to scrap this whole trajectory and re-make himself into a latter-day FDR, as many are hoping. This is all the more likely if the electoral mass that put him in the White House becomes a mass militant movement from below. What is clear, though, is that the kind of military policies Mr. Obama is advocating are incompatible with the kind of investments he proposes to re-build America’s failing physical and social infrastructure. Something will have to give.


Finally, the question: will the special Indo-U.S. relationship suffer under Mr. Obama? The flat answer is, no. It is best to remember that the fundamentals of this relationship were formulated not under Mr. Bush but under Mr. Clinton. The main prop is a far-reaching military alliance for the Indian Ocean and beyond; the U.S.-Israel-India axis for West Asia; the nuclear trade; shall remain in place. There might be some pressure to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) but that will not endanger nuclear trade. What Mr. Obama has said so far on the Kashmir issue is not serious.

Top - Home