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The Technician in the Establishment: Obama's America and the World

The Technician in the Establishment: Obama's America and the World

On November 4, Barack Obama will in all likelihood be elected the 44th president of the United States. As against the euphoria in the rest of the world about such a presidency, this article reads into his 2006 book (The Audacity of Hope) and his campaign speeches, a different kind of Obama. He emerges as a technician who is best equipped to fix broken policies and get America working once again. One can only hope that a US that is once again working does not mean a US that is more efficient in its exercise of military domination and even more successful in projecting its own vision of human affairs as the only road to the good life. To believe in Obama, one needs to hope against hope.

COMMENTARYnovember 1, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly14women from the local“durgavahinis” threateningthepeople in the camp (Times ofIndia, October 1, 2008,‘3Bombs Near G Udayagiri Relief Camp’). Relief needs to be provided to hundreds and hundreds of people in neighbouring towns; they do not figure in any government records as our interviews revealed. And they are only too keen to be provided support and relief and help in registeringFIRs. FIRs need to be registered for each and every family that has been attacked, and whose property has been looted, on whom injuries have been inflicted, and for the loss of livestock, for plundering of the year’s stock of grains, mental torture and abject humiliation. Children have to be sent back to the same schools. Last but not least, houses need to be rebuilt. The current communal onslaught has happened in one of the poorest districts of the country; over 75 per cent people in Kandhamal district live below the poverty line. Thousands of us need to speak up if we wish for people to live with dignity and not leave it to only the Chris-tian community to help out. Even if we can hope for all this to happen, it might still take many years for the situation to become “normal”.The Technician in the Establishment: Obama’s America and the WorldVinay LalOn November 4, Barack Obama will in all likelihood be elected the 44th president of the United States. As against the euphoria in the rest of the world about such a presidency, this article reads into his 2006 book (The Audacity of Hope) and his campaign speeches, a different kind of Obama. He emerges as a technician who is best equipped to fix broken policies and get America working once again. One can only hope that a US that is once again working does not mean a US that is more efficient in its exercise of military domination and even more successful in projecting its own vision of human affairs as the only road to the good life. To believe in Obama, one needs to hope against hope. Barack Obama is poised to become the 44th president of the United States. Many see in the ascendancy of a black man to the highest office of the world’s hegemon a supremely historic mo-ment in American if not world affairs. Such is the incalculable hold of the US, in times better or worse, on the imagination of people worldwide that many are more heavily invested in the politics and future of the US than they are in the politics of their own nation. There may yet be method to this mad-dening infatuation, for Iraqis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, among many others, known and unknown, the target at some point of the military wrath and moral unctuousness of America, may want to reason if their chances of being bombed back into the stone age increase or decrease with the election of one or the other candidate. The French, perhaps best known for the haugh-ty pride in their own culture, were somoved by the events of September 11, 2001,which the Americans have attempted to install as a new era in world history, rendering 9/11 as something akin toBC or AD, that Le Monde famously declared, “Nous sommes tous Americains” (“We are all Americans”). One doubts that, had it been Beijing, Delhi, or Dakar that had been so bombed, the French would have declared, We are All Chinese, Indians, or Senegalese.That old imperialist habit of presuming the royal We, thinking that the French or American we is the universal We, has evidently not disappeared. Obama vs McCainThere can be little question that Obama’s presidency would be much preferable to that of McCain. If nothing else, his presi-dency is not calculated to be an insult to human intelligence or a complete affront to simple norms of human decency. After eight years of George W Bush, it seemed all but improbable that America could throw up another candidate who is, if not in absolutely identical ways, at least as much of an embarrassment to theUS as the incumbent of the White House. But one should never underestimate the genius of America in throwing up crooks, clowns and charlatans into the cauldron of politics. It is likely that McCainhas a slightly less convoluted – or should I say jejune – view of world history and geography than Bush, nor is his vocabulary wholly impoverished, but he will not strike anyone with a discerning mind as possessed of a robust intelli-gence. McCain has already committed so many gaffes, accusing (to take one example) Iran of training Al Qaida extremists, that one wonders whether his much touted “foreign policy experience” amounts to anything at all. In America, it is enough to have a candi-date who understands that Iraq and Iran are not only spelled differently but consti-tute two separate nations. Obama seems so far ahead of the decorated Vietnam war veteran in these respects that it seems pointless to waste any more words on McCain. Obama writes reasonably well, and has even been lauded for his skills as an orator; he is suave, mentally alert, and a keen observer of world affairs.Vinay Lal (vlal@history.ucla.edu) teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles and is presently with the University of California Education Abroad Programme in India.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW november 1, 200815Far too many American elections have offered scenarios where a candidate has been voted into office not on the strength of his intelligence, sound policies, or moral judgment, but because the candi-date has appeared to be “the lesser of two evils”. The iconoclast Paul Goodman, writing in the 1960s, gave it as his con-sidered opinion that American elections were an exercise in helping Americans distinguish between undistinguishable Democrats and Republicans, and there are, notwithstanding Obama’s appeal to liberals and apparently intelligent people, genuine questions to be asked about whether this election will be anything more than a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Candidates with wholly distinct views have always been described as “spoilers” in the American system, and anyone who do not subscribe to the rigidly corporatist outlook of the two major parties can only expect ridicule, opprobrium, and at best colossal neglect. To this extent, whatever America’s pretensions at being a model democracy for the rest of the world, one can marvel at the ease and brilliance with which dissenters are marginalised in theUS. The singularity of American democracy resides in the fact that it is, insofar as democracies are in question, at once both perversely primitive and advanced. In its totalitarian sweep over the political land-scape, the one-party system, which through the fiction of two parties has swept all dissent – indeed, I should say all thought – under the rug, has shown itself utterly incapable of accommodating politi-cal views outside its fold; and precisely for this reason American democracy displays nearly all the visible signs of stability, ac-countability, and public engagement, re-taining in its rudiments the same features it has had over the last two centuries. A New Obama after the Election?Obama’s most ardent defenders have adopted the predictably disingenuous view that Candidate Obama has had to repress most of his liberal sentiments to appealto a wide electorate, and that president Obama will be much less “centrist” in his execu-tion of domestic and foreign policies. (TheUS is one country where most hawks, particularly if they are “distinguished” senior statesmen, can easily pass them-selves off as “centrists”, the word “hawk” being reserved for certified lunaticssuchas Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, or bla-tantly aggressive policymakers such as Paul Wolfowitz. No one would describe Colin Powell, who shares as much respon-sibility as anyone else for waging a criminal war on Iraq, as a hawk.) Of course much the same view was ad-vanced apropos Bill Clinton, who then went on to wreck the labour movement, cut food stamps, initiate welfare “reform” that further eroded the entitlements of the poor, and launch aggressive military strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, and a host of other places. More-over, unless one is to take the view that Obama thought of his candidacy over-night, it is equally reasonable to argue that, knowing how much he would have to appeal to the rank and file of not only Democrats but the large number of “undecided” voters as a candidate who would be markedly different from both the incumbent and the Republicans run-ning for the presidency, Obama has been projecting himself as far more liberal than either his political record or views would give warrant to believe. Indeed, as a close perusal of his writings, speeches, and voting record suggests, Obama is as consummate a politician as any in theUS, and he has been priming himself as a presidential candidate for many years.Entry to the Obama World ViewObama’s 2006 book,The Audacity of Hope (New York, Crown Publishers), furnishes as good an entry point into his world view as any. Its subtitle, ‘Thoughts on Reclaim-ing the American Dream’, provides the link to Obama’s memoir of 1995, Dreams of My Father (1995). People everywhere have dreams, no doubt, but there is noth-ing quite as magisterial as “the American dream”: the precise substance of the American dream – a home with a backyard, mom’s apple pie, kids riding their bikes without a care in the world, a cute dog running around in circles after the kids, ice tea, a Chevrolet or SUV – matters less than the fact that “the American dream” signifies something grand and unique in the affairs of humankind. A politician who does not profess belief in the American dream is doomed, but there is no insincerity on Obama’s part in this respect. Leaving aside the question of how the American dream has been a nightmare to many of the most thoughtful Americans them-selves,from Henry David Thoreau to James Baldwin, not to mention tens of millions of people elsewhere, Obama’s fondness for what Americans call “feel-good” language is palpably evident. Just what does the audacity of hope mean? Need one be audacious to hope? Obama’s pronouncements are littered with the language of hope, change, values, dreams, all only a slight improvement on chicken soup for dummies or chocolate for the soul. The chapter entitled ‘The World Beyond Our Borders’, some will object, is illustra-tive of Obama’s engagement with substan-tive issues, and in this case suggestive of his grasp over foreign affairs. One of the stories that circulated widely about Bush upon his election to the presidency in 2000 was that he carried an expired passport; a variant of the story says that Bush did not at that time own a US passport. It is imma-terial whether the story is apocryphal: so colossal was Bush’s ignorance of the world that it is entirely plausible that he had nev-er travelled beyond Canada and Mexico, though I am tempted to say that illegal al-iens and men born to power, transgressors of borders alike, share more than we com-monly imagine. Obama, by contrast, came to know of the wider world in his child-hood: his white American mother was married to a Kenyan before her second marriage to an Indonesian.Obama lived in Jakarta as a young boy, and the chapter offers a discussion of the purges under Suharto that led to the exter-mination of close to a million communists and their sympathisers. Obama is brave enough to acknowledge that many of the Indonesian military leaders had been trained in the US, and that the Central Intel-ligence Agency provided“covertsupport” to the insurrectionists whosoughtto remove the nationalist Sukarno and place Indonesia squarely in the Americancamp (pp 272-73). He charts Indonesia’s spec-tacular economic progress, but also con-cedes that “Suharto’s rule was harshly repressive”. The press was stifled, elections were a “mere formality”, prisons were filled up with political dissidents, and in
COMMENTARYnovember 1, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly16areas wracked by secessionist movements rebels and civilians alike faced swift and merciless retribution – “and all this was done with the knowledge, if not outright approval, of US administrations” (p 276). It is doubtful that most American politi-cians would have made even as mild an admission of American complicity in atrocities as has Obama. But a supremely realist framework allows for evasion as much as confession: thus Obama merely arrives at the reading that the American record overseas is a “mixed” one “across the globe”, often characterised by far-sightedness and altruism even if American policies have at times been “misguided, based on false assumptions” that have undermined American credibility and the genuine aspirations of others (p 280). There is, in plain language, both good and bad in this world; and Obama avers that the US, with all its limitations, has largely been a force for good. And since America remains the standard by which phenomena are to be evaluated, Obama betrays his own paro-chialism. The war in Vietnam, writes Obama, bequeathed “disastrous conse-quences”: American credibility and pres-tige took a dive, the armed forces experi-enced a loss of morale, the American soldier needlessly suffered, and above all “the bond of trust between the American people and their government” was broken. Though two million or more Vietnamese were killed, and fertile land was rendered toxic for generations, no mention is made of this genocide: always the focus is on what the war did to America (p 287). The war in Vietnam chastened Americans, who “began to realise that the best and the brightest in Washington didn’t always know what they were doing – and didn’t always tell the truth” (p 287). One won-ders why, then, an overwhelming majority of Americans supported the Gulf war of 1991 and the attack on Afghanistan, and why even the invasion of Iraq in 2002 had far more popular support in the US than it did in Europe or elsewhere around the world. The suggestion that the American people were once led astray but are funda-mentally sound in their judgment ignores the consideration that elected officials are only as good as the people to whom they respond, besides hastening to exculpate ordinary Americans from their share of the responsibility for the egregious crimes that theUS has committed overseas and against some of its own people.Good Wars, Bad Wars?Obama has on more than one occasion said, “I’m not against all wars, I’m just against dumb wars.” More elegant thinkers than Obama, living in perhaps more thoughtful times, have used different language to justify war: there is the Christian doctrine of a just war, and similarly 20th century politicians and theorists, watch-ing Germany under Hitler rearm itself and set the stage for the extermination of the Jewish people, reasoned that one could make a legitimate distinction between “good” and “bad” wars. Obama has some-thing like the latter in mind: he was an early critic of the invasion of Iraq, though here again more on pragmatic grounds rather than from any sense of moral anguish, but like most liberals he gave his whole-hearted support to the bomb-ing of Afghanistan in the hope, to use Bush’s language, that Osama bin Laden could be smoked out and the Taliban reduced to smithereens. Obama is so far committed to the idea of Afghanistan as a “good” war that he has pledged that, if elected president, he would escalate the conflict there and also bomb Pakistan if it would help him prosecute the “war on terror”. He has recently attacked McCain, who no one would mistake for a pacifist, with the observation that his op-ponent “won’t even follow [bin Laden] to his cave in Afghanistan”, even as the US defence secretary has all but conceded that a political accommodation with the Taliban, whose support of bin Laden was the very justification for the bombing of Afghanistan, can no longer be avoided. The casually held assumption that by birthright an American president can bomb other countries into abject submission, or that theUS can never be strippedofits prerogative to chastise nations that fail to do its bidding, takes one’s breath away.No one should suppose that Obama, blinded by the sharp rhetoric of the “war on terror”, has positions on Iraq and Afghanistan that are not characteristic of his view of the world as a whole. “We need to maintain a strategic force posture”, he writes, “that allows us to manage threats posed by rogue nations like North Korea and Iran and to meet the challenges presented by potential rivals like China” (p 307). This could have been the voice of Reagan, the Clintons, Bush, McCain, and countless others: there is such over-whelming unanimity about “rogue states” that almost no politician in the US can be expected to display even an iota of independent thinking.No Change from Staus QuoOn the question of Palestine, Obama has similarly displayed belligerence and moral turpitude. At the annual meeting in June 2008 of the American Israel Political Action Committee, a self-avowedly Zionist organisation that commands unstinting support from across the entire American political spectrum, Obama was unambig-uous in declaring that “Jerusalem will re-main the capital of Israel and it must re-main undivided”. It would only be bela-bouring the obvi.ous to state that, on nearly every foreign policy issue that one can think of, with the exception of a time-table for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, Obama’s position can scarcely be distinguished from all the other advocates of the national security state.There can be no gainsaying the fact that Obama’s election as president of the US will appreciably alter American debates on race. African-Americans make up 12 per cent of the population but constitute nearly half of theUS prison population; one of three black males will, in his life-time, have gone through the criminal jus-tice system. African-Americans are, along-side Puerto Ricans, two ethnic groups among whom poverty is endemic, and repeated studies have shown that in every critical sector of life, such as access to jobs, housing, and healthcare, blacks face persistent racism and discrimination. Obama is fully cognisant of these prob-lems and is likely to address them to a greater extent than any other candidate. But one can also argue, with equal plausi-bility, that his ascendancy will strengthen the hands of those who want to think of American democracy as a post-race society, and whose instant inclination is to jettison affirmative action and reduce the already narrow space for discussions of race in civil society.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW november 1, 200817It is immaterial, even if fascinating to some, whether numerous white people will vote for Obama to prove their credentials as non-racists, while others will give him their vote because he is not all that black – just as some black people will surely cast their ballot for Obama precisely because he is black. By far the most critical consid-eration is that the US requires a radical redistribution of economic and political power: Martin Luther King Jr had come to an awareness of this in the last years of his life, but there is little to suggest that Obama, a professional politician to the core, has similarly seen the light.Establishment CandidateIn these deeply troubled times, when there is much casual talk of the American ship sinking, the white ruling class is preparing to turn over the keys of the kingdom to a black man. Imperial powers had a knack for doing this, but let us leave that history aside. Here, at least, Obama appears to have displayed audacity, taking on a challenge that many others might have forsworn. However, nothing is as it seems to be: with the passage of time, Obama has increas-ingly justified the confidence reposed in him as an establishment candidate. A man with some degree of moral conscience would not only have shrugged off the endorsements of Colin Powell and Scott McClellan, until recently among Bush’s grandstanding cheerleaders and appa-ratchiks, but would have insisted that Powell and others of his ilk be brought to justice for crimes against the Iraqi people.But Obama will do no such thing, for after all Powell and the master he served, like Kissinger and Nixon before them, only made “tactical” errors. Obama prides himself, moreover, on being a healer not divider: he will even rejoice in the support for him amongpreviously hardcore Republicans (www.republicans-forobama.org). When Obama is not speaking about values, hope, and change, he presents himself as a manager, representing brutal American adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan as illustrations of policies that went wrong. He comes forward as a technician who is best equipped to fix broken policies, repair the system, and get America working once again. One can only hope that an America that is once again working does not mean for a good portion of the rest of the world what it has meant for a long time, namely, an America that is more efficient in its exercise of military domination and even more successful in projecting its own vision of human affairs as the only road to the good life. To believe in Obama, one needs to hope against hope.Potential of a Carbon Finance FundRajeev SinghCan the creation of a carbon finance fund effectively tackle implementational, institutional, legal, financial and capacity-building issues related to the clean development mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol?Climate change is being described as the most important environ-mental challenge before human-kind today. Studies have shown that the current rapid change in climate is largely due to human interface. There is an agree-ment that anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have contributed to climate change. The International Energy Associa-tion’s World Energy Outlook 2007 shows that the implications of governments adopting no new policies to control emissions trends, the world emissions would jump by 57 per cent between 2005 and 2030 to 41.9 giga-tonnes, an average growth of 1.8 per cent per year. The mitigation of climate change, by drastically reducing GHG emissions and stabilising the carbon dioxide concentra-tion in the atmosphere has become a pre-requisite to avoid a strong alteration of the climate system. The carbon market is one of the products of such efforts.The Indian economy has experienced strong growth during the last few years. It is likely that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) will continue to grow at the rate of between 7 and 9 per cent in the next few years. With its vibrant economy and a growing population, India has become a major energy consumer. Access to reliable, affordable electricity is a pre-requisite for socio-economic develop-ment. In terms of GHG emissions, the trends are rising rapidly as well. The his-torical share in cumulative emissions, measured over the period 1900 to 2005 amounted to 2 per cent for India. This pattern changes radically during the period from 1900 to 2030, the emission rises to 4 per cent. Nonetheless, per capita emissions in India still represent a frac-tion of those of industrialised countries.Evolution of Carbon Market The Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 pursuant to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, represents an agreement that international efforts are required to reduce anthropo-genic GHG emissions that contribute to global climate change. In accordance with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, the industrialised coun-tries, which are responsible for the vast majority of historic GHG emissions, agreed to collectively reduceGHGs by an average The author is grateful to Charles Cormier for several discussions on this subject. Rajeev Singh (rajeevpsingh@yahoo.com) is with the Indian Revenue Service.

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