Wednesday 7 May 2008

Why Barack Obama (UPIASIA)

Manipal, India — U.S. policies often affect the globe, and hence the global interest in U.S. politics. Although Australian feminist Germaine Greer may disagree, few in Asia see the possible re-entry of Hillary Clinton into the White House as epochal. Sri Lanka had its two Bandaranaike ladies as prime ministers, India had Indira Gandhi, Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, Turkey Tansu Ciller, Bangladesh the feuding Khaleda-Hasina duo, Indonesia Megawati Sukarnoputri and the Philippines Corazon Aquino and now Gloria Arroyo.

If there has been any significant change in gender dynamics because of these individuals becoming heads of government, it has been too small to notice. While First Lady, Hillary Clinton did not give gender discrimination the priority that she gave issues such as healthcare, and to expect her to change U.S. society, economics and politics -- from a gender standpoint -- in a way that even the formidable British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher could not within her own Conservative Party, may be a trifle optimistic.

In contrast, the election to the U.S. presidency of Barack Obama would signal the true conclusion of the revolution begun by President Abraham Lincoln when he emancipated U.S. slaves in 1863 -- that human beings are one, no matter what their color.

As secretaries of state, neither Colin Powell nor Condoleezza Rice has broken the mould of international opinion, which still regards the United States as being of the same persuasion as Europe, where policies that are racial in substance are the norm. Even in Britain it is far tougher for a nonwhite to reach the higher echelons of the medical and other professions than is the case in the United States. On the continent, Germany has been leading the cry of "Europe for Europeans," aware that ethnicity and not nationality is the core principle at work in fashioning policies related to migration and employment.

Within Asia -- even in the Middle East and East Asia, two corners of the continent in thrall to European brands -- a reaction has been developing to such Mugabist policies. Consumers are turning away from patronizing brands where only the intangible "European premium" makes a commodity do well in the marketplace despite its high cost. This premium has been diminishing over the decades, as countries in Asia and even in South America learn to produce items of a quality comparable to those from Europe, if not -- as in the case of airlines -- better.

Should Barack Obama make it past the obstacles laid in his path by his formidable Democratic opponent, and thereafter beat John McCain on Nov. 20, the world will awake to a United States that will have shown itself to be colorblind.

Within Asia, such a lack of prejudice would be extraordinary. Even while verbally lambasting "colonial" mindsets in countries with a white majority, almost every Asian country is host to forms of discrimination that more closely resemble the United States of the 1800s than even the 1960s. Within India, caste still figures prominently in the social psyche, with even a section of Muslims and Christians effectively turning back from the core of their faith by seeking to separate out "outcaste" Muslims and Christians from their ranks. In Japan, the Korean community and indigenous groups such as the Okinawans and the Ainu suffer invisible discrimination, the way non-Han ethnic groups do in China.

It seems a long way away for India to have a prime minister from the lowest social caste. As in Pakistan or any other Asian country, women who have reached the top have come from the highest levels of the social ladder, cocooned in privilege as snugly as Hillary Clinton. The coming to office of an individual with the extraordinary background of Barack Obama would set the United States on a moral level in advance of both Asia and Europe.

In an earlier column this writer argued that an Obama victory would, in conjunction with his approach to international relations and policy, go a considerable distance toward erasing the anger and fear toward the United States that the policies of George W. Bush in particular have created. Some of those presently queuing up to join groups hostile to perceived U.S. hegemony would have second thoughts.

A swift recognition that the U.S. military in Iraq is actually fostering rather than stanching extremist responses -- the way that U.S. troops acted as a recruitment agency for the Viet Cong in an earlier war -- would remove one of the primary engines driving recruitment to jihad: anger at the U.S.-NATO occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. If the local population, be it Iraqi or Afghan, cannot take over responsibility for their own security, no one else can. Each month spent in occupying these countries creates more collateral human and infrastructural damage. This helps religious extremists pose as the only saviors, the way the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army did in Vietnam.

If Obama is truthful about his intentions, the United States may find that a withdrawal of its troops from these areas may ignite not a catastrophe but an eventual reconciliation, of course with Iraqis rather than Dick Cheney's friends determining who controls the local oil industry.

Although almost all the column inches and the political rhetoric have been about the personnel in uniform -- and they are admittedly a superb professional force -- it is soft power that has given reach and salience to U.S. influence within populations, as distinct from often despotic governments. In a world that is hopefully democratizing, it will be these millions rather than the few hundred within the local elites that will set the terms of engagement between themselves and the United States. An Obama presidency would show the much more potent and attractive "soft power" face of the United States rather than the mailed fist favored by those who are at their best at 3:00 a.m.

But it is not only internationally that the backwash of an Obama presidency could be game-changing. Within the United States, African-Americans are still overwhelmingly represented at the lower levels of income and education. Some of this comes from an inner feeling of hopelessness, that the cards are so stacked against them that whatever they do they will not be able to cross the color bar. The fact that so many Indian-Americans, with skin hues far duskier than many African-Americans, have pushed their way to the top in universities, boardrooms and now -- with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal -- in U.S. politics, shows that the United States is much less color-fixated than Europe or Asia.

If the African-American community sees one from among them finally become the legal tenant of the White House, some would surely feel motivated enough to put aside the "victim mentality" that is the biggest barrier to their own progress.

In India, such a process has taken place several times. In Kerala, a social reformer called Narayana Guru ignited ambition within his own so-called "outcaste" community to follow his example and his teachings and succeed. Today the social group that the guru came from is the second most affluent in Kerala, after the Christians. In Uttar Pradesh state, the coming to the highest office of Mayawati, who is from the most backward of Hindu castes, has generated a will toward improvement among her people that is changing the social dynamics of her state in a healthy way.

Only emulation, and not prison, can ensure that African-Americans will be as successful as others in the United States. The Obama family in the White House would help this needed social transformation far more than the Clintons or the McCains. There is a lot at stake in U.S. presidential politics today, not only for the rest of the world, but substantially within the United States as well.

-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)

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