Do the Batik Walk, Mr. Obama
By Farish A. Noor
With the hopes of the world apparently pinned upon his shoulders, Barrack Obama will have a lot of things on his mind in the months and years to come for certain. The news that the interrogations at Guantanamo Bay might be suspended for a period of 120 days already sends out the right signals that the man intends to deliver upon his promises, and that cannot be a bad thing for anyone for what was promised was a new America that should play a humbler, moderating role in world affairs.
But let us be somewhat circumspect and realistic in our expectations for now. While many of us would like to see the man succeed, Barrack Obama is just another American President who has – for now – served us a tantalising wish-list that as sweet as it is appealing to many. But we have also had our share of American Presidents who spoke at length about the promotion of human rights and democracy across the world, only to have our hopes dashed on the hard rocks of realpolitik when it became painfully evident that their focus was more on the Soviet bloc and the enemies of the United States. Jimmy Carter got the ball rolling after the Helsinki accord of 1975 when he spoke of America’s mission to rid the world of authoritarianism and despotic rule; but it was the same administration that did little to help the people of Indonesia and the Philippines as they lived under the heels of two of the most corrupt and authoritarian pro-American despots, Ferdinand Marcos and General Suharto.
So let us see whether Obama can actually deliver on what he has promised, and let us keep our fingers crossed that he will not turn into another froth-producing American leader who is long on rhetoric but pitifully short on substance.
What can Obama do to improve the image of the United States overseas? Well, for a start he can start walking. American policy makers and congressmen and uniquely short of knowledge and first-hand experience of living abroad and the impression that I have been left with after every single encounter with an American politician is how ignorant they are about the world beyond their borders.
Obama, with his colourful past and unique family history, is in a position to play a singularly unique role by being both the President of the United States and the country’s best and most recognisable ambassador. All Mr Obama has to do is buy a batik shirt (a loose-fitting one from ebay will do) and do the Mandela walk. In the wake of his release from prison Nelson Mandela was perhaps the most famous and iconic emblem of the new post-apartheid era and most certainly the most famous South African who ever lived.
Barrack Obama can do the same thing for he enjoys one thing that no American President has ever had: instant recognition and appeal worldwide. In places like Indonesia he is loved by millions who claim his victory as their own; while across Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Arab world the very fact that an African-American has become the President of the USA has given succour to millions of poor, disenfranchised subaltern minorities to aim as high as well. It is not an underestimation or exaggeration to claim that Obama may even be more popular abroad than he is in his own country, and whatever his record may be in the future, he is for now the darling of many in the developing world.
Should that batik shirt arrive in the mail and should Mr Obama decide to wear it and do the Mandela walk abroad, he must try to convince the world that an America that can elect an African-American in its quest for change can also change for the better. Decades of misrule and violent unilateralism during the dark years of Bush senior and junior has done untold damage to the image and credibility of the USA as a superpower that presents itself as benign when its former ambassadors of goodwill came in the form of B-52 bombers and cruise missiles. And no, we do not believe the rhetoric of American Presidents who talk about human rights abroad while denying the same rights to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay or even American citizens themselves.
The use and abuse of the ‘war on terror’ rhetoric by the Bush Junior administration has allowed repressive governments worldwide to summarily arrest, detain, eliminate, erase and torture countless individuals who themselves were legitimate opposition politicians, activists, academics, journalists, students and citizens. During the Bush era all these human rights abuses across Asia, Africa and the Arab world were legitimised by pro-American governments that paid lip service to Bush’s war on terror while really using the campaign as a pretext for even more repression.
You may not realise this, Mr Obama, but the Guantanamo Bay prison complex and the Patriot Act that was passed by your predecessor was even used as an excuse and legitimation for detention without trial in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and all across Africa and the Arab states. Now that you have set the example by halting the abuses that have been taking place at Guantanamo bay, can you please hop on the next flight to the countries allied to the USA and remind these dictators that the bad old days of torture and arbitrary arrests, detentions and extra-judicial killings have come to an end as well?
There is not guarantee that Obama will be able to undo the damage that has been done to America’s image thanks to the violent militaristic unilateralism of previous administrations; and not even any guarantee that he can bring about a reversal in the slide of the US economy. But if he can at least re-inject some degree of moral credibility and consistency in the ethical conduct of international politics and compel the allies of the USA to live up to the standards of ethical governance he wishes to provide to his fellow Americans, that would be good enough. So do the Mandela walk, Mr Obama, and walk the walk while talking the talk.
Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore