Not even Obama should have that much power
By Farish A. Noor
Now that the level of euphoria over the victory of Barack Obama has settled somewhat, it would pay to consider some of the ramifications of his recent victory as the latest occupant of the White House and by extension the most powerful man in the world.
In the lead-up to Obama’s victory, much was said and written about the man’s promise and hope of a new America; an America that would be proud of itself, confident in the world and able to address the challenges of today. There was much talk about the restoration of American pride and prestige and to regain the moral credibility that was squandered away after two terms of Bush junior in office.
But before the dust had settled and the last piece of confetti touched the earth, there were already disturbing revelations about the man and what he might or might not do as the President of the United States. Obama’s appointment of Congressman Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff did not bode well with many who know of Emanuel’s strong ties with Israel and the pro-Zionist lobby in the USA. It is also well known that Emanuel’s father, Benjamin Emanuel, was a member of the Irjun gang in the 1940s and in an interview with the press had bluntly stated that his son would try his best to ensure that American foreign policy under Obama would be pro-Israel and seek to secure the safety and security of Israel at all costs.
Perhaps those who were supportive of Obama were themselves glued to the TV screens and mesmerised by the image that he had created for himself, as the embodiment of hope and a new future for America and the world. But there precisely lies the problem: that living as we do in this unequal unipolar world where the power relations between the developed North and the developing South are so stark, the future of the United States as the sole hegemon in the world today is intimately linked to the future of the developing world as well. If America coughs, the whole world is affected, but never vice-versa.
We should not forget that the historical forces that have led to Obama’s victory are the very same forces that have created the military-industrial complex of the neo-imperialist America we see today. Obama’s victory in the US Presidential elections was seen and cast by many (particularly non-American outside observers) as a sea-change in American politics, a radical shift that has interrupted the continuity of American political discourse and culture.
While it cannot be denied that the election of an African-American has its sterling points as far as race-relations in the US are concerned, we should not again fall into the trap of internalising and taking on board what are really the problems and historical baggage of America as our own. If Black African-Americans have an axe to grind, it is with the same white middle-classed establishment that put them in their place, but not with the rest of the world. Latin America, Asia and Africa were not responsible for the 400 years of American slavery or racial politics, and for us to rejoice at this victory would be to live vicariously through the lives of others.
Asia’s own relationship with the US, on the other hand, has changed little since the days of American expansionism into Asia following the end of World War Two and the collapse of the Western European empires in the East. It was the US that propped up a host of pro-Western dictators all across Asia at the height of the Cold War; and it was thanks to successive American governments that Asian dictators like Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto and the Colonels’ regime in Thailand lasted so long.
Furthermore contemporary American history would indicate clearly that despite the superficial ideological differences between the Democrats and Republicans in the US, successive US Presidents from Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Reagan to Bush have pursued American interests first and foremost, promoting and defending exploitative capitalist tendencies across Asia and the rest of the world at the expense of human rights and real, meaningful democracy. Jimmy Carter went to town with talk of human rights and his use of democracy as a bargaining chip in the dirty game of political conditionality, but it was the same Jimmy Carter who did little to curb the excesses of the dictatorships in the Philippines and Indonesia, as the latter were firmly pro-Western and pro-American in their orientation.
So for Mr Obama to make that grand leap to overturn the decades of uneven and unequal relations between the USA and Asia would require more than pretty words and sweet discourse. No, Mr Obama, we don’t need another lecture on human rights and democracy from you, and you don’t even have to wear the Batik shirt like Nelson Mandela. What we need from Obama and America at the present is the recognition of America’s place and status as a fair partner and equal player in the game of international relations, without the US reverting back to type and strutting around Asia with a big stick in hand and a carrot in the pocket.
Can Obama, or anyone for that matter, really undo and reverse the development of the military-industrial complex that has developed into this unwieldy juggernaut with a life of its own? Can any American President really curb the excesses of American multinationals as they devour the last remaining resources of the world, as in the case of US oil and gas companies currently sucking up the last mineral resources in sub-Saharan Africa or mining in the state of Bihar, India? Can one man overturn all this, without at the same time democratising his own society and educating the people of America about their role in the world and the human cost they are inflicting on the rest of humanity and the environment?
Unless and until these measures are really taken in earnest, our worry is that Obama’s victory is simply a case of a repetition of the same and a return to the hegemonic order of old. Every single American President has talked about regaining the pride of America and its place in the world. That pride, however, has come at the expense of the humiliation of other nations and societies, and America stands tall in the world only because it has cut other nations down in size. A fresh-faced Obama speaking the language of human rights may be refreshing indeed after eight years of Bush and his neo-Fascist discourse, but the wind of change wont be blowing until we see the tanks and warplanes of America retreating back to the shores of the USA…
Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor is a Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore