At the crossroads

2009-01-21 00:00

Never before has a president of the most powerful country on Earth stepped into the Oval Office with such a combination of high expectations and daunting problems.

It is almost as if the gods have decreed that the first African-American to hold that position must fall short. Yet there is a calmness about the man, a cool and unflappable confidence, that suggests otherwise. Simply to have made it there against such odds is testimony to the fact that Barack Obama is a remarkable individual.

It is that quality of being remarkable, of being young and intelligent and idealistic and above all of being strikingly different from his brash and banal predecessor, that has excited the imagination of so many in his own country and around the world, and made Obama an icon even before stepping into power. Not since Jack Kennedy more than half a century ago has there been anything like it in world politics.

Yet in the two years since Obama announced his decision to run for the Democratic nomination on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, the world has changed in ways that he could not have imagined at the time.

He was just a junior senator then and there was a touch of diffidence about his announcement.

“There is a certain presumptuousness in this — a certain audacity — about this announcement,” he said.

Now, as he takes his seat behind that desk where the buck stops, that sense of presumptuousness must surely have expanded exponentially. He finds himself facing the worst economic crisis in 80 years; two disastrous wars in the Middle East, one of which he must withdraw from safely and the other engage in more wisely; a resurgent crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the war on Gaza having inflamed anti-United States sentiments throughout the Islamic world and weakened the U.S.’s regional allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan; political instability in Lebanon; and the need for new strategies in dealing with Iran, Syria, Pakistan, North Korea and a newly assertive Russia.

All these issues demand the im-mediate and simultaneous attention of the audacious young president. As former secretary of state Madeleine Albright remarked recently, his task will be “like redesigning the airplane while flying it”.

How will he deal with it? Obama has one great advantage, which is that all of the U.S.’s crises are self-made, which means that none is beyond the capacity of the U.S. itself to solve.

The economic crisis is a direct result of what Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz calls “free market fundamentalism”, a U.S.-generated ideology that encouraged ever-increasing relaxation of financial regulations in the mistaken belief that an unfettered free market would always be self-correcting.

The wars, and indeed the whole disastrous Middle East strategy, stemmed from George W. Bush’s Manichaean world view of a primordial struggle between the forces of good and evil, with no shades of grey between, and that the historic role of the U.S. is to use its military might to crush the “evil-doers” so that the good guys can prevail and live in democratic happiness ever after.

Although the economic crisis is the most dramatic and urgent, in a political sense it will be the easiest for Obama to deal with because everyone is feeling the impact and the nation will be united behind him in dealing with it. Moreover, it is clear what has to be done: the formula is at hand, in the teachings of John Maynard Keynes and the practical experience of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the thirties.

The answer is to throw money at the recession through deficit spending on infrastructure development to create jobs and get the economy moving again.

The money is there. Congress has voted for a stimulus package of $825-billion over two years, and Obama will still have the second half of a $700-billion bail-out programme to revive credit to individuals and businesses. It will be a long process, years rather than months, and Obama’s main problem will be to avoid wasteful expenditure on useless projects.

The foreign-policy shifts will be more difficult, since the U.S.’s political psyche is deeply committed to military machismo, and national Islamophobia will be a political inhibitor when it comes to reviewing Middle East policy. Still, Obama has huge political capital and he must be prepared to expend some boldly.

I am writing this before hearing Obama’s inaugural address, but after having read that following a visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and reading Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered in the midst of the U.S.’s terrible Civil War, Obama wanted to use the occasion of his own address to define this moment in his country’s history, as Lincoln had done.

In that short but powerful address, Lincoln suggested that the unspeakable savagery of the Civil War, which had already lasted four years and cost more than 600 000 lives, was God’s punishment for the sins of human slavery. As the country’s first African-American president 144 years later, that passage obviously resonates with Obama, as no doubt do Lincoln’s closing words of reconciliation and healing that are carved on the walls of the memorial.

But to frame the current historical moment more completely Obama will need to go beyond his own racial origins, important though they are, and define the crossroads where the U.S. finds itself today: untouchably powerful and influential but despised in much of the world because of its abuse of that power in the self-belief that it is a benevolent giant with a right, indeed a duty, to reshape the world in its own image and rid it of “evil-doers.”

In other words, the troubles the U.S. is experiencing, as Lincoln suggested in the case of its treatment of slaves, have been brought upon itself by its own arrogance and sense of national superiority.

What the U.S. needs, and what Obama can hopefully bring to it, is a little humility, an approach to global problems based more on engagement, understanding and diplomacy than on military might. An end to the Bush doctrine that claimed the U.S.’s right to launch unilateral pre-emptive military action to eliminate any threat to its security, real or perceived or even contrived, and a return to multilateral diplomacy and respect for international law and institutions.

Above all, a recognition that “shock-and-awe” wars don’t win hearts and minds. They radicalise the alienated and increase the risk of terrorism.

That is the crossroads where the U.S. stands today. It needs a change of direction and of image, and Obama is uniquely qualified to provide it. His blackness is only part of what makes him special. He is also the son of a Christian mother and a Muslim father, part First World and part Third World with parental roots in Kansas and Kenya, and he spent a formative part of his childhood in Indonesia which has the world’s largest Muslim population.

For the first time, the U.S. has a president with a personal understanding of other cultures and faiths, of the reality of life in the countries of the South and, most important of all, of the so-called clash of civilisations between the Islamic world and the West.


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