Barack Obama: A good show, but no applause yet

Somewhere there’s Kryptonite

President Barack Obama is flying gracefully and confidently – albeit experiencing some minor turbulence – through his first 100 days, having ambitiously donned the uniform of the multicultural Superman of the 21st century.

Obama, the bi-racial, Hawaiian-born son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansas mother, adorned with a multisyllabic Arabic name, now emerges as the ideal aesthetic leader – and much hoped-for redeemer – of this brave new globalised world fragilely teetering on the edge of calamity.

Unfortunately, Obama’s hourglass allows only four years to remedy the paralysing economic crisis at home and the smouldering fires of political and religious extremism abroad, primarily fuelled by the belligerent tone and myopic policies of George W Bush’s trigger-happy administration.

Most noticeably, Obama’s inclusive and humble rhetoric immediately sets him apart from his arrogant predecessor, whose indignant adherence to right-wing fundamentalism and unilateral aggression were in strong contrast to Obama’s professed desire for mutual understanding, engagement and partnership. Unlike the profoundly anti-intellectual Bush, the Ivy League-educated, former law professor Obama can, thankfully, name the 20 countries comprising the G20.

Whereas Bush preferred cultural isolation, Obama’s Camelot resembles a global playground as he and his family – including their new dog, Bo – reach out to diverse citizens at home and spurned friends abroad such as Turkey, which Obama visited during his inaugural world tour.

If Bush was our Elmer Fudd, the classic befuddled cartoon character blind to his own ignorance and condemned to foolishly and unsuccessfully hunt “wily wabbits”, then Obama is emerging as this generation’s Bugs Bunny, a cool, savvy and cocky charmer who always acts as if he is two steps ahead of everyone else, even as he’s staring down the barrel of a shotgun.

Indeed, that shotgun is loaded as Obama seeks to mend frayed relations with alienated Muslim countries through his new policies to combat terrorism.

Obama’s interview with Al Arabiya and his recent visit to Turkey highlighted the end of the polarising “Us vs Them” language and the beginning of dialogue and partnership.

“The United States is not and will never be at war with Islam,” promised Obama, despite a recent ABC/Washington Post poll showing that 48 percent of Americans hold an unfavourable opinion of Islam, the highest unfavourablity rating since 2001. Having shunned Muslim American voters like political kryptonite in his campaign, Obama now embraces them by stating: “Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know, because I am one of them.”

Obama now invites American Muslims to become part of his “political family” with his recent appointments of several distinguished Muslims, such as Rashid Hussain, Dalia Mogahed and Eboo Patel, to influential positions in his administration.

Perhaps this rhetoric is sincere, but many remain sceptical of Obama’s intentions after eight years of the US$3 trillion “war on terror” and the humiliating memories of the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention facilities, which to Obama’s credit he condemned and closed with his first executive order.

Furthermore, such syrupy sweet words could reflect Obama’s realisation that America is currently desperate due to the costly sins of its superiority complex and cannot heal its economic institutions, energy resources and military objectives without international support.

His visit to Turkey was akin to a suitor passionately pursuing a jilted maiden in the hope of acquiring a dowry – in this case access to Turkey’s air and land space, ideally neighbouring Iraq, and assistance from its forces, which comprises Nato’s second largest army.

Regardless, Obama’s effort of reaching out to Muslims is a welcome relief from Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us” adversarial posturing. Most notably, Obama – unlike Bush – is wisely seeking limited, cautious and focused relations with Iran, despite the reactionary tendencies of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. However, most Muslims and Americans realise diplomatic words require commitment and action in order to produce enlightened policy. As Fatemeh Fakhraie, an Iranian-American editor of the popular website Muslimah Media Watch, told me: “Obama’s Norooz message last March was a bright spot in Iran-US relations. But decades of big talking – from both sides – leave many Iranians sceptical about whether the US really plans on changing its policies in Iran. If Obama wants to get anywhere with Iran, goodwill actions are worth more than goodwill words.”

Haroon Mughal, the director of public relations at the Islamic Center of New York University, agrees but adds: “Winning over Pakistan is as important, if not more important, than finding peace with Iran.”

Inarguably, Central Asia is the epicentre of the war against terrorism as it quickly descends into a chaotic and violent chess game comprising rival warlords, a resurgent Taliban, a corrupt and ineffectual Pakistani military, and remnants of al Qa’eda, all strategically using the land and its people as pawns to cement their respective strongholds.

Obama, the harbinger of “hope” and “change”, is foolishly following in Bush’s footsteps by intensifying the drone attacks near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, whose success rate of six per cent has killed 14 terrorist leaders, but left behind 687 innocent Pakistani civilian casualties as collateral damage.

As Peter Singer, a Brookings scholar and author of Wired for War, told me: “These strikes have also led the Pakistani news to label America Enemy No 1,” hardly a win in the so-called war of ideas.
Moghal adds: “It’s worth noting that for all the positive coverage Obama has received in much of the Muslim world, his attractive personality is dwarfed, in the eyes of many Pakistanis, by the policies he has pursued and intensified.”

Instead of giving the Taliban more eager recruits through bereaved family members of killed innocents, Obama should pursue a long-term strategy that engages the democratically inclined majority of Pakistan spearheaded by Pakistani lawyers, who defiantly showed their true colours in the recent “long march” protest to reinstate the judiciary sacked by the dictator and former US ally Gen Pervez Musharraf.

If Obama continues America’s decades-old policy of selfishly befriending Pakistan’s dictator and selfish leader du jour for the sake of appeasing a short-term foreign policy objective, while callously turning a blind eye to the festering, pro-Islamist officials corrupting Pakistan’s military and ISI, then this war is already lost.

However, in the eyes of many, Obama’s most glaring failure was his shameful silence over Israel’s brutal militarism against Gaza, which left nearly 1,300 civilians dead.

At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference last summer, Obama promised he would “never compromise when it comes to Israel’s security”. Meanwhile, incoming secretary of state Hillary Clinton affirmed: “The United States stands with Israel now and forever.” Gaza’s tragedy clearly shows that US support for Israel remains unconditional, unfair and unbalanced.

However, Obama would be shortsighted to continue such unabated favouritism in light of increasingly critical world opinion regarding Israel’s right-wing militancy and penchant for unilateral aggression, all the more controversial considering the recent election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister and appointment of Avigdor Lieberman, a hawk, as foreign minister.

The festering sore that is the Israel-Palestine conflict will haunt both the US and Israel until an honest and reasonable solution is proposed that will take into account the autonomy, dignity and sovereignty of the Palestinian people, whose continued occupation will only fuel the anger and resentment of Muslims worldwide.

Returning home, Obama’s most crucial test has been to revive the precariously faltering US economy suffering from its worst bout since the Depression.

As American suburbs turn into ghost towns due to an exponentional increase in foreclosures, historical US stalwarts such as the car manufacturer GM prepare for a fast “surgical” bankruptcy, and banks and financial institutions such as AIG hang on for dear life at the mercy of federal bailouts and interventionist policies, Obama – as Superman – has no slack or learning curve in saving this valuable sinking ship.

Although Obama’s economic plan includes aggressive measures, such as the nearly $800 billion stimulus package and a new plan to buy up to $1 trillion worth of bad mortgages and other “toxic assets”, some, such as Paul Krugman, suggest this isn’t the radical “change” that is crucial and necessary; rather, it reflects Obama cosying up to the same bankrupt philosophy and ideals of those reckless Wall Street frat brothers responsible for the fiasco in the first place.

Ultimately, only time can tell if Obama’s policies will work, but at least as he approaches his first 100 days, the multicultural Superman is still flying high. Let’s hope after he’s finished soaring, he returns to earth in time to save the day.


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