Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Barack Obama: Building a Legacy
By T.P.Sreenivasan
Barack Obama has done it all. He spoke his way up the Democratic hierarchy, won the nomination against Hillary Clinton, became the first African American to occupy the White House, won the Nobel Peace Prize, secured a second term with ease and made no great mistakes as President. Now is the time for him to start thinking of building the Obama Library and molding his legacy and his possible role in his post-White House years.
Obama’s obvious choice is the image of a fighter for justice for the black population rather than as a man of change, a man of peace, a conciliator or a nation builder. He can claim a little bit of the legacy of each, but he realizes that nothing is more enduring than the image of a liberator a la Martin Luther King. Many Presidents have come and gone, but King remains a beacon of hope not just for the black people of America, but also for the under privileged around the globe. History might judge his Presidency harshly, but might readily accept a black messiah image, if carefully cultivated. The death of a young black man in Florida gave him an opening to start the process.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me, thirty-five years ago,” said Obama last Friday in an unscheduled appearance at a press briefing on the acquittal of a white man, who shot an African-American boy in Florida. “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”
He had spoken earlier about the Florida events in “presidential” mode, how unfortunate the shooting was, how the justice system had dealt with the case fairly and how Martin’s kin had reacted to the tragedy with courage. But his tone and tenor were entirely different this time. He spoke reflectively and forcefully with more than a touch of anger. He said, “that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.” The frustration and bitterness in the words of a black President in his second term were striking, particularly a day before some prominent black leaders had announced protests against the Florida developments.
Obama is literally an African-American, unlike others in the US who use the term as a euphemism, with no recent links to Africa. But it was by a biological accident that he was born looking more like his father than his white mother. His identification with the black community was a masterstroke that brought him to the White House, breaking the glass ceiling. His incessant call for change went beyond his race and the expectation around the globe was that he would be a very different President, who would change the world. Some visualized Air Force One flying to Teheran and Havana, not to speak of Beijing and Moscow to usher in a new world of friendship and cooperation. But it became clear that the most powerful man on earth had no power to change even the most glaring inequities in the US itself. It did not take long for Obama to realize this truth and to abandon his slogan of change. He found himself entangled in the multiplicity of checks and balances, which constrained him in every direction.
The other choice he had was of building the image of a man of peace. The Nobel Committee literally embarrassed him by the Peace Award very early in his Presidency, when he had not accomplished anything concrete. The explanation given by the Committee was that the prize was given for raising expectations rather than for accomplishing anything. The Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said, “We cannot get the world on a safer track without political leadership. And time is short. Many have argued that the prize comes too early. But history can tell us a great deal about lost opportunities. It is now, today, that we have the opportunity to support President Obama's ideas. This year's prize is indeed a call to action to all of us.”
Obama was on the point of apology when he referred to the controversy about the prize and the fact that it came at the beginning and not at the end of his labours on the world stage. He said, “Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by forty three other countries - including Norway - in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks. Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict - filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.” The wars are far from over and Obama has been as steadfast in the wars as his predecessor was. He has no hope of being known as a great peacemaker.

Obama’s third option was to be the builder of reconciliation among his people, not only between the Democrats and the Republicans, but also between the races and the rich and the poor. No one grasped the hand of reconciliation he extended and the economic problems persisted well into his second term. His economic formula, which helped him to win the first election proved elusive and he was elected a second time, not as a saviour, but as one who muddled through the crises the country faced. The European economic crisis and the looming Chinese rise do not augur well for him to turn the situation to earn the legacy of an economic wizard.

No wonder, then, that Obama, or his image-makers, are veering towards building his legacy as an African American hero, who not only captured power, but also fought relentlessly for the downtrodden. That will enable him to escape the criticism that he did not end racism as President and to fight racism and racial discrimination till the end of his life. Obama’s remarks on Trayvon Martin echoed King’s dream speech and the promise he held out to overcome oppression. Obama may well be on his way to inherit the mantle of King and to claim kinship with Gandhi.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Speaking Softly

By T.P.Sreenivasan

President Roosevelt's foreign policy dictum, "Speak softly and carry a big stick" has found new followers in New Delhi. Whether they carry a big stick or not, they speak softly to the point of appearing to be not speaking at all. This is a departure from the past. Even in the old days, when there was a consensus on foreign policy and South Block had the monopoly over foreign policy making, the Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers or their spokespersons explained every important decision to the people, sometimes bluntly conveying a message of firmness and continuity in policies. To their foreign interlocutors, Indian negotiators were often forthright and then they made it known to the public, thus gaining general acceptance of the tough positions they took. Indian positions were always "principled" or were made to appear so by the spokespersons. Rarely did the public challenge the positions set forth by the Government.

The trend today to conceal more than reveal the substance of important negotiations and conversations may be dictated by the fact that the international situation is in a state of flux and we need to hedge issues to keep our options open. Many of our postures cannot be characterized as principled any more. The communication revolution has also made it difficult to "lie abroad" or even lie about what happens abroad. This may explain the present restraint and reticence. The Prime Minister himself has set the tone and it is followed down the line. Demands for explanations on foreign policy have also dwindled because of the prominence that domestic issues have attained in a pre-election year.

One aspect of speaking softly is playing down of tricky situations and issues in public. The most eloquent example of the strategy was the characterization of the Chinese incursion into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control as an acne, which could be treated with a little ointment, or words to that effect. This had no credibility because it was well known that the Chinese had penetrated deep into our territory and were setting conditions of good behavior for us in our own land. But it came as music to the ears of of the pro-China lobby and those who did not want trouble with China. The sharp criticism against the Chinese action in other quarters was blunted by the official position. As a result, the solution of the issue, when it came, appeared effortless and the details of the concessions, if any, made by India were not fully revealed, not even demanded. The truth of the settlement terms still remain in mystery.Bewildered strategic analysts raised questions, but they remained unanswered.

The meeting of the special representatives on the India-China border and the visit of the Defence Minister to China seem to have gone well, but there again, economy in words was the law. An incident on June 17, in which Chinese soldiers took away cameras from an Indian post was totally hushed up so as not to vitiate the atmosphere of the two visits. On the eve of the Defence Minister's visit, a Chinese General wrote: "The Indian side should not provoke new problems and increase military deployment in the border areas and stir up new trouble". No Indian reaction to this untimely admonition was seen. Instead, the overwhelming sense conveyed after the two visits was that Sino-Indian relations were on the upswing and that the border issue would be resolved sooner than later. The reported progress on an agreement to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border, nothing but old wine in new bottle, gave the impression that there would be rapid movement towards a settlement of the border itself. The Defence Minister was at his characteristic best in reporting progress without details. Progress there may well have been, but speaking softly on all these issues is likely to boomerang if the Chinese were to embark on their teaching lessons policy once again. A reality check on Sino-Indian relations appears imperative and this cannot be accomplished without more openness on the part of our foreign policy establishment.

The India-US Strategic dialogue, by all accounts, accomplished little, but the new policy of reticence did not permit even a whimper of disappointment. Both sides said in private that the dialogue made no difference to the relationship, which had reached a plateau, with no prospects for breaking news. Even the revelation that India was the fifth most watched nation by the US intelligence did not make any waves during the visit of the Secretary of State, John Kerry. Those who had anticipated that such a serious breach of faith involving the direct surveillance of the Indian Embassy in Washington would lead to a strong protest on the part of India were disappointed. Whatever may have happened within closed doors, the public Indian pronouncement on the issue virtually condoned the incident as nothing out of the ordinary. "This is not scrutiny and access to actual messages. It is only computer analysis of patterns of calls and emails that are being is not actually snooping on the content of anyone's messages or conversations", said the Indian Minister of External Affairs, echoing the words of his American counterpart. Against the backdrop of  cyber surveillance and cyber attacks assuming dangerous proportions, the softness of the Indian position was shocking. In the wide world, the US is seen to be as guilty as China in violating the rights of its own people and other nations. A sympathetic response from a democratic nation like India was a windfall for the United States. Turning down of the asylum request of Edward Snowden was appropriate. It was obviously a circular request sent to all democracies. But in the present atmosphere of reticence, no elaborate explanation was given of the action.

The danger of speaking softly and playing down actual events can help create an atmosphere conducive to patient diplomacy away from the glare of publicity. It also enables the Government to pursue various options without pressure from public opinion. But the gap between perception and reality will widen in the process and the possibility of grave disillusionment will increase. Facts emanating from other sources may also embarrass the Government if the truth is not told. If speaking softly becomes a habit without the accompanying big stick, it may be seen as weakness. At a time of shifting power equations, tough positions arising out of strong convictions may be of greater advantage.