OVER the past three weeks that I have been in the US, I have watched with interest and expectations the current presidential election campaign. This has been a fascinating experience, even for someone who has monitored US elections for the past 35 years.
For one, the forthcoming elections have neither a sitting president nor a vice president in it. Instead, they have a female and a black as serious front-runners for the Democratic Party’s nomination – a new and positive development.
Moreover, they are taking place at a time when the White House incumbent is extremely unpopular. It is not only his foreign policy that has deeply polarised the country, even his domestic programmes have resulted in a serious economic malaise. Recent polls confirm that 82 per cent of Americans fear that the country is on the wrong track and are yearning for a genuine change. Such is the disillusionment with President Bush.
The Republicans have had a dull and uneventful primary campaign that led to the bland but experienced Senator John McCain emerging as his party’s standard bearer. Though not one to set your imagination on fire, he is a Vietnam War veteran, who is viewed as a centrist-liberal on domestic issues, though a hawk on foreign policy matters. While he may not be able to arouse the passionate support of the religious right, he could appeal to moderate voters who may prefer to see a dull but strong leader in the White House.
The Democrats are, however, still locked in a highly contentious race which has remained agonisingly close for far too long. But it is clear that Obama is in an unassailable position and Clinton will eventually have to accept the inevitable.
The differences between Senators McCain and Obama, on both domestic and foreign policies, are deep and profound. Though viewed as a liberal by the Christian fundamentalists, McCain is nevertheless very much part of the Washington establishment. He spent five years in a Vietcong prison, but remains the only one among fellow combat veterans in the Senate who continues to champion the war in Iraq, which has caused such deep divisions that another Vietnam veteran, Senator Chuck Hagel, predicted that it would turn out to be “the most dangerous and costly foreign policy debacle in our nation’s history”.
An extremely intelligent person, Obama is also regarded as a genuine thinking man, unconventional in both his upbringing and political views. His candidature has generated unprecedented interest and excitement across the country, though conservative groups and influential lobbies view his stand on some issues as near blasphemous and deeply worrying. Some have even questioned whether he is imbued with ‘Judeo-Christian values’, which has led to his repeated assertion that he is a strongly believing and practising Christian.
There has also been an effort to portray Obama as not being sufficiently committed to Israel, an important litmus test for those running for national office. But for Obama it is even more critical, since he has advocated ‘sending a signal that we need to talk to Iran’, a position viewed as reckless by many. Bush sought to capitalise on this during his recent visit to Israel when he compared the Iranian leadership with the Nazis and those advocating negotiations with recalcitrant regimes as the ‘false comfort of appeasement’.
Though the Gallup poll released last week showed Jewish voters favouring Obama over McCain by 61 per cent to 32 per cent, the Republicans are endeavouring to foster doubts about Obama’s commitment to Israel, alleging that while McCain as president would be Hamas’s worst nightmare, Obama would be much softer on both Hamas and Hezbollah.
Consequently, Obama has responded by offering this assurance: “I pledge to you that I will do whatever I can, in whatever capacity, to not only ensure Israel’s security but also to ensure the people of Israel are able to thrive.” Obama backers also point out that their candidate’s position on social issues is more in tune with Jewish voters who could make a difference in states with large Jewish populations, such as Florida and Pennsylvania.
Though the Americans are deeply worried about their country and the Democrats hold their biggest advantage since 1993, as the party seen as better capable of dealing with the nation’s problems, nothing can be taken for granted in an American presidential election. It is a cruel, no-holds-barred contest that has left even battle-hardened politicians in tears, while influencing others to opt out of the process to save themselves and their families this devastatingly painful ordeal. It is, however, the ‘glorious uncertainty’ of these elections that makes them so fascinating.
What would an Obama presidency mean for the rest of the world? For a start, neo-con control of the White House and the resultant contempt for global organisations and disdain for international commitments would come to an end. In recognition of the disastrous impact the Bush administration’s ‘lone ranger’ mode of operations has had on the country’s image and standing, even in traditionally pro-US European countries, a much greater effort would be mounted to reposition the US in the international mainstream. Obama is also likely to opt more often for ‘soft power’ as an instrument of US foreign policy – certainly a positive development.
As regards Pakistan, the changes would be considerable and visible. Fortunately, Obama is not enamoured of Musharraf nor is he a fan of authoritarian regimes. In his view, the regime has neither brought benefits to Pakistan nor pursued the war on terror with sincerity or seriousness. His advisors also fault Bush for continuing to view Musharraf as ‘indispensable’, even after elections that amounted to a stunning repudiation of the military ruler and his policies. He remains deeply worried about Pakistan, which he believes is inextricably linked to Afghanistan and not only on the issue of terrorism.
Undoubtedly, Obama will vigorously pursue the war on terror, but will aim at bringing Islamabad more into the equation than has been evidenced so far. Thus it will be a more multi-faceted approach, with a noticeable reduction in money for defence purchases and a meaningful increase in economic assistance. In brief, a more nuanced and balanced policy on Pakistan is likely to emerge under Obama. This should be a welcome development.
Source: Daily Dawn, 24/5/2008