America, rekindling of hope? By Ikram Sehgal

Nothing defines the American people (and the US) better than a Presidential election year. For six-months aspirants from either party for the Oval Office have a holy go at each other for all and every issue under the sun; the two candidates who survive the initial ordeal of the Primaries spend the next four months doing it all over again. $1 billion is spent in campaigning, mainly on logistics and running “positive” as well as “negative” ads in the print and electronic media. With Hillary Clinton conceding a hard fought Democrat Party primary race, the morning after the first Tuesday in November 2008 will see a “Last Man Standing” as the US president. Will it be Republican John S McCain or Democrat Barack H Obama?

Today’s pre-eminent US position in the world owes much to the much-vilified Richard Nixon’s extraordinary opening to China in the 70s. Afghanistan completed the rout of the Soviet Union, Reagan presiding over (with a “little” help from Pakistan) the ultimate demise of the “evil empire.” As successive presidents of the only superpower in the world, Bush Sr and Clinton both exercised US power prudently. Speak softly but carry a big stick was the US stance; for the most part it seemed to work. Bush Sr did craft together a very willing coalition to run Saddam out of Kuwait. If Yassar Arafat had been more of a statesman, the elusive Middle East peace was within arm’s reach even in the last hours of the Clinton presidency, the Palestinians standing to get a far better deal then they are ever likely to get. Barely squeaking into the presidency, George W Bush had everything going for him. He was served by experienced technocrats well-versed in governance under four Republican Presidents. More Reagan-ish than his father, Bush Jr had a clear conservative vision of what he wanted; 9/11 removing all doubts, if there were any. In contrast to Reagan and Bush Sr, who directed their agendas themselves, Bush Jr is more of an absentee landlord, a formidable neo-conservatives team led by Vice President Cheney and including Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle dictating and implementing US policy, with disastrous results, not only for the Republican Party but for the US. It is a travesty of fact (and a tragedy) that the most generous nation on Earth is now the most vilified.

9/11 was a horrific and despicable act; it changed not only the US, it changed the world, both for the worse. Outraged by the tragedy, the US invaded Afghanistan to rid the country of the Taliban who had become culpable and accessories to 9/11 by giving safe haven to Bin Laden, the perpetrator of the horrible act. The “war against terrorism” had to be fought, the strategy could have been better crafted, and even better implemented. Bringing the Northern Alliance into governance in Kabul (mainly Tajiks and Uzbeks) was horribly wrong, because the Pakhtun majority reacted to them. Their atrocious misrule was the reason for the emergence of the (mainly Pakhtun) Taliban, in the first place. Hamid Karzai was brought in as a puppet-in-place to placate the Pakhtuns. Without the legendary Ahmad Shah Masoud, the Tajik leadership reverted to being the criminals they are.

Saddam Hussein twice invaded neighbouring Muslim countries, Iran and Kuwait, the brutal tyrant having fanciful whims of grandeur. However, the raison d’etre for “casus belli,” Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and the an “Al-Qaeda connection,” were both flawed. With “shock and awe” fading into bloody “chaos and confusion,” US troops are in for the long haul, the undeniable success of the Petreaus-surge notwithstanding. Withdrawal must be phased over an extended period, a rush to exit will trigger a bloody civil war in Iraq, the Shia-Sunni strife spreading to neighbouring countries, could even lead to war between Muslim nations in the region. With the Taliban regrouping with a vengeance, with Al Qaeda now as full-time partners, the US cannot also disengage from Afghanistan in the foreseeable future

Among the domestic and foreign issues on the US presidential plate, paramount is the economic issue. As the locomotive pulling the world economy, the US is clearly in a recession. Europe, and increasingly Asia, are into double-digit inflation and reduced growth. The US downturn could prevail till the middle of 2009 before signs of any upturn.

Obama ignores the credentials of Hillary Clinton for vice president at dire political peril. The senator from New York not only awakened and mobilised the massive white woman vote, but also the Democrat hard core comprising the uneducated, impoverished white blue-collar working class. They could likely vote for McCain if not handled with care. In an unusual twist, while Obama can probably live with Hillary as VP, can he have Bill Clinton, in his own right a great president, indiscretions notwithstanding, lurking around the White House? This political Catch-22 will have to be resolved if the Democrats have to have a “Dream Ticket.”

Leading in most battleground states, and with Senator John McCain having to contend with the albatross of the Bush presidency around his neck, and even without Hillary on the ticket, Barack Obama should be the next president of the US. Obama’s rhetoric is all-pervasive; most Americans seem to believe the substance of the “American Dream” inherent. Decent and personable, with values that Americans cherish, Obama stands for change, rekindling the hopes and aspirations of the American people.

Despite the Democrat bid to paint him such, McCain is not a Bush clone, often going against the norms of his own Republican Party if it did not tally with his conscience. A naval aviation pilot during the Vietnam War, McCain suffered severe torture during his long incarceration in the “Hanoi Hilton,” the notorious North Vietnamese PoW camp for downed US airmen. A leader tempered by the sound of bullets is always a major plus. Former NATO commander (and VP-aspirant) Gen Wesley Clark says he does not have “command experience,” his years in the Senate have shown that McCain would be certainly stronger (and more careful) on issues of national security then Obama. With age (70- plus) McCain’s only question mark, he has the experience and maturity to brandish the nuclear sword with caution.

Given that Obama has to contend with the issue of “patriotism,” how will Obama deal with Muslims, and Pakistan? Controversy over Barack Obama’s middle name “Hussein” imposes a limitations on him, he will be sensitive to being labelled “soft” on Muslims and will bend over backwards to prove himself tougher than McCain.

While US interests will come first, with both, with no such inhibitions and without the influence of neo-cons who had taken over the Bush Jr presidency lock, stock and barrel, McCain has the inherent self-confidence to be tough but fair.

Unless master Republican political craftsman Karl Rove comes up with something that will stick adversely on Obama (probably tar and feather him on the “patriotism” issue which is big for white blue-blood redneck Americans), the 99 percent probability is that the Democrat will be president. Most Pakistanis may prefer Obama, pragmatism and national interest dictate that McCain suits us far better as the next US president.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email: isehgal@pathfinder9.com

Source: The News, 3/7/2008

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