‘Obamania’ and Pakistan

By Jehangir Khattak


PUBLIC opinion polls, media vibes, and popular sentiment all point to ‘Obamania’ sweeping across America. Barring his becoming the victim of the Bradley effect or dramatic tumult, Barack Hussein Obama is on the verge of history.

The Democratic transition team is already at work for America’s first black president. Thanks to Obama’s widening lead over underdog John McCain, key traditional Republican red states are likely to turn Democratic blue in the country’s most expensive election, costing a staggering $5.3bn. Projections are giving Obama more electoral votes than the magic number of 270 needed to win the White House.

McCain is troubled not just by Obama’s greater appeal on the economy that is expected to be decisive. He has been trying hard to come out of the shadow of George W. Bush. But his biggest political liabilities are turning out to be his own vice-presidential political gamble. All it took to bust the so-called ‘Palin effect’ was two serious television interviews. No wonder, wheels started flying off the Straight Talk Express as McCain’s closest aides openly called Sarah Palin a slow-learning rogue diva who cares only about herself. With Palin’s $150,000 Republican National Committee-funded wardrobe story still scaring away voters, the so-called ‘Palin-McCain strain’ just days before the voting day is nothing short of a disaster.

Besides winning the battleground states, McCain must win the toss-up states — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and Nevada — to become the ‘comeback kid’. However, the voter mood seems unfavourable. McCain is either trailing or in a dead heat with Obama in most of these states. Three factors seem to be pushing McCain to defeat — the Bush presidency, the economy and Sarah Palin.

Obama’s slogan of ‘change’ has endeared him to a weary nation caught in the middle of corporate greed and governmental impotency to fix a decadent Wall Street, which has already eaten up tens of billions of dollars of American pension funds. Popular sentiment is that Obama can pull America out of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

In Pakistan, the man on the street could care less about these issues. However, Washington’s foreign policy outlook for the region will remain a focal point for apprehensive Pakistanis. Obama is promising a multi-pronged approach for the region he calls the ‘real front’ of the war on terror.

He is pledging to promote democracy in Pakistan, increase non-military aid to Islamabad, institute greater scrutiny of military aid, strike inside Pakistani territory if and when Islamabad is unwilling or unable to move on actionable intelligence about the presence of high value targets on its soil, send at least two more brigades of US troops to Afghanistan, build pressure on President Hamid Karzai to curb corruption in the Afghan government, control the drug trade, and establish the state’s writ in much of the ungoverned countryside.

He is likely to end the current Karzai-centric US policy for Afghanistan. Obama says the Karzai government has “not gotten out of the bunker” to rebuild the war-torn country.

Obama has repeatedly clarified that he does not support an invasion of Pakistan. However, he is giving broad indications of raising the bar for Islamabad’s ‘performance’ in the war against terror. If Obama’s thinking for Iraq is any indication, he is expected to put greater responsibility on the nations of the region by building their capacity to fight the war in unison with Washington.

America’s 16 intelligence agencies warn that Afghanistan is on a dangerous ‘downward spiral’ and have zeroed in on three major reasons for the worrisome increase in Taliban’s power, namely rampant corruption, the booming heroin trade and increasingly sophisticated attacks from militants based across the border in Pakistan.

As president, Obama would certainly not ignore these findings, and more action against militants and state control over ungoverned territories would be the core demand not just from Pakistan but also Afghanistan. While US pressure would not be new to Pakistan, it could be a bit destabilising for the weak Karzai government. Being the closest US ally, Karzai has rarely been held accountable for letting Afghanistan become the opium capital of the world.

Obama’s ability to rebuild America’s image and to boost and bolster alliances at the international level through mere economic tools would be challenged by resource restraints. This dilemma could affect key American allies. Cash-strapped Pakistan will be no exception. Islamabad could see a longer ‘to-do’ list and tougher scrutiny, especially of military aid. Pakistan’s nearly flat economy would make it more vulnerable and susceptible to pressure from an Obama administration.

An economic meltdown in Pakistan would certainly offer a new foothold to the Taliban and Al Qaeda on its territory. Americans know that Pakistan, which like any other Third World country never contributed to the US economic crisis and yet became its victim, would not be expected to win its part of the war on terror with an empty kitty. An Obama administration will have to pull Islamabad out of its current economic morass before expecting more Pakistani input into the war.

An Obama presidency is expected to bring change, and not just in policies. Early indications in this regard abound. A recent international survey found Obama hugely popular in 17 of the 22 countries surveyed. At home, the mood is changing too. For example, when the Republican conservatives tried to portray Obama as a Muslim, it was aimed at making the voters confused and suspicious. But this negative campaign proved counterproductive as the answer came from powerful personalities such as Colin Powell and influential media outlets like CNN.

During the course of his endorsement of Obama, Powell so rightly noted, “[H]e’s not a Muslim; he’s a Christian; he’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is ‘No, that’s not America.’”

Powell’s powerful articulation of the true American values is the harbinger of the expected — that change is coming to America. Will Obama make it the mother of all changes — the change of mindset? Only time will tell.

The writer is a US-based journalist.


Daily Dawn, 30th October 2008

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