Reformed hegemon? —Rafia Zakaria

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Many have described Obama’s hawkishness as just that, not representative of another episode of expansionist and militaristic American arrogance but rather a necessary, if opportunistic, political positioning to win a hard-fought Presidential campaign

In his second autobiography, Barack Obama writes about how some of his initial perspective on American foreign policy was formed as a young boy in Indonesia’s poverty-ridden streets, looking at the human rights violations taking place in the country under the dictator Suharto. He goes on to speak quite candidly about how the United States’ “tolerance and occasional encouragement of tyranny, corruption and environmental degradation” has marred foreigners’ views of the United States.Indeed, by this point Obama’s diverse upbringing is well-known. Among those celebrating Tuesday night as the election was called in his favour were villagers in a tiny village in Kenya where his father was raised and which supposedly has only one television set, schoolchildren in Indonesia where Obama went to school as a young boy, not to mention of course the millions of Americans who poured into the streets after 11 pm EST in the United States.

All this is very well, however, and part and parcel of the gleeful euphoria that has been a trademark of the historic campaign since its very inception. But for all the diversity of his background and the inclusiveness of his campaign within America, those beyond its borders, especially in Pakistan are rightfully concerned about what an Obama presidency means for the direction of American policy.

Will the project of American Empire begun in decades past be abandoned under Obama or would the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against every perceived threat continue to be the basis of intervention in other states?

In statements during his campaign Obama has presented a position far more hawkish than one would assume emerging from a candidate with an avowedly inclusive and progressive agenda. The hubbub over his foreign policy positions began with his position on Iran which showed a willingness to use diplomatic means to resolve disputes and engage the Iranians in negotiations instead of escalating military tensions favoured by the Bush Administration.

However, according to a New York Times report, an email released by an aide revealed a more complex reality. In it, Obama insisted that he would not agree to any final deal with Iran that would allow the latter to enrich uranium on its own soil.

The position is not only identical to that held by the Bush Administration but more interestingly, is far more severe than that held by John McCain who said that he would consider allowing Iran to enrich its own uranium provided strong checks were in place to ensure that it was being done solely for nuclear power and not for weapons.

Similar severity can be found in Obama’s position on the topic of sanctions against Iran when he said: “If we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need, and the refined petroleum products, then we have changed their cost-benefit calculation”. The statement, again, belies a willingness to do the necessary, a familiar if not always overt refrain defining the Bush foreign policy.

Obama’s estimation of Pakistan is even more visibly hawkish and constructed avowedly as a means to justify the logic of his opposition to the war in Iraq. Repeatedly, he has reminded the American public that Iraq was the wrong war pointing clearly to the fact that the “right” war was the one that would produce bin Laden and was to be fought in Pakistan in whose border regions the latter has taken refuge.

Obama’s militant rhetoric on the issue is well-known. Asked a pointed question, Obama insisted that he would not hesitate to impinge on Pakistan’s sovereignty to achieve American military objectives in the war against terror.

The statement is again odd, especially given the fact that it was opposition to war that allowed Obama to gain the support of left-of-centre Democratic voters that have been galvanised by their opposition to the Iraq war.

Obama’s position on humanitarian interventions is also far more engaged. In statements, reported again by the New York Times, he stated that America had a responsibility to protect “oppressed populations” and “support friends and reconstructive operations” with the help and participation of friendly nations. This is a position nearly identical to that held by the senior George Bush who took it during the First Gulf War.

If the structural outline of Obama’s foreign policy is constructed using these admittedly scant pieces of evidence, then the picture emerging appears almost self-consciously hawkish.

If evaluated sceptically it can be attributed to the necessary rhetoric of a presidential campaign fought by a civilian against a military man who not only served his country but was a prisoner of war for several years.

Many have described Obama’s hawkishness as just that, not representative of another episode of expansionist and militaristic American arrogance but rather necessary, if opportunistic, political positioning to win a hard-fought Presidential campaign.

So how do non-Americans reconcile the magnetic inclusiveness of Obama’s candidacy, the fact that so much about him seems to promise change and transformation, with his hawkish positions? Will his diverse background, pluralistic worldview and inclusive perspective finally deliver the world from the clutches of a trigger-happy American hegemon?

If America’s hope is change and deliverance from economic crises and failing infrastructure, the world’s hope is liberation from the reactionary savagery of a superpower that has viewed the world with scepticism or condescension for too long.

While it will not be known whose hopes will be fulfilled, the world can take solace in the idea that even if Obama truly is as hawkish as he pretended to be, the burdens of his promises to those in the United States, the constraints of two misguided wars and the crippling global economic crisis will in tandem ensure that while the hegemon will remain a hegemon, it will perhaps by necessity be a reformed one.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

“Reproduced by permission of the Author and the Daily Times”\11\08\story_8-11-2008_pg3_5


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