US elections and us
Friday night's dramatic entry of the virtual fourth candidate to Tuesday's US Presidential elections - Osama bin Laden - has turned the mega-event into another sphere altogether. The address to the US nation by the patron-saint of al-Qaeda grabbed the attention of not only the American people, but the world at large, which has been watching the US elections very closely because they know that the future of their own lives as citizens of the world, could rest on its outcome.

No different to the rest of the comity of nations, Sri Lanka, her economy, and therefore her people will undoubtedly feel the currents and cross-currents of an election as far away as in the USA.

US- Sri Lanka relations are probably at their zenith. They have, arguably, never been so strong, being at Deputy Secretary of State-level (Richard Armitage) with Presidential attention. Consequently, support is evident diplomatically (banning of the LTTE; Co-Chair of the peace process), financially (Free Trade Agreement partners re-affirmed this week by the US Trade Representative; upto US $ 300 million grant money under the Millennium Challenge Account aid programme), and militarily (defence assistance in training, seminars and equipment).

While Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar deserves kudos for the banning of the LTTE in the US, much of the credit goes to former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. At long last, we have an envoy in Washington who can go as high-profile as one must in that nation's corridors of power, and get a job done.

These advances, however, have not been without strings attached. There is nothing called a free aid grant. And the Ranil Wickremesinghe government paid the supreme penalty at the April general elections, because the people felt it went too far out on a limb to support the Bush Administration, almost drawing the label of being a US puppet.

Conversely, the new UPFA government has quickly realised that shouting anti-US slogans is one thing but keeping the economy pumping without the US, is another.

The despatches from Washington indicate that were President Bush to win, the present Trade Representative Joe Zoellick is tipped to be the new Secretary of State and Condi Rice, the Defence Secretary. Were John Kerry to win, there is a strong possibility that Richard Armitage will be invited to be Secretary of Defence, but being a good Republican he would decline. The other front-runners are Senator McCain or Senator Joe Biden, both stong supporters of Sri Lanka.

Bipartisan support for Sri Lanka has been established to a great extent in the US. Either a Republican or Democratic Administration will have known personalities in high places. There is a strong base for support in both the US Senate and the House, many of whose members are likely to be re-elected. Tuesday polls are also a race for seats in the Senate - one-third are up for re-election. Even if President Bush loses, Congress may be in the hands of his Republican party. The US private sector through its Chamber of Commerce, industry, labour and environment groups, and think-tanks of either party have kept in touch with their counterparts in Sri Lanka.

Clearly, most Sri Lankans would like to see the back of President Bush for the way he sees the world, but the issues facing the US voter are as much about abortion, gay marriages and stem cell research, as of Iraq. And from all accounts, the race is a dead-heat, the winner a toss-up.

For Sri Lanka, a reverse bipartisan approach is required, whoever is the ultimate winner. President Bush's ruthless, often brutish 'war on terror', especially in Iraq, has had positive effects in our own war on terror. A Kerry victory would shift the emphasis to human rights, but it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who banned the LTTE. Kerry has announced a 120-day freeze on trade matters, but again, with support built with the textile and farm lobbies, we should come through. The underlying message is that there is no earthly point in Sri Lanka trying to back one against another. Post-election America is going to be a badly, sadly divided nation. Continuity in policy and good interaction with the US and all sections of her people is going to be a sine qua non to the future betterment of our own people.

One cannot run away from the fact that a bulk of this country's exports, and a huge portion of this country's aid comes from the US. Whether we like it or not, the US remains the world's most influential single nation on earth. All the anti-US rhetoric stands muted in the face of this stark fact. And yet, this interaction need not be on the basis of slavish subservience, even if that is what is demanded at times. The interaction itself must be bipartisan. A two-way street with a partnership with no senior partners and junior partners.

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