NEW YORK - The United States, which has been vilified globally because of the disastrous policies of the Bush administration over the last eight years, has suddenly been redeemed in the eyes of the outside world with the election last week of Barack Obama as the country's 44th president.
Obama comfortably beat Senator John McCain of the Republican Party to become the first African-American president in an unprecedented electoral victory in the history of the country. The critics, who before the election kept warning that the US was not ready for a black President, were proved wrong.
The 47-year-old Obama, with roots spread all the way to Kenya, broke one of the most formidable racial barriers in the country by winning the US presidency and ushering in an administration of the Democratic Party after President Bill Clinton's incumbency of the White House (now facetiously dubbed as the "Black House") eight years ago.
In this photo released by Obama for America, President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle watch election results in Chicago on November 04. AFP
The Pilgrim Fathers, fleeing from religious persecution, crossed the Atlantic and landed in Plymouth Rock, while most African-Americans arrived in this country in slave ships. But, as one writer put it, Obama's Kenyan father, a onetime student in the University of Hawaii who met his white American wife on campus, came to the US on a different kind of ship: a scholarship.
At the height of the civil rights movement in this country, when black Americans were fighting a virtually losing battle against inherent racism in the country, one of the best known leaders of the time, Malcolm X, remarked: "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. The Plymouth Rock landed on us."
To win the election last week, Obama had to battle a vicious smear campaign against him, mostly by right wing neo-conservatives. Obama was not only dubbed a "socialist" and a "watchdog of terrorists" but also a closet Muslim. The fact that Obama's middle name was Hussein ("like the Iraqi dictator"); or that his last name was dangerously close to Osama (as in bin Laden); or that his father was a Muslim, were mischievously subverted during the election campaign.
But it took Colin Powell, an African-American and a former Secretary of State who is also a member of Senator McCain's Republican Party, to counter his own party's propaganda by saying: "I'm also troubled by not what Senator McCain says but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said: such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is he is not a Muslim.
He's a Christian; has always been a Christian".
But the really right answer, said Powell in a TV interview just before the presidential elections, is: "What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?" The answer is, "No, that's not America."
"And is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be President? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he's Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America," Powell said. And he was right.
Mercifully for Obama, the slanderous campaign did not influence the millions of Americans, including whites, African-Americans, Hispanics and scores of other ethnic groups, who voted for him in overwhelming numbers. Obama's victory was a nation-wide backlash against the catastrophic economic and foreign policies of the Bush administration: an administration that is also blamed for triggering a financial meltdown in the country.
At the United Nations, which was strongly supportive of Obama, the mood among both staffers and delegates, was politically joyous. The Bush administration, which went to war in Iraq without Security Council blessings, was implicitly contemptuous of the world body where Russia and China blocked or hindered proposed sanctions against countries such as Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Iran.
Senator McCain openly talked of a new world body -- to be called the League of Democracies -- aimed at marginalizing the UN since the Security Council was becoming increasingly intolerant to the heavy-handed policies of the Bush administration. As one writer put it, the outside world had rightly complained that the US was a country that "preached justice but tortured its captives, launched a disastrous war in Iraq, turned its back on the environment and greedily dragged the world into economic chaos."
The challenge before Obama is to turn the political tide, for which he has been given a four-year mandate by an overwhelmingly majority of Americans. But will he be able to deliver? Leon Panetta, a former White House Chief of Staff, was quoted as saying that given the depth of the crises facing the US, Obama has little choice but to "put his arm around chaos."
"You better damn well do the tough stuff up front, because if you think you can delay the tough decisions and tiptoe past the graveyard, you're in for a lot of trouble." He advised Obama to "make the decisions that involve pain and sacrifice upfront."
Meanwhile, the post-election edition of the New York Times, which hit the news stands on Wednesday morning, ran an unprecedented one word banner headline: OBAMA. Within hours the newspaper was a total sell out -- and a collector's item. The online e-bay marketing website was hawking a copy of the newspaper, which had a news stand price of $1.50, for a staggering $300.
But then, everything in last week's US presidential elections was unprecedented. Perhaps it could have happened only in the multi-racial United States. By comparison, it is logical to ask: will multi-ethnic Sri Lanka ever have either a Tamil or a Muslim as its president?