Columns -Thoughts from London

When the party is over

By Neville de Silva

By the time this column appears President-elect Barack Obama would have held his first press conference and possibly provided some indications on where he is headed particularly in foreign policy.

In the major capitals of the world they would have scrutinized his comments carefully looking for changes in substance and tone. For all its current problems the United States remains the world’s only superpower, the most powerful nation in the world. What it does and how it acts resonates across the globe. While the world watches, America celebrates. For America has come of age. Forty five years after civil rights leader Martin Luther King had a dream that the black people- now called African-Americans-could walk with their heads held high and be an integral part of the America the country’s founding fathers hoped for, Obama has made that dream come true. This however is a political journey that began over 125 years ago. Believe it or not the Republican Party nominated Frederick Douglas for the vice presidency in 1882. That journey culminated last week.

If in 1960 John F.Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic (but still white) to become president of the United States, 48 years later Obama has become the first African American to ascend that exalted office. These are milestones in America’s linear progress in socio-political development and perhaps the expiation- though no single moment could truly do so- of the shame many years of slavery and segregation that smeared the American dream.

Americans will rejoice until the inauguration of the new president in a couple of months for truly this is a historic moment. But when the banners of victory are lowered, the flags are folded and tucked away, the millions of empty bottles and tin cans are binned America must return to its daily life and the world must ask what all this meant and will mean in the coming years.

Behind the gushing superlatives that have accompanied the Obama victory, behind the millions of voices raised in celebration for a new resurgent America, there is a lesson that we are apt to forget. This was a victory achieved through debate and argument, by the peaceful participation of millions of people, by the casting of ballots for the person of their choice. It was a victory achieved and a victory conceded by peaceful means in a civilized fashion.

Soon power will be transferred voluntarily and smoothly. It will not be grabbed with the power that flows from the barrel of a gun, not by the intimidation and the harassment of those who hold different opinions or challenge some sacred cows.

This is democracy in action. It might not be the purest form of democracy as envisaged by political theorists. Money still matters on the campaign trail. Yet if there was an election where the choice cut so sharply across economic-social-political lines and the pigmentation of the skin was sublimated by hopes, aspirations and high expectations of an unprecedented number of voters who made their intentions abundantly clear, this was it.

Soon however political rhetoric must clash with the reality. No president since Franklin Roosevelt in the early 1930s has come to office bearing such a sheaf of problems. Obama’s problems are both domestic and foreign. Most pressing of them is the economy. Obama was correct when he said in his victory speech that the road will be long and the climb steep and the end cannot be reached in a year or two or even in a single term. He has promised to deal with education and healthcare. Today over 40 million Americans do not have sufficient healthcare insurance. But with a total debt of some 1 trillion dollars funding new education and healthcare programmes it is bound to increase debt.

Revitalising the American economy is important to the rest of the world especially at this moment in time when the slow down of western economies will impact on the exports of developing countries pushing back their own development. While the health of the American economy is crucial to the well being of the global economy, many countries caught up in the Bush administration’s war on terror and its aggressive unilateralist foreign policy will be wondering about Obama’s approach especially with regard to the two foreign wars that have stretched America militarily and tarnished its reputation and image worldwide. The president-elect has said that he will call for diplomacy before intervention. It means perhaps that the Obama administration will place more faith in a multilateralist approach- particularly the UN- rather than the combative unilateralism pursued by the like of John Bolton.

As for Sri Lanka those on either side of the current conflict will wonder what the ramifications of an Obama administration will be. American ambassador Robert Blake’s remarks the other day that US policy on Sri Lanka is bipartisan and that the US seeks a political solution to the conflict will disappoint some. The LTTE and its supporters, especially in the US, would hope for an easing of Washington’s stance on the Tamil Tigers and look to a lifting of the ban imposed on the LTTE in the mid-nineties and a relaxation on fund raising. To begin with Sri Lanka is such a small speck on America’s foreign policy radar screen that it will not be a matter of any concern in the near future. Obama will be facing issues of very serious concern to America and its allies to be bothered with Sri Lanka.

The fact that Tamil lobbies campaigned for Obama and raised funds is not going to alter the landscape any time in the near future, if at all. In fact Obama might be dealt a very delicate foreign policy problem even before his inauguration so that he will assume office with an urgent matter at hand. That is the dilly-dallying by Iraqi MPs over a draft security pact calling for the pull out of US troops from the country by end of 2011. But with Iraqi legislators still wanting more control over US troops and guarantees that Iraqi territory will not be used to launch attacks against Iran written into the pact, there is a danger that it will not be passed by end December.

If the year ends with no deal, the 150,000 US troops in Iraq will have no mandate to be there. If they are confined to barracks and George Bush leaves with this issue unfinished, it will hand squarely on Obama’s lap. If that happens Iraq will head the foreign policy priority list and everything else will be pushed aside until that is resolved.

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