Lanka in Obama era

If there is one event that grabbed the attention of the world this week, it was the US Presidential elections. If, as they say, the US remains, arguably, the single world superpower, and therefore, dictates the destinies of the world, and if hence, the people of the world were also entitled to vote, the victory of Barack Obama would have been even more resounding than it was. There were many factors behind the US - and the world, for different reasons, wanting such a man to sit in the White House. One thing in common was that both the American people and the world-at-large had enough of George W. Bush Jnr. The economic meltdown in the US on the eve of the elections was the last straw that sealed Mr. Obama's victory. One of the quips from a black American in the immediate afterglow of Mr. Obama's victory is worth repeating. The blacks in America always get the dirty jobs, he said. "And now, they've given the Presidency to Mr. Obama!"

Being the first Afro-American to sit in that exalted seat, Mr. Obama's win is being hailed as a re-awakening of America, and its people can justly be praised for their willingness to overcome racial prejudice and bigotry that still remains deep-rooted in that country.

It has taken them over 200 years since their Independence to do so, when countries like India - and even Sri Lanka, which produced the first woman Head of Government more than forty years ago, with shorter democracies, have long surpassed the US in political representation. It was the youth who turned the pages of US history, eventually. They gave the momentum to the Obama campaign, and eventually, blacks (95% of the vote), whites (43%- young whites 60+), Latinos (66%) came out in their numbers, to vote for him.

For Mr. Obama, everything fell into place. He was young, and like John F. Kennedy, who became the first Catholic US President, there was something in his being non-white, and cosmopolitan, and therefore different from the rest; his DNA was global; he had a middle class upbringing and grassroots connections being a community organiser. And, he had Columbia and Harvard degrees; he had the Presidential demeanour; he ran a good campaign; his timing to contest was perfect with eight years of the Bush Administration and its mismanagement on his side; and he was lucky at the end, when Wall Street crashed.

Great expectations are now inevitable, and great disappointments following great expectations, will also be inevitable. Mr. Obama is probably more aware of this than anyone else. Choosing to strike a cautionary note in his victory speech to an emotional crowd of 125,000 in his hometown of Chicago, he said the problems he inherits may not be solved in the first year, "nor even the first term". Already, the US Establishment has begun 'working on' President-elect Obama.

The intelligence agencies, the CIA etc., are briefing him. The challenges are many. He has promised that he will bring the troops back from Iraq, and end the occupation of that country. He has appointed an American Jewish hardliner as his Chief of Staff in what is clearly a bid to appease the strong Jewish lobby in the US, but America's chronic inability to play 'honest broker' in the Palestinian issue, which is the cause of half the world's problems today, looks set to linger on. He has said that he will continue the so-called 'war on terror' in Afghanistan. His policies in the Iraq-Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan fronts will need some impetus to undo the mess US foreign policy has made over the years. Africa, no doubt, is over the moon, hoping his Kenyan roots will see more engagement with a forgotten continent. As for Sri Lanka, the election of Mr. Obama is likely to change very little.

Already, the US Ambassador has gone on record saying that it's a bi-partisan approach that is adopted by Washington towards Sri Lanka -- the State Department (the US Foreign Affairs Ministry) will run the show and its Ambassador here will be the post-box.

US-Sri Lanka relations were at a high during the Ranil Wickremesinghe-Bush Administrations with a political level dialogue, continued by then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and the likes of US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Richard Armitage. But it has now slipped from the Executive to Congress (the US Parliament) where the Senators are taking up issues on Sri Lanka, mainly resulting from lobbying by the minority Tamil diaspora in the US.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden, with his decades-long involvement with US-Sri Lanka policy is likely to be the point-man for the future Obama Administration with Sri Lanka, but the Colombo Government's recent rebuffs to letters sent by US Senators, including John Kerry (who is a candidate for the Secretary of State job) on the insurgency in this country, will not be a happy omen.

The victorious US Democrats have said that the question of terrorism needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis. One can only hope that the same US Establishment that so far supported the Sri Lankan Government against the northern separatist insurgency would - as they did in other theatres where they have botched things up -- be able to, ironically, convince the next US Administration against any change in direction, at least in Sri Lanka's war on terror. .

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