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    Volume 8 Issue 98 | December 18, 2009 |

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Obama, democracies and wars

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Barack Obama, if you have watched him lately, has been faltering. He has been turning into a stereotype. Think of the toughness with which he spoke to Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu about the Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land. That was boldness much admired. But these days, as you observe him and his hapless secretary of state Hillary Clinton, you realise with something of cynicism that it is all back to square one. The toughness is gone and the Israelis know they have nothing to fear from this American president in much the same way that they had little to fear from any of his predecessors. No one leans on Netanyahu any more on the settlements issue.

Well, there are a good number of people who truly believe that Obama is a good man and that he needs time to put all his idealism into action. That he is a good man has never been in doubt. As to whether he can have all the time he wants to accomplish what he has set out to do is a thought we are not very comfortable with. There are the ironies associated with any assessment of the man. He has just come away from Oslo with the Nobel Prize for Peace. And he did that a mere week or so after ordering 30,000 fresh troops into Afghanistan. And note that the US leader has done little that qualifies him for the Nobel. If intentions were all that were needed to win the prize, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of good, well-meaning people out there all over the world who deserve the prize as much as Obama does. But let that be. And let us dwell on Obama’s ‘just wars’ theory set out in Oslo last week.

The president went to careful lengths to inform the world through his acceptance speech that America had never waged war against a democracy. Well, that may not be wholly true. America has not invaded a democratic country. We accept that argument. But how about the times when American administrations have surreptitiously or overtly undermined democratic governments they did not particularly approve of? Please do remember that as soon as Salvador Allende was elected Chile’s first socialist president in 1970, the Nixon administration went swiftly to work to undermine him and eventually to have him overthrown by the army in a coup which still evokes images of horror in all of us. That was in September 1973.

No, America has not waged war against a democracy. But when in 1971, the Pakistani military regime of General Yahya Khan launched a genocide against the Bengalis of his country’s eastern province rather than hand over power to their elected political leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Washington looked away. It had nothing to say about the army’s atrocities; it felt no sympathy for the ten million refugees crossing over into India. And, of course, it had absolutely no intention of condemning the regime because Henry Kissinger needed a Pakistani connection to establish the first-ever links between the United States and China. Pakistan, to our delight in Bangladesh, lost the war. We loved the American people for their support in the war. We had no such feelings for the Nixon administration.

President Obama is wrong to think that his country has always upheld democratic principles all over the world in these past sixty years.

In Indonesia, America under Lyndon Johnson said nothing when the military dictatorship of General Suharto went hunting leftists to kill after the so-called communist attempt to seize power in September 1965. A million Indonesians were murdered by the soldiers. Good men like D.N. Aidit, leader of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), disappeared; and Foreign Minister Subandrio was tried and jailed. President Sukarno was stripped of authority and the country slipped into dictatorship and eventually turned into a kleptocracy under the Suhartos. Washington said not a word.

In 1953, the people of Iran rejoiced in the overthrow of the Shah through the coup d’etat led by Prime Minister Mossadegh. It was for Iranians what Prague Spring in 1968 would be for the people of Czechoslovakia. And just as the Warsaw Pact went to work against Alexander Dubcek in 1968, the US Central Intelligence Agency went into overdrive to overthrow Mossadegh and restore Reza Pahlavi to his throne of dubious antiquity. The return of the Shah, through American support, would mark the second phase of increasingly authoritarian rule by the Iranian monarchists, a period of darkness that would last until the arrival of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni in 1979.

In the early 1980s, America under George Herbert Walker Bush was unable to stomach the electoral triumph of the Islamic FIS in Algeria. President Bush, as a way of justifying a refusal by the Algerian authorities of the time to hand over power to the victors, told us that religious political parties believed in democracy just once --- the vote that brings them to power --- and then forgot all about it. It was bad judgement and Algeria has paid a terrible price all these years.

Yes, President Obama is right to claim that America has not gone to war against a democratic state. He is wrong to think, if he does think that way, that his country has always upheld democratic principles all over the world in these past sixty years. There is the record. And there is history.



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