Uncle Sam’s World is Collapsing

First published in The Pioneer, February 12, 2011


Tahrir Square has come to symbolise over the past two weeks not only the aspirations of the Egyptian people, especially its youth, but also about the paradoxical if not the flawed nature of US foreign policies. America’s support for Mubarak, it is being argued, was based on the false belief that if not for him Egypt would have gone the Muslim Brotherhood way — i.e. Al Qaeda rule. For after all, it was some members of the Brotherhood who had started the Al Qaeda, right? Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood? This is the dilemma that we are told shaped Washington’s response to Egypt. Welcome to the messy, and according to some, compromised nature of the American response to world affairs.

American foreign policy has too long a history, and too complex a structure for one to write anything definitively without either being simplistic or plain wrong. Sure, in the hands of a Noam Chomsky it would all be about the military-industrial tail wagging the American body politic dig. With a Donald Rumsfeld or a Dick Cheney it would be all about the diluting of the American can-do spirit by a blurry-eyed left/liberal intelligentsia which has infiltrated Foggy Bottom.

But such narratives cannot hold up to careful scrutiny, though there are strands in those narratives that do lend themselves to such a telling. For after all, it was no other than Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of World War II general-turned-President, who warned Americans about the “military-industrial complex”. This was a president who believed that America’s goals were to “keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations.” No one, except perhaps Sarah Palin and some of her Tea Party wing-nuts, believes that America has consistently pursued its vaunted goals of keeping the peace and enhancing liberty, dignity and integrity among the peoples of the world. In fact, much of the world believed otherwise till recently, and that is why the US ranked among the most hated countries in the world — till Barack Obama became president. Still, about one-third of the people in a survey last year did not rank the US favorably in terms of its influence in the world.

That number, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt because the US is most detested in Muslim countries. And since there are anywhere from 1.2 to 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and 57 member states in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the followers of Islam can skew any global survey. Given this reality, George W Bush hired a special envoy, Karen Hughes, to market America to the Muslim world, and win some goodwill after his disastrous decision to dethrone Saddam Hussein without adequate planning for keeping Iraq on an even keel thereafter. The State Department has also hired, and paid well, a host of sundry American Muslims (including the Imam who wants to build a mosque near “Ground Zero”) to go spread the word in Muslim countries about America’s goodness. That some of them have spoken from both sides of their mouth is another matter, but the hiring of these ambassadors is indicative of two things: American naiveté and American chutzpah. Naiveté, because the mandarins in Foggy Bottom seem to think that their charm offensive can win them easy converts in a deeply suspicious and angst-ridden Muslim world, and chutzpah because they think that the denizens of Arab Street are suckers for American snake oil salesmen.

But one should be careful about generalising on American actions and Americans. As the tens of thousands of leaked cables by WikiLeaks show, much of what American ambassadors around the world sent home seemed to be good, solid, carefully evidenced estimations and evaluations of the leaders, leadership, and of ground realities around the world. But the leaked documents also revealed how ambassadors, envoys and the CIA could be led by their noses or bamboozled by the cunning, the devious, and the corrupt. Here, Pakistan emerges as one of those countries where the Americans have been taken literally pissed upon but which nation and its leaders they cannot seem to lose faith in. Musharraf led them down the garden path like an experienced rogue seducing a beguiled virgin. No matter, it seems, because the experience with the wily general has not taught them any lessons as the corrupt and incompetent Zardari now twists both Americans in military fatigue and Americans in cashmere around his little finger.

As they bomb and occupy Muslim lands, and as they lavish those same countries with billions of dollars, American policy makers reach for a different set of tools to do business in other lands. Here, India is an interesting and apposite case. Long characterised as the land of the heathen, polytheistic snake charmers, or the poor, prickly, peace lovers whose “alignment” they either did not like or could not gauge, Indians have both been hectored or ignored by American administrations. One of the biggest hectoring sessions happened when Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to surprise the world with “Operation Shakti” in 1998.

I recall Ambassador TP Sreenivasan’s visit to our university in 2007. He told me that he was the deputy ambassador at the Indian mission in DC in 1998, and that he was summoned into Senator John Kerry’s office to be lectured on Gandhian ideals! And then there was Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who made some shrill comments about India “digging itself a hole”.

Another aspect of the American relationship with India revolves around religion: given that India is majority Hindu, and given that many American missionaries consider India the richest land for harvesting souls, and given the fact that the majority of Americans believe America is a Christian nation, the coming to power of the BJP-led NDA government was an opportune moment for Americans to lecture Indians about freedom of religion. Undistracted by the fact that Vajpayee had Muslims and Christians in his Cabinet, and no matter that Dr Abdul Kalam was nominated by the BJP to become president of the country, many in the State Department and at the office of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom sought to lecture me on religious freedom as I went to talk to them about human rights abuses against Hindus around the world. In this context, it is useful to note that the left/liberal intelligentsia in India, and the manipulation by the Left/Congress parties have also made it difficult to get a hearing about the deleterious effects of manipulative conversion activities, and about the dangers of the well-funded propaganda by those who seek to make India weak and rob it of its unique cultural and spiritual ethos.

But the world is changing. And even bureaucrats have to adapt to changes! They are discovering that as events develop in Tahrir Square and across Egypt at “warp speed”. Tahrir Square has now become almost a self-contained city, and its denizens will not leave till America’s man in Cairo quits office, or when America’s man decides to send in his army to bomb and cleanse the place. Whether Barack Obama is nimble and free enough to act or whether he sits out a revolution will tell us whether America truly desires “to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people” or if it is merely a military-industrial complex in decline.

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