Saturday, 20 June 2009

After Cairo, Will Obama Back Up His Words With Actions?

There has never been any doubt that Obama is a good speaker and Obama’s Cairo Speech has only reaffirmed what everyone knew, that Obama is a master of rhetoric and linguistic finesse. With the exception of Churchill’s Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears speech, I can’t think of any other address by any politician in the last hundred years that was so eagerly anticipated and which lived up to its promise. Yes, Kennedy’s Ich Bin Ein Berliner is equally important and memorable, but that was a one-liner and it is always easy to get a one-liner right, though Armstrong did goof up with his.

Obama’s speech confirms a clean break with past US policy on the Middle East, especially in light of his predecessor George Bush’s track record. Obama has made it clear that he does not think all Muslims are terrorists or that Islamic culture is not something to be despised or treated with contempt. It is only a small minority of Muslims who are extremists and Obama is very happy to do business with the rest, provided they are willing to meet with him halfway. To do all this, Obama did not hesitate to refer to his own Islamic background or to praise past Islamic contributions to art, architecture etc. Obama also promised to fight crude stereotypes of Islam and demanded that Muslim reciprocate in equal measure.

Can it be said that Obama spoke for all Americans? Can it be assumed that a majority of Americans are as appreciative of Islam as Obama is? I am not too sure of that, though it is clear than most Americans do want to make a fresh start.

A few times, Obama went a bit overboard in his speech, but I don’t think many people have noticed, though a few obviously did. For example, he said that the first nation to recognize the US was Morocco by signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796. What Obama failed to say what that Morocco was not an independent state and that the treaty was signed with the Pasha of Morocco who owed allegiance to the Ottoman Empire. Along with the other two Barbary nations Tunisia and Algeria, Morocco was officially in the business of piracy. Ships sailing in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic would be attacked by Barbary corsairs unless they were protected by a strong navy or had paid protection money to the Moroccans. After the US became independent in 1783, it no longer had the protection of the British navy and signed the treaty of Morocco under which it paid a large sum of money to the Pasha so that ships flying the American flag would not be attacked. A few years later, the Pasha wanted more money and there was a brief war between the United States and Morocco, following which a second treaty was signed. Whichever one of Obama’s speech writers thought this one up ought to be shot! In my opinion, the first nation to recognise the United States was Great Britain which, at the end of the War of Independence, signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783 under which the right to independence of the thirteen states that initially formed the United States of America was recognised.

Obama also said that America was founded upon the ideal that all are created equal. As far as I know, the founding fathers of America believed that all rich white land owning men are equal.

Obama said that he wants to create a nuclear weapons free world where no nation would have nuclear weapons and all nations, even Iran, would be able to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Splendid thoughts, but I just don’t see the US or any other nuclear power giving up its weapons.

I though the best bit of Obama’s speech came when he talked of US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the worst bit, for me at least, was when he talked about Israel and Palestine. Obama rightly acknowledged US ties to Israel and the sheer horror and brutality of the holocaust. However he had me confused when he said,
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For me the way Obama used the phrase ‘pursuit of a homeland’ is worrying. You see, the Palestinians had a homeland before the Jews returned and it was the Jewish pursuit of a homeland (in my opinion, perfectly justified in principle, but executed with so many blemishes) that has caused so much misery to the Palestinians. Further some of the Palestinian suffering is the Palestinians’ own fault. But I just couldn’t figure out where Obama stood on all this. To me, it sounded as if he was trying to make a set of very safe statements without offending anybody.

Obama wants a Palestinian state and wants the building of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories to stop. Hurray! Very few people (like Libyan President Gaddafi) still believe in a one-state solution and I didn’t really expect Obama to do so. Obama doesn’t like violence (which he says is wrong) and he reminds Palestinians that all over the world, deprived and downtrodden people have won their rights through non-violence. Does the US have the moral right to make this statement when it is involved in so much fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan? I don’t think so. Mind you, I am not saying the US shouldn’t be in Afghanistan, only that Obama shouldn’t be sanctimonious and preach about non-violence.

From the time Israel won the six-day war in 1967, during which time Lyndon B. Johnson was the US President, the US had taken the stand that Israel should stop building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Except during George W. Bush’s time, when the US was silent on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, US policy in this regard has not changed since 1967. The US has also always supported the idea of a Palestinian state. Bill Clinton (when he was President) actually went further than Obama did in Cairo and demanded that the Arab parts of Jerusalem (the Eastern bits) be under Palestinian control. Obama on the other hand was silent on the fate of Jerusalem, except to say that he wanted Jerusalem to be a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, which doesn’t convey much. I would like to know if Obama believes Israel is entitled to the whole of Jerusalem. Or would Obama like to see East Jerusalem as a part of the independent Palestinian State?

If Obama were a doer and not just a talker, this is what he would do to force Israel to give up the occupied territories. Military and financial aid to Israel would be sharply reduced. No, I would not advocate a total cut since Israel does face many serious security threats and yes, it is in a very hostile neighbourhood. Hamas and Hizbollah would be recognised as legitimate political entities and treated with some degree of respect. Political parties in Israel which support the cause of an independent Palestinian state – I mean a fully-functioning state with its own armed forces and the right and ability to defend itself, not what Benyamin Netanyahu has in mind – will be patted on the back whilst the fundamentalists like Lieberman will be given short shrift. And all along, the US will keep reiterating the demand for an independent Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Yes, East Jerusalem should be part of the independent Palestinian state.

I am not too sure if Obama will do all or, even a part of, what I have mentioned above. The reason I don’t have much confidence in Obama is that I see him as a man unwilling to offend any one. And the Palestinian dispute cannot be solved unless the United States is willing to step on many a toe and twist many an arm.

Why do I say that Obama is unwilling to offend anybody? Look at Obama’s response to a totally different, but equally serious issue facing the United States. Yes, I am referring to the healthcare crisis facing the USA. Unlike Canada and all countries in Western Europe, America does not have nationalised healthcare. In the US, healthcare is provided by private institutions and is very expensive. Buying health insurance cover is a very common practice and most employers provide their employees with insurance cover. However, almost fifteen percent or forty seven million Americans do not have health insurance. Addressing this issue was a cornerstone of Obama’s election-time pledge to reform and change America.

And how does Obama address this issue? Does he want to create a country-wide, healthcare system akin to the British NHS funded by the taxpayer? No. Is Obama going to introduce legislation that will cap the total compensation payable in medical negligence cases? No, even though such a move would drastically reduce the cost of health care insurance. Does Obama have any plans to reform tort litigation in the US? No. The US is the world’s most litigious society. Unlike in the UK, plaintiffs in the US have an easy ride. Contingency fee arrangements are very common and attorneys will take on a case for no fees on the understanding that a big chunk of any compensation awarded will go to them. Contingency fee arrangements are totally illegal in India and are permitted only in certain limited circumstances in the UK. Further, even if a plaintiff loses a case which was proved to be frivolous, US courts rarely order the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s costs. In the UK, it is not only common for a losing party to pay a substantial part of the winner costs, on filing a suit, a plaintiff is usually asked to provide security for the defendant’s costs that would be payable if the plaintiff were to lose.

So, how does Obama propose to reform healthcare in the US? By introducing a government-run health care insurance plan that will apparently compete with private insurance plans. There is no guarantee that a government run plan will lower costs. “A Rasmussen Reports poll found that only 32 percent of Americans believed a government-run insurance plan would, lower costs.”

There is actually a very good chance that such a plan might turn out to be as expensive as private ones. It is very rare for any government in the world to successfully compete with private operators, even if it doesn’t intend to make a profit. In other words Obama does not want to seriously offend insurance companies or doctors or tort litigation attorneys who make a killing out of the present system.

If Obama is unwilling to say ‘Boo’ in the face of powerful insurance companies, will he say ‘Boo’ to Israel? Very, very, unlikely, I think.

No comments: