Manmohan Singh admitted to Obama that his failure to retaliate against Pakistan after the Mumbai terror attack had cost him politically and he feared that rising anti-Muslim sentiments had strengthened the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) appeal
When American SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, one of the first things US President Barack Obama – who ordered the raid on the Al Qaeda leader’s Abbottabad hideout – did was to phone his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He told Bush that the mission was the culmination of a long, hard process begun under his presidency. The telephone call’s significance lay in the fact that Obama had politically opposed just about every policy of the Republican Bush.
That the first black occupant of the White House was innately politically decent comes through sharply in this gripping autobiography wherein Obama details, but without bitterness, the racial discrimination he faced. Be it his political opponents within the country or terrorists beyond, he makes it a point to differentiate between the good and the bad, without being biased or partisan.
When more than one option was presented on how to take out bin Laden, Obama ruled out a missile strike because it would lead to the death of 30 or more people (women and children included). He knew that a raid “would involve violating the territory of a putative ally in the most egregious way possible”. But he was clear that whatever option was chosen, it could not involve the Pakistanis.
He explains: “It was an open secret that certain elements inside the country’s military, and especially its intelligence services, maintained links to the Taliban and perhaps even Al Qaeda, sometimes using them as strategic assets to ensure that the Afghan government remained weak and unable to align itself with Pakistan’s number one rival, India.” Anything that was told to Pakistanis, he was convinced, could end up tipping off bin Laden.
Obama writes that when the Americans phoned Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, he requested Washington come clean on the raid and its target as quickly as possible to manage the Pakistani public. Obama thought his difficult conversation will be with his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari. But Zardari expressed congratulations and support, calling bin Laden’s death “very good news”. He recalled how his wife Benazir Bhutto was killed by extremists with reported ties to Al Qaeda.
Pakistan, Obama says, showed neither the capacity nor the will to dislodge Al Qaeda leadership from its sanctuary in the region bordering Afghanistan. Not only did the Pakistan military (in particular its intelligence arm ISI) tolerate the presence of Taliban leadership in Quetta, but it also quietly assisted the Taliban to keep the Afghan government weak. “That the US government had long tolerated such behavior from a purported ally – supporting it with billions of dollars in military and economic aid despite its complicity with violent extremists and its record as a significant and irresponsible proliferator of nuclear weapons technology in the world -- said something about the pretzel-like logic of US foreign policy.”
Even as Americans celebrated bin Laden’s killing, Obama underlined in his televised speech that the US’ fight was with Al Qaeda and not Islam. He had no hesitation – unlike his predecessors – in admitting past US indifference towards corruption and repression in the Middle East and American complicity in ousting Iran’s democratically elected government during the Cold War besides acknowledging the searing humiliations endured by Palestinians in occupied territory.
Obama flays US policymakers who didn’t consider the death of innocent Cambodians, Argentines, or Ugandans relevant to American interests. A Presidential Study Directive during his time stated that US interests across the Middle East and North Africa were adversely affected by Washington’s uncritical support of authoritarian regimes. But he knew that his administration would never be able to transform the Middle East into an oasis of democracy.
Manmohan, Sonia, Rahul
Obama lavishes praise on former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, describing him as a man of uncommon wisdom and decency besides being a gentle, soft-spoken economist whose beard and turban lent him the air of a holy man. “For the duration of his tenure as prime minister, I would find Singh to be wise, thoughtful and scrupulously honest.”
But it was somewhat deceiving, he felt, to think that Manmohan Singh’s rise to power marked India’s progress in overcoming sectarian divides; Indian politics still revolved around religion, clan and caste. Manmohan Singh admitted to Obama that his failure to retaliate against Pakistan after the Mumbai terror attack had cost him politically and he feared that rising anti-Muslim sentiments had strengthened the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) appeal.
To Obama, Sonia Gandhi came across as “a striking woman” with “a quiet, regal presence” whose “power was attributable to a shrewd and forceful intelligence”.
As for Rahul Gandhi, “there was a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject”.
Obama dubs the nationalism touted by the BJP “divisive”.
Decorum in politics
Obama first saw the yawning chasm between the lives of wealthy elites and impoverished masses while growing up in Indonesia. Originally, he wanted no part in politics because politicians seemed dubious and actors in a rigged game. He also resisted the notion held by some blacks that white people were irredeemably racist. But grassroots activism slowly led him to electoral politics.
When Hurricane Katrina rained death and destruction, with most victims being black, Obama realized that “forgotten people and forgotten voices remained everywhere, neglected by a government that often appeared blind or indifferent to their needs.”
Cynicism for mainstream politics was rampant among blacks. “Nothing in Black people’s experience told them that it might be possible for one of their own to win a major party nomination, much less the presidency of the United States.” But he understood that too much focus on civil rights and police misconduct could cause a backlash from the broader electorate.
“I needed to embrace white people as allies rather than (see them as) impediments to change.” It was this attitude that helped Obama beat the better known Hillary Clinton in the race for Democratic nomination and then his Republican rival, John McCain.
It is decency at work when Obama says that while he disagreed with just about every one of George Bush’s major policy decisions, he found the man straightforward, disarming and self-deprecating in his humor. When Obama saw after his presidential victory some supporters hold up signs deprecating Bush, he was quietly angry, realizing it showed the “weakening of whatever boundaries of decorum had once regulated politics”. His understanding proved correct when Americans elected the virulent Donald Trump (“someone diametrically opposed to everything we stood for”) as his successor.
Eminently readable life story
Obama documents instances of racial discrimination he suffered: A well-dressed white woman refused to shake his hand at a dinner; the multiple occasions he was asked for his student ID while walking to the library on Columbia University's campus but this never happened to his white classmates; being followed around by security guards during Christmas shopping. “Moments like these were routine among Black friends… If you were poor or working-class or lived in a rough neighborhood or didn’t properly signify being a respectable Negro, the stories were usually worse.”
The problem existed in politics too. In the white-dominated Republican Party, Obama detected “an emotional, almost visceral, reaction to my presidency, distinct from any differences in policy or ideology. It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted.”
Barack Obama’s life story is eminently readable and an educative commentary on the US by someone who was a part of the system.
(A Promised Land; Author Barack Obama; Publishers Viking/Penguin Books; Pages 751; Price Rs 1,999)
(The reviewer is a veteran journalist who writes on diplomacy and politics. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)