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    South Asia
 
     May 4, 2012
 


 

Obama wins politics of terror
By Sreeram Chaulia

United States President Barack Obama's strategy of maximizing personal political mileage for his presidential re-election campaign from the killing of Osama bin Laden has sharpened the battlelines in the lead-up to the November elections.

The Washington Post labeled the president a "campaigner in chief", apart from commander-in-chief, on the eve of the first anniversary of the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in which the al-Qaeda chief was killed by US special forces.

The repeated political marketing about Obama as a tough nut on national security issues and contrasts with Republican challenger Mitt Romney's alleged indecisiveness have reversed the tables, as the Republican camp was traditionally seen as more assertive in war and terrorism-related issues while the Democratic Party had a namby-pamby image.

That Obama was no pansy was clear from the very first days after he took office. But he had a monumental task of shrugging off the legacy of Democratic presidents who earned a reputation for bungling on international crises. Romney recently tried to tap into that vein by arguing that Obama did nothing special by ordering the raid of the Navy Seals on Bin Laden's hideout and that "even Jimmy Carter" would have done the same as it was an easy opportunity to take out America's public enemy number one.

President Carter's top-secret attempt to free US diplomats from the hostage crisis in Iran in 1980 and president John F Kennedy's disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 have been peddled as glaring examples of Democratic presidential failures in the security realm.

These are juxtaposed against Republican icon, president Ronald Reagan, who was the poster boy for aggressive foreign policy decision-making that did not hesitate to use force or secure American interests by hook or by crook. Reagan's halo as an iron-fisted leader was inherited by both president George H W Bush (for teaching Iraq's Saddam Hussein a lesson in the Gulf War) and president George W Bush (for relentlessly pressing on with the "war on terror").

But Romney's tactic of placing Obama within the portals of a Democratic presidential legacy of cowardliness does not hold water because Obama has been an unusually savvy decision-maker on national security concerns. Just as his brand of politics while ascending to power in 2008 was a rejection of the establishment line of the Democratic Party, Obama's thinking and acumen on the al-Qaeda threat and on war in general has been much more farsighted than any Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940s.

Contrary to Romney's caricature of the Abbottabad raid as a simple home run, the chances of success in nabbing or assassinating Bin Laden last May were actually "50-50" and Obama grasped a historic opportunity with a degree of optimism and hope. It was exemplary political leadership, wherein the president's own military advisers were unsure whether to go ahead and launch the Navy Seals when intelligence was not absolutely certain that Bin Laden was in the hideout. A civilian like Obama eventually took the decision on his own, based on gut instinct and an inbuilt self-confidence.

Portraying Obama as a wimp on Iran, Syria, China or other major preoccupations of American foreign policy is not cutting much ice.
Rather, the popularity of a new television advertisement by the Democratic Party's propaganda machine, which asks whether Romney - had he been president of the US on May 1, 2011- could have mustered the courage and the conviction to risk his career and US relations with Pakistan in order to find Bin Laden, shows that perceptions of Obama as a historic change agent are not confined to domestic US politics.

He avoids war (or in the case of Afghanistan, tries to de-escalate inherited wars) where it would be counter-productive, but does not hesitate to use surgical military action if there is a reasonable chance of success. In terms of rationality (ie cost-benefit analysis), Obama is proving a far better commander-in-chief than his Republican predecessor.

Some observers have been critical of Obama's attempts to crassly cash in on a collective American achievement such as the assassination of Bin Laden to boost his political fortunes when the economy is showing a "thumbs down".

Is Obama diverting the economically distressed American electorate with macho fables of how Bin Laden and al-Qaeda's core organization were effectively decimated under his command? Is Obama's hyping of Bin Laden's assassination a camouflaging of what is basically a strategic defeat for the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

There is indeed a fair bit of political opportunism in Obama's actions, which cannot be denied. But then, terrorism itself is a dangerous form of politically motivated violence. Keeping it out of electoral politics is impossible and unrealistic to even ask for.

Take India, for example. Every time a major terrorist attack shatters peace, a blame game ensues in the hotly contested arena of in India's electoral politics.

The opposition slams the ruling party as inefficient or soft on countering religious fundamentalists and their foreign sponsors, and the roles get reversed when the opposition occupies the treasury benches in parliament.

The independent Indian news media commentators then cry foul and accuse all the parties of "politicizing terror" instead of uniting to tackle the menace. Such calls for de-politicizing terrorism and making counter-terrorism a purely technical problem that has mechanical solutions are misguided and also bereft of comparative insights about how politics inevitably enters debates on terrorism around the world.

Whether for good or bad, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his challenger, the socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, are politicizing terror by accusing each other of failure to understand or tackle the Islamist threat since the Toulouse massacre by the al-Qaeda-inspired Frenchman of Algerian descent, Mohamed Merah. In Spain and Germany, elections have been won or lost on issues of how adeptly an incumbent regime has managed terrorist attacks or foreign military crises.

To wish away politics from the question of counter-terrorism is purely wishful. What Obama is showing through his grandstanding on the Bin Laden scalp is that there is a relationship between citizens and the state based on the understanding that governments protect their people.

The questions of national security, terrorism and war are so integral to citizen's sense of safety that they cannot be left to technocrats or military mavens. Besides the domestic socio-economic welfare issues which dominate discourse on citizen-state relations, national security too remains a central public policy concern in an age where terrorism and war beckon in every direction.

There have been instances in Western history where Prime Ministers and Presidents like Winston Churchill in Britain, Charles de Gaulle in France and George H W Bush in the US lost elections or referendums despite winning wars and heroically leading their countries in times of peril.

The arithmetic which they miscalculated was to expect that under-performance in the domestic welfare state and governance functions would be compensated for by superlative antics in the international arena.

As a community organizer with a strong grassroots base, Obama is not committing that error. He is aware of the deep economic malaise in the US and is trying to recover lost ground in the unemployment and wealth inequality domains. Unlike a Sarkozy or a typical Indian politician, who might be using the terrorism card to stave off defeat triggered by domestic corruption or mismanagement, Obama's brand of politics is conveying that politics is the art of delivering results both on domestic and on foreign policy matters.

Obama's re-election in November is not a foregone conclusion, but his smart politicization of counter-terrorism (in spite of the overall fiasco for the US in the war in Afghanistan) is more or less ensuring that the revolution he has brought to the Democratic Party will become rooted with four more years in the White House.

Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs and the first ever B Raman Fellow for Geopolitical Analysis at the strategic affairs think-tank, the Takshashila Institution. His most recent book is International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (I B Tauris, London).

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