Letter from America

America on Road to Verdict – A Split One

(This article was originally written for Defence Journal)

By Jehangir Khattak

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Pakistan has frequently been mentioned by almost all the candidates from both sides of the political divide. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s name has never been mentioned in a manner that would make most Pakistanis proud. The candidates cite the example of Pakistan while discussing the rising threat of religious extremism in different parts of the world. The candidates’ strong rhetoric in their plans to “deal” with Pakistan has attracted at times pretty strong reaction from Pakistan’s Foreign Office. While politicians like Mike Huckabee lack international vision, their foreign policy outlook remains a guessing game. And whenever they spoke on international issues, those were nothing short of gaffes.

The assassination of Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, on December 27, 2007, was the first major incident that evoked response from all the presidential candidates. The candidates’ varying responses exposed their command on foreign policy. So striking were these responses that top American dailies like The Washington Post wrote a special editorial on them under the caption “The Pakistan Test.” These reactions not only demonstrated the candidates’ understanding or otherwise of international issues, but also their ability to handle them. The astonishingly naïve reaction came from none else but Mike Huckabee who wanted a crackdown on illegal immigrants from Pakistan in the United States following BB’s assassination. His unimaginative approach did not end here. He, in the course of his comments, tried to make his audience believe that Pakistan is still under martial law.

Equally disappointing was Senator Barak Obama who has so far treaded a tough line on Pakistan. Obama has time and again expressed his resolve to hit terrorist targets, if any, on Pakistani soil without seeking Islamabad’s permission. Obama’s somewhat unilateralist approach towards Pakistan is in virtual contrast to his international outlook which advocates more inclusiveness and greater openness. Unlike the current Republican administration’s policy of not negotiating with its foes, Obama is promising talks with countries like Iran. In Pakistan’s case, Obama, who is promising change in Washington, is propagating something that would maintain status quo in the American line of thinking. Former Director George Tenet, in his latest book At the Center of the Storm, best explains this thinking. He says, “…we must not fall prey to typical American impatience and rush into ‘solutions’ that only make matters worse.” The Illinois Senator’s assertions on Pakistan have disappointed and even antagonized many of his Pakistani-American admirers.

“I was going to vote for Obama in the primaries. However, after his recent statements about Pakistan, I no longer support him,” said a Pakistani American voter during WNYC, New York Public Radio’s famous host Brian Lehrer’s talk show recently. The Obama campaign managers are also not oblivious of the frustration amongst Pakistanis. It has tried to reach out to the Pakistani American community. One of his local representatives recently held a meeting with key members of Pakistani community in New York. However, he had few answers to the pointed questions of the Pakistani community leaders. Instead he promised an answer by one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers. While Obama can be described as the real rising star of the Democratic Party, his assertions about Pakistan points to one of his major weaknesses, his lack of experience in handling sensitive issues like foreign policy.

If Obama makes it to the Oval Office, he will certainly be bad news for President Pervez Musharraf. He would most certainly be willing to work with Pakistan’s democratic movement. A President Obama may be bad news for President Musharraf, an individual or a limited number of individuals in Pakistan, but he will be equally or even more bad news for India. One of Obama’s promises is to drastically reduce, if not completely end, the job outsourcing to India. He has also promised to hold India and China accountable for their industrial emissions, worsening global warming.

Obama’s rival Hillary Clinton is not good news for Pakistani rulers either. She is also towing a hard-line her party has adopted on war against terrorism. The Democrats for long have been criticizing the Bush administration for undertaking the Iraq war on a wrong pretext. They believe Iraq war was an unnecessary diversion from war on terror. Little wonder, both Hillary and Obama are making the same promise –withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Both are also promising greater focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan –a hallmark of typical Democratic approach.

On the Republican side, after the exit of Mitt Romney, the two main contenders of Republican nomination, John McCain and Mike Huckabee, are strong supporters of President George W. Bush’s war policy. The only difference John McCain has with President Bush is war on terror. McCain is promising to “hunt down Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell.” Unlike Democratic presidential candidates, McCain is willing to work with Pakistan in fighting terror. He is probably among very few American politicians outside the Bush administration who are publicly defending President Musharraf and Pakistan. He is also among the very few American politicians who are acknowledging the sacrifices rendered by Pakistani security forces in the fight against terrorism in, what he calls, “one of the most difficult terrains of the world.” So a President McCain is also expected to maintain a greater focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan and is expected to work more closely with Pakistan.

As far as Mike Huckabee is concerned, since his chances of becoming the US President are next to none, a discussion on his international outlook would not be necessary. Thus the US electoral exercise is a redefining moment, not only for America’s future direction, but also for the direction of international politics. Republicans’ retention of the White House would be continuation of George W. Bush’s rule, sans redefined focus on issues. A Democratic President would change the rules of the game altogether. US withdrawal from Iraq and greater commitment in Afghanistan, closing of Guantanamo Bay prison, and new and multilateral outreach to the world will be some of the hallmarks. A new effort could also be in store under Democrats to mend relations with the outside world and to “reclaim America’s tarnished image,” as the Democrats like to put it. Thus 2008 has put America virtually at a crossroads, and the nation has to set a new direction –a virtual referendum on George W. Bush’s two terms in office. It is a contest between status quo and change. As the political temperature rises in this land of opportunities, so does the hope for change which may be on its way.
The impact of Super Tuesday

The biggest casualty of the February 5 Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses of the US presidential elections in 22 states was Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor. The biggest surprise was the “comeback kid,” Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher who turned politician and became governor of Arkansas.

Romney spent over 40 million dollars out of his personal fortune and labored on the campaign trail for over a year. After all that, Romney, managed to win only six states. Disappointed, he soon stepped aside. Romney’s surprise exit reconfirmed his being a good businessman and hard-line ideologue. After finding himself in a no-win situation against John McCain, Romney decided to step aside of a campaign that he once hoped to lead. Romney needed 1191 delegates to win the nomination, and his dismal performance left him little on which to bank his bid and win the magic number, which now simply did not add up.

McCain, who has already piled up over 723 delegates, needs another 468 delegates to win the ticket to the White House. After Romney’s exit, McCain’s nomination is almost certain. However, despite his unbeatable lead, the Arizona Senator is still facing a dilemma: acceptance amongst the conservative cadres of his Grand Old Party (GOP).

No wonder, Huckabee is giving the “Straight Talk Express” a very hard time in the country’s conservative South. Huckabee scored his latest tumble against McCain in Kansas where he won by a huge margin securing 60 percent of the vote, leaving behind McCain trailing at a mere 24 percent. Huckabee, who once was considered to be playing the spoiler’s role in the GOP race, is being taken more seriously since his impressive gains. What Huckabee has achieved has been done by none in the arena from both the parties. Employing the least amount of resources (almost 10 million dollars so far), the former Arkansas Governor has won in more states than Romney’s tens of millions of dollars’ budget could not do. But Romney chose the right moment and right place — in front of a conservative conference in Washington. He left the stage with a determined effort to bring America’s war policy back on the center stage, saying, “I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”

Romney did not mention one of the major reasons that denied him the Christian right’s vote. Many analysts speculate that Romney’s Mormon faith played a role in his downfall. Huckabee captured the lion’s share of evangelical voters, splitting the ultra-right and allowing McCain to emerge as the eventual victor. Like Romney, Huckabee also knows that his becoming the GOP nominee is nothing short of a miracle. However, he has announced to stay in the fray. Huckabee may be continuing his doomed bid for White House on any logic, he has been able to prove one point: if he is not the GOP’s ultimate choice, McCain too does not enjoy across-the-board acceptance amongst the Republican voters. McCain is still struggling with his “liberal” image and is reassuring the powerful evangelical cadres of the party that his conservative credentials are above suspicion. Even President Bush, who has so far maintained strict neutrality in the GOP race, had to say publicly that McCain is a “true conservative.” He also offered to help McCain in improving his image amongst the conservative Americans, if he becomes the party nominee.

On the Democratic side, the contest is already one-on-one, following John Edward’s retirement in late January. Despite a narrow contest, the Democratic primaries’ and caucuses’ results are far more muddled. There are no clear winners or losers so far. The only result of the primaries and caucuses held so far is that the expensive race for nomination would continue with more ferocity. It was widely expected that the February 5 Super Tuesday would decide the Democratic nominee, with New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton being the favorite. However, it proved none of these expectations true.

What transpired after Super Tuesday was that Hillary was no longer a clear front runner. Instead Barak Obama, the junior Senator from Illinois, dug in deep and swept all the four primaries and caucuses held ever since –in Washington, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Maine. The Illinois Senator is being described as favorite in many of the upcoming primaries, including those in DC, Virginia and Maryland. Obama, whose campaign is being described by many as a “movement” rather than mere electioneering, has not only amassed more delegates, closing in on Hillary, but also is receiving record contributions. He raised 31 million dollars just in the month of January.

Hillary, on her part, is in deep trouble, not only by her changing political fortunes, but also by the funding squeeze that is coming along. Her campaign funds have gone into the red, and her campaign staff has decided to work for her for free for a month. She also replaced her campaign manager to give her campaign the much needed boost. The former First Lady had to cough up five million dollars as a “loan” to keep her campaign rolling. Hillary’s stopgap loan and change in campaign management should not be seen as a desperate action. Rather it signifies her determination to stand up against the odds that have hit her campaign.

The stage is now set for a longer haul that is likely to continue till the Democratic Party Convention in Denver, Colorado (August 25-28). The Republican National Convention will be held in St. Paul, Minnesota (September 1-4), where selection of John McCain as the party’s nominee is expected to be a formality.

Besides the candidates’ personal charisma and election promises, the Democratic primaries and caucuses were largely won on the basis of race and gender. A close analysis of the results show that Obama won more than 80 percent of the black votes while Hillary Clinton’s impressive victories in large prize states, such as California, were because of overwhelming support from women as well as the Latino voters. America’s former First Couple has traditionally been hugely popular in California, especially amongst its Latino population. The way Democratic primaries are moving forward, it looks like the party’s nomination process will go into the hands of 842 un-pledged “super delegates” who can vote independently in favor of any candidate at the party convention.

As the race moves to a fight over every single delegate, John Edwards, the retired Democratic candidate, is also coming into fresh limelight. Both Hillary and Obama are coaxing Edwards to endorse one of them. Grapevines have it that, while the aides are advising him not to publicly back either of the candidates, Edwards could still go ahead and give his blessings. Thus the political drama of US presidential primaries is not over and may not be over in the weeks to come.

The writer can be reached at mjehangir@aol.com


AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Executive Producer, is a journalist with more than 40 years experience as a public radio program host and producer of documentaries, podcasts and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for the Feet in 2 Worlds project.