A black irony
April 15, 2009
Gamal Nkrumah muses on a striking parallel -- Europe is to America as Bush is to Obama
US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in Strasbourg, France at the conclusion of the NATO marking the organisation's 60th anniversary
Nothing hits home like the arrival of a black leader of the world's wealthiest nation, especially if he happens to be a bleeding-heart liberal at a moment of global financial crisis. His European hosts feted United States President Barack Obama. He was an American dream that metamorphosed into reality. White Europe was enthralled by the black president and his charming first lady.
Obama transformed trans-Atlantic relations, by forcing Europe to face up to its old certitudes and prejudices. No European electorate would vote a black president, chancellor or premier into office. Indeed, European Union nations are currently devising repatriation deals for people of colour. However, it is not only a question of colour. Religion, too, is a touchy subject. America sees no credible reason to bar Turkish entry into the EU, but Turkey's European neighbours will not hear of it. The challenge for Europeans today is that like naughty children with messy bedrooms, they can no longer sweep the junk under their beds.
No aspiring black politician could change the political face of conservative Europe. That is the crux of the matter as far as people of colour the world over are concerned. Unlike his predecessor George W Bush, Obama does seem to have plenty of time and a newly-cultivated taste for America's allies abroad. That is a vision of an attentive ally that is refreshingly invigorating for both Washington and world affairs, to be sure, but there is a hint of hubris about it too.
Obama treads a fine diplomatic line. His liberalism and level-headedness might well be convincing to the American electorate, but not all America's allies abroad are so easily taken in by all this broad-mindedness. Even before the novelty of playing host to a black president wears off, it is becoming increasing evident that Obama's pollyannaish posturing is not playing well with many of his allies overseas. The Turks warmly welcomed Obama's urging of the Europeans to accept Turkey as a fully-fledged EU member state. Washington, Obama declared, "strongly supports Turkey's bid to become a member of the EU." The Turks, however, took to the streets to protest their frustration at Obama's inability to prevail over the Europeans to admit a predominantly Muslim nation with a population of 75 million in their midst. Obama's vision might well be his most potent political asset, and yet it is clear to all that his vision is somewhat flawed, or rather too far-sighted as far as his European allies are concerned.
"Obama is just as bad as his predecessor Bush," angry Turks protested even as the US president paid his first official visit to a Muslim nation, albeit one that has long espoused secularism. The personas and styles of the current American president and his predecessor are radically different, but when push comes to shove, Washington continues to be saddled with the burden of how best to handle international affairs. "I know that the trust that binds us has been strained," Obama told his Turkish hosts in Ankara. "The US is not and never will be at war with Islam," he stressed.
What pundits deftly declined to pen is that officials in Muslim countries lapped up his obsequious words of wisdom even though the Muslim masses are suspicious of his pious pontification. Precisely, perhaps, because he deliberately flaunts the Hussein in his name when convenient while insisting on his Christian convictions, something which leaves Muslims cold. Much like his reception in the US Congress after his State of the Union address, Obama was mobbed by legislators anxious to touch the African-American messiah.
"America's relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to Al-Qaeda," the charismatic US president pointedly reminded his European and Turkish hosts. "Our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject," he expounded on a tremendously touchy topic.
Urging Europe to follow America's example, Obama noted that "Europe gains by diversity of ethnicity and tradition and faith -- it is not diminished by it," America's black president told his white hosts. "Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe's foundation," Obama concluded.
US-Muslim relations and Turkey's ascension to the EU are only two examples of how the astute Obama handles prickly topics. There are other far more spooky ones. Take North Korea, for instance. The trick is to stay ahead of the game, something his predecessors miserably failed to do. The international media made a hullabaloo about the 5 April North Korean missile launch with Russia, China and even India urging restraint. Obama knowing all too well that America has no leg to stand on shifted the focus of his criticism from Pyongyang to platitudes about nuclear disarmament, in passing acknowledging America's badge of dishonour for being the first and only power to actually use this appalling weapon of mass destruction.
Another example of his mastery of the word was his deft approach to the semantics of the Armenian catastrophe which occurred during the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate. "History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight." To assuage his Turkish hosts, he likened the plight of the Armenians to that of the African slaves in America. The US "still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans." And, by implication, so does Turkey, a statement that Turks can neither deny nor take umbrage at.
So a black president is not after all out of place in Europe, and especially not if he nominally has Muslim roots. "The US and Europe must approach Muslims as our friends, neighbours, and partners in fighting injustice, intolerance and violence, forging a relationship based on mutual respect and mutual interests," Obama stressed during his trip to Turkey.
America must learn to transcend the pursuit of narrow interests. In Istanbul, and after a breathtaking tour of the panoramic city, Obama thrilled his audiences at the Alliance of Civilisations Forum. In a clear departure from the belligerent rhetoric of his predecessor, Obama paraphrased a Turkish proverb much to the delight of his listeners: "You cannot put out fire with flames," he observed, with a tongue-in- cheek reference to the pugnacious actions of George W Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama wowed his audiences with powerfully resonant speeches and lectures. He attends to American alliances overseas, partnerships and international institutions such as the United Nations. He applies American leadership with a human face, and has obviously unceremoniously dethroned the bellicose rhetoric of the "war on terror" as the animating factor in American foreign policy concerns. If you happen to be an idealist visionary, then stick with this particular scenario.
Pursuing consensus for its own sake may prove counter-productive, Obama's detractors claim. Yet, the US president is far from complaisant in his determination to achieve his stated objectives. Nor does he mince his words when the need arises. Heated, or rather pointed, debate over principled differences are healthy. The deciding factor is Obama's subtle diplomatic posturing. Obama may have been looking forward to his first major foreign trip as US president. He does not deliver fire and brimstone sermons to peers, but he is as Pauline as his bungling predecessor.
So what puts a spanner into this adjustment mechanism? The three-pronged crisis to hit America -- the housing, credit and consumer confidence crises -- weaken Obama's hand, yet it's admirable how he turns this to his advantage. On the one hand, Obama feels just as strongly about compromise with opponents as his bellicose predecessor did.
On the other hand, these concerns can be addressed through apparent openness and transparency -- American-style. Just keep screaming in your opponent's face until he hurls his shoes at you no longer does it.
But there is a fine line between diplomacy and duplicity. Duplicity is a futile exercise and it is intellectually debilitating. As far as America and the Western world is concerned, Muslims the world over are still perceived as a threat. Unfortunately, public opinion in the West is highly manipulated and Muslims are the bÍte noire of both the media and political establishment. And this will not change under Obama despite his credentials and silver tongue.
The date 11 September 2001 shall remain enshrined in the country's collective national psyche for eternity. Under Obama, American policymakers purport to have embraced objectivity. The newly nuanced approach appeals to the world at large, especially "civilised" Europeans. Obama does not question his country's values -- for surely they put him in the position where he finds himself in at the moment.
Muslims are loathed because everything changed with 9/11. Or so the media would have us believe. The Europeans, though, still reserve their bitterest contempt to immigrants from Africa and countries on Europe's eastern fringe. Economics are still tainted by the question of colour. It is one thing to fawn over a black president -- who will be going home shortly. It is quite another to open the floodgates to desperate black and brown hordes.
Europeans were fond of dismissing Bush as an uncouth American. With Obama, the tables are turned. Even Bush at his most rambling and least insightful, was less gauche with respect to Muslims than Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel with their determination to keep Turkey out of their exclusive club on the grounds of religion. The Bush administration ended up looking risibly retro. And so will Europe.
Obama and his European hosts differ on the explosive question of how much the state should intervene in the economic and financial crises. Gordon Brown of Britain, Sarkozy of France and Merkel of Germany are happy to rub shoulders with the black beau. Naturally, Obama will have to build coalitions with his European and Muslim peers. The hope in Europe, Turkey and around the world is that Obama may promise less, but deliver far more than his predecessors.
It is a question of balance. Europe understands that what America does not need is a leader like Bush. America, and the world, needs a credible US president, with a sense of intimacy and a belief in the intensity of the friendship between America and the rest of the world.
With a black president at the helm, America has chosen the open seas.