Friday, October 24, 2008

The Powell endorsement: Will it seal the deal for Obama?

Published in The Daily Star, October 25, 2008

IN a campaign not going well for Senator McCain, there was more bad news this week. Gallup Poll taken on October 20th gave Senator Barak Obama an 11% point lead in the presidential vote preference of all registered voters, 52% to 41%. The real bad news, though, came in the form of the endorsement given a day earlier to Senator Obama by former Secretary of State General Colin Powell who crossed party lines to do so.

The endorsement was made all the more shocking for the Arizona Senator by the carefully chosen words in the endorsement. It was widely known that General Powell would be endorsing either of the candidates as he had met both in June and said that his endorsement would come after the conventions and the presidential debates. In NBC's popular programme “Meet the Press” last Sunday, where he endorsed Senator Barak Obama, General Powell described him as a “transformational figure” who has “displayed steadiness,” showed “intellectual vigour “and “has a definitive way of doing business that will do us well." He also cited Obama's “ability to inspire”, the “inclusive nature of his campaign”, his attempts to reach out all across America and “because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities” as additional reasons for endorsing the candidate of the Senator from Chicago.

The superlatives that the General used to describe Senator Obama gave significant impetus to a campaign that needed it as the election for the White House entered the final lap with just a fortnight left for the election on November 4th. There was extra mileage too from the endorsement that came in the meeting that Powell had with reporters immediately after taping his “Meet the Press “programme. In that meeting, Colin Powell told reporters that he was very disappointed at the attempts of the McCain campaign to link Obama to William Ayers, a 1960s radical and domestic terrorist. In automated calls to voters in swing states, the McCain campaign said that “Obama worked closely with domestic terrorist Ayers” in an attempt to put the thought in voters' minds that Obama is “palling around with terrorists” as publicly suggested by Senator McCain's running mate Sarah Palin. Obama worked with Ayers in the Annenberg Challenge Project and Woods Fund, a Chicago charity, but independent investigations have found no evidence of a deep and strong relationship. Colin Powell thought that the attempt to link Obama to Ayers to label him as a radical “was over the top” and “was beyond just good political fighting back and forth.” The General also expressed disgust at the attempt to use Obama's Muslim middle name to create suspicion in people's minds.

The Democrats are excited with the endorsement of Colin Powel for a number of reasons. Colin Powell is as an elder statesman across the political divide of his country. A former Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War, Colin Powell became the Secretary of State in the first Bush administration. General Powell was once widely considered as most likely to become the first black President of the USA but his association to the Bush administration came in the way of that possibility but still did not tarnish his image as an honest and powerful leader and a visionary. The fact that he crossed party line to endorse Senator Obama made his endorsement that much more potent. 

There are a few more damaging elements of the Colin endorsement for the McCain camp. It has exposed a serious rift within the Republicans - one between the pragmatists and the neo-conservatives. The pragmatists among the Republicans have viewed Iraq war and the execution of it a mistake. Colin Powell is among these pragmatists. According to close friends of the General, he has been disturbed to observe people in the McCain camp with deep ties to the neo-conservatives, people like Randy Scheunemann who is currently a key foreign policy adviser to the Senator from Alaska. Randy Scheunemann was earlier foreign policy adviser to Senator Trent Loft and Senator Dole, both with deep ties to the neo-conservatives. In addition, Randy Scheunemann was the founder of the hawkish Liberation of Iraq and a supporter of Chalabi, a Pentagon favourite during the beginning of the Iraq War and a Pentagon favourite but deeply detestable at the State Department when Powell was the Secretary there.

The impact of the endorsement on the election is being discussed everywhere in the USA now. The feedback coming out is depressing for the McCain camp. Analysts soft to the Obama candidature are calling it a bombshell, a nail in the coffin, a development that could seal the deal and the presidency. As it became evident that General Powell would endorse Obama, sources close to President Bush have said that the President himself called the General to request him not to make the endorsement knowing how damaging it would be to the McCain candidature. Those in the McCain camp, in an effort to downplay the damage, are saying that Powell is a discredited political figure for the part he played in the Iraq War and this endorsement is his way of hitting back. 

On balance, though, this endorsement by Colin Powell has come for McCain at a very bad time. The general mood among most Americans is that the Republicans led by President Bush are responsible for USA's current economic plight; that the Iraq war contributed more than its share to this economic downturn and that backing the McCain-Palin ticket would mean encouraging those who should be punished. Colin Powell brought home this point in his endorsement succinctly when he said that Obama has “fresh set of eyes” and “fresh set of ideas” and although Senator McCain is gifted, he is in the end going to execute the orthodoxy of the Republican agenda with a maverick face which is not enough for America. USA needs much more than that and Obama is the one who can do that.

The Powell endorsement and the words he used to give this endorsement to Obama have articulated the shortcomings of the McCain campaign in a manner that even the Obama Camp could not have done. First, General Powell has spelt out clearly and effectively that McCain is no different from President Bush despite his attempts to distance himself from President Bush. Second, he has underscored the fact that Senator McCain is also under the influence of the neo-conservatives who are responsible for the state of the economy and the Iraq War. Third, the former Secretary of State has exposed the negative campaign to link Obama with Ayers to suggest that he has links with terrorists as disgusting and detestable. Fourth, he has effectively explained in his endorsement the mistake of the McCain camp to include Governor Palin while underscoring the value of inclusion of Senator Biden as Obama's running mate. Finally, he has articulated the strengths of Senator Obama as a man of destiny who has the qualities and the vision to lead USA out of its current economic and political quagmire into which the country has fallen as a consequence of the failed leadership of President Bush and his neo-conservatives aides.

Coming from a Republican of the stature of Colin Powell, this endorsement in the ultimate analysis could prove to be the catalyst to help undecided voters make up their minds in favour of Senator Obama. As one analyst has written: “He's (meaning Powell) a Republican. He's a military man. He's backed both Bushes. And he has even donated money to McCain. That is why Powell's endorsement is so powerful.” Senator McCain has already acknowledged that he is now the underdog. It is now up to the Obama camp to hold on to the great momentum that the Powell endorsement has given the Obama-Biden ticket and keep McCain where he lies at the moment. The Powell endorsement may also have taken the Bradley effect that suggests that on voting day white voters, who have earlier told pollsters that they would vote for a black candidate, may ultimately vote for a white candidate instead, out of the equation, thus easing the road of Senator Obama to the White House.

The writer is former Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan and Director of Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies and can be reached by email

Saturday, October 18, 2008

US economic crisis is good luck for Obama

Published in The Daily Star, October 18, 2008

THE US economy is in its worst crisis after many decades, sending shock waves round the world while turning the country itself upside down. Even the US$700 billion bailout package signed into law recently by the US President is being considered not enough to bring the US economy back on rails as people are losing houses, businesses and jobs. So far this year, 750,000 people in USA have lost their jobs. Europe too is in turmoil, and in UK the government has followed the US example and announced an 80 billion pounds bailout package. The IMF boss Strauss Kahn has said: "Intensifying solvency concerns about a number of the largest US-based and European financial institutions have pushed the global financial system to the brink of systemic meltdown."

At the centre of it all should have been George Bush who has supervised this economic downturn but whose good fortune is that he is now a lame duck President and it would serve no useful purpose to unleash any wrath upon him. But history will not spare him as he will be leaving office as the most unpopular President in US history. At the time of writing this, President Bush's approval rating is an abysmal 24%.

Analysts are giving many reasons to explain this worst economic crisis in US history. The Republicans' faith in de-regulation that has allowed the big financial institutions and businesses' to fulfill their greed is one major reason being put forward to explain this calamity. Another reason also coming into the equation is the connection between this economic downturn and the ill-conceived decision to go to Iraq in pursuance of President Bush's war on terror. This is a dangerous mix for McCain as it brings to question the legitimacy of the Iraq war to explain the economic miseries and uncertainty affecting US citizens in the main street.

It is also bringing back to their memories the infamous claim of President Bush in May of 2003 that the war in Iraq was over aboard one of US's aircraft carriers. It was far from that for, by then, the US Government had just started to bleed both in terms of the billions of dollars that would go to Iraq as well as lives that would be lost. In a report in August 2008, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) revealed that the real similarity between Iraq and Vietnam has been in the price of staying. In constant FY2008 dollars, the Vietnam War cost the US $686 billion in 10 years (The actual cost of staying there was US $ 111 billion). The Iraq war, at just over five years old, had cost US $ 648 billion. The amount is close to the bailout package that the US Government has just announced for its economic recovery. The CRS assessment does not give the full picture though. Noble Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University in his book “Three Trillion Dollar War” has said that the Iraq war would ultimately cost USA US$ 3 trillion when such costs as lifetime disability and healthcare for troops injured in the conflict as well as the impact on the US economy was considered. In terms of human lives, the US has so far lost over 4000 of its men and women in Iraq while many more times that number of innocent Iraqis have lost their lives as a consequence of the US decision to invade Iraq.

The US went to Iraq to destroy Saddam's WMD program that, according to US intelligence posed a threat to US security in the context of President Bush's war on terror. Subsequently, it has been proven that Iraq's WMD program had ceased long before the Iraq war. Another reason for the Iraq war was to take control over Iraq's huge oil reserve to assure US's energy needs. Instead, the Iraq war pushed oil prices from around US$ 30 a barrel to nearly US$ 150 in July this year (before falling to about US $ 80 a barrel after the 700 billion dollars bailout package by the USA caused worldwide panic). The benefit of it all went to oil rich Middle Eastern countries with strong links to the elder President Bush and oil merchants in the USA, many of whom have close links to President Bush. While these countries - oil merchants and oil lobbyists - became richer by windfall gains, the rising price of oil adversely affected all sectors of the US economy that the US administration, driven by the greed of their supporters in the Wall Street and a pliant and Republican-dominated Congress (the equation changed only after the 2006 elections), overlooked. In fact, in July after the failure of Indymac Bank, Treasury Secretary Paulsen reassured the US public by saying: “it's a safe banking system, a sound banking system. Our regulators are on top of it. This is a very manageable situation.” In August, he said the government had no plans to inject capital into the Federal National Mortgage Association, nicknamed Fannie Mae and the Federal Home Mortgage Corproation, nick named Freddie Mac. In September, both were nationalized, a most unusual step that underscores the depths to which the US economy has fallen. The US Congress woke up late to what the US Administration had done to the economy and voted down the first bailout package that favoured those in the Wall Street till the interests of average Americans in the main street were guaranteed in the second US$ 700 billion bailout package, whose fate and impact on reviving the economy is still in doubt.

All of this has come to the assistance of the Democrat candidate Barak Obama. Even around the first Presidential debate, Obama and McCain were going neck to neck. At that time, the elections seemed to be a referendum on whether US is ready enough to elect its first black President. Now the election has become a referendum on whether the people of the United States can again hand their country to the Republicans and their faith in deregulation, together with their strong ties to those in the Wall Street who have brought the US economy to its knees by their greed. A Newsweek Poll this week showed Obama leading 52% to 41%. A similar poll a month ago tied the two candidates at 46%

At the beginning of the year, the legitimacy of the Iraq war was a major issue in the US presidential election together with the economy. The improvement of ground conditions in Iraq under General Petraeus, the head of Multinational Forces in Iraq, looked like taking away a big vote winner for the Democrats as the Iraq war began to fade out as an asset against the Republicans. Now the economic quagmire into which the US has fallen has made the Iraq war return back to the political centre stage to haunt the Republican Party and the fortunes of McCain in a different but dangerous way. The Newsweek poll referred to earlier in this piece has shown 86% of the voters are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the US, based on the faltering economy that has come close to stealing the great American dream of a house and a steady job away from the average American. It is now up to Obama and his spin doctors to link the Iraq war to the faltering economy and extend that to the faith of the Republican Party in de-regulation and its links to big business and financial institutions and their greed as nails in the coffin to explain the reasons for US' current precarious economic plight. The Presidential debates and Palin's current plight over the report that she abused power while being Governor of Alaska, the so-called “Troopergate” scandal, are also helping Obama's candidature. As these developments articulate themselves the way they seem to be doing, the US may after all get over the colour of Obama that has been hanging like a dark cloud over his candidature and send him to the White House.

The writer is former Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan and at present Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies. He can be reached at

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Politics has no military solution

Published in The Daily Star, October 11, 2008

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in his hey days as Pakistan's Prime Minister in the early 1970s had said that there is never a point of no return for politicians. A politician is never finished till he/she is dead; in fact charismatic politicians influence politics even after they are dead. Bhutto should know it for with his own political career, he has established this truth. Even after his death, his name lives, carried by his daughter Benazir and now her husband who has become Pakistan's President based on the legacy of Bhutto. Two military dictators have failed to wipe out the legacy.

History is replete with such examples. If the military backers of this Government had cared to look at history, they would have known politicians cannot be banned by a military decree. The nature and course of politics cannot be pre-determined by military intelligence. No one doubts that this military backed government was right in assuming that the BNP and the AL were conducting destructive politics for which the two ladies were largely responsible. They were however hasty and wrong in assuming that they could set politics right and that too as a Government with limited constitutional responsibilities.

Another major mistake they made was they never resolved whether they are a caretaker government or an interim one. Fakhruddin said many times that this is a caretaker government under emergency but he himself left no one in doubt that this is a military government where he and the Advisors are carrying out the agenda of the military that showed a determined to change politics qualitatively. Early in its tenure, the Army Chief General Moyeen attempted to give the country the military's “vision” of democracy. He also told us what we should do with the issue of Father of the Nation versus Announcer of the Declaration of Independence; a thorny political agenda. He undertook visits to the USA to strengthen our relations with the world's only Super Power and then went to India to deal with our most important neighbour where elected and military governments of the past have all dreaded to tread. When Sidr struck, he was seen receiving relief although in the past, in case of such a national calamity, this was left exclusively to the Head of the Government.

Fakhruddin's Advisers chose the media to keep the nation abreast with the CG, trying to give a sense of transparency in governance. They failed to see that instead they have contradicted one another because real power has never been in their hands. First, Barrister Moinul Hossain gave us the minus-two formula under which we witnessed fruitless drama. We waited to see the two ladies to be forced out on exile; instead we saw them sent to jail.

Cases of corruption were brought against them that made no headway. Then in a 180 degree turnabout, government emissaries were sent to the two ladies for “negotiation” about which we came to know, courtesy, Adviser Zillur Rahman's running commentary on TV channels. In his enthusiasm he told us how he “negotiated” the release of the two former Prime Ministers, although their cases for corruption are pending in a court! In less than a year, this government has humiliated Khaleda and Hasina by accusing them as corrupt politicians and then turned both into presumptive Prime Ministers, now acknowledging openly that the country cannot do without them. It is again Zillur who came up with the idea of “Summit” between the two ladies so that the country's future could be secure in their hands. These acts of the Advisers convinced the public that they are carrying out the military's agenda; an agenda largely political set into motion by intelligence agencies who unfortunately created a fear psychosis that paralyzed governance and caused havoc to the economy as it took upon its weak shoulders much more tasks that it could handle; most of these tasks were also outside its constitutional responsibilities.

It is therefore hardly surprising that politics has come back, to use a cliché, to square one, into the politicians' court. Khaleda and Hasina have emerged stronger. Most of those arrested for corruption in high profile cases are out of jail. One does not need a crystal ball to predict that very few of these politicians will spend time in jail once elected government returns.

The dramatic turnabout has been the result of this Government's attempt to provide military or military influenced solutions to political problems. Yet when this military backed government came, people gave it full support because the politicians had taken the country to the verge of becoming a failed state. They also felt that as this was not martial law per se, they could perhaps take it as a civilian one, with Fakhruddin in charge.

Our last tryst with military rule under Ershad was a nightmare and still makes people shudder at the thought of military rule. As a result of all these, people are disenchanted with this government and are now convinced that their hope on the military to solve their political problems has been misplaced, seeing the mess this government has created in governance, particularly on the corruption agenda, which was main reason for people to support this Government, an agenda that has now virtually collapsed.

Our experience with this government should remind us to be cautious in expecting that the military would solve our political problems. But more importantly, it is the politicians who should know that when they hold the country for ransom for their selfish ends, the military will step into the political arena as they have done on 1/11. Let us not fish around for conspiracies, which is our favourite political pastime. One eleven came because unwritten laws that govern politics came into play.

The BNP and the AL in fact offered the country's governance to the armed forces in a silver platter by the ugly nature of their political strife. If they do the same after return to civilian rule, the military may intervene again. As for the military, they should know civilians do not like military or military backed rule; they can overstay and give us their “visions” but none of these will be sustainable, for “visions” to be sustainable must come from politicians. The military's intervention in politics must be surgical, quick and precise. Our military could have helped their image and done the country immense good, by focusing on a limited agenda, dealt with it quickly, helped hold an election and then left, which should have happened long ago. It has stayed too long and hence made a mess of governance. The experiences since 1/11 therefore have enough lessons for all; the military, the politicians and the people and hence in that sense it has not been wasted time.

This Government has little power to control political events anymore. They should thus let politics take its own course and hope with the people that the politicians, particularly Khaleda and Hasina, have learnt a few important lessons. The other ray of hope for the future lies in the EC putting a stop to “election commerce” that could send a good number of honest people to Parliament with the ACC acting as the watchdog to stop the influence of black money in elections. There is no quick fix to political problems, or military or intelligence initiated ones. Politicians themselves must solve political problems.