When Richard Boucher got surprisingly stroppy with President Rajapakse in 2007 and criticized the Sri Lankan use of "paramilitaries", I could have stayed silent. Instead I interjected to point out the theory and extensive practice of the US military of using "local forces" and "rural self-defense militia" as allies, from Laos to Afghanistan—but that was a proportionate counterpoint, a strictly defensive parry under provocation, with no hint of personal insult, rudeness or crudeness. That’s one way of doing it. The other way is mentioning Monica Lewinsky, rapping on "rape in the White House"(courtesy JHU), slinging the insults "clown" and "house nigger" (the editorials, no less, of a Sunday paper) and a unique collector’s item: likening Barack Obama to "nothing more, nothing less than a common thug" (that’s Malinda Seneviratne in The Nation, Oct 4,’09, p10). This is no isolated lapse of taste. In an earlier commentary Malinda was even more graphic: "Where would that leave Barack Obama? Would it all translate into too many words to fit into his mouth so he can plead physical inability to move his tongue?" (LakbimaNews, Sept 13, 09, p 12). This tells us more about Malinda’s mind than Obama’s mouth.
The brilliant South Asian born US commentator and Editor of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria sure was wrong when he said of Obama’s UN debut speech that "The speech was well received all over the world, except one place—America’s rightwing netherworld, which quickly began whipping people into a frenzy". (Newsweek) He was unaware that what would remain the netherworld anywhere else, is mainstream in some sections of the Sri Lankan media where radical rightwing ‘netherworld’ discourse parades as progressivism and rednecks pass as reds or well-read.
The Sinhala ultranationalists detest Barack Obama. They are divided between those who love George W Bush and those who don’t but assert that "there is no serious difference between the two men". "What is the progressive aspect of Obama?" they demand to know, when that aspect is precisely what Hugo Chavez has referred to as "the good Obama" or "Obama1".
This is not a matter of radicalism: one merely needs to read the crude discourse of the Sinhala "super patriots" along with the well-informed, cutting yet utterly civil commentaries of Selvam Canagaratna, Sri Lanka’s sharpest, most sophisticated critic of US foreign policy (including that of the Obama administration), whose Sunday Island articles would not be out of place in any progressive liberal US publication such as The Nation or Mother Jones. However, I rather doubt that any publication of the antiwar Left in the US, UK or anyplace else would countenance an article which calls Obama a "clown", "a common thug", "a house nigger", or speculates on his orthodontics. None of this is to do with Cartesian logic, dialectics, or ‘referencing’ (whatever that means) world systems theory; it is to do with civility, values and mentalities.
Contrast the ideological barbarism of the local demagogues with another way of comprehending and critiquing the US: that of Fidel Castro. While our "anti-suddha" commentators slam Obama even on climate change, this is what Fidel had to say in a column (Sept 22) entitled ‘The Serious Obama’: "The President of the United States has conceded that the developed nations have caused most of the damage and should take responsibility for it. It was certainly a brave gesture. It would also be fair to concede that no other President of the United States would have had the courage to say what he has said".
Still more telling is Fidel’s attitude to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize which he termed "a positive action" and defended. The AP report from Havana ( Sun, Oct 11) said "Count Fidel Castro among those in favor of the Norwegian Nobel committee’s controversial choice of US President Barack Obama for the Nobel Peace prize". Winding up an essay containing a solid critique of the political economy of the Empire, Fidel writes:
"In the morning of Friday 9, the world awoke to the news that "the good Obama" of the riddle – as explained by Bolivarian President Hugo Chavez Frias at the United Nations—had been awarded the Nobel peace Prize. I do not always agree with the positions of that institution but I must admit that, at this moment, it was, in my view, a positive action. It compensates the setback sustained by Obama in Copenhagen when Rio de Janeiro, and not Chicago, was chosen as the venue of the 2016 Olympics, a choice that elicited heated attacks from his rightwing adversaries.
Many will feel that he has yet to earn the right to receive such an award. Rather than a prize to the President of the United States, we choose to see that decision as a criticism of the genocidal policy pursued by more than a few Presidents of that country who took that nation to the crossroads where it is today. That is, as a call for peace and for the pursuit of solutions conducive to the survival of the species". ("The Bells Are Tolling For the Dollar")
Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva, a Godfather of the all-conquering democratic, pluralist Left in Latin America and a giant of the Global south, also said that "the Nobel Prize is in safe hands". When Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega delivered a blistering 50 minute critique of the history of US foreign policy at the OAS summit this year, he exempted the listening Barack Obama, who in return thanked him in good humor for not having held him responsible for things that happened when he was five years old. While some of our local anti-imperialists, and the Taliban, cannot see a difference between Bush and Obama except for one of personal style, the Latin American Left can.
So when it comes to a critique of Barack Obama I think I’ll take my cue from the world’s greatest living anti-imperialist leader who has stood up for decades to the mightiest military power in History, just 90 miles from its shores, than from the Taliban or even Tariq Ali, still less from the local rednecks. Fidel’s way is the Third option between the supine pro-Westernism of Ranil’s comprador camp and the xenophobic fundamentalism of the JHU-NFF camp.
One of the strategically vital differences between the two types of anti-imperialism is that the rational radicalism of the Latin American Left led by Fidel always managed to have resonance within US society itself. While fighting in the Sierra, Fidel was famously interviewed by Herbert Mathews of the New York Times. In the last decade or so, Oliver Stone, one of the top US film directors, has made two sympathetic documentaries of Fidel Castro and just recently, one of Hugo Chavez which features all the current Latin American leftist leaders. Stone is also the director of a patriotic American movie on 9/11. A senior US diplomat, Wayne Smith, who was the head of the US Interests Section in Havana and is now a respected scholar, resigned from the State Dept in protest against what he considered an irrationally hard line taken against Cuba by the Reagan administration. Can anyone envisage a former US ambassador to Sri Lanka resigning from his State Dept job in protest at an overly hostile US policy towards Sri Lanka— and if not, why not? Why so in the case of Cuba and not in that of Sri Lanka?
The point I seek to make is best illustrated by the example of the Vietnamese revolutionaries at the height of the Vietnam War: there were US kids demonstrating on American campuses with the photograph of Ho Chi Minh, and Jane Fonda visited Hanoi. While the image of Che is ubiquitous among western youth, there weren’t and won’t be demonstrations in which they wield photos of Osama Bin Laden. Sri Lanka and the US are not at war in any sense, and yet, tellingly, Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists had a more sympathetic American audience!
Another lesson that Fidel teaches is never to lose world public opinion. Today world opinion is solidly with Barack Obama. Sri Lanka is hardly competition, will not become more so by being crudely confrontational—and its profile is manifestly not one of a valiant David to Obama’s Goliath.
The discussion above pertains strictly to society, political formations and the intelligentsia, not the state. I am certainly not recommending that the foreign policy of the Sri Lankan State be identical to or imitate Cuba and Castro’s policy towards the USA. We have neither Cuba’s "soft power" nor anyone else’s "hard power" to play hardball with Washington DC. That’s a no-brainer. In Geneva, while the US was not a member of the UN HRC (nor were we after we lost the election in New York in 2008), it was definitely a highly influential player and we never stopped our frank and open dialogue. At the most tense of times such as the Special Session on Sri Lanka, we kept our lines of communication open, engaging with their suggestions and concerns, and the US stayed benignly neutral or made constructive criticisms. They are full members now and will assert themselves far more stridently, including on Sri Lanka.
On the issue of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka cannot make the fairly oblique criticism that Cuba, which considers that war unwise, makes. We cannot defend our own recently won "war of necessity" (Obama’s phrase, originally Machiavelli’s idea) against Tiger terrorism, and criticize that of the US against Al Qaeda —responsible for the terrorist attacks of 9/11— and its host Taliban, without ourselves being illogical and intellectually inconsistent practitioners of double standards. For our part we must take our stand with Russia, China, India, Pakistan (and even Iran), which support the US campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
What we have is at best a chill and at worst a crisis in our relations with the USA, which is the result of a crisis of communication as well as policy. Unless we change tack on some policy issues we will be unable to head off mounting antagonism from what my old political science teacher at Peradeniya, Prof KH Jayasinghe used to call "the most powerful legislative body in the world", the US Senate. Two previous SLFP administrations handled the problem admirably, with Neville Kanakaratne and Lakshman Kadirgamar being (albeit at different levels) the respected, exemplary interlocutors with Washington DC, for Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and President Kumaratunga. The profile of the Obama administration shows the highest concentration for decades, of top officials who graduated with top honors from the best US universities. One member of our current cabinet was a fellow Rhodes Scholar at Oxford with Bill Clinton – Prof GL Pieris. There is an obvious official role he could play. Today much is "lost in translation". Vulgar anti-American, anti-Obama demagoguery only alienates the State Department, the White House, the NSC and both Clinton and Obama Democrats, just when we have hostility on the Hill. This crude discourse, violating all codes of civility, damages the possibilities for any sympathetic US audience or supportive constituency for Sri Lanka while providing one on a platter for the sophisticated pro-Tiger Diaspora.
It also risks eroding our military’s relations with the US and the benefits, material, professional and strategic, we reap from those ties. Betting on a one term incumbency (as a JHU minister warned Obama of!), a Republican resurgence, Pentagon support and influential "third country" lobbyists, just won’t cut it. What we need to do is take a step back from the brink, make an across the board review, and "press the re-set button".
One thing I have some modest acquaintance of is constructing the broadest possible united front in successful defense of Sri Lanka in an international arena. On the basis of that experience, I can reliably say that while matters may have been different in the bad old days of Bush, our friends will not support us beyond a point if we are on an adventurist collision course with the US under Obama.
We must envision a policy convergence between Washington and Delhi on Sri Lanka, naturally embracing London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels (arguably its original drivers) and extended to incorporate Tokyo. Our staunch allies in the Security Council will regard their own improved relationships with the new US administration and its leader as far too important to permit Sri Lanka to be an irritant or spoiler, still less a bone of contention in the Big Boys Club.