Tuesday, May 3, 2011

America's and Obama's Moment of Glory

Its Diwali time in America. Its the one metaphor that can capture the mood of the country. America has slain a beast that had brought unfathomable destruction to lives and the American way of life. 9/11 has a very personal meaning for me. Our family, my wife in particular who worked in Wall Street, endured unspeakable horror and anxiety. That was a day, as an Indian, I felt comforted that I was in America. I was sure that my wife would reach home safely. Volumes have been written about that day, Giuliani becoming America's mayor, the steely resolve of New Yorkers, civilians committing suicide to foil the plans of barbarians and so much more. I shall not rehash those now.

My favorite columnist Lance Morrow wrote a vitriolic column in Time laying out the "The case for rage and retribution' . "A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let's have rage. What is needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury, a ruthless indignation that doesn't leak away in a week or two" and Morrow asked Americans to "relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred". In prescient words he closes, "the worst times, as we see, separate the civilized of the world from the uncivilized. This is the moment of clarity. Let the civilized toughen up, and let the uncivilized take their chances in the game they started".

All these years many have mocked that America, with all its technical glitz and unparalleled power, could not bring to justice one individual. Not many realized that the America we see in movies is not the America in reality. This escapes even the well informed many times. Very coincidentally Time magazine's cover story for this week is Robert Mueller, chief of FBI. The story highlights that  prior to 9/11 FBI did not have agents devoted full time to gather intelligence. Today there are 580 in a new category devoted for intelligence. Now consider tracking a fugitive like bin-laden (in the domain of CIA) who does not use any modern amenities that can be tracked or hacked. Add to that the fact that he lives amidst his fellow tribesmen of undying loyalty. Now compound it with other bizarre facts like not having, almost nil, 'humints' (human intelligence agents), zero agents who even knew rudimentary Pashtun, the language of the fugitive. On 9/11 Bush realized the archaic nature of communications equipment aboard Air Force One. After the demise of communism America took a well deserved holiday and basked in the glory of being not just the super power but a hyper power where the second in line was so far behind that it did not matter. 

Americans are fast learners and learn from mistake so learn we did. America cultivated humints, prosecuted a just war, reshaped a country and then got distracted in an unwise war of choice. No wonder Osama was free for close  to 10 years. The details of his capture are now common place and any reader can find it himself/herself.

This is Barack Obama's moment of glory. While candidate Obama, like any politician, adopted lofty sentiments to shine himself up, President Obama has been a hard nosed realist. Much to the frustration of his voters time and again Obama has reiterated or continued many of Bush's policies that he once decried. What amazes me in the continuity in officialdom despite the fact that key positions are political appointments. When Bush took over he retained George Tenet, a Clinton appointee, as head of CIA. After 9/11 many thought Bush would fire George Tenet as a scapegoat. Bush did not. Obama retained Robert Mueller, a Bush appointee, as head of FBI. Obama literally angered his voters by retaining Robert Gates, another Bush nominee, as secretary of Defense. When Obama got elected but was still yet to assume power he started communicating with Robert Gates. Gates acknowledged that if he got calls from both Bush, his then current boss, and Obama, the president elect, he would give higher priority to Obama as  the incoming CEO. Today when Obama has won a richly deserved glory not one of his republican opponents demurred in praising him. Heck even Rush Limbaugh praised Obama.

While the groundwork for killing Osama began in Bush's tenure Obama deserves all credit for what is a very perilous mission. We are told that for 40 tense minutes anxiety, to put it mildly, hung in the air in the situation room at White House. Any misstep could have landed in a diplomatic hot water or could potentially have crippled Obama's re-election. Like Truman said, "the buck stops" at the President's table. Across the spectrum there was lavish praise for Obama. Krauthammer too. 

It was a week that started with political theater when Obama appeared almost a weakling stooping to disprove Trump's, a republican candidate to be, racist ridiculous charge that Obama was not born in USA thus constitutionally illegitimate. Then he went on a road trip to carry on his battle with republicans over deficit control. On Saturday, in the White House correspondent's dinner, he joked and laughed at Trump and at himself too. All this while he was contemplating an operation that could redefine his presidency. During the campaign when John McCain in a very stupid maneuver suspended campaigning Obama chided him saying 'a president should be able to multi task'. 

Hollywood has a despicable habit of caricaturing CIA as trigger happy thugs, bumbling idiots, insensitive boors, oil hungry organizers of coups and so on to everything except honorable, intelligent officers in the service of their country. Whether its dismantling A.Q.Khan's nuclear bazaar or capturing Al Qaeda operatives or this phenomenal feat CIA has time and again proved that its an organization that keeps America safe. 

Now there are those who rush to say, "we condemn Osama BUT..." and then launch into broadsides on American foreign policy plainly frustrate me. This is the real world there are no angels in the world. Starting with Noam Chomsky down to Tamil bloggers I've heard enough of this moral equivocation. Is American foreign policy completely benign? Of course not. Nor do I wish it to be. Has America made completely egregious condemnable crimes? Yes it has. There is My Lai. Then depending on how much one hates America one can have his or her pick from justifiable to the patently unfair listing of imagined crimes. Chile, the Shah of Iran, Grenada, Haiti, Philippines, VIETNAM then there is Iraq. 

Lets sample Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is considered the greatest genius on cognitive psychology and linguistics yet he is mostly known for his perpetual vitriolic and acerbic criticism of USA and Israel (he is a Jew). Every book store will have some screed of Chomsky's, invariably 100% the blurb on the jacket would declare "Chomsky, the man whom New York Times, calls 'arguably the greatest intellectual alive'". 

Chomsky draws a contrast between Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the US led war in his interview to Frontline, "This is quite different from the Soviet invasion. The Soviets were facing a major mercenary military force, backed by the United States and other powers. They also had additional constraints: they never bombed cities or destroyed them, and they never used what amount to weapons of mass destruction, like carpet bombs or daisy-cutters". A very specious distinction to put it mildly. Soviet Union destroyed civilians as policy unlike US. The civilian casualties in Soviet repression ranged from 1-2 million. If this is not intellectual dishonesty pray what else is?

Nothing angers me more than the tongue in cheek condemnations of 9/11 which are laced "yet did not US bring about the attacks due to its policy". The 19 hijackers came from well heeled families who were not even remotely touched US policies. If even one hijacker was a Palestinian or a Vietnamese or a Chilean or a Filippino or a Haitian I could remotely understand. Those 19 thugs had nothing but hatred fueled by religious fundamentalism.

Krauthammer in a searing column in Time eviscerates these foreign policy clingers, "Al-Qaeda always invents some excuse, some historical injury to justify its barbarism. Today Iraq, yesterday Palestine and, when all else fails, Andalusia, a bin Laden staple that refers to the Muslim loss of Spain to Ferdinand and Isabella (in 1492!). Various casus belli are served up as conditions change. Only the gullible and the appeasers buy them. Now we're told that the Iraq invasion has increased al-Qaeda recruiting". He adds damningly, "In fact, the 1990s was the decade of Muslim rescue: the U.S. intervened militarily, and decisively, to save three Muslim peoples--the Bosnians, the Kosovars and the Kuwaitis--from conquest and catastrophe. Yet it was precisely during that era of good feeling that al-Qaeda not only recruited for but also conceived, planned and set in motion the worst massacre of Americans in history. So much for the connection between American perfidy and anti-American terrorism." Only a conservative columnist can provide that crystal like clarity in brief passages. The entire column is a compelling read. 

"Oh was not Osama America's Frankenstein?". "American recruited fundamentalists to defeat communism unmindful of long term consequences". Both only carry a shade of truth but serves as convenient mental constructs to simplify a world thats labyrinthine. 

New York Times, in a manner that only the Times can do, published a nice section called "A survey of Books on Osama" has highlighted some good books on Osama that were reviwed in the Times. Choose especially Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer winning "The Looming Tower". Wright painstakingly lays out the winding roads that map out Osama's radicalization from Holywood watching anti-communist to jihadist anti-American. The crystallizing event for Osama is the stationing of US troops in Saudi after Gulf War-I. A war that US fought, mostly at the behest of Saudi and other Arab nations which were shivering to their boots lest Saddam run over them.

I am sick of hearing complaints about US unilateralism. Western Europe was resurrected after the ravages of war by unilateralism on the backs of American taxpayers. Hundreds of billions of dollars under the Marshall Plan stabilized western Europe. When a Libyan town faces genocide from its ruler only American cruise missiles and American tax payer money rush to its aid. Oil, Oil, Oil, Oil. Yes there is oil involved but did pontificating France put its money and weapons on the table. As a commentator observed US is NATO and NATO is US. Nicholas Kristof, resigned to pragmatic real world, wrote,"Critics argue that we are inconsistent, even hypocritical, in our military interventions. After all, we intervened promptly this time in a country with oil, while we have largely ignored Ivory Coast and Darfur — not to mention Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.We may as well plead guilty. We are inconsistent. There’s no doubt that we cherry-pick our humanitarian interventions.But just because we allowed Rwandans or Darfuris to be massacred, does it really follow that to be consistent we should allow Libyans to be massacred as well? Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?". Arguments anyone. Today in Iraq and Afghanistan women go to schools, vote in elections and even contest elections. In the entire Middle East today Iraq is the only country to hold a democratic election, even the ever waffling UN certified that the elections were fair and free. 

Vietnam is another albatross. Who went there first and instituted a regime of terror? Who terrorized Algeria? Which country treated North Africa as its foot stool? The lover's of liberty and egalitarianism the preening French. The conduct of France in African colonies would make American imperialism look like picnic. Vietnam is a blot on America. 

When Soviet Russia marched into Afghanistan Margaret Thatcher asked Indira Gandhi, as key member of NAM, to condemn it. Indira refused saying it was not aggression. This same India today rushes to condemn US. Non-Alignment. Bollocks.

When America gets attacked the custodians of human rights and flag bearers of anti-imperialism smugly lecture us about our evil ways. We never hear such lecturing when Russia is attacked as a direct consequence of its brutal suppression of Chechnya. I love to see Hindu N.Ram tie himself up in knots condemning US imperialism while being palanquin bearer for Russia's state sponsored terrorism. 

After 9/11 N.Ram worked himself up into a lather foaming at the mouth advising America to "go all out to bring its authors to stern justice - justice under the rule of law and through the law courts, by marshaling and laying out evidence to convince the world, through the collective agency of the United Nations, and through pro-active international diplomacy". The title of that editorial in the Frontline Issue dated Sep 29th 2001 is "Dangerous implications of America's unjust war". Remember it was referring to the Afghan War not the justifiably contentious war of choice that Iraq was. Not content with his pontificating he orchestrated a scolding of America by Noam Chomsky at Chennai. What could be better than having a white American, that too Jewish, to scold America.

On Jan 24th 2011 Chechen rebels attack Moscow airport and kill 35, here is N.Ram's editorial in HIndu dated 26th Jan 2011, "in recent years, the virus of terrorism has spread to other predominantly Muslim territories in Russia's south and mutated to patently jihadist insurgency, which has joined hands with al-Qaeda to create an ‘Islamic caliphate' across the Caucasus...Monday's atrocity should serve as a wake-up call for Russia to curb terrorism in the Northern Caucasus as it prepares to host the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Football Cup".

Russia should curb terrorism so that Winter Olympics could go on unimpeded. That when the casualty was 35. When America is attacked in the most stupendous manner killing 2600 any declaration of war is unjust we must supplicate the UN, marshal evidence, wait for a constable to serve summons to bin-laden. Today Barack Obama served the summons as bullets to bin-laden. A Fox news viewer aptly summed it, "I am happy to know that the last man Osama saw before dying was an American".

Incidentally NYT asked Chomsky as to whether he ever thought of renouncing his American citizenship given how much he hates America. Chomsky replied, airily with no hint of sounding hypocritical, "America is the greatest country on earth". 

As the news broke out around 10:30 PM EST crowds gathered in front of White House and Ground Zero in NYC. Today as I was speaking to my father the metaphor of Diwali struck me as appropriate

I found the picture above (From NYT) very interesting. Its a photo of the scene in the situation room at the White House. The President of USA is sitting on the side while some military person is sitting at the head of the table and conducting the operation. Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers" talks about America has one of the lowest "power distance" equations where people are more comfortable approaching or challenging a superior. This is important when results matter.

This killing does not mean that the hydra headed terrorism is finished. Far from it. This is a pivotal turning point. A powerful symbolism but only a symbolism. It is elementary knowledge that Al Qaeda has many local variants across the globe and they are still very much alive or awaiting to come alive. Obama reiterated that. Every sensible columnist has cautioned on triumphalism. 

The picture below says it all. I pass through this place every week. 

A passerby at Ground Zero in NYC

Near White House.

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