Sunday, November 11, 2012

The war that did not take place


The war that did not take place

M.J. Akbar

If by any mistake Democrats had publicized widely why I, if  perchance  an
American citizen, would have voted for Barack Obama, his tight victory
might just have become that much more tense. Nothing that Obama did, and he
did more than he is given credit for, matched, as far as West and South
Asia are concerned,  the one thing he refused to do: go to war with Iran
under pressure from hawks in Washington and hunter-falcons in Tel Aviv and
Jerusalem.  His cool deflection of warmongers in the heat of elections was
quintessential leadership.

He outmanoeuvred one of the wiliest politicians in the world,  Israel's
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He watched without a flicker of an
eyelid as Netanyahu exploited his special cache in American  politics, and
snubbed him as no ally had ever dared to do. Obama was quiet when Netanyahu
and  Washington's legislature staged  political drama to upstage the White
House;  Netanyahu virtually accused him of appeasing a nuclear Iran and was
drowned in applause. Implicit in this game was an insinuation, never voiced
of course, that Obama was secretly pro-Iran. Mitt Romney played this
gallery; and Netanyahu's judgement became so heady that he brazenly
invested in a Romney victory.

Obama understood the risks, but did not flinch. Jewish support for him
slipped from an overwhelming 78%  in 2008, to  69%. To the credit of
American Jews, by far the greater majority backed their President's
 moderation against the provocations of warmongers. Netanyahu upped his
gamble by ordering  a silly attack on a Sudan factory, on the pretext that
it was building Iranian missiles,  as if Sudan was capable of doing so even
if it wanted to.

Action, but no reaction. Obama finessed each challenge with the ease of a
master strategist, and kept the world safe from a conflagration that would
have made Iraq seem like a sideshow.

This was neither appeasement nor weakness; this was judgement. Obama has
not become soft on Iran. He will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power
under his watch. But he will not send American troops to premature war just
because Netanyahu wants one. Obama is neither goose nor duckling. He is not
a pacifist, as Pakistan has  discovered. But for him, war is a last option,
not a first strike. Such conviction requires more courage than George Bush
and Mitt Romney, both of whom escaped the warfront in Vietnam through
humbug:  Romney became a teenage preacher for his church in the rather
charming city of Paris; there is no record of how many Frenchmen he
converted to Mormonism.

Ironically, this clarity was missing in Obama's domestic policy. When he
did initiate significant change, whether on women's rights, same sex
marriage or health care, he preferred to temper his rhetoric, as if he was
not certain about how many votes this would cost on election day. This is
why Obama was so limp in the first debate with Mitt Romney; he thought he
could fudge his way with silence and a pleasant nod. Those who believed in
him were shocked at the sight of a leader who did not seem to believe in
himself. In 2008 candidate Obama invested in change because he saw that
America was changing; four years in office put so much dust in his eyes
that he could no longer see how much America had changed.

In 2004 the war-tarred George Bush managed to squeak past John Kerry
because he mobilised the anti-gay vote. In 2012, America got its first
lesbian Senator Tammy Baldwin defeated the heavyweight Republican, Governor
Tommy Thomson, in Wisconsin. In Missouri, Claire McCaskill punctured
Republican Todd Akin, who had the temerity to say  that a woman's body
could in some mysterious way prevent pregnancy after "legitimate rape".
This was also probably the first time in public discourse that rape had
been segmented as legitimate and illegitimate. Indiana's incumbent
Republican Richard Mourdock, went a step further; he thought that pregnancy
after rape was "God's will". God told him it wasn't. He lost his seat. In
Massachusetts, the former Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren recaptured an
old Democratic stronghold, Ted Kennedy's seat, on a feminist platform that
was remarkable for its straight talk.

The old language is dead. American liberals have recaptured the mind,  and
they are not going to surrender their nation in a hurry. A self-confident
woman has taken her place at the high table of power, and the new majority
is being structured in alliance with the Obama man. Mitt Romney is the last
candidate of an age that has been defeated.

This will have, inevitably, implications for foreign policy as well. Iran
will be wise to use the opportunity for dialogue, and seek ways towards a
guarantee of non-intervention, its primary concern, and a Palestinian
state, its parallel demand. An optimist would call both inevitable; I shall
limit myself to saying only that both are possible.

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