About Kanishk Tharoor
Kanishk Tharoor is associate editor at openDemocracy. His writings on politics and culture have also been published in the Guardian, The Independent, The National, The Hindu, The Times of India, The Telegraph (Calcutta), the Virginia Quarterly Review, Foreign Policy and YaleGlobal Online. His appearances on radio and TV include BBC's Today programme, BBC News, BBC Radio Scotland and the Colbert Report. He is a published and award-winning author of short fiction. He studied at Yale, where he graduated magna cum laude with BAs in History and Literature.
Email him at kanishk [dot] tharoor [at] opendemocracy [dot] net.
Articles by Kanishk Tharoor
Leaders around the world have greeted the resignation of Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf as a positive step forward for a country still in the throes of instability. Irfan Husain assesses the mixed legacy of a leader who once enjoyed the support of most Pakistanis. Musharraf's nine years at the helm of the country were not without their successes. The military coup through which he came to power nipped at the bud Nawaz Sharif's attempt to bring sharia law to the country. Musharraf presided over an upturn of Pakistan's economic fortunes. His deregulation of powers to provincial governments came as a long overdue measure in building "democracy" from the bottom up. Given that the disastrous Kargil invasion of 1999 was his brainchild, Musharraf's overtures to hulking neighbour India (the ultimate bête noire of Pakistani diplomacy and strategy) in recent years came as a welcome sign of progressive and wise leadership in Islamabad.
Ironically, his rule was undone by the very factors that sustained it. Pakistan's entanglements in the American-led "war on terrorism" at once bankrolled the military (so enmeshed in the workings of the state) and compromised Musharraf's position abroad and within Pakistan. Yet what suited Washington irked many Pakistanis, particularly those along the eternally restless and lawless Pashtun borderlands. Domestically, Islamabad was damned if it did. Internationally, it was damned if it didn't. In the end, Musharraf's spluttering administration could neither stem the terrorist tide in Afghanistan and India nor could it cool the heated sentiments of its own people, as a new branch of the Taliban insurgency takes shape in Pakistan.
Yes, he was between a rock and a hard place. But his inability to control Pakistan's shadowy intelligence agencies - coupled with Islamabad's unwillingness to shed its anarchic doctrine of "strategic depth" - made the job impossible. Musharraf was further weakened by the loss of the support of urban and secular liberal elites after his authoritarian handling of the judiciary and the period of emergency rule. A fairly-elected government - thin on democratic credentials, thick with track records of corruption - now takes centre stage. One can only hope that its inevitable failures of imagination are not as bad as Musharraf's.
Amongst the big countries of the Asian continent, the nation is back. It was the foreign ministers of Russia, China, and India, after all, who met last year to affirm their vision of "multipolar world system", founded on the hallowed ground of respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Russia-Georgia crisis reminds Ivan Krastev that the 19th century lives on, while the ominous grandeur of the Beijing Olympics has lifted burgeoning nationalism in China from anachronism to global force. India - the continent's other "waking giant" - also rides the nationalist tide. Its recent economic successes and growing international influence have been matched by a swelling belief in national purpose.
Yet where grassroots jingoism throttled dissent in China during this year's Tibet crisis (see Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report") and in Russia overwhelmingly supported state-propaganda during this month's clash with Georgia (see Evgeny Morozov, "Russia/Georgia: war of the web"), no such consensus can be easily found in India with its buzzing civil society and vast and varied media landscape. Antara Dev Sen, editor of the indispensable Little Magazine, offers a timely corrective to the Indian nationalist narrative. In the wake of India's 61st birthday, the country's problems remain immense and its dreams of superpower-dom all the more ungainly.
The conventional wisdom has it that this month's eruption of violence between Russia and Georgia played squarely into the hands of John McCain. With pundits and hacks fulminating about a return to the Cold War, McCain has ratcheted up the rhetoric, supposedly sending a muscular to the Kremlin. He demanded that "Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory." McCain, who has in the past called Vladimir Putin a "totalitarian dictator", went on to belittle the more cautious tone struck by the Obama campaign as "bizarrely in sync with Moscow." Such claims amount to preposterous misrepresentations of Obama's position and are calculated to appeal to the cruder, blustering passions of the American people. It's not just the benighted of the developing world, after all, that seek solace in their strongmen.
The inevitable echoes of John F Kennedy reverberated around Barack Obama's speech before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin last month. Jane Dailey, a professor of American history at the University of Chicago, recalls the visit to the divided German city of an altogether different US leader: Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1964, King was invited by Willy Brandt - then mayor of West Berlin - to speak at a commemoration ceremony for the slain JFK. The adoration of West Germans was not enough; King insisted on crossing into East Berlin, where he "preached a sermon of non-violence and universal brotherhood to an overflow crowd in the Marienkirche". Despite having his passport - as well as his German translator and guide - confiscated by the American embassy, King came through a seemingly unbreachable divide, transcending the implacable politics of the Cold War.
In the heat of the summer, the presidential race seems to have lost its fire. The contest between McCain and Obama had promised to be a clash of starkly different histories and personalities, and - thanks to both candidates' commitment to bipartisanship and dialogue - had even promised to be about something, about lofty visions as well as the detail of meatier policy issues. Obama claimed to have ushered in a "new politics", a claim bolstered by the resilience and high-mindedness with which he overcame the rancorous Hillary Clinton. These pretensions look threadbare amid an increasingly dreary squabble.
There is little "new" - in that sweeping sense that the word gains when associated with Obama - to be found in the war of impressions that has occupied the US media in recent weeks. Obama's successful trip to Europe won him a good deal of glowing press coverage. In response, the McCain camp has attacked the Democrat's "celebrity" (video below), linking Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
The ad follows in the vein of McCain's strategy of striking principally at Obama's character, suggesting either a deficit of Americanness, experience, or substance, or all three. Note especially in this ad how McCain himself barely appears. The McCain camp have realised that there is little they can do to tear the limelight away from Obama. Thus the ad seeks to turn the international enthusiasm for Obama into pubescent sychophancy. By this reasoning, it's acceptable that McCain will never draw the crowds that Obama does, because those crowds represent drooling fandom, not meaningful political judgement.
The Obama camp has hit back with an ad of its own, arguing that McCain has taken the "low road" in his attacks, and repeatedly lumping McCain with the "old policies" and "old politics" of the Bush years. Obama does stroll through much of this ad (one of his crowning strengths, after all, is his presentability). But there is something quite dispiriting in its insistence on pushing buttons, on linking Bush to McCain (a strategy this blog has always been wary of since there is much to suggest that McCain would make a very different president), on the below the belt repetition of "old".
At a tactical level, of course, this is totally kosher campaign "politics". For us optimists, however, who were ready for something - is it alright to hope? - different, the much-vaunted "new politics" are nowhere in sight, sacrificed for "the brain-dead, instant-rebuttal paradigm of modern democratic politics", as Clive Crook at the Financial Times puts it. To be fair, such "difference" is more incumbent upon Obama than McCain. At the moment, Obama has yet to live up to his golden promises.
Michael Walzer, the American political philosopher, breaks down the dimensions of the foreign policy of a prospective Obama administration at the "Dialogues on Civilisations" conference in Istanbul. There's nothing particularly new here - more multilateralism, more engagement with international institutions (like the International Criminal Court) and processes (a return to Kyoto), a change of focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, etc.
Some of Walzer's predictions are too hopeful. He expects more emphasis on workers' rights and environmental protection in trade negotiations, which, given the chip-off-the-old-block economic advisors surrounding Obama, is wishful indeed. Washington also has miles to go before its current martial stance on the "war on terror" is softened to the more old world "criminal justice" approach.
Changes in degree rather than in nature, perhaps, but welcome changes indeed after the Bush administration's plodding and blundering track record of international engagement. But is it enough? As Walzer perceptively concludes:
America has less power and a diminished authority today compared to the Clinton years. And the world is even more recalcitrant now than it was then. A different American foreign policy, that I have just described, may not make a big difference, and it won’t make a big difference unless it is accompanied/supported by different policies in other parts of the world.
As this blog has frequently pointed out, the supposed "epochal moment" of Obama's rise is shrouded by substantial shifts in global geopolitics, an "epochal moment" of sorts above and beyond the US. The true test of either an Obama or McCain foreign policy will lie in how Washington comes to grips with a political landscape in which the confidence and bluster of US campaign rhetoric sounds hollower than ever before.
In April, the IHT/NYT columnist Roger Cohen gauged the public opinion of Asia in sweeping, clumsy strokes. While "Europe votes Democrat", he argued, "Asia tends Republican". Supposedly, Asians see the world more in terms of "classic balance-of-power equations, driven by the might and self-interest of nations, than through the post-sovereign European prism of international institution-building and soft power." According to Cohen, Asians would view a Democratic administration under Barack Obama with a good deal of uncertainty and very little optimism.
Enter the Asia Society, an institution with at least a bit more Asia-savvy than Cohen. In a poll conducted of Asian leaders and intellectuals, Barack Obama comfortably outstripped McCain for reasons as easily understood in Europe as in Asia. As the Indian newspaper editor and writer MJ Akbar said, "Obama represents the American dream, the future... and it would be a sad day indeed were Americans to choose the past over the future." Predictably, Indonesian thinkers saw great merit in how Obama would remake the image of America in the eyes of the Muslim world, in part because Obama first learned of tolerance and diversity in Indonesia. Japanese foreign policy expert Kunihiko Miyake believed that Obama represents "a change in the way America sees itself... and I think it's a positive thing and many Japanese agree with me." Filipina scholar Carolina Hernandez highlighted Obama's charismatic appeal to Asia's millions of young, internet-savvy America observers. Even the supposedly Republican-friendly Indian IT industry is "rooting for Obama".
To understand "Asia" is not to reduce the continent and its people to the motivations of its states. Cohen - and watery pundits of his ilk - are all too eager to build their columns from empty paradigms. In this case, Asia is "statist" while Europe is "post-statist". Chinese and Indian foreign ministers may trumpet national sovereignty while European leaders press for integration. But do their statements necessarily reflect greater public opinion? The collapse of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland suggests otherwise.
Cohen often writes with subtlety about Europe. He should have the grace and the sense to extend the same sophistication to Asia.
Over forty people were killed yesterday when a suicide car bomber slammed into the gates of the Indian embassy in Kabul. Many of the dead were Afghan civilians, lining up to apply for visas to India. The attack also killed several Indian nationals, including two paramilitary personnel, a brigadier-level military attaché and a senior diplomat.
Accepted wisdom has it that Barack Obama's race and mixed background will help repair the image of America abroad. This is supposed to be particularly true in west Asia. As Yasser Khalil wrote in the Christian Science Monitor recently, Obama's Muslim heritage and promised diplomatic approach to the region could herald a new dawn in the US' relations with the Arab and Muslim world.
Nouri Luhemiya on The Moor Next Door blog offers an altogether darker suggestion. Critiquing the way Obama's international appeal has been represented, Nouri writes:
The reporter, like many, focuses on Obama’s blackness as an asset outside of the United States. It is not quite PC to ask whether or not it would be a hindrance. My view is that, when one gets to a certain level of power, his color does not matter whatsoever. He will be treated with respect by heads of state, though there may be some gaffes on the part of European or Asian leaders.
It is interesting, though, to ask, just for asking’s sake, whether or not Turks, Syrians, Egyptians, or other peoples in the Muslim world would elect someone like Barack Obama. My guess is that they would not. (The status of blacks in Middle Eastern countries, in everyday life and even folk traditions lead me to this conclusion.) This also makes me skeptical as to the extent to which Obama’s “face” could dissuade people in the region from becoming or remaining anti-American. There is an exceptional amount of severe contempt that many Levantines hold for black people (and other dark skinned people), that many Westerners, especially Americans, entirely miss. I do not know for sure where it comes from on the whole. Part of it is surely the identification of blackness with social and racial inferiority, the result of the fact that blacks and most dark-skinned Arabs have slave ancestry (Arabs have very little sympathy for the descendants of slaves, especially from what African-Americans who have been to the Gulf have told me, and my own understanding of the way that most Arabs view black people). Being black is not as much an asset in the Muslim world as it is in American white liberal circles.
It is hard to believe that the ascension of a non-white leader to the Oval Office would not change in small part the way much of the world, including west Asia, sees the US. Surely even the most bigoted Levantine would register the momentous nature of an Obama presidency. Nevertheless, Nouri is right in his general scepticism. America observers are not simpletons; a charismatic "change in face" is no substitute for the much more arduous and subtle change in policy.
On Time's RealClearPolitics blog, Bob Beckel - Walter Mondale's campaign manager for the 1984 presidential election - finds clear parallels between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
Barack Obama's current political circumstance is eerily similar to that of Ronald Reagan in his 1980 campaign for president. Both Obama and Reagan, from the beginning of their insurgent campaigns, were viewed as transformative political figures. Both enjoyed passionate grassroots support.
Both men had defeated centrist establishment candidates for their party's nomination. Reagan defeated George H.W. Bush, who was viewed by the growing conservative base of the Republican Party as too moderate. Obama beat Hilary Clinton whose husband had been elected twice by moving away from his party's traditional progressive roots and running as a centrist, a path Clinton herself followed (at least at the beginning of her campaign).
Fair enough, but these sorts of comparisons are made too often, to the point that they risk meaninglessness. Trans-Atlantic banter is rife with them: the moment that brought on the reign of Tony Blair, who is twinned to Bill Clinton, is likened to the supposedly imminent catastrophe awaiting the Republicans in November, which is likely to be replicated in 2010 when the Conservatives sweep into power behind Cameron, who in his powers of re-invention and vision is very much like Obama, who now echoes Reagan, who was an American Thatcher. So by two degrees of this kind of abstracting separation, Obama finds himself hand-in-hand with Margaret Thatcher. Has this improved our understanding of American politics? I doubt it.
There will be Obama Republicans in 2008 just as there were Reagan Democrats through the 1980s. Reagan, however, did not drift far from the anchor of conservative politics. Obama has promised to hurdle the "red-blue" divide. Can he do this while being as progressive as Reagan was conservative?
With the general election before us, the presidential campaign has at last shifted to the contest most of us have been relishing. John McCain vs. Barack Obama seems a battle of stark contrast: age against youth, experience against brash confidence, the "Great American Century" against 21st century global pluralism. Both project vastly different images of leadership and, consequently, seem to offer equally different options for America.
But what makes both candidates so compelling - particularly in comparison to their predecessors - is that neither are really products of their respective party establishments. As Anne Applebaum points out in the Daily Telegraph, Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee won the support of the "bases" of the Democrat and Republican parties - "blue-collar" whites in the blue corner and conservatives in the red corner. Applebaum suggests that McCain and Obama appeal principally to "unpredictable centrists" and represent an unprecedented a-partisan shift in American politics.
Yet the candidates didn't simply navigate away from their party's "bases" into fresh, politically uncharted territory. The earth has moved beneath the parties' feet. Obama and McCain were wise to spot this change, but it is a transformation they have noticed, not made.
John McCain unleashed a salvo against Barack Obama during his speech yesterday at the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC. He wasn't the first prominent Republican to use US-Israel relations as a stick to beat Obama with. Speaking from the Knesset, George W Bush attacked Obama's willingness to meet controversial leaders like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as tantamount to "appeasement".
Yesterday at AIPAC, McCain laid into Obama, generally for urging diplomacy and specifically for voting against the decision to brand Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation. "[Obama] is mistaken," McCain said. "Holding Iran's influence in check, and holding a terrorist organization accountable, sends exactly the right message -- to Iran, to the region and to the world." McCain's full address is here.
The Obama campaign struck back quickly: "Confronted with that reality, John McCain promises four more years of the same policies that have strengthened Iran, making the United States and Israel less safe. He promises to continue a war in Iraq that has emboldened Iran and strengthened its hand. He stubbornly reefuses to engage in aggressive diplomacy, ruling it out unconditionally as a tool of American power."
Tit for tat, then. Obama was right to oppose the branding of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation. It was an unprecedented move (the Guards, after all, are a state, not sub-state, organisation) that has done little to weaken Iran or turn its people against the governing regime, and much to strengthen the resolve of Iran's leaders. Moreover, according to a recent Gallup poll, most Americans favour Obama's diplomatic approach to McCain's blunt confrontation.
Again, however, Obama's campaign felt obliged to phrase their response to McCain through the prism of Israel's interests. This works rhetorically, but in the long run, does it translate into strategic policy? It speaks to the limited range of options US leaders let themselves choose from when dealing with west Asia. The debate unleashed by Walt and Mearsheimer may rage more in New York journals than in the halls of the Beltway. But can American foreign policy in the middle east really recover without a re-evaluation of the relationship with Israel?
Hillary Clinton's substantial victory over Obama in Puerto Rico yesterday has encouraged her campaign to keep clutching at straws. Terry McAuliffe, the campaign chair, argued that the result revealed a demographic failure on Obama's part: “It was a 100 percent Hispanic primary and it shows that he has a problem with the Latino community. He cannot close in this key core constituency.”
This is most certainly the wrong conclusion to draw. Turn out in Puerto Rico was staggeringly low, at a puny 16%. More importantly, the politics of the island territory are far removed from that of the United States proper. As one Puerto Rican put it,
"We are a colony. We do not participate in any of the US political processes, really. There isn't a general understanding of US national politics, nor of the "Republican" v. "Democrat" mentality. We are consumed by our local politics and whether we should become a state, an independent country or remain as we are."
It is also misguided to look for a barometer of general "Latino opinion" in the Puerto Rican vote. Issues like immigration policy - often important among Hispanic voters - have no resonance in Puerto Rico. The shared language of Spanish doesn't politically unite the island's inhabitants to Mexicans in San Diego or Dominicans in the Bronx. To assume as much is patronising, and perhaps even inflammatory.
It is hardly innocent to claim that Latinos won't vote for a black candidate. MacAuliffe's suggestion that Obama fails amongst Hispanic voters indelicately probes the supposed "black-brown divide", one of those mythical beasts of American politics. Though debunked by scholars, the stereotype of Latino-African American antipathy retains a crude power that should not be underestimated. Nor should it be appealed to by mainstream politicians.
Earlier this week, openUSA attended a lecture by Sidney Blumenthal at the RSA, where he plugged his new book, The Strange Death of Republican America. Blumenthal, a regular openDemocracy contributor until he took up an advisory position on the Hillary Clinton campaign, is an erudite and measured commentator on American politics in addition to being a committed Clintonite. Speaking fluidly without notes, Blumenthal charted the rise and demise of political conservatism, which grew from the ashes of the Nixon years in 1968 only to wither under the second Bush administration in 2008 (George Packer's New Yorker essay - blogged on openUSA - examined the same ascension and decline of the right).
"Nixon's dream of an unfettered presidency" was brought to its limits by Cheney, who inherited the ambitions of the Nixon era and turned them into 21st century reality. Yet, Bush's disastrous tenure has left the Republican vision in tatters. During the Reagan years - the zenith of American Republicanism - the American public was deeply suspicious of government. Attitudes have now changed. The country expects more from government and sees it as part of "the solution" rather than simply as the cause of "the problem".
Blumenthal finds in this shift the "aspect of an epic coming to end." But does the end of the conservative era, when a Republican agenda achieved social and political dominance, herald the dawn of a more liberal one? This is less clear, though Blumenthal certainly suggests that the moment is ripe for a Democrat - he believes Hillary Clinton - to steer the country in a different direction, away from war and economic crisis.
Pundits on both sides of the pond see parallels in the sinking of New Labour (and the associated rise of David Cameron) and the demise of the Republicans. The comparison rings true up to a point. The Bush years precipitated a Republican downfall largely without the aid of the Democrats, who consistently played petty politics and failed to articulate a clear alternative political vision. On the other hand, Cameron deserves some credit for reinventing - or at the very least repackaging - the Tories.
It is always tempting to suggest that politics are cyclical, and that falls coincide neatly with rises, but one doesn't necessarily follow logically from the other. Come November this year, the Democrats will have a commanding majority in the Congress and may well control the executive. Institutional ingredients, check. Moral message and political vision, still missing. Can the Democrats see the forest for the trees of electoral success?
In the New York Times, an op-ed by Nathan Thrall and Jesse J. Wilkins draws lessons from a particularly odd historical analogy. The authors describe the unsuccessful meeting between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. They see in the episode a cautionary tale, warning Barack Obama to re-think his pledge to negotiate with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were the former to be elected president.
In fairness, this is a historical analogy Obama made himself when he boomed, “If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy led by the president of the United States, then they can explain why they have a problem with John F. Kennedy, because that’s what he did with Khrushchev.” Such capacious rhetoric invited Thrall's and Wilkins' rigorous dissection of the Vienna encounter and its debilitating consequences for US foreign policy.
But Thrall and Wilkins - and Karl Rove in today's Wall Street Journal - miss the point if they think that the examples of the Cold War's bipolar politics should frame 21st century thinking.
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50