A new America? Let’s shut Guantanamo first, please

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Obama should realise that the War on Terror has been nothing more than a blanket excuse used by the governments of Southeast Asia to curry favour with Washington and to build a vast network of anti-terror centres, prisons, detention facilities and to further perpetuate antiquated colonial laws used to detain even more Asians, ostensibly to protect Americans and American foreign interests. No, Obama, we will not take seriously your claims to defend fundamental liberties unless and until you personally see to it that institutions such as the prison at Guantanamo Bay are shut down during your watch, writes Aliran member Farish Noor.

Needless to say, the news that Barrack Obama has become the new President of the United States of America has spread worldwide and already the world rejoices over the timely demise of the neo-con empire of Bush and company. In Asia, in particular, the news of Obama’s victory has been greeted with a collective sigh of relief, and genuine jubilation in places such as Indonesia – for the Indonesians have claimed Obama as one of their own, no less. Time will tell if this historic sea change in American politics is indeed historic, but for now we can at least recover some meaningful respite from the simple fact that, momentarily at least, America’s vast arsenal of destruction has been laid to rest. But for how long?

Obama’s campaign was, from the outset, driven by a simple message that nonetheless resonated with a vast cross-section of American society: the time has come for change. The old crumbling power structures that have for so long been dominated by the same incestuous community of white, upper-middle-class elite men whose genealogies date back to the founding fathers of America seems to have been opened up for a while, allowing for this rupture in the collective imaginary of the American people and forcing all of us to question some of the settled assumptions that have guided our understanding of America for perhaps too long.

But before we all don our rose-tinted glasses and celebrate a second Woodstock, let us pause for a moment and consider the hurdles and obstacles that will have to be overcome by Obama and the American people before we can utter the phrase ‘change has come’ with due and warranted confidence. Those of us who reside in Asia would have our own set of questions that ought to be put before the latest resident of the White House, and there are lingering dilemmas and quandaries that need to be laid to rest before we herald the coming of a new order.

For a start, let us begin with the claim that the victory of Obama will lead to a new America, one that is confident and strong. Obama’s promise was to restore to America and Americans the sense of pride that was severely compromised during the Bush years and to recover much of the credibility and standing that America has lost since the fateful invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now to this question we pose the following: If America’s pride and dignity are indeed to be restored, then how? A strong America is not necessarily a bad thing, and even worse would be the prospect of an America falling apart at the seams and sending debris all over the world. But for too long, America’s political elite have understood this grand project in terms that were decidedly militarist and hegemonic. A strong America need not and should not be understood as a licence for greater American hegemonic influence, and certainly not greater military clout and beligerent prowess. This was precisely the fatal error of successive American governments beginning with the Reagan administration that sought to restore American pride following the country’s graceless exit from Vietnam in 1975. Yes, we welcome a strong America that is grounded on universalist principles, but no, we do not welcome a strong America that arrives on our shores with humvees, stinger missiles and B-52s. (And lest we forget, B-52s do not make good ambassadors of goodwill.)

Related to this is the question of America’s moral standing and its moral credibility today, which is at an all time low. Mr Obama has reiterated his claim that he will seek to restore the image and moral credibility of the United States in the eyes of the world, but let this not be a vain boast for the sake of posturing and political correctness. America has been using human rights and the promotion of democracy as a bargaining chip since the time of the Helsinki accord at the peak of the Cold War, and the Carter administration was keen to highlight the human rights abuses of other countries then, provided they were all in the Soviet bloc or showed signs of harbouring pro-Leftist sympathies. During this period, both Democratic and Republican administrations paid scant attention to the horrendous human rights abuses that were taking place in countries that were firmly allied to American interests, ranging from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel to Indonesia and the Philippines.

No, Mr Obama, we will not take seriously your claims to defend fundamental liberties unless and until you personally see to it that institutions such as the prison at Guantanamo Bay are shut down during your watch. (And don’t wait four years to do it, or you may end up like the incumbent leader of Malaysia who was also known to have waited too long before attempting his reforms.) Only then can America preach human rights with confidence and credibility, and when doing so please focus your attention on those countries most closely allied to your own American concerns too.

Mr Obama would also do well to relieve us Asians of the blight and burden of being designated as the ‘Second Front in the War on Terror’. During the cold war, Southeast Asia was likewise called the second front in the ‘war on Communism’, and the net result of this was the promotion of military dictatorships, the use of draconian laws, the wanton murder, torture and incarceration of millions of innocent Asians deemed dangerous due to their Leftist sympathies, and the annexation of East Timor that took place under the nose of Washington. Mr Obama should realise that the War on Terror has been nothing more than a blanket excuse used by the governments of Southeast Asia to curry favour with Washington and to build a vast network of anti-terror centres, prisons, detention facilities and to further perpetuate antiquated colonial laws used to detain even more Asians, ostensibly to protect Americans and American foreign interests. To expose the anti-terror scam for what it is, that is nothing more than an elaborate fiction and lie that serves the economic interests of repressive regimes, arms companies and the security industry would not only raise the image of the America that Mr Obama wants to save, but also prove to us that America may still be able to redeem itself.

Thus for all these reasons, we hope and pray that that America under its new President will prosper; but let it prosper with the world and not against it. American strength and pride should never be at the cost of the weakness and humiliation of other nations. I know you are not personally responsible for what your predecessors have done Mr Obama, but for your sake and the world’s, I and many others hope you succeed. God bless.

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