That Was the Year That Was — Part III
Continued from “Coming to Terms with Realpolitik”
“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”
— Mark Twain
It was during the War of 1812 between – hold your breath! – the USA and the UK (so the legend has it) that Samuel Wilson coined the term Uncle Sam – the much-used common national personification of the American Government. A few years later, the 1816 allegorical book The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search after His Lost Honor by Frederick Augustus Fidfaddy earned Uncle Sam a permanent place in English vocabulary. Since his birth – and in his very special case even before that – he, like the Greek god Hermes has been blessed with many faces, associated with his various roles that are too numerous to be enumerated briefly: from the exterminator of the aborigines to importer and owner of human slaves to archangel rushing to the help of the needy, and, above all, the creator and upholder of the world’s greatest transformative influence, the American civilization.
The forbidding prospects of military adventurism of the world's sole superpower – China still will take a decade or so to mount a meaningful challenge to that status – has been brought out by Ronald Steel in his remarkably candid study Temptations of a Superpower. The biggest challenge before the occupant of the White House, according to Steel, is to curb and control America’s grandiose ambitions.
While dealing with America, it should always be borne in mind that expansionism and imperialism are not new phenomena but have been – and will continue to be – an integral part of the American dream. There was a time – how the world wishes it had stood still thereafter! – when the thirteen colonies were quietly nestled east of the Allegheny Mountains. Then came the urge to relentlessly march westwards to occupy the whole continent. All possible stratagems were resorted to. They ranged from unprovoked wars with neighboring Mexico to downright cash purchases of territory from France and defeated Mexico and helpless Czarist Russia.
Perhaps the most forthright statement of American dream was by John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States (1825-29). As President James Monroe's Secretary of State, he was responsible for the enunciation of what came to be called (in the then President's name) as the Monroe Doctrine – a declaration in 1823 that any further (or renewed) European colonial ambitions in Latin America would be deemed as threats to American security. But for the (then) all-powerful British Royal Navy, President Adams would possibly have annexed most of North America.
Before Francis Fukuyama sounded in The End of History and the Last Man, the siren heralding the ultimate triumph of democracy, spearheaded by the USA, there were Americans in mid-nineteenth century urging their compatriots to take over the role of world leadership. Perhaps the most vocal of them was John O’Sullivan, the editor of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review (In the mid-nineteenth century American magazines didn't carry contemporary short, chic titles). He helped Uncle Sam rationalize the American conquest of Mexican territories. (Exactly, a hundred years later when the Russians practiced Uncle Sam’s philosophy, Americans called it the spread of the “Evil Empire”). Sullivan said in 1845 that it was America’s “manifest destiny” to overspread the Continent allotted by Providence “for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions”. Of course, towards the end of the nineteenth century, America didn’t need more land for its multiplying millions, including immigrants from the old world. Yet they must respond to the call of the Providence to spread far and wide the gospel of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness a la Americana.
Two themes stand out in the American history of the last two centuries: to literally become invulnerable both to realize its imperial ambitions, and to build for itself the status of world’s paramount industrial power. The collapse of Soviet Communism has further fuelled these ambitions. Today, the world is America’s oyster. However, as some perceptive commentators have pointed out, the danger of being the world’s unchallengeable military power carries with it the grave danger of those who try to fly too close to the sun. One of its chief executives once said that what’s good for General Motors is good for America. Today’s changed aphorism is: what is good for America is good for the world. And if helpless Saddam and an equally hapless United Nations dare disagree, they better learn to behave or else ....
But for how long will the world acquiesce into accepting the dictates of American hegemony?
My generation lived through the ‘cold war’ for over four decades. And given the two irreconcilable systems of the bipolar world (each seeking global adherence for its ideology), it was unavoidable. These forty years witnessed agonizing moments when the fate of mankind depended on the precarious balance of terror. Now we know who won and who lost. However, the certainty with which the victory of the victors and the defeat of the vanquished, is being explained, is at times plain supercilious. The finale will be discussed over and over again in the years to come. There will be continuing debate on how the cold war began, what stakes were involved, what strategies were devised and how they were executed. The debate will also focus on the fronts on which the war was fought and how, one day, it was all over and, most significantly, why? As a matter of fact, the ‘whys’ of history are never answered to the satisfaction of all concerned.
It is, however, possible now to correct some of the distortions of perspective. George Kennan was the American ambassador in Moscow before the cold war really broke out. In a now-famous (and indeed pivotal) “long telegram” in February 1946, he urged the Truman Administration to orchestrate collective resistance to the expansionary drive that the Stalinist Russia had launched in the Eastern Europe. There have been few observers whose insightful perceptions of contemporary developments matched Kennan's prescience. He was clear-eyed about Soviet intentions to build a ring of satellite states on its western periphery. He was, however, not too sure that the new system had “yet finally proven” itself. At any rate, he was unprepared to take the durability of the Communist ideology for granted. Europe was at that time – and Europe then meant both the Eastern and Western parts of the Continent – in the grip of “hunger, desperation, poverty and chaos” as the then Secretary of State George Marshall described it in his famous commencement address at Harvard University in 1945. Truman’s own rapport with his Congress was at best, lukewarm. It was with considerable reluctance that the Americans coughed up $450 million for the security of Greece and Turkey. And yet Marshall was sagacious enough to urge the Americans to dig deeper in their pockets and help Europe (then including Soviet Russia) with a recovery plan. Winston Churchill, with his penchant for coining appropriate phrases to sum up historic events, called the American offer as “the most unsordid act in history”. From 1948 to 1951, the American administration disbursed under Marshall Plan grants and loans, an amount of $13 billion (which in today’s terms would aggregate to some $80 billion).
That was the beginning of the reconstruction of Western Europe – a precursor to the present European Common Market and its economic clout. This “most unsordid act in history” was also to promote the American exports which acted as the necessary boost to the American manufacturing industry. It was also a calculated gamble. As anticipated by the American administration, Russia stayed out of the crucial July 1946 meeting to decide the fate of the American offer of economic help to Europe.
American calculations about Soviet Russia were, however, based on gross overestimation of Soviet military and economic power. Nonetheless, the Soviet military arsenal and its deadly potential had to be reckoned with. However, the military might of a nation can be sustained only on solid economic foundations which the Communist system had no time (or inclination) to build. Over the years, when most of the secret political dispatches of our time are declassified, it may emerge that even when the American administration knew of the fundamental weaknesses of the Soviet system and its inherent inability to challenge the Western world, there were some in the Capitol Hill who wanted the ‘myth’ of Soviet power and its military ambitions to be perpetuated for serving their own ends. The role played by the CIA in keeping the ‘myth’alive remains to be unraveled.
As a matter of fact, Soviet Russia wasn’t the only loser in the cold war. Another was America’s elaborate intelligence network – presided over by the CIA which has had the distinction of seeing one of its chiefs, ascend American Presidency, for which, fortunately, that's not the only route. The second half – or at least most of it – of the twentieth century was dominated by the crisscross goings-on of the CIA and its Russian counterpart, the KGB. The latter died a natural death; the former is still around – robustly live and kicking. If it was not needed to carry on espionage missions in Communist capitals, it was necessary – so it convinced the powers-that-be in Washington – to tackle new threats like terrorism or the secret spread of nuclear know-how. American tax-payers – who understandably want their dollars’ worth – do feel cheated. Terrorism, both within and without the borders of the United States, continues unabated.
The American Government was blissfully ignorant when the BJP-led Government tested in 1998 its nuclear devices in the Rajasthan desert. The Clinton administration didn’t indeed need the services of CIA to know that Pakistan may follow suit. Almost anyone could guess the month (if not the day) in which the Baluchi desert will be shaken by nuclear tremors. This intelligence lapse made the CIA a laughing stock of the American press, especially because techniques for detecting nuclear test preparations are fairly standard weapons in the big powers’ intelligence armory. The American failure in the case of Indian tests only confirms the suspicion that iinvestigating agencies the world over have their own hidden agendas that their so-called political masters know not.
Loyalties that Shift
Any country, dealing with the United States – and who hasn’t to deal with the world’s monolith some time or the other? – must first learn a thing or two about that weird being called the chameleon.
Yes, chameleons change color. And the way that chameleons actually do this is really molecular. In fact, they're molecular masterminds. They have several layers of specialized cells called chromatophores and these cells can change color. A calm chameleon is a pale green color. When it gets angry, it might go bright yellow, and when it wants to mate, it basically turns on every possible color it can.
United States of America has been keen to sell nuclear reactors to India for generating nuclear power. Whether that’s the best way for India to meet its long-lasting power shortage is a moot question. You remember how keen President Bush was to clinch the deal and how in 2010, US President Barack Obama called relations with India “one of defining partnerships of the 21st century”. And need I recapitulate the murky details of l’affaire Khobragade? The question is how useful in the immediate short-run is a country is to the American interests, and that determines the American orientation in dealing with it.
And that’s nothing new. Go back to the end of the World War II, which heralded the arrival of the era of American supremacy. It is a well-known fact how Great Britain (when it was still Great) bent backwards to assist the US to develop nuclear bomb before Germany could.
Within a year of the end of the war the United States passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (McMahon Act). Henceforth this act would determine how the United States federal government would control and manage the nuclear technology it had jointly developed with its wartime allies, especially the United Kingdom and Canada. Most significantly, the Act ruled that nuclear weapon development and nuclear power management would be under civilian, rather than military control, and it established the United States Atomic Energy Commission for this purpose.
Understandable, implementing the McMahon Act created a substantial rift between United States and Britain. The new control of “restricted data” prevented the United States’ allies from receiving any information, despite the fact that the British and Canadian governments, before contributing technology and manpower to the Manhattan Project, had made agreements with the United States about the post-war sharing of nuclear technology. Those agreements had been formalized in the 1943 Quebec Agreement. In the case of the United Kingdom, these were developed further in the 1944 Hyde Park Agreement, which was signed by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
The Hyde Park Agreement was lost in Roosevelt’s papers after his death, and until the American copy of the document was found American officials were puzzled whenever the British mentioned it. The McMahon Act fueled resentment from British scientists and forced Britain to develop its own nuclear weapons.
That’s how it has been and that’s how it will be. Meanwhile, a look at how Uncle Sam fared during 2013.
“We Really Can’t….”
From the 2008 Obama of “Yes, We Can!” to the 2013 Obama of “Sorry, We Really Can’t” sums up the US scene in the year just over. Obama is bogged down both at home and abroad. The trouble is that each American President wants to go down in history as a transformational President which, in fact, very few succeed. Obama was successful in defeating Mitt Romney but not the Republican agenda indelibly engraved in the template of American psyche.
Obama, for instance tried, as others before him did, to cash on the wave of public outrage against the killing of a score of young children who were massacred in gun rampage and introduced new gun control laws. He underestimated the clout of the country’s all-powerful National Rifle Association, the pro-firearms lobby, which knows how to outmaneuver any attempt to curb their unfettered right to make every American bear arms as long as wind blows – and it will forever – and there’re possible enemies of America.
He wanted to launch on the royal highway of American citizenship some 11 million (mostly Mexican) undocumented immigrants languishing as semi-citizens. Let’s see. There are vested interests which relish seeing this uncertainty continue indefinitely so that they can employ them on the quiet without paying the statutory wage. (Poor Devyani Khobragade isn’t the only one on the wrong side of the law. Her fault is the color of her skin.) So the comprehensive immigration reform fell by the wayside. As usual it was blocked by the Republicans in the House.
Obama had promised – and many before him also had and many to follow will try – to put America back on a sound budgetary footing. Well you know all the promises made during courtship are not meant to be kept. Hence, be forgiving.
Obama always told us he would tackle the knotty problem of the Syrian civil war. But you know how formidable are the Middle Eastern Gordian knots.
In July last year, Chelsea Manning – then known as Bradley - was convicted of 21 counts relating to the massive transfer of US State secrets to WikiLeaks, and sentenced to 35 years in military custody. Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor brought to the Guardian a trove of secret documents relating to state digital surveillance. He acquired the distinction to become the eighth person charged by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act. Obama will always have a special mention in history for prosecuting more than double the number of persons for espionage than all previous US presidents combined.
Obama pledged a reduction in the use of drone strikes on terror suspects and a renewed push to close. Yet drone strikes continued in Pakistan and Yemen, and the Guantánamo detention camp remained open, while its inmates were subjected to the humiliation of forced feeding when they went on hunger strike.
2013 turned out to be the Year of Gays in the US. At times it seemed that the new, modern and tolerant America that Obama evoked was emerging in spite of, rather than because of, him. One of the great cultural waves of the year, the spread of gay marriage across the country, was led by the courts and state legislatures rather than through presidential decree. The US Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, while seven more states adopted gay marriage in the course of 2013, bringing the total to 16.
However, the beginning of the year is the time for charity and forgiveness and the time to show your large-heatedness. Remember, above all, the future of freedom and democracy depend on the American dream. Recall TS Eliot’s lines in TThe Hollow Men
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
So, God Save America and All Things American.
To be continued …