Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 June 2008
Issue No. 900
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

America crosses the Rubicon

One woman's food is another woman's poison, notes Gamal Nkrumah

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Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination following Tuesday's primaries in South Dakota and Montana

Rubicund, choked up, her bulging eyes staring wildly and incomprehensibly at her audience, welled up with tears, as she begged them to be excused off the stage. Senator Hillary Clinton walked off, or rather stepped down conceding defeat and hinted later that she might accept becoming Senator Barack Obama's running mate. It was an uneasy, somewhat embarrassing moment, and soon after the world learnt that the most promising black presidential contender in America's history has indeed won the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

This was a defining moment in America's history. The prospect of an American black president and his white woman vice-president intrigues the world. It would no longer be America as we know it. Could Americans prove that they are actually more liberal than Europeans? It would be quite simply America's greatest achievement. Maybe the world doesn't really understand America.

Is America ready for change, radical change? Obama would be a president like no other. His white mother, who died tragically young, was no ordinary American woman. In more ways than one, she was the very antithesis of Senator Hillary Clinton. An accomplished academic with two marriages which ended in amicable divorce -- the first husband an African and the second an Asian -- and a child from each marriage. Her 1992 doctoral dissertation was on Indonesian cottage industries. Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro must have been a most extraordinary American. Her wanderlust took her to worlds apart from her native, provincial Kansas. Imagine American politicians espousing this weltanschauung.

Under the rubric of feeding the world's hungry, world leaders converged on Rome last Monday for a United Nations summit on food security. It is rather ironic that at this very moment the Democratic Party grandees made this groundbreaking decision. For cynics it is, however, a false alarm.

Changing America would require political will. The Obama-Clinton ticket would require that they muster all their strength and determination. It would also entail galvanising competing sections of the American population. America is going through a phase of painful teething troubles. Scare stories about the economy threaten to derail the Democratic drive for change -- perhaps it might propel the pace forward. At any rate many inside America and abroad are hoping against hope that now with Obama at the helm, the Democratic surge would prove unstoppable.

Hopes are pinned on the three-day Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) summit in Rome. Yet, it seems in my own humble opinion that all the hopes are misplaced. Incredulously, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warning that the world had come to an "alarming juncture". He pointedly failed to diagnose the problem. "For years, falling food prices and rising production lulled the world into complacency," Ban told the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) at its new Rome headquarters on the eve of the FAO summit. "Governments put off hard decisions and overlooked the need to invest in agriculture," Ban pontificated.

Other leaders tried to distract attention from the real issues by browbeating their favourite punch bag, the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith derisively described Mugabe's attendance at the FAO summit in Rome as "obscene", presumably because of Mugabe's much criticised land grab policy in which white-owned land was seized and distributed to landless black peasants. "This is the person who has presided over the starvation of his people. This is the person who has used food aid in a politically motivated way," Smith said.

Not to be outdone, Britain was also highly critical of Mugabe's presence in Rome at a time when he is battling for his political future in a presidential election runoff. Mugabe was responsible for "difficulties on food supply in Zimbabwe," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was quoted as saying.

There was much talk of the role of biofuels in driving up food prices. The more pertinent question is the role of rich nations which subsidise their own farmers making it harder for peasants in poor countries to compete in global markets. The US Congress recently passed a five-year farm bill heavy on subsidies, a heartless move which flies in the face of commonsense and underpins the cruel, callous and calculating attitude of the American political establishment in the face of world hunger and malnutrition.

"I believe that the forces of wealth, power and control are invariably at the root of any problem of social and political economy," the celebrated Susan George said in her acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate from the Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia, Madrid, Spain, on 25 April 2007. "The job of the responsible social scientist is first to uncover these forces," George added.

In an obscene outburst, US President George W Bush on Saturday reprimanded the "wealthy" -- I guess he meant ostentatious -- lifestyle of India's economic elite for the spiralling global food prices. Rich, coming from one of the world's richest men. "There are 350 million people in India who are classified as middle class. That's bigger than America," Bush fumbled. How crass? "Their middle class is larger than our entire population," Bush bitterly complained. "And when you start getting wealthy, you start demanding better nutrition and better food. And so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up." He should know, I suppose.

An official of India's ruling Congress Party dismissed Bush's analysis as "completely erroneous". India, the official pointed out, is not a food importer but a net food exporter. Bush, as usual, was way off the mark and typically got the wrong end of the stick. It is precisely that sort of fatuous comment that sickens the world so. Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, would never utter such drivel.

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