Obama is no Gandhi
Unlike Gandhi or Mandela, US President Barack Obama has not used power to curb power, being more interested in extending it, says Deepak Tripathi*
First the video of United States marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans. Then the revelation that copies of the Quran had been burned at Bagram Air Base, which also serves as an American prison camp in Afghanistan. Nearly 30 Afghans and several NATO troops died in the violent reactions that resulted. The BBC Kabul correspondent described these events, and the violent public reaction to them, as the "tipping point" for NATO in the Afghan war.
Just as US General John Allen and US President Barack Obama hoped that apologies from them would help calm the situation came another disaster. If official accounts are to be believed, an American soldier left his base in the middle of the night, entered villagers' homes, woke up Afghan families from sleep and shot his victims in cold blood.
The soldier was reported to have turned himself in to US commanders and was then flown out of the country. He has since been named as Sergeant Robert Bales. Other reports tell a different story, indicating that a group of soldiers was involved. Looking drunk and laughing, they engaged in an orgy of violence, while helicopters hovered above.
This massacre was committed in Kandahar, a province where NATO forces regularly carry out night raids on Afghan homes. They capture and kill men sweepingly described as Taliban, as well as their supposed supporters or sympathisers. Male family members therefore leave their homes at night to escape foreign forces. This explains why nine of the 16 murdered people were children. The rest included at least four women, and five other Afghans were wounded. Several bodies were burned.
The massacre of Kandahar has echoes of that in My Lai, a village in South Vietnam where American troops massacred unarmed civilians including women, children and old people almost exactly 44 years ago on 16 March 1968. The full horror of the My Lai Massacre took time to penetrate, since many attempts were made to downplay it. Soldiers who had tried to stop the killings were denounced by US congressmen and received hate mail and death threats. It took 30 years before they were honoured. Only one American soldier, William Calley, was punished. He spent just three years under house arrest, despite being given a life sentence.
The conduct of the US authorities following the recent massacre of the Afghans will come under critical scrutiny. Those who must bear ultimate responsibility will have to live with the guilt for years to come. And the carnage will continue to haunt the conscience of many people in America and elsewhere. The general sentiment in Afghanistan had already been turning dangerously hostile to foreign troops. Now, reports from Kabul say that Afghans "have run out of patience."
In the midst of all these events, Obama decided to invoke a comparison between himself and two of history's legendary figures, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. To me, the latest events in Afghanistan are dismaying, and the timing of the president's attempt to invoke parallels with Gandhi and Mandela is sickening. It goes to show what power can do to its holder.
Much has been written about the New York fundraiser where Obama gave his address as he sought support for a second term. The country he leads has been engaged in a number of wars, resulting in deaths and destruction on a vast scale. Their legacies will continue to take a heavy toll. Even when US forces have withdrawn from occupied lands, or high-altitude bombing without deploying American troops on the ground has ceased, we will not know how long and in how many places Obama's secret wars are still being waged. In the November 2008 election, he offered a hope of change for the good. Yet, today this remains as illusive as it was under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama and NATO have moved and expanded the war theatre in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Kenya, Somalia and possibly in other places too. His tactics have steadily become more threatening with foes and friends alike, linking war ever more to more routine matters, such as trade.
Despite the US military withdrawal from Iraq and the Afghan adventure now heading toward an end, there is a still more explosive situation running from South Asia to North Africa. The scenario of a major war in the region haunts many. Obama may appear reluctant to attack Iran or Syria, but that clandestine warfare by major powers and their proxies is continuing is hardly in doubt. The Obama administration's aggressive interventionist instinct is on open display. And to draw parallels between himself and great souls such as Gandhi and Mandela is a grotesque parody of their historic struggles.
At the New York event, Obama said that "the change we fought for in 2008 hasn't always happened as fast as we would have liked... real change, big change, is always hard." Next, making a leap into history, he continued, "Gandhi, Nelson Mandela -- what they did was hard. It takes time. It takes more than a single term."
Corruption infects the world in many forms: material and moral, visible and invisible, direct and indirect. But the underlying motive behind it is the opportunistic instinct to benefit oneself at the cost of others by allurement or deception. No wonder politics has fallen so much into disrepute. The aphorism of the 19th-century English historian Lord Acton that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" has acquired a special meaning today.
Employing his political mantra of "change" and attempting to show a likeness with Gandhi's and Mandela's life and achievements is one thing. Truth is a different matter. Gandhi never aspired to political office, never held it, and did not fight any elections. After his incarceration in prison for 27 years, Mandela was a reluctant president of South Africa. And he made clear that he would serve only one term while a new generation of successors was being groomed.
Above all, Mandela used his presidency to avoid a bloodbath and to stabilise the country as apartheid collapsed. Precisely for these reasons, both Gandhi and Mandela were formidable opponents of the unequal and unjust systems they fought.
Non-violence was Gandhi's tool. When violence erupted, Gandhi withdrew his movement against the British. He thought of others, of Muslims and the untouchables he called harijans (or children of God). He paid the ultimate price when a Hindu fundamentalist assassinated him in 1948. Neither Gandhi nor Mandela considered attacking another country, signing assassination orders, or exaggerating or inventing facts about people they saw as adversaries.
Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) was inspired by Gandhi. But once the organisation had realised that South Africa's black majority was up against an apartheid regime of exceptional brutality, the ANC engaged in a low-intensity war. And the United States and Britain listed Mandela as a "terrorist".
President Obama recently justified US drone attacks inside Pakistan by saying that they "have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties." It is impossible not to interpret this as an admission that drones do nevertheless kill and wound civilians, even if this is a minor matter in the president's eyes. Only a few days ago, the German news magazine Der Spiegal (15 March 2012) said that while under the Bush presidency there had been a drone attack every 47 days, the interval now under President Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, was just four days. The Americans have "already executed 2,300 people in this manner," the magazine said. Nobody has a chance if this president decides their time is up.
Gandhi's agitation for a boycott of British goods in favour of home-made products and his advocacy of an austere lifestyle were fundamental elements of the anti-globalisation movement of his time. His ethos was "to consume less for the uplift of others from poverty and deprivation." He lived the life he preached, for which Winston Churchill disparagingly called him the "naked fakir."
In the world ruled by Obama today, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were he not in his nineties and frail, would be his greatest enemies. And they could well have been on Obama's list of drone attacks. Mercifully that is not the case, and the president can at least have that comfort.
Great people like Gandhi and Mandela use power to curb power. Obama uses power to accumulate more of it. Therein lies the moral of any comparison in this debate.
* The writer established the BBC Kabul bureau and was the corporation's Afghanistan correspondent in the 1990s.