“Mr Gorbachev! Tear down this wall!” As Donald Trump goes about walling America in and shutting out the world, those prophetic words of Ronald Reagan, deified by the Republicans as the greatest US president since Abe Lincoln, ring in my ears.
Reagan’s words, delivered as part of his historic speech on 12 June 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate near the wall that divided Berlin and Germany into the East and the West and that became the most powerful symbol of the Cold War, have become an iconic part of our history. Those words were like a call to arms for the divided people of Germany, and the silently suffering multitudes beyond the Iron Curtain, to overthrow the yoke of tyranny weighing upon them.
Sure enough, the rumblings of discontent on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall turned into a groundswell that swept away the Iron Curtain and with it the Eastern bloc and Soviet Union itself. Under the benign gaze of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union who only wanted reforms and openness, the “evil empire” unravelled and collapsed like a house of cards. But it couldn’t have happened without the active “encouragement” and support of Reagan and his successor George H W Bush.
Trump calls himself a follower of Reagan and other Republican greats. Yet by erecting walls around America, openly targeting Muslims and shutting out refugees and all the huddled, oppressed masses that the Lady Liberty offers to take in, he is not just betraying that proud legacy, he is turning away from the celebrated traditions of America’s founding fathers.
As new technology moguls, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s Sunder Pichai, and a hundred other US giants have reminded Trump, theirs is after all a nation of immigrants built by refugees from around the world. Ironically, not a single person from the seven blacklisted Muslim countries has ever been involved in an attack on the US.
More importantly, if immigrants from around the world, especially those from Muslim lands, are kept out, it’s not just their loss and an end to their dream, for they would go elsewhere; it would be the end of the American dream too. For what is America without its openness and the nervous energy, ardor and can-do spirit of its immigrants and dreamers? In the end, it’s not those who are being turned away from the country’s borders but the “land of the free” that would be the loser.
Is this why Trump was voted to power? I wouldn’t think so. After eight years of the Democrats, voters wanted change, but not anarchy.
It is not just on the immigration front and in relations with the world’s Muslims that chaos reigns. The first couple of weeks of the Trump administration have left a long and wide trail of destruction virtually everywhere.
Trump has turned US foreign policy and the most strategic partnership with Europe, including NATO, the most powerful military alliance that was born out of this relationship in 1949, on its head. And he has gone ahead and embraced the very enemy that the US-NATO alliance was supposed to guard against — the Russian bear.
The US and Russia spent hundreds of billions of dollars on devising the deadliest of arms against each other and nearly came to wipe out each other during the long and bitter Cold War. Yet Trump cannot stop singing paeans to his hero, Putin, despite damning disclosures made by his own intelligence agencies about Russian involvement in hacking US polls.
In the words of former British Foreign Secretary William Hague, “Putin has played America beautifully. He interfered in the presidential election. He used the period of the transition to a new US administration to devastate Aleppo and entrench the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Next will come the exploitation of a bumper year of elections across Europe, to weaken the EU and reduce its ability to resist what Putin wants.”
Trump has already declared NATO “obsolete” and believes that most members are enjoying the party at Uncle Sam’s expense. He does not think too highly of the European Union either, once the most potent symbol of Western democracy and laissez faire capitalism. Trump has repeatedly cheered Brexit and has welcomed more such departures from the EU.
His disastrous telephone conversation with Australian leader Malcolm Turnbull over refugees has already become part of DC’s folklore. If this is how the most trusted of US friends and allies is treated, imagine the predicament of hated enemies like Iran.
Given Trump’s proximity to Israel and his campaign rhetoric, the showdown with Iran looks inevitable. Strangely, Tehran doesn’t seem too perturbed. Indeed, it seems to welcome the “real face of America”, as Khamenei put it this week. Bring it on.
There are also apprehensions about the administration’s approach to the UN. It’s apparently planning to significantly reduce US financial support to the world body in New York. Such a move could further undermine the already feeble UN and its various institutions.
Of all the changes in Washington though, what’s singularly most disturbing is the all-pervasive influence of J Street. As if the stranglehold of the Israeli lobby over the US establishment, media and government wasn’t already strong enough, this administration virtually eats out of Israel’s hands.
With Trump’s powerful son-in-law and architect of his campaign, Jared Kushner, now a key adviser and with top administration positions being manned by you know who, no administration in US history has been closer to Israel. The excessive influence of the Israeli Lobby also manifests itself in various appointments and pronouncements of the administration, including the dangerous decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“We have now reached the point where envoys from one country to the other could almost switch places,” wrote Palestinian American professor Rashid Khalidi in The New Yorker. “The Israeli ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who grew up in Florida, could just as easily be the US ambassador to Israel, while Trump’s ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, who has intimate ties to the Israeli colony movement, would make a fine ambassador in Washington for the pro-colony government of Netanyahu.”
No wonder Israel has done away with all diplomatic niceties and pretences, announcing thousands of new Jewish homes on stolen Palestinian land almost on a daily basis. It has even passed a new apartheid law to legalise all settlement colonies.
Amid this gathering darkness, the only ray of hope is the stiff resistance put up by the vibrant US civil society, media and courts. Angry marches and protests across the country against what is clearly the gravest challenge yet to the American dream have been fierce and getting progressively more powerful.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators spontaneously turned up at US airports to protest against the “Muslim ban”. These brave voices of conscience are not only a testament to the tenacity of US democracy; they are its best hope. Doubtless, these are the most testing times for the faithful in the US and across Europe. However, they cannot afford to give up their hopes and aspirations, nor give in. They must resist by building alliances with other communities and respond to hate with love. It is time to present the best side of their faith and traditions, hoping and praying America would emerge stronger out of this trial by fire. Love trumps all hate.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist and author.