Obama’s Change?


Thank you very much. Namaskaram.


It’s wonderful to be in Kerala.

It’s an honor to remember the memory of a great intellectual who left you in July of this year, TK Ramachandra. And what I know of him reminds me of Noam Chomsky who incidentally celebrated his 80th birthday on the 7th of December, just a few days ago. Chomsky represents the best in American political dissent and academic discourse.

He has always spoken truth to the powerful, even when those truths were very difficult for people to hear. He has over many years told the American people about what the United States is doing around the world. And he possesses one of the hallmarks of intellectuals I am sure TK also exemplified – consistency. Not just shifting positions when the wind blows in a different direction. Some intellectuals adjust their opinions in order to cozy up to power and to enrich themselves. In America, and it’s probably true in India also, if you cooperate with state power and corporations you will be richly rewarded. You will earn much money. You will be invited to functions, to dinners, appear in the media, and you will have a very successful career.

But I believe it’s the responsibility of intellectuals everywhere to speak for those who cannot, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to represent not the oppressors but the oppressed, and this is something that Chomsky, TK here in Kerala, I think represent. That is a very important tradition we must honor and continue.

You may know the wonderful writer from Martinique Dr. Franz Fanon. In his classic work, “Wretched Of The Earth” he describes the end of traditional colonialism and its replacement with neo-colonialism. In his chapter, The Pitfalls of National Consciousness, he says the imperialist powers cannot operate without collaborators. That is to say people in the newly independent countries become the representatives of, in this instance, Washington. Compromises are made. The interests of the home country, let us say India, are subordinated to the interests of Washington. This is elite clique, who study at Harvard, Yale, and other top universities in America. They staff high positions in their governments. They may get jobs with the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO and in the United Nations. Then they become kind of agents for Washington, promoting its imperial interests.

On November 4th the United States had a regime change with the election of Barack Hussain Obama. This is the front page of our most important newspaper, the New York Times. It just says “Obama. Racial barrier falls in election.” I was in Pakistan a few weeks ago and here is Obama on the cover of an Urdu magazine and the question at the bottom is, “Is American policy really going to change?” Just asking the question. And then here in India, on the cover of Living India magazine “Barack Obama creates history.”

The election of Barack Obama is full of symbolism, I am old enough to remember when African Americans could not sit in the same hall, or stay in the same hotel, or go to the same school, or ride on the same bus as white people. So this is a historically very significant and symbolic election and has been greeted with great enthusiasm. Christian Amanpour on CNN, she said this election “will change the world.” I have to ask the question, will it really change the world?

Will it improve the crisis in the rural areas in India where almost 200,000 farmers have committed suicide? Will it improve the situation in Pakistan which is falling apart, a bankrupt country? Will it help the average Afghan who has known virtually nothing but war for the last 30 years? Will it help the ordinary Iraqi? Today’s news from Iraq: 45 people killed in one attack. Will it address Kashmir? Palestine? So we have to ask these questions in an honest way not with propaganda or based on hope. This was the campaign slogan of Barack Obama. Hope is a wonderful word. I don’t know what it is in Malayalam. In Hindi it’s Asha , in Urdu it’s Umeed. We all want to hope, but hope must be rooted in reality, not in fantasies, not in magical thinking.


And what is the record so far of Mr. Obama, soon to be president Obama? What has he said and done? We have to examine these things impartially and not automatically wave flags and be a fervent supporter of the new administration. One of the reasons the election brought people into the streets in America dancing, I have never seen this before, has to do with the what we have lived under in the last 8 years. The Bush gang is arguably the most criminal regime in American history. Warlords who have committed many crimes against humanity. Violations of international law, the UN charter, the United States Constitution, the Geneva conventions, the Hague convention, to mention just some.


One of the things I am very disappointed in Barack Obama is that he has not wanted to charge these criminals with any offences. Apparently they are going to retire and then go off and write a book and earn, maybe 30 million dollars for writing a book and then go on a lecture tour and speak in colleges and universities and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now you remember that Barack Obama said he will close Guantanamo. This is a good thing. But it is not enough. Not only should he close Guantanamo, he should return it to the Cuban people from whom it was stolen 100 years ago. He should bring to book, bring to account all of those American officials who were responsible for the torture and the abuse of prisoners. He could also close the torture chambers in Afghanistan at Bagram and other such facilities like that around the world.


Obama has also crucially failed to understand the true meaning of the Iraq war. It is a major criminal act. His criticism, like that of most of the liberals in America has been that it was a mistake. That it was mismanaged. That it was poorly planned. The proper equipment was not procured and so on. I’m sure German generals were making similar complaints about Hitler’s Russia war policies, particularly after Stalingrad.


What Obama is saying about Iraq is unacceptable. The invasion and occupation of Iraq is a major war crime and Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and all the rest should be brought to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and be prosecuted. Incidentally, my country, which never tires of proclaiming its devotion to the rule of law and its dedication to democracy and freedom refuses to join the International Criminal Court. It does not recognize its jurisdiction. There you see the arrogance of empire.

You see that arrogance again when America ignores the Kyoto protocol on global warming. Now what has Obama said about Iraq? It was a mistake. There is a bad joke in America, we are saying Obama has figured out an exit strategy from Iraq. He is going to take the troops from Iraq and send them to Afghanistan to fight yet another war on the border. I just came from Pakistan and I have been there 3 times in the last 11 months. The United States is regularly bombing Pakistan. Every other day there is some kind of attack, and this is destabilizing Pakistan. It’s causing tremendous hatred of the Zardari regime in Islamabad and also toward the United States. And Obama has said that border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is the central front in the so-called war on terror. I say so called because it’s really a war of terror.

Terror has expanded tremendously since 11th of September 2001, primarily because of the reckless and criminal actions of the Bush regime in Washington. Invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, threatening Iran and Syria, attacking Syria, bombing Somalia, and basically behaving as a rogue regime. This term rogue the US always applies it to designated enemies. But the US itself is breaking as I mentioned international law, so Obama says we need more troops in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, we have got to deal with Pakistan, we cannot have a nuclear Iran it would be a great game changer and then he says Iran is a rogue regime. Perhaps Obama could point to the fact that Israel, which is a great ally of the United States and now your country, has nuclear weapons. Israel is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran happens to be a signatory and it is being held to the highest standards of the NPT. There is a word for this in English: hypocrisy. You have once set of rules for yourself and your friends and another set of rules for your enemies. I think if you look honestly at the historical record you will find that this is a pattern of behavior of all imperial powers. Some of you might be old enough to remember the British and their hypocrisy and double standards when they ruled India.

Another reason, we are informed, we cannot have a nuclear Iran is that it would set off an arms race in the Middle East. Now you have to wonder what universe Obama is living in. There is already an arms race in the Middle East. In fact the United States is the number one arms trafficker in the world. The US accounts for almost 50% of all weapons sales, and I know that Washington is looking New Delhi with open eyes. This is a hot new market to sell weapons and to bring New Delhi into a military alliance with Washington. The United States spends 1 trillion dollars a year on the military. I don’t know how many crores that is but the United States spends more money on the military than all of the countries in the world combined, that includes France, India, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, China, UK, Italy. Is Obama going to dismantle the American empire? Probably not. You can hope that he will but as I said hope is a feeling and we as journalists, as intellectuals have to examine the evidence: what is he saying and who is he appointing in his cabinet and other top level posts.

For example, his chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, has very close ties with Israel, is a hawk in terms of military policy, and is a fervent advocate of globalization, which is another code word for US economic domination. Then Obama appointed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Hillary Clinton’s record should be well known to you. She is a devoted supporter of Israel and American imperialism. By the way, the term American imperialism is never used in the United States in polite discourse, in the New York Times, in Time magazine, and the Wall Street Journal. It’s only we on the Left that use this term. But I think the term is accurate and describes a system of relations in which the United States is dominant and rest of the world is subordinate. They are there to supply raw materials and labor.


I have said that it may be that the charismatic and eloquent Obama will change this system. But it is lightly unlikely because in United States the military-industrial-media-education complex dominates policy. So no matter who is the president, whether it is Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, or George Bush or now Barack Obama there is very little that these Presidents can do to make radical change. Their ability to change domestic policy is confined to a very narrow area and on foreign policy it’s even narrower. On domestic policy, for example, we expect Obama to be a major improvement over George W Bush. But that is not saying much. You have to remember this has been, as I said earlier, perhaps the worst regime in American history. On foreign affairs it’s unlikely that Obama will be anything more than an articulate manager of American empire. He will speak very clearly and in complete sentences, but he will not change the basic thrust of US imperialism. Incidentally, this has been noted by the neo-cons.


Already people like Richard Perle, one of the architects of the Iraq war, has said, We were very worried when Obama was elected, we thought there was going to be some radical departure in US foreign policy, but now that we see the appointments that he is making and his public statements, we feel more comfortable.


Obama was elected with about 53% of the vote and John McCain got 47%. But all the public opinion polls show that the American people want to end the war in Iraq, want to end the war in Afghanistan, want to have money being spent on the empire and militarism devoted to human needs such as education, healthcare, transportation and improving the environment.


We are on the edge of a major environmental moment in human history. These are dangerous times, but the environmental crisis and in particular global warming is something that is going to have disastrous consequences if not addressed. And you living in a coastal state will be adversely affected by rising sea levels. This is a very serious problem. It does not have the excitement of seeing the Taj Hotel in Mumbai being attacked and all of the breathless media coverage which ensued. But the environment must be addressed and for that we need bold leadership and we need collective leadership involving all the nations in the world. I hope, I am using that word, I hope that the new government of Barack Obama will address this very critical issue because time is not on our side and another issue connected to this is availability of water for drinking and irrigation.

There are large parts of your country, which don’t have sufficient water. In Pakistan and other parts of the world there is a shortage of water. In April I went to Gangotri in Uttarakhand. It is a beautiful place. There is a famous temple built there at the site of the glacier. That glacier has receded. It is now is 22 kms away from the temple. What does that mean? It means there is less water going into the Ganga. Downstream in villages in Uttarakhand like Tehri, people don’t have drinking water. They have pump wells. They have driven the wells into the ground 40 feet, 60 feet, 100 feet until they have reached levels were the water is toxic. One journalist told me a few years ago he used to bathe with four buckets of water. Now he has to make do with only one.

So this is a situation that exists all along the Himalayas. The glaciers are melting. That means the Brahmaputra, Ravi, Sutlej, Chenab all the great rivers coming out from the Himalayas including the Mekong which goes into Cambodia and Vietnam, theIrawaddy into Burma including rivers going into China, they will have significantly less water because of this phenomenon. Less water means less irrigation for crops, fewer crops means food storages. Populations are increasing so you can clearly see the implications. You don’t have to be a graduate from some prestigious university like JNU. It’s just common sense that these issues need to be addressed and addressed urgently.

So we will keep an eye on Barack Obama. Again we hope that he will represent genuine change for US and end American imperialism. As I said during a lecture this morning, we have many great things in America. Some of you have been there so you know some of the positive things. People such as Chomsky, Zinn, me, and others, we can work there freely and do many things without any interference from the government. But I would like to see the United States be a champion of justice in the world. A superpower for peace.

Look how much worse the situation in Iraq is now. Just the other day, this criminal president George Bush said Iraq was a “success.” Can you imagine? That’s the word he used, Let us measure what kind of a success Iraq is under his regime. It is a country of 25 million people. It’s smaller than Kerala in population. 1.2 million Iraqis are dead, 4 million are refugees, 3 million are wounded and 4 million are hungry. So what does that mean? One in every two Iraqis is dead, wounded, a refugee, or hungry. And this criminal president has the gumption, the arrogance to say that Iraq is a success and that Afghanistan also would be a success story.


Barack Obama needs to change these policies. The American left will be putting pressure on him to make substantive changes. We cannot keep doing business as usual. Business as usual has led to an economic collapse. Business as usual has lead to the destruction in Afghanistan, destabilization in Pakistan, destruction in Iraq, threatening other countries as well. Business as usual is leading to environmental catastrophe.



Thank you very much….Nanni!!!!


(T K Ramachandran memorial lecture delivered at Nalanda auditorium, Kozhikode, Kerala, India on Dec 12, 2008 – organised by Bankmen’s Club and Secular Collective)

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