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Leaders and Their Legacies

Leaders and their legacies

“Who is our leader” is a question easier asked than answered in today’s world. Nations are not led by leaders any more. Countries, including those considered mothers and champions of democracy are no longer governed by moral or ethical values. Misfortunes of our world today come not from excess but from total absence of leadership at national and global levels. Look what Bush and Blair duo together did to their people and to the world. Both defied the popular will in embarking upon a military adventure in Iraq and then circumscribing the liberties of their own people on the pretext of curbing terrorism. History did not take long to give its verdict on their legacy.

During his last visit to Baghdad, two size-10 shoes were hurled at George W. Bush in full force and in public gaze by a journalist as a “farewell gift” to him in the name of the people killed in that war. Unlike his other living predecessors, a scornful disesteem, if not total oblivion from public memory, is his legacy. Likewise, Tony Blair’s legacy is also one of lies that took Britain to war five times in six years, in Iraq in 1998, and then Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Iraq again. His unenviable place in history is as “Bush’s poodle” or “Yo Blair” as Bush used to fondly call him. Beyond their crappy legacies, there are painful questions that history alone will answer.

Ironically, both Bush and Blair were men of ‘deep’ faith. President Bush claimed that he was driven with a mission from God. He said: “God tells me: George go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan, And I did. The God tells me: George go and end the tyranny in Iraq. And I did.” On his part, Blair was ridiculed in his own country when he later explained how he prayed to God while deciding whether or not to send UK troops to Iraq.

Leaders and their legacies 1Perhaps, God told him too what He told his buddy Bush. In the name of God thus, both invaded and occupied a country that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11. Did Bush and Blair declare the Iraq war because they genuinely believed it was the best way to guarantee peace in the world and safety of the American and British peoples?
The problem is that the story did not end with Bush and Blair. In 2008, the Americans elected for the first time, after John F. Kennedy, a different brand of leader who promised to them how he would make the difference in their lives as well as those of the people of the world. The son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, President Obama entered the White House shattering America’s two-century-old race barrier. No doubt, President Obama inherited a terrible legacy of wars, global image erosion, fractured economy, depleted social security, healthcare crisis and decaying education system.

Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration at the thick of the Great Depression in 1933 was a new president confronted with the magnitude of challenges that Obama faced at the beginning of his presidency which was seen as a watershed opportunity for the United States to recover from its global alienation and perception as an “arrogant superpower” with unilateralist policies and double standards. Everyone looked at Obama’s victory as a sign of change in America’s global outlook and behaviour. In his first inaugural address, President Obama explained how at home he would turn over the languishing economy. Abroad, he pledged to end the war in Iraq and defeat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In his first term, he delivered on neither. The economy never recovered from its worst recession since the Great Depression. The scene on the war front was no less pathetic. His vision of a new America at peace with itself and with the rest of the world remained unfulfilled. Even after partial US withdrawals, Iraq kept smouldering and Afghan peace was nowhere in sight. Al-Qaeda remained as elusive as ever. The feeling that America had a different kind of leader thus evaporated in thin air. President Obama had just been in office less than nine months when he was picked up by the Nobel Committee for the 2009 Peace Prize citing him “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation.”

He became the third serving US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The other two sitting American presidents to have received this honour were Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, for negotiating an end to the war between Russia and Japan, and Woodrow Wilson in 1919 for the historic Treaty of Versailles. Obama had no such feat to his credit other than mere promises to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least till then, no “extraordinary efforts” for peace were visible on his part. If anything, his Nobel ‘citation’ was already in tatters. Only days before receiving his Nobel, Obama ordered a military surge of additional 30,000 troops for Afghanistan. It took him four years to withdraw those troops though a significant number of them still remain there.
In Oslo, as a Nobel Laureate, Obama was sounding fury and smelling gunpowder. From being a global peacemaker, he turned his Nobel moment into an “unapologetic defence of war.” He justified wars to make peace. “For make no mistake. Evil does exist in the world and evil must be fought with evil”, he declared. This was a new Obama altogether sanctifying the medieval concept that noble ends justified ignoble means. He was at his Hegelian best in proclaiming war as an ethical aspect “which ennobles human activity.” It must have been a jarring moment for his selected audience at the ceremony when Obama spoke rather nonchalantly of his troops in Afghanistan: “Some will kill. Some will be killed.”

He also claimed that “force is sometimes necessary” and that “we will not eradicate conflict in our lifetimes.” This thinking smacked of the neocon dogma that must have shamed even Alfred Nobel’s ghost. It was certainly at odds with the Nobel spirit. Three years ago, a militant Sunni insurgency was unleashed with oil-rich Gulf States’ funding to topple the ‘tyrannical’ Assad regime in Syria. It was meant to bring the ‘Arab Spring’ to its logical end. But that did not work. The heavily-armed insurgents soon changed their mind and declared a controversial Islamic State of their own. In response, in 2014, President Obama unveiled his own ‘new war’ strategy against the so-called Islamic State.

Earlier in 2011, a UN-authorized air campaign was used to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi initially on the pretext of protecting civilians but in due course escalated into a regime-change operation. The situation in both Iraq and Libya reminds of a pottery store rule: “you break it, you own it”. This rule applies to nations as well. While these military interventions have left victim nations shattered, governments of the so-called ‘peace-coalitions’ have resembled the customer who just walks away whistling after causing breakage in a pottery store, hoping no one has noticed the mess left behind. Obama is now nearing the end of his second term with primaries for the next presidential election already in progress.

Whosoever it is, his successor will be inheriting a world no less turbulent than it was when Obama took over eight years ago. The change that he promised never came. In fact, until last year, Obama kept the old conflicts alive while also waging new wars. But he was at least honest in admitting in his last State of the Union message that the world he was leaving behind was in a terrible flux. “Instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world — in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia,” he warned. What in fact he said was that his successor will be the proud owner of a world in chaos.



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About Shamshad Ahmad

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The writer is a former foreign secretary.

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