Doing big things - Talat Farooq - Friday, February 04, 2011

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President Obama in his State of the Union address this Tuesday delivered a narrative of American innovation and creativity as he alluded to the Apollo project and the transcontinental railroad. “We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices, the nation of Edison and the Wright Brothers, of Google and Facebook,” he said. “We do big things,” he asserted more than once as he spoke of the American achievements.

Besides technological achievements the outpouring of anger and indignation in Tunisia and Egypt provide irrefutable evidence of some of the ‘big things’ the Americans have done in world power politics. The American support of the third world autocratic regimes, including the ones in Pakistan, was the corner stone of the US foreign policy during the Cold War. The paternalistic racism at the root of this approach remains unchanged to date. It sees non-western populations as vulnerable to radicalisation and inferior; hence a strong man and not democracy is the answer to maintain order and secure US interests.

The noises against the 30 years of oppression under Mubarak and 23 years under Ben Ali and the more than six decades of silence of the common people of Pakistan are testament to the ‘big things’ that the US has done in world politics. The Egyptian and Tunisian masses just like the teeming millions in Pakistan continue to suffer at the hands of rising food prices, illiteracy and unemployment combined with the daily oppression of the common man by the state institutions, the so-called democracy notwithstanding. The underlying root cause of all the ills is a single common denominator: rampant corruption of the ruling elite. By empowering the non democratic forces in the developing countries the US has indeed done the greatest disservice to humanity.

Speaking of the ‘big’ American technological advances, the American military is the most fearsome in the world since the middle of the twentieth century. This awesome power has been employed by the US to do some of the ‘big things’ that are missing from President Obama’s address.

The one factor that stands out in the ongoing war on terror is the sheer volume of deaths most of which are civilians. The US has already killed and maimed thousands in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. Besides Pakistan, drone attacks are also carried out in Somalia and Yemen – in flagrant violation of both international law and the US constitution since America is not at (declared) war with any of these countries. But while the bloodletting and mayhem that the US related actions have unleashed, since 2001, are very much the focus of public attention , the list of some other ‘big things’ the Americans have done is worth a reminder.

In the last five months of the Second World War American bombings killed more than 900,000 Japanese civilians, not counting the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The nuclear attacks on Japan resulted in an estimated 127,150 additional casualties – this equals to 29 per cent of the total US casualties in 225 years of foreign wars and more than the American deaths in any foreign conflict except World War II. The US incendiary bombs over Tokyo in March 1945 killed 83,793 Japanese, a number greater than the combined US fatalities in Korean and Vietnam wars. During the Korean War in the 1950s American forces killed an estimated one million North Koreans, while the US casualties were almost 34,000 – this means that for every American soldier approximately 30 North Korean civilians were killed. The explosive tonnage dropped by the US in the Vietnam conflict was thrice as much as used in World War II, killing at least 365,000 civilians - a ratio of roughly eight Vietnamese civilians for each US soldier killed.

There is no doubt in my mind that as and when the war on terror grinds to a halt and is documented by future historians in totality, the ratio of one US body bag to combined civilian deaths in Muslim lands would go down in world history as yet another ‘big thing’ the Americans did.

Historically the use of full force in combat has been endorsed by not only the US military and the political elite but also American public opinion; it usually turns against armed conflict only if clear victory is not in sight. In the words of an American academic: “Until late in the Vietnam war the American public opinion was generally more exercised over Washington’s failure to apply all available force in Vietnam than it was over the necessity of the war altogether.”

The most difficult and politically costly decision for Bush senior was not to send ground forces into Iraq in the 1990s but to stop short of occupying Baghdad. Today the killing of innocent civilians in the war on terror has failed to elicit mass protests from the ‘compassionate’ and democratic people of the United States. Instead, the American people continue to sustain, without complaint, the highest military budgets in the world and the largest peacetime military budgets in world history, according to an American foreign policy analyst. Yes, Mr Obama, there is no doubt Americans do big things.

The writer is a PhD student at Leicester, UK. Email:

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