I HAVE been deeply disturbed by campaign speeches delivered by almost all candidates for the White House, so much so that I fear for the future of the superpower and the impact a potential isolationist America infused with the politics of hate, fear and division will have on our world.
Rarely has our planet been beset by so many threats and challenges. It seems to me that America’s value based leadership is needed now more than ever. If the drawbridge is pulled up and swathes of humanity vilified merely because of their religion or ethnicity, America’s opportunistic, authoritarian geopolitical competitors will be quick to fill the gap.
There was a time when the US was dubbed ‘the world’s policeman’, which is a rarely used expression since President Barack Obama took charge. On foreign policy, he is seen as weak and dithering. My fear is that his successor will alienate Washington’s traditional partners upsetting the country’s balance of soft and hard power, thus making the country more feared and mistrusted than admired and respected.
A few days ago, I revisited the statements and characters of the presumptive candidates in my mind and was not at all impressed. The presidential line-up has rung alarm bells — especially in my part of the world — for the first time in the country’s history. Many American voters feel they have been left with no choice; among them Hollywood actor Harrison Ford. He has joined the “Nobody for President” campaign on social media.
That is not to say that all US presidents have been admirable role models. But with few exceptions, notably Richard Nixon (Watergate), Lyndon B. Johnson (Vietnam) and George W. Bush (disastrous wars of choice), they have had exceptional leadership qualities and honourable intentions.
I could not help but wonder how America’s founding fathers and the most illustrious presidents would feel if they knew how low the leadership contest, marked by personal insults and hate speech, has sunk — a despicable trend that, by the way, has echoes in the run-up to Britain’s European Union (EU) referendum, that has also evolved into an ugly slanging match.
The topic must have been playing on my mind because later in the day I imagined a conversation with three of the greatest presidents American has ever known — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who both fought to unify their fledging nation and Theodore Roosevelt, a learned man who overcame his disabilities to become a warrior for his country in every sense of the word.
These were men of principle and courage. They were guided by beliefs and ingrained ethics. They did not flip-flop on policy; they did not use repetitive slogans or sound bites designed to play on the fears of the voting public — and they certainly did not goad crowds into violence or make fun of people with disabilities. Their vision of America was a sanctuary for the world’s oppressed, poor and downtrodden wherever they came from.
“Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all,” said George Washington. Abraham Lincoln said he dreamed of “a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last hope on earth” and Theodore Roosevelt believed “courtesy is as much as mark of a gentleman as courage.”
I know for certain that were they alive today they would be shaking their heads in disgust at the candidates’ exchange of insults, backbiting, dirty tricks and bigoted policies. They and many of those who came after, such as John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, took their role as advocates and defenders of the American dream with the gravitas this amazing project deserves.
Each, in their own fashion, was instrumental in making America a beacon of justice and freedom. Where have respected, inspirational candidates who love their country more than themselves gone?
Kennedy showed his strength and bravery during the Cuban missile crisis. Carter genuinely cared — and still cares — for the poor and will be forever remembered as a peacemaker. Clinton authorized the participation of US forces in a just war to stop the Yugoslav military’s ethnic cleansing of Albanians from Kosovo and his economic policies left the country with a whopping $280bn budget surplus.
It is so easy to forget that America’s unique light illuminating our planet glows bright with the energy and innovation of a multicultural society where people of differing races and faiths came together as one behind the same flag, proud to call themselves ‘Americans’.
What bland city would New York be without its Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy, Little Odessa or Little India? What monochrome place would Los Angeles be without its ethnic enclaves? And Michigan would be unrecognizable if there were no thriving Arab-American communities.
Visiting America is akin to visiting the whole world. Thank goodness the early presidents had no wish to erect walls or to strew barriers in the way of talented newcomers with ambitions of battling their way to the top. It is ironic that those shouting the loudest are themselves the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Have they no shame?
America does not need to be made great again. America is great! Unfortunately, my instincts tell me that after Jan 20 next year, when the new president is sworn into office, a slippery slope awaits. Whosoever claims the prize, they would be well to remember that a “house divided against itself cannot stand,” — a warning from President Lincoln, who, in my book, ranks tall above all others.
By Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor