The American Moral Leader

Source: New York Times

George H. W. Bush, the 41st American President, was no ordinary politician or public servant. More than a surviving World War II veteran, Congressman, Ambassador, CIA Director, and Vice President, he was a man who knew the importance of doing the right thing, despite the odds. Whether it cost him political mileage and popularity, though at one time he enjoyed an approval rating of 84%, and whether it meant turning popular opinion against him, he stuck to what he believed was in the best interest of the American people, the American Empire, and, most importantly, democracy.

This is the reason why I think George H. W. Bush is one of the most important Presidents of our times and is surely one of my favorites. He took it upon himself despite strong opposition on Capitol Hill to initiate action against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and managed to build an international coalition. He also showed the world of the right way to do it through the Security Council and withdrew once Iraq surrendered in Kuwait, even though criticized for letting Saddam regime survive in Baghdad, probably unfinished business that his son would complete in 2003.

His realization to do the right thing also guided him to be open to bipartisanship, leading to a number of important pieces of legislation like the Clean Air Act and balanced budget deals despite his unrealistic campaign promise of no new taxes. He was not exactly a libertarian Republican out of touch with fiscal realities, after all, a hint many might get if they revisit his primary run against Ronald Reagan in 1980. He was also instrumental in negotiating the landmark North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, later to be concluded by President Bill Clinton.

While his approach to domestic issues can be considered rather vague, emotional, and hollow, with perhaps an exaggerated focus on “a thousand points of light,” one which a progressive Democrat could easily destroy as Clinton did in 1992, his vision for the world was unmistakably clear and resolute. Something that the opposition has barely had an answer to since Ronald Reagan. Carrying forward his legacy, George Bush knew what he was doing from the moment he took the oath.

In today’s America that is rapidly falling into the pit of isolationism and nationalism that borders on fascism, the words and actions of President George Bush remain as relevant as they were at the end of the Cold War. A great moment in history, albeit inevitable but one that he worked on in the Reagan administration. He had warned us about the threat of rising terrorism. He had warned us about the threat to liberal democracies. But most of all, he told us about the value of freedom, free speech, and free markets. The ideals of republicanism.

It is important to remember President George Bush because he was a great Republican leader. A party of great ideas that has descended today in petty populism and defending a disgraced Presidency. It is important to remember his stress on a gentler and kinder Republican party in which conservatism need not be synonymous with heartlessness. Today, people are reminded of his Presidency as a time of decency compared to the vicious circus of the Trump administration.

But most important of all, he took action when it mattered. One of the most underappreciated aspects of his leadership was his brilliant foreign policy and its continued legacy in terms of American leadership. He offered his internationalist vision of a new world order that aligned with American values and interests, something which appears to be fading since the end of his son’s term.

Having inherited massive deficits from President Reagan, his fiscal pragmatism, despite his rather misleading rhetoric of “read my lips,” his bipartisan budget deals helped pave way for Clinton’s golden fiscal era of budget surpluses. His letter to President Clinton initiated a beautiful Presidential tradition, indicative of his bipartisanship and fair-mindedness. Many liberals praise him today, but his legacy is still as misunderstood as the more liberal side of conservatism is. That precious centrism is sadly evaporating from the American politics which is giving way to more vicious, albeit passionate, forces on both extreme left and right. What remains underappreciated is the commitment of centrists like him to find the most reasonable path to social harmony and economic prosperity. This talk from Council on Foreign Relations featuring Jon Meacham and John Sununu sheds light on areas often ignored about George Bush.

George Bush for all his qualities and an extremely qualified resume, remained flawed in his handling of domestic affairs, inappropriate in expressing empathy at times, failing to inspire when the economy was down, and being convincing enough to retain the Presidency. However, his name will always remain a shining beacon of a quality that America has been losing for the past decade.

America’s moral leadership.

RIP John McCain: The Senate Just Lost the Maverick

Source: ABC World News Tonight

War hero, Prisoner of War, an unapologetic and fierce defender of freedom, and a voice of reason and sanity in the Senate, John McCain of Arizona has finally succumbed to cancer after a recent diagnosis. He did not go down without a fight as usual but even someone like him knows when to stop wasting your energy on a lost cause. You can’t win every battle and you are not meant to.

Take the 2008 election for an example. Who could have been a more obvious . He probably would have been a sensible choice, had Senator Leiberman decided not to sabotage his campaign by pulling out. A lot can be said of course about how he handled that campaign, particularly the disastrous choice of picking Sarah Palin as the running mate. Especially with the persepective that if the popular but divisive Obama Presidency could be avoided, you could argue that things would have been a lot different in Syria today. However, even the staunchest of Democrat will attest to the dignity with which he ran the campaign. Compared to more recent politics, McCain almost sounds like a saintly figure despite being a Republican hawk.

Much is being said about the heroics of the man but few are focusing on the gulf he is leaving in the US Senate. Not only in the Senate and the GOP, but in American politics, he is leaving very big shoes to be filled in. One of the most important qualities of John McCain’s political career was his independence of views despite whatever was popular in the party. He often did not care about the party line and voted his conscience and stood up for issues when people least expected. He took a stand against torture and waterboarding as an unAmerican and inhumane treatment of prisoners of war, probably inspired by the unspeakable torture he suffered in Vietnam’s most notorious detention camps.

Lately, he stood up to the madness of President Donald Trump when very few in his party such as Governor John Kasich, at least in the elected office, had the courage to do so. His latest act of defiance came when President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans made their only real effort for a “skinny repeal” of Obamacare or Affordable Healthcare Act put into place during the term of President Barack Obama.

Where the passing of John McCain is even more tragic is the state of politics in which he has left America. Aftter the loss of Hillary Clinton and the seat left vacant by his death, sensible centrist leaders are becoming a rarety in American politics. While you could argue that the majority of Democratic and Republican Senators and Congressmen and women are still centrist liberals, the shift toward more extreme right and left has been prominent in the recent years and it is only going to get worse. While the respective groups might have their own reasons for their ideological polarization, primarily being the deadlock of the Congress and the establishment status quo (even though they might miss the status quo when it’s gone), there are quite a few reasons why centrist liberalism in America is important.

First of all, it is important to preserve the free market enterprise in the United States without making certain sections of the economy too heavily dependent on the government. Secondly, it is important to preserve the secular state of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which makes the United States of America such an exceptional democracy. Finally, it is important to keep the United States an interventionist power that establishes and exercises its political influence around the world and ensure to defend freedom of the citizens of the world where it is threatened.

Often accused of being a “warmonger,” Senator John McCain was the leader who was making a moral argument for the United States to take action when the Syrian Government was using chemical weapons against its own citizens. In fact, he was pushing for action against both the Assad regime and the Islamic State. All this time, President Obama chose to resist the idea of increased military conflict in the area, leading to massive losses suffered by the Kurds and Yazidis in the North and the failure of the Free Syrian Army to find any major breakthroughs. Obviously, it was not a priority for either President Obama or his Democratic base, or even the Republicans for that matter. Perhaps blame it on the lethargy caused by the two-term war-torn Bush Presidency and that was probably what also led to the comprehensive defeat of McCain in the 2008 election with Obama’s landmark campaign of Hope and Change.

Since President Obama’s term, and especially during the current scandal-infested term of President Donald Trump, American moral leadership around the world has significantly weakened. Unfortunately, even the American public has never been more unenthusiastic about the affairs around the globe and we have recently been seeing more isolationist turns taken in the popular politics. The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are a part of this trend in a time when China and Russia are coming back strongly in terms of establishing their hegemony on a global level. This only tells of much darker times ahead with these totalitarian powers gaining greater political influence.

The problem is that there is no other leader in sight who could take up a stand like this again. There is no other leader who could defend the idea of the American Empire like this. And that is what we mourn today more than the death of a towering figure in not only American, but both liberal and conservative, politics.

To Charles Krauthammer

Source: Steve Barrett/The Washington Post

Perhaps nobody gave more articulation and clarity to the expression of conservative thought, and in a way that liberals could respect, than Charles Krauthammer. At least not in America.

His sarcasm was mostly garbed in a patronizing yet frank tone which remained as intellectual as it spoke clearly to its reader. And while he took moralist stances from time to time, on art endowment and abortion, which I find completely misguided, and which by the way have no foolproof defense whether you are holding a liberal or a conservative opinion, his pokes at his political rival were mostly backed by the sophistication of an educated mind. Nobody wants to bother to revisit the history of his career, even though his death is a good excuse to go through “Things That Matter” but perhaps there must be very few occasions when he would have fallen from this high standard.

Charles Krauthammer knew of this delicate position that you could have speaking about bigotry when you have a Jewish background while challenging liberal axioms about it. His defense of the attacks on traditional celebrations of America was rooted in the ideals of liberty that people around the world had worked so hard to achieve after hundreds of years. His passionate defense of Israel’s precarious position as well as the nature of Gaza blockade was also a solid rebuttal to mostly emotional complaints about the situation following the flotilla incident.

Started out as a liberal and a part of the Carter administration, he spoke to liberals with an understanding of their viewpoint and spoke about conservatism that did not make it sound like something monstrous. To the delight of his liberal and Democratic readers, even during the last year of his life, he chose not to mince words when commenting on the disaster his Republican Party was embracing in the form of President Trump. It was to his misery, of course, and to many those who have guarded and celebrated the traditional conservatism of the party when Trump started leading the 2016 Republican primaries when he started proving every other pundit wrong. Krauthammer was one of the liberal pundits that Trump had managed to defeat with so many others.

A thing to be learned from Krauthammer is that you should know when to take leave. The columnist had a very good estimate of when his time was up and signed off with an uncharacteristically heartwarming farewell.

But most of all, he made the point of judging people according to their actions, at least when it comes to politics, than the assumptions you are making about their character. And I could not agree more. Rest in peace.

“Know thyself” is a highly overrated piece of wisdom.
As for knowing the self of others, forget it.
Know what they do and judge them by their works.

The Washington Post, October 15, 1999

Asma Jahangir: Mourning Pakistan’s Eternal Free Speech Hero

Source: refrl.org

What we had feared for long finally happened this dull Sunday afternoon.

I often used to wonder how in the world Asma Jahangir was alive and well in a country where bloggers are getting abducted for criticizing the establishment and where journalists are getting murdered and attacked in the light of the day. I often used to wonder how this brave lawyer woman can get away with how openly and aggressively she attacked the bureaucratic oligarchy ruling this country.

Perhaps she was a part of that privileged class too but at least she spoke out about those who lacked it. She successfully managed to separate from the filth of the complacent privileged classes (which most of us in Pakistan, at least from urban Punjab, are connected to in way or another) by calling them out on their hypocrisy. She did so by speaking out for the helpless and the unprivileged.

She genuinely spoke out for the cause of democracy and human rights and in the meantime, even confronted politicians from all parties and even judges when she had to. Her fairminded activism earned her the position of the United Nations Rapporteur for Human Rights Council on Iran which magnified her voice on a global scale. Of course, her diplomatic role for the UN which only made a good name for Pakistan was seen as a traitorous act. But enough of the international impact.

She always knew that the real battleground was back at home in Pakistan, where the state of human rights was as abysmal as anywhere in this world. Could have immigrated to a Western country any day.

As unimaginable her death was to her followers and admirers, it only brought to surface the venomous bigotry that she had been fighting her entire life. Widely hailed as the conscience of the nation by several obituaries following her passing, this was how a large section of our urban population was treating someone who stood up for their very rights. Of course, anyone who had a different idea of living their lives other than the prescribed bigoted and suffocating convention in Pakistan is considered an Indian, Israeli or American agent.

Another one of the reasons why she will be so badly missed and has been irreplaceable is that she could say unimaginably brave things and get away with it. But at least she led by example and showed that it could be done. The question really is not what would have happened to another person, it is that nobody else dared to go even close.

In the end, there have been several calls to offer her a state funeral, with the most prominent one made by the Chief Minister Sindh. While the idea sounds great in theory, just imagine for a minute. Wouldn’t it have been the greatest insult to her legacy? Why would a discriminatory state mar the honor of her funeral? Why should the national flag obscure her individuality and her singular message of freedom and human rights for all?

She never needed a certificate of patriotism from anyone.

Source: geo.tv

When you are a hero, even your funeral becomes a symbol of resistance against ignorance.

Unbelievably, her funeral even became an object of conspiracy when orthodox misogynist Muslims condemned those mourning her to mix genders at the funeral prayer. These sort of opinions and the sort she fought all her lives might sound absurd in a parallel universe. But sad enough, they are a fact of life and have undoubtedly outlived Asma Jahangir.

This is why we are mourning the departure of Pakistan’s Eternal Free Speech Hero as we celebrated her life.

May God have mercy on us.

What George Michael’s Music Meant to Me

Source: Rolling Stone

Source: Rolling Stone

It is hard to believe the news of the passing away of pop icon George Michael, who was anything but ashamed of this label. While 2016 has been cruel when it comes to taking away so many stars that we love, with Carrie Fisher being the latest, George Michael’s death has been truly unexpected and untimely. Perhaps, it is the opioids again. It is not as if I never expected to hear this news, but its timing came as a real shocker. And there is a reason why it came as a shock to someone of my generation.

Growing up in the 90s, George Michael’s music meant so much more than just songs on tape. It was way past the Wham! years and he was well established in his solo career. But most of all, George Michael was establishing himself as a rebel figure that became an icon for individual freedom and personal choices. A gay icon before being gay was even remotely acceptable, George Michael became the voice for millions of all gay, straight, bi and other orientations when he expressed his sexuality through his music.

Right from the very beginning, no idea ever appealed more to me than individualism. Nothing brought me greater inspiration than the ideals of individual freedom and the importance of each individual. This is where I saw his music as an inspiration, and as a constant soundtrack to my life, that lifted me up in my darkest of moments. His music was truly empowering and inspiring. I recall the time when nothing else made me feel better than his music and how I bonded with my siblings over his music.

Source: Columbia

The way George Michael defined Freedom may have been gibberish to the ears of many at the time. It defined a worldview to the rest of us. It became the anthem of the defiant. His songs boasting of sexual openness became a license to take liberties. He made having faith sound cool and spun the wheel of our curiosity. Just like Bowie and Madonna, he was truly a figure that changed the face of music.

So for these reasons alone, I could never forget George Michael, nor separate his work from my life. The words of his songs, as well as those tunes, became a part of the way I saw the world. At least at that time. And I cherished every single moment of it. And never regretted it for a second. For someone who could barely play a six string, George Michael proved to be someone with a genius for producing the most haunting music you would ever listen to, enabling him to sell millions of albums effortlessly.

Source: musicroom.it

Source: musicroom.it

Now that we learn that George Michael was a far more generous and gracious person than we thought, considering his crude, 90s figure, having arrested for lewd acts in a men’s restroom in the United States, inspiring his controversial Outside video. However, his charity figures would never have made any difference to his fans, who already saw him as an inspiration.

To a generation that was bogged down by too many rules, George Michael taught how to stand up to convention. Taught the importance of questioning convention. He most certainly was not alone in expressing himself like that among the pop and rock icons of the 1980s and 1990s, but he was most certainly one that I personally associated with more than anyone else. And who I admired more than anyone else, even those whose music I got to appreciate even more than his later in my life.

This certainly is an end of an era in music, and one that passes with a heavy sense of personal loss and a scar on the heart, just like at the start of this year with the deaths of David Bowie and Prince. And nothing is more heartbreaking than the news of his possible return in 2017.

Source: Virgin/MTV

RIP George Michael.

You  have been loved.

 

To Shimon Peres, The Peacemaker

Source: The Daily Telegraph

Source: The Daily Telegraph

As a young man, my mind was captivated by the image of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, along with Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the White House lawn in 1993, overseen by President Bill Clinton. Sadly, the Oslo Peace Accords, for which all the three gentlemen won the Nobel Peace Prize, failed to bring lasting peace to the Middle East but laid the foundation of the Palestinian Authority.

Sadly, the Oslo Peace Accords, for which all the three gentlemen won the Nobel Peace Prize, failed to bring lasting peace to the Middle East but laid the foundation of the Palestinian Authority. It angered many Israelis and failed to satisfy many Palestinians, but sadly the fundamentalists always fail to follow the sacrifices and efforts put in to get even remotely close to such an agreement. Many believed that the peace deal led to Rabin’s assassination.

However, it inspired the entire world with the hope that a conflict as impossible as Israel and Palestine could possibly see an opening for peace, which could put millions out of suffering and misery in the region. One of the central figures behind the peace initiative was Shimon Peres, the foreign minister at the time.

Probably nothing inspired me more to value world peace than this single photograph. I thought that if a peace prize meant anything, it had to be all about the meaning of this picture. Just looking at it offers you a glimpse of hope that peace is possible in one of the harshest political conflicts in the world.

Source: Haaretz

Source: Haaretz

His death brings that sinking feeling in my heart, with a regret that I would never be able to meet Shimon Peres in person, perhaps in a diplomatic position. Just like the feeling I had after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, a regret that I would always live with. Another regret is that the Pakistan state establishment could not find a reason to establish diplomatic relations with Israel during his lifetime.

While his role as a statesman and diplomat for peace remains to hold universal appeal, he was one of and headed Israeli naval services after independence. A Polish Jewish immigrant, he was a part of the Haganah that later transformed into the IDF and was instrumental as one of the founders of the state. He saw the state grow to become a formidable outpost of democracy in a region crippled by autocracy and perpetual conflict.

Since he has been involved in the affairs of the state almost all his adult life throughout Israel’s history, his personality cannot possibly be removed from the controversy due to Israel’s brutal defense and retaliation tactics. However, as a statesman, and later as the President of Israel, Peres continued to reach out to the world and build a friendly image of Israel in a world that finds it hard to shrug off its antisemitic tendencies.

Probably the greatest reason to mourn the death of Shimon Peres, even though his role was mostly of a formal powerless figurehead of late, was that Israel has probably lost one of the last figures who could engage sensibly with the other side. His death leaves the current Israeli leadership in the hands of some of the most hardline right-wing government that Israel has ever had in its history. The worrying part is that the fundamentalism in the nationalism is only expected to grow, which hardly leaves you with an optimistic view of the situation.

There is easily more to celebrate about Shimon Peres than there is to mourn.

People like Shimon Peres matter because they are optimistic enough to believe in peace in a world of cynics, who believe in humanity when it is much easier to hate.

Let’s hope his passing serves as a reminder of how valuable peacemakers are.

Rest in peace, indeed.

Why Mandela is a Symbol of Freedom

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) - Source: history.com

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) – Source: history.com

Nelson Mandela is a symbol of freedom.

These are not hollow words as the true meaning of freedom can only be understood by those who are incarcerated and harassed by authoritarian forces and those who are constantly discriminated for one reason or another. Especially when it is the color of the skin.

Some people learn the price of freedom, peace and democracy the hard way. Even if they would apparently not even understand these ideas fully. Nelson Mandela became the greatest embodiment of this realization over time.

Nelson Mandela is a symbol of freedom because he experienced authoritarian oppression first hand and in one of the cruelest of ways that any political leader of the modern times could suffer.

Nelson Mandela was a Democratic Socialist by political persuasion, who had been a lifelong communist, therefore gathering the criticism from the anti-communist West at the time, who would demonize communists at any opportunity that presented itself.

His critics in the West may have a point, but Mandela did not establish an authoritarian government in South Africa on the abolition of Apartheid. But it also goes to show the hypocrisy of the democratic West, which would support Apartheid regimes while trumpeting principles of liberty and democracy.

But more than his later commitment to non-violence, it is his struggle against colonial and racist captors of his people that immortalizes this great man. Arguably, the greatest since Gandhi.

Who but Mandela could be the greatest inspiration to the West and to everyone else for how demonizing someone for their ideology is wrong, and authoritarian in its own right.

But this is not the first time, or last for that matter, that you would find people taking refuge in an authoritarian ideology in order to fight the persecution from another. Anything that offers some hope. In this case, social equality and justice.

Most sympathizers of authoritarian ideologies are kind, well meaning and passionate people, who just don’t know what they are taking about. Some of them then end up discovering the price of freedom the hard way.

Who but Mandela would know the price of freedom. Who but he can tell what authoritarianism and totalitarianism mean.

RIP Nelson Mandela

It has been a privilege to be alive during your lifetime.

I hope you keep on inspiring for the pursuit of freedom, which continues to elude those who value it.