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16 Nov, 2012

Memo to President Obama in Asia: You Won the Nobel Peace Prize, Now Earn it

An Open Letter from Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil

Welcome to Asia and Thailand, my adopted country. It is apt that you should begin your second term in office by coming first to three Buddhist-majority countries, all of which will play a major role in the future of the Asian Century. Your primary agenda, to promote the interests of the American people, may be more successful if you talk less and listen more carefully to the people of Asia. That includes me. So here goes.

I am an Asian-Muslim. I was born in India, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, (a Hindu) and now live in Thailand, reigned by another great Asian leader, a Buddhist. I studied in a Christian-missionary boarding school and have travelled to just about every Asian country, especially its holy spots. My main job is covering the travel & tourism industry which strives to promote peace and friendship, cultural understanding and environmental sustainability.

In a speech at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 3 October 2012, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría identified what many believe to be the world’s main problem. In a speech headlined “It’s all about reform and trust!”, he referred to what he called “the confidence crisis.” He said, “With this protracted recession, citizens have lost faith and trust in their institutions and their governments. Without this confidence, there will be no growth. This is why we need to maintain a focus on sound policies that can put an end to this crisis, restore growth and create jobs. We also need to vigorously fight corruption, tax evasion and bribery. This is our duty: to design and put in place better policies for better lives.”

In the past four years of your presidency, I heard many slogans and soundbites, such as “change you can believe in”, a “new beginning with the Islamic world,” the “pivot towards Asia” and now, most recently, “the best is still to come.” In your Nobel Peace prize acceptance speech, you said, “No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests – nor the world’s – are served by the denial of human aspirations.”

At first, I was excited. Not any more.

As a self-appointed global leader, the United States of America bears much responsibility for the “confidence crisis”. Bad policies have produced bad results. Billions of people like me feel the impact, but cannot vote your government out. We may be momentarily powerless but we are not entirely voiceless, thanks to the internet age. So here is my message: In 2009, you won the Nobel Peace prize, but you did not deserve it. Four years later, I still don’t think you have earned it. In the next four years, I hope to see some of that change I once believed in.

Here is an 11-point set of questions to provide food for thought:

1. Have you seen ‘The Ugly American”? The 1963 Marlon Brando movie is a template for Machiavellian skullduggery in the world of global diplomacy and geopolitics. It was relevant then, and is even more relevant today. The fact that this movie is about a U.S. Ambassador in Thailand and a Thai Prime Minister makes it even more valid in the context of your visit to Thailand and ASEAN.

2. You promised “a new beginning” with the Islamic world in your June 2009 speech in Cairo. Where is it? Is the Islamic/Arab world justified in feeling badly let down? Tensions are flaring anew in the Middle East as Israeli settlements expand exponentially while your administration still blames only the Palestinians and thwarts their peaceful, legal, diplomatic efforts to gain statehood. Does the pro-Israeli bias of your administration (and past administrations) share the blame for the ceaseless killing and violence?

3. Global Economic issues: Your first priority to create jobs for your constituents, the American people, is understandable. But directly ahead is the abyss of the “fiscal cliff”. Strikes and social unrest are gripping many parts of Europe. Much of this chaos can be traced back to the bankruptcy and bailouts of some of America’s flagship companies, the same ones which avidly promoted globalisation, liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation. Today, Asia is feeling the pinch, albeit to a lesser extent. Can U.S. companies and institutions claim any right to lecture the world on fire-fighting when your own house is on fire?

4. Human rights: The United States regularly uses drone strikes to kill people. Hundreds of other innocent people become “collateral damage”. Killing innocent people is terrorism. Is it only the U.S., and Israel, which enjoy this right? If so, how can other countries be stopped from following suit? Thousands of angry people are ready to retaliate in whatever way they see fit. You cited Gandhi twice in your Nobel speech. Gandhi also said: “An eye for eye leaves the whole world blind.” That is what drone strikes are doing.

5. Democracy: What does “democracy” mean today? On Nov 13, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of lifting the 50-year embargo on Cuba by a margin of 188-3-2. Only the United States, Israel and Palau voted against. Why does the U.S. not respect that nearly unanimous vote in a fair and clean democratic exercise? Can the U.S. claim any right to preach “freedom and democracy” to other countries?

6. Myanmar and ASEAN: The people of Asia know well why you came half way around the world to visit Myanmar. It’s for the oil and gas and access to millions of dollars worth of defence and infrastructure contracts for U.S. companies. Burma is undergoing a leadership transition, and neighbouring Thailand will be following suit. Enhancing U.S. influence in two of Asia’s most strategically located crossroad countries is a key component of the “pivot” towards Asia and strategic objective to “contain China.” Why is the U.S. so insecure? Why must everything be framed in a confrontational, competitive context?

7. Is it time to hear and heed the King of Thailand, the world’s longest reigning monarch? He has never won a Nobel Prize, but has much to offer the world about leadership, peace-building and the “sufficiency economy”, a unique soci-economic development model that advocates living within one’s means and avoiding debt. In the 1990s, Asia paid the price of ignoring that advice. Today, the U.S. and Europe are in the same boat.

8. U.S. society is no longer an inspiring example. The CIA chief, a decorated general, has just joined the list of disgraced U.S. “heroes” who have shown poor judgment (along with seven-time Tour de France cycling champion Lance Armstrong). Basic freedoms, once the hallmark of U.S. society, are under siege. No wonders the U.S. government fears and hounds whistleblowers such as Julian Assange and Bradley Manning while at the same time singing praises of Chinese dissidents and human rights activists.

9. U.N. Millennium Development Goals: The target date for achieving the eight MDGs is 2015, just past the midpoint of your second term. However, all eight goals would have been achieved by now had the U.S. not been involved in the multi-billion dollar wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. So far, you have resisted pressure to attack Iran. So far, so good.

10. What does the U.S. plan to achieve over the rest of the 21st century? To create a just, sustainable, stable, peaceful world? Or promote U.S. power, geopolitical interests and profitability of U.S. corporations? While those goals may be considered complementary, many in Asia see them as being self-contradictory oxymorons. What has the U.S. learnt from history, about its defeats in Vietnam and the ousting of numerous dictators whom it first backs and then turns its back on when the tide turns?

11. Would you agree that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? That check and balance mechanisms are a healthy component of all societies? That the Buddhist concepts of karma and impermanence will prove true? That unjust rulers always fall, always?


I have not visited the U.S. for 15 years. I resent the prospects of being racially profiled and considered guilty before being proven innocent. I pose no threat to the U.S. or the American people. However, I am often impacted by the actions of the U.S. government, American companies and institutions. Like millions of others, I seek accountability and the basic human right to redress. To be denied this is a violation of everything the U.S. claims to stand for.

In researching this message, I read through your Nobel Peace Prize speech and many of your other valedictorian efforts. As you fly back home, I suggest you do the same. Then ask yourself whether you really deserved that prize and whether you can do even more to make yourself truly worthy of it.