Ultimately, I suspect, the farrago about alleged Sri Lankan War Crimes will continue to reverberate or will fade away depending on whether the American government decides to encourage it or not. Unfortunately it is difficult to predict what will happen, precisely because American foreign policy is not just confusing, but also very confused. There are obviously realists in significant positions in Washington, but there are also vague idealists, who are susceptible to all sorts of pressures. Some of them indeed come from commercial advocacy backgrounds and, since they may well have to go back to them, will need to maintain and indeed strengthen their credentials amongst organizations committed to strident activism[1].

The influence of such figures loomed largest just as the Obama administration took over. Since Sri Lanka was comparatively insignificant, it became a field perhaps for wearing consciences on a sleeve, which was not possible in areas more crucial to American interests such as Afghanistan and Iraq and the Middle East in general. Those who had been vocal about abuses earlier had to be more restrained when they found themselves involved in the administration, but such constraints did not apply to Sri Lanka[2]. Sadly this coincided with the period of greatest hostility on the part of the Labour government, and we can see that the Miliband approach was of some interest to the Americans, though recorded with no evidence of support or otherwise.

In this context, while I can understand worries about the Americans trying to get hold of Prabhakaran for themselves had he surrendered, we need to distinguish between their assertion that he needed to surrender, which it will be remembered was not Miliband’s view, despite repeated questioning by the BBC. I think we need in this regard to register the greater determination of the Americans, and the Norwegians, that the game was up for terrorism, even though the British seemed to suggest that Prabhakaran could survive to fight another day. Similarly, as I have noted previously, we should register the swift positive response of the Americans to our liberation of the Eastern Province: while the Europeans were still hedging their bets, and refusing to accept our right and our need to develop the place, the Americans contributed almost as helpfully as our Asian friends.

That, I would like to think, represents the basic American approach, but sadly it has been bedeviled over the last couple of years by some destructive briefings. The appalling gaffe by Hillary Clinton, accusing Sri Lanka of using rape as a weapon of war, was not an accident, and while I believe our President was right to graciously accept the apology of the American Ambassador, and declare the matter closed, I hope the Americans looked into what had happened, and the motivation and the background of whoever so egregiously misled their Secretary of State.

And more serious, I believe, was the misreading of the Sarath Fonseka candidacy. Even though the well researched and decently expressed State Department report on possible atrocities culminated in what was presented as the possibility of misbehavior on Fonseka’s part, for the Ambassador to believe that Fonseka would better fulfill American priorities was just plain gobbledegook – unless indeed one assumes that American priorities refer basically to American self-interest, rather than ideals about pluralism and democracy.

Avoiding such depressing dichotomies [3], it is possible that the Americans suspended their disbelief, given the assiduity with which the British were promoting Ranil Wickremesinghe, and their naïve belief that a Fonseka victory would lead to the apotheosis of their hero[4]. Be that as it may, I believe that the Americans, or at least the decision makers amongst them – for we cannot underestimate the naivete of some Americans who have little experience of countries such as ours – have now arrived at a more realistic, and more sympathetic, view of the situation. Their foreign policy interests, as well as their ideals, dictate that they should work together with the government to promote the reconciliation, the unity and the prosperity that are its express goals. Since these are formulated in terms of pluralism and private sector led economic development, the Americans would obviously not want to rock the boat.

But we have to remember that they might be driven to this. The diaspora continues influential in America, and sadly even the sensible Robert Blake thinks we need to negotiate with those who still believe an independent state is desirable. NGOs that made attacks on Sri Lanka a fetish continue to find favour with government. And, perhaps most insidious of all, the media continues to harp on dichotomies that seem designed to prevent reconciliation.

Symptomatic of all this was the recent article by Jon Lee Anderson in ‘The New Yorker’ that ignored all evidence in suggesting that our victory was won by ‘hideous’ practices. But, while worrying about its hostility to the Sri Lankan government, we should also consider its pernicious portrait of James Clad, an official with the Republican administration who was sympathetic to our country. It is insinuated that Clad’s friendship with the Secretary of Defence is naïve, on the lines of the approach of a character from a Naipaul novel, helping to whitewash someone much more determined than himself.

I cite this because it sums up, I believe, the problems we face with the Americans. Unlike Miliband, who had a single political agenda, unlike the NGOs which need to demonize us as part of their own raison d’etre, unlike the Diaspora which bitterly pursues its separatist agenda, unlike the local opposition which has to shore up its own credentials, the Americans are in deep confusion. Unlike in the case of countries more crucial to their requirements, we are simply a tool in the ongoing debate within a country still uncertain of its role, playing at being Athens and Rome simultaneously.

Jon Lee Anderson, like so many others, seems assured of certain certainties. He has to be, for his profession. One can only hope, as I began by saying, that there is more sympathetic understanding of Aristotle, and his rigorous insistence on evidence, thought, and creative not dogmatic intelligence.


[1] I am indebted to Sashwant Singh, former Indian ambassador to the UN in Geneva, for the insight that, not only was the face of the UN much whiter now than it used to be, but also that recruits were rarely now from government backgrounds, but rather came from NGOs and made judicious career moves back into them. Given the manner in which such NGOs raise funds – and provide for lavish life styles – careerists need to keep in with particular governments and with Foundations that fund in terms of particular political agendas.

[2] It is, and will be, most interesting to see the differently nuanced approaches now to previously trusted but worrying regimes such as those in Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen. Public opposition being now more openly expressed in such places on lines that the United States would like to think it promotes, but which were pretty well controlled in the past, without much official disapprobation, we are bound to see post hoc efforts at justification, and claims that this is what the United States was really saying all along.

[3] Though it would be naïve to forget completely American support in the past for appalling regimes (and currently too if the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan is to be believed)

[4] The BBC correspondent in Delhi was I think much wiser, when he suggested that, had Fonseka won, it was not the Rajapakses who should have been fearful for their lives, but rather Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Advertisements