During a recent trip to Bangladesh, I attended a tea party at a restaurant in an upscale neighborhood in the nation’s capital, not too far from the U.S. embassy and the Holey Artisan Bakery, a cafe where Islamic extremists killed 22 people, including several foreign nationals, in 2016.
The host, the daughter of a prominent late journalist, who works for a United Nations agency in Dhaka, invited a group of expatriates, including a retired foreign secretary, who was also Bangladesh’s U.N. ambassador in New York in the 1990s.
As soon as it was disclosed that I live in the United States, the conversation turned to America, especially to President Donald Trump. One gentleman, who once lived in London and is now a businessman in Dhaka, hurled the first salvo.
“Why did you elect him president?” he asked me, referring to Trump.
I had no suitable answer. So, I turned philosophical and paraphrased a statement I once heard from former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas: Democracy is not perfect, but there is no better system. Trump was swept into power by white America that fears losing control of the country to rainbow America, which is expected to result from a seismic demographic shift by 2060, when Euro-Americans will constitute only 43 percent of the total U.S. population – and thus become a minority group.
America elects bad presidents, no doubt, who can plunge the nation into death and destruction and wreck a havoc worldwide. But America does not produce tyrants. America has a separation of power and checks and balances. The president can be a racist, Congress can be a do-little debating club, but the judiciary still works – to a large extent.
People in the outside world, especially those who live in British-style parliamentary democracies, have a hard time to grasp the separation of power in the American political system. In a parliamentary system, the prime minister controls both the executive and legislative branches, and in a not-so-democratic system, the judiciary, too. Because of this experience, they perceive the U.S. president dominates both the executive and the legislative branches, if not the judiciary. To them, America’s separation of power theory is an academic exercise.
I saw Trump as a flamboyant showman rather than a serious politician or businessman. Still I felt a kind of optimism after the election that he would turn around the country’s economy. His background as a real estate developer made me hopeful that he would rebuild America. New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago would glitter again as shining cities upon the hill.
I had the same expectation when President Barack Obama got elected. He came to the White House at a scary time, and his economic advisers – Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, especially – misled the inexperienced president into rescuing the troubled banks under the pretext of saving the financial world from melting down. His plan left out uncounted millions in dire straits, and very few Americans felt any direct impact from Obama’s bank bailout. He also made a mistake by spending his energy on foreign affairs when his own house was on fire.
Trump is making similar mistakes. Instead of focusing on rebuilding the country with a massive infrastructure project, he is spending his precious time on petty issues, such as the Muslim ban and the Mexican wall, just to pander to Joe Six Packs. If I were president, I joked with my friends on many occasions, I would ask my advisers at the first Cabinet meeting to give me plans within 90 days to create 1 million jobs by the end of the second year of my administration and to make America a shining star by the end of my first term. I would lay the ground work for Americans to colonize Mars, conquer the outer space and harvest riches from the seafloor.
Trump’s actions so far have dashed my hopes. It’s a grim time now compared with the 1990s boom-boom internet era when the world looked at America with awe. I still remember how proud I felt when I presented my New York driver’s license at a hotel check-in counter in Singapore in 1999 when America Online ruled and the desk clerk said, “Oh, you are from America!”
Trump’s election has undermined world confidence in the wisdom of U.S. electorate, and his rhetoric since the election has caused serious concerns in the outside world. In some countries, people are simply tuning him out.
When I was in China in March, I struck a conversation with a Chinese man, who lives and works in Japan for an international advertising agency. He was in Beijing on a business trip. When the discussion turned to North Korea, he dismissed Trump’s rhetoric. America won’t invade North Korea, he predicted. America invades only rich countries. North Korea is poor.
He reminded me of two other conversations I had had regarding war and its lasting effect on ordinary folks. After the Berlin Wall came down, I took a trip to Eastern Europe to learn how things had changed. When I was traveling from Prague to Amsterdam, my train stopped in Aachen in Germany. A German man boarded and sat next to me. When he learned I was a Bangladeshi native, his eyes lit up. He was in Bangladesh in the 1980s to help with rural electrification under a German government-funded plan. I told him it was good that Germany helped Bangladesh’s poor rural people enjoy the benefit of modern technology. Then I told him that I was in Poland and saw Warsaw was in a bad shape. I had to pay for toilet paper to use the bathroom at the train station. How come Germany does not help Poland?
His faced turned red and in a stiff tone, he said: “We will never help Poland.”
“Why?” I asked. “Poland is your neighbor.”
“They took our land,” he curtly replied, referring to Germany’s territorial concessions to Poland after World War II.
My private cab driver and tour guide in Beijing expressed a similar sentiment about the fallout of war, in his case between Japan and China. Like many other people in China these days, he is focused on business as a way to get rich, and he is quite familiar with India, America and even Bangladesh. He is willing to do business with everybody, including India, which has fought a border war with China and still has boundary disputes. But he hates Japan. Why? The Japanese soldiers killed Chinese people and raped Chinese women, he replied. The Nanking massacre was an episode of mass murder and mass rape committed by Japanese troops against the residents of Nanking, then China’s capital, during the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937.
With Trump back in jingoism in dealing with Iran and North Korea, America must remember war leaves lasting scars on people’s mind. Nations adjust their policies for political expediencies, but the general masses carry on the bitter memory.
To the war-scary people around the world, Trump’s America First rhetoric makes a worrisome declaration: “I am going to live. You are going to die.”
Trump is sending a wrong message. His message should be: “Live and let live: Americans will live and let everyone else live.”
B. Z. Khasru is editor of The Capital Express in New York and author of “Myths and Facts Bangladesh Liberation War” and “The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link.”
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