Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Should Obama Do Something About Sri Lanka?

by Josh Linden, American Prospect, May 1, 2009

Yet even under this reconfiguration, the Obama team has not addressed in any meaningful way the alarming crisis in the northeastern region of Sri Lanka, where terrorism and governmental misconduct continue to devastate society.

The most resilient and innovative terrorist group of the 20th century may soon be destroyed. After over 30 years of separatist struggle, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an organization dedicated to achieving an autonomous state for ethnic Tamils, are on the brink of annihilation by the Sri Lankan Army.

This terribly messy finale to the Sri Lankan civil war showcases, among other things, the absurdity of the Bush administration's "War on Terror" construct. For the term "terror," in this context, never referred to the many acts of political violence and barbarism carried out by non-Muslims in places such as sub-Saharan Africa, Colombia, and perhaps most spectacularly, Sri Lanka. Fortunately, the damaging "War on Terror" exited the political lexicon unceremoniously along with the Bushies on January 20, 2009. In its place emerged a more targeted approach designed to isolate and engage regions of concern rather than religions. Yet even under this reconfiguration, the Obama team has not addressed in any meaningful way the alarming crisis in the northeastern region of Sri Lanka, where terrorism and governmental misconduct continue to devastate society. The Sri Lankan Army's most recent surge has endangered the lives of over 100,000 civilians, many of whom are being used as human shields by the remnant LTTE forces.

So Obama has some decisions to make. The first 100 days revealed his international modus operandi to be one of "anti-arrogance" and active listening, a clear rebuke of Bush 43's ideological interventionism. But the specifics of this stratagem are still unclear. When faced with a humanitarian crisis, will Obama stay true to his rhetoric of diplomatic collectivism? If others drag their feet, will he intervene unilaterally? Is he willing to act to avert mass civilian casualties, and if so, to what extent? No one pretends that the Sri Lankan crisis holds strategic consequence for the United States -- the LTTE raison d'etre is Tamil empowerment and autonomy -- but I sense that Obama's early foreign policy mind-set may unfortunately preclude the administration from taking an active role in the sort of regions that are unsettled, yet hold no measurable return for diplomatic investment. Indeed, while the UN and EU have both tried to engage the Sri Lankan crisis recently, Secretary of State Clinton, aside from one brief call for a cease-fire, has stayed on the sidelines.

And the war rages on. Displays of humility and respect are acceptable forms of international engagement, but not at the expense of necessary leadership. Situations like Sri Lanka may demand an appropriate balance between the two.

--Josh Linden