President Obama’s Pakistan Memories

Pakistan and the US have established a close relationship over the years, and with President Barack Obama taking office earlier this year, that relationship has grown even closer.

In his book about the 2008 US Presidential campaign titled Renegade, political analyst Richard Wolffe writes about the profound impact that Obama’s time in Pakistan as a young man had on his outlook towards Pakistan, as well as other Muslim nations.

Among his close friends were a small group of Pakistani students, including Wahid Hamid and Hasan Chandoo. Obama and Hamid shared a strong work ethic instilled by their families and their limited finances. “We developed a mutual respect,” Hamid said. “Even though he was from Hawaii and the United States, we were both there to try and make it in America some way.” Together they shared a weeklong driving vacation along the West Coast, down to Mexico and up to Oregon, visiting friends in a beat-up red Fiat coupe that was too small for the six-foot-plus Obama.

Those friendships proved critical to his understanding of Muslim politics, which would much later shape his position on the so-called war on terror. His friends helped him understand the complex religious and ethnic politics between Sunni and Shia, rich and poor, in a country that would be at the center of the battle against al Qaeda. His mother worked in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan in the late 1980s, and he visited her there, touring sights like the Taj Mahal. But it was on an earlier trip to Pakistan, with Hamid and Chandoo, when his insight deepened. Chandoo’s family was wealthy, well connected, and international: his father was born in Rangoon, Burma, and his mother was from Bombay, India. Hamid’s family was more middle-clas, and they both counted Karachi as their family home.

For a few weeks Obama lived with their families, met their friends, and explored the busy city in the midst of Ramadan with its daytime peace and nighttime festivities. They played basketball on bare cement strips outdoors and ate the spicy food that Chandoo had introduced him to at Occidental, a taste Obama had first acquired in Indonesia, especially the yawning gap between rich and poor, the powerless and the powerful. “It reminded me of some of the tensions in Indonesia in the sense that you had at that time a military government,” he told me. “You had a lot of problems with corruption, a lot of unemployed young men on the streets, a very wealthy ruling class that was plugged into the international economy but that in some ways wasn’t woven into the larger economy of Pakistan. So there were a lot of trends that were similar to what I saw in Indonesia and what I would later see in Kenya.”

The trip to Pakistan, as well as his international friendships and his early childhood in Indonesia, gave him a touchstone for his foreign policy. Instead of a typically wonkish approach, focusing on pure government power, Obama understood the need to reach those beyond the elites. “What it tells me is that the most important aspect of our foreign policy is not simply our relations with the rulers of these countries, but also our appreciation and understanding of the challenges and the hardships that ordinary people are going through there,” he told me.


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