Clinton’s adda… the questions not asked

Photo: Star Archive

I have in recent times watched Hillary Clinton respond to young people’s questions on Barkha Dutt’s programme in Kolkata. I was impressed with the quality of the questions that were placed before the US secretary of state, for they were tough and relevant and were a demonstration of the level of knowledge India’s young have about America and its policies in the geo-political context. It took Clinton quite some time and quite some thinking before she could respond to those questions. On a question related to American pressure on Iran regarding Tehran’s alleged nuclear programme, a young woman asked the secretary why Washington was not applying similar pressure on Israel. Clinton fumbled, before going on and on about why Iran needed to be given the harsh treatment. She remained evasive about Israel.

I have not had occasion to watch the adda Hillary Clinton had here in Bangladesh at a programme hosted by Munni Saha and Ejaj Ahmed. But I do have now a text transcript of the secretary of state’s interaction with Bangladesh’s young earlier this month in Dhaka. I am not terribly impressed, for two basic reasons. The first is that I find the questions rather ingratiating, indeed fawning, in nature. When the moderator allows herself, at the beginning of the programme, to be charmed by her guest (Saha cheerfully lapses into “Wow. Wow” in response to an early statement by Clinton), there is hardly any point in watching the rest of the programme. The second is her bringing up the matter of Clinton’s meeting with Muhammad Yunus and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, prompting the secretary to go full throttle into what you could call a discussion of Bangladesh’s internal affairs. The problem here is compounded by the apologetic manner in which Saha draws her conclusion to Clinton’s Yunus related remarks (Madam Secretary, we know what happened with Dr. Yunus. All of us, we know, and we feel very sorry for that…). Why should Saha feel sorry? Her job was to ask the questions and get out the answers. No more, no less.

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The adda was a clear waste of an opportunity for our young to place trenchant, educated questions before the visiting American secretary of state. That was not done and what we had in its place was a session where nearly everyone seemed to be star-struck in the presence of certainly one of the most powerful political figures on earth. And when you are star-struck, your intellect gets into a jam somewhere. What would you make of this statement, again from the moderator: “Madam Secretary, you are an inspiration and leader to us, and you are a loving mother, and you are a great soul, I must say. And my question is …. what is the magic?”

But let that be. And let us now toy with thoughts of the kind of questions, real questions, Hillary Clinton ought to have been asked at the adda. Someone should have come up with questions on American policy in Iraq, seeing that the country has been in a mess since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. There ought to have been a query on the imbroglio in Afghanistan, where rumours abound of Washington trying to strike a deal with the Taliban in light of the refusal of the latter to fade away. A pertinent question could have been one of the disconnect between Barack Obama’s coming by the Nobel Peace Prize and then having nothing to show that he deserved it.

Those young people in the audience had a very real chance of demonstrating before the visiting American secretary the grasp they have over issues of a global nature. In the event, they missed the boat. The young crowd in Kolkata made it a point, as Local Government Minister Syed Ashraful Islam correctly pointed out, not to ask Clinton anything about internal Indian politics. Here, the young did not seem inclined at all to move out of Bangladesh and into wider territory. That was a pity. A very good question could have related to the matter of yet another American taking over the presidency of the World Bank when a groundswell of support had been building up for Nigeria’s finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be the first non-American to head the institution.

There could have been a whole range of other questions which might have tested Clinton’s mettle as a diplomat and our young people’s understanding of contemporary global issues. If the fallen leaders of Liberia and Serbia can be indicted for war crimes, what reason could there be for George W. Bush and Tony Blair not to be identified as war criminals over their illegal invasion of Iraq? It would be interesting to have had the secretary of state’s response to that question, along with another on Washington’s unwillingness to have anything to do with the International Criminal Court. America welcomes people from across the world, but how is that in light of September 2011 Muslims still face huge difficulties as well as humiliation at American airports? No one raised that question.

Someone should have asked Clinton why US sanctions against Cuba have gone on when the Cold War has long been gone. Someone else should have stepped forward with a question of when, if ever, Washington will nudge Saudi Arabia towards democracy, seeing that it has for years tried promoting pluralism, however misplaced, in Afghanistan and Iraq. There should have been a good question on the frequency with which American drone attacks in Pakistan are made and whether they do not undermine Islamabad’s sovereignty. Just as those young people in Kolkata did, our children ought to have raised the matter of Iran and the bellicosity with which Israel has been going around harassing the Palestinians. A pertinent question could have related to the present state of the American economy and whether it could lead to Obama’s defeat at the presidential election later this year.

Finally, couldn’t someone have asked the secretary of state why she and her entourage took all those long minutes to step out of their aircraft when they knew Bangladesh’s foreign minister was waiting to welcome them here? You don’t keep your hosts waiting while you huddle with your own diplomats on board an aircraft and take your own time to emerge from it.

It was most instructive having the very cerebral Hillary Clinton travel to Bangladesh. It was not edifying, though, to listen to the insipid conversation our young had with her, at that adda. Did the Bangladesh government know that the adda was on the cards?

The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star. E-mail:


Bangladesh-US dialogue: Why now? The Daily Star May 23, 2012 by Barrister Harun Ur Rashid

What will Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic legacy be? USA Today May 17, 2012

Letter from America: Hillary’s Hypocritical Comments in South Asia May 20, 2012 Asian Tribune