January 20, 2009

International Students Weigh in on Obama

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When Barack Obama was declared the next president of the United States, his promise of hope and change enthralled people beyond American borders.
Months later, at the eve of Obama’s inauguration, many international students at Cornell expressed their “cautious optimism” over the next president of the United States.
At the Holland International Living Center, where a crowd gathered in November to watch Election Night unfold, a resident noted that he has never met any international student at Cornell who supported the Republican candidate, John McCain. Many residents generally welcomed Obama’s presidency, but they also remarked that people’s expectations on Obama could be too high.
“I’m afraid he won’t live up to the expectations. Even a president can’t do everything. With one term, he cannot do much,” said David Lam ’12 from Hong Kong.
Although many students agreed that Obama would generally make a good president, some also remarked that, realistically, he would be restrained by the political system that he is part of. Maysoon Sharif ’10, a Bangladeshi, said that she was “really excited” before the election, but now she bore in mind that the Democratic Party, not the president, would be truly in charge in the next four years.
“It’s all about party politics,” said Sharif.
As a Muslim, Sharif said she hopes that Obama represents an opportunity for improving the image of her religion in the U.S. She said she was disappointed by how President George W. Bush presented Islam to the public in blanket statements and hoped that Obama would avoid making the same mistake.
“I’m particularly sensitive on how Muslims are portrayed as a result of what the [current] government has said. I expect and want the new administration to repair damaged ties with the Muslim world and be more careful in portraying a conflict,” said Sharif.
As students welcomed Obama’s inauguration, many also welcomed the departure of Bush and contrasted Obama with the outgoing president.
“I hope Obama will be more willing to use a more multilateral approach because Bush has set very unwelcoming precedents. Obama should make use of the instruments of diplomacy at his disposal,” said Singaporean Junrong Koh ‘11.
Obama’s background — with a Kenyan father, a Kansan mother and a childhood in Indonesia — was hoped to bring a deeper understanding of the complexity of cultures to the White House. Some international students at Cornell spoke of the respect Obama has for foreign countries. Varun Rathi ’10 was particularly impressed by Obama’s sensitivity when he sent his condolences upon the death of a respected ex-general in India.
Some Cornellians believe that Obama’s diverse background could make him a friendlier figure in the international stage.
“Generally the Chinese are very excited about him because he is the first black president. [His diverse background] makes him more accepted by people and makes him more approachable,” Rachel Zheng ’10 said.
Mohammed Rahman ’12, who lived in Dubai before studying in the U.S., agreed.
“People in the Middle East are more willing to negotiate with him. He is a powerful speaker. His name has ‘Hussein’ in it and that is important because people will have a tendency to feel a bond, kinship or familiarity with him,” Rahman said.
Rahman said that it was still too soon to comment on Obama’s presidency, but other students also believed that Obama’s election itself was historic.
“Everyone [back home] was very surprised. Nobody thinks the U.S. would elect a black man,” said Rathi, who comes from India. The image of a “smart, educated and young” president, he said, would give America a better reputation in the world.
Obama’s image, however, came under challenge when the war in Gaza broke out on Dec. 27, less than a month before his inauguration. Some international critics were condemning Obama for his “deafening silence” over the conflict and violence in the region.
“Obama’s silence is stunning … Obama was quick to offer sympathy to India and to condemn the Mumbai terrorists but when it comes to Israel he is keeping a silence that makes him an accomplice to the crimes being committed there,” wrote Faheem Hussain, a professor in Pakistan.
The British paper, The Independent published a column “It’s Too Early to Start Losing Faith in President Obama.”
“If the Arab world has greeted Obama’s appointments with general disappointment, it is with good reason. The naming of Mrs. Clinton as Secretary of State and Dennis Ross as envoy in the Middle East puts in place two figures of markedly pro-Zionist views. And yet it is far too soon and too easy to dismiss Obama with a shrug of resignation that he will be more of the same,” wrote columnist Adrian Hamilton.
Most international students at Cornell, however, were more forgiving. Many agreed that there could only be “one president at a time,” and few believed that he could solve a conflict as complex as that in Gaza in the next four years.
“I trust he can use diplomacy and reach an agreement. I don’t have hopes that he can solve the conflict once and for all. It has been going on for thousands of years,” said Daniel Wong ’09 from Brazil.