It was just one month before Barack Obama turned twenty years old that he visited Pakistan for the first time.
He had just been to visit his mother in Indonesia and, taking advantage of being on that side of the world, he decided it would be fun to visit a college friend from back in Los Angeles.
Before Obama transferred and ultimately graduated from Columbia University, he was a young man studying at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. There, he became friends with young people of many different backgrounds, including a few friends from Pakistan.
The year was 1981 and by the time Obama visited Pakistan in July, the world was deep in the throes of transitioning from being in the grip of a Cold War against communism into an open war against Muslim nations. The Iran-Iraq war which had begun just ten months before Obama’s visit to Pakistan was the first of many proxy and direct wars where Western nations sold arms and built upon a military industrial complex to conduct wars in predominantly Muslim lands.
The Pakistan that Obama arrived in was a nation that had for almost three years been run under the presidency of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a man whose relationship with the United States continues to be discovered. What is certain is that his openly declared opposition to communism was greatly appealing to a United States that was still wrapping up the Cold war against communism. It was also a country that was still reeling from the traumatic hanging of its democratically-elected former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, just over two years ago.
Obama, before he realised the curiosity that would arise from discussions of his unique trip to Pakistan as a youth, even once boasted of it during a political fundraiser for his presidential campaign in April 2008 in San Francisco, California. “When I speak about having lived in Indonesia for four years, having family that is impoverished in small villages in Africa – knowing the leaders is not important – what I know is the people. I traveled to Pakistan when I was in college – I knew what Sunni and Shia was before I joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” he said.
Indeed, Obama was an international young man and his brief trip to Pakistan and to Hyderabad in India immediately afterward are rare examples in the US president of having had contact with far-flung countries long before attaining the presidency. Sure, Pakistan wasn’t exactly any more a tourist destination back in 1981 than it is today, but it wasn’t nearly as volatile either. This little visit, in fact, is a golden example of why not only Americans but people worldwide had and have high expectations of Obama’s foreign policy.
For Pakistanis in particular, when I ask them how they feel about Obama’s visit to Pakistan and the fact that his mother used to live and work in Pakistan, even learning some Urdu, there is a moment of connection that I sense in them – a realisation that Obama, as he himself noted in the San Francisco speech, was once less interested in the politics of Pakistan than its people.
While little information has been revealed about the visit, what is known is that he stayed with the family of his classmate Hassan Chandio in Larkana and later stayed with the family of Muhammad Mian Soomro (former acting President of Pakistan) in Jacobabad for a hunting expedition there. The Soomro’s were not friends of Obama but were hosting him as per a request from a mutual American friend of theirs.
In this day and age when it has become so commonplace for young people of widely differing international backgrounds to meet at universities in the West, it is fascinating to realise that thirty years ago one such young man – who would be the first black president of the United States – took such an interest in his friendships that he visited their countries.
As Obama’s foreign policy legacy continues to be built and people worldwide await the policies that could arise in a second term, it is this visit to Pakistan – along with his visits to Indonesia and Kenya and elsewhere – that will factor into the worldwide public’s expectation that a president who was once this young international traveler will somehow be different than his predecessors – that an understanding, if not compassion, will exist in him that will impact the world in a way that is better than that which occurred under those less experienced travelers who came before him in this mighty role.
The writer is a US-based political analyst and a former Producer for BBC and Al-Jazeera. Follow her on Twitter @ShirinSadeghi