Obama: rhetoric versus reality

Published Jun 24, 2013 04:13am

OVER decades of writing about politics and observing politicians closely, I have developed a healthy cynicism. My credo in approaching current affairs is: “Judge politicians by their actions, not their words.”

Indeed, I have come to believe that politicians lie all the time because it is in their job description, if not in their DNA. My English friends were shocked when I told them during the build-up to the attack on Iraq that their government was lying about WMDs. While I was hardly surprised by the non-existence of these weapons, my friends were angry and horrified. To this day, Tony Blair has not been forgiven for his campaign to take Britain to war on a tissue of falsehoods.

However, he was only doing what politicians do all the time everywhere: lie to the people. Given my default position of suspicion about anything this breed says, I must confess that when Barack Obama came along, I did suspend my disbelief. I joined millions around the world in believing that a messiah had arrived to cleanse America of the paranoia and aggression that Bush had pumped into the country after 9/11.

I first became aware of Obama’s existence during the 2004 Democratic convention that nominated John Kerry in Boston. Watching the fairly dull proceedings on TV in St Andrews, Canada, I sat up when Obama began speaking. This completely unknown senator – at least outside the US – electrified the crowd with his soaring rhetoric and charismatic stage presence.

When he spoke of the unlimited opportunities the United States gave to the poorest in the land, he presented himself as an embodiment of somebody from a disadvantaged minority who had become a senator. We sensed then that this young, handsome and intelligent man would go further still.

So when he became a presidential candidate in the 2008 race, millions around the world cheered him on. In fact, if non-Americans could have voted, Obama would have won in a huge landslide. Millions everywhere were sick and tired of Bush and his war on terror, and the prospect of a sane, articulate and compassionate occupant of the White House was almost too good to be true.

But above all, for America to elect a black president would say a lot for the way the country had evolved from its racist, slave-owning past. Surely such a leader would empathise with the powerless and the downtrodden in a way that white politicians like Bush with his sense of entitlement never could.

Even after his first term, we continued to believe in the triumph of hope over experience. Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? To anybody following American politics, this was a complete no-brainer. And we fooled ourselves into thinking that Obama was constrained in his first term by the electoral compulsions of American politics: he needed to placate the centre if he was to get re-elected in 2012.

Now welcome to 2013. Gone are the promises for an even-handed approach to the eternal Palestinian conflict. As Obama boasted in Israel on his recent visit, no American president has done more for Israeli security than he had. To rub salt into Palestinian wounds, he hardly spent any time in the West Bank.

Gone, too, is the message of hope and change. As Sarah Palin asked sarcastically: “How’s that hopey, changey thing goin’ for you?” Here’s how Paul Harrison concludes his recent article in the Observer titled ‘I have watched Barack Obama transform into the security president’:

“That dream of (Martin Luther) King’s (for racial equality) was what many believed Obama would one day fulfil … In 2013 – amid drones, assassinations, mass spying, secret courts and tapping journalists’ phones – it seems that Obama’s race matters less, while his inner character is shining through for judgment. It is sorely wanting.”

To be fair to Obama, it must be said that he has pulled US troops out of Iraq, and will do so from Afghanistan next year. He has also resisted the pressure from Israel and its many supporters in the US to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. And thus far, he has refused to intervene militarily in Syria. Even his decision to supply small arms to the Syrian opposition is hedged with many caveats.

So while he may be a security president internally, in foreign affairs, he remains cautious and pragmatic. Wanting to protect American interests, he does not want to put American lives at risk. Hence the drone campaign, and the recently uncovered Prism programme that enables the National Security Agency to tap into, and store the phone and email exchanges between Americans and foreigners on a huge scale.

One of Obama’s most emphatic election pledges in 2008 was to shut down the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay. This black hole remains open for business over a decade after it was opened by Bush. Although he was thwarted by his Republican opponents from bringing Gitmo prisoners to the United States, he could have solved the problem had he shown the political will to do so.

And so it goes. Obama’s domestic agenda has been largely hijacked by crises in different parts of the world, as well by a polarised Congress that has often seemed paralysed. In his desire to forge a consensus, he has wasted much political capital. But above all, he has failed his liberal constituency by not living up to the high moral and ethical standards he had preached.

Looking back to the early days of the Obama presidency, we can reflect on the irony of his Nobel Peace Prize. While it is true that he inherited two wars from Bush, his approach has been as muscular as his predecessor’s, albeit much more nuanced. Probably the best thing one can say about Obama at this point is that he is better than Bush. This is hardly how he would like to be remembered.


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Comments (11) (Closed)


BRR
Jun 24, 2013 05:58am

In foreign policy there is little to choose from between the Dems and the GOP. In domestic affairs however, there is some difference when it comes to healthcare, investments into infrastructure and a few other issues. Obama is no MLK, nor is he a Bush. he has let some of his supporters down, but that is what happens with a centrist.

Engr.S.T.Hussain
Jun 24, 2013 09:15am

US President cannot decide anything without the consent of those who provided money for his election compaign.

observer
Jun 24, 2013 10:19am

I am not surprised to see the true colors , as I was never impressed, but I was surprised to see people like you who did not notice how empty his words were

Vijay K
Jun 24, 2013 12:22pm

You have not mentioned what Obama has done on the domestic front : e.g. Health care reform.I am an American who had to flee America because I couldn't get health insurance in my state... till Obama bought in the reforms. Now I can go back to my home in USA. His health care reforms (which will take time to evolve, at least he had the courage to take the first step) will have huge benefits on industry (health insurance is perhaps the biggest reason why industry is relocating to China and cannot compete with imports from Korea, Malaysia, Japan etc). Pakistanis are used to one man rule having being ruled by Military Chiefs (one man rule) and similar examples of despots calling the shots all over the "Muslim" world. In USA, it isn't a one man rule.. there is the senate and house of representatives, the judiciary. As for the poor Palestinians, why blame Obama when your entire Muslim (including Pakistan) world and their petro-dollars did nothing for their cause? Has Pakistan, 176.7 million people, ever done even an iota for Palestine? If not, then why lament over one human..Obama? Sir, your article reeks of hypocrisy.

Rashid Sultan
Jun 24, 2013 03:19pm

I never thought he was any different despite his rhetoric. He would have been more effective as the President of Kenya to improve and further the cause of Africa and its people aided by US economic and technological prowess.

Kumar
Jun 24, 2013 04:17pm

As an American, let me clarify your comments. Obama is highly intelligent and idealist. He had good intentions but the current Congress and Senate is controlled by the other party that has only one mission, that is to prevent Obama from governing by stopping every initiative he suggested even if they were from opposition. So he is doing the best that is possible in given circumstances.

Bakhtawer Bilal
Jun 24, 2013 05:07pm

It is so unfortunate, but true. There exists no good politicians, only lesser evils.

pathanoo
Jun 24, 2013 09:36pm

I have called out the author once before on his knowledge, expertise or lack there of about America, it's politics and people. The author is more naive (dare I say more ignorant) than I gave him credit for the last time I called him out. President Obama is the benefactor of perfect sunami of American discontent of financial debacle, two unpopular wars and American appetite for change after eight year of one party being in charge. Obama is a teleprompter orator, an ideologue without any real life experience or struggles. He was handed things because he was black. He never succeeded at any thing he tried - teaching, law practice. He was the nominated, not elected, president of liberal Harvard where no one would dare stand against a Black student. Oh! what a horrible racist thought. You would be a racist if you did. Wouldn't you? His signature achievement, Obama Care, is going to be the undoing of our great medical system. It is still the most despised act by the majority of Americans. This man is incompetent as hell, thin skinned and full of excuses. You want to see a President worth his salt, go look up Ronald Reagan. He had the Democratic Congress and the Democratic Senate but he forced them to his will for the good of the nation. He negotiated, compromised and delivered results. He never blamed the democrats for holding him back even when his party was in minority in both houses. Where as Obama had majority in both houses in the first two years of his term and always, and still, has majority in Senate. As I said, dear Irfan Husain; I respect your knowledge, expertise, honesty and integrity when it comes to Pakistan and it's issues and I am an avid reader of your articles. But, you Sir, are completely out of your depth when it comes to America.

pathanoo
Jun 24, 2013 09:35pm

@Kumar: You are ignorant. Obama had the majority in both houses for the first two years of his first term. And, he always had, and still does, majority in Senate. He just is an incompetent who only knows how to give great speeches reading his lines on the teleprompter and blame others for his failures and short comings. Go look up Ronald Reagan if you want to know what a President ought to be.

BRR
Jun 25, 2013 03:42am

@Vijay K: A wonderful reply to an article that sounds like a frequently heard monotonous whining. Particularly the lack of anything significant done for the Palestinians by Arabs and other muslims. The Jordanians herded the palestinians into camps initially, the Lebanese herded them into camps, the Saudi's mistreated them despite all their rhetoric, and the UAE is no heaven either. Has any of these muslim countries built an HARVARD for the palestinians? Have any of these countries built a grand hospital, a great research lab, a chain of vocational training centers for the palestinians? All the muslim countries are good for is a LOT OF HOT AIR.

jagboo
Jun 25, 2013 07:48pm

Seriously, yours are the most vapid and boring articles when it comes to USA. You just summarize the latest newsstories and "write" a column on them. Please, stop boring us with such mundane observations. No Originality; zero freshness of ideas.