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Obama: rhetoric versus reality

June 24, 2013

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.