Wednesday, 12 June 2013

A Few Words on Barack Obama

It’s been a while, but exams are now over for me (bar the unfortunate fact that I have to retype my world politics exam because my handwriting is so terrible), and so regular blog posts will now return. To get back into it, and kick off the summer, a few comments on President Obama.

Barack Obama remains surprisingly popular among Europeans in general, particularly young Europeans. At Warwick’s election night event last year, cheers rang through the building every time Obama won a state, and choruses of boos were to be heard whenever Mitt Romney’s face appeared on the big screen. I’ve long found this bizarre- I could perhaps understand why the casual observer may have once been taken in by the sweeping rhetoric of the first black President, but it seemed to me that anyone who took even a passing dispassionate look at policies and practice, rather than just rhetoric, would see the sharp continuities between the hated Bush administration and the adored Obama successor.

Reading through a 2010 article by Pakistani-English writer Tariq Ali, I was struck by the comparison he drew between Obama and Woodrow Wilson, ‘whose every second word was peace, democracy or self-determination, while his armies invaded Mexico, occupied Haiti and attacked Russia, and his treaties handed one colony after another to his partners in war’ (‘President of Cant’, New Left Review, 2010, 61, p.116). It seems an apt comparison indeed, since for all the fine words from Obama, his administration has more or less carried on the major policies of the Bush administration, and in some instances even upped the intensity.

Drone strikes are an obvious example. Obama has increased their frequency by around 6 times that of Bush, including expanding their use in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen. I won’t deal with this topic here- it will be saved for a later blog post- but suffice to say this represents a massive expansion of an unregulated, most probably illegal (Professor David Luban of Georgetown University said in a lecture at Warwick earlier this year that the memo justifying the strikes was ‘terrible legal reasoning’), global assassination campaign, waged in any country Obama and his advisors deem to be housing enemies of the US. The destabilising effects in Pakistan are well known; those in Yemen less so, revealed most fully by excellent independent journalist Jeremy Scahill in his new book about US foreign policy ‘Dirty Wars’.See this short documentary by him here for a window into the impact on Yemen.

Connected to this is Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan.  His ‘surge’ in Afghanistan has probably left the US in a worse military shape than before, with the Afghani troops the US army is training turning their weapons on their mentors more often than in any other US war in history (so-called green-on-blue violence). The Afghan population has seemingly turned completely against the US, Afghanistan is now constantly in the top two worst places in the world to be a woman (along with the DRC), Afghanistan is the number one source of refugees in the world (over 2.5 million), unknown 10’s of 1000’s of civilians are dead, the CIA is fuelling corruption by funnelling millions of dollars of ‘ghost money’ into the Afghani leadership… and so on.

Recently it has been revealed that the global kidnapping campaign started by the Bush administration (often referred to as ‘rendition’) has actually carried on under Obama. So-called ‘black sites’, legal black holes that the CIA set up after 9/11 to imprison and torture people they didn’t like without any semblance of due process (given a relatively easy ride in the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Zero Dark Thirty’) have carried on under Obama, at the least in Somalia. Scahill, the afore-mentioned independent journalist who also revealed the Somalian black site, has documented the continuation of and increase in so-called ‘Special Operations’: secret operations carried out all over the globe with no transparency or legitimacy, little oversight, no public knowledge, and often murky consequences.

I’ve written about how the Obama administration has continued the absurd Bush policies (and policies of more or less every President of the US) towards Iran, and we can only hope that Obama doesn’t make his Presidency remembered for starting a disastrous war with Iran before 2016.

That doesn’t even scratch the surface of foreign policy- domestically, on civil liberties in particular, he has been no better.

The Bush administration was notorious for hauling people into off-shore prisons like Guantanamo Bay, without the possibility of a trial or release. However under Obama, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012 has actually made it legal for the government to detain any US citizen or foreign national indefinitely without charge or trial, if the executive branch deems them ‘suspected of terrorism’. Signed in to law quietly on New Year’s Day 2012, it marked the codification of what Bush had always done anyway and damn the law: the destruction of the right to a fair and speedy trial, habeas corpus. The act is currently under challenge in court by a group of academics, activists and journalists- the part of the act relating to indefinite detention was struck down, but the Obama administration has appealed (the case continues). Most interestingly, the administration refused in court to promise that the plaintiffs in the case (such as Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky) wouldn’t ever find themselves being held indefinitely under the NDAA for their work.

Another aspect of Obama’s attack on civil liberties is the ‘War on Whistleblowers’. In 1917 Woodrow Wilson passed the Espionage Act, designed to put foreign spies in prison (and almost certainly crush dissent domestically) during WW1. Obama has blown the dust off the act and charged more people under it than all other post-war Presidents combined. The people charged include Bradley Manning, who leaked the ‘collateral murder’ video of a US helicopter opening fire on unarmed civilians, and thousands of low-level classified diplomatic documents to Wikileaks. He was kept for over 1,000 days without trial in conditions the UN’s special rapporteur on torture described as amounting tocruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake was also charged. There is some evidence to suggest that a secret indictment has been issued under the Espionage Act to charge Wikileaks founder and head Julian Assange.

Lastly for this blog is the vast domestic surveillance that has carried on under Obama. In the last week or so it has come out that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been monitoring between 150 - 300 million American's phone calls, and the ‘PRISM’ programme taking mass amounts of data on users from internet service providers like Google and Facebook. Those who follow these issues closely would have been more or less aware that this kind of thing was going on already, and whistleblowers like William Binney had revealed it long before the latest story. However this time we have documents fully confirming it, leaked by (now former) NSA official Edward Snowden, who has now fled to Hong Kong. The Snowden leak has also revealed a glimpse into the Obama administration’s plans to wage global offensive cyber war- but that’s for another blog. Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists at the Guardian who received the documents from Snowden, has hinted that far more devastating revelations will follow in the near-future.

This blog has barely touched on the ways Obama has not been the ‘change we can believe in’. Tariq Ali pointed out in the article I quoted earlier that disenchanted former Obama-supporters tend ‘to blame structural constraints rather than the incumbent himself’, seemingly unwilling to accept that Obama is little different to George Bush in the face of his apparently progressive and inspiring speeches. But one’s elocution is no measure of one's moral fibre; we should assess Obama without reference to his speeches, skin colour, looks or charms. Policies are what matters. It is true that there are deep power structures in the US which prevent any President from enacting real change, and the fundamentals of US Empire go far deeper than any one man. But the gusto with which he has furthered the cause of US hegemony overseas and domestic state control should give us all strong pause for thought when cheering on the next tall, handsome, ‘liberal’ Democrat. 

UPDATE: A day or two after writing this, Mehdi Hasan at the Huffington Post wrote a good new piece arguing the same thing: worth a read here.

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