President Obama, we’re not in Kansas anymore

Doron Isaacs
President Barack Obama at the University of Cape Town on 30 June 2013. Photo by Stephen Koigi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.
Doron Isaacs

I have examined myself and cannot find an anti-American bone. I don’t feel conflicted at the fact that I prefer hamburgers to kneidlach soup or cholent or pap.

I’m hardly perturbed that I am more familiar with the lyrics of Bob Dylan than the liturgy of my great-grandparents. Far from a visceral anger at Hollywood for the loss of my identity, I delight in curling up regularly with the best that HBO has to offer. And yet I went to join the protest at UCT before Obama spoke on Sunday. Why?

Well actually I went, saw a bunch of fanatics protesting under a Star of David and a Swastika, and decided to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. I gave the conspiracy theorists and antisemites the widest possible berth. But under different circumstances I would join a picket against this President we all admire.

Barack Obama’s election was a time of unbelievable excitement in my life. There were moments in his campaign that demonstrated an integrity that is exceedingly rare in US politics. The highpoint was his speech on race in Philadelphia. At that time Obama was under intense pressure to distance himself from his former pastor the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was made famous by a Youtube video in which he said “God damn America” for its racism and “for killing innocent people.”

Speaking to a country with a history of slavery and racism, the man who sought to become the first black president said of Revered Wright:

He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq, his promise to close the Guantánamo Bay prison where men are kept for years without trial, his gentle acknowledgement of the need to undo pervasive inequality of opportunity all won me over to this charismatic and intelligent man.

In many ways I am still a fan. His achievements on healthcare and gay rights are milestones, and he has made significant efforts, although thwarted, to control guns. Anyone who doubts how cool he is just needs to watch the Youtube video of him beating Clark Kellogg at basketball hoops.

But after the excitement of his inauguration and the honour of his Nobel Peace Prize it now seems likely that Obama will be remembered as the greatest political disappointment of his generation. Perhaps this is a necessary reminder that only movements, not individuals, bring revolutionary change, but he must also bear personal responsibility.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that since 2004 US drones have killed 881 civilians in Pakistan, including at least 176 children. A humane person cannot help but imagine the terror unleashed upon homes and innocent young flesh. The vast majority of these deaths have occurred since Obama took office, although there has been a steady decline in the past two years.

Obama pledged during his campaign to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, but it remains open. As of June 2013, 46 captives were designated to be detained indefinitely, because the government said the prisoners were too dangerous to transfer and there was insufficient admissible evidence to try them. This permanent detention without trial flies in the face of the known principles of justice.

In June 2008 the United States Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that the Guantánamo captives were entitled to the protection of the United States Constitution. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, described the military’s closed tribunals as “an inadequate substitute for habeas corpus”. However the Obama Justice Department has sought to avoid this, and has mounted many appeals to chip away at the thin legal protections granted to the detainees.

Obama passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act to protect those who go public and reveal wrongdoing. But at the same time his administration has charged more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous US Presidents combined. This is done by deeming their work to affect “national security”, which removes whistleblower protection.

One of these is Bradley Manning, a 25 year old US soldier who passed classified documents to Wikileaks. One of the first things Wikileaks published from Manning was a video which showed an American helicopter firing on a group of men in Baghdad. One of the men was a journalist, and two other men were Reuters employees carrying cameras that the pilots mistook for an anti-tank grenade launcher. The helicopter also fired on a van that stopped to help the injured members of the first group; two children in the van were wounded and their father killed.

According to Manning’s written memo to the court, he also provided Wikileaks with a classified video of an airstrike which occurred on May 4, 2009, in the village of Granai, Afghanistan, killing 86–147 Afghan civilians.

Manning faces a minimum of 16 years in prison.

The US government is now pursuing Edward Snowden across the face of the earth for revealing to the world that the US National Security Agency is spying globally on billions of telephone calls and e-mail messages every day. The major public defence to these revelations by the Obama administration is that they only spy on people who are not US citizens. Well, hi President Obama, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

I am not suggesting that Obama ignore the real danger of fundamentalist terrorism. Nate Silver demonstrates in his book ‘The Signal and the Noise’ that the possibility of a catastrophic terrorist event, orders of magnitude worse than 9/11, is not something that can be completely ignored. But we cannot possibly know what we need to know unless we all have far greater freedom of information as a right, and an ability to engage effectively in assessing not only the true extent of the terror threat but the true extent of the threat posed to civil liberties and to civilisation by the methods used in combating terror, and in the name of combating terror. So I maintain scepticism against all assurances from above and support the whistle-blowers and leakers, like Manning and Snowden and Wikileaks, in broad terms unconditionally.

A recent victory for poor people everywhere was the decision of the Indian Supreme Court to allow the generic production of an important cancer medicine. To do so it rejected a lawsuit brought by pharmaceutical giant Novartis. The Obama response was to put India on the trade “black list”.

In the weeks following that move the Obama Administration did everything it could to block an international treaty aimed at giving access to books to blind people in poor countries. The US was alone in this effort, and thankfully mostly defeated. These are examples of Obama allowing his government to put intellectual property and profits above the lives of people.

Obama says Africans want to end their “dependency” on the West. The Bush PEPFAR program which keeps millions of HIV-positive Africans alive has been whittled away in recent years.

Since 1776 when the US gained its independence it has been the birthplace of most of the progress in the world. Even while it systematically destroyed parts of Asia and South America it incubated movements of youthful rebellion, civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights that have changed the world. Historic cases such as Marbury v Madison and New York Times v Sullivan taught the world about the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press. As an industrial dynamo it has produced extraordinary innovation and advances, but also extreme global inequality.

No president was ever going to right every wrong, but this one wilted too quickly. In 2008 Obama addressed 200,000 people in Berlin. On his 2013 return only 4,000 came to hear him. The people of the world would have stood behind him if he’d confronted the vested interests of corporate power that own the US political system. He forgot that. Candidate Obama seemed like a man after Mandela who was prepared to be unpopular in order to be principled, but President Obama is only principled when it’s popular.

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TOPICS:  Society

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