Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 11 June 2009
Issue No. 950
Special
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hamid Dabashi

Obama reneges on change

The first 100 days over, Obama is looking more and more like Bush, writes Hamid Dabashi*

Two crucial decisions by President Barack Obama in mid- May 2009 mark a turning point in his young presidency when earlier signs coalesce and are driven home. That he waited for the first 100 days of his presidency to pass before he made these two decisions might be a cynical play with history, or entirely coincidental. But the effects of these decisions, and what they mean and imply, are the same: chilling.

Click to view caption
Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison: horrendous and, from the American standpoint

President Obama's decision to retain George W Bush's abusive policies of ignoring the rule of law when it comes to "terrorism suspects" and allow for draconian military tribunals has alarmed his friends and left his enemies sniggering, as has his equally troubling decision to challenge a US court ruling to release pictures showing the abuse of Iraqi inmates by US soldiers. That he has started significantly -- and symbolically -- backtracking from his campaign promises, on these and similar issues, as well as from the image he projected during the first days of his presidency, does not bode well for millions of Americans who invested much hope and unprecedented trust in his presidency. The choice was not between an obnoxious and insufferable emperor and a handsome and cool president. The choice was, and it remains, between a wanton disregard for human decency, on the one hand, and the rule of law on the other. President Obama has just ordered his legal machinery to stop the very best of which the American judicial system is capable -- upholding the rule of law in face of political expediency. That he has done so exactly at a time when Justice David Souter announced his resignation, which has given the president the historic opportunity to choose a Supreme Court nominee, is even more ominous.

Obama's initial push to right some terrible wrongs done before him was announced as altering "the image of America" abroad. Many in fact had seen him, his person, persona, demeanour, his "presidential cool", as the new "image of America abroad". The idea was in fact quite effective -- so much so that when innocent Afghan and Pakistani civilians dropped dead under American bombs none of it stuck to Obama. The "Teflon president" was what Ronald Reagan was called: none of his criminality in Latin American or elsewhere seemed to stick either. President Obama seems to be the new, "improved" Teflon president. Indeed, this land of glittering advertising, the supreme example of "the society of the spectacle," appears only concerned with image, not reality. But in reality, innocent Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis and Palestinians continue to be targeted by US weapons shot and launched by US and Israeli soldiers, precisely at the moment when Obama paraphernalia on colourful T-shirts, baseball hats, iconic posters, and coffee mugs are being sold from Harlem to Chinatown. Is he still on his honeymoon with America? How many dead Afghan children, Iraqi widows, Palestinian civilians shot at close range by Israeli soldiers will it take for this honeymoon to draw to an end?

"Recall," said Obama during his inauguration speech, "that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint." Those were beautiful words. What happened between January and May 2009? How come this thing called "national security" requires illegal arrest, extrajudicial incarceration, disregarding the Geneva Conventions, tossing human rights out the window, covering up the evidence of the criminal atrocities the US military has perpetrated so that the public at large will not be a witness to them? If indeed "our security emanates from the justness of our cause," then why cover up the evidence of criminal atrocities that shows the gross injustice -- in fact the criminal intent -- of that cause?

Publicising the pictures of US soldiers sexually abusing Iraqi inmates, Obama and his aides have argued, would put them at the disposal of "Islamic militants" (the bugbear of American political culture these days) to use as "propaganda" against Americans. Propaganda? Did these "Islamic militants," whoever they are, fabricate those pictures, in Photoshop, so that they can falsely accuse Americans of things they have never done? What part of these pictures is false, and susceptible to abuse by way of propaganda? They are the pictures of things US soldiers have done and were so proud of doing that they took pictures of themselves doing it. What is this nonsense about "Islamic militants" using them as "propaganda"? Every decent human being, not just millions of Muslims, is troubled and angered by these pictures that stand testimony to the indecency of the American "cause". Muslims in their millions, Americans in their millions, are horrified by these pictures and by what they represent, watching supersized thugs in military uniforms beat up handcuffed Muslims, or else letting German shepherd dogs loose on them. And why shouldn't they be offended, troubled and angered? Isn't everyone? Shouldn't everyone be?

The world, of course, did not have to wait for these two decisions to realise that Obama is indeed the new face of American imperialism. His Afghanistan and Pakistan strategies, now in the capable hands of Richard Holbrooke and his young Persian Vizier Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, have been far more murderous in the time concerned than even George W Bush's latter record. With all his purported stupidity, Bush was too preoccupied with Iraq to commit more follies in Afghanistan. Not so Obama. Not having withdrawn from Iraq he is spreading thin in Afghanistan. If Iraq was Bush's quagmire, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be Obama's hellhole. He seems to have not a clue about -- or even worse to harbour delusional fantasies about -- what he can actually achieve in that domain. His increased military presence in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban has pushed fighters into Northern Pakistan, where they are roaming freely and have forced the mercenary Pakistani army and leadership to forfeit the Swat district in the North-West Frontier Province, just about 100 miles from Islamabad, to their rule. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have fled and created a massive humanitarian catastrophe while Obama is busy toasting and roasting Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel during his stand-up routine at the Washington Correspondents Dinner.

The Taliban's aggressive move into Northern Pakistan has put Islamabad within their reach and forced the Obama administration finally to realise that they have been duped -- yet again -- by the Israelis drawing all their attention to non- existent Iranian nuclear bombs at the heavy cost of forgetting that there are plenty of Pakistani nuclear bombs that the Taliban, and potentially Al-Qaeda, could have at their disposal. The beneficiaries of this shift of attention from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan are, first, incompetent puppet Hamid Karzai and, second, infamous swindler Asif Ali Zardari (keeping the seat warm for his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari). There was something uncanny about Obama receiving these two corrupt puppets in Washington DC, like a warlord summoning two of his unruly vassals to praise in public and admonish in private. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X would turn in their graves if anyone thought this was the ultimate end of their heroic struggles.

Whatever millions of US taxpayer dollars do not end up in Zardari's private bank accounts between Dubai and Switzerland Pakistani generals will spend on even more nuclear arms, even more readily at the frightful disposal of what Reagan called the mujahideen and George W Bush the Taliban. Pakistan is a military garrison ruled by a corrupt junta suffocating the democratic aspirations of a nation. Afghanistan is a network of drug trafficking highway bandits, terrorising the fragile urbanity of a justly proud and brutalised people. The combustible combination of Afghanistan and Pakistan will be Obama's undoing, as Iraq was Bush's. The consequences, however, will be infinitely greater. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan does. And Pakistan is an insurrectionary putsch away from falling to the Taliban. Ambassador Holbrooke is no diplomatic match for this terrifying military scenario.

Obama's actions in Iraq are not in the slightest way different from Bush's, or even potentially McCain's. Samantha Power had to resign as an advisor to Obama's presidential campaign when in March 2008 she hinted at his making campaign promises about withdrawing from Iraq that he might reconsider as president. Now as president, Obama is doing precisely what Power suggested about a year ago. The pace of his Iraqi withdrawal is not a second faster than what Bush had in fact started doing, the rate of innocent Iraqi civilians slaughtered on a daily basis spiralling apace. So what's the difference between Bush and Obama? Effectively nothing, when it comes to Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon or Palestine. I believe we have been duped, those of us who ignored all the signs and voted for him. Hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Led astray.

I remember ardent monarchists during the late Shah's time, when forced to admit the horrors done under his regime, blaming "his advisors". "It is those around him who are corrupt." Now the same sort of speculation is rampant about Obama. Maybe it is his defence secretary, Robert Gates, who is having a negative impact, or perhaps his hawkish secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, or such AIPAC agents as Rahm Emanuel or Denis Ross who are putting him up to it. But none of this will wash. When he was announcing his early appointments many people began to wonder where exactly was the "change" he had promised with all these business-as- usual types. Obama is wont to say that he is the change; that the buck stops with him. Thus the blood of Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi and Palestinian victims are all on his hands, as are human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay. There are others who blame former vice-president Dick Cheney. He goes on a rampage on national television faulting Obama's foreign policy, and thus Obama becomes self-conscious and overtly cautious and starts backtracking.

Washington pundits are now telling Americans that this is yet another case of reality setting in and idealism running for cover. What's the use of distinguishing between such mendacious options -- between an ugly reality and a delusional idealism? How many times will this banal binary be sold before it loses its currency? If indeed there is a fundamental difference between campaign promises and the realities of governing, then what in the world is the function of those long and arduous campaigns, those billions of dollars and trillions of life hours wasted sorting out the difference between McCain and Obama if the Oval Office makes imperialist warlords -- of one colour or another -- of them all?

* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

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