Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1151, 6 - 12 June 2013
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1151, 6 - 12 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

Obama’s lame-duck presidency

US President Barack Obama’s recent speech announcing an end to the War on Terror did not explain why he allows himself to be repeatedly humiliated, writes Iqbal Jassat in Johannesburg

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the second term in office of US President Barack Obama many of his detractors can justifiably claim that his ability to function as US commander-in-chief has been severely limited. Hearing him speak on a major foreign policy matter recently regarding the War on Terror, one sensed a desperate plea to gain understanding and sympathy for his weakness.

But was it truly weakness on Obama’s part, or was it symptomatic of a larger problem besetting America’s politics?

On the one hand, you have a system that places an individual at the helm of the country as its first citizen, which seemingly suggests that as chief executive the president of the United States should be able to ensure that the country conforms to the dictates of international law. But on the other hand, divisive politics between the two leading political formations and their respective battles to reign supreme in either or both of the US Senate and House of Representatives confounds policy-making.

Policies that have set the country on a collision course against fundamental civil liberties thus contrast sharply with the image of a superpower upholding human rights. So what’s bugging American politics, and why is it at the forefront of undermining the core values most of the world subscribes to? What explains Obama’s lame-duck presidency, and why does he allow himself to be repeatedly humiliated?

Many analysts who have a soft approach to the United States have argued that politics, particularly within the American paradigm, has become too complex. Some in fact reason that the US has to protect its national interests and to provide justification for the erosion of liberties elsewhere.

However, to buck this trend a body of opinion is beginning to grow and make inroads by challenging such conventional wisdom. This is a major departure from the type of control the US establishment once believed it had a monopoly on. Evidently, such distinct voices, which to date have been marginal, with names like Noam Chomsky being seen as isolationist, are becoming louder and credible.

To cite one example, Obama’s discomfort at being characterised as the jailer of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay who have not been charged with any crime was in all likelihood sparked by the legal challenges he faces on his own soil. Fewer than 24 hours before Obama addressed the nation in his security speech, a group of American lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees filed an emergency motion with the federal district court in the District of Columbia seeking an order to remove the “unjustified burdens” that the military command has placed on inmates.

These burdens, some old but many newly imposed over recent months and coinciding with the prisoners’ hunger strike, make it almost impossible for the detainees to meet with their lawyers.

New York Timesop-ed columnist Joe Nocera explained that “today, if a lawyer asks to speak with his or her client, a meeting — and even a phone call — must take place at another location. And before they are moved to the location, the detainees are searched for ‘contraband’. According to the legal filings, the search includes touching the genitals and the anus of the detainees — which, as the military well knows, violates the detainees’ Muslim faith and will cause them to refuse the meeting.”

If the detainee does decide to go forward with the meeting, he is then shackled hand and foot and chained to the floor of a van in a purposely painful, bent-over position, Nocera claims.

“The detainees are all in solitary confinement. They are shackled when they are taken to the shower. They cannot speak to their families unless they submit to that same repugnant body search. In other words, an already inhumane situation has become even worse on the watch of a president who claims to want to shut down the prison.”

In his flowery recent speech, Obama made a number of compelling arguments against holding detainees for an indefinite period without charging them with any crime. This, he said, made Guantanamo “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” In addition he noted the enormous cost of the facility at nearly $1 million per prisoner per annum.

What’s going on here? A military command imposes punishing burdens in the face of its commander-in-chief who decries them? This clearly illustrates how Obama’s presidential power has become of little consequence, especially in the light of the troubling question he raised in his speech of “is this who we are?”

In this context one can understand the grief experienced daily by family members of the victims of drone attacks. Seeking justification for the continued killing of people suspected of “terrorism” on the grounds that if “we” (America) don’t kill “them” (Muslims), “they” will “kill us”, the Obama administration is skating on thin ice.

Just as Guantanamo detainees are held without charge, drone victims are killed without due process. Expressing regret at the loss of innocent lives usually dehumanised by the mainstream media as “collateral damage,” Obama sought sympathy in his speech for having to tread this path. But is this any different to the rationalising that the former apartheid regime in South Africa sought in presenting its crimes against the oppressed majority as “necessary” to uphold white rule?

Indeed, a similar rationale is used by the Israeli state to cultivate sympathy and support for its brutal policies that deny freedom to the Palestinians. It forms part of Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) tool kit, and the lexicon utilised to soften public opinion is no different to that used by Obama.

Palestinians who accept the status quo are treated as friends and allies by both the US and Israel. The trouble, the latter claim, is with those who are “Islamist terrorists”.

Is it possible that Obama is caught between a rock and a hard place? Is this his dilemma, or is it simply a matter of ill-conceived policies that he willingly executes while engaging in rhetoric to retain the public profile of a president committed to upholding law and order?


The writer is an executive member of the Media Review Network in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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