The unmasking of the Obama presidency

Middle East Eye

With two years of President Obama’s second term remaining in office, his style and accomplishments have formed a distinct pattern in contemporary United States history. It seems an appropriate time to begin an objective assessment of his presidential career.

Obama’s ascent to the American presidency made history. He was the first African-America to reach that office; educated at Columbia and Harvard, where he earned a law degree; his steady rise in politics and election in November 2008 at the age of 47 – all looked impressive and hopeful after eight traumatic years of foreign policy under President George W. Bush.

The rise of Barack and Michelle Obama from modest beginnings was a story of the “American dream” come true. In truth Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, published shortly before his election, was an assertion of a persistent and overstated belief, for every single American’s dream fulfilled, countless remain unrealised or are shattered, as is the law of nature. In this case, despite some obstacles, a set of favourable circumstances contributed to the making of Barack Obama.

His mother was educated, but unfortunate, with two failed marriages and an untimely death. Obama was born in 1961 when his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was 18 years of age. An early divorce, single motherhood and frequent travels meant that family life lacked stability. She died of cancer, aged 53, soon after earning a doctorate in anthropology. Obama spent his childhood in Indonesia with his mother and step-father. His grandparents gave him stability when young Obama needed it most. Scholarships for a private school education and later at Columbia and Harvard followed. But a self-confessed user of cocaine and marijuana in his young age, Obama was no angel.

However, his advance on the career path was steady, taking him all the way to the White House in the November 2008 election. He won the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton by a narrow margin. After seven years of The “War on Terror” during George W. Bush’s presidency and the American economy on the verge of collapse, a Democratic victory looked likely. The Republication presidential ticket of two maverick politicians, John McCain and Sarah Palin, gave Barak Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, an easy victory.

Obama’s campaign and eventual victory in November 2008 looked like a peaceful revolution. Enthusiasm for him was high, particularly in the Afro-American and Hispanic communities. American voters of all ages turned out in vast numbers on polling day. Obama’s campaign raised hopes not only in America, but also in other parts of the world. Victory came on the back of soaring rhetoric, with assertions of a “defining moment” of change and the “arc of history” bending “toward the hope of a better day”.

As he celebrated victory, Obama depicted himself as an outsider. In fact, he was a first-term United States senator with a firm foothold in Chicago politics. The Democratic Party machine has maintained a firm grip in Chicago, Illinois state and national politics for decades. Barack Obama was a product of that powerful organisation.

The power of corporate money

He made a great deal of the fact that he did not accept money from federal political action committees or lobbyists. In truth, his presidential campaign was the most expensive in history. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a record $2.4 billion were to be spent by all presidential candidates, including related expenses. Barack Obama’s campaign expenditure of nearly $750 million easily surpassed John McCain’s. Candidate Obama raised more than twice the amount which his opponent, veteran Republican Senator McCain did.

Modest contributions by ordinary Americans to his campaign were widely publicised. However, as filmmaker Michael Moore revealed in an interview on “The Colbert Report” in September 2009, Goldman Sachs investment bank was “Obama’s No. 1 private contributor”. Only the University of California employees’ collective contributions surpassed those of Goldman Sachs. Among other big donors were employees of Harvard University, Microsoft, Google, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Time Warner and Stanford University. Obama’s campaign financing without matching federal funds illustrated the power of corporate money.

In claiming victory, Obama’s assertion in 2008 was that the source of America’s strength was not the might of arms or scale of wealth, but the enduring power of ideals of democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope. Obama’s record since entering the White House tells a different story, for he is a man of contradictions. Obama fought the most expensive election campaign as the economy sank into the deepest recession in seventy years.

Double-standards

He had described the Afghan war as a just war, without ever acknowledging that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks on 11 September, 2001 were nationals of Saudi Arabia and not one was Afghan. Yet, the Saudi royal family remains a close friend. Further, the United States bore heavy responsibility for what had happened in Afghanistan, turning the country into a haven for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But remorse was hard to come forth.

On the other hand, Obama criticised George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, calling it a “dumb war”. As president, not only did Obama maintain America’s military presence in Iraq under heavy propaganda cover of “withdrawal”, he escalated intervention in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. Seen in this context, Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, announced barely nine months after he had taken office, was premature. Now it is undeserved.

Many of his supporters and admirers had come to believe, mistakenly, that he was averse to war. In office, President Obama has used powers more freely under “the Authorisation for Use of Military Force” – legislation cobbled together by Congress and signed by President Bush only days after 11 September, 2001. It is a vague and sweeping legal instrument which authorises the president “to use all necessary force against nations, organisations, or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed or aided the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, … or in order to prevent future acts of international terrorism”.

Drones 

The manifold increase in CIA drone attacks during the Obama presidency has attracted wide criticism, including from the United Nations rapporteur for human rights, Ben Emmerson. In a recent report, Emmerson cited a 40 percent rate of civilian deaths among those killed in all air attacks in 2013. Within a year of President Obama taking office in January 2009, the use of drones had peaked in Pakistan. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen bore the brunt, but their deployment rapidly became more widespread, in Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Mali and possibly Iran, which claimed to have fired on or disabled pilotless aircraft.

Emmerson says that countries where drone attacks kill civilians are obliged to order inquiries. Extrajudicial killings by drones have attracted widespread condemnation, and generated outrage amongst the communities of victims of the attacks.

American officials told Emmerson that the Obama administration routinely sought prior consent of the concerned government. Yemen’s official version, as reported by the Guardian in March 2014, said that such attacks were not pre-approved. There has been a dramatic reduction in operations in Pakistani territory during the last year, due to pressure from Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif and the National Assembly of Pakistan in response to unprecedented public anger.

Banning torture? 

If CIA drones and extrajudicial killings have raised many legal and ethical questions, the agency’s torture tactics are not far behind. It is worth recalling that immediately after his inauguration, President Obama had signed an executive order (No. 13491) banning the use of torture. The practice had done great harm to America’s reputation under President Bush. A long-awaited Senate report just published has described the CIA’s torture methods as “brutal and ineffective” and accused the agency of lying about the usefulness of information gathered.

The National Security Archive in Washington cites documents showing that senior CIA officers, including directors George Tenet and Michael Hayden, overruled agents who protested against what was being done to prisoners. But after the Senate report, President Obama has attempted to partially justify the CIA torture. He told Spanish television: “When countries are threatened, they oftentimes act rationally in ways that in retrospect were wrong.” As John Brennan, the CIA director and Obama’s close confidant, was preparing to launch a counter-offensive, the president said in further remarks: “I hope that today’s report leaves these techniques where they belong – in the past.”

The Senate report, much of it censored from the public, has not only revealed the crimes and cover-up by America’s vast security apparatus, but it has also highlighted fundamental failures in Obama’s character. His reluctance to allow prosecution of senior officials of the Bush administration amounts to a cover-up itself. Here is a president who does not have the backbone to stand up to offenders in powerful positions. Obama is a political operator par excellence who avoids, evades, overcomes and, if nothing works, just moves on to other things.

Guantanamo and other broken promises

In President Obama’s first act, the order banning torture, the stated aim was to promote “the safe, lawful and humane treatment of individuals in United States custody … to ensure compliance with the treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions, and to take care that the laws of the United States are faithfully executed.” Further, he promised that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would be closed within a year.

Wide-eyed, admirers of Obama gloated. Commentators hailed these announcements as the end of Bush era practices of unlawful detention and torture. It seemed like a revolutionary beginning. As Obama’s one-year deadline to close Guantanamo drew closer, opposition in Congress grew. He did not quite stand up to Congress. The Guantanamo prison was not closed, though detainees began to be sent abroad, quietly, reducing their number from about 775 at its peak down to some 136 in early December 2014.

In the latest releases, six Guantanamo prisoners, including four Syrians, one Tunisian and one Palestinian were sent to Uruguay without ever being charged. In Montevideo, President Jose Mujica, who had himself spent a decade in harsh prison conditions under the country’s military dictatorship, said that Uruguay was offering hospitality to human beings who have suffered a terrible kidnapping in Guantanamo Bay. In Washington, the Pentagon said that the United States was grateful to Uruguay.

The Bush administration had found deceptive ways of redefining terms in his “war on terror”. While using the term “war” himself, Bush claimed that those kidnapped and sent to Guantanamo were detainees, not prisoners of war. As they were not regular soldiers, the Geneva Conventions did not apply to them. In the Bush administration’s lexicon, torture became “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

The detention camp was meant to keep the “world’s most dangerous individuals”, though most detainees were never charged of any offence. About half of the Guantanamo prisoners left were cleared for release, but the Obama administration said that many countries were not willing to accept them. Five years after it was supposed to have been closed, the prison remains open.

Frustration and hopelessness led to prisoners going on hunger strike in protest of their continued detention. Obama responded by ordering that they be force-fed, so no more detainees die. Prisoners’ accounts describe the procedure in which a feeding tube is inserted through a hunger striker’s nose down the throat to his stomach. The method is painful and very uncomfortable. The Obama administration says that it is a “life-saving procedure”. United Nations officials call it torture. The “New England Journal of Medicine” has called it “aggravated assault”.

Life of prisoners inside the Bagram military base under American control has attracted less world attention. Several months after Obama supposedly outlawed torture, the German magazine “Der Spiegel” quoted a military prosecutor, saying that the abuse of prisoners at Bagram was such that Guantanamo looked like a “nice hotel”. President Obama finally washed his hands off the US secret prison at Bagram following the uproar over the Senate report. The remaining prisoners were transferred to Afghan and Pakistani custody. Will they be any better?

Ensuring instability in the Middle East

Foreign leaders were killed under America’s watch during the Bush as well as Obama administrations. Saddam Hussein was hanged on 30 December, 2006 after trial with a foregone conclusion. During the Obama presidency, the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi met his gruesome death in the desert of Sirte. US warplanes and ships kept a close watch and Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton egged on militiamen saying that she hoped Gaddafi would soon be killed as armed men hunted him.

President Bush was responsible for the Iraqi state’s collapse. Obama must share responsibility for the Libyan state’s disintegration. The counter-revolution in which Egypt’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi was overthrown and the military establishment returned to rule took place while President Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice was in close touch with the Egyptian military. These acts have ensured that the Greater Middle East will remain a highly volatile region for years to come with consequences going well beyond.

On the domestic front, President Obama’s big idea was an affordable healthcare scheme for all in the United States. ObamaCare, as the scheme is unofficially known, is the result of decades of efforts in Congress and outside to set up a universal healthcare system in America, rather similar to Britain’s National Health Service envisaged after the Second World War.

In the face of strong resistance from sections of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, ObamaCare became law in the end. It is a significant improvement over what was before, though critics say it is complicated. Many right-wingers and libertarians continue to pour scorn, contending that ObamaCare is too expensive, “socialist” or “un-American” – a step which has taken away citizens’ freedom of choice.

President Obama’s second biggest domestic success was his bailout of the auto industry, General Motors in particular. The Centre for Automotive Research, a think tank based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, concluded that had there been no auto industry bailout nearly two million jobs would have been lost in General Motors in 2009-2010 alone if the company had gone under. The collapse of the entire auto industry would have resulted in more than four million job losses. The US federal and state governments would have suffered a hit in excess of a hundred billion dollars. In this respect, Obama can be credited with pulling the economy from the brink.

However, there are other domestic afflictions in American society, notably in areas of race relations, police accountability and gun control. President Obama has singularly failed to confront them. His response to police officers shooting black youths in Ferguson and New York and grand juries refusing to charge the officers concerned has been timid. The Afro-American and Hispanic communities, who made Obama’s victory possible, had hoped for change following his November 2008 victory. Many will say their hopes remain unrealised.

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Assange, Pinochet and Diplomatic Double-Dealing

CounterPunch, August 24-26, 2012

A decade ago, the British government of Labour prime minister Tony Blair decided to back President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq even though foreign office lawyers in London had warned that such an attack had no “legal basis in international law.” In the midst of sharp divisions in government and British society, the invasion went ahead in March 2003. The consequences were far-reaching and they undermined the Blair government’s authority at home. Limping thereafter, he resigned in June 2007, humbled and apologetic. War and the economy together played no mean part in Tony Blair’s fall in British politics and the Labour Party’s defeat three years later.

William Hague

A few days ago, Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague personally approved a letter that was sent to Ecuador. Its details were taken as a threat to raid the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and drag out WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange for extradition to Sweden, where state prosecutors say they want to question him about complaints of sexual assault. Hague’s letter was delivered to Ecuador despite the “grave reservations of lawyers in his department.”

Speaking anonymously to the Independent newspaper, a senior British official said that “staff feared the move could provoke retaliatory attacks against British embassies overseas.” A large majority in the Organization of American States is up in arms. Outside the Americas too, Britain is struggling to find much sympathy for its stance. In soccer parlance, Prime Minister David Cameron’s center forward has scored a spectacular own goal.

While Julian Assange made a statement from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, attacking America’s “witch hunt” against WikiLeaks and journalistic freedom, several former mandarins of the British Diplomatic Service expressed serious misgivings over William Hague’s handling of the affair. Oliver Miles, a 40-year veteran, described the letter to Ecuador as a “big mistake,” because “it puts the British government in the position of asking for something illegitimate.” Former ambassador to Moscow, Tony Brenton, commented that the Foreign Office had “slightly overreached themselves, for both legal and practical reasons.” And a former envoy to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, said, “You cannot simply legislate domestically and opt out of international law.”

Otherwise, the mainstream broadcast and print media continued to provide a running commentary of the whole affair. The coverage has been generally confused, selective, repetitive and often hostile to Assange and a small Latin American country’s decision to grant him asylum. The Economist, though, positioning itself on the other side, criticized Britain’s “ham-handed invocation of a never-used, 1987 law to insinuate that it could, eventually, have the right to enter the embassy.”

It is perhaps necessary at this point to take note of the London-based Bertha Foundation’s legal director Jennifer Robinson, who has described the British Foreign Office’s letter and the implicit threat as unprecedented––one which, if implemented, would force a profound change in the conduct of international diplomacy. Also important is to take a look at the concerns raised by prominent American feminist writer Naomi Wolf in an article titled “Something Rotten in the State of Sweden: 8 Big Problems with the ‘Case’ Against Assange.” Under her microscope is the entire Swedish legal system.

Why does Assange and others fear that Sweden would extradite him to the United States, where he could face the rest of his life in jail, even execution for publishing leaked official documents? Because in November 2006 the United Nations found Sweden guilty of violating the global torture ban. Swedish officials handed over Mohammed El Zari and Ahmed Agiza, two Egyptian asylum seekers, to CIA operatives in December 2001, to be rendered from Stockholm to Cairo. Both were tortured in Egypt. And, as Seamus Milne wrote in the Guardian, because of reports of a secret indictment against Assange by a U.S. federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia.

The law says that someone who has suffered persecution, or fears that he or she will suffer persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion may seek asylum. In the last few days, the United States has claimed that it does not recognize the concept of “diplomatic asylum.” Exactly what distinction is Washington trying to make between asylum, political asylum and diplomatic asylum is baffling. Assange was after all in the territory of a foreign country that granted him refuge. Let us look at some precedents.

Stalin’s daughter Svetlana sought asylum when she walked into the U.S. Embassy in Delhi in 1967. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn got asylum and lived in the United States for years before returning to Russia. Martina Navratilova, the Czech tennis player, took asylum in the U.S. in 1975. There are numerous instances when dissidents have been granted refuge in the United States and elsewhere. The concept is universal and depends on the sovereign decision of the country dealing with an asylum request.

Also worth examining is the British foreign secretary’s assertion that the United Kingdom has a “binding obligation” to extradite Assange to Sweden. Let us, for a moment, go back to October 1998. Chile’s former military dictator Augusto Pinochet was visiting London for medical treatment. A Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon, now on Assange’s legal team, issued an arrest warrant for Pinochet on charges arising out of crimes against humanity in Chile. Pinochet was arrested a few days later in Britain, where he would spend more than a year in judicial custody, fighting extradition to Spain. The House of Lords, then Britain’s highest court, ruled that Pinochet could indeed be handed over to the Spanish judicial authorities, because crimes such as torture could not be protected by immunity.

The British government nonetheless allowed Pinochet to return to Chile in March 2000 on health grounds. The law was clear, but for Britain’s Labour government at the time there was no “binding obligation” to extradite Pinochet to Spain. Chile under Pinochet had backed the United Kingdom during the brief Falklands war with Argentina. Moreover, he and Britain’s former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher were admirers of each other. There was, after all, a way out for Pinochet to return home instead of being extradited to Spain.

Writing about the essence of rule of law and government’s legitimacy, Thomas Hobbes in his seventeenth-century work Leviathan observed: “The law is the public conscience.”

What conscience?

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When Netanyahu Crossed the Line …

International Policy Digest

The bombing of an Israeli embassy car in Delhi threatens India’s diplomatic maneuvers between Israel and Iran, and has put India’s discreetly nurtured ties with Israel since 1992 through a severe test. Those who are attracted to Israel’s depiction of Iran as a terrorist threat to world peace would do well to read historian Mark Perry’s account, revealing that Israel is recruiting, and collaborating with, terrorist groups in a secret war with Iran. That low-level conflict is spreading. Israel’s latest reaction should be seen in the light of Perry’s revelations.

The Israeli government’s hasty and aggressive posture following the Delhi bombing has caused offense in the Indian capital. Officials in Delhi have made plain that India will not be recruited into the anti-Iran alliance under Israeli–U.S. pressure. India will not allow “Washington, the Jewish lobby and much of Europe to push the country into a corner” over Iran. How India conducts its ties with that country dating back to ancient times is its business. Furthermore, police investigations into the bombing cannot be rushed to suit external interests. The law of the land must take its course.

What particularly irked Indian officials was that immediately after the Delhi bomb (another device was defused by Georgian police in Tbilisi on the same day), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel sought to upstage India’s police investigations into the incident. Netanyahu described the Iranian government as the world’s “largest terror exporter” and Hezbollah in Lebanon as Iran’s “protégé.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman went further saying, “We know exactly who is responsible for the attack and who planned it, and we’re not going to take it lying down.”

As if that was not enough. Israel’s Energy and Water Resources Minister Uzi Landau intervened with his own comment, calling “India’s support for the Palestinians at the UN a mistake,” and that he intended to “persuade” the Indians to change their stand. And Israel reportedly asked India to help sponsor a resolution against Iran in the UN Security Council, of which India is an elected member at present.

A full-scale Israeli offensive to force a complete overhaul of Indian foreign policy was under way. In the unlikely scenario of it happening, such an event would be a geopolitical earthquake. India’s reliance on oil producers who are firmly in the U.S. camp would be dangerously high. There would be other consequences in the short run. An audacious attack by Israel on Iran, with or without U.S. support, could be nearer, and so would the prospects of a wider Middle East conflict. For these reasons, India now stands between the present and the worst case scenario.

Police investigations were only beginning in Delhi when Israeli ministers spoke with such shocking certainly––the worst kind of megaphone diplomacy. For those sitting in the Indian capital, certain inferences were difficult to avoid. India had recently announced that it would abide by the UN sanctions against Iran, but would not obey additional sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. India would continue to buy oil from Iran, and an Indian trade delegation would visit Tehran in coming weeks.

Delhi was by no means alone in asserting an independent stance. Other countries, too, have been resisting what they consider to be strong-arm tactics by the anti-Iran bloc of nations to force reluctant governments to toe the line. The United States, the European Union and Israel are far from happy about this.

That the affair threatened India’s massive trade with Iran, and could derail India’s capacity to formulate its foreign policy, was not lost in Delhi. A number of Indian politicians and senior officials made the government’s position clear. Commerce Minister Anand Sharma said that terrorism and trade were “separate issues,” and that business with Iran would continue. A former diplomat of India and now a leading commentator, M. K. Bhadrakumar, described the Israeli offensive as a “smear campaign” that “Tehran’s agents had been going about placing bombs in New Delhi, Tbilisi and Bangkok.”

Meanwhile, police investigations, and a visit by an Israeli Mossad team to Delhi, were continuing. Indian officials insisted that there was no “conclusive evidence” to link the attack to any particular group or country. And a senior police officer was categorical in saying that there was no link between the Delhi bomb and explosions that occurred in Bangkok the day after.

The Indians are normally too polite to engage in crude public diplomacy. But when ministers of a country of under 8 million, albeit advanced and heavily militarized, try to dictate policy to a nation of 1.2 billion people, it is perhaps too much for the Indian sensitivities.

I am on record as saying that, in the challenging 1990s decade when the Soviet Union collapsed, India was hasty and ill-advised to build a “flyover” to Israel, and from Israel straight on to the United States. Over the years, Israel’s multi-billion dollar sales of weapons based on American and Russian technologies, and intelligence sharing, have given India easy access to arms bazaar. But there is a cost. India can be vulnerable to pressure, and has ignored its interests in the Muslim world. Simply put, successive Indian governments put too many eggs in the (Israeli–U.S.) basket.

Now that India asserts its strategic interests independent of the United States and Israel, with the other members of the group called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), it faces a trial of strength. The outcome will depend on whether Delhi can establish its capacity to turn away from what look like instant gains, and promises for future, to secure its long-term interests that are essential for India’s place on the world stage.

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