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The betrayals of Barack Obama

Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab

As the presidential campaign to return Barack Obama to the White House gathers steam, those seductive autumn days of 2008, full of inspiring words, now seem a world away. In the almost four years since he promised to usher in a bright new era of idealism and reformation, there have been many subsequent betrayals. 

One campaigns in poetry, but governs in prose. Domestically, the greatest disappointment of Obama’s term has been the gradual loss of his ideals, characterised by the dissolution of his “Hope and Change” message which propelled him, Kennedy-like, to power. (Do we ever hear these words from him now?) 

Or the way in which he has been unable to rein in the worst excesses of a rotten capitalist system, giving the world some degree of comfort that this mendacity will not continue for another generation. 

Externally, it’s been the disappointing way in which a man of Kenyan ancestry has been unwilling to break with the past and present a new vision of America dealing with Africa and the developing world. Or the inability of a man who has grown up with discrimination, to want to chart a bold new way of building bridges with the Muslim world, essentially preferring the comfort of the way which went before him. 

All these challenges – domestically and on a foreign policy level – are immensely difficult, and would probably require a dedicated commitment to each one to be resolved. Equally, one shouldn’t disregard how Obama has been hamstrung by a downright mutinous Congress, where he has had to choose his battles and the use of his political capital very carefully. 

But this is the Oval Office we are talking about, which brings with it the once-in-a-lifetime chance to influence history for the better! What good are half measures here? One is reminded of the example of Lyndon Johnson’s gutsy determination to make his own mark on the presidency in 1964. Warned by one of his advisors not to use up too much political capital at an equally early stage of his presidency in the pursuit of the apparently hopeless quest for civil rights, he snarled, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Well, what the hell is it for, President Obama?

Yet perhaps his biggest betrayal to date has been his disavowal of being a man of peace; a man wanting peace.  A president who should have followed in the steps of Lincoln now seems to be shadowing the dark figure of his predecessor George W Bush and – as damning as it is to say this – being probably more hawkish.

The metamorphosis has been drastic. He entered the White House on the back of a vision of being a man of peace, integrity and inclusivism – diametrically opposed to his predecessor. After all, he had been a community organiser, a onetime law professor, the first black editor of the liberal Harvard Law Review and a campaigner opposed to the Iraq war, the use of torture and the illegal use of Guantanamo. Yet just three days after assuming his new role as commander in chief in 2008, he launched the policy that was to become known as “The Program.” Under this chilling title, he chose to fight terrorism with a policy of pre-emptive execution, in which “kill lists” were formed; a top secret “nominations” process to approve terrorists for kill or capture, of which the “capture” part has since largely become theoretical. These lists have become increasingly bigger over time – they now runs to tens of thousands; and indeed thousands have been killed on the direct orders of the president. 

There are two parts to the manner of cold-blooded killings which have left many stunned. The first has to do with the method employed to get people onto the list, through the use of the controversial “crowd killing” technique. Crowd killing is the targeting of groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known. They differed from “personality” or “high-value individual” strikes, in which a terrorist leader is positively identified before the missile is launched. Not all of these targets are proven terrorists. According to Steve Kappes, the CIA’s deputy director and a key member of the Administration, “We can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there,  [on the ground] men associated with terrorist activity, but we don’t always know who they are.” 

According to this line of thinking, a lot more suspected terrorists can be taken out in a single strike than if specific individuals are targeted. The key problem with this method, however, is that doing anything which involves no positive identification will inevitably lead to the analytics and the assumptions underpinning it failing you. According to the New American Foundation, an influential nonpartisan public policy institute, the “casualty rate” was between 10 and 12% by July 2012 – in other words, 10-12% by volume of targets killed were innocent civilians with no proven links to terror. They estimate that this works out to be between 148 and 309 innocent civilians, and counting.  

Secondly, it’s in the use of unmanned, remotely operated aerial drones to carry out the air strikes which also alarms. Drones fly far above conventional radars, allowing the Administration to reach far and deep into sovereign nations’ airspace, even though this is a violation of international law. In existence before Obama but perfected as a weapon of clinical efficiency under him, drones have “transformed the way America fights and thinks about its wars, “ according to The New York Times, which has detailed Obama’s ferocious counter-terrorism policies.  At least 2,000 people have been killed by drones, and at the height of their activity, drone strikes were reputed to have been launched in Pakistan every three days. 

Overall, under Obama it is estimated that the use of drones to launch “crowd kills” on “kill list” targets have increased more than five-fold. The great moraliser of peace, who previously spoke eloquently of the waste coming from war, seems to be at odds with his message and his actions.

Reading about “The Program” sends chills down my spine. A man ostensibly committed to transparency and the abidance of international law has become more than a mere President – he has become Pharoah, dispensing the power of life and death in his hands. Other presidents have killed too – and the Administration is at pains to state that drone strikes against Al Qaeda and its allies were made lawful before Obama, as part of the military action authorised by Congress after 9/11. Yet the betrayal is not so much that the power to kill is a new concept for an Administration. Rather it is that it is being used so routinely, so unthinkingly, without considering the endgame. 

And what is the endgame, the logical outcome of such a practice? Look at the news coverage; look at this photograph of tribesmen mourning for their kin killed in drone strikes. The mourners, grief-stricken over the bodies of their family, hardly look like cold-blooded, hardened terrorists.  Perhaps some may be. But I also see a lot of desperate people, farmers probably trying to eke out a living in the barren and unforgiving landscape of the North West Provinces. Here, the legal and illegal live side by side in lives geared at best for survival. They live and work in conditions not substantially changed since medieval times; their lives are geared to the seasons and to the rains, and wanting to destroy a far-off land called America is probably the furthest thing from their minds. These people are congregating because they want to bury their dead (indeed, if they were terrorists, preparing to unleash mass terror on America, they probably wouldn’t be congregating in the first place, knowing as they would about the Administration’s employment of crowd killing). So launching jihad against the Great Satan has probably not been foremost on their minds – until now, perhaps. 

When I look at such scenes, and see the anguish that has been brought against these people, I can also predict the next scene – showing these same people having their attitudes towards America hardened, as a direct by-product of Obama’s pre-emptive campaign. Moderates, when provoked beyond what is reasonable, can often become radicals. And, like the many-headed serpent whose heads keep on growing, this hardening cannot be killed no matter how many strikes are launched. 

What is another logical endgame? As Tom Junod, writing in Esquire, puts it, surely other governments, having seen the technology and its awesome power, would similarly want it. Why alone should America have the moral authority to have such weapons? “Given all the work which the president has done to establish the legal and moral precedent for targeted killing…the logical extension of the program [could be whether] the president himself is targetable.”

So why is Obama not considering these outcomes? For if he did, then surely he wouldn’t be advocating such an extreme policy which can only extend rather than contract the pernicious enmity which the Muslim world has with America? If he did, surely he would be focusing instead on winning over the moderates, and ensuring that they rather than the radicals gain the upper hand? Nothing in his current policy ensures this.

The world has become a more dangerous place for many reasons, but chief amongst them has been the continued foreign policy and military choices of America. Despite the Obama Administration’s pledge to reclaim the moral authority which America once had in the world, it has unfortunately tarnished it still further. Instead of a break with the past, the defining legacy of his first term will be a secret, pernicious war conducted without proper oversight, and which promises us no salvation at the end. 

Had we not pinned our expectations too high when proclaiming Barack Obama as a saviour? Surely this technology is here to stay, regardless of who is president; and surely other presidents would be equally likely to want to be seen as “tough on terror,” to use the American parlance. 

The last word on this has to go to Cornel West, the provocative  and one-of-a-kind African-American public intellectual. “When you mobilise the legacy of Martin Luther King and put a bust of King in the Oval Office, people elevate their hopes. Martin King is not just every brother. It’s like a novelist being obsessed with Tolstoy or Proust, and he ends up writing short stories that can barely get into some middlebrow magazine. Hey, you got our hopes up man! I was expecting Proust or Tolstoy, instead it would barely get into Newsweek, man!” 

Indeed, brother. DM

Follow Kalim on Twitter: @kalimrajab.

Read more:

  • New York Times, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will
  • Tom Junod, Esquire Magazine, The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama 
  • Newsweek, Daniel Klaidman, Drones: How Obama Learnt to Kill 

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