Opinionista Kalim Rajab 4 July 2013

Obama: The disappointment of hope

While his African state visit ended smoothly in Tanzania yesterday, the last weeks haven’t been particularly good for President Obama. Yes, a lot has been made of his soaring “framing” speech at UCT on Sunday, which - while it may not have as lasting an impact as Robert Kennedy’s “ripple of hope” address from the same podium forty years ago - was well received. Equally, the $7bn energy support pledge for sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to make a meaningful impact on early stage development in the region, and is a grand gesture. And yet, and yet... the nagging hounds of scepticism over his true legacy endure.

Five years in, we’ve come to realise that the soaring rhetoric has not been readily accompanied by the hastening winds of change. While once we expected these winds to sweep through whole fields of recalcitrance, what positive change has occurred has been rather more like that which whistles through individual tufts of grass. That is understandable, perhaps, given the almost impossibly Herculean expectations the entire world, bar the Republican and Tea Parties, had foisted upon the first African-American president in the nation’s history. Less understandable though, and so therefore less condonable, is the realisation that the high libertarianism which he has consistently espoused has not been (and probably will not be) accompanied in any substantial way by proper follow-through.

The man who came to power promising to reclaim America’s moral leadership role in the world has had a disappointing run of it. While no one doubts the basic underlying integrity and ambitious vision of the man, many of us have been saddened to witness the melting of a once seemingly tight grip on moral values into something now held rather loosely. Unfairly or not, Obama’s moral stature will inevitably be compared to Madiba’s, and there is a growing sense that the hand of history will not be as kind.

This week, in an article in the Financial Times called “Obama and the crumbling of a liberal hero fantasy”, Gideon Rachmann describes the seething reaction by European governments to reports that the Administration has effectively bugged foreign diplomatic missions in the country. This, after revelations that much of the American public’s data was also in the hands of surveillance agencies after the servers of several internet services were raided.  It’s hard to see Obama the Harvard law professor, or Obama the grassroots social activist, signing off on these.

Guantanamo Bay is still open, several years after it was supposed to have been closed. Of course there are many practical impediments to closing it down. But at the end of the day, it still remains a scourge on America’s human rights record. In the light of this, the president’s visit to South Africa assumes ironic proportions because, as Tim Cohen reminds us, the continued existence of Guantanamo offends so many laws of formal justice: “the right to a fair trial; incarceration by law not by executive fiat; the bar against extended preventative detention. To South Africans who lived through Apartheid, these are not conceptual notions.”

In an earlier column, I spoke about the betrayals which President Obama’s actions had caused; actions and methods which would have been denounced shrilly if he were a white Republican.  By focusing on the covert drone strike strategy (which I still find legally indefensible) which was causing extraordinary collateral damage by killing innocent villagers in remote Afghanistan and Pakistan, I invited retaliation from several readers who argued that extra-judiciary killings could be sanctioned under international law because the war on terrorism represented a war in which America was involved, and this consequentially gave America the right to defend itself, even pre-emptively.

Since then, Obama’s newly appointed CIA Head John Brennan has spoken on the ethics of counter-terrorism, insisting the program was legal, ethical, proportional, and saved US lives. “There is absolutely nothing casual about the extraordinary care we take in making the decision to pursue an Al Qaeda terrorist, and the lengths to which we go to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life,” he said in defence.

And yet, and yet…

Legal, ethical and proportional or not, it’s hard to square American liberal values with which the president was ushered into office, with the number of innocent civilians deaths (including children) now inching up to 890, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.  Among these were innocent victims at a wedding celebration who were killed when a missile hit the wrong target – “unfortunate” in the Administration’s words; “chilling” in mine.

The Bureau’s meticulous record keeping makes for interesting reading. So, for example, in January CIA drones killed Maulvi Nazir, a Taliban warlord near South Waziristan, along with his five commanders. Apparently he had used Waziristan as a base to launch attacks on US, Nato and Afghani forces across the border for many years.

So far, so good. Yet a few days later, the records show that when a local Pakistan Taliban leader was also killed by a missile striking his vehicle, an disturbing thing occurred. As nearby rescuers sought to help the dying man get out of the burning vehicle, a second missile was fired to kill the rescuers. Nothing was known about these rescuers – rural villagers, essentially – to prove that they were Taliban or were plotting acts of terrorism against the United States. They were just guilty by association because they happened to be passing a vehicle they saw being blown up and from which they attempted to rescue a dying man. The UN has already set up a special unit to investigate several incidences of drones deliberately targeting rescuers and even funeral goers attending the funeral of those killed by drones.

It all makes for rather chilling reading. As President Obama left our shores, I wonder if he spared a thought for how our South African leaders once chose a different path – a path which acknowledged that violence would only perpetuate more violence. Can a war on terrorism realistically ever be won by only invoking the same violent behaviour of your enemy? DM

Read more:

  • The betrayals of Barack Obama in Daily Maverick
  • Obama’s aide insists drone war strikes in Pakistan are legal, ethical in National Post

Drone data at The Bureau Investigates


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