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Obama: The beginning and the end

Next month, the US and the whole world will turn the page of Barack Obama’s presidency, bidding farewell to eight years whose early days were full of promise, but for tens of millions ended with sadness and disasters.
Like lottery tickets, electoral democracy is never a sure thing. Indeed, American voters throughout US history elected several presidents with big majorities, yet their terms in office ended either with scandals, such as Richard Nixon’s Watergate, war quagmires, such as Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam, or economic recessions, such as the one during Herbert Hoover’s presidency.
When Obama won the presidential race in November 2008, many regarded his victory as a revolution. It was a new hope for America, giving the nation a much-needed dose of youthfulness and vitality, as well as tolerance, hope and belief in a future away from conservatism and racism.
Why not, bearing in mind that when elected Obama was a youthful senator in the middle of his first term? Why not, when he became the first African-American president, and the first president to carry a non-European name, as he was not a descendant of freed slaves but the son of a Kenyan academic who hailed from the prominent Luo people of East Africa?
Obama’s victory in 2008 was thus truly historic. Perhaps this was most poignantly manifested by Rev. Jesse Jackson’s tears of joy during the inauguration. That day, Jackson witnessed what another civil rights hero, the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was dreaming of when he uttered his famous words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” in a country described in the US national anthem as “the land of the free and home of the brave.”
Obama entered the White House under the banner of “change,” and optimism in his ability to affect change was almost as huge as the need to affect that change. Throughout the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency, the neo-cons brought out almost all the cruel prejudicial policies that suited their ideology, without forgetting to satisfy the conservative Evangelical right by giving it a free hand in domestic social affairs.
In addition to launching pre-emptive and punitive wars under the pretext of eradicating terrorism — ignoring human rights, a clean environment and anti-gun lobby campaigners — Bush left market forces and big business unrestrained. Under pressure from extremist conservative Evangelicals, he also slowed down scientific — namely stem cell — research, thus delaying vital medical breakthroughs for years if not decades.
Obama was the opposite of all that. While Bush was a parochial personality with a primarily domestic vision and culture, Obama had a cosmopolitan character with global dimensions and interests. He was the son of a Kenyan Muslim, but also the son-in-law and half-brother of Indonesian Muslims, and he actually lived for a while in Indonesia and later in Hawaii, the only American state with a population that is not white European.
Bush was a member of his white aristocratic Protestant family, and a “hostage” of religious, social and economic conservative lobbies. Obama, despite studying in some of America’s top colleges, was basically a self-made man who did his “rough and tumble” political apprenticeship in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago.
The first impression about Obama was that he was a leader keen not only to understand the world — which his predecessor never cared much about — but also change it. This is at least what many thought after Obama’s famous speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009.
During his first few months in office, he seemed quite interested in tackling the roots of problems rather than limiting his endeavours to symptoms. Indeed, during the first two years he retained the aura of idealism and goodwill that were the hallmark of his rhetoric since election day, but the momentum began to weaken and grind to a halt.
Furthermore, despite succeeding in forcing courageous internal changes in the face of his stubborn Republican opponents, foreign relations approaches began to shroud his idealism and credibility with doubt.
There were two early setbacks that uncovered the fragility of Obama’s idealistic push for change, both directly connected with the Arab and Muslim worlds. The first was beating a retreat on the Palestine-Israel peace front when confronted by hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The second was his failure to live up to his promises to shut down the Guantanamo detention camp, where suspected terrorists are detained.
Thereafter Washington looked confused, giving contradictory and misleading information in early 2011, during what came to be labelled the Arab Spring. Then, within a short time, the hitherto secret American-Iranian talks in the Omani capital Muscat were made public, although few at the time imagined these talks and agreements reached would become the cornerstone of Washington’s strategy toward the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Few thought that the mullahs’ Iran — with its hyperactive gallows, sectarian agitation and incitement, and destructive expansionism — would soon become a strategic ally of the US in the open war against a new enemy, Daesh.
This enemy appeared suddenly, and was allowed to expand and occupy lands. It was then used as an excuse to justify sacrificing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, uprooting and displacing tens of millions of others, bringing down cities, wiping out communities and redrawing national borders.
Thus if “change” was the motto of Obama’s first term in the White House, “retreat” would be the most appropriate motto for his second. It is not only a retreat in the face of Iran — his policies allowed it to become a regional time bomb — but also Russia, the “old enemy” from the Cold War days.
Today the whole of Europe is paying a heavy price for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strident and aggressive “leadership,” and his unabated efforts to undermine the continent’s stability by aiding and abetting his extremist and racist new allies. These allies are now riding a wave of hatred and xenophobia against immigrants and refugees, tens of thousands of whom were made refugees by the Kremlin itself. Even America’s democratic system is not safe anymore from Putin’s ambitious meddling, if we are to believe the CIA. Retreat in the face of extremism and racism is now Obama’s catastrophic legacy to America and the whole world.
• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.