With the passing of a disastrous decade and President Obama about to complete his first year in office, it is perhaps appropriate to look at the recent past and what may lie ahead. For the Obama presidency, it has been more of a downhill journey than a steep climb that many of his supporters and admirers in America and around the world had expected. President Obama will miss the January 22 deadline he set himself a year ago to close Guantanamo Bay prison camp. As the New York Times recently pointed out, difficulties in finding places abroad to resettle prisoners deemed innocent and Congressional resistance to approving money to transfer high-security terrorism suspects to a special prison in Illinois have made it impossible to meet the deadline. The Guantanamo prison might not be closed before 2011 at the earliest.
Obama’s health-care reform bill has had an arduous passage in the US Congress. After a long battle, the House of Representatives finally approved its version including a government-run health-care option the president wanted. It was a different matter in the Senate, where a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority could only be secured when Senate Democratic majority leader Harry Reid dropped the government insurance option to ensure support from conservative Democrats. Not one Republican senator backed the bill. And Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were forced to concede on other major issues, including restrictions on abortion coverage.
These concessions have infuriated liberals. One of the disappointed is Obama’s personal physician of 22 years, Dr David Scheiner, who does not believe the planned overhaul goes far enough to help the poor and uninsured, and will cost too much. Dr Scheiner, bitterly disappointed, said he was excluded from the list of invitees to the White House under pressure from the health lobby. Even so, President Obama congratulated the Senate, and by implication himself, on its historic vote, proclaiming "we are now finally poised to deliver on the promise of real, meaningful health insurance reform."
Compare the content and tone of President Obama’s remarks at his inauguration, his Cairo address to the Muslim world in June and his Oslo speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009. Couched in the familiar rhetoric is increasing aggression and militarization of American foreign policy under the Obama presidency. The inauguration speech included remarks about the United State being a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers; a message to the Muslim world that America sought a new way forward, based on mutual interests and mutual respect; and a warning to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit.
In Cairo, Obama acknowledged tensions between the United States and Muslims around the world, not only rooted in historical forces, but also fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims; and a cold war in which Muslim-majority countries were treated as proxies without regard for their aspirations. Reaction from the Muslim world and outside was generally positive. The speech was seen as a possible new beginning after the three-week Israeli war on Gaza that took the lives of 1400 Palestinians in comparison to 13 deaths on the Israeli side during the last days of the George W Bush’s presidency in December 2008/January 2009.
In a surprise but divisive move, the Nobel Committee announced the award of the 2009 Peace Prize to President Obama for his ‘extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples‘. But soon the Nobel Committee’s announcement began to look like a triumph of hope over reality. In early December, after weeks of deliberations, he announced before a uniformed audience at the West Point military academy: "As commander-in-chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan." It reminded of speeches made by George W Bush throughout his eight years of war on terror.
Within days, Obama administration officials overturned the president’s July 2011 deadline for starting a withdrawal stipulated in his speech. Sitting with Secretary of State Clinton and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen, Defense Secretary Gates said 3,000 more troops could be needed on top of that. Britain and other allies announced smaller increases – all taking the Afghan surge to 40,000 troops or over. The war vision of America’s military complex, projected in General McChrystal’s report, was being implemented.
For all his expressions of gratitude and humility, Obama’s acceptance speech at the Nobel award ceremony was an awkward one for the occasion. Once the almost obligatory references to figures like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were out of the way, Obama quickly reminded the world that he was the commander-in-chief of the United States. He invoked the concept of a ‘just war’ which is waged as a last resort, and in which force is used in proportion and civilian lives are spared whenever possible. All of these are unbelievable, fanciful assertions.
In a convincingly argued, if provocative, article titled Obama’s Af-Pak War is Illegal, law professor Marjorie Cohn tackles Obama’s claims about America’s war in Afghanistan being a ‘just war’ and finds those claims wanting. Cohn points out that many Congressional Democrats are uncomfortable with Obama’s decision and calls on them to hold firm, even refusing to fund the war. A deep sense of disappointment and anger has spread among liberal and progressive supporters who had staked a lot in an Obama victory bringing a real change. But change is not the word much in use in the current Obama rhetoric.
The increase in US Predator drone attacks inside Pakistan’s territory and the resulting casualties including old people, women and children fuel anger and resentment among local tribal communities and the country’s intelligentsia. As CNN’s Peter Bergen said in his analysis at the end of October, a Gallup poll showed only 9 percent of Pakistanis supported the strikes against two-thirds who opposed. And, according to UN human rights investigator Philip Alston, drone strikes causing civilian deaths may well violate international law. Newsweek’s Mark Hosenball recently wrote that while some counterterrorism officials in the Obama administration wanted to expand drone operations to Pakistani cities, one person standing in the way of expanded strikes was President Obama.
Obama’s first year in office reveals limitations of his original thinking behind the formation of, in effect, a coalition administration; it includes President George W Bush’s defense secretary Robert Gates and Obama’s onetime rival for the Democratic nomination, secretary of state Hilary Clinton, who had threatened to obliterate Iran if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, which Iran did not have; and candidate Obama had accused her of echoing the ‘bluster’ of then president, George W Bush. On the military command side, two counterinsurgency hawks of the Bush presidency, General Petraeus and General McChrystal, remain in command of America’s war. The immediate future does not look bright.
Deepak Tripathi is a former BBC Afghanistan correspondent and the author of two forthcoming books: Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan and Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Potomac, 2010). His works can be found at http://deepaktripathi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at: [email protected].