Barack Obama: two steps forward, two steps back

I like him. I don’t like him. I like him. I don’t like him. I can’t decide!

Barack Obama. What CAN I say? Well, I said this a few months ago -- and got pilloried by liberals at home and abroad. Until, that is, lots of other people started saying it, too.

Obama is not Bush. Of course not. How could anyone compare to the great "decider"? Obama is, however, a disappointment. And the whole two-steps-forward-two-steps-back manoeuvring both frustrates and saddens me.

On the one hand, for example, he persuades Congress, against all odds, to pass an unprecedented (if incomplete and "centrist") health-care reform bill, which will insure millions of uninsured Americans. And he boldly stands up to the Israeli right and humiliates the settlement-addicted Israeli premier, Binyamin Netanyahu, by "dumping him for dinner" during the latter's visit to the White House.

On the other hand, he rewrites America's policy on nuclear weapons and declares that the US will never use the bomb against a non-nuclear state -- but reserves the right to nuke non-nuclear Iran. And, in an unprecedented legal move, he approves the "targeted killing", or assassination, of a US citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Two steps forward, two steps back. Deeply depressing.

Yet from liberals, and Obamaniacs, here in the UK and in the United States, there is either silence or there come feeble excuses. On the new nuclear posture, for example, Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: "I think this is positive. Does it go far enough? No. But would it be possible for Obama to make the great leap we want? No."

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, said: "It could go further, faster, but it is the best we can hope for under the circumstances."

"Best we can hope for"? I think that says it all.

And on the president's endorsement of targeted killings, the silence is deafening. Obama gets a pass. There's no other way to describe it. Can you imagine the reaction from liberals and leftists, and from the media as a whole, if George W Bush had targeted US citizens for execution from the air?

Yet the irony is that, according to the Guardian, "a former senior legal official in the Bush administration said he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president".

(Oh, and on a side note, before the neocon/Islamophobe trolls in the blogosphere start trying to smear me as an al-Awlaki supporter or defender, or as an apologist for Islamist violence or terror, please see here. My position on al-Awlaki is quite simple: I despise the man, but I don't deny him the right to a fair trial. And nor, having read the US constitution, do I think that the executive branch of the US government has the right or authority to declare any US citizen guilty or not guilty without due process. See the peerless Glenn Greenwald for more details -- and outrage.)

You can now follow me on Twitter.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”