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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.