Obama, Bush, Frodo, Jon Stewart and me

Others now realise how Barack has let us down -- especially on freedom and security.

Sorry to harp on about this, but regular visitors to the blog will know that I took a lot of heat for writing a long piece in the New Statesman, back in October 2009, in which I argued that Barack Obama, across an array of issues, but in particular on national security and civil liberties, seemed "to have stepped into the shoes of his disgraced predecessor". On the cover, we had a picture of Obama morphing into Bush, under the headline "Barack W Bush".

It was provocative, contrary and, of course, unfashionable. It upset lots of people on the liberal left and, I believe, we even had one or two people cancel their NS subscriptions "in protest". Obama, it seemed, was untouchable.

Not that long ago, two prominent left-liberal bloggers here in the UK buttonholed me at a conference to complain about my Obama/Bush piece and claim I was ploughing a lone (and unpopular) furrow. That seems to have changed. In the intervening months, many more people on the left and centre left, liberals and social democrats, Yanks and non-Yanks, seem to have noticed what I noticed, and wrote about, nine months ago.

Here's Michael Hirsch in Newsweek in May:

Obama's national security strategy: not so different from Bush's

Here's Max Fisher in the Atlantic Monthly in April:

On national security, is Obama just like Bush?

Here's Peter Feaver, writing on the Foreign Policy website in May:

Obama's national security strategy: real change or just "Bush Lite"?

Here's Josh Rogin, also writing on the Foreign Policy website in May:

Obama's new national security strategy: Bush 2.0?

Here's the former Bush speechwriter David Frum in April:

Continuity you can believe in

Here's Eli Lake, writing in Reason in April:

The 9/14 presidency: Barack Obama is operating with the war powers granted George W Bush three days after the 9/11 attacks.

But forget all these wonks, pundits and commentators. Perhaps the most devastating comparison between Obama and Bush, and the failure of the former to reverse the illiberal, authoritarian and unconstutional policies of the latter as he'd promised he would, came from the peerless Jon Stewart on The Daily Show this week.

The video seems to be unavailable, so I have reproduced the full (and funny) details via the Raw Story website below:

Stewart took a step back from the current BP oil spill catastrophe to look at the bigger picture of Obama's presidency. "The Gulf crisis was an unforeseen catastrophe. Barack Obama's real mission when running for president was to restore some of America's moral high standing that we had lost in the turmoil of the war on terror," said Stewart.

Obama made the case for himself while running for president in November of 2007. "Guantanamo, that's easy. Close down Guantanamo. Restore habeas corpus. Say no to renditions. Say no to wireless wiretaps," said Obama. "Part of my job as the next president is to break the fever of fear that has been exploited by [the Bush] administration."

"Obama's rein would bring back the rule of law. If the Supreme court said even terrorists at Guantanamo Bay deserved their day in court through the writ of habeas corpus, as they did in the Hamdan case, Barack Obama would honor that, not try to pull the old Bush flim-flammery," announced Stewart.

But as president, Obama did appear to find a way around habeas corpus by maintaining the Bush practice of keeping detainees at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration pushed for and won the right to deny those Bagram prisoners a right to a hearing, McClatchy reported.

"Today President Obama won a victory to keep those detainees locked up indefinitely without getting even one chance to prove their innocence in court," the Nation's Chris Hayes announced in May.

Stewart seemed willing to let the president off if that was the only violation. "That's only habeas corpus. That's the only thing that was thrown out there, one small tiny fundamental tenet of law," said Stewart. "He also said he was going to end rendition."

"We also learned that the Obama administration will continue the Bush policy of extraordinary rendition, the practice of sending terror suspects to prisons in third-party countries for interrogation," MSNBC's Alison Stewart reported last August.

Stewart then played clips of then-candidate Obama calling for the "highest standards of civil liberties and human rights".

"No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. We're going to again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers and that justice is not arbitrary," Obama said in August of 2007.

Stewart appeared perplexed. "Your campaign was premised on reining in presidential power. What happened?" he wondered.

"Oh, I see," said Stewart. Apparently things had changed when Obama took the oath of office.

"And now you have your own secret military programmes that go beyond even what Bush was doing," Stewart noted.

The president has gone so far to authorise the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric and American citizen, without trial.

"Wow. He's a bad guy, runs an al-Qaeda website from Yemen but you complained when Bush wanted to read Americans' emails without a warrant," said Stewart.

"Wait a second, all that power you didn't like when someone else had it. You decided to keep it. Oh my God, you are Frodo," exclaimed Stewart.

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.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.