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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser