Barack Obama's three year anniversary: a reader

It has been three years since the US President took office. Has he lived up to his promise?

I was on holiday in the US when Barack Obama was sworn in to office three years ago, and the sense of excitement was palpable. My contemporaries, people in their early twenties, told me that for the first time in their adult lives, they could feel proud of their country again. Three years on, and the tides have changed. It was perhaps inevitable that Obama would never quite live up to the hype (that pre-emptive Nobel Peace prize was tempting fate too far), but is the dream over? The right continue to demonise him as a foreigner and a socialist, while the left are frustrated at his perceived inaction and refusal to take a stand.

Over at the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland offers a thorough analysis of the charges leveled against Obama, and the defences offered by his supporters. He notes the impossibility of the situation facing Obama: "an intransigent Republican party in Congress that does not hide its desire to deny Obama anything that looks like an achievement, even if such paralysis damages the national interest." On the other hand, however, he made a tactical error by failing to tackle this challenge head on, remaining "cool, calm and hyper-rational to a fault". Ultimately, though, Freedland is optimistic, saying that "liberal disappointment with Obama is real", we should not ignore his record:

It is not a bad record and there is every chance that it will represent merely the first half of a long game. If, as looks likely, Obama is re-elected in November, the FDR precedent might be invoked once again: it was in his second term that Roosevelt notched up some of his greatest achievements. This president, too, may have learned from his mistakes and got the true measure of his enemies. After three long, hard years, there are still grounds for hope.

Time magazine has secured an interview with Obama. This Q&A with the president is prefaced by a long piece by Fareed Zakaria (not yet online) on Obama's foreign policy. In this piece, Zakaria is broadly positive: "The reality is that, despite domestic challenges and limited resources, President Obama has pursued an effective foreign policy". In the Q&A (which focuses solely on foreign policy), Obama defends his record. Asked about his admiration for George H.W. Bush, he says:

Now that I've been in office for three years, I think that I'm always cautious about comparing what we've done to what others have done, just because each period is unique. Each set of challenges is unique.

Writing in Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan shares Freedland's optimism, writing that "the attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren't out of bounds. They're simply -- empirically -- wrong". Sullivan first takes on right-wring critics, crunching the numbers on unemployment to show that Obama's economic policies are far more successful than he has been given credit for, and pointing out that healthcare reform was moderate. Next he takes on the left, who "projected onto Obama absurd notions of what a president can actually do in a polarized country". While conceding that the president cannot regain the promise of 2008, Sullivan maintains that now we have gone the other way, "grotesquely" underplaying his talents:

What liberals have never understood about Obama is that he practices a show-don't-tell, long-game form of domestic politics. What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for.

At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes on Sullivan's piece, lamenting Obama "apologists" who downplay certain aspects of the president's record:

Like President Bush, he is breaking the law, transgressing against civil liberties, and championing a radical view of executive power -- and he is invoking the War on Terror to get away with it.


Obama has transgressed against what is arguably Congress' most essential check on executive power -- its status as the decider of when America goes to war -- and he has codified indefinite detention into law, something that hasn't been done since Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. But at least he doesn't torture people! How low we've set the bar.

Meanwhile, at the Washington Post blog, Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake note that Obama's campaign has chosen to launch ads in six swing states ahead of next week's State of the Union address, and ask whether it is too soon, given that the Republicans haven't even chosen their candidate yet. They also argue that a negative campaign would be more helpful than the positive ads currently being broadcast:

Obama has to win the economic argument among loosely affiliated and unaffiliated voters in order to win a second term. And his best path to doing that is to discredit Romney as an effective economic messenger.

Given that reality, one Democratic media consultant suggested that it could well be a waste of money for Obama to run even one positive ad.

The jury is still out, and we can expect more furious debate as the presidential race gets closer and the Republicans select a candidate. Obama clearly has some fighting to do to replay even a fraction of his electoral success in 2008.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood