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4 November 2009

Obama’s first year — good or bad?

Debating the Obamaniacs

By Mehdi Hasan

The excellent Jonathan Freedland bursts some of the Obama bubbles on the first anniversary of his historic election victory:

The US is still fighting two wars; Guantánamo remains open, with no clear plan for its closure given that Congress has ruled that none of its inmates can be moved to the US; Iran has not yet agreed to anything; Middle East peace looks as distant as ever; the US economy is still limping, with unemployment around 10%; healthcare has provoked a congressional battle royal; and as for serious US action on climate change, don’t hold your breath . . .

As a candidate, he let expectations get unfeasibly high: he could only ever disappoint. More seriously, as president he has too often left a vacuum where his own plans and vision should be. He left the details of healthcare up to Congress, where things got mired and the opposition stole the initiative — forcing him to ride to the rescue, saving the day with a spellbinding speech. He pulled that trick several times as a candidate, but it will soon wear thin . . .

Some have said his prime failing is not to have crafted a single narrative that might bind the disparate elements of his programme, from health to the economy to climate change. (Many of us used to say the same about New Labour.) But sometimes Obama’s mistakes are more basic. On Israel-Palestine he should never have issued a demand he wasn’t ready to enforce: by insisting Israel freeze all settlements on the West Bank, only to back down, he has lost face in a region where face counts above all.

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I took a lot of stick for writing a similar critique of Obama in the New Statesman last month — perhaps because I linked so many of Obama’s policy positions to his predecessor’s, and because we choose to illustrate the piece on the cover with a deliberately provocative, morphed image of Obama-as-Bush(!).

The Obamaniacs didn’t like my take. They don’t want to hear about assassinations in Pakistan, renditions in the Middle East, torture in Gitmo — that all stopped when Bush left for Dallas, right? Wrong. In several areas but, in particular, in national security policy, Obama has picked up Bush’s baton and run with it.

Ken Gude, who is the associate director of the International Rights and Responsibility Programme at the Centre for American Progress, disagrees. He wrote a long but empty and pointless “rebuttal” to my piece on the Progress website. Below, I have fisked him and his non-responses. (It is also worth noting that the Centre for American Progress is a think tank run by John Podesta, former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and the man who ran President-Elect Obama’s transition team. It recently launched a “war room” to do “hard-hitting research that boils down complex policy questions into usable talking points and narratives that play well in the media and build public support for the White House’s policy goals”. Build support for the White House? Now there’s a neutral think tank . . . )

Gude begins:

As a progressive American internationalist it is always instructive and helpful to learn and understand how the United States and its leadership are perceived around the world. The contrast could not be sharper between what has landed on my desk in the last two mornings. On Thursday I read Mehdi Hasan’s “Change we can’t believe in” piece for the New Statesman declaring President Barack Obama a failure, a political coward, and equating him with his predecessor in word and deed. On Friday I awoke to news that this same President Obama had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in large measure because he is not President George W Bush.

I am not sure I referred to him as a “failure” or as a “political coward”. Gude puts words in my mouth. As for the Nobel Prize, in this paragraph and the next (below), Gude sidesteps the issue of whether he thinks Obama actually deserves the prize or not. Even devoted Obamaniacs should graciously concede how ludicrous it was for the US president to win an award for peace for which the nominations closed a fortnight after he entered office.

The remarkable disparity between these two assessments of President Obama can best be explained by expectations. Disappointment on the part of Mr Hasan that Obama has not lived up to his unrealistic expectations. And the expectation on the part of the Nobel Committee that Obama will be able to fulfil the promise of his new approach to the world and deliver on nuclear disarmament, climate change and the Middle East peace process. While the Nobel Committee may be just as guilty as Mr Hasan of pushing the boundary of what is achievable, its verdict on the first nine months of the Obama presidency is far closer to the mark.

Is Ken Gude a mind-reader? Is he the Centre for American Progress’s very own Paul McKenna? How does he presume to know what my “expectations” of Obama were, “unrealistic” or otherwise? The fact is that though I supported his presidential campaign and was delighted at his victory a year ago to the day, I had very low expectations from the outset. Perhaps it’s just the cynic in me. I suspected Obama wouldn’t close Guantanamo, and that he would fail to halt settlement expansion, and that the Americans would remain the greatest barrier to progress on climate change at Copenhagen. Sadly, I have been proved right on each issue.

President Obama is not perfect.

I’m glad Gude, at least, managed to admit this. Nice of him to say so.

There is room to criticise his actions in some areas, but there is so much wrong with Mr Hasan’s analysis it’s difficult to know where to begin. It is in some ways refreshing, if still bewildering, to realise that some outside the United States could believe, as Mr Hasan apparently does, that President Obama’s domestic and economic policy agenda was a continuation of the Bush administration. Locked as I am in the Washington bubble, I’m forced to listen to Republican elected officials, conservative media personalities and right-wing activists castigate the president as (often at the same time) a socialist-Marxist-communist-fascist-Nazi-enemy of humanity. Perhaps Mr Hasan should ask these folks if they believe Obama is just like Bush.

“Some outside the United States”? I quoted Jon Eisenberg, a US-based, Democrat-supporting civil rights lawyer who contributed to the Obama campaign. Or how about Hope Metcalf, director of the National Litigation Project of the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, who said last month that “Bagram is becoming Obama’s Guantanamo”. Is she “outside the United States”? How about Glenn Greenwald, one of America’s leading liberal bloggers (who I quoted in my piece), who referred, back in April, to the “Bush/Obama position on secrecy”? I assume Gude has heard of Greenwald.

Of course he is nothing like his predecessor.

Really? Nothing at all like him? Gude himself contradicts himself later (see below), admitting that he is disappointed Obama “has not done more to change the application of the state secrets privilege”, thereby conceding that there are areas of overlap between the two administrations, at the very minimum:

. . . and Obama has earned this ire precisely because he has begun a process to deliver significant progressive change. He enacted a massive economic stimulus plan in the midst of a huge economic downturn that delivered the largest middle-class tax cut in American history (while receiving only three Republican votes in all of Congress). His budget proposal would reverse the Bush tax cuts for the rich, raising the top tax rate back to the level it was during the Clinton administration.

On the contrary, as I point out in my piece, Obama’s budget makes the majority of the Bush tax cuts permanent.

But that’s not enough difference for Mr Hasan, who apparently wanted the new president to take the American and global economy that was on the precipice and throw it over into the abyss. Of course Wall Street bailouts are unpopular, but ditching them would have caused even more pain to the very working men and women in America and around the world that Mr Hasan claims to support.

He really is a mind-reader, isn’t he? So, now he has divined (“appararently”!) that I want to throw the global economy “into the abyss”. Has he ever read anything I’ve written? I am a supporter of the bailouts and have long argued for more spending by governments on fiscal stimuli and bank rescues. I object, however, to the bloated bonuses that bankers have enjoyed since the bailout, and which Obama (and Brown) have done so little to curb, restrict or prevent.

Hasan puts in quotes Obama’s “‘firm pledge’ not to raise ‘any form’ of taxes” on middle-class Americans. It’s puzzling why he puts those in quotes . . .

That’s normally what we journalists do when we quote someone. We put their words in quotes. Why is that “puzzling”?

. . . because Obama hasn’t raised their taxes, he’s cut them, and I don’t know what the “modest social-democratic goals” Obama has failed to deliver are. Obama will raise taxes on the wealthy and lower taxes on middle- and lower-income Americans, maybe social democratic tax policy doesn’t mean what I think it means.

Did he actually read the piece I wrote? Let me remind him of why he is wrong in claiming that “Obama will raise taxes on the wealthy” — as I wrote in the original piece: “Under the ‘Bush-Obama tax cuts’, the only income group not to benefit is the top 0.1 per cent — households with an annual income of more than $2.7m.” Gude, throughout his shoddy piece, refuses to engage with the detail of my argument.

On health care, far from “retreat[ing] at the first sign of trouble”, as Mr Hasan claims, President Obama has devoted months and enormous political capital to extend health insurance coverage to those who don’t have it and improve the coverage of those who do. The public option is not dead — the new proposal of allowing states to opt out of a public plan could seal its passage — but neither should it be thought of as the embodiment of reform. Even if it doesn’t survive, President Obama will have won meaningful change in our health-care system.

“Meaningful change”? Nice attempt at a get-out. Is “meaningful change” one rung below “change”? Because introducing a health-care reform package that is gutted of all its progressive elements in order to appease right-wing Republicans and “blue-dog” Democrats is not “change we can believe in” — meaningful or otherwise.

It is amazing that in a piece that’s main argument is that Obama is just like Bush, there are instances when Mr Hasan says “Obama, unlike Bush”. Climate change is one of them. It’s not good enough for Mr Hasan, though, that Obama has: repeatedly recognised the danger of climate change; appointed as the top US climate change envoy one of the original negotiators of the Kyoto Protocol; pushed Congress to enact binding limits on carbon emissions which have passed the House and have now been introduced in the Senate; and made numerous rule changes and issued Executive Orders to reduce emissions in the United States.

Copehagen is all that matters. The Obama administration has failed to persuade a Democrat-led Congress to pass a climate change law before 2010. And what about the polar bears?

Iraq and torture are other differences which may be important to most of the rest of the world, but not Mr Hasan. He launches into an attack on Obama’s Afghanistan policy apparently oblivious to the fact that Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do throughout the campaign: put in more troops in an effort to defeat the Taliban. Hasan calls the Afghan war a “debacle”, but it is unclear what he means by that. Is it that we diverted attention and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, or is the whole invasion illegitimate?

Neither. Afghanistan is a debacle because western troops and Afghan civilians are dying in increasing numbers, the president is corrupt and illegitimate, the Taliban are resurgent and Obama’s response has been to escalate the war. Thankfully, since my original piece was published, it seems Vice-President Biden may be winning the argument inside the administration to scale down the US military presence.

What has transpired in Afghanistan over the last eight years has been a tragedy, but no one can credibly argue that the original mission to overthrow the Taliban and root out al-Qaeda lacked legitimacy. What to do now is an enormously difficult dilemma that the highest levels of the Obama administration are grappling with daily. If it was as simple as pulling out US troops and everyone in the region would just get along, I think we’d have done that already.

How about not killing more civilians in air strikes than Bush did in his last year in office? Does Gude have a response to this? No? I didn’t think so. Again, he fails to engage in the detail of my argument and prefers to fall back on simple and sweeping statements.

The technical national security law issues that Mr Hasan raises are legitimate areas of criticism.

How patronising! The “technical national security law issues”? Is that what Democrats like Gude called these abuses of executive power when carried out by Bush and Cheney?

I am disappointed that the Obama administration has not done more to change the application of the state secrets privilege.

It is not that they have “not done more to change the application” of it — it’s that they have reinforced and reapplied it, and done so with enthusiasm and vigour. Glen Greenwald has more.

I would like to see them do more to get the facts out on the horrific torture and abuse authorised and implemented by the Bush administration. I am concerned that there hasn’t been enough change to the overall detention system. Obama promised a paradigm shift and we may only get some reform and that’s not good enough. My own personal disappointment in this area is intense because my expertise is on Guantanamo and I have been an adviser to the campaign, transition and administration on detention issues.

Fat lot of good his “expertise on Guantanamo” did him. It’s still open. For business. Detainees are abused and one has died on Obama’s watch. Bagram, the site of so much torture, has been expanded under Obama’s Bush-era defence secretary, Bob Gates.

Your response, Mr Gude?

But that specific frustration does not extend to the entire Obama presidency. Perhaps no other modern world leader took office with higher expectations than Obama. He faced two wars, a national and global economic emergency, an unsustainable health-care system, a planet on the verge of environment catastrophe, and a fractured country that had lost the respect of much of the world. We want him to succeed in solving all of these problems, but Mr Hasan seems to want to start at the end of the story rather than the beginning. The Nobel Committee has recognised that Obama’s election and his first nine months in office have started the world on a path that may lead to positive change on some of the world’s most intractable issues. But it’s not just up to Obama; we all have a stake in solving these problems, Mr Hasan, me, you. I’m not ready to give up and I hope you aren’t either.

No, I’m not. And that’s the whole problem with this silly piece. Gude fails to address my arguments or examples. Instead, he assumes that I am driven by “unrealistic expectations”. As I said, my expectations were limited, realistic. I was simply attempting to hold Obama to his own words and promises — for example, on renditions, which Gude (again!) fails to mention or address. But I do agree with Gude that “no other modern world leader took office with higher expectations than Obama. He faced two wars, a national and global economic emergency, an unsustainable health-care system, a planet on the verge of environment catastrophe, and a fractured country that had lost the respect of much of the world.” I do believe he still has time to offer change, and change himself, but his first year has been disappointing and depressing for those of us who care about progressive politics, human rights, peace and justice.

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