A recent UK poll found that 95% of Britons would support Barack Obama were they entitled to cast a vote in the US presidential elections. As far as I know, no comparable survey has been conducted in this country, but I would bet money the upshot would be the same. Despite his re-election, Obama is far more popular in Australia and Britain than he is in the United States. For Americans, the honeymoon is over but, it seems, continues for the rest of us. We, of course, have the advantage of not being amongst Obama’s 12 million unemployed, but there is a force at work here stronger than a sort of positive reversal of the ‘tyranny of distance’ effect.
Australians, on the whole, adore Obama. My Facebook news feed remains packed to the gunwales with fluffy paeans to the man, many by people who display little or no interest in politics of any kind in the normal run of things. There is no doubt Obama’s abundant charm and movie star-like charisma have a lot to do with his popularity outside of the US, but the attraction is surely deeper.
Obama, like Bill Clinton, is an expert at what Christopher Hitchens called ‘triangulation’, in effect a fancy word for the suspect ability of being able to simultaneously appeal to and betray progressive voters. What is difficult (especially difficult for left-leaning Australians it would seem) is to see through the spin and rhetoric of ‘hope’ which brought Obama to power in 2009, and saw him farcically awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few months later (Noam Chomsky said: ‘In defence of the committee, we might say that the achievement of doing nothing to advance peace places Obama on a considerably higher moral plane than some of the earlier recipients’).
Obama came to power promising, amongst much else, to wind back the US exceptionalism which had flourished under Bush by engaging in increased dialogue with Muslims and the Middle East, closing the vile Guantanamo Bay, pulling American troops out of the war in Afghanistan, and promising more action on climate change and non-proliferation. What has become of these assurances? Guantanamo Bay remains, of course, open for business. The ‘Muslim problem’ is, in almost all respects, worse now than it was when Obama came to power. The Israel/Palestine conflict is as seemingly intractable as ever. Comment on climate change – let alone action – was in shockingly short supply in mainstream US politics during the recent election campaign. Combat forces will be withdrawing from Afghanistan, but not until 2014 – hardly the urgent timetable of a man who claimed to be committed to ending the war (and let’s not forget that private contractors outnumber US troops in Afghanistan. These ‘mercenaries’ have no obligation to leave the country at any time).
And as for non-proliferation? Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, told the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin in January that: ‘President Obama has frequently discussed his vision of a world without nuclear weapons and trumpeted his multilateral initiatives on nuclear security. Given this, the recklessness his administration is showing toward the transfer of civilian nuclear technology is astonishing and will lead us down the path to a world in which many more countries will have the ability to develop military nuclear programs if they so desire.’ Rubin finishes the article with this devastating verdict: ‘It is ironic that the community of think-tank analysts and current and former officials who have dedicated their life’s work to nuclear non-proliferation have now seen their efforts weakened (or destroyed, if Iran gets the bomb) not by some ‘war-mongering’ conservative but from the most liberal president to occupy the Oval Office.’
What else might we say about the gulf between the ‘liberal’ Obama’s shiny words and his shabby deeds? Here’s a top-of-the-head-ish rundown of some of the more pertinent facts:
· Obama has significantly expanded the ‘drone war’ begun by Bush. Attack drones have to date killed nearly 1000 civilians (many of them children) in Pakistan alone.
· There has never before in US history existed a ‘hit list’ of foreign nationals the administration wants to assassinate. Obama has signed off on the first such document.
· Obama has never denounced the appalling practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’, still resulting in the abduction and torture of crimeless citizens despite his promise of ‘change’.
· Under Obama, a ‘war against whistleblowers’ is now underway in the US. This ‘war’ has already seen Bradley Manning, former associate of Julian Assange, detained indefinitely and without proper trial.
· Not only has Obama not shut down Guantanamo Bay as he promised, he has since signed the grotesque National Defence Authorisation Act which allows the US government to detain anyone, without charge, for any length of time.
· US military spending is higher under Obama than it has been in real terms under any other president (including the ‘cowboy’ George W. Bush).
· Half of Obama’s own party voted against his ‘debt ceiling deal’, Congresswoman Donna Edwards tweeting: ‘Nada from million/billionaires; corp tax loopholes aplenty; only sacrifice from the poor/middle class? Shared sacrifice, balance? Really?’
Let these examples of Obama’s mendacity suffice.
Australians, on the whole, don’t care about elections in other countries (I don’t remember virtually blanket free-to-air coverage of the last British election). They do, however, care about who gets to be president of the United States. Why? Because Americans do politics in a way no other ostensible democracy does. Their elections are bigger, louder, longer, and far, far more expensive than anybody else’s (this year’s came with a staggering $6 billion price tag). What, perhaps, is less easy to appreciate is that – despite appearances to the contrary – Barack Obama is not a rock singer or a film star. What he does matters, and we give him a free ride at our – and, indeed, the world’s – peril.
In 2009, we liked Obama because he wasn’t Bush, in the same way in this country we liked Kevin Rudd because he wasn’t John Howard. For a while, we should not be surprised if the novelties of new leadership have a slightly corrosive effect on the critical mind. The deafening and the blinding, however, will always wear off and in the end a politician must be judged for what he or she does, not what they say they will do.
Would I have preferred Mitt Romney to get up over Barack Obama? Of course not. But rightful derision of that magic underpants-wearing cretin should not be allowed to morph into brainless adulation of the other guy who is, in reality, ‘only’ the lesser of two evils. If we think we have nothing to fear from Obama because the rednecks don’t like him, then we are as stupid as we think half of America is. We can, and should, do better.