On January 20, 2009, millions of people jammed into Washington, DC, to see history being made, celebrating the start of what they hoped would be new era. But a conflict between the hope Barack Obama inspired and the reality of his vision even ran through the inaugural address.
In describing the economic crisis, he said, "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." However, the people suffering the most didn't "fail" to make "hard choices" about the greed and speculation on Wall Street. They didn’t get to choose. And they didn’t share in the gains that preceded the crash. Yet they were being asked to take responsibility and make sacrifices.
Millions of people probably would make some sacrifices – if the goals were things like universal health care. But Obama was basically asking them to be patient. Meanwhile, the second half of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout was expected to save some banks, while doing nothing for those in danger of losing their homes.
What about his foreign policy goals? Obama did strike a different tone than Bush, offering the Muslim world "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Yet he had remained silent during an Israeli assault on Gaza — carried out, by the way, with US-built F-16 jets and Apache helicopters after a blockade that cut off food and medicine.
Obama said he would "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" — a pointed criticism of the shredding of civil liberties under Bush. But he also claimed that "our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." This and other lines could have come from Bush's speechwriters.
The red flags also included a call for more US troops in Afghanistan without a clear explanation of what they would do there, giving a misleading impression about how soon and how many soldiers would be removed from Iraq by using the term "combat troops" (100,000 mercenaries and up to 50,000 US troops might remain), approving unspecified bailout amounts for unspecified purposes with unspecified oversight, picking a budget director who favored cutting Social Security for those under 60, and picking an attorney general who supported continued immunity for illegal wiretapping and secret searches of library and bookstore data files. Plus, support for the war on drugs, the Patriot Act, and the death penalty.
Obama did issue a call to unite and work together to overcome adversity – to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." This was a time-honored call by American political leaders, but at least it was about actually doing something.
And what happened after that? Obama’s CIA chief Leon Panetta made it clear that extraordinary rendition wouldn't end, his Attorney General used "state secrets" as the rationale to block a trial, and Obama personally refused to release photos of enhanced interrogation. He also said that past official crimes would not be prosecuted. It was audacious all right, but not an auspicious beginning.
The Bush regime had armed Obama with extended power to take executive action, both domestically and in countries with which the US had major disagreements. Using that power, Obama's overseas strategy began to look a lot like rollback; that is, reversing gains made by “troublesome” governments and movements during the Bush years. Rollback involves a combination of open military intervention, slippery diplomatic rhetoric, and deniable covert operations. The most transparent early manifestation was the buildup of military forces in Afghanistan, defined by Obama as a "necessary" war. The most covert may have been the ouster of Honduran President Zelaya.
There has been no admission of US involvement in Zelaya’s removal. But US policy clearly shifted after he decided to improve relations with Venezuela in hopes of securing petro-subsidies and aid. Even after the UN General Assembly demanded his reinstatement, Obama declined to call it a coup.
The ousted, democratically-elected president ended up agreeing to exile in the Dominican Republic. The next president, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, was a conservative landowner with a business degree from the University of Miami who pledged to be tough on crime and push for reintroduction of the death penalty. Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina called his election illegitimate. Secretary of State Clinton backed the nation’s new leader.
Whatever the real story, the coup sent a not-so-subtle message to any country that found Venezuelan-led economic programs attractive.
Domestically, the administration opted to prosecute rather than reward whistleblowers. In 2006, NSA official Thomas Drake provided information for an article published in the Baltimore Sun. The article detailed NSA mismanagement and use of technology that failed to protect the privacy of citizens. The new administration decided to indict him. Meanwhile, New York Times reporter James Risen faced a grand jury about confidential sources he used in a book that exposes the CIA’s mistakes in infiltrating Iran’s nuclear program. There was apparently more concern about plugging leaks (and restricting the “right to know”) than prosecuting those who illegally spied or tortured prisoners.
Two of the more shocking developments have been Obama’s announcement that he reserves the right to have the CIA assassinate US citizens who are engaged in alleged terrorist activity, and Attorney General Holder’s argument that Miranda rights may to be altered when it comes to such suspects – assuming they survive long enough. But even such moves shouldn’t come as a surprise. As John Podesta, Obama's transition chief, explained shortly after the 2008 election, "There's a lot that the president can do using his executive authority without waiting for congressional action, and I think we'll see the president do that."
The truth is that he has largely done what he promised. It’s just that many people misunderstood (or chose to overlook) what he had in mind. The disconnect is particularly significant on foreign policy. While Obama pledged to end the war in Iraq, he also promised to leave behind a large “residual” force. As a candidate, he said his administration would emphasize diplomacy, yet he described Iran as a terrorist state and pledged to use “all elements of American power” to deal with it. “If we must use military force,” Obama told the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) during the campaign, “we are more likely to succeed, and will have far greater support at home and abroad, if we have exhausted our diplomatic efforts.”
As far as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned, he made it plain that he wanted to send more troops, and was ready to take unilateral military action inside Pakistan if necessary. “This is a war that we have to win,” he said.
Obama’s opponents nevertheless insist that he is a radical tyrant intent on imposing socialism and undermining the nation’s security, while his supporters cling to the idea that he is being prevented from implementing a progressive agenda by obstructionist Republicans and their Tea Party foot soldiers. Both groups appear to be suffering from cognitive dissonance – the need to deal with the frustration caused by contradictory information by rationalizing it. After all, it’s easier, not to mention politically convenient, to embrace a comforting myth and deny or ignore disquieting evidence.
Beyond all the hyperbole the man in the White House is neither prince nor usurper, messiah nor anti-Christ. He’s just an ambitious politician whose words cloak a different reality. But for those who still prefer a fairy tale explanation, the story unfolding may turn out to be the latest version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Obama: Myths & Realities. Part three of three.
Part One: Barack in Wonderland
Part Two: Hope or Hoax?