By Rafael L. Bardají*
Barack Hussein Obama has gone from being a perplexing candidate to become a disquieting president – to say the least. Not only has he failed to deliver on his big campaign promises during these first months of his presidency, he is also determined to go ahead with his progressive political agenda – one for which it is highly doubtful that almost half of the American voters chose him. Even worse, he has shown poor managerial skills domestically and internationally; the President looks too inconsistent and he does not seem to be obtaining the results that he was hoping.
Obama burst onto the stage of the American primaries presenting himself as an anti-establishment politician, the young senator without much experience that longed to go beyond the typical politicking exercise of Washington D.C. He also presented himself as the candidate able and eager to transcend the bipartisanship that Americans find so irritating. Already in his phase as the elected Democratic presidential candidate, Obama started to lower the pitch of his rhetoric about being the alternative; however, for many of his fervent followers, the last straw would be the choice of his team. Far from being the man ready to break with the past, Obama became a continuation of Bill Clinton. Not only did he surround himself with advisers of that past era, but he would also end up giving Hillary Clinton America’s most prominent office before the world – the State Department.
Though as president he is governing keeping one eye on his most radical base, which he tries to keep contented above all, it is also true that he has not always been able to succeed in that endeavor, generating great frustration among his most left-oriented voters. His first presidential decisions were intended to put a drastic end to the George W. Bush era and his predecessor’s most notorious aspects of the war on terror. For example, announcing the closing of Guantánamo in a year’s time (though not immediately as many had requested him to do) and attending to the complaint of alleged torture against a few al-Qaeda prisoners due to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. It is true that Obama would allow the public disclosure of four documents regarding this issue; yet he would also suggest that the presidential advisers of his predecessor could be put on trial for giving that sort of advice. Nonetheless, he would have to backpedal on the issue of declassifying more documents and on making available to the public the photos of alleged torture that his most radical supporters had demanded him to release, but the CIA was all against it from the beginning.
Furthermore, his other great political promise, to govern with his emphasis on overcoming bipartisanship, has also been frustrating for many of the conservative voters who, somewhat naïvely, went on voting for Obama on November 2. Not only is the political persecution that the previous administration suffers today a radical departure from the customs of America’s culture of power, but it also opens the doors to any anti-American people on the loose around the world to start a host of legal proceedings in an attempt to tamper with a past that should not be touched. Read here, for example, Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón’s general case regarding Guantánamo, out of which, by fair means, will stem legal actions according to the arbitrary principle of universal jurisdiction – not only against Bush, but also, as things are going, against Obama himself.
The awaited designation of a new justice for the Supreme Court provided Obama with the chance to show the spirit of generosity under which he is said to govern. Nonetheless, it all turned out to be another act of unadulterated partisan radicalism: Judge Sandra Sotomayor best embodies the race issue that candidate Obama publicly rejected so decisively, but that served him so well in his rise to power. Sotomayor is a Hispanic judge and supporter of reverse supremacist ideology – in other words, she believes in the inferiority of the white race, not in the equality of people. It is something that will hardly make American conservatives happy, no matter how much she wants now to backtrack on her own comments.
Yes, it is accurate that Obama has expunged the expression “war against terror” out of the official political map, a move to keep the Europeans happy because Americans on both sides of the aisle continue to believe that there is a war going on, regardless of the name one chooses for it. However, with the Guantánamo mess on his hands, it is very unlikely that Obama could appease his base. For starters, as long as the issue has been to get rid of the Guantánamo prisoners locked up there, Obama has not had any qualms about sending some of them to countries with dubious human rights records. In the same fashion, Obama has had to resume the much-maligned – by his own words – military commissions as the only effective formula that allows the sentencing of Gitmo prisoners. In regards to the possibility that the ones remaining there would be welcomed by allied governments – among them and with special gusto, the Spanish government – the likelihood of that action taking place seems to vanish as the days go by. The same happens with the alternative of taking them to maximum-security prisons on American soil. Unlike his leftist activists, Obama is slowly learning that the Gordian knot of this matter is not to reach a decision on where to lodge the terrorists, but how to take them to court and on what basis they can be prosecuted since we are working with clearly obsolete legislation to confront the new adversaries. Besides, the American people are not willing to see the President freeing the most dangerous prisoners, particularly when it is well known that a third of those already released went back to engross the al-Qaeda ranks.
The Mistreatment of Friends
In spite of promising to be the president of multilateralism, Obama has done very little to live up to that expectation. And this reference is not because of his disdain towards the European allies – some of them, such as the United Kingdom, inextricably linked to America. The grotesque reception in Washington to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was just the prelude of what other traditional American allies can expect of the new Administration.
The issue has nothing to do with frivolities such as Obama’s initial refusal to have a joint press conference with Brown or that the American President would present his British counterpart with a Groucho Marx –style gift (Twenty-five DVDs of American films that are incompatible to play in the European system.) There is much more than meets the eye and it is rather deep. For example, the unilateral decision, only consulted with Moscow, to stop the deployment of the anti-missile defense system on Czech and Polish soil. There was no negotiation, just a direct imposition on those two allies. It is actually a particular act of cynicism; Obama says that he is not against anti-missile defenses, only that he considers them insufficiently tested. At the same time, he has not uttered a word about the fact that the allocation of money in the defense budget has been removed with a stroke of the pen. This move will not only affect the Europeans, but also those nations that do consider their defense against ballistic missiles important, from Japan to Taiwan and all the way to Israel.
The Europeans, that received Obama with an endless extravaganza of summits starting with the G-20 in London, then the Prague Summit, and the 60th anniversary of NATO in Strasbourg-Kehl, only succeeded in getting their pictures taken. On the other hand, they did not give anything in exchange either, not even some financial stimulus package or more troops for Afghanistan. What the leaders of the European Union did have to read in the papers was the speech that Obama gave in Turkey right after. In it, he, seeking to strengthen its ties with that country and also as an attempt of rapprochement with the Muslim world, demanded that European leaders accept Turkey as a full member of the European Union – a real torpedo to the French-German stance on the issue.
The Southern neighbors are also in a difficult situation – to say the least. On the one hand, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe must struggle with a Congress in Washington that has clearly developed a protectionist vein and refuses to accept any new free-trade agreements. On the other hand, the White House seems to chide away from any confrontational policy with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), particularly when it involves neighboring elements such as Venezuela. Brazilian President Ignacio Lula da Silva, who has also met with Obama, did not feel completely satisfied either, because the bilateral relation that the White House attempted to pursue was exclusively limited to the energy issue, without an integrating and free trade-oriented vision for the American subcontinent. Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón experienced something similar since the relevance of his country for the American President only focuses on border security and drug trafficking.
All told, in Obama’s America, the country that is coming off worse is, surprisingly, Israel and the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Far from continuing to consider the leaders in Jerusalem as its best bet in the Middle East, the new American Administration seems rather prone to consider them the greatest obstacle for America’s rapprochement with the Muslim world, with which Obama actually seeks to have a different relationship. Regarding the bilateral meeting at the White House, not only was there a sense of extreme coldness between leaders, but also a divergent vision about the problems of the region, with Americans putting the blame for the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process on disparate issues such as the Iranian reticence to negotiate over its nuclear program.
Sleeping with Its Enemy
This attitude towards friendly nations is in stark contrast with the good disposition shown towards America’s traditional adversaries. In fact, the policy of engagement defended by candidate Obama, now President Obama, seems to be designed “for enemies only,” as if, in order to win them over, it were essential to show the face of a humble America, ready to renounce its principles and national interests. Moreover, Obama has decided to do it unilaterally as a test of good will and without demanding any reciprocity.
That is what has happened, for example, with Cuba. Obama has ordered the lifting of all restrictions to visit the island; his new Administration is now in favor of reincorporating Cuba as a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) and it is surely thinking how to reduce the economic embargo to its minimum expression. There can be many reasons for this change, but at the moment, it has not generated change in the Castro regime. Instead, Havana has taken a harder line, making the situation even more complicated and difficult for a political transition. Obama will shortly find himself without a real answer from Havana but with multiple human rights violations on the island. The activist bases that voted for Mr. Obama will not be able to overlook and forgive this blunder. They have indeed started to show their discontent, for example, by protesting for the White House‘s oversight regarding the domestic policies of Beijing’s communist regime when the Secretary of State visited China.
The same will occur to him with the ayatollahs’ regime in Iran. Obama’s desire to restore relations with Iran has pushed him to take two positions that will increase the discontent among many of the President’s supporters and among all who are not. On the one hand, Obama’s bet on Iran has led to extend an open hand to Tehran (including a video message to Ahmadinejad). This forces Obama to turn a blind eye to permanent violations against Iranian citizens, in particular against women and homosexuals. The President of Amnesty International has already shown her frustration with a president who forgets the rights of individuals with such ease.
But Obama’s second option will alienate the conservatives even further – and a good chunk of his voters, too. In order to reach an agreement with Tehran – a regional strategic agreement – he must accept first what has been unacceptable for the international community until now: To let Iran continue with its uranium enrichment process. Certainly, there will be talks about the promise to not trespass the nuclear threshold by mounting an atomic warhead with the material obtained; however, though monitoring the enrichment process is possible without cooperation, the facilities required for weaponization can be so small that everything can go completely unnoticed. The ayatollahs might do whatever they see fit if they are allowed to continue enriching uranium. Fortunately or unfortunately for Obama, he knows that, according to all polls, more than 70 percent of Americans reject the Iranian nuclear program and see a real threat in the Islamic leaders. Will he be able to square the circle by simultaneously keeping ayatollahs and Americans happy?
Between Vision and Management
Although he applies it just in dribs and drabs, nobody can deny that Barack H. Obama has a vision of the America and the world he wants. What is no longer so clear is if he has a strategy to achieve it or if his administration is unequivocally headed to materialize it. We have already indicated how his approach regarding Cuba is not paying off as anticipated, at least for the moment. The same can be said about his overture to Iran. It has gone even worse with North Korea, whose leader has decided to play deaf to the American president’s siren song, choosing instead to step up North Korea’s dangerous path of nuclearization and missile proliferation.
Nobody has seen yet a little touch of Obama’s magic or some clever management regarding the rest of the issues and problems. On the contrary, Obama the magician, who was quickly going to change the world for the better, has zigzagged too much and has already been too inconsistent with his policies – with seemingly no one hopping on his bandwagon. This fact is particularly striking in the domestic arena where, in theory, Obama’s popularity is undisputed. For example, it was astonishing to see how the U.S. Senate denied him the funds for closing Guantánamo. Not to mention his first budgets, which should have been the expression of his new policy vision; one sees instead that pork-barrel politics still persists with Obama – as it did with all the previous administrations.
The worst spectacle came with those multimillionaire bailouts for banks and auto companies, stirred with their never-ending scandals for unabashedly using public money in corporate leisure activities. Obama had to come out on television to acknowledge that his Administration had poorly monitored the use of TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) money.
Moreover, the idea spreading among many Americans right now is that President Obama’s measures to deal with the economic crisis have very little to do with getting out of the crisis and more with his agenda of government expansion. Thus, it is not paradoxical that the President’s approval rating almost nears 70 percent, while almost 52 percent do not agree with his economic policies. The same happens with his plan to impose a universal healthcare system in the United States. After Obama’s catastrophic meeting with the main healthcare companies, which maintain that costs could be lower with e.g., specific measures and limiting exposure to medical malpractice litigation, adding to fiscal pressure with higher state and local taxes in order to pay the growing bill of government expenditure is seen more as a maneuver to obtain more funds for policies, such as environmental causes, and not necessarily linked to the healthcare sector.
With the US gross domestic product contracting around 6 percent this year, that is not exactly brilliant management on Obama’s part, in spite of the fact that the crisis served him so well on his way to the White House and to which he has dedicated most of his efforts. It is perhaps just bad luck; however, the effect of the bailouts and the infusion of taxpayers’ money have not been clearly felt yet. For that reason, many criticize his stimulus package as an expenditure plan totally devoid of imagination – and little else.
Many people thought that Obama would really be able to change the world by sitting in the Oval Office. At the moment, he is succeeding in changing American politics. His most symbolic gesture possibly came with his quick decision to put a date for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq – particularly stopping combat missions (that, in theory, will end by August 2010.) In practice, his deadlines will not differ much in comparison with the ones suggested by the Bush Administration. Nonetheless, Obama’s rush might have had to do more with his desire to unshackle his policies from a war that had literally consumed his predecessor so that he can dedicate himself to other endeavors.
Unfortunately, reality has very little to do with good wishes. If Obama could determine the American withdrawal calendar was, by his own admission, because Bush never considered it and the former president did everything within his power to win in Iraq. When Obama took office as the 44th president of the Union, Iraq was on the right track. Ever since his plan was made public, Iraq has relapsed suffering the strong impact of terrorism again. How The New York Times journalists interpret the President’s words is very different from how bin Laden’s supporters do it. While for the former the withdrawal marked the end of Bush’s wild adventure, for the latter it was a new possibility to humiliate America. If Obama is not careful, he will have to fight the war that he rejected, because violence will only rise from now on.
Everyone knows when and how wars start but we hardly know when they will end. The American president should know that what is applicable to Iraq is also applicable to Afghanistan. In order to emphasize the differences with Iraq, President Obama pushed to portray Afghanistan as a good and legitimate war. The problem is that the “goodness” factor will not turn Afghanistan into an easily winnable war. In fact, the situation on the ground has worsened so much that one of Obama’s first executive orders was to send 17.000 extra troops to that country. Worse yet, the Pakistani neighbor is becoming increasingly unstable and Obama’s persistence to turn it all into one single front really complicates the relations between Washington on the one hand and the government of Raza Gilani and Ali Zardari on the other hand. In fact, Obama’s policies are so ambivalent that they dramatically remind of the policies with the Shah of Iran developed by the Carter Administration and that produced such bad results for the world.
Change or Continuity?
Some pundits indicate that, although Obama’s rhetoric, principles, and objectives are very different from George W. Bush’s, in practice they do not differ too much from what the previous administration did –at least regarding jihadist terrorism. Moreover, some believe that, although Obama aspires to carry out really radical domestic policies and do-good policies abroad, the level of threat that America suffers and the endurance of the system itself will end up changing him before he manages to change the world.
It is possible, but I would not count so much on the endurance of the system. Some see Obama as a leader that does not believe in American exceptionalism and the nation’s special role in the world. Others, actually too many, agree that neither does international politics nor economic issues seem to arise the interest of this president. With the world and global finances in flux, he must act because he is left with no other option. However, what he finds fascinating and to which he would dedicate himself with passion is his agenda to transform America into a progressive country – from green energy to education, from government interventionism in big corporations to taxing the rich, from egalitarianism to racial change.
I have heard one of his most prominent political advisers that Obama aspires to turn this new America into a more normal nation – just as any European nation. The problem is that, in order to have today’s Europe, America paid with blood, treasure and patience: With its Marshall plan and 300.000 soldiers deployed during more than four decades on European soil; with its nuclear weapons and also, admittedly, with Reaganism. Who can do the same for America today so that America can have a limited and satisfied life as Europeans do today – hardly spending in defense and without assuming the responsibility to put order in the world? A post-America world is equivalent to a world without America. Who is going to guarantee Europe’s security, freedom, and prosperity? Moscow? Beijing? Riyadh? Tehran? Caracas? Havana?
Obama and Zapatero
Comparisons are usually odious, but these two politicians share certain peculiarities that go beyond superficial traits. Give or take some obvious differences between their strikingly different intellectual capacities, both of these men have built their political careers out of thin air and with almost no professional experience in the private sector. They have both proven to be formidable adversaries to the people opposing them or belonging to the same side. Both love to play with words and both shrewdly exploit symbolism and image, preferring appearance to substance and content.
Both openly define themselves as progressive (red, in the case of Zapatero, to to be more precise) and both feel uncomfortable in their relations with the outside world, preferring local venues.
Nonetheless, both share an obsession that goes beyond rationality: A passion to ingratiate themselves with Islam. I do not know if Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s desires date back to the Christian Reconquest of Spain and if Obama’s is influenced by the years of his youth or because of his father’s ancestry, but they have that desire in common. Certainly, Obama does not go so far as to propose an Alliance of Civilizations – to which the Spanish Prime Minister clutches in his attempt of having a foreign policy of sorts. But even if President Obama did not even attend the formal meetings during the last summit in Turkey, he somehow endorsed it in his Cairo speech. But, it will be in that country.
Though it was in Turkey where the American president began to outline his policies of “normalization” with Islam, his announced as historic speech was delivered in Cairo just a few days ago, on June 4th. On that special occasion Obama took his message directly to the Muslim world. It is still amazing that the president of a nation could dare to become the proper interlocutor that addresses a faith when, in fact, he is not a spiritual leader and his only possible proposals can be of a political tenor. Though he dared to do it.
The speech was a mixed bag probably unable to satisfy anyone. Suprisingky enough it was a speech full of grave historical mistakes, like the one talking about Al Andalus as a kind of peaceful paradise in opposition to the Spanish Inquisition. Al Andalus was, in fact, based on beheadings, and bloodsheds more than anything else, and the Inquisition even not existed at the time Spain took control of Cordoba!
Equally, when he expresses his desire to see the three religions, Judaism, christianism and islam mingled freely in the Holy city of Jerusalem, he is denying the fact that the freedom of worship was actually attained in 1967, when the IDF soldiers fought for a unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.
More seriously, out of a vague text, the only policies that could be derived from could be summarize as his bet on a Palestinian state, extracting more concessions from Israel (starting with settlements), and his overture to a dialogue with the ayatollahs.
America and Spain
Obama has been presented by the Spanish socialist leaders as the salvation from abroad for their government. Bush’s calculated “no oneness” has been all left behind. Yet words are just words. In spite of the coincidences between both presidents, Obama knows how to behave and how to distinguish who suits him well for his plans and who does not – rendering that person irrelevant. Zapatero, I am afraid, falls into the second category. Obama did not come to Spain in his first European tour (unlike Bush’s first trip to Europe when his first stopover was Madrid) and Obama will not do it either the second time around. There was an announcement about a visit of the American vice president to Spain; however, no one speaks about it anymore. In his Cairo speech Obama went further, showing his appreciation of the role of Turkey supporting the so-called Alliance of Civilizations, but ignoring Zapatero, the real father of this initiative!
Instead, what became the talk of the town in Washington was the Spanish withdrawal from Kosovo – planned and announced in the worst possible way – as well as Spain’s refusal to substantially increase the number of troops in Afghanistan.
Many more things have been said about Spain. For example, its inclusion on the list of countries infringing their commitments to intellectual property rights – the famous Special 103 Report by the Office of U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) – a real achievement of the socialist and radical government of Spain, placing us in a prominent place of the list.
Obama’s America and Rodríguez Zapatero’s Spain are destined to the same mismatch experienced with the previous administration. The White House has a ritual of symbolisms and gestures; others must show their much vaunted loyalty and friendship in very clear terms. Seeing how Obama behaves with America’s best friends, Zapatero should plan his visit to the White House with the utmost care.
* Rafael L. Bardají, BA in Political Science and Sociology from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Studied the specialization of security and defense in England and the U.S.