During the last Democratic Party debate, Cory Booker, challenging Joe Biden, criticised Barack Obama’s deportation policies. Predictably, articles defending Obama immediately appeared. Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, was especially eloquent. He framed his defence as a response to a friend who ‘repeatedly presses the point to me that Obama’s presidency was a disaster and that Democrats can’t fix things, either substantively or politically, until they recognise that fact’. I do not know Marshall, but I share the views of his mystery friend.
Barack Obama’s plane will land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport this evening. He will be welcomed on the runway by Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, Kenya’s fourth president. Both men were born in 1961, three years after the Embakasi Airport was opened (it was renamed in 1978). The website of the Kenya Airports Authority has a page about the airport’s history. It says that it was ‘constructed in the mid-1950s’ before going into considerably more detail about its World Bank-financed refit in the 1970s. It doesn’t mention that the airport was built with the forced labour of thousands of men during the Mau Mau uprising that began in the early 1950s.
'We tortured some folks,' Barack Obama admitted the other day, in a speech hailed as an unflinching mea culpa for the post 9/11 'enhanced interrogation' programme. It's not the first time Obama has reached for the F-word. In a speech in New Britain, Connecticut, earlier this year, Obama addressed the spiny question of the US's yawning inequality. 'There are folks at the top who are doing better than ever... we understand that some folks are going to earn more than others.' Happily, the president was battling to make sure 'hardworking folks' got a rise. They included the good 'folks who are cooking the meals of our troops, or washing their dishes, or cleaning their clothes. The country should pay those folks a wage you can live on.'
Not long ago, Greg Jaffe, the Washington Post’s military correspondent, wrote that ‘this is the American era of endless war.’ Endless war manifestly does not suggest any eagerness to use military power with an eye towards liberating or pacifying countries governed by regimes that Washington happens to dislike. Post-9/11 experiments along those lines in Iraq and Afghanistan yielded little but disappointment. The American people have lost their stomach for invasions that lead to long-term military occupations, with all that implies in terms of casualties suffered and money poured down the drain. When Robert Gates said that anyone advising a future president ‘to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined’, he was codifying sentiments that had long since found favour with the American public.
Disappointment is the frequent outcome of science’s yearning to be honoured and heeded by politics. For scientists appalled by George W. Bush’s indifference to scientific data and values, candidate Obama looked so promising. And even more so when he vowed in his inaugural address to ‘restore science to its rightful place’. A few months later, he told the National Academy of Sciences: ‘Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.’ Nearly three years later the ‘rightful place’ is still unspecified, and the wants and ways of science have not triumphed over the needs and methods of electoral politics. Silly to think they ever would.
Barack Obama suffered a split lip nine or so months ago playing basketball, severe enough to require 12 stitches. Obama likes basketball and has played it competitively since he was a schoolboy in Hawaii. One of his enduring grievances is directed at his high-school basketball coach who didn’t make him a starter on the varsity team, a decision Obama regarded as unfair and, perhaps, related to a certain animus on the part of the coach.
Minutes before midnight last night, President Obama, in Paris, by a species of teleportable pen signed into law a four-year extension of the Patriot Act: the central domestic support of the security apparatus devised by the Bush administration, after the bombings of 11 September 2001 and the 'anthrax letters' a week later. The first Patriot Act passed the senate on 25 October 2001, by a vote of 98-1 – the opposing vote coming from Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. In the years that followed, a minority view developed, which said that the Patriot Act 'went too far'; but its steadiest opponents have come from outside the mainstream media: the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cato Institute, and libertarian columnists such as Glenn Greenwald and Nat Hentoff.
How far can an American president sink below the line of least resistance? Andrew Sullivan answers this question in a blogpost about Guantánamo. That Obama has failed to address the breaking apart of human beings by Americans on the base makes him the inheritor of the Texan legacy on torture: Barack W. Obama, second president of Gitmo. 'To his eternal shame', as Sullivan remarks.
President Obama’s theoretical willingness to continue the Bush tax cuts for the rich was first hinted at in a New York Times column by Peter Orszag on 6 September. Orszag had stepped down a few weeks earlier from his position as Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, and he was known to be close to Obama; such a column, it was plain, would not have been written without the president’s encouragement. The novelty of the Orszag proposal was that Congress should extend the cuts for just two years.
The next day, a Times headline suggested that Obama would never stand for any kind of extension: ‘Obama is against a compromise on Bush tax cuts.’ But there was a complication. Obama wanted to let the lower rates expire for the top 2 per cent of earners, but stay in force for the remaining 98 per cent, whom he called ‘the middle class’. He was presenting himself as a statesman, uniquely concerned with the middle class, yet mindful of the budget deficit. The Republicans, Obama reasoned, by opposing him would show themselves both careless of the deficit and heartless toward the middle class.
General Stanley McChrystal's kamikaze interview had the desired effect. He was sacked and replaced by his boss General David Petraeus. But behind the drama in Washington is a war gone badly wrong and no amount of sweet talk can hide this fact. The loathing for Holbrooke (a Clinton creature) goes deep not because of his personal defects, of which there are many, but because his attempt to dump Karzai without a serious replacement angered the generals. Aware that the war is unwinnable, they were not prepared to see Karzai fall: without a Pashtun point man in the country the collapse might reach Saigon proportions. All the generals are aware that the stalemate is not easy to break, but desirous of building reputations and careers and experimenting with new weapons and new strategies (real war games are always appealing to the military provided the risks are small) they have obeyed orders despite disagreements with each other and the politicians.
Last summer, General Stanley McChrystal described US operations in Afghanistan as a 'retail war'. Now, thanks to Michael Hastings's notorious profile of the general in Rolling Stone, it's clearer what McChrystal meant: the conflict isn't only about winning over Afghans to the US cause, but also about selling a war that can't be won to increasingly sceptical Americans.
After cancelling Obama’s planned visit to Indonesia this month so he could stay in America and handle the BP oil spill, the White House moved quickly to tamp down any concerns that the cancellation, which is the third time the president has nixed a trip to Indonesia, would hurt bilateral relations. A spokesman told reporters that Obama had called the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to express his regret, and other White House officials suggested in private that Yudhoyono and other senior Indonesians understood the magnitude of the oil spill and held no grudge.
A year ago US healthcare reform seemed inevitable: no one knew whether it would include a public option (a government-backed competition with private insurers), or how much it would try to control costs, but all the smart money expected that some plan to insure America's uninsured, or at least many of them, would go through. Eight weeks ago the smart money went the other way: Republican Scott Brown's surprise election to the Senate not only killed the Democrats' Senate supermajority, but spooked already nervous Democrats in the lower house so badly that it seemed they would not, could not take the necessary votes.
The honeymoon between Barack Obama and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva didn’t last long. When Obama was elected, the US press imagined a natural alliance between the two men, expecting them to sideline the ideologues and set the Western Hemisphere back in greased grooves. ‘This is my man, right here,’ Obama said at the G20 summit in London in April, grinning and shaking Lula’s hand. ‘I love this guy.’ The first bump in the road was the coup in Honduras in June, which sparked a clash of wills between the US and Brazil over how best to settle it. ‘Our concern,’ said Lula’s foreign-policy adviser, Marco Aurélio Garcia, is that Washington’s push to legitimise the Honduran elections ‘will introduce the “theory of the preventive coup”’ – an extension of Bush’s doctrine of preventive war – ‘in Latin America’.
Obama fluffed it. That’s the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the way the military coup in Honduras has played out over the last few months. Claiming that they still regarded Manuel Zelaya, expelled on 28 June, as the legitimate president, the United States eventually got round to appearing to put pressure on the illegal regime in October. Unfortunately, their action was either so hesitant or so deliberately manipulative that Zelaya lost the best chance he had to return to power. The ostensible justification for the coup was that Zelaya was making unconstitutional moves to run for a second term as president. However, despite the Honduran Congress, Supreme Court and most of the media maintaining this fiction, it was obvious that the real reason was his swing to the left and alliance with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Richard Nixon, visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972, said: 'I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.' Ronald Reagan, visiting the Wall in 1984, said: 'What can you say except it’s awe-inspiring? It is one of the great wonders of the world.' Asked if he would like to build his own Great Wall, Reagan drew a circle in the air and said: 'Around the White House.' Bill Clinton, visiting the Wall in 1998, said: 'So if we had a couple of hours, we could walk 10 kilometres, and we'd hit the steepest incline, and we'd all be in very good shape when we finished. Or we'd be finished. It was a good workout. It was great.' George W. Bush, visiting the Wall in 2002, signed the guest book and said: 'Let’s go home.' He made no other comments. Barack Obama, visiting the Wall on Wednesday, said: 'It's majestic. It’s magical.
During his first visit to China, Barack Obama reportedly addressed a range of contentious issues with his hosts, in private: Iran, North Korea, climate change, the yuan and its impact on the global financial crisis. But, whether in public or in private, the US president tiptoed very lightly when talking about China’s human rights record. At a town hall meeting in Shanghai with young Chinese, Obama deflected the chance to criticise Beijing’s censorship of the internet, for example, talking only about universal rights in the vaguest terms. At a scripted ‘press conference’ – neither he nor the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, actually took any questions – Obama walked the same line, telling Hu that the US is committed to universal rights, but refusing to mention any of China’s specific failings. This is part of a new US strategy towards repressive regimes.
Obama’s foreign policy rests on the idea that the world has entered an era in which major powers can work together on such issues as climate change and trade, and that nations can always find some common ground. Arriving in Tokyo, the president emphasised his shared roots with many Asians, and suggested that a new era of co-operation in the region is around the corner. ‘I am an American president who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a boy,’ Obama said, calling himself ‘America’s first Pacific president’. But across Asia, that common ground will be hard to find.
During his trip to Asia this month, Barack Obama is visiting China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. All four are critical to US policy in the region – three Northeast Asian economic powerhouses and Singapore, which has the closest relationship toWashington of any country in Southeast Asia. And yet Obama is skipping the largest nation in Southeast Asia, Indonesia. That’s a mistake. The White House wants to demonstrate that, after eight years of the Bush administration ignoring Southeast Asia, Washington is once again focusing on the region. On Capitol Hill, too, lawmakers seem eager to establish that the US is not willing simply to cede Southeast Asia to China, which has made enormous gains in the region while America was distracted.
Obama has won this year's Nobel Peace Prize. The head of the Nobel committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, explained why: 'It was because we would like to support what he is trying to achieve.' Were to someone to declare, very publicly, that they had embarked on writing the best novel of all time, what should their Nobel ambitions be? Can I have it now, please?
David Brooks professes to know the deep undercurrents of American life, and in his latest column for the New York Times he tries to explain why Jimmy Carter is wrong to say that the rhetorical attacks on Barack Obama are motivated by race: My impression is that race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts. For example, for generations schoolchildren studied the long debate between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Hamiltonians stood for urbanism, industrialism and federal power.
Craig T. Nelson, an actor (the Coach in Blades of Glory), explains to Glenn 'Obama is racist’ Beck of Fox News why he'd like to stop paying his taxes: 'I've been on foodstamps and welfare.
Barney Frank and the dining-room table:
It's been a slow summer for shark attacks in Florida, so American cable TV news has had to content itself by filling its hours with the 'birther' movement, which is less organic than it sounds: the belief that Barack Obama was not born in the USA, and is therefore ineligible to serve as president. Despite some evidence to the contrary – such as a birth certificate validated by the Republican governor of Hawaii and its Department of Health, as well as birth announcements in two Honolulu newspapers – the birthers have managed, according to the latest poll, to convince a majority of Republicans that Obama is as foreign as his name, and part of some Kenyan (or something) conspiracy to turn the White House red.
Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last week was, of course, addressed as much to Americans as to Cairenes (or for that matter Muslims). The crowd hardly needed to be reminded of their civilisation's accomplishments in maths, science and learning; but many Americans could surely benefit from the history lesson the president so succinctly and eloquently provided. Likewise, most Egyptians know that there are worse places to be Muslim than the US: that's why so many of them are desperate for American visas. Europeans, on the other hand, could learn something from American tolerance of the hijab.
The Obama administration has applauded the Pakistan army’s offensive to oust the Taliban from Pakistan’s Swat Valley. It’s gingerly being heralded as a change in army thinking that no longer sees the 'mortal threat' as nuclear India to the east but a spreading Taliban insurgency to the north and west, which – if a BBC map is true – now controls most of the tribal areas on the Afghan border. The scale of the operation is immense. Up to 1.5 million people could be displaced by the fighting, if the current civilian exodus from Swat is added to earlier ones from the tribal areas. Pakistan’s federal and provincial civilian governments have given unreserved political authority to an operation devised wholly by the army. Opposition parties, the media, religious leaders and 70 per cent of the people (according to polls) all support it, aware, finally, that the savagery of the Taliban’s rule in Swat posed a graver threat to Pakistani democracy than to American imperialism or Indian hegemony.
I can’t have been the only one who was delighted when Barack Obama outed himself as a Trekkie while on the campaign trail last year, flashing Leonard Nimoy the Vulcan salute and assuring a Wyoming audience that despite his criticism of the bloated Nasa budget, the space programme was important to him: ‘I grew up on Star Trek. I believe in the final frontier,’ he told them. My president's a geek. More than that, Star Trek is a celebration of curiosity and self-improvement – and not a little socialist. Money has been abolished by the 24th century: ‘The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity,’ says Captain Picard. But an old piece in the LRB by Tom Shippey says that I have it wrong.