The other side of Obama as a continuity figure

Sunday January 18 2009


ON TUESDAY, MR BARACK OBAMA will do something no member one of his race has ever done in the 232-year history of the US: He will enter the history books as the 44th President of the United States.

In a historical first, Obama will shatter the myth that a black person could not ascend to the most powerful office in the country and become the leader of the free world. But he is no ordinary politician, for he has been shattering records all his life.

The first black editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, a gifted orator who wowed the nation at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, a freshman Senator who was elected with over 70 per cent of the vote in 2004, and who then become the only black person to gain the nomination of either major party.

Fighting under the banner of “Change We Can Believe In”, the Obama juggernaut didn’t just win his party’s nomination or the subsequent general election, he defeated a number of lightweights.

In beating Hillary Clinton, he defeated the greatest brand name in the Democratic party. In winning the election, he beat a decorated war hero, John McCain.

THE OBAMA WIN HAS CERTAINLY changed the dynamic, if not the substance, of international politics. The sheer symbolism of seeing a black man in the Oval Office cannot be denied, especially in the context of America’s shameful history of prejudice against its black minority.

No wonder there has been an outpouring of emotional adulation from the west coast of the United States to the east coast of Africa, from the Nevada desert to the Nairobi slums, from the streets of Chicago to the streets of Berlin.

Politicians like Obama who capture the mood for change, who become more leaders of movements than conventional politicians leading parties, are rare.

It is no coincidence that Obama has been compared to John F. Kennedy, even by the late President’s brother. Like Kennedy before him, Obama today transcends US politics.

However the real genius of Obama is not the crowds he draws or the dazzling speeches he makes; it is that he promised change for 20 months while in reality specifying continuity.

On a whole range of issues from domestic to foreign policy, from criticising lobbyists in the campaign to putting them in his transition team, Obama has promised change but in reality offered the same policies and names that past administrations have dished up.

Obama beat Clinton without there being any serious policy difference between the two. The only sparks were on foreign policy especially on Clinton’s vote to authorise force in Iraq.

Obama had derided Clinton’s war vote and accused her of lacking judgement on one of the most critical foreign policy decisions the US had faced. Yet even this has been exposed as more heat than light, by Obama’s decision to appoint Clinton as America’s next Secretary of State.

In offering tax cuts to the middle class at the expense of the top-tier of society, Obama was not advocating change but following the example of Bill Clinton.

By advocating universal healthcare, a review of free trade agreements and greater investments in education, he was following the traditional laundry list in past Democratic party platforms.

On his appointments, Obama is appointing establishment candidates. Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers and Paul Volker have been at the epicentre of supporting the current financial system in past years. Appointing them to fix the disastrous state of the financial system today is akin to asking an arsonist to set new fire safety guidelines.

On foreign policy, appointing a national security team of Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates as Secretary of Defence and General James Jones as National Security Advisor, Obama has again selected continuity over change.

Clinton voted for the disastrous Iraq war in 2002, Gates has been the executor of the Iraqi surge and Jones has been in the thick of US security policies both as Nato Supreme Commander and as marine commandant.

BUT IT IS NOT JUST HIS APPOINTMENTS that reveal Obama’s political compass with respect to national security issues. Statements he made about Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan on campaign reveal no change from the disastrous policies of the Bush administration.

In a speech made to a pro-Israel lobby group in June 2008, Obama stated that Israel was entitled to an undivided Jerusalem. And he called for unilateral US military attacks on Pakistan long before it became fashionable. And on Afghanistan, Obama has promised to increase troops.

Add these hawkish policies to his support for tens of thousands of more troops for the US military and you start to get a sense of what an Obama administration will become.

Mr Abebe edits the ‘Khilafah’ magazine.