In 2008, Barack Obama rekindled faith in the American electoral process for many, and revived the deeper promise of American democracy, bringing to the foreground of the national political experience a brilliant and compassionate African American candidate.
When Obama actually won the presidency, it was one of the most exciting political moments in my lifetime, and rather reassuring as a sequel to the dark years of George W Bush’s presidency.
Of course, many Americans didn’t share such positive feelings. An important embittered minority believed that the election of a liberal-minded black man was the lowest point ever reached in national politics, challenging this segment of society that now was deeply alienated from the prevailing political current to mobilise their forces so as to win back control of the country on behalf of white Christian Americans, and also a time to indulge such absurd scenarios as an imminent Muslim takeover of the society.
Such polarisation, gave rise to an Islamophobic surge that revived the mood of fear and paranoia that followed upon the 9/11 attacks and was reinforced by evangelical enthusiasm for Israel. In this regard, the Obama phenomenon was a mixed blessing as it contributed to a rising tide of rightest politics in the US that poses unprecedented dangers for the country and the world.
Nevertheless, as mentioned, Obama’s campaign and election was at the time a most welcome development, although not entirely free from doubts. From the outset, my hopes were tinged with concerns, although I did my best to suspend disbelief.
All along I found little evidence that Obama’s leadership would liberate the governing process from its threefold bondage to Wall Street, the Pentagon and Israel. Such a political will to mount such a challenge was never in evidence and never materialised.
Global event affecting the world
Even in lucid moments, however, I reasoned it was important to elect Obama, despite his endorsement of a woefully deficient set of foreign policy assumptions, because more would be done to give assistance to those impoverished and hit by unemployment and home foreclosures, better judges and diplomats would be appointed, and more attention would be given to climate change.
After four years, I continue to believe that these differences matter sufficiently to make it irresponsible not to support Obama and the Democratic Party, especially in so-called swing states.
And if there was excitement in much of America during the 2008 electoral campaigned, it was mild compared with pro-Obama sentiments in the rest of the world four years ago, which reached dizzying heights after his victory. This enthusiasm was a compound of several elements: Obama’s success lifted confidence throughout the world that the US could again play a benevolent role on the global stage.
Also because, it validated that mythic image of America as a country where it was truly possible for anyone in the society, including members of minorities long discriminated against, to reach the pinnacles of wealth and power provided only that they were sufficiently talented and determined, and some would add, lucky.
There remains little doubt that if the peoples of the world were allowed to vote in American elections, as might be appropriate in a globalised world, it would have produced a landslide of unprecedented magnitude in Obama’s favour.
All at once in 2008, it became evident that an American presidential election was no longer just a national ritual that bemused outsiders who watched it as a kind of spectacle, but a global event that affected the entire world.
In fact, the selection of a leader for the US might be in some respects more important for other societies than for America. Further, the outcome of an American election could have a greater impact on countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America than the effects of their own national elections, a significance reinforced by intense global media coverage of the American election in real time.
In this respect, the 2008 election of Barack Obama made many of us aware that “political globalisation” was now as much a part of our experiences as “economic globalisation”. We were no longer living in a world where the standard map based on the borders of territorial sovereign states depicted the essential organisation of political life on the planet. Our globalising world had made the geopolitical cartography of influence much more spatially elusive, almost impossible to depict visually, but no less real.
Overall, the initial candidacy and election of Obama was, despite my qualms, more about hope than fear. There were concerns to be sure that the McCain/Palin Republican opposition would be dangerous for the world, but such anxieties were relatively subdued, and did not extinguish the strong positive expectations generated by Obama. And these hopes seemed somewhat justified in the first months of his presidency.
In April, Obama delivered a visionary speech in Prague that articulated a strong commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. The newly elected president also seemed determined to carry out his campaign pledge to end the Iraq War in a responsible fashion, although this welcome move was offset by a disquieting hint that such a demilitarising move in Iraq would be balanced by an increased commitment to prevailing in the ongoing war for the control of Afghanistan.
In June, Obama made a relatively forthcoming speech in Cairo, promising a new more positive relationship with the Islamic world as a whole and to the Middle East in particular. The president referred to the long ordeal of the Palestinian people and proclaimed his dedication to achieving a peaceful and just resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, including a most reasonable call upon Israel to freeze all settlement expansion while peace negotiations were taking place.
That this call on Israel to stop unlawful activity during negotiations was treated by the media as such a bold step tells us just how biased the mainstream attitude toward the conflict had become. When Israel rejected Obama’s moderate plea, it experienced no adverse consequences, although the White House was put on the defensive because it had dared to push Israel to take a step that was against its wishes.
This initiative, followed by its withdrawal, demonstrated to the world the extent to which the US government was in Israel’s corner. It revealed to all who cared to notice that the only superpower in global politics was a paper tiger when it came to the pursuit of a just outcome of the conflict.
As already indicated, I half expected disappointments in 2008. I worried about Obama’s typical liberal effort to demonstrate his tough approach to national security, including support for a bloated defence budget in the face of a fiscal and employment crisis, about his lame effort to distinguish between Iraq as a bad war and Afghanistan as a war necessary for American security, and hence a good war.
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Also, I was disturbed by the way Obama dumped Reverend Jeremiah Wright when he became a liability to his electoral campaign, seemed embarrassed by his friendship with the distinguished Palestinian political historian, Rashid Khalidi, and made Rahm Emmanuel chief of staff, as his first major appointment.
Obama surrounded himself with economic advisers who were the same folks that had collaborated with the banks, hedge funds and big brokerage houses in the 1990s to facilitate the huge regressive redistribution of wealth in the spirit of “casino capitalism”.
Unfortunately, these tell-tale signs of weakness of principle and ideology were an accurate foretaste of what was in store for the country during the next four years, although it apparently never dawned on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to withhold its coveted award until Obama demonstrated that he was a deserving recipient, which sadly he never did.
Challenge of global warming
What happened during the first term of the Obama presidency is definitely disappointing, although it is only fair to acknowledge that extenuating circumstances existed. Obama was dealt “a bad hand” in the form of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
American society was sliding to the right as exhibited by the rise of the Tea Party, and the election of increasingly reactionary politicians as senators and congressmen, creating the most right-wing Congress in memory.
It was difficult to govern in such a setting, and Obama compounded the difficulties by moving more than half way to meet the unreasonable demands of the opposition and continued to do so even in the face of their clear unwillingness to reciprocate in a corresponding manner.
Also, the pressures mounted by Israel and its formidable AIPAC lobby led the White House to back pedal awkwardly with respect to its efforts to create an atmosphere conducive to a balanced peace process for Israel and Palestine.
On other issues, as well, Obama followed the pollsters and the party insiders more than principle, and failed to do what was best for the country and the world. After promising to take climate change seriously, Obama led an international effort to avoid imposing legal constraints on carbon emissions.
Throughout his re-election campaign in 2012, he has done his best to avoid the looming challenge of global warming aside from blandly promoting energy independence and green technology. As a result, the near unanimous scientific consensus on the urgent need for mandatory strict limits on carbon emissions has been disastrously pushed further and further into the background of public consciousness.
For me, the 2012 elections have a different tone and relevance that is not less consequential than in 2008, although absent the uplift. I believe this time around the stakes in the presidential election have been reversed. The upcoming election is more about fear than hope.
The outcome is as fateful, or possibly more so, for the American people and the world, especially those living in the Middle East, but fateful also in the sense of avoiding the worst, not hoping for the best, or at least something better.
Romney’s election, even if he means only 50 per cent of what he is saying, could lead to military confrontation with Iran, a completely free hand for Israel, an effort to undermine and control democratic forces in the main Arab countries, a trade war with China, a deepening of the world financial and employment crises, reduced respect for human rights, especially the reproductive rights of women, and a return to the overt lawlessness of the Bush presidency.
Obama if re-elected would likely be a more prudent leader, although continuing to throw the weight of American influence mostly on “the wrong side of history”. In this sense, although prudence is to be preferred to recklessness, there are no major principled differences between the candidates when it comes to foreign policy (on domestic policy there is).
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influence the US election?
Misunderstanding of modern democracies
Romney proposes that the US stay longer in Afghanistan, move closer to an attack mode with Iran and challenge China more vigorously on economic policy, and Obama agrees with all these positions but pursues them in a more nuanced way, with a greater seeming sensitivity to the risks and pitfalls, but nevertheless adhering to the same misguided and regressive policy options.
When fear rather than hope shapes our political consciousness, the effect on the citizenry is likely to be despair. Such an effect induces collective depression and encourages extremisms.
What is also scary is the degree to which those who are making us fearful are being aided and abetted by the deep pockets of extremist billionaires who seem clearly to sense their ability in this period to buy enough votes to distort the will of the citizenry. If they should be successful, they will step up to the policy window to cash in their chips, which could produce some disastrous results at home and abroad.
In the background, of course, is the disappointment with the political consciousness of the citizenry that seems so receptive to such a dysfunctional and menacing political agenda as is being presented to them by the Republican Party; it further undermines our confidence that the democratic way as being enacted currently in the US can lead toward sustainability, security and justice in the years ahead.
With such an understanding why not support the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala? Their positions seem principled and admirable, and their alignments are with the poor and with the environment. Their platform is inspirational and congenial compared to what the Republicans and Democrats offer the American people. But their capacity to govern is untested and their level of support is minimal.
I ask myself whether a vote for the Green Party in light of these circumstances would be a wasted vote. It evades the question to observe that in some states, say California or Nebraska, the outcome is so clear that taking sides as between the candidates put forward by the Democrats and Republicans is meaningless.
The real test is whether it is worth voting for the Green Party candidates as a matter of principle because they are decent enough not to stoop to the dirty games of money and the accommodation of special interests that are poisoning the political process in the US.
At this point, I am not able to resolve my doubts. Is it irresponsible, given what is at stake, not to vote for the lesser of evils?
Is it a misunderstanding of modern democracies to expect clear choices based on principled positions, respect for international law and human rights, dedication to environmental protection, sustainable economic policies and a commitment to social justice for the entire population?
Should we not insist on this misunderstanding to avoid ourselves being entrapped in a demeaning morality that overlooks crimes of state (for instance, drone terror)?
I must admit if living in a swing state I would vote for Obama, not having sufficient courage of my convictions to risk symbolic responsibility for a Romney victory!
Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.