At a much publicised rally in Berlin attended by some 200,000 people, US Presidential nominee Barack Obama spoke of breaking down the walls that divide our global society. Obama spoke first of the Berlin Wall and how it represented the real and symbolic division of much of humanity between the Soviet and Western blocs. He went on to describe the metaphoric walls that still divide societies along racial and religious lines, but reminded the audience that, as with Apartheid South Africa, "history reminds us that walls can be torn down".
There is, though, one wall Barack Obama is unlikely to breach. Given the reference to Apartheid South Africa and walls, it was significant that he chose not to mention the very real wall Israel has built inside the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In 2004, the International Court of Justice determined that the wall was illegal and called for it to be dismantled.
The wall is not a clear cut border between the West Bank and Israel but a complex network of barriers carved deep into the territory to incorporate the Jewish-only settlements that are illegal under international law and widely considered to be an obstacle to peace, even by Israel’s staunchest allies in the US and Europe. The wall divides Palestinians from each other and from their farmland and ensures that a viable future Palestinian state is impossible because regular trade, human movement and contiguous borders are impossible.
"They [the Soviets]cut off food and supplies to more than 2 million Germans," said Obama. The Israeli blockade in Gaza, one of the worst man-made humanitarian disasters in recent times, may well have approximated Berlin in principle if not scale (the situation in Gaza is far worse). But the blockade of Gaza was referred to nowhere in Obama’s speech.
It is telling that only a day prior to his Berlin speech Obama had completed a quick tour Israel and the Occupied Territories. In a move that may unconsciously reflect the power dynamic of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama spent a mere 45 minutes in the West Bank. He cancelled a scheduled lunch engagement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to attend other functions in Israel. He spent 32 hours in Israel and met several politicians and ordinary citizens. At the Israeli town of Sderot, a frequent target for mortars and rockets from the Gaza Strip, he spoke of the threat of terrorism and the need for peace. He did not at any point criticise Israel for its role in the conflict, but he did criticise Palestinian ‘terror’. Nor did he speak to ordinary Palestinians. Obama may speak of change, but he dare not challenge Israel.
Barack Obama is a remarkable speaker. When news broadcasters showcased his Berlin speech against speeches delivered by former US Presidents Kennedy and Reagan in the same city the latter two visibly (and aurally) paled in comparison. It is equally remarkable that Obama has risen from what seemed to be the fringes of American politics towards what, at present at least, looks like certain electoral victory.
But if Obama is the candidate of change he has yet to deliver. It may be arguable that a candidate has to be practical in the lead up to an election. There is very little Obama can deliver by way of concrete policies other than to promise to be better than the incumbent. But one would be forgiven for thinking this was as much an opportunity as a challenge. On almost every major policy platform relevant to federal US politics, and on Iraq and the economy especially, the Bush administration has failed abysmally. Quite apart from the damage Bush has done to American prestige internationally, the American people are hurting economically and are more disillusioned by politics than ever.
That alone should have enticed Obama to be daring and confrontational towards the special interests that dominate American political life. Indeed, there were moments during the Democratic nomination period when he suggested as much. In February he promised to renegotiate or terminate one of the key legacies of President Bill Clinton, the widely unpopular North America Free Trade Agreement. He has subsequently backtracked on that promise and largely avoided discussing the matter in public. Obama also promised to bring the troops back home from Iraq unconditionally. He still maintains that American soldiers shall return within the first 16 months of his presidency. Read the fine print, however, and you discover that Obama supports a continuous military presence in Iraq, ostensibly to protect America’s huge military base and new embassy in Iraq. Indeed, Obama has said that, overall, the US Army needs more, not less, soldiers.
Obama has managed to garner support from parties as diverse as Rupert Murdoch and Spike Lee. That is an achievement in itself and it marks Obama out as the archetypal modern politician. He has the ability to mix style and presence with large, often long rhetorical messages that are buoyant but careful and vague. Hitherto Obama has avoided publicly challenging any of the centres of power in the US and has gone to great lengths to distance himself from Afro-America. White America, much like white Australia, doesn’t very much like coloured people who complain aggressively, let alone those running for high office. We appreciate statesmen like the mellow, post-Apartheid Nelson Mandela and The Dalai Lama precisely because they are non-threatening. Obama is a black man who speaks as though he wasn’t. We love him because his manner is so agreeable.
There is much to commend in Obama’s rhetoric. It would be unfair not to acknowledge that. He has openly called for a drastic reduction in the US nuclear stockpile and his country’s addiction to fossil fuels. These are historic precedents for an American presidential candidate. Nor has Obama shied away from the gay and lesbian community like his predecessor, John Kerry, did in 2004. The real litmus test, however, will come after January 2009, and only if he manages to defeat McCain in November.
It is our innate tendency to expect larger-than-life individuals to deliver on larger-than-life promises. History is often written as though change is only possible through the labour of a few special people. We are quick to forget that the individual accommodates the system more readily than the system accommodates him or her.
As Alexander von Humboldt, the German enlightenment intellectual and native of Berlin, said, "if a man acts in a mechanical way, reacting to external demands or instruction, rather than in ways determined by his own interests and energies and power, we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is." Obama is far from despised. If anything he is presently the most popular politician in the world. But whether he has the courage to break the walls that separate power from ordinary people remains to be seen.
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