An unprecedented amount of hyperbole from the international media heralded last week’s election of Barack Obama to the US presidency. Fortunately, a healthy dose of scepticism was also administered. Take Charlie Booker in The Guardian earlier this week:
"President Barack Obama. President Barack Obama. Nope, still can’t get used to it. It’s literally too good to be true. I must’ve died in my sleep and am now having an insane fantasy pumped into my head by the Matrix. Any minute now Salma Hayek is going to float through the door with a tray of biscuits and I’ll know the game’s up."
And The Onion joked: "[Obama’s] win causes obsessive supporters to realise how empty their lives are."
Despite profound inequalities that won’t disappear overnight, Obama undoubtedly represents a monumental achievement for race politics in America. As the hype dies down, however, the real task of assessing the political ambitions of the President-elect emerges.
His foreign affairs plans have been met with concern by analysts and activists who spend time on the ground in nations under American bombs and who don’t inhabit think-tanks in Washington and New York.
In the first instance, Obama’s decision to appoint Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff — a radical Zionist whose father was in the fascist Irgun in the 1940s in an attempt to form a Jewish state — indicates that he is not as progressive as some may hope. The editor of The Nation rightly urges caution.
Many on the global left have welcomed Obama as a rejection of the disastrous Bush Administration, but its difficult to know what he will deliver. The Los Angeles Times predicted last week that many of Obama’s foreign policy picks would come from academia:
"The good news is that Barack Obama’s intellectuals are fine scholars who have produced some thought-provoking books and articles on the best way to deploy American power. The bad news is that Walt Rostow and Paul Wolfowitz were also fine scholars who had produced interesting books and articles on the best way to deploy American power."
Beware the "humanitarian hawk", a concept that is proudly extolled by those on the left who love to use the American military to pursue a "moral" foreign policy. Many of these figures embraced the Bush Administration’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tony Judt has written eloquently in the London Review of Books of the acquiescence of liberals to "President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy".
Lest we forget too the infamous 1997 speech by late British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in which he announced an "ethical foreign policy". During his tenure, as Medialens reminds us, he "supplied Hawk fighter-bombers to the Suharto regime committing genocide in East Timor. He propagandised on behalf of US-UK sanctions that killed one million Iraqi civilians. He defended the cynical December 1998 bombing of Iraq and spread government lies about Iraq’s alleged failure to cooperate with inspectors."
Talking about morality in international affairs is easy; putting it into action is far more difficult. Besides, many of the advisers congregating around Obama are former Bill Clinton hacks who pursued similar policies to Robin Cook.
Obama will face immediate foreign policy challenges in Israel/Palestine. The Jewish state may soon elect a man, Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes any cessation of settlement building. Unless America decides to pressure Israel in an unprecedented way — such as cutting aid unless certain conditions are met — the occupation will only deepen. Jerusalem’s mayoral race symbolises the racial fault-lines that are worsening by the day.
One Israeli commentator has already asked Obama to ignore his country, as "Clinton, our ‘friend,’ promoted Oslo, which cost us 1500 murder victims, and Bush brought Hamas to Gaza". Clearly colony expansion on Palestinian land, and the impossibility of the two-state "solution", is preferable to direct talks.
Even the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said again last weekend that his Government was willing to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Political negotiations with Hamas, as Haaretz encourages, are essential if peace is to be achieved. Will Obama acknowledge the importance of engaging the Islamists? This is unlikely in the short term.
But perhaps Obama has already inspired the Rudd Government in subtle ways. The minor, but important, shift in Australia’s position towards Israel at the UN should be celebrated but has already been condemned by the Zionist establishment. Does the Jewish community want the mainstream population to believe that condemnation of settlement building is against Israel’s best interests?
Leading Palestinian thinker Ali Abunimah — who recently visited Australia — urges clear-eyed thinking on the President-elect:
"What does it say that the sort of things he [Obama] was prepared to do just a few years ago he is no longer prepared to do, that he didn’t visit a single Muslim community centre or mosque or associate publicly with Arab Americans during the campaign? And it’s not as if, the day after the campaign, he started to send more conciliatory signals. On the contrary, there could not be a more provocative appointment than Rahm Emanuel, if he wanted to send a signal that he is going to stick by a quite hard-line pro-Israel policy."
While the reality checks are vital, there is no doubt that great portions of the world have welcomed Obama as a breath of fresh air. The Arab blogosphere shouted loudly about the history-making event. An American friend living in Cairo blogged the following:
"A new day dawned in Cairo today. As it does every day. And it started as it always does: with birds, schoolchildren, and car horns. No national holiday here. I’m looking forward to going out in the streets to hear the reaction. The best reaction I’ve heard so far: ‘Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.’ Bah humbug. I confess I’m moved."
Blogger ‘Neurotic Iraqi Wife’, who lives in a country destroyed by the American war machine, wrote:
"For me, this is not just about history, this is about someone who was able to bring down the very people that broke my country. It’s a great punch to the very people that destroyed the individual Iraqi. And that to me is enough victory. I will only have to say to Mr Obama, don’t let us down."
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