Next month, the US and the whole world will turn the page on Barack Obama’s presidency; bidding farewell to eight years whose early days were full of promise, but for tens of millions ended in sadness and disaster.
Like lottery tickets, electoral democracy is never a sure thing. Indeed, American voters throughout US history elected several presidents with big majorities and yet their terms in office ended either with scandals such as Richard Nixon’s Watergate, war quagmires such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam, or economic recessions such as the one during Herbert Hoover’s presidency.
When Barack Obama won the presidential race in November 2008, many regarded his victory as a revolution. It was a new hope for America, giving the nation a much needed dose of youthfulness and vitality, as well as tolerance, hope and belief in a future away from conservatism and racism.
Why not, bearing in mind that when elected President Obama was a youthful senator in the middle of his first term in Congress? Why not, when he became the first Afro-American president, and the first president carrying a non-European name, as he was not a descendant of freed former slaves but rather the son of a Kenyan academic who hailed from the prominent Luo people of East Africa?
Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 was, thus, truly historical. Perhaps this was most poignantly manifested by Rev Jesse Jackson’s tears of joy during inauguration day. That day Jackson witnessed what another Civil Rights hero Dr Martin Luther King Jr was dreaming of when he uttered his famous words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”, in the country described in the US national anthem as “The Land of the free and home of the brave.”
Obama entered the White House under the banner of “Change” and optimism in his ability to affect change was almost as huge as the need to affect that change.
If “change” was the motto of Obama’s first term in the White House, then “retreat” would be the most appropriate motto for his secondEyad Abu Shakra
Throughout the eight years of George W Bush’s presidency the neocons brought out almost all the cruel prejudicial policies that suited their ideology, without forgetting to satisfy the conservative Evangelist Right by giving it a free hand in domestic social affairs. In addition to launching pre-emptive and punitive wars under the pretext of eradicating terrorism and ignoring human rights, clean environment and anti-gun lobby campaigners, Bush Jr left market forces and big business unrestrained. Under pressure from extremist conservative Evangelists, Bush Jr also slowed down scientific – namely stem cell – research, thus delaying vital medical breakthroughs for years if not decades.
Obama was just the opposite of all that. While Bush Jr was a parochial personality with a primarily domestic vision and culture, Obama had a cosmopolitan character with global dimensions and interests. Not only was he the son of a Kenyan Muslim, but also the son-in-law and half-brother of Indonesian Muslims and he actually lived for a while in Indonesia, and later in Hawaii – the only American state with non-White European population.
While Bush Jr was a member of his white aristocratic Protestant family, and a hostage of religious, social and economic conservative lobbies, Obama – despite studying in some of America’s top colleges – was basically a self-made man who did his “rough and tumble” political apprenticeship in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago.
The first impression about Obama was that he was a leader keen not only to understand the world – which his predecessor never cared much about getting to know – but also change it. This is at least what many thought after his famous Cairo Speech in Egypt on June 4, 2009.
During his first few months in office, the new US president seemed quite interested in tackling the roots of problems rather than limiting his endeavors to symptoms. Indeed, during the first two years he retained the aura of idealism and goodwill that were the hallmark of his rhetoric since elections day, however, the momentum began to weaken and grind to a halt. Furthermore, despite succeeding in forcing courageous internal changes in the face of his stubborn Republican opponents, foreign relations approaches began to shroud his idealism and credibility with doubt.
There were two early setbacks that uncovered the fragility of Obama’s idealistic push for change, both directly connected with the Arab and Muslim worlds: the first, beating a retreat on the Palestine-Israel peace front when confronted by the hawkish Binyamin Netanyahu; and the second, his failure to live up to his promises to shut down the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp where suspected Islamist extremists are detained.
Thereafter, Washington looked confused, giving contradictory and misleading information in the early 2011 during what came to be labelled the Arab Spring. Then, within a short time, the hitherto hushed up American – Iranian talks in the Omani capital Muscat were made public, although few at the time imagined these talks and agreements reached would become the cornerstone of Washington’s strategy towards the Arabs and the Muslim world.
Few thought that the mullahs and Revolutionary Guards’ Iran, with its hyperactive gallows, sectarian agitation and incitement, and destructive expansionism would soon become a strategic ally to the US in the open war against a new enemy called ISIS. An enemy that appeared suddenly, and was allowed to grow, expand and occupy lands, and then used as an excuse to justify sacrificing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, uprooting and displacing tens of millions other, bringing down cities, wiping out communities and redrawing national borders.
Thus, if “Change” was the motto of Obama’s first term in the White House, then “Retreat” would be the most appropriate motto for his second.
It is not only a ‘retreat’ in the face of Iran which Obama’s policies allowed to become a regional time bomb, but against Russia, the old enemy from the Cold War days!
Today the whole of Europe is paying a heavy price for Vladimir Putin’s strident and aggressive leadership and his unabated efforts to undermine the continent’s stability through aiding and abetting his extremist and racist new ‘allies’. The same allies who are now riding the waves of hatred and xenophobia against immigrants and refugees, tens of thousands of whom were made refugees by the Kremlin itself.
Even America’s democratic system is no longer safe from Putin’s ambitious meddling, if we are to believe the CIA, no less! In a few words, “retreat” in the face of extremism and racism is now Barack Obama’s catastrophic legacy to America and the whole world.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on December 16, 2016.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949