DEC 2 — I should divulge that I was one of Barack Obama’s supporters, from the unlikely victory in the US Democratic Party presidential candidate election to one of the most improbable victories in modern political history, an African-American man voted into the US presidency, all the more momentous to me personally as I received the news as I arrived in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital formerly synonymous with apartheid and racism.
Enough has been written about the most improbable victory in a country where several decades earlier, African Americans could not in many states study in the same school, eat in the same restaurant or use the same toilet with the whites. With his great victory came great expectations especially concerning US foreign policy: the shutting down of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, ceasing torture and rendition, peace in the Middle East, a more conciliatory approach towards perceived enemies of the US and a quick end to the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whilst I understand the real difficulties of affecting real change in the US as in any other countries which profess democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law; the real disappointment that I have with Obama is that he seemed unable to move away from the US’s self-appointed role or “destiny” (some even say God-appointed) as the most “enlightened”, “just” and “greatest” state in the world that should pull the strings of world politics, economics and social development — that they can do whatever they want with impunity and without any care for the sovereignty of other states and their people. Needless to say, the US does not care about international law especially when they are human rights and humanitarian based. One just need to look at the US’s failure to ratify important international instruments including on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Rights of the Child, the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, on Enforced Disappearance, on the Mine Ban and the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture.
Although the US is finally pulling out of Iraq, Obama has just announced that the US will be increasing more troops to Afghanistan, estimated at more than 30,000. This is surely a folly and a serious escalation of an illegal, immoral and discredited war and occupation that will further destabilise not only Afghanistan but Pakistan and cause more destruction, deaths, casualties and refugees. An escalation of troops and belligerence will not provide the US genuine security that they crave but only add another reason for those aggrieved with US foreign policies to retaliate. Shouldn’t they know by now that “terrorists” and “insurgents” attack the US, their allies and interests precisely because of such foreign policies?
The US hypocrisy is breathtaking; to be able to lie with no shame that they are in Afghanistan to fight terrorism, bring democracy and human rights while they disregard all these principles at will when it suits them. If shielding terrorists is a justifiable reason for attacking a sovereign state (as the US has claimed for Afghanistan), then shouldn’t other states be justified to attack the US for their protection of the countless Latin American dictators, torturers and murderers who have fled and granted protection in the US? What about the architects of the US’s wars, bombings and military interventions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Grenada, Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, the former Yugoslavia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, to name but a few countries, that would have more than a valid case to attack the US if the same yardstick was used.
Similarly, there were no concerns for democracy in occupied Palestine when Hamas won the election or human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia and other US friendly totalitarian states. And let us not forget the US’s past manoeuvring in propping up dictators by overthrowing democratically elected governments in Latin America, most recently in Venezuela but only to be thwarted when the people resisted and reinstalled Hugo Chavez.
Can you just imagine for a moment if countries especially unfavoured ones of the US like China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela or Cuba were to behave just a fraction of what the US are doing at a grand scale? Can you imagine these countries invade or bomb others on false and illegal grounds, commit torture and rendition, detain foreigners without trial indefinitely, fund/ support opposition groups or provide unwavering backing to wicked regimes like Sudan and North Korea (in US’s case Israel)?
Can you imagine for a second if US or Israeli soldiers and civilians were captured/ arrested and their captors unilaterally declare that these soldiers and civilians are “enemy combatants” and therefore not subjected to international law (as the US have done) and detain them in facilities like Guantanamo Bay detention camp? And to take it further, let’s use their euphemisms for torture and subject them to “enhance interrogation techniques” or “alternative set of procedures” such as:
• Prolonged isolation,
• Prolonged sleep deprivation,
• Sensory deprivation,
• Extremely painful "stress positions",
• Sensory bombardment (such as prolonged loud noise and/or bright lights),
• Forced nakedness,
• Sexual humiliation,
• Cultural humiliation (such as desecration of holy scriptures),
• Being subjected to extreme cold that induces hypothermia,
• Exploitation of phobias,
• Simulation of the experience of drowning, i.e. water boarding.
Can you imagine the outrage, flag-waving patriotism, holier-than-thou moralising and tearful pleas from family members of those detained? Or Mexico conducting “targeted” and “precision” bombings in the US on the ground that the US is not doing enough to prevent arms from being smuggled into Mexico? Or China, Iran and Russia setting up military bases around the world especially near the US? If you do not know, the US has 737 military bases around the world, staffed by 2,500,000 US military personnel.
Maybe I am being too harsh. Maybe Obama needs more time as after all he is much more palatable than George Bush Jr. But why must we set our standards so low? Why should we accept the US’s continuing veto of any UN Security Council resolutions on Israel and the continuing obsession with Iran’s nuclear programme whilst accepting the fact that Israel already possesses nuclear weapons and is the country most likely to use them against perceived threats like Iran. In any event, such concerns coming from the US are preposterous as they are the only country in history which had used the nuclear bomb not once but twice — a fact more damning when it was clear by that stage that Japan was on the verge of collapse and had offered terms of surrender.
We should have high expectations for Obama, more so after being named the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Past laureates have generally been people of principles and morals who have struggled and made many sacrifices in order to bring their ideals to fruition. Can we say the same for Obama? Surely you would agree that Obama as he stands now and by ordering the increase of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, should not be mentioned in the same breath as Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama, and perhaps he would be more comfortable in the company of Henry Kissinger and Yitzhak Rabin, both of whom are also Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
Eric Paulsen is a lawyer and researcher.