President Barack Obama signalled on several fronts on Thursday that the new president is his own man and is eager to actively reverse Bush administration policies. There will be a lot of dispute among journalists and historians over how much continuity there is between Bush and Obama, and how much of a rupture. These matters are to some extent in the eye of the beholder. But I would argue that premises matter, and Obama’s premises are diametrically opposed to those of Bush
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Obama ordered that the US prison at Guantanamo Bay be closed within a year. He had already,the previous day, suspended trials against prisoners there, which many attorneys hold are intrinsically unfair or even unconstitutional. On Thursday, Obama came out unambiguously against the use of waterboarding, a tool to which Bush and Cheney were attached.
‘ “I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture,” the president said at the State Department. “The message that we are sending around the world,” he said as he signed the executive orders in the Oval Office, “is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.” “It is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world,” he added. “We intend to win this fight. We’re going to win it on our terms.” ‘
Obama did not simply issue a technical piece of guidance, he put forward a theory of combatting terrorism, in which he asserted that upholding the Constitution and the Bill of Rights has to be part of the armory if we are to succeed. We will do it on our terms, he said.
‘ Is there even a single one of the guarantees in the Bill of Rights that Bush and his henchmen have not by now abrogated by royal fiat? And why? Because of a single attack by a few hijackers from a small terrorist organization? The thousands lost in the Revolutionary War did not deter the Founding Fathers from enshrining these rights in the Constitution! The fledgling American Republic was far more unstable and facing far more dangers when this document was passed into law than the unchallengeable hyperpower that now bestrides the globe as a behemoth.’
And in late 2003 I had explained the scale of those challenges faced by the early American Republic, which did not deter the founding fathers from framing their bill of rights:
‘ George Washington, who faced proportionally much more devastating attacks and loss of life after 1775 (the population was only 4 million then) never threw in the towel on democracy like that. Let’s think about the statistics. At 280 million, the US population is now 70 times larger than it was during the Revolutionary War. The US lost 4,435 ordinary soldiers in 1775-1783 in the war against King George III, and the number rises to 25,324 if you include Native American scouts, mercenaries, and civilians who took up arms. Proportionally, that would be like losing between 310,450 and 1.7 million US troops in 2001-2009. And it doesn’t count innocent civilians killed in the Revolutionary War. It is highly unlikely that a terrorist WMD attack would inflict as much damage on the contemporary US as the British did in that period, and yet, amazingly enough, Madison, Jefferson, Washington and others were not stampeded by the Redcoats’ attacks into resigning themselves to a military government in 1783.’
Obama is saying much the same thing, that the US has faced down more dire challenges without betraying its values, and there was no reason for Bush to start whittling away at them now.
Obama, unlike Bush, wishes to foreground the US battles in Afghanistan. And unlike Bush, he is not pigheaded about his professed loyalty to figures such as Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Indeed, there is some thinking that he may drop Karzai in favor of someone less ineffective and corrupt.
When he finally spoke on the Gaza War, Obama strongly took Israel’s side, but he did express at least a little interest in the conditions under which Gazans live; he asked for an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza:
‘ “Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security. And we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats,” he said.
“For years, Hamas has launched thousands of rockets at innocent Israeli citizens. No democracy can tolerate such danger to its people, nor should the international community, and neither should the Palestinian people themselves, whose interests are only set back by acts of terror.”
He added, however, that, “Just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so, too, is a future without hope for the Palestinians.
“I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long.
“We must extend a hand of opportunity to those who seek peace. As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime” and with the international community and the Palestinian Authority participating.’
The last couple sentences are worth the price of admission. Considering the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians, caring at least a little about them as human beings. It is not enough by any means, but at least it is pointing in the right direction.
Riz Khan at Aljazeera English on the transition to a new administration with new priorities.