High hopes and low points

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Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States and the first black to assume that post on January 20, 2009. He was elected in November 2008 on a tide of hopeful support both at home and abroad. Both at home and abroad, many people thought that his term would be unlike that of his predecessor’s, and that, on the contrary, it would address and bring to a satisfying close some of the issues that had haunted the US for eight years, including the war of several fronts the fight against terrorism had become.

The hopes were understandable. The US economy was in shambles, with jobs lost, manufacturing plants shut and many facing uncertain futures. Worse of all, as Obama noted in his inaugural speech, while the economic and social indicators of the crisis were evident — “ Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet,” “less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”

Obama pledged to address the crisis swiftly and decisively, and outlined the program of economic recovery that he said he proposed to put in place.

“The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.”

Apparently not in his first year, however. Since Obama pledged bold and swift action a year ago, the most visible attempts to address the economic crisis have been the immense financial bailout of the US banks and car companies, a policy many Americans saw as rewarding with taxpayer money the already rich who were in the first place responsible for the crisis.

On the other hand, such other issues as climate change have been slowly addressed, and health care reform watered down. In addition the Obama administration has also extended such Bush administration policies like the US Patriot Act, while refusing to take the leadership in gay marriage and abortion issues.

Administration spokesmen have responded to expressions of impatience among the grassroots movements that supported Obama’s candidacy with condescension and petulance, arguing that “governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult,” and that they would have to wait, a year being too short a time to show results.

That was not the case for Ronald Reagan, however, who, practically upon his inauguration in 1981, aggressively pushed his conservative agenda of less taxes and more defense spending within his first year. Within one year the “Reagan Revolution” had taken deep policy roots in the US government. And yet Reagan did not have the kind of electorate and Congressional support Obama had in January 2009.

Obama also promised to pull US troops out of Iraq, but has several times changed the timetable for it. He has not shut down the US prisons in Guantanamo, even as he has escalated the US war in Afghanistan, as well as the use of armed though unmanned drones in killing alleged Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders and militants in Pakistan.

The drone attacks in Pakistan have angered Pakistanis, because they have killed civilians and in several cases missed their intended targets. The Pakistani government is hard pressed to explain why its citizens in supposedly Taliban areas have to live in fear and why it allows the US to continue with the attacks despite Pakistan’s being a sovereign country.

The attacks, having already increased in number in 2009 (45, from 27 in 2008) have further increased since December 30, 2009, apparently in retaliation for the suicide bombing that killed seven CIA operatives in a US base in Pakistan on that date. The death toll last year was 700. No independent source has verified if these were all Al Qaeda or Taliban militants.

Although the drone attacks are the only visible US initiatives against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan, they have raised the human rights issues that during the 2008 campaign Obama had pledge to respect.

The United Nations’ Philip Alston has called on the United States to reveal who was being targeted in the attacks and to provide a list of casualties. The United States, said Alston, had an obligation to do so under international law. In Afghanistan, Alston pointed out, there are investigations into allegations of civilian casualties and guidelines on when bombs could be dropped; there are no such safeguards in Pakistan, officially a non-combat zone.

“The whole (US drone) program (in Pakistan) is so secretive that we have very little information to evaluate whether the United States is honoring its obligations under the Geneva Convention,” Alston said. The Convention allows only the targeting of combatants and demands avoiding civilian casualties in addition to respect for other rules of war. “When we were dealing with isolated cases I raised it with the United States. Now that (the US) is systematically using drones, it is becoming increasingly important to get clarification.”

One late night US comic said Barack Obama isn’t a do nothing President. At least in foreign affairs he’s implementing the aggressive policy — of his 2008 rival for the US Presidency, John McCain.

(BusinessWorld)

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