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Obama is the most reactionary president since Nixon

January 25, 2010

He's been seen off by Iran, sucked up to Putin,
so where is the man who sold us his liberal values?
Nick Cohen
Guardian, The Observer
January 24, 2010

A Democrat president does not lose Massachusetts
without so dispiriting liberals they can longer
be bothered to turn out for him. Inattentive
foreigners have been slow to spot the
demoralisation because their relief at Obama's
inauguration has stopped them realising that his
failure to tackle unemployment and his
unconscionable delay in punishing the bankers
have induced despair among his natural
supporters. As has the vacuity of his foreign policy.

I accept that readers may find this a hard
sentence to swallow, but when it comes to
promoting democracy, the emancipation of women
and the liberation of the oppressed, Barack Obama
has been the most reactionary American president since Richard Nixon.

Take the undeservedly neglected case of Nyi Nyi
Aung. The reason you have never heard of the
Burmese-American is that his arrest is an
embarrassment to an Obama administration that
wants to "engage" with Burma's military regime.
The junta is holding the democracy activist in
solitary confinement. If he is receiving the same
treatment as its previous inmates, the guards
will be forcing him to crawl on all fours, bark
instead of talk and eat from a dog bowl. American
senators wrote to Hillary Clinton demanding that
she intervene and received no concrete
commitments. Nyi Nyi's disgusted American fiancee
says that the message America sends the generals
is that they can do what they want.

It is not that Obama has adopted a policy of
outright appeasement. He decided not to drop the
Bush-era sanctions after a long, slow review. But
as Mark Farmaner from the Burma Campaign UK group
says, European and Asian countries which don't
give a damn about human rights and just want to
make money aren't feeling any pressure from
Washington to blacklist the regime. The hope that
Burmese democracy campaigners felt at Obama's election has long gone.

I don't believe you can understand why he is such
a let-down if you hold on to old definitions of
liberalism. From Eleanor Roosevelt onwards, the
Democrats were meant to believe in universal
human rights. Even Jimmy Carter, mocked for his
weakness in handling tyrants, tried to make them
a part of his foreign policy. The flattering
label "realist" – which, like the equally
gratifying "sceptic", is not a badge of honour
you can award to yourself – was claimed by
Republicans, most notably Nixon, Gerald Ford and
Henry Kissinger. They maintained they were
hard-headed men who could see the world as it is,
unlike soppy liberal idealists. They would deal
with any regime, however repulsive, that could
help advance US interests, and ignore what their
allies did to their captive populations.

Obama has stood the distinction on its head. In a
forthcoming analysis for the Henry Jackson
Society, Lawrence Haas, a former aide to Al Gore,
laments the "disappointment" of the Obama
presidency with an embarrassment of damning
evidence. Obama and Hillary Clinton have
explicitly said, for instance, that they will not
allow protests about the Chinese Communist
party's treatment of dissent to sour discussion
about the economic crisis and climate change. In
line with the policy of detente, Obama refused to
meet the Dalai Lama for fear of offending China
just as Ford refused to meet Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn for fear of offending the Soviet Union.

During the aborted Iranian revolution, brave
protesters chanted: "Obama, Obama -- either
you're with them or you're with us" as the cops
beat them up. The dithering Obama couldn't make
up his mind which side he was on and insultingly
called their country the Islamic Republic of
Iran, as if it were the ayatollahs' property.
True, in his Cairo speech to Muslim countries, he
said he believed in "governments that reflect the
will of the people" – which was big of him – but
did not mention the oppression of women. Ever
since, his administration has ignored Arab
liberals and done next to nothing to promote a settlement in Palestine.

Haas blames the chaos in Iraq for discrediting
democracy and teaching Bush's opponents to sneer
at liberal values, but there is more to the
conservatism of the Obama administration than
that. He comes from an ideological culture which
calls itself progressive, but is often
reactionary. Many from his political generation
use the superficially leftish language of
multiculturalism and post-colonialism to imply
that human rights are a modern version of
imperialism which westerners impose on societies
that do not need them. Scratch a relativist and
you find a racist and although they do not put it
as bluntly as this, their thinking boils down to
the truly imperialist belief that universal
suffrage or a woman's right to choose are all
very well for white-skinned people in rich
countries but not brown-skinned people in poor ones.

The unthinking adulation Obama received would
have turned the most level-headed man into an
egomaniac. In his first year, he acted as if it
was enough not to be Bush, as if his charisma and
oratorical brilliance could persuade dangerous
leaders to change their behaviour. He cannot
believe that after a year of failure. He
abandoned Bush's missile defence programme in an
attempt to charm Putin and received no
concessions in return. Similarly, his creeping to
Ahmadinejad has not produced any diplomatic
rewards. Kissinger and Nixon were terrifying
figures, who, in the name of "realism", endorsed
regimes that persecuted opponents from East Timor
to Chile. Obama, by contrast, doesn't frighten anyone.

I am glad to see that he turned away last week
from the advisers who urged him not to reform
Wall Street. Perhaps he is preparing a similar
U-turn in foreign policy. In the past month,
there have been tentative signs of a change of
emphasis. In his Nobel peace prize lecture, he
was unequivocal in his support for universal
rights and departed from his prepared text to
assert that, after all, he was on the side of the
Iranian revolutionaries. Hillary Clinton,
meanwhile, has finally managed to speak out in
plain language against the censorship of the web
by China, Egypt and other dictatorships.

Let us hope that these swallows herald a summer,
because if they do not we will be stuck with an
American president who combines the weakness of
Jimmy Carter with the morals of Richard Nixon.
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