How the former president’s memoirs show a good insight to US politics but provides prejudice on other nations
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | I find former U.S. president, Barack Obama, intelligent, thoughtful, insightful, socially intelligent, calm and reasonable. But I also find him pompous, pretentious, opportunistic, arrogant and very inconsiderate. These diametrically opposed feelings come alive in his memoirs, `A promised Land’. It is the story of Obama’s rise to the presidency and his first term in office. A large part of it is therefore devoted to domestic politics in the USA. His observations on America’s racial divide, and the challenges this “oldest democracy” has encountered in trying to build racial equality are powerful.
For the first 80 years of this liberal democratic republic, America had over 50% its black population as slaves. Slaves were emancipated, not by the democratic institutions of America, but by a president using emergency powers during a civil war to issue a decree. Then for the next one hundred years, in spite of a “free press”, an “independent” judiciary and legislature, a strong civil society, powerful political parties and free and fair regular elections where individuals and parties in power constantly changed, the U.S. held its black population under apartheid.
After 15 years of a civil rights movement that was met with brutal police repression and white supremacist terrorism, America passed the civil rights and voting rights laws. Yet as a response to this, America embarked on a process of rolling back civil rights gains using a drug war to incarcerate millions of black people. Today, there are more black Americans in jail than were enslaved in 1860; more blacks in jail than in college. The struggle for racial justice in this liberal democratic republic seems to win three steps forward only to beat a hasty retreat with two steps back.
Then comes Obama’s A Promised Land. He does not deny these failures or gloss over them. He is deeply conscious of and open about the failure of America’s democratic institutions and processes, to effectively and meaningfully address racial injustice. But, argues Obama, “America is a human enterprise” and human actions are always constrained by human nature – bigotry, prejudice, self-interest, short-sightedness etc. Echoing the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Obama tells us that in the long term, the arch of history tends to bend towards justice – so we must not give up the American dream, we should keep hope alive.
This is the Obama that inspires hope, calms down the tempers of those who feel America can and should do better – NOW! This sober and calm assessment of politics ends with America’s racial divide. When it comes to assessing Republicans or other countries and societies, Obama the balanced, insightful and analytical intellectual gives way to Obama the activist, the crusader and the bigot.
There is nothing positive from Republicans. In other countries, there are no challenges to building a fair and just society rooted in obdurate social structures such as beliefs and fissures that take time to change. To Obama, what it would take in these other countries and societies is leaders to make a simple choice and decree a revolution.
When I read Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, I felt like puking at America. Ian Lopez’s Dog Whistle Politics added considerable grist to the horrible-America mill. There is a lot of literature on the failures of America to address basic problems that concern racial minorities, and problems of its poor citizens who lack healthcare, housing, and food. Yet this rich country spends trillions of dollars often on near-aimless wars abroad. How can a rich liberal democracy with a free press, strong civil society, free and fair regular elections fail to provide basic food and healthcare to its poor citizens yet find money to fight useless wars abroad?
Obama convinces the reader of the difficulty in changing societies. Yet he also proceeds, with this huge log in his own eyes, to identify specks in the eyes of other world leaders and countries; especially those with governments that are not client states of America. He holds a meeting with Vladmir Putin, then Russian Prime Minister (now president). Putin tells Obama that expanding NATO to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s nearest neighbors, is encirclement. But Obama dismisses it as Putin’s desire to recreate the soviet empire. But what is America doing in Russia’s neighborhood? Would the U.S. accept Russia incorporating Mexico and Canada in a military alliance and stationing there her troops?
Obama’s failure to listen to the views of leaders of countries he does not like made him a colossal failure in international diplomacy. Nearly every big or small issue he touched went wrong – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, etc. True he inherited some of these problems but it is hard to find any good he did to solve them or improve them. On Israel, he was unable to make any progress on the stalled peace talks. For a man who presents himself as the advocate of governance morality, he is completely silent on that Israel’s apartheid policy in Palestine.
In his memoirs Obama presents his moral crusade to promote democracy in other nations. Here is a man whose book is filled with many excellent illustrations of how hard it has been for the USA to build her democracy and how messy this process has been. He shows how progress comes at a creep, not a gallop; and often does not follow a continually improving curve. It grows in zig-zag, forwards and backwards. He could easily have proceeded to show that in societies with deep internal divisions – ethnic, racial or religious – and without a history of liberal traditions and democratic practices, democracy becomes a long and daunting task. He doesn’t and instead presents democracy in these nations as a technical fix.
Yet Obama is unable to answer the disaster he helped create in Libya. He reveals how it was Washington that blackmailed the Egyptian army to remove President Hosni Mubarak. But he is silent on the failure of democracy in Egypt and his personal acquiescence with the Egyptian military to remove the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi and install yet another military dictatorship. He remains silent on his mass murders using drones in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria. He is blind to his own reality and, like Donald Trump, chooses the reality that flatters his ego. A Promised Land is the first volume of what Obama says is a two volumes memoir. Let us wait for the second volume and hope against hope that in it he will atone for his and his country’s crimes.