A year in to his historic presidency, what has Barack Obama’s turbulent first 12 months achieved?
Leaving aside the headline issues of heath-care reform and fiscal bailouts - not my subject here - how has the “change” president actually performed in areas that were touchstones during his election campaign - Guantánamo Bay and the “war on terror”, Afghanistan and Iraq, relations with the wider world?
Well, it’s been significantly different to the Bush administration in each field. Obama’s second-day-in-office announcement that Guantánamo would close within a year was roundly welcomed. There were also commitments to end torture and the corrosive and meaningless phrase “war on terror” was dropped, both in Washington and London. Troop scale-down in Iraq was, so to speak, offset by the surge for Afghanistan, but we were assured that capacity-building measures for the Afghan security forces was the long-term goal. And, to great acclaim, Obama gave a speech in Cairo on US relations with the Muslim world that seemed to lay to rest the spectre of an America at war with Islam.
Most memorably of all, Obama’s inaugural address had proclaimed: “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”. The values of America’s founding fathers, he said, must not be sacrificed “for expedience’s sake”. Stirring stuff, but a year on from his words on that freezing-cold day in Washington, what has actually happened?
Well, most strikingly, the commitment to close Guantánamo has failed by a wide margin. With some 242 Guantánamo detainees held when he gave his televised “executive order” to close the facility within a year of 22 January 2009, there are still 198 prisoners languishing in the prison. Some have been there without charge or trial for eight years. Many allege they’ve been abused by guards, and allegations date from the Obama period as well as the Bush years.
Disturbingly, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, the body charged with the responsibility of determining the immediate future of the detainees, is making what appear to be painfully slow and highly secretive decisions about imprisonment and liberty in a way that subverts the role of proper courts and other judicial bodies.
Meanwhile, with the emergence of alleged links between the would-be Christmas Day Detroit bomb plotter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Yemeni extremists, the White House has “suspended” any plans to release 86 Yemenis from Guantánamo, regardless of the fact that these men have been held for years, interrogated dozens of times and in any case should not be deprived of liberty simply because of their place of birth.
But more worrying still has been the perpetuation of a Bush-Cheney doctrine of refusing to grant suspected terrorists basic legal protections. In a keynote speech on national security last May, while invoking “fundamental” constitutional values of “liberty and justice”, President Obama said little that would have ruffled the feathers of his predecessor administration. His plan for clearing out Guantánamo went along these lines: some prisoners were going to be tried in federal courts; some were going to be released; some “transferred” to other countries; but others - those described as “wanting to kill Americans”, who “can’t be prosecuted” - were going to be held indefinitely without trial. Moreover, the thoroughly discredited “military commission” trials were to continue, regardless of criticism that they allow “evidence” from torture, including waterboarding.
Meanwhile, while the publication of previously classified memos authorising the torture of detainees by CIA operatives may have seemed to herald a new era of White House openness, the disclosures actually came as the result of lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, not from a White House determination to break with the past. Indeed, Obama quickly made clear that there would be no attempt to prosecute those who had either carried out or authorised torture, and in a parallel move the US government blocked publication of a dossier of Abu Ghraib-style torture photos on the grounds that they would be damaging to the United States and its personnel.
In terms of White House priorities, 2009 was the year that saw the phoney “war on terror” replaced by the very real war in Afghanistan. But discussion of Obama’s much-pondered troop “surge” and the dreadful leeching of casualties among international forces in Afghanistan obscures another painful truth: civilian casualties in Afghanistan hit their highest level since the toppling of the Taliban. Unquestionably al-Qai’da and the Taliban bear chief responsibility for these fatalities, but indiscriminate US use of “drone” missiles both in Afghanistan and Pakistan has produced a frightening level of “collateral” civilian damage. Despite this, so far in 2010 there has been an acceleration in the US use of drones in the “Af-Pak” region.
So, a year on since the 44th president of the United States filled Washington’s National Mall with a sea of cheering onlookers, how should we sum up Barack Obama’s performance? As I’ve already suggested, while the rhetoric and value statements have sounded fine, the reality has been anything but. On issues like Gaza or the crushing of protestors in Iran, the US has been far too muted. Let us not forget either, that 2009 was also a year which saw 52 executions in the USA, many more than in the last year of George Bush’s presidency. America may be the land of the free, but it’s also the land of the death penalty, unfair capital trials and the misery of death row.
The verdict, then, is far more negative than I would have hoped. The release of the UK resident Binyam Mohamed and 43 other Guantánamo prisoners has been a high point. But much of the rest has been sorely disappointing. President Obama still has a long way to go to prove himself president of a country that respects, cherishes and upholds human rights values at home and abroad.
Kate Allen is the UK Director of Amnesty International