Top of the class? Barack Obama’s first year report card
The international euphoria that greeted America’s first African American leader one year ago seems to be weakening as some ask if all the hype over Barack Obama may have been overdone.
Immediately after being sworn in as the 44th US president one year ago, Barack Obama was forced to sit down to a plateful of problems served up hot by his Republican predecessor George W. Bush: a financial crisis of gigantic proportions was just beginning to sink its teeth into bloated global markets; American forces were (and still are) fighting a two-front “War on Terrorism”; while countless other issues, like bringing Iran to the nuclear negotiating table, remain high on the agenda.
So how is America’s president faring after one year in office? Here is a look at some of the most challenging issues he is facing (Each ranked 1-10 in terms of success rate, with 10 being the highest score. Final tally at end of article).
I. Financial crisis
After decades of overspending on the part of US consumers, compounded by grossly irresponsible speculation on part of the investment houses, the so-called “Cinderella Story” of the US economy screeched to a dramatic end just as George W. Bush was passing the executive torch to Barack Obama.
The powerful aftershocks of the crisis, which rocked the world’s leading banks and financial institutions, were immediately felt around the world. Trillions of dollars bled from global markets; economists called it the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The Obama administration was basically forced to choose between two alternatives: let the bankers and international corporations crash and burn, forcing them to pay the ultimate price (i.e. bankruptcy) for their reckless behavior; or prop up the capitalist system with massive government intervention courtesy of the already overburdened taxpayers.
Obama, despite his campaign pledge to defend all the 'Joe the Plumbers' of the world, opted for government intervention in the markets, tossing a life-line to those institutions deemed “too big to fail”. In March, US Congress voted in favor of Barack Obama's $787 billion economic “stimulus” plan, a ponderous 1,000-page initiative that has promised to rescue everyone from Wall Street bankers to middle-class individuals slipping down the social ladder.
In addition to the government stimulus package, the Federal Reserve, which has attracted Congressional scorn for its refusal to open up its dusty books, is working behind the scenes, rescuing buddy banks (Bear Stearns, Bank of America, Citigroup, for example) and other failing monstrosities.
In total, Obama’s bailout, which could become the defining event of his presidency, will end up costing US taxpayers somewhere in the neighborhood of seven trillion dollars. But for all the artificial stimulation, we are not out of the woods yet.
First, despite Obama’s pledge to create three million new jobs, US unemployment is currently hovering at a whopping 10% (and this number excludes individuals who are no longer receiving unemployment benefits), while a survey conducted by the Conference Board research group found only 45% of Americans are satisfied with their work. It is the group’s lowest rating in more than 22 years of studying the issue.
The one-sidedness of the bailout suggests that the top priorities of the Obama administration, despite Barack Obama’s glorious campaign promises to help the little guy, lean heavily towards corporate power. While the greedy bankers are set to cash their huge bonus checks, the most US consumer received was “cash for clunkers” – a program that awarded new car buyers discounts if they traded in their used automobile.
The real “cash for clunkers” program was the US government’s decision to save banks that deserved to fail with taxpayer money. Instead of each American consumer getting a nice royalty check in the mail for their part in saving the American economy, the undeserved bankers will be laughing all the way to the – ahem – bank.
“Industry-wide, bonus pay will be well over $100 billion in the year,” columnist Christopher Caldwell wrote in The Financial Times at the weekend. “Many bankers will receive theirs in the form of stock – including the top 30 executives at Goldman and everyone getting over $100,000 at Citigroup.”
Caldwell concludes his piece with this warning statement: “It is not impossible that, years from now, as the public comes to realize that it will spend generations paying for the bail-outs, rage against bankers will be more intense, not less.”
Finally, despite the massive props that are now supporting the global economy, few economists are brave enough to risk their reputations by saying the worst is behind us.
This weekend, The International Monetary Fund head warned that the global economy could experience another downturn – a so-called “double dip” recession.
Conclusion: Although US President Barack Obama was not responsible for the Crash of 2008, it seems he failed a large part of the American people by practically rewarding US banks and companies for their irresponsible behavior, while forcing the taxpayers to foot a monstrous bill that may well last many generations.
II. Ending the “War on Terror”
There are many subheadings under this gargantuan subject, but they can be reduced to three: getting out of Afghanistan; getting out of Iraq; and closing Guantanamo Bay detention facility, which Amnesty International has rightly dubbed “the gulag of our times.”
Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan began October 7, 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The mission’s purpose could be reduced to two major categories. The first was destroying the Taliban, the Sunni Islamist political group, which former President George W. Bush accused of harboring terrorists, most notably Osama bin Laden, the evil mastermind that Washington blames for orchestrating the attacks of 9/11. Capturing bin Laden was the second big reason for the invasion.
If we were ranking Obama’s performance in Afghanistan based solely on our continued military presence in the country (often referred to as “the graveyard of empires”), then he would certainly fail. Indeed, instead of pulling troops out of the country, Obama has pledged another 30,000 US troops for Afghanistan amidst Taliban resurgence. Although that number may sound large, it pales in comparison to a US military assessment of what US forces need to win.
On September 23, NBC News reported that a classified assessment by General Stanley A. McChrystal mentioned that a successful counterinsurgency strategy would require 500,000 troops and five years of fighting.
Here is part of a speech delivered by Barack Obama to West Point Military Academy cadets on December 1, 2009 that attempts to justify the latst surge: “When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war. Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive. That's why, shortly after taking office, I approved a long-standing request for more troops.”
Two things stand out from this speech. First, Obama makes it clear that it was the Bush administration, not his own, that failed to secure the situation in Afghanistan. This conclusion cannot be denied: The Republicans, for reasons known only to them, spent prodigious amounts of men and money to topple the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, despite the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with the events of 9/11, nor did it present even a remote security threat to the United States, as the UN weapons inspectors told the neocons in Washington to no avail – but more on that later.
Although it is certainly lamentable that Obama announced his decision to send more troops into Afghanistan – especially after just being announced the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – it is the opinion here that he has no real choice in the matter. Although a flag-on-the-mountaintop-style-victory will never happen in Afghanistan, to leave now without dealing a deadly blow to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would guarantee that Obama will never have a chance for another four years in the White House.
Former US Vice President Dick Cheney, who refuses to leave the political limelight, lambasted President Obama for pretending America is not at war.
“Why doesn't he want to admit we're at war?” Cheney asked. “It doesn't fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn't fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency: social transformation, the restructuring of American society.”
Conclusion: Although most Americans (I hope) understand that going to war in Iraq was a disastrous blunder, the same cannot be said about Afghanistan, where it is believed that the very plan to carry out the terrorist attacks of 9/11 transpired. After 10 years of hearing and seeing video images of “the evil mastermind” Osama bin Laden, even the most skeptical Americans now associate this individual with everything that is wrong in the world. And the recent attempt by an Al-Qaeda-linked Yemeni youth to bring down an American airliner has only served to exacerbate the situation.
Indeed, since the threat of terror will be with us for quite some time, the risk of leaving Afghanistan now, if we consider this decision from a strictly political perspective, is that any future hypothetical terrorist attack against Americans – either at home or abroad – will be blamed on Obama if he decides to “bring the troops home”.
Given the intense political dilemma that “getting out of Afghanistan” entails, and the fact that Obama inherited the war in the first place, we should go lightly on him here.
On the subject of ending the war in Iraq, much depends on how much faith we place in Obama’s promises.
Here is what Obama had to say about the Iraq war in a December speech:
“Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops by the end of 2011….
“I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions. We have been at war for eight years, at ab enormous cost in lives and resources. Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort.”
All things considered, it seems that Obama is doing the best he can to close this can of worms cracked wide open by his predecessor. After all, according to research by the Center by Public Integrity, President Bush's administration made a total of 935 false statements between 2001 and 2003 about Iraq's alleged threat to the United States. Although it is far too easy to rush into war, rushing out of it is a completely different thing.
The Guantanamo Bay detention center should not be closed. It should be evacuated at once, burned to the ground, and strewn with salt so that nothing ever grows there again. This dark corner of Cuba represents the darkest page of American history since the equally deranged decision to drop nuclear bombs during World War II came to light. After all, the Bush people made the incredibly bad PR decision that the detainees of the War on Terror did not qualify for protection under the rules of the Geneva Conventions.
But my main gripe about Guantanamo “Gitmo” Bay, however, is not the fact that the detainees are being held without legal representation, outside the jurisdiction of the US court system, bad as that may be.
What is most disturbing are those unforgettably shocking images of the orange-clad detainees, forced to kneel on the ground while wearing “sensory deprivation outfits,” while US Marines walk around them menacingly and armed to the teeth. In retrospect, these images not only made our troops appear somehow weaker (if not more sadistic) than the enemy, but they also aroused a level of absolute disgust in allies and enemies alike.
At Gitmo the “enemy combatants” (many of whom have since been proven innocent) were forced to kneel on the ground inside of a razor-tipped barbed-wire enclosure, while wearing handcuffs, blindfolds, hoods, gloves and earmuffs, apparently for the benefit of the photographers. Furthermore, the prisoners are clearly outgunned by the omnipresent US Marines who are stationed inside the enclosure with the detainees. And let’s not forget to add that Guantanamo Bay sits in a rugged and desolate corner of Cuba, in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. If the detainees had even an iota of a chance to escape, there wouldn’t be anywhere for them to escape to. What on earth were we trying to prove with such over-the-top behavior?
Before I am misinterpreted, I would like to acknowledge that I fully understand that some of the detainees in Gitmo are very dangerous men who would kill, and have killed, at the drop of a hat. But there are literally thousands of equally dangerous individuals now doing hard time in America’s “supermax” prisons, which are designed with the “worst of the worst” prisoners in mind. In other words, you’d have to be Harry Houdini himself to get out of these places. There is no reason why these detainees from the “War on Terror” (after all, terrorists, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, are not supermen) could not have been detained at these impenetrable, inescapable facilities.
This disgusting chapter of inhumanity needs to be closed, and fast. Not only does Guantanamo Bay fly in the face of America’s stated mission of delivering democracy to the world, it paints a totally unrecognizable picture of America that deserves to be erased forever.
Since October 7, 2001, 775 detainees have been brought to Guantanamo. Of these, approximately 420 have been released without charge. In January 2009, approximately 245 detainees remained. Under Barack Obama, by November 2009, this number has further decreased to 215.
Despite Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to immediately close Gitmo, over 200 hundred individuals remain. But under pressure from the Republicans, who are attempting to portray the Democrats of going soft on terrorists, the detention center remains open for business.
That Barack Obama has been in office for one year and the black hole of Gitmo is still open represents his biggest political failure as US president to date.
III. Russian relations
Although it seems to have had the best intentions at heart, the Obama administration stumbled on Russian relations once it left the starting gates. And it seems to have been stumbling ever since.
Back in May, while Russia was still feeling the sting of the “shock and awe” Bush years, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton graciously presented her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, with a “reset button”. The little device was meant to underscore the Obama administration’s readiness “to press the reset button” in ties with Moscow, which had suffered somewhat under Bush.
But instead of the Russian word for “reset” (perezagruzka) the box featured a different word (peregruzka), which actually translates as “overload” or “overcharged.” The grammatical faux pas created quite a stir in the Russian media.
Kommersant, a daily newspaper, put a prominent picture of the fake red button on its front page and declared: “Sergey Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pushed the wrong button.”
Although it seemed like an innocent oversight at the time, in some ways it does seem that the reset button severely malfunctioned.
The main obstacle to stain-free relations between the US and Russia remains the question of missile defense. This was the brainchild of the Bush administration, although its antecedents reach back to former US President Ronald Reagan and his much-touted Stars Wars program.
Post-9/11, with George W. Bush at the wheel of America’s War Machine, it was decided that Eastern Europe needed a US missile defense system bolted down in its backyard to guard those peace-loving people from a possible sneak attack by some rogue nation, usually identified as Iran or North Korea.
Now it does not take a military genius to see that if one side builds a huge shield this may cause concern for those who don’t have such a shield. The best they (read, Russia) can do in such a situation is to build a bigger sword in the hope of making their hypothetical opponent (in this case, America) behave rationally due to the belief that you (Russia) will be able to smash their (America’s) expensive shield to smithereens. Quite simple, really.
Naturally, Moscow responded optimistically to Barack Obama’s announcement in September that he would “scrap” his predecessor’s plans for a missile defense in Europe, which would have seen 10 ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and a sophisticated radar station in the Czech Republic. It would also have seen Russian missiles deployed in Kaliningrad, on the Polish border, as a retaliatory measure.
But “shelving” the original plan did not mean scrapping it altogether. In fact, the Obama administration announced almost immediately that it would, after “making a reassessment of the modern threats,” introduce its own missile defense system.
Although precious little information has been made available about the new plan, it is believed to entail the deployment of US cruisers and destroyers equipped with sophisticated Aegis radars and antimissile interceptors in the eastern Mediterranean and North Sea.
By 2015, the plan envisions interceptors being deployed on land with additional radars in Europe – possibly in the Caucasus – to monitor incoming rockets from lord knows where.
This new plan was supposed to calm Russia’s fears about the Bush plan. It didn’t. In fact, Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense, writing in The New York Times, argues that the new system “provides us with greater flexibility to adapt as new threats develop and old ones recede.”
“In the first phase, to be completed by 2011, we will deploy proven, sea-based SM-3 interceptor missiles – weapons that are growing in capability – in the areas where we see the greatest threat to Europe,” he beamed.
“The second phase,” Gates continues to beam, “which will become operational around 2015, will involve putting upgraded SM-3s on the ground in Southern and Central Europe. All told, every phase of this plan will include scores of SM-3 missiles, as opposed to the old plan of just 10 ground-based interceptors. This will be a far more effective defense should an enemy fire many missiles simultaneously.”
Naturally these developments are of concern to the Russians, who have been provided little information about the system. More importantly, Washington’s insistence on secrecy over the program is holding up the ratification of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which US and Russian diplomats have been trying to sign since the original document expired in December.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told a group of reporters in December that Russia will build new weapons to offset the planned US missile defense and urged Washington to share detailed data about its missile shield so that START may continue. Putin then candidly summed up US missile defense plans for the region and the dilemma it places Moscow in.
“The problem is that our American partners are developing missile defenses, and we are not,” he said.
“But the issues of missile defense and offensive weapons are closely interconnected," Putin continued. "There could be a danger that having created an umbrella against offensive strike systems, our partners may come to feel completely safe. After the balance is broken, they will do whatever they want and grow more aggressive.”
Given that Obama is waffling on missile defense with the Russians, which actually threatens to spark a mini arms race in the region, all talk of “reset” must be put on hold until Obama shows his hand in this poker game of extremely high stakes.
IV. Relations with Israel
Much of America’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, hinges one way or another on the state of Israel.
And although the United States has long remained Israel’s most loyal ally (Since 1982, the United States has vetoed 32 UN Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel, a number greater than all the vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members combined), it has failed repeatedly to resolve the one issue that continues to hamper peace in the Middle East: the creation of a bona-fide Palestinian state.
But at this point, the United States would be content if Israel agreed to halt settlement construction in the West Bank. After all, settlements on the West Bank beyond the Green Line border [The term Green Line refers to the 1949 Armistice lines established between Israel and its neighbors after the1948 Arab-Israeli War. The Green Line separates Israel not only from these countries but from territories Israel would later capture in the 1967 Six day War, including the West bank and the Gaza Strip] are considered by the United Nations, as well as other organizations, to be illegal under international law.
As of November 2009, according to Peace Now, a rights organization, approximately 280,000 Israelis live in the 121 officially-recognized settlements in the West Bank, and 190,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem.
Israel’s policies toward settlement construction have ranged from active promotion to forceful expulsion, and the issue strikes a raw nerve in Israel on both sides of the debate. It also goes far at inflaming Middle East tensions, which have a strange way of always involving the US military.
Although the Bush administration also demanded that Israel halt settlement construction, it was willing to ignore so-called “natural expansion” in the West Bank. Obama, on the other hand, wants all construction to stop. This has sparked a harsh reaction in some Israeli circles.
“The Bush administration was against expansion of West Bank settlements,” wrote Alan Dershowitz in The Wall Street Journal in May, “but it was willing to accept a ‘natural growth’ exception that implicitly permitted Israel to expand existing settlements in order to accommodate family growth. The Obama administration has so far shut the door on this exception.”
Dershowtiz mentioned one interesting compromise, first proposed by Yousef Munayyer, a leader of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League, which allows settlements to grow “vertically” as opposed to “horizontally.”
Dershowitz then mentioned that the majority of Jewish-American voters are opposed to settlement construction in the West Bank, a fact that may or may not have much meaning for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but which is of vital importance to Barack Obama, whose first duty is to represent the will of his constituents.
Incidentally, a recent survey of Israeli public opinion found that people are almost evenly divided on the issue, with 46 percent of those polled in support of further construction and 44 percent opposed.
“A majority of American-Jewish supporters of Israel, as well as Israelis, do not favor settlement expansion,” Dershowitz continued. “Thus the Obama position on settlement expansion, whether one agrees with it or not, is not at all inconsistent with support for Israel. It may be a different position from that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it is not a difference that should matter to most Jewish voters who support both Mr. Obama and Israel.”
In his first meeting with the American president, in May, Netanyahu skirted the Palestinian question of statehood, not to mention settlements, saying that his top priority was to deal with the threat Iran poses because of its nuclear program (which Iran says is for strictly civilian purposes). He insisted that progress on the question of Palestinian statehood ranked second to tackling the “Iranian problem.”
Obama, however, argued Netanyahu's formula was backwards, saying that the Palestinian question must be resolved before dealing with Iran. The two men parted ways with no consensus on this extremely sensitive issue.
In November, Netanyahu announced the scaling back on construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank for the next 10 months, in an attempt to ease tensions and further peace negotiations with Palestine.
“It enables us to present the world with a simple truth: The Israeli government wants to enter into negotiations and it is very serious about its intentions to advance peace,” Netanyahu said of the move, which has also been described as an attempt to put public pressure on Palestinian authorities to re-enter negotiations.
But Israel’s partial suspension of construction is a far cry from the total cessation sought by Palestine.
“Any return to negotiations must be on the basis of a complete settlement freeze, and in Jerusalem foremost,” said a spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
But for the Obama administration, this partial success is the first small step toward peace in the region, and deserves to be applauded.
How Barack Obama ranked:
1. Financial Crisis: 5/10
2. War in Afghanistan: 7/10
3. War in Iraq: 9/10
4. Guantanamo Bay: 0/10
5. Russian "reset": 5/10
6. Israel: 7/10.
Advice: Get out of Gitmo!