Sunday, 8 May 2011

Obama's failure

A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog entry about Obama, just after he had received the Nobel Peace Prize. Unlike many others, I said that I sympathised with the committee's decision to award him the prize. That is, I considered his policies and intentions to be promising, and his speech acts to be significant political deeds. I stated that, whereas I was in no position to judge whether he actually deserved the prize or not, I was happy they gave it to him - for I considered it a welcome act of support for his attempts to reach out to the Muslim world, and his commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.

The time has come to admit that, sadly, I was too optimistic. Obama continues to be a great performer and story-teller, and he is more moderate than any right-wing republican would ever be. In the end, however, he is as unilateral, patriotic and pragmatic as any American president since the Second World War. His real commitment is to American commercial and military interests, not to the establishment of international peace, justice and democracy. The fact that after several years in office he still did not manage to close down Guantanamo Bay shows that his commitment to law and justice is not as serious as his rhetoric suggests. The questionable involvement (or lack thereof) in the recent revolutions in different Middle Eastern countries shows that the establishment of peace, freedom and autonomy in the region is no priority to this US government. But the most shocking disillusionment was his statement that 'justice has been done', earlier this week. I'll explain.

The first thing I read when I woke up on Monday morning was the news that Bin Laden had been killed. The first thing that struck me was the nature of the reactions - on social media, on pictures and footage of cheering crowds, on newspapers and websites. I was surprised by the ways in which people celebrated and rejoiced in the violent murder of four people, three of whom had been unarmed. I thought this might be an appropriate moment for some serious reflection on the costs of ten years of war, and for commemoration of the many victims of those ten years - in the US, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and elsewhere. Instead, people danced on the streets waving their flags as if their national team had just won the World Cup. The violent murder of an unarmed old man was celebrated as a heroic deed. As US-based journalist and eye-witness Mona Eltahawy wrote in The Guardian:
I could hear the cheers as I got out of the taxi, two blocks away. I could hear them from right in front of Park 51, the site of a planned Islamic community centre and mosque that met ferocious opposition last year for being too close to the "hallowed ground" of Ground Zero. It was minutes after President Obama's announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed, and I was heeding a friend's suggestion that we – both Muslims – take candles and stand in vigil where the World Trade Centre stood before Bin Laden's footsoldiers took it down. So it was a shock to find hundreds of others had turned that hallowed ground into the scene of a home crowd celebrating an away victory they hadn't attended, the roots of which they were probably not there to experience or were too young to remember. (...) The scene at Ground Zero was like a parody of Team America, the film created by the South Park team to parody Bush's America gone wild on nationalism. Now that we've parodied the parody, can the frat boys go home and can we return to the revolutions of the Middle East and north Africa that symbolically killed Bin Laden months ago? I'm not hearing sympathy for Bin Laden from Muslims and Arabs I know. They're relieved he's finally gone. But they're understandably concerned that media obsession will let him hijack these noble revolutions. One man has been killed; dozens courageously staring down despots are slaughtered every day.
As I wrote on my facebook page, the reactions are partly created by cultural circumstances. In a culture where most people think in terms of absolute good and evil, the use of violence to 'defeat evil' is easily legitimated. Thus violence is cultivated. It is no wonder that in a country where many people believe they have a god-given right (literally) to defend themselves, violence is widespread, to the point that it has become an intrinsic part of society. And if violence is common within society, so too the use of violence to defend national interests abroad is easily justified, especially if it is combined with a discursively cultivated notion that the nation is under attack. As the nation in American civil religion is identified with the supreme good, so its antagonist must represent absolute evil. The evilness of the Other becomes non-negotiable. There is no place for nuances in such a scheme.

The fact that my criticism angered some of my American relatives - well-socialised members of their society - to the point that they refuse to be in touch with me any longer sadly confirms my point. It illustrates how widespread the mentality of 'if you're not with us, you're against us' actually is, when even people whom I thought peaceful suddenly express bloodthirsty patriotism. Not only are they unwilling to question their culturally defined assumptions, they are also insulted if others refuse to see the world in their terms.

There are a few questions the event has triggered. First of all, why did the US wait so long before they killed Bin Laden? Why did it take ten years to find him? Or did it? What if they knew where he was all along, carefully monitoring his whereabouts? There is evidence that they knew his location several months ago, possibly much longer. For a long time, 'Bin Laden' was a symbolic justification for US military presence in Afghanistan, and as such they had to keep him alive and prevent they couldn't find him. But now that the US have pretty much given up Afghanistan (a 'failed state' ruled by local warlords), and Obama wants to retreat his troops, he no longer needs this justification. Instead, it was politically more opportune to kill Bin Laden - the domestic popularity this would give Obama far outweighed any possible international criticism. And unlike other countries, the US easily get away with this sort of violations of international law, and the territorial integrity of another country. Instead, they received congratulations from all over the world. The power of the strongest...

Noam Chomsky made several interesting remarks about this, so I'll quote him at length:
It’s increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law. There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 80 commandos facing virtually no opposition—except, they claim, from his wife, who lunged towards them. In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In April 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, the FBI could say no more than that it “believed” that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan, though implemented in the UAE and Germany. What they only believed in April 2002, they obviously didn’t know 8 months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know, because they were instantly dismissed) to extradite bin Laden if they were presented with evidence—which, as we soon learned, Washington didn’t have. Thus Obama was simply lying when he said, in his White House statement, that “we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.”

Nothing serious has been provided since. There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.

There is also much media discussion of Washington’s anger that Pakistan didn’t turn over bin Laden, though surely elements of the military and security forces were aware of his presence in Abbottabad. Less is said about Pakistani anger that the U.S. invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination. Anti-American fervor is already very high in Pakistan, and these events are likely to exacerbate it. The decision to dump the body at sea is already, predictably, provoking both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world.
We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.
Chomsky does what an intellectual has to do: question the self-evident, taken-for-granted 'truths' spread by the ideological state apparatus and reproduced in media discourse. At least the US has some critical citizens who don't rejoice in the violent death of the man who was turned into a symbol of evil, and don't unconditionally accept the government's narrative. I am not sure Chomsky is still in touch with all his relatives, though.

So why was Bin Laden killed, and not captured alive? Why not bring him to court, provide irrefutable evidence of his involvement, and punish him accordingly? The truth could have been found, and justice could have been done - would that not have been better than turning Bin Laden into a martyr, and giving rise to all sorts of new myths and conspiracy theories surrounding his life and death? As Geoffrey Robertson wrote in The Independent,
America resembles the land of the munchkins, as it celebrates the death of the Wicked Witch of the East. The joy is understandable, but it endorses what looks increasingly like a cold-blooded assassination ordered by a president who, as a former law professor, knows the absurdity of his statement that "justice was done". Amoral diplomats and triumphant politicians join in applauding Bin Laden's summary execution because they claim real justice – arrest, trial and sentence would have been too difficult in the case of Bin Laden. But in the long-term interests of a better world, should it not at least have been attempted? (...)
[T]he notion that any form of legal process would have been too hard must be rejected. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - also alleged to be the architect of 9/11 - will shortly go on trial and had Bin Laden been captured, he should have been put in the dock alongside him, so that their shared responsibility could have been properly examined. Bin Laden could not have been tried for 9/11 at the International Criminal Court – its jurisdiction only came into existence nine months later. But the Security Council could have set up an ad hoc tribunal in The Hague, with international judges (including Muslim jurists), to provide a fair trial and a reasoned verdict. (...)
It was not always thus. When the time came to consider the fate of men much more steeped in wickedness than Bin Laden – the Nazi leadership – the British government wanted them hanged within six hours of capture. President Truman demurred, citing the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson that summary execution “would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride?the only course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times will permit and upon a record that will leave our reasons and motives clear”. He insisted upon judgment at Nuremberg, which has confounded Holocaust-deniers ever since.
May it be the case, then, that Bin Laden was killed simply because there was not enough legal evidence of his involvement in the attacks of September 11? What kind of proof is there anyway? Perhaps his involvement was in fact limited - perhaps the attacks were designed by Khalid Mohammed and Mohammed Atta, and all Bin Laden did was provide symbolic justification. I honestly don't know. Sure, he claimed he was directly responsible - but why on earth should the statements of this man, who obviously suffered from megalomania, be taken at face-value...?

Obama has missed a great opportunity to strengthen the institutions of international law, which contribute to international cooperation, justice and peace. He has missed the opportunity to find out the truth about Bin Laden's alleged responsibility for the deaths of thousands of people. He has acted unilaterally, without any respect for international relations. He has directly violated international law, by ordering the assassination of an unarmed man who in all likelihood could have been captured alive. Thus, he has let political Darwinism and an eye-for-an-eye mentality prevail over justice.

By making these choices, he has desecrated the Nobel Prize. He isn't the first one, he won't be the last one - but it is disappointing nonetheless.


  1. Nicely laid out, Aike. Rule of law is such an important thing. It's a shame that it was sacrificed for expediency or political capital.

  2. "Instead, people danced on the streets waving their flags as if their national team had just won the World Cup."
    How about turning this around.
    Instead people danced on the streets waving their flags as the devil himself has been killed.
    I don't get the soccer mania. Maybe you can explain it to me?


  3. If the devil had just been killed I would not be waving any national flags. Especially if my country was responsible for the death of approximately 150,000 people - the price paid for finding and killing him. I would be quiet, I guess.

    Of course, the Devil is not dead - as long as hatred and violence are cultivated, he is alive and kicking.

    As for the football (i.e., soccer) comparison - that's what the outburst of patriotic pride and joy reminded me of. It may be a very Euro- or Latinocentric comparison. Perhaps I should rephrase it in terms more compatible with US culture: " if their national team had just won the gold medal in ice hockey."