Friday, January 23, 2009

the contradictions of hope

Last week there was near euphoria around the world when Barack Obama was inaugurated as 44th President of the United States. I must confess that I spent most of the day glued to the television, watching a remarkable event unfold: one of those moments when you had to be there, at least watching, as when 9/11 occurred, Nelson Mandela walked free, the Berlin Wall came down, or Nixon stepped into the helicopter to leave the White House for the last time.

Obama has been extremely active in his first 6 days in office, and has already done some remarkable things. There was widespread press coverage of Barack Obama signing a Presidential order on 22 January 2009 mandating that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba be closed. In the same order it was decreed that all detainess held by the US would be covered by the Geneva Conventions. Less well noted were the fact that in the same order Obama ordered the closure of the Central Intelligence Agency's network of secret prisons, and that the CIA had been banned from using interrogation methods that are not contained in the US army field manual. At last, water boarding will come to an end as the official policy of the US government.

I don't expect the CIA or the US military not to resort to torture, or rendition; but if they do, at least now they can be held, to some degree, accountable. That is a positive return to a previous status quo--and after 8 years of Bush, a positive return to a status quo appears fresh and new.

Most remarkable of all, from an international development perspective, was a Presidential order that once more allows US aid agencies to deal with global groups that advocate family planning, like Marie Stopes and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. George W. Bush had imposed a moratorium on dealing with these groups within days of taking office; there can be little doubt that lifting the moratorium will save the lives of thousands of women throughout the developing world. This move reinforces the emphasis on development made by Hillary Clinton when she first addressed State Department staff last week--she is going to try and have development activities that lie under the control of the Defence department moved to State, where they clearly belong.

Cynics might decry these immediate--and fairly politically easy--changes under the new US President. I don't. These former US policies were an afront to the American people, served to galzanize opposition to the United States around the world, violated international law, and violated the rights of women. It was important that these wrongs be righted.

Nonetheless, it is still necessary to confront these changes against a more mundane and messy reality. On 23 January a US missle strike in North Wazirstan, Pakistan killed at least 21 people, including 3 children. These were the first such strikes--there were 30 in 2008--under President Obama, and as such must have received the direct approval of the President. On 24 January a US military raid in Aghanistan killed 22, including 2 women and 3 children--although the US military, with no observers on the ground, claimed that all the dead were militants. It is likely that a raid of this sort, in a civilian area of Afghanistan, was also explicitly authorized by President Obama. Thus, with the hopes that Obama has raised comes the contradictions of continuity. Such contradictions, however, are inevitable, as Barack Obama cannot and will not transform the US political economy. His role is to manage it better: and as such, President Obama will do much that will disappoint.

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