A bright new day – but what now, President Obama?

5.11.08

President Barack ObamaIn the end, the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States struck me as both more and less extraordinary than I had anticipated. I suppose I thought it was in the bag when right-wing pundits started defecting, acknowledging that they couldn’t stomach the idea of Sarah Palin as President if McCain were to die, and congratulating Barack Obama for being so cool and dependable during the economic crisis, while John McCain was flip-flopping horrendously.

And it is, of course, phenomenal that so many millions of Americans have proved that they are hungry for change, and have elected a president whose very identity bridges a divide in American society that did not end with the achievements of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

But what stuck me as most extraordinary was the realization that Dick Cheney and his chief of staff David Addington are on their way out. I had a recurring nightmare that, in the event of a McCain victory, Sarah Palin would enter the Vice President’s Office to find two men waiting for her. “I’m Dick,” one would say, “and this is David. We’re your new advisers.”

Despite their fervent wishes, however, the American people have spoken, and the democratic process that both men despised has finally removed the two individuals most responsible for elevating a proxy, puppet president to what they intended to be an unassailable dictatorial right to wage an endless, spectral war on terrorism, in which all opposition was crushed, politicians only existed to be manipulated and the highest court in the land was regarded with scorn.

It is on this point, however, that my euphoria this morning was tempered with immediate doubts. Barack Obama faces one of the most daunting tasks ever faced by an incoming president, and while I’m intrigued to see how he will deal with the meltdown caused by the most creative crooks in financial history, I’m most exercised by his planned response to the administration’s human right abuses and wholesale flight from the law.

His heart is clearly in the right place, as has been demonstrated by his opposition to the occupation of Iraq, his opposition to the use of torture, his profound respect for constitutional law, his robust defense of habeas corpus for prisoners seized in the Bush administration’s global war without end, and his opposition to the Military Commissions Act. This vile piece of legislation, passed in the fall of 2006, not only stripped the prisoners of the habeas rights that had been granted by the Supreme Court in June 2004, but also reinstated the “terror trials” at Guantánamo (in which, on the eve of the election, an al-Qaeda associate was sentenced to life in prison after a one-sided show trial) and attempted to grant the president — and anyone who had ever worked for him — immunity from any prosecution for war crimes.

In August 2007, Obama delivered a speech — to my mind the best speech he has ever delivered — in which he promised to address all these issues:

In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power. A tragedy that united us was turned into a political wedge issue used to divide us.

When I am President, America will reject torture without exception. America is the country that stood against that kind of behavior, and we will do so again … As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists … The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example to the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.

These are the words that convinced me that Barack Obama would dismantle the arrogant and violent apparatus of the Bush administration. Like all the other policy decisions that he faces today, it will not be an easy task, but for America to be the “shining beacon on the hill” that he has so often mentioned, it is imperative that he works assiduously to fulfil these promises.

Barack Obama and his family

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Note: The photo at the top of the article is by Getty and the photo above is by Reuters/Gary Hershorn.

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