The most vociferous critics expected far more than a mere mortal could deliver
By Gideon Rachman, who twice endorsed Barack Obama
It has taken a long time, but the world’s fantasies about Barack Obama are finally crumbling. In Europe, once the headquarters of the global cult of Obama, the disillusionment is particularly bitter. Monday’s newspapers were full of savage quotes about the perfidy of the Obama-led US.
Der Spiegel, the German magazine that alleged that America’s National Security Agency has bugged the EU’s offices, thundered that “the NSA’s totalitarian ambition . . . affects us all . . . A constitutional state cannot allow it. None of us can allow it.” President François Hollande of France has demanded that the alleged spying stop immediately. Le Monde, Mr Hollande’s home-town newspaper, has even suggested that the EU should consider giving political asylum to Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower.
But if liberals wanted to compile a list of perfidious acts by the Obama administration, the case of the bugged EU fax machine should probably come low down the list.
More important would be the broken promise to close the Guantánamo detention centre and – above all – the massive expansion of the use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
It has gradually dawned on President Obama’s foreign fan club that their erstwhile hero is using methods that would be bitterly denounced if he were a white Republican. As Hakan Altinay, a Turkish academic, complained to me last week: “Obama talks like the president of the American Civil Liberties Union but he acts like Dick Cheney.”
It is not just Mr Obama’s record on security issues that disappoints the likes of Mr Altinay. Liberals in Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Iran and elsewhere complain that the US president has been far too hesitant about condemning human rights abuses in their countries. Or to adapt Mr Altinay’s complaint: when it comes to foreign policy, Mr Obama campaigned with the human rights rhetoric of Jimmy Carter but has governed like Henry Kissinger.
Yet those who argue that the world was duped and Mr Obama is simply a fraud are making a mistake. Before disappearing into a lather of anger and disappointment, the president’s critics should consider some counter-arguments.
First, some of the decisions that Mr Obama has made that liberals hate are partly a result of some other decisions that they liked. Foreigners have largely applauded the Obama administration’s decision to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, if you are not going to go after your enemies on the ground, you may need other methods. Mr Obama’s controversial expansion of the drone strike programme is closely linked to his reluctance to deploy troops on the ground.
Similarly, Mr Obama has rightly received some credit for his decision to end torture of terrorist suspects, including such practices as waterboarding. But the need to gather information on terror threats remains – and the massive expansion of electronic monitoring is partly a response to that.
Europeans respond that bugging the EU’s Washington office has nothing to do with the “war on terror”. True enough – but is it really so surprising that allies sometimes eavesdrop on each other? The British have occasionally debated whether they should spy on the Americans – and only turned the idea down on the grounds that they would inevitably be caught, causing severe damage to the “special relationship”. The French are thought to have conducted commercial espionage, aimed at America. The Israelis spied on the US – as the conviction of their agent, Jonathan Pollard, confirmed.
The current European backlash against Mr Obama is reminiscent of a similar process of disillusionment undergone by American liberals in recent years. In one column, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times compared Mr Obama unfavourably to a fictional president, portrayed by Michael Douglas, in a film. This drew a sharp response from Mr Obama when, in a recent speech, he called out to Mr Douglas – “Michael, what’s your secret, man. Could it be that you were an actor, an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?”
It is not entirely Mr Obama’s fault that he became the vessel into which liberals all over the world poured their fantasies. Of course, like any politician, he pumped up expectations when running for office. But when Obama-mania really took off in 2008, it swiftly moved into a realm beyond reason. What was candidate Obama meant to say to the 200,000 Berliners who turned out to cheer him that year – “Go home guys, this is silly”? When the new president was given the Nobel Peace Prize, simply for existing, all he could do was graciously accept.
It is perfectly legitimate to argue that Mr Obama should have done more to cut back the rapidly growing secret state that he inherited when he took office. The combination of a “war on terror” and the new world of “big data” has created possibilities and pressures – and Mr Obama may have made some wrong calls in response. Yet the US president has had to balance a variety of pressures – including the continuing existence of a terrorist threat and the entrenched power of the intelligence world.
Mr Obama was living in a real universe, full of hard choices. It was his overheated critics who lived in a fantasy world.
SoRo: When they can no longer act as though he is the best thing since, well, the beginning of time, they will continue to make excuses.
Journos, if you haven't been investigated by Obama, you might just be in the tank, luvs.
Related: Germans Loved Obama. Now We Don’t Trust Him.
Related: Germans Loved Obama. Now We Don’t Trust Him.