You have to hand it to Barack Obama – the guy can talk. When George W. Bush appeared on the world stage, the spoilt frat-boy was always embarrassingly visible beneath the presidential veneer, and his attempts to sound statesmanlike were often undermined by the disturbing smirk that tended to accompany even his more serious moments.
Obama by contrast, is serene, confident and convincing, emanating gravitas, sincerity and moral purpose in equal measure, with an ability to make even the most vacuous bullshit sound like the sermon on the mount. All these rhetorical talents were on display during his address to the UN yesterday, in which he exhorted our troubled world to put aside its differences and celebrate the ‘common heartbeat’ of humanity. Take note of this characteristic flourish, you cynics, and repent:
So much attention in our world turns to what divides us. That’s what we see on the news, and that consumes our political debates. But when you strip that all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes from faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people – and not the other way around.
Now if that doesn’t fill you with a warm glowing feeling then you are truly lost brothers and sisters. Destiny. Freedom. Dignity. Faith. Justice - it’s better than listening to ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’ on a cold December evening. And naturally there was also ‘hope’ too. With Obama there always is.
This cuddly Obamaspeak was littered with condemnations of the ‘mindless violence’, ‘extremism’ and ‘killing of innocents’ that are preventing humanity from coming together – activities that for Obama are the exclusive preserve of the evil ones that the world’s ‘indispensable nation’ has been so selflessly fighting these last few years.
On the same day that Obama was decrying the Islamic extremists who killed the US ambassador to Libya, the Law Schools at Stanford and New York universities published a joint report on the horrific consequences of America’s drone wars in northern Pakistan. Entitled Living Under Drones, the report describes how
US drones hover 24 hours a day over communities in north-west Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorises men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.
The report also notes that
These fears have affected behaviour. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.
Obama is directly responsible for the escalation in this campaign, and not only in Pakistan. Every week, and sometimes every day, he personally approves drone strikes in targets selected on the basis of ‘life patterns’ or what the report calls ‘groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.’
There is no way of knowing how many victims of these strikes were ‘militants’ or ‘terrorists’ or how many were simply designated as kill-able targets because the US military and intelligence services regard anyone living or moving within a certain geographical area as an enemy.
The authors of Living Under Drones rightly condemn the drone wars as ‘counter-productive’. But America’s reliance on such weapons is only one more example of the hollowness and hypocrisy of Obama’s speechmaking, in which condemnations of violence alternated with thinly-veiled threats that the US will ‘do what it must’ to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Obama rightly condemned the ‘extremists’ who killed the US ambassador in Libya. But he did not mention that the White House has just removed the violent cult-like Mujahideen e-Khalq from its list of terrorist organizations.
This decision undoubtedly has more to do with the MEK’s willingness to participate in the covert bombing and assassination campaign being waged in Iran by Western and Israeli intelligence agencies than it does to its commitment to the ‘common heartbeart’ of humanity. Iran is also an obvious priority behind the massive US arms sales to America’s Gulf State allies over the last three years.
All these developments reflect a concept of statecraft that is generally concealed from the American public, and which was entirely absent amid Obama’s narcissistic outpourings yesterday. For all his insistence on the role of diplomacy and dialogue in international affairs, Obama is as wedded to the use of violence as an instrument of state policy as his predecessors, but unlike Bush he is much better at concealing it.
When he talks about the ‘common heartbeat’ of humanity and condemns the killing of ‘innocents’, he really sounds like he believes it, and perhaps he actually does.
But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to do the same.