Since shortly before his election last November, I’ve seen a number of articles putting forward the view that Barack Ombama is an advanced thinker. I’ve even seen it proposed by some on the Spiral Dynamics e-lists that he is a ‘2nd Tier thinker’. Even that the TUQUOISE vMEME is activated in his head.
Alongside the jubilation in many parts of the world at his election was the expectation that now things would be different – things would change. Obama would make America better and that would help make the world better. I doubt there has been so much excitement and so much expectation of an American president since John F Kennedy. The anticipation has been of almost of messianic proportions!
And Obama got off to a great liberal electorate-pleasing start. On his second day in office, he signed the order which will effectively close Guantánamo Bay. From there, he went on to do another electorate pleaser – by blocking the bonuses of many of the ‘fat cat’ bankers whose greed has all but brought Capitalism to its knees.
And now he’s stumbled. Badly.
Last Friday’s decision to stand by the position of George W Bush’s administration that the so-called ‘enemy combatants’ held at Afghanistan’s Bagram Airbase have no legal right to challenge their detention is astonishing – especially since the decision was made public on the day Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made it clear she would raise human rights violations with the Chinese government on her visit there.
How can the United States castigate China on the issue of human rights when it is plainly denying them to its own detainees?
Last Summer the US Supreme Court gave al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects held at Guantánamo the right to challenge their detention there. On the back of that, the relatives of 4 Afghan citizens held at Bagram petitioned the Washington DC District Court that the US military was holding them without charge and repeatedly interrogating them without any means for them to contact an attorney. The Bush White House supported the military’s response that the detainees were ‘enemy combatants’ whose status is reviewed every 6 months, taking into account classified intelligence and testimony from those involved in their capture and interrogation.
When Obama took office, a federal judge in Washington gave the new administration a month to decide whether it would stand by Bush’s argument. In a 2-sentence filing last week the Justice Department said it agreed that detainees at Bagram Airbase cannot use US courts to challenge their detention. Effectively Obama’s White House has said the detainees have no constitutional rights.
Or, as Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, put it: “They’ve now embraced the Bush policy that you can create prisons outside the law.”
The risk of dissipating goodwill
I’ve actually no idea whether Obama thinks in TURQUOISE. Since politicians in elections usually talk bollocks in their efforts to get elected, I’ve not paid Obama’s words that much attention prior to him taking office – preferring to see what he actually does once his hands are on the levers of power.
And this is a myopic blunder of enormous proportions that might seriously derail Obama’s train before it’s even got fully out of the station, crashing Obama’s reputation with it.
Human rights attorney Tina Monshipour Foster summed up the disappointment: “The hope we all had in President Obama to lead us on a different path has not turned out as we’d hoped. We all expected better.”
And what message will the Bagram decision have on the millions of people in other countries who’d hoped for a new America that really would be the good guy it claimed to be, rather than the dangerous, overbearing bully it had become during Bush’s second term?
Obama’s election generated an enormous amount of goodwill right around the world, particularly from Muslim moderates and liberals trying to restrain their anti-American radicals. How easily could that goodwill be dissipated if Obama is perceived to have the same contempt for Asian and Arab lives that Bush had?
The fact that Obama is black/mixed race will actually work against him if he sanctions actions which are perceived to be racist. He will be the ‘Uncle Tom’ who sold out to the ‘Crusaders’.
If Obama does think in the 2nd Tier, then there will be a healthy dose of pragmatism to balance out his idealism. 2nd Tier thinking would have no hesitation in sacrificing a few for the good of the many. There may be tears in its eyes and a heavy sigh of the heart but it would do what needed to be done. The CIA and the military may well have presented evidence to Obama to convince him that they can’t just let very dangerous men walk free out of Bagram.
But keeping them outside of any recognised judicial system in a place associated with torture and other human rights abuses under the Bush administration is not the answer.
Guantánamo was a public relations disaster for the Americans. How many more recruits al-Qaeda picked up as the memetic allegations of mistreatment and torture (often evidenced) spread around the world time and time again will probably never be known – but after 8 years of the Americans’ concerted action against it, there seems to be no shortage of passionate and embittered young men (and women) all too ready to die if they can kill Americans (and Western Europeans) doing so. As for wiping the Taliban out of Afghanistan, they are now acknowledged by military experts to be stronger than at any time since the invasion at the end of 2001.
The fact that the Americans could only muster enough evidence to convict 3 Guantánamo detainees in any kind of recognisable legal process while the Pentagon today announced that 1 in 10 of the detainees freed so far has been involved in anti-American/terrorist activity certainly shows the failure of the detention process at Guantánamo. The Pentagon has tried to present the 1 in 10 figure as recidivist – ie: they were going back to what they did before. An alternative interpretation was offered on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning by human rights lawyer Philippe Sands: some of those 1 in 10 will not have been previously involved in terrorist activities – if the Americans had proof, then why weren’t they put on trial? But they will have been so radicalised by their treatment at Guantánamo that they have since turned to terrorism. Of course, strongly suspecting something and offering a degree of proof acceptable in a court of law are not the same thing – but Sands’ argument seems equally, if not more, valid to me than the Pentagon’s.
With Guantánamo closing, more and more attention is likely to be turned to Bagram which already has an extremely toxic reputation. By supporting Bush’s policy on the Bagram detainees, Obama really does risk being tainted with its poison.
Speaking to vMEMES
There are ways of presenting messages which can speak to multiple vMEMES. Just think of Hilary Clinton’s statements about her talks with the Chinese. Yes, she was most definitely going to raise human rights violations with the Chinese – thus, appeasing GREEN to some extent – but that was not going to get in the way of the United States and China focusing on bettering trading relations between the two economic giants – thus, pleasing BLUE in its need to manage systems – as one strategy in turning the global economy back on the right path – thus, stimulating ORANGE’s striving to achieve targets. Plus, there is a promise of a trickle-down of greater financial security for PURPLE’S safety needs. Clinton – not usually someone to whom 2nd Tier thinking is ascribed – actually pulled off a good balancing act, hitting a number of buttons quite effectively.
Last Friday Obama – who, in his methodology, had seemed such a unique and effective communicator in the election campaign – looked a dullard by comparison.
For all I know Obama does have TURQUOISE in his vMEME stack. He may turn out to be a great American president – perhaps he will become as inspirational a statesman as Nelson Mandela. But he needs to consider how his actions are perceived.
It is one thing to know what to do in the interests of your own people. It is another to consider how your actions may be perceived by other peoples and what effect that perception may have on those peoples’ attitudes towards your people.
Obama’s blunder puts me in mind of the blunders of another man to whom TURQUOISE thinking has been attributed at times: Prince Charles. The man is a true visionary – a would-be philosopher of sorts – who has made a positive difference in the lives of thousands upon thousands through the work of the Prince’s Trust and been involved in developing models of sustainable farming and rural life. Yet he has alienated politicians he could have influenced, with his nagging letters and is caricatured in the media as an eccentric who talks to plants and maltreated his first wife. The phrase “too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly use” would be unkind but his seeming inability to get the right messages out to the right vMEMES has significantly undermined what he could have achieved.
Obama needs to recalibrate and recognise his need to speak to multiple vMEMES. He also needs to recognise his blunder and find a way back from it before he replaces Bush as the best recruiter al-Qaeda ever had.
Friday, February 27th 2009 at 08:21
I had to search around a bit to find details of the Obama speech. It doesn’t seem to have made much impression over here. (Our media’s a bit preoccupied at the moment with stories like the head of a bank which made a £25B loss last year walking away with a £650K annual pension!)
Obama did seem to touch wide range of bases in a quite populist manner and it does seem to have gone down incredibly well in the US, according to the pollsters. Clive Crooks, the Washington correspondent of the ‘Financial Times’, called it “a good campaign speech, beautifully delivered….so heavy on inspiration and so light on policy”.
Maybe Bagram was a one-off blunder and Obama is a great communicator…?
In terms of what we’re talking about, the key paragraph was:-
“To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend – because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists – because living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.”
I really hope that final sentence doesn’t come back to bite him. It’s a real hostage to fortune.
Yesterday the ‘Daily Mail’ picked up on a report I first saw the day before on allegations that abuse has actually increased at Guantanamo since Obama ordered its closure. The source the Mail quotes seems to imply that the abuse is from on-the-ground guards rather than systematic instructions from above. But Obama’s administration will need to act quickly and decisively to end abuse both at Guantanamo and Bagram and to punish ruthlessly those who would torture wearing the uniform of the USA.
And he still has done nothing to give – or appear to give – human rights considerations the US champions elsewhere to the detainees at Bagram.
Thursday, February 26th 2009 at 05:24
Good job, Keith. I look forward to hearing your take on his first State of the Union address last night, where he appeared to do exactly what you’re calling for.