#GlobalSpotlight: Obama told us one thing but did the opposite

Former US president Barack Obama delivers the Nelson Mandela annual lecture at Wanderers Stadium, Gauteng. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

Former US president Barack Obama delivers the Nelson Mandela annual lecture at Wanderers Stadium, Gauteng. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jul 22, 2018


As human beings we want to be inspired by political leaders, and what could be more inspiring than listening to an address by the first African-American president of the US, Barack Obama, last week?

For the most part, South Africans were mesmerised - it was a moment to reflect on the values and principles that made Madiba a great leader. 

Obama, one of the most impressive orators of our time, spoke eloquently about the freedom fighter who was jailed in 1964 when Obama was only three years old.

As someone who had hailed the election of an African-American to the White House in 2009, I had great hopes for what many perceived as Obama’s transformative agenda. But with the passage of time came bitter disappointment at his failure to live up to the principles he hails Madiba for.

At what was dubbed Obama’s most important speech since leaving office, he spoke about Mandela’s belief that some principles were universal and, as humans, we should treat one another with care and respect.

That was the correct message to convey at a historical juncture where the world is deeply divided and there is increasing intolerance of those deemed different from ourselves.

Our country is arguably more divided than at any time since Mandela entered office. The Madiba message of reconciliation, inclusiveness, and social cohesion has never been more under threat by populist forces.

But the problem I had with Obama’s lecture was that, as the US president, he failed to abide by the principles he claimed last week to fervently believe in. The reality is that Obama’s track record as commander-in-chief showed his disregard for the values of human rights, the rule of law and due process.

Obama was quick to criticise the excesses of his predecessor president George W Bush, particularly his invasion of Iraq. But Obama commited even more violations of human rights and international law, but always justified them with a silver tongue.

Where Bush authorised 50 drone strikes, Obama’s authorised 506. Those were targeted assassinations of people denied the right to defend themselves in a court of law. 

What it amounted to was handing down a death penalty to those human beings without allowing them due process. Where was Obama’s belief in human rights when he escalated the US drone programme tenfold?

Three months into Obama’s term of office he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he went on to drop more bombs on more countries than George Bush did. 

According to US military data (which is considered a gross underestimation), the Obama administration authorised the dropping of 26000 bombs on seven countries in eight years. 

The US military claims that its bombing campaigns cost 3797 lives, although the real number is probably far higher. Even that conservative figure amounts to far more deaths than those killed in the tragedy of 9/11.

Obama told us last week that we should “do unto others as we would have done to us”. Well, how would Obama have liked to have 26000 bombs dropped on the US during his tenure as president?

To take the case even further, how would Obama have liked it if the US had been under overwhelming military attack, and American civilian victims in dire need of emergency medical treatment were then deliberately bombed in their hospital beds by America’s enemies?

Well, Mr President, that is exactly what your US Air force gunships did to the civilian victims of US bombing runs in Afghanistan, when they deliberately targeted the Kunduz Trauma Centre operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on October 3, 2015. 

The centre was bombed repeatedly by the US military despite having been informed of the location of the hospital. Nine MSF staff were killed in the war crime.

If Obama is in awe of Madiba’s struggle for justice and human rights, how could he enter office promising to stop using torture as a political instrument and then oversee the enhancement of US torture methods? 

Under Obama’s tenure, it was alleged that health professionals became central to the CIA torture programme, not to safeguard human rights, but to carry out experimentation on the CIA’s victims.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment in Obama’s eight years in office was his failure to close the most egregious US detention facility, Guantanamo Bay, a promise he had repeated over and over on the campaign trail.

Yes, I was inspired when Obama said last week that “People are not born haters, they learn to hate” and “Love comes more naturally to the human heart.” But, quite honestly, I didn’t see much love in Obama’s foreign policy as president, it seemed if anything to perpetuate the politics of hate.

* Ebrahim is group foreign editor

The Sunday Independent

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