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Ever the consummate orator, the standing ovation came as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with his considerable verbal exploits. It was at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts when he was still just a senator from Chicago, Illinois that his ability to deliver a riveting speech catapulted him into the imagination of skeptic and admirer alike.
Only this time he was not in the U.S. and he was no longer a senator. He was the 44th president of the United States and the occasion was the memorial service of one the greatest statesmen to ever grace the surface of the earth, Nelson Mandela. When Barack Obama rose to deliver his speech at the memorial service, the sense of expectation was palpable amongst not only those who were present inside Johannesburg's F.N.B stadium, but even amongst the millions glued to their television sets around the world.
It was fitting that Obama who shares the distinction of being the first black president with Nelson Mandela, was present to deliver such a glowing tribute to his elder statesman. History will certainly mark both men for their contribution towards the ongoing erosion of bitter interracial discord. Yet as it stands it is hard not to observe that the fortunes of the younger statesman have lost a sizable amount of the lustre that marked his initial foray into the U.S. national political establishment.
It was in particular his presidential candidacy propelled by a rousing campaign infused with hope that won hearts all over the world. "Yes we can", reverberated back and forth in all four corners of the globe. People who would have never given an iota of their time to American politics became overnight pundits, particularly here in South Africa given our shared history of racial oppression and black disenfranchisement.
In a land that once embraced slavery and systematic subjugation of blacks, the symbolism of a black American president was seen as a sign of shifting racial attitudes marking a new realm of possibility. A realm that quite frankly many black people never imagined they would see in their lifetimes. It was not just simply the possibility of a black White House incumbent that stirred the soul at the time, but of a capable black man ascending to the highest political office on merit and not as a token served up for window dressing.
If the tough democratic primaries that pit Obama against a surprisingly caustic Hillary Clinton do not attest to that, then certainly the presidential race proper against those self-proclaimed mavericks John McCain and then neophyte Sarah Palin provided ample proof that Barack Obama's ascent to the White House was hard fought and well earned.
What he achieved through his presidential campaign was to move people with his apolitical message of hope and change. He seemed to transcend politics in a way that few would imagine a politician doing. Even the potentially fatal scandal regarding the contentious ramblings of his pastor Reverend Wright could not derail his campaign. Instead of the looming catastrophe that was predicted by many political analysts at the time, it merely afforded him yet another opportunity to weave his narrative into a broader historical context.
The aftermath of his response to the scandal by way of a landmark speech on race relations in America, felt like destiny summoning a leader to his rightful place at the summit. Such was the impact of his campaign and his message that less than a year into his presidency he was, to the surprise of many, awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2009. Even the Nobel Committee was on his bandwagon, particularly after another important speech that he delivered in Cairo in June of 2009 aimed at the "Muslim world".
Unfortunately the danger when a politician conjures the wherewithal to transcend politics is that sooner or later we are rudely reminded that it is after all, a politician of whom we speak. Whilst there is no doubt much to be said about his administration from a domestic perspective it his foreign policy posture that draws the bulk of the attention from those residing beyond America's boundaries.
This was a man who had been expected to undo the damage done by George W. Bush with respect to American foreign policy. Amongst other things, he had promised to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and withdraw American military forces from Iraq. Guantanamo Bay is still open and that promise has not been fulfilled. In fairness however, the failure to effect its closure is largely due to a series of political and legal impediments rather than unwillingness on the president's part.
The withdrawal from Iraq was concluded in 2011 and in Afghanistan the U.S. has scaled down its forces with plans for a withdrawal of combat troops ostensibly in place. The abrasive war mongering rhetoric synonymous with the Bush administration has been dispensed with. Considering just these few points you would almost be tempted to give Obama a significant degree of credit with respect to his administration's foreign policy, but that would be too hasty.
The man who made us all hope for a better world with politicians who stand for something loftier than "politics as usual" is also responsible for the expansion of America's program of perpetrating extrajudicial killings using unmanned remotely operated drones. "Change is coming to America", he was wont to proclaim during those heady days of his presidential campaign.
Those proclamations, set against the back drop of a hugely unpopular war that had thrown Iraq into chaos alluded in part to a change in foreign policy that would see Obama reverse the damage left in the wake of Bush's bloody forays into Middle East. Sure, callous rants such as those of Donald Rumsfeld glorifying the illegal widespread bombing and maiming of Iraqi citizens as "shock and awe" have been hugely curtailed. However in their stead we now have slick and astute deliveries that mask the bitter plain truth beneath a veil of political finesse.
When it comes to engaging those America unilaterally categorizes as enemies, the only difference between George W Bush and Barack Obama is like the difference between either choosing to hack someone repeatedly to death with a blunt knife, or blasting their brains out with a single shot from a high caliber sniper rifle a long distance away.The latter seems quick, less brutal and less personal but the consequence is exactly the same.
It is hard to imagine how one could explain to a devastated mother in Yemen, exactly how a man ordering strikes to which she lost a daughter as collateral damage gets to be the bearer of a Nobel prize for peace. As ordered by the commander in chief, president Obama, what basically happens is some people get together in a room and make a decision on who gets to die without due process.
When the "high value target" has been identified he or she is simply executed and they move on to the next one. Needless to say with the kinds of powerful weapons these drones are armed with, civilian casualties are inevitable. Many women, children, and innocent men have lost their lives this way. Their deaths will never be officially acknowledged and for them there will be no compensation and no justice.
Under president Obama the use of drones has gained such a lot of traction that a picture of his administration can never be painted without a drone somewhere in there. The unprecedented utilisation of drones will always be a part of his legacy. It is a far cry from the man who sought a new beginning in America's engagement with the Middle East in that speech in Cairo back in 2009.
In light of all the developments throughout the tenure of America's first black president, it is hard to imagine that he is unaware of just how in the eyes of many, the rarefied narrative that he so eloquently presented has taken a massive hit. It was hardly surprising therefore on that day of Nelson Mandela's memorial service that he said the following:
"Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate a heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and as a President."
"And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man."
There was much to discern in that speech, but in addition to veiled swipes at despotic regimes around the world, and a moving tribute to a man who was as close to a saint as a politician could ever be, there was perhaps something else to take away from Obama's words.
That is, he is only too aware of his own failings. Throughout the speech he came across as a man who recognizes that in the greater scheme of things he has yet to fulfill the towering expectations the world has of him. Especially when one considers that he is responsible through the power of his own rhetoric for the creation of those expectations in the first place.
In the broader scheme of things maybe there is still an opportunity for him to carve out a destiny that is unencumbered by complex and often ugly demands of high political office. Currently with egg on their face, perhaps the Nobel committee’s 2009 decision to award him the prize for peace with his presidency still in its infancy might yet prove a stroke of prescience.
Looking beyond his second term as president, perhaps once the political straight-jacket of being the Washington incumbent has been stripped away the world might yet be reacquainted with the man who once upon a time made us hope and made us believe in a better world.
"Yes We Can".