Wednesday, 5 November 2008

We can hope for change, but we shouldn't expect miracles

There shouldn't be any doubt that the results of this years US Presidential elections have made history. Barack Obama's story is not only remarkable for shattering the last barrier in the civil rights movement and becoming the first black president of the United States, but also for the personal adversity he has overcome and political obscurity he has risen from to reach this point. However, in the euphoria over his victory and the progress it symbolises, we need to reacquaint ourselves with a certain degree of realism.

In the domestic United States, Obama's victory does offer the hope of genuine and radical change for the better. There are a great many policies, from the Reagan era right through to the incumbent reign of Bush II, that have made live harder and more miserable for ordinary Americans and increased both class and racial injustice.

Abortion is one example of such an issue. Although legal in the US since the case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, 87% of the counties in the US have no abortion provider, a situation exacerbated by the harrasment and terrorism perpetuated by anti-abortion groups and by over 350 legal restrictions enacted by individual states and the federal governmentsince 1995. From the outset, Obama has been candid on his intent to alter the injustice in this situation and a whole plethora of women's issues, from pay equality to domestic violence.

The president-elect's stance on other areas are equally refreshing. Taking no heed of the prejudices of the conservative-dominated media, he has laid out visions to sort out the injustices of the health care and education systems, tax cuts, welfare, poverty, business ethics, and the economy. His stance on the environment and climate change is also admirable, especially after George Bush.

However, I must confess, I remain dubious about what changes we can expect in US foreign policy under Obama's presidency. There is, indeed, lots to be admired in his foreign policy campaign promises. Most obvious is his stance on Iraq, but at least as important is his stance on nuclear weapons (particularly in securing loose nukes and strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty), as well as a truly progressive attitude to Africa. However, on the wider stage the imperialist leanings that have dominated the White House since the end of World War II still persist.

Whilst, on Israel-Palestine, Obama's campaign has asserted its commitment to "the goal of two states, a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security," he has also shown an unreserved and contradictory support for "a strong US-Israel partnership." In principle, there may be no intrinsic conflict of interest between these goals, but in practice the Middle East peace process has always suffered when America's "first and incontrovertible commitment" in the region is "the security of Israel." This truism in relation to Obama is cemented by support for "Israel's right to defend itself from Hezbollah raids and rocket attacks" by decimating the civilian populace of Lebanon and of America's "the annual foreign aid package" that funds such attrocities, especially alongside "continuing U.S. cooperation" for "the development of missile defense systems."

Similarly, Latin Americans who remember the implications of the Reagan-Bush I era will be familiar with policies that "bolster U.S. interests in the region by pursuing policies that advance democracy, opportunity, and security." The aggressive and subversive actions of the US in Nicuragua, Panama, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Argentina, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic also "strengthen[ed] the American economy and create more American jobs" and stood "firm against agreements that undermine our economic security." However, the effects for ordinary Latin Americans weren't positive, to say the least. There is some cause for optimism, however, in Obama's mention of sustainable energy policy in the region, and his overall commitment to Fair Trade and to spreading "good labor and environmental standards around the world."

So, overall, the election of an Obama-Biden administration does offer a substantial hope for positive and enduring change in a lot of areas, both in America and internationally. We can perhaps even hold out hope that the rhetoric on Latin America and Isreal is worded as it is to appease neo-conservatives and that we will see similarly grand change in America's attitude towards the rest of the world. However, I would advise those who would proclaim Obama as a new messiah not to put all their eggs in one basket.

Barack Hussein Obama may well be the progressive antidote to George W Bush that we have needed for the past eight years, but he is also in an office that is powered by corporate funding and at the helm of the world's largest economic and imperial superpower.