For eight years I have delighted in Barack Obama’s words – even richer and more inspiring to see and hear in his ringing tones , than to read in cold print. . Those days are, sadly, about to depart. The Chicago valedictory address was his last, magnificent, gift to us.
What will be left? Paul McGeough ( or his Fairfax headline editor) last week crushingly rebutted Obama’s proud ‘Yes, we did’ with ‘No, you did not’. A harsh judgement in my view.
Obama is doomed to be a giant succeeded by pigmies. Some of us would feel the same sense of emotional and moral letdown this week had Hillary won. His vision,courage, wisdom , grace, good humour, gentle humanist values, his delightful and throughly decent family – we will not see their like again.
And yet, he achieved frustratingly much less than we had hoped. It was not his fault. The obdurate Republican- dominated Congress which lost all sight of national interest in its constant selfish, obstructionist partisanship. States and state police forces that for too long hung onto race-based policies and values despite the strongest federal pressure on them from Obama’s Cabinet to mend their ways. A stubborn and lavishly resourced anti-environment lobby .
Sadly, Obama came to realise that he could not change all this on his own in his short eight years’ presidency. And here was the cruellest cut of all – the fact of a black president probably made matters worse, by scratching at the festering sore of American white racism, that a white president might have more successfully ameliorated at the edges as Lyndon Johnson did. Obama as a black man in the White House became a provocation to racism . As our first woman Prime Minister, also through no fault of her own, provoked crude sexist prejudice and hate more so than any male leader could have.
On foreign and national security policy, I judge Obama more harshly. He accepted too unquestioningly the accepted tenets of American exceptionalism and indispensability in world affairs. He really believed that American hegemonic power necessarily underpinned a rules-based world order: that lesser powers like Russia and China and Iran should just accept those facts of life. I don’t think he ever saw the possibility of organising the world in any other way than with America sitting firmly in the driver’s seat. Any other organising principle to him and to his team meant chaos.
And he did not see how profoundly unacceptable this was to proud national leaders elsewhere. With his multicultural family background and his unusual experience of growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii, he should have known better. But he allowed himself during his political years in Chicago to become so Americo-centric that his foreign policy judgement suffered. It is easy to do this, living in America: it is such a self-sufficient, self-absorbed culture.
As President, he allowed anti-Russian ideologues in Washington and Europe far too much latitude to foment civil disorder and anti-Russian regime change efforts in Eastern Europe. The present dangerous decline in East-West relations is down almost entirely to those provocative policies over the past eight years: not to alleged aggression by Putin which was largely reactive to them. Obama passively allowed a false, demonised image of Putin’s Russia to take hold in Washington and NATO – and even came to believe in it himself .
> At the same time, he assumed American decency and regularity in the conduct of international affairs. He wanted to believe in the essential goodness of his political and military colleagues. He was mistaken in the case of some of them. They exploited and were sheltered by his decency, in Ukraine as in the Middle East .
> American policy misjudgements and blunders in Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia in respect of Yemen and Saudi support for Sunni extremism, maybe even the Gulenist failed coup in Turkey – the list is long. The drone wars were always morally questionable and their disutility and corrosive effects have become more and more apparent as the years rolled on.
He managed the Asia pivot mostly responsibly, he kept relations with China stable, and he had a real and important foreign policy success with Iran.. Let us hope Trump does not dismantle these achievements.
And let us hope Obama stands aloof now from the present ruthless Washington and New York game to seek to discredit and ridicule the Trump Presidency. America has made a national choice, under its own hugely flawed electoral system.. Now Americans must deal with the consequences of that choice. Maybe in the area of East-West relations, the results will be better under Trump than they would have been under Hillary? We shall see.
Obama leaves an enduring legacy not so much in his executive actions in government, much of which Trump seems determined to try to undo, as in his inspiring social justice messages which can never be undone, re-dellivered in Chicago a few days ago: that America can only prosper as a democracy if all its communities offer to one another mutual respect and dignity; that no community can be disdained or overlooked; that Americans have to learn better to empathise with other Americans who are not like them. This was a message as much for Democratic Party cultural elitists as for Republican covert racists. There is a huge social healingo job to be done in America in coming years, and Obama’s words will be a promise and an inspiration to be remembered and treasured.
And of course he offered hugely important inspiration for Australians, too. We will remember him as a US president who truly spoke to us about our concerns. I remember the impact he had on Brisbane university students when he spoke with them about environmental issues during the otherwise entirely unmemorable G20 Summit in Brisbane. He showed that he cared about what they cared about.
Thank you Barack, you are a fine and honourable man, and we will remember your Presidency with admiration and regret at its passing. Yours was actually a truer Camelot than John Kennedy’s.
Retired diplomat Tony Kevin is a former Australian Ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. An independent author, his latest book is ‘Return to Moscow’ (UWA Publishing, 2017), a literary-historical travel memoir of life in the Soviet Union 1969-71 and in Russia today.