Special Reports




As presidential candidates go, Obama’s background is unusual. He was born in Hawaii in 1961. His mother was a white native of Kansas and his father was a black Kenyan. Barack’s parents separated when he was two and later divorced. However, his mother remarried an Indonesian foreign student and the family moved from Hawaii to Jakarta. Barack attended a local school for four years. He then returned to Honolulu to live with his maternal grandparents until his mother returned to the U.S. after her divorce from Barack’s stepfather. From school in Hawaii, Barack attended a liberal arts college in Los Angeles. In 1983, he graduated in political science from Columbia University before moving to Chicago in 1985, where he became involved with church-based non-profit groups providing housing and support to poor families in the city. In 1988, he entered Harvard Law School. Also that year, while employed as a summer associate with a Chicago law firm he met Michelle Robinson, also a Harvard Law School graduate, and they married in 1992, the year after Barack graduated from Harvard with a doctorate. From 1993 to 1996, Obama worked for a Chicago law firm as an associate attorney where he represented community organisers, as well as working on discrimination claims and voting rights cases. He was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, was successfully re-elected in 1998 and 2002. He resigned in 2004 after election to the U.S. Senate. In February 2007, he announced his candidacy for the 2008 Presidential election.

Obama’s exotic background may be attractive to some U.S. voters but with fewer than 20% of Americans holding passports, a ‘foreign’ background arouses suspicion in others and provides fertile ground for wild rumour. For example, it was alleged that he was educated in a madrassa, an Islamic school, in Indonesia and that he is a Muslim. An e-mail circulated that he was a radical Muslim and a puppet of terrorists. Such nonsense was parodied in a cartoon in New Yorker Magazine (21 July 2008). Entitled ‘The Politics of Fear’, the cartoon, set in the Oval Office, portrays Obama wearing a turban greeting his wife, in armed guerrilla guise, in the Oval Office. An American flag burns in the fireplace beneath a portrait of Osama Bin Laden. www.newyorker.com

In his elegantly written book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama states that he was not raised in a religious household. His maternal grandparents were non-practicing Christians. His father, was brought up as a Muslim but was an atheist by the time he married. His Indonesian stepfather was a Muslim, although of a non-strict, eclectic kind. For his mother, he says, “organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness. This isn’t to say that she provided me with no religious instruction. However, in her mind, a working knowledge of the world's great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part – no introspective exertion or self-flagellation. Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring, just one of the many ways – not necessarily the best way – that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives. In sum, my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well.”

Obama came to the United Church of Christ while working as a community organizer for a group of Chicago churches trying to cope with unemployment, drugs and hopelessness in their midst. Working with pastors and laypeople, Obama wrote that he was forced “to confront a dilemma that my mother never fully resolved in her own life: the fact that I had no community or shared traditions in which to ground my most deeply held beliefs. The Christians with whom I worked recognized themselves in me; they saw that I knew their Book and shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me remained removed, detached, an observer amongst them.” Eventually, attracted by the activist African-American church tradition, Obama felt able to abandon scepticism for religious commitment.

Obama’s cosmopolitan background drove him to electrify the Democrat convention in 2004, where he called for the end of the divisive politics that have set Americans against each other. He told the delegates: "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America. There's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America."

Outside the US, the question is whether Obama’s unifying, anti-divisive approach extends to international relationships. On foreign policy, Obama is not short of advice. At the last count he had 300 foreign policy advisers. Some were part of the Clinton administration and others have recently been absorbed from Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy advisory group. www.nytimes.com There has been much debate as to whether Obama’s childhood and multicultural background make up for his lack of foreign policy experience. www.time.com

Obama himself asserts that America has a mixed foreign policy record. In ’The Audacity of Hope’ he says: “At times, American foreign policy has been farsighted, simultaneously serving our national interests, our ideals, and the interests of other nations. At other times, American policies have been misguided, based on false assumptions that ignore the legitimate aspirations of other people, undermine our own credibility, and make for a more dangerous world”. He is unsurprised by this ambiguity, describing American foreign policy as “a jumble of warring impulses”. His youth and cosmopolitan background suggest that, if elected, his foreign policy would herald a radical departure from the arrogant and bullying abrasiveness of his neocon predecessors.

Obama signals a new approach on foreign diplomacy on his website:

“The United States is trapped by the Bush-Cheney approach to diplomacy that refuses to talk to leaders we don't like. Not talking doesn't make us look tough – it makes us look arrogant, it denies us opportunities to make progress, and it makes it harder for America to rally international support for our leadership. On challenges ranging from terrorism to disease, nuclear weapons to climate change, we cannot make progress unless we can draw on strong international support.”

Obama is willing to meet with the leaders of all nations, friend and foe. He will do the careful preparation necessary, but will signal that America is ready to come to the table, and that he is willing to lead. And if America is willing to come to the table, the world will be more willing to rally behind American leadership to deal with challenges like terrorism, and Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs.” www.barackobama.com

This is in stark contrast to the unilateralism of the ‘Bush Doctrine’, an article of neoconservative faith, and the Administration’s response to the September 2001 attacks. The doctrine is seen as relevant to today’s world as the Reagan Doctrine was during the cold war era. The Reagan Doctrine stood for opposition to Communist ideology and for the containment of the Soviet Union’s global influence. It later advocated a ‘peace dividend’ with the Soviet Union through negotiation. The collapse of Communism and the triumph of capitalism were seen as vindication of such political realism and the Bush Doctrine is represented as its contemporary equivalent. However, in today’s world, the neocons see the enemy as different and containment is not enough. The Bush Doctrine declares that the United States is engaged in a global war of ideas between western values of freedom and democracy on the one hand, and extremists seeking to destroy them on the other. Some neocons go further and have argued that it is morally justified for the U.S. to replace dictatorships with democratic governments, because democracy gives citizens greater freedom and this in turn makes them less likely to resort to terrorism. The Doctrine also advocates a policy of pre-emptive attacks against countries harbouring or aiding terrorists, and of deposing foreign regimes perceived as actual, or potential threats, to the security of the U.S. Thus the enemy must be destroyed before it attacks! Unlike the Reagan Doctrine, there is no scope in the Bush Doctrine for pragmatic accommodation. A preventative strike was used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the potential threat to security was the declared basis for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

More recently, the Bush Doctrine has come under fierce criticism at home and abroad. U.S. forces are still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Middle East is as volatile as ever and the resurgence of jihadism continues apace. The big question is whether the Bush Doctrine would be abandoned by an Obama presidency? In a debate in New Hampshire in January, Obama declared the U.S. should bomb locations in Pakistan if it knows where Al Qaeda elements are and the Pakistani Government won't act against them. Perhaps anxious not to appear reluctant to defend America’s interests abroad, he seemed more critical of the Bush administration’s application of the doctrine than the doctrine itself. Obama said ”..we have a situation where Al Qaeda, a sworn enemy of the United States, that killed 3,000 Americans and is currently plotting to do the same, is in the territory of Pakistan. We know that. . . . Let me just pick up on a couple of things that have been said. And I think people are in broad agreement here. But I think one of the things that's been left out is Iraq. And part of the reason that we neglected Afghanistan, part of the reason that we didn't go after bin Laden as aggressively as we should have is we were distracted by a war of choice. And that's the flaw of the Bush doctrine. It wasn't that he went after those who attacked America. It was that he went after those who didn't”. www.salon.com

It is comments such as these which has led some American commentators to assert that Obama supports at least a version of the Bush doctrine, certainly as it pertains to hunting down and killing Osama bin Laden, which in so many words he describes as 'Americas top security priority'.

Nonetheless, the crusading simplicities of the Bush Doctrine hold little appeal to Obama. In November 2007, for example, he made this plain. “Well, I think one of the things about the Obama Doctrine is it’s not going to be as doctrinaire as the Bush Doctrine because the world is complicated. And I think part of the problem we’ve had is that ideology has overridden facts and reality. But I think that the basic concept — and I’ve heard it from some of the other folks — is that, increasingly, we have to view our security in terms of a common security and a common prosperity with other peoples and other countries. And that means that if there are children in the Middle East who cannot read, that is a potential long-term danger to us. If China is polluting, then eventually that is going to reach our shores. We have to — and work with them cooperatively to solve their problems as well as ours”.


This collaborative non-confrontational approach by Obama appears to set him in direct opposition to the Bush Doctrine. However, it may be that his sensitivity to accusations by opponents that he lacks experience in foreign affairs and that his background makes his patriotism questionable, has driven him into a more ambivalent position. For example, in February this year he was asked whether he would reserve the right to send U.S. troops back into Iraq should an insurrection or civil war follow a U.S. troop withdrawal. Obama’s reply was: “As commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And, if al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.”

The world has changed a lot since the Bush Doctrine was expounded in 2002. At that time the neocons dictated the terms of the global debate on international relations. They saw the world as ‘unipolar’, with the US, the sole surviving superpower, replacing the ‘bipolar’ world of the Soviet era. The US alone would set the global agenda and, as the world’s policeman, use its enormous military power to wage the ‘war on terror’, fight the ‘axis of evil’, invade Iraq and spread western-style democracy across the Middle East.

Such unbridled unilateralism has served only to highlight the limitations of American power: the debacle in Iraq, the resurgent jihadism in Afghanistan and Pakistan showing that the misuse of military power has weakened rather than strengthened the US. The problems of the Middle East remain unresolved and Iran continues to develop its nuclear capability. Perhaps most important of all, it is the refusal of the current Administration to co-operate on environmental issues that has caused such huge international resentment. The growing power of such nations as China, Russia, India and Brazil serve only to show how short-lived the unipolar world was. Meanwhile, the credibility and appeal of American-style free market capitalism may be tarnished beyond repair by the current financial meltdown.

Obama, if elected president, will be faced with the enormous task of managing America’s relative decline in difficult economic circumstances and to restore America’s reputation abroad.

The Pew Global Attitudes Survey 2008 makes grim reading for those who lament the decline in favourable views of the U.S. As the report says: “America's global image has again slipped and support for the war on terrorism has declined even among close U.S. allies like Japan. The war in Iraq is a continuing drag on opinions of the United States, not only in predominantly Muslim countries but in Europe and Asia as well. And despite growing concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions, the U.S. presence in Iraq is cited at least as often as Iran - and in many countries much more often - as a danger to world peace. A year ago, anti-Americanism had shown some signs of abating, in part because of the positive feelings generated by U.S. aid for tsunami victims in Indonesia and elsewhere. But favorable opinions of the United States have fallen in most of the 15 countries surveyed.”


It is to be hoped that if he is elected, Obama’s background and beliefs will incline him to restore confidence in the U.S. in a pragmatic rather than an ideological fashion. After the blunders of the George W. Bush era, the rest of the world would surely breathe a sigh of relief.

                                                                          PETER CRISELL