Tall stories and tall buildings

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

There was a joke doing the rounds during the 80s which PW Botha and Desmond Tutu holding a meeting a rowing boat in the middle of Zoo Lake in Johannesburg. During the meeting, a gust of wind picked up PW's trademark Homburg hat and blew it into the reeds. Tutu got out of the boat, walked on water to the hat, picked it up, and walked back to the boat. Newspapers the next day reported: "Tutu can't swim"

Barack Obama is in a very similar position right now.

It's one year to the day today since the US president ordered the attack on a compound on Abbotabad, Pakistan which killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In one brief coordinated attack by a crack team of Navy SEALs and CIA agents, Obama accomplished what George Bush had not been able to do over eight years spending more than a billion dollars a day on wars in two countries.

Last week, a video ad featuring former US president Bill Clinton reflected on the decision taken by Obama to violate the territorial sovereignty of an allied nation on the off chance that the conclusion drawn by US intelligence was correct. Clinton says: "Suppose the Navy SEALs had gone in there and it hadn't been Bin Laden? Suppose they'd been captured or killed? The downside would have been horrible for him.

"But he reasoned 'I cannot in good conscience do nothing.' He took the harder, and the more honourable, path. And the one that produced, in my opinion, the best result. He had to decide. And that's what you hire a president to do. You hire the president to make the calls when no one else can do it."

One would think that celebrating the anniversary of the death of the US's most wanted fugitive would be something that nation would rally around in jubilation. But this is an election year.

So instead of being praised for concluding what is, in my not so humble opinion, the only successful American extra-territorial military operation since World War II, Obama finds himself being flagellated for allowing his campaign to point out the obvious: that his opponent in the election, Mitt Romney, in 2007 criticised Obama for vowing to strike Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan if necessary.

Romney said at the time: "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."

And this led me to thinking about the extent to which politicians keep promises they make in the build-up to elections. And I took a look at Obama's record in this regard. I found an astonishing list of promises kept: 179 of them. Naturally most of them deal with US domestic policy and are largely irrelevant to us, but here are some of those I find significant: "direct military leaders to end the war in Iraq", "Give a speech at a major Islamic forum in the first 100 days of his administration", "End the use of torture", "Seek verifiable reductions in nuclear stockpiles", "Expand federal bioforensics program for tracking biological weapons", "Create a rapid response fund for emerging democracies", "Grant Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send money to Cuba", "Release presidential records", "Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy" (about gays in the military), "Ban lobbyist gifts to (government) executive employees", "Sign a 'universal' health care bill", "Reverse restrictions on stem cell research", and of course "We will kill Bin Laden".

It's still too early to call which way the US voters will decide in their presidential elections this year. But to my mind, this is the most pivotal election in US history for the rest of the world.

If Obama wins, I believe we will see decisive action on the Middle East conflict leading to an independent Palestine alongside a secure Israel, the shutting down of the infamous detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, a dramatic shift away from oil as the defining currency of the time, and a safer world generally.

If Romney wins, we will see increased support for the Netanyahu coalition of Israeli hardliners, a return to the fortress mentality of the Bush era with increased military incursions protecting oil interests, and a return to politics of the cold war with three factions: roughly the American-led west, BRIC, and the Islamic nations.

This week, the new One World Trade Center – under construction on the site of the original World Trade Center, destroyed in the 911 attacks – became New York City's tallest building once again. Whether this one stands the test of time will depend on who wins.