Earlier this month American president Barack Obama openly reneged on two important issues. First came the announcement that legal trials at US prison camp Guantanamo Bay would recommence. And then, just a few days later, followed Obama's statement that the widely condemned treatment of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of leaking classified files to WikiLeaks, was "appropriate and meeting our basic standards".
On his rise to power in 2008, Obama spoke out against the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and vowed to close the prison. Within hours of becoming president he put a halt to the (now resumed) legal trials taking place at the camp, during which the US military acts as both judge and jury. He also pledged to protect government whistleblowers, and spoke passionately about the need for a "common humanity" and a "new era of peace" in his inauguration speech .
Obama’s transformation since then has been remarkable. Through the course his two-year tenure so far, five suspected government whistleblowers have been charged on suspicion of leaking classified information – more than under the respective terms of republican presidents Reagan, Nixon and both George Bushes combined. Before Obama came to power, the US government had only filed similar charges on three occasions in 40 years.
Aside from declaring what Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg has described as a “war on whistleblowers”, Obama has also escalated military action in Afghanistan and sanctioned clandestine bombings in Pakistan and Yemen. And while Guantanamo remains open and its trials get back underway, his government continues to allow “extraordinary rendition”, a practice – again condemned by Obama prior to his election – that involves the secret CIA abduction of terror suspects who are transferred to prisons in countries with questionable human rights records.
Part of Obama's massive original appeal in 2008 was that he appeared to be a man of liberal principle. In his book, Dreams of My Father , he portrayed his younger self as a pot-smoking, humble intellectual who entered into politics from community activism. It was natural at the time to want to believe he was different; after eight years of war and draconian civil liberties crackdowns under the presidency of George W. Bush, Obama’s talk of “hope” and “change” was a welcome tonic. But as is now obvious: we were gullible and naive to fall blindly for his rhetoric.
In London recently, Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor on innovation, Alec Ross, spoke at the London School of Economics. His lecture was in many ways a reflection of the Obama presidency. It was stylishly delivered and punctuated with idealism – though so devoid of substance it was almost chilling.
As Ross spoke about the “free internet” and implementing a “change agenda”, the spirit of Obama lingered in the room. When probed by one audience member on the role of his government in Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition, the 39-year-old looked momentarily bewildered. “I cannot disembowel my country’s history,” he said. “I don’t always feel great about our past but I feel good about our future.”
Such unwillingness to tackle the ugly realities of American political life has been a defining feature of Obama’s two years in office to date. Supporters of Obama point to his criticism of China's human rights record and refusal to oppose gay marriage – both of which are undeniably commendable. But the president needs to do much more. There was a sense three years ago that Obama represented a whole new dawn for America and perhaps even the world. Today his apparent reluctance to stick to previously advocated principles has left many feeling empty and betrayed.
Giving his second State of the Union address in January, Obama spoke of how America “supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” No amount of grand speeches, however, can alter the paradox of his country's present position as both advocate and adversary of democracy. The imprisonment and punitive treatment of whistleblowers; trial under military jury at Guantanamo; and the sanctioning of extraordinary rendition – these are not policies in line with any notion of democracy, no matter how skewed.
The problem is that Obama has become just another large cog in the same machine he set out to dismantle. Which is why when he speaks it is difficult to hear anything other than broken promises and backtracking. He will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the great orators, but it is actions, not words, that will rightly define his legacy. Irrespective of how many times Obama promises a “change agenda,” the uncomfortable truth is that so far he has failed dramatically to deliver.