Having witnessed and begun to process two consecutive rounds of White House turnaround this week, European observers seem to have reached a set of conclusions not dissimilar – note the litote, for it is not irrelevant – from those we have arrived at here.
Necessarily inconclusive. Aggravatingly nebulous. Less-than-fully informed. And consequently, at the very least, quadrilateral, the minimum four sides of which might be labeled as such: A) Obama can do no bad; B) Obama can do no good; C) Obama cannot do anything awfully different from Bush; D) Obama cannot, as yet, do anything at all. Although variable viewpoints along such lines are nothing entirely new – and although they are surely cross-complicated by intersecting lines P and Q – events and announcements over the past seven days have forced side A to shrink considerably with respect to side C. Seriously, look.
But let us now attribute some verbiage to each side. And let’s begin, logically or not, with side C.
As of Saturday 16 May, coverage of these yet-touchy issues in a couple of Italy’s main papers was still largely summary. La Stampa, in “Obama: ‘Tornano i tribunali militari’,” reports quite plainly:
After having promised the maximum transparency, both in his electoral campaign and upon arriving to the White House, in recent weeks the US president has had to make a series of decisions that brought his previous pledges into discussion and provoked some embarrassing reversals of course…. And now a turnaround on Guantánamo: Barack Obama has discovered that to resolve the complex problem of what to do with suspected terrorists detained in the US military base in Cuba, the special tribunals are perhaps a lesser evil.
As for the fallout of such decisions and the unclear break they indicate with Bush’s policies, Il Corriere della Sera remarks that “Obama stirred consensus only in the democratic right, led by Senator Joe Lieberman, and among conservatives, guided by Senator Lindsey Graham. But for the liberals, this isn’t the first disappointment.”
The Sueddeutsche Zeitung, on the other hand, featured a number of reasons why one might not yet completely repudiate side A. In an interview with Dietmar Herz – a professor of political science and comparative politics at the University of Erfurt who has taught in numerous American universities as well – it seems that Obama’s pragmatism, when mixed in with the deep, sometimes unforeseeable, sometimes quite contradictory difficulties of his mandate, might be what has both shaken and stirred his recent Realpolitik cocktail:
Obama has broken with the past more than other US presidents. He split from the politics of the Bush years right at the beginning. On the other hand, he wants to reunite a polarized nation. These goals actually contradict one another… Obama is now beginning to make a Realpolitik turn. He stands for a new politics, but he must simultaneously consider military and secret service interests, which the Democrats traditionally mistrust. He doesn’t want the torture photos published because his generals tell him that they’ll endanger US troops. He doesn’t want to bring CIA collaborators to court, though they did commit acts of torture. He wants to prevent alienation between his administration and important State institutions. For the war in Afghanistan, he’ll need their loyalty.
In other words, it’s an administrative quagmire. Political quicksand for a president with institutionally tied hands. For Herz, though, this is a moment where Obama, whose supporters will likely still support him, must appease, or at least not readily rebuff, the other end of the spectrum if he wants to realize his goals and truly break away from Bush. Because for Herz, leaders who really broke from predecessors (and here he cites only Jefferson and Reagan) “all knew that the break must be valid for the future, not the past. If Obama were to press charges against the responsible parties of the Bush era, many Americans would see this as an ‘attack’ on America and shift back to the Republican side.”
While Herz’s points are not baseless, they might be unduly facile. Should no one, for example, be held accountable for Bush-era transgressions? Must Obama really attempt to do the impossible and appease everyone? How behemoth must the political center really become for him to get things done?
Given the circumstances, anyway, Herz’s picture seems a bit too rosy.
Somewhat less than rosy, and much more along the lines of side B, is the picture presented not in, necessarily, rather beneath several articles in Libération. For while an article such as “Obama recule encore sur les droits humains” is relatively devoid of a real stance (well, aside from its loaded title, which translates to “Obama Again Backs Away from Human Rights”), the scores of readers’ comments that follow the piece (146, at last count ) are ridden with vitriol and immediately revisionist debate, much of it directed at Obama – who is “now showing his true face,” who was “elected by multinationals” and is just part of “the same dynasty,” who was just “an icon” and “a dream” who has already “completely disappointed us” – although it digresses here and there to excoriations of other US presidents, of French leaders, of Obama’s contemporary and sort-of-rival Sarkozy (who at one point is likened to Santa Claus), and, of course, of Democracy in general, of History in general, of Humans in general.
Woe is Us, and Woe is Me. Putting caps (berets?) all over side B.
The Spanish, The British
If Herz’s verbal picture is perhaps a bit too rosy and the one painted by French readers perhaps a bit hyperbolic, these pictures from El Mundo – released by The Sydney Morning Herald and also run in The Telegraph – “believed to be part of the group of 2,000 instant photos of prisoner abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Obama administration did not want to come to light,” quite probably, and quite un-rosily, speak for themselves.
So many unfathomable images so not unfathomable. And not unaffecting. And not inapplicable, as it were, to the persistence of side D.
In sum, ‘not dissimilar’ doesn’t exactly equate to ‘similar.’ Just like ‘not irrelevant’ doesn’t exactly mean ‘relevant.’
So in this polygon of debate shaped by unreleased images, resuscitated talk of torture, potential for justice, administrative turnarounds and hopefully not impossible Bush-era closure, we might do well, when minding lines P and Q, to consider reacting, for now, with nuance. Rhetorically derived or otherwise.
Or maybe not. It’s hard to say. But these matters are not, in any way, uncomplicated.