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Commentary Last Updated: Mar 5th, 2009 - 01:47:25

Obama�s change could be just cosmetic
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 5, 2009, 00:17

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US President Barack Obama has been in office for only five weeks so no one should expect miracles, and especially since he�s been busy fixing the economy. Like most people around the world, I cheered his election victory and hoped it heralded a new era in which the superpower would once again lead by example. That may happen yet, but thus far, the signs are not exactly reassuring.

He rode to the White House on a ticket of �change� but has surrounded himself with the old guard. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Special Adviser on Iran Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a leftover from the Bush camp, are hardly agents for change. Where are the fresh faces? Is there anyone in his cabinet bursting with new ideas and prepared to implement out-of-the-box solutions for longtime problems?

Admittedly, he�s altered the tone and I�m convinced he won�t be pasting up �Wanted. Dead or Alive� posters any time soon, but I�m getting a niggling feeling that �change� in Obama�s book may be little more than cosmetic.

He was certainly inspirational on the stump showing his distaste for America�s occupation of Iraq and Bush�s rendition and torture policies, while expressing a willingness to begin unconditional talks with his country�s archenemy, Iran. His first days on the job were pretty impressive too.

Within days, he had signed executive orders related to the closure of Guantanamo and the safe, lawful and humane treatment of individuals in US custody in accordance with treaty obligations.

Just as admirable was his order calling for the disclosure of presidential records -- which his predecessor had planned to keep under wraps for up to 100 years -- and his memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies calling for accountability and transparency because �sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.�

Since then a number of issues have fallen flat.

A date for shutting down the controversial gulag on Cuba has still not been set, mainly because the US wants European Union nations and others to accept detainees unable to return home for fear of mistreatment. The EU, however, wants assurances from the new US administration that Bagram, its military base/prison in Afghanistan, and other offshore facilities, won�t be converted into Guantanamo II.

Critics have also found loopholes in his executive order ostensibly banning torture, which applies only to �armed conflicts� rather than counter-terrorism. And while the CIA has been told to shut down detention centres, those �used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis� can remain. The problem is �short term� and �transitory� have not been defined.

James Hill, a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery, concludes that the loopholes in Obama�s executive order on torture may permit cruel abuses of prisoners to continue, using a legal parlour trick.

Furthermore, Obama has not lived up to his promise of a quick withdrawal of all US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months from his inauguration. We are now told that he intends leaving �a residual force� numbering from 35,000 to 50,000 in the country until 2011.

On Iran, Obama�s team appears to be talking out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, the administration says it wants to engage with Iran yet, as far as I can tell, the US president hasn�t responded to a congratulatory message sent by his Iranian counterpart. Obama says he wants to sit down with the Iranians in an atmosphere of mutual respect but this lack of response to Iran�s goodwill is downright impolite.

The US has asked the Iranian government to unclench its fist, but there is little indication that the White House is chucking olive branches its way. Indeed, Iran�s UN ambassador was recently driven to respond to Ambassador Susan Rice�s comments that her government �will seek an end to Iran�s ambition to acquire an illicit nuclear capacity and its support for terrorism� with something along the lines of �stop talking the same old tired language of the Bush administration.�

When it comes to Afghanistan, Obama�s policies practically mirror Bush�s, except that he wants more US and NATO troops on the ground. At the same time he is trying to water down public expectations, as he doesn�t see Afghanistan morphing into a clone of Sweden anytime soon, if ever, and doesn�t intend on pouring reconstruction moneys into a bottomless pit.

The US�s new commander-in-chief has hardly been a shining light on the Israel-Palestine conflict, either. Particularly disturbing was his silence on Gaza even as Israeli bombs were falling on the heads of women and children and it�s hard to forget his promise to the US pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that Occupied Jerusalem should stay Israel�s undivided capital (later retracted). He has expressed his commitment to a two-state solution, but, then again, so did Bush.

In truth, I still believe Obama�s heart is in the right place, but I fear that he may be too easily influenced by those he has chosen to surround himself with or too caught up in shades of grey that he can�t see the woods for the trees.

There�s still plenty of time for me to be proven wrong. I hope I am.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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