Barack Obama did not sound or look like a President who was giving his last “State of the Union” speech to the US Congress. On January 12, his demeanour, style and presentation was that of a man who still retained a vision for his country’s future and who was determined to influence its shape.
Significantly, the Congress, including his worst Republican detractors, listened with respect however grudging. The Obama before them was not the rookie usurper so many in the establishment politics of Washington had resented when he was elected, despite them, on a wave of popular support. This was a President with seven years of experience, knowledge and achievement that could not be denied even though it might choke some Congressmen to admit it.
Obama commanded the hall as the elder statesman he has become with the greying hair and the additional lines in his face as marks of it. Naturally, much of what he had to say was centered on domestic politics particularly as the Congress, the media and the country are now gearing up for the final year of the campaign to elect his successor as President of the United States.
In a sense, the unseen elephant in the room was Donald Trump, an aspirant for the Republican nomination for the Presidency. Trump appeals to the lowest common denominator in US society; he plays on fears and exaggerates their source; nothing is sacred with him – not race, not religion, not even good manners. Without doubt he engenders fear among decent, well-thinking and progressive Americans. He does the same across the globe.
A United States of America in Donald Trump’s hands is a terrifying prospect, particularly when he identifies the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un, as a leader he admires, saying: “You’ve got to give him credit. He goes in, he takes over, he’s the boss. It’s incredible. He wiped out the Uncle, he wiped out this one, that one.”
The admiration for such unmitigated autocracy is deeply worrying in an aspiring leader who has described Mexicans as “rapists”, wants to stop Muslims from entering the United States, describes Indian and Pakistani immigrants as the cause of poor wages, and persistently calls for “victories” and seems anxious to involve the country in military confrontations abroad regardless of the consequences. Obama countered this dangerous rhetoric by saying that the US cannot “try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis”.
As he correctly said: “That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. That’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq – and we should have learned by now”.
Of course, the worst thing about Mr Trump is that he emboldens radical groups in the United States whose prejudices, bigotry and predilection for violence would render the country unsafe for minority religious or racial groups even if they are natural-born Americans. The unleashing of such groups would tear the US apart. Its weakening would not be from outside, but from within.
A strong voice needed to be raised against Mr Trump’s disregard for facts and decency and his attempt to legitimise the worst elements in US society. President Obama was right, therefore, to say categorically: “When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalised or a kid is called names; that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong”.
The closest President Obama came to discussing anything related to the Caribbean were his two references to Cuba – both passing. But they were important enough for him to include them in his speech, thus signalling that they remain key considerations for the US Congress now and in the future. The first was closing down Guantanamo Bay which the US has held in Cuba for decades and use as a prison for suspected terrorists. Obama had pledged to close Guantanamo in his campaign for the Presidency.
The fact that it still operates is entirely due to the hostility of the US Congress – in part, responding to the militant anti-Castro, Cuban-American lobby. The second reference was to ending the long-standing trade embargo which has little popular support in the US except, again, for those who respond to the anti-Castro lobby.
The anti-Cuba sentiment that continues in the US Congress is largely sterile and completely irrelevant. Cuba is no threat to the US militarily, economically or as a base for narcotics trafficking or terrorism. It would be in the US’s interest, particularly for its business sector, to end the embargo and rid itself of the irritant and the needless cost of still occupying Cuban territory. The respect for human rights and the reform of the political system in Cuba would be best achieved by full and normal engagement.
President Obama raised one other issue of vital importance to the Caribbean – Climate Change. While he did not raise it because of the clear and present danger it poses to the region, it is crucial that he voiced it to the US people as a whole in the following stark terms: “Even if – even if the planet wasn’t at stake, even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record until 2015 turned out even hotter – why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future”.
In other words, he called on the nay-sayers to pull their heads out of the sand and look constructively at the opportunities to combat the dangers of Climate Change. There remain issues to be resolved between the US and the Caribbean, financial services being high on the list. But the world, including the Caribbean, has been safer with the Obama Presidency.
Of course, all those in the United States who resent Obama’s election to the White House would have liked to crow over his poor performance. He devastated them by achieving the opposite. As he said, “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction”. The facts support his assertion. Further, for those who say that the US is a weakened nation, the evidence stands behind his statement that “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period. Period”.
He also gave the people of the US an agenda for their future well-being and prosperity they would be unwise to ignore.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College, University of Toronto)