Outgoing US President Barack Obama was inspired by South African leader Nelson Mandela. When he was in college in the early 1980s he was involved in anti-Apartheid activism. “I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions,” he wrote. It made him “hungry for words” that he imagined “could carry a message, support an idea.” Decades later as he retires from the White House he leaves behind a legacy of language and little else, which in many ways makes him the anti-Mandela. Mandela was active, not an activist.
He was a man of action, not words, and he suffered for his actions, not his activism.
As a young anti-Apartheid lawyer and African National Congress leader, Mandela was arrested in 1962 and served 27 years in prison. Obama was born in 1961, about the same time Mandela gave his first TV interview.
“The Africans require the franchise on the basis of one man, one vote,” Mandela told the British interviewer.
He was in hiding at the time, a wanted man, yet he spoke of coexistence with the white rulers. “There is room for all the various races in this country.”
Around the time Obama was applying for college at Occidental, Mandela was turning 60 while in prison on Robben Island. Mandela was becoming an icon in the anti-Apartheid movement abroad, but in prison he devoted his time to correspondence and continuing his LLB studies. When Obama transferred to Columbia University, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor prison near Cape Town. He was allowed to write 52 letters a year.
In 1990 Mandela received an unconditional release from prison and gave a speech to a crowd of 100,000 in Johannesburg. Around that time Obama was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and began writing his memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. It was published around the same time as Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.
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Eventually Obama would become US president, but long before that he saw himself as a transformational figure in US history. Symbolically he was, and in his policy reform on health care, his one noted achievement, he did create change where stagnation had set in. But otherwise his time in office has been an unmitigated disaster. This is particularly the case when it comes to foreign policy. On Syria Obama has allowed six years of non-policy to bleed that country slowly to death.
What’s happening in Syria isn’t Obama’s fault, it is primarily the fault of Bashar Assad’s and Islamic State – but it happened on Obama’s watch and he has abandoned it as an issue. The same was true in Libya. The decision to support the removal of Muammar Gaddafi was correct.
Gaddafi was a terrorist supporter and tyrant. But what has happened since has turned Libya into a tragic chaos.
Instead of taking responsibility on Libya the Obama administration outsourced policy to Europe which, as Europe always does, walked away from its accountability.
Hillary Clinton relied on advisers who knew nothing about Libya to “learn” about its myriad factions, and eventually walked away from the crisis as well.
Obama had another chance to lead, and encourage the EU and the world to deal with the greatest migration crisis since the Second World War. Instead of putting together plans for a global initiative, the response was, once again, to throw up America’s hands in despair and allow the crisis to bleed out, slowly. It’s still bleeding.
On Cuba and Iran, Obama encouraged Secretary of State John Kerry’s naive initiatives, which fed the appetites of two of the world’s long-lasting brutal regimes.
Cuba and Iran were brought in from the cold and given a seat at the table, rewarded for doing nothing and encouraged to keep up their policies of abusing their people. This was in the name of reorienting 30-60 years of US policy which Obama and Kerry saw as wrong-headed. But if America wanted to be self-critical on Cuba and Iran, why not demand at least as much from Cuba and Iran? Why does the brutal dictatorship never need to meet the democracy half way? One of Obama’s last decisions in office was to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allows Cuban refugees from the regime to become permanent residents in the US, in a sense fast-tracking them because they suffer under a dictatorship. Why end a successful policy that helps poor people, just to appease the Cuban leadership? Why not demand Cuba stop suppressing its people and forcing them to flee? Instead of reducing the ability of Cubans to become permanent residents, why not increase the number of people fleeing to US shores who can get the same treatment? In one of his last acts Obama betrayed the poor who seek freedom, rather than aid the weak and the oppressed.
In another policy failure at the end of his presidential tour of tragedy and failure Obama lifted trade and financial sanctions on Sudan. Sudan, another brutal regime, that has carried out a genocide in Darfur. Why reward such a regime? A regime that has been a conduit for Iranian weapons transfers and when not doing that has done all sorts of other nefarious things, such as meddling with and weakening its newly independent southern neighbor, South Sudan? There are some who see in Obama’s initiatives an anti-American conspiracy.
But his initiatives, from the Cairo speech onward, are not part of a conspiracy, merely a reflection of Obama’s sense that he was selected to reform decades of failed US policies. He wanted to roll back the US hegemony that developed after the Cold War. But instead of using the good will that came of that and the inspiration many found in his words, he failed time and again. Obama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, yet his watch has seen wars around the world. Even as his administration ends the US is sending hundreds of Marines off to Afghanistan to continue the 15-year never-ending war. The Taliban is back.
Islamist extremism has infected more of the world. Guantanamo prison is still open. Remember how closing it was going to be the first thing Obama did? Mandela also won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1993. He left the presidency after one term in 1999, having exerted gargantuan efforts to lead the country to multi-racial democracy and not allow chaos and violence to sink the project. His policy legacy in South Africa was mixed. He was not able to realize all the hopes of black South Africans and his political party has struggled since to aid the poor and disenfranchised who were its constituents. He failed to address the growing AIDs epidemic. He kept up relations with those like Gaddafi whose aid during the anti-Apartheid struggle he remembered. But Mandela’s message was one of modesty and real leadership.
James Reini wrote at Al-Jazeera about the passing of Obama’s presidency; “So long and thanks for all the speeches.” That’s a fitting tribute. Obama believed that words can assuage policy errors and make right every problem. This dovetails with how European leaders have confronted the problems of the past 20 years. If you just speak enough, and it sounds intelligent, then the problem will go away. Problems with immigration and failures to integrate? Give a speech.
Islamist terrorism and the creeping police state to confront it? Give speeches.
But the problems of the world require more than talk. There’s no evidence that the replacement for Obama has any sort of Mandela quality. But the problems of the world will eventually find their way to the doorstep of every country and if a Mandela is not forthcoming they may end up with a different type of transformational leader. What countries learn in the end is that they need more than words and rose-colored glasses.
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