The Guardian, June 4, 2012
From dreams to drones: who is the real Barack Obama?
As the latest US attacks kill 17 and threaten to destabilise Pakistan, the president could be the cruellest political hoax of our times
Barack Obama, according to Foreign Policy magazine, "has become George W Bush on steroids". Armed with a "kill list", the Nobel peace laureate now hosts "Tuesday terror" meetings at the White House to discuss targets of drone attacks in Pakistan and at least five other countries. The latest of these killed 17 people near the border with Afghanistan today.
Unlike the slacker Bush, who famously disdained specifics, Obama routinely deploys his Ivy League training in law. Many among the dozens of "suspected militants" massacred by drones in the last three days in northwestern Pakistan are likely to be innocent. Reports gathered by NGOs and Pakistani media about previous attacks speak of a collateral damage running into hundreds, and deepening anger and hostility to the United States. No matter: in Obama's legally watertight bureaucracy, drone attacks are not publicly acknowledged; or if they have to be, civilian deaths are flatly denied and all the adult dead categorised as "combatants".
Obama himself signed off on one execution knowing it would also kill innocent family members. He has also made it "legal" to execute Americans without trial and expanded their secret surveillance, preserved the CIA's renditions programme, violated his promise to close down Guantánamo Bay, and ruthlessly arraigned whistleblowers.
Not only is Cornel West, Obama's most prominent black intellectual supporter, appalled, but also the apparatchiks of Bush's imperial presidency such as former CIA director Michael Hayden. Perhaps it is time to ask again: who is Barack Obama? And how has Pakistan featured in his worldview? The first question now seems to have been settled too quickly, largely because of the literary power of Obama's speeches and writings. His memoir, Dreams From My Father, was quickened by the drama of the self-invented man from nowhere – the passionate striving, eloquent self-doubt and ambivalence that western literature, from Stendhal to Naipaul, has trained us to identify with a refined intellect and soul. Not surprisingly, Obama's careful self-presentation seduced some prominent literary fictionists, inviting comparisons to James Baldwin.
Later biographies of Obama, published after he became president, have complicated the picture of him as the possessor of diversely sourced identities (Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii, Harvard). David Maraniss's new biography shows that at college the bright student from Hawaii's closest friends were Pakistanis, and he carried around a dog-eared copy of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
But Obama also began early, as one girlfriend of his reported to her diary, to "strike out", "shedding encumbrances, old images". "Do you think I will be president of the United States?" he asked a slightly bemused Pakistani friend, who then witnessed "Obama slowly but carefully distancing himself from the Pakistanis as a necessary step in establishing his political identity".