The Silence of Barack Obama

I was doing my level best to enjoy the recent holidays, and think about the hopeful prospect of a new year, but the steady barrage of TV, radio and newspaper headlines announcing war in the Middle East made it tough.

Just as disturbing as the violence itself was the eerie quiet that quickly descended around it in the media. There was precious little editorial or commentator protest against the Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip, even though the initial attacks killed more people than had died on any previous day in the long and anguished history of this conflict. And then, as the airstrikes escalated into a full ground assault, the prominence of the headlines and stories actually began to decrease, as if the media were already losing interest.

Of course this relative lack of concern only mirrors the position of official Washington. While it is no surprise to anyone who follows this issue, it was still amazing to observe the steady stream of commentators and Congresspeople ready to justify and support the attacks without hesitation – even John Stewart couldn’t help commenting on this lock-step non-debate. And they all do it in such a matter-of-fact, “move along folks, nothing to see here” manner.

Where was Barack Obama in this crisis? It took digging deep inside a couple newspapers to learn that his position was, essentially, “no comment.”

Why has Barack had nothing to say? His rationale that “we only have one President at a time” is, I’m sorry to have to point out, a ridiculous fig leaf. It didn’t stop him from commenting on the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and it sure hasn’t stopped him from acting plenty Presidential when it comes to publicly fashioning the largest stimulus package in U.S. history, and making very public speeches about the dire consequences should it not pass..

Another rationale I heard is that he doesn’t want to distract from his focus on the economy. But let war flare up in the Middle East, and I guarantee he’ll be distracted.

The mere fact of Obama having nothing definitive to say has been deeply discouraging. I have a poster in my office with a quote from Dr. King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” He may not control the apparatus of government yet, but is it really possible that the incoming leader of the free world has no strong feelings on this, nothing at all he’d like to say?

He doesn’t need to state his views on occupation, mind you, or lay out the ethical limits of self-defense or armed resistance. All he needs to do is utter five short words: “I support an immediate ceasefire.”

Civilians are being killed and wounded in large numbers, as one can predict with 100% accuracy when modern weapons of war are used in a densely populated civilian area – and parts of the Gaza Strip are among the most densely populated in the world. (We hardly even bother to think about it anymore, because they have become so commonplace, but military attacks in or against civilian  areas are a violation of the Geneva Conventions – a war crime – for this very reason.)  Everyone from the highest U.N. officials to Amnesty International, Oxfam and Save the Children is describing a spiraling humanitarian crisis due to the war and the ongoing embargo of Gaza. (Embargoes against civilian populations are also acts of war, as they have been since the days of sieges, and collective punishment is also a violation of the Geneva Conventions.)

Is it not tragically ironic that at the same time the U.S. media was obsessively covering the entrance of President-elect Obama’s daughters into the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., a United Nations school filled with 40 civilians taking shelter was blown up in Gaza?

Obama’s response? “…after January 20th I’ll have plenty to say about it.”

Today the U.N. announced it would suspend further aid to Gaza, following the school incident and the subsequent destruction by Israeli forces of one of its aid shipments. Oxfam reports that civilian ambulances have been shelled and health workers killed.

President-elect Obama may believe he doesn’t have to comment on this crisis because he won’t officially be sworn in for another couple of weeks, but the consequences and repercussions of it are going to be with all of us long after his inauguration. His silence has been clearly noted by Arab and Muslim commentators, and the pre-election hope that this “new face” of America would in and of itself alter our relationship with the rest of the world, particularly in the Middle East, is crashing against some very hard rocks right now.
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Worse still, it is possible that Obama’s silence signals not simply the reflexive support of Israeli military actions demonstrated by virtually every member of Congress and the Bush Administration, but also his support of the larger war against terrorism – his willingness to go along with the fundamentally war-based policy to confront terrorist threats. Certainly that is how the Israeli actions are justified. And it’s also how increased troop levels in Afghanistan and attacks in Pakistan will be justified.

Predictably, this violence will beget more violence. Trying to stop terrorism with war, as they say, is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. With such a policy both we and the Israelis can fully expect more violence, and more terrorism, in the Middle East and throughout the world.

So I am deeply distressed by Barack Obama’ silence. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, given some of candidate Obama’s statements on the Middle East, or his selection of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, or Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. But like the rest of the world, I am trying to maintain some hope that he will be different, that the “anti-war” candidate will turn out to be, well, anti-war. And all he has to do is say “I support a ceasefire.” Just say you support an end to the killing.

Obama may not be saying much, but his silence is speaking volumes. And my great fear is that what we are now witnessing is not the end of an era, but simply its continuation.

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6 Responses to “The Silence of Barack Obama”

  1. Alonzo Smith Says:

    This comment is right on target. Barack is afraid of the powerful Zionist lobby, which is increasingly unrepresentative of many Jewish people, but rather representative many imperialist warmongers, Jews and non-Jews.

  2. davichon Says:

    Obama’s vacuity may be shocking, but it is not surprising. Even during the primaries, no contender dared say anything except to propitiate (kiss up to) the Israel lobby in the U.S. I think it was Jon Stewart who asked a fellow journalist the other night if Israel was not the “third rail” of U.S. politics. Of course it is. Which is ironic, because 40+ years of overwhelming (and U.S.-backed) military superiority have not bought the Israeli’s security.
    But we have all reaped more generations of hatred and resistance/violence.

  3. Greg Gerritt Says:

    I am not at all surprised by Obama, i have said all along he is still for empire, and everything he says or does backs that up.

  4. gordonsclark Says:

    I want to thank everyone for making comments on this and any/all posts to follow. Please be aware that while I usually don’t reply to each individual remark, I do read and very much appreciate them.

    I would also thank everyone for keeping the conversation civil, all the more so when discussing difficult issues. I have seen other online comment sections filled with bitter comments and name-calling, something which I find both unpleasant and unproductive. Not that I would ever expect such things from my readers (!), but thanks again for always keeping in mind the humanity of everyone who reads your comments – including the people who might disagree with you.

    Best, Gordon

  5. David Gaines Says:

    Alonzo Smith is exactly correct when he notes that the pro-Israel lobby (“Zionist” is too vague a term these days – there are all kinds of variations on Zionism out there, just as there are all kinds of socialisms) is increasingly unrepresentative of Jewish people (i.e. me). See Jewish Voice For Peace (www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org) for more elaboration on this. Barack Obama has presented yet another piece of evidence here that the so-called “mainstream” element of the Democratic Party is ridiculously out of touch with events on the ground and, for that reason, is hardly equipped to be in a leadership position in terms of real systemic change.

    Together with his lame string of major cabinet/agency appointments, how many examples do Obamaniacs who are tied to the Democratic Party with an umbilical cord need before they being to consider, per the advice of former DP insider Lawrence O’Donnell, withdrawing their automatic knee jerk support of Democratic candidates?

  6. David Gaines Says:

    being = begin

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