Barack Obama

He's only human

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 February, 2009, 12:00am

Barack Obama has been compared to Martin Luther King, the greatest American presidents of the past century and a half and, in a recent Harper's magazine article by South African writer and painter Breyten Breytenbach, Nelson Mandela. Mr Obama took office a little more than a month ago on a sea of the highest of hopes and exuberance; he has not had it all his own way with his cabinet appointments but, still, the shine has not worn off. All the world's problems have been laid at his feet and we expect him to fix them. It's time for a reality check before we get totally carried away and start referring to him as the next Jesus: he is a mere mortal, not a miracle-maker.

I don't mean to be a killjoy. Times are bad and, if a rare politician comes along who inspires and brings cause for optimism, we should give him or her our every support. Mr Obama is a breath of fresh air to a world that has lost faith in its leaders. In the absence of anyone else who inspires confidence, let's give him the ball and the opportunity to shoot a few hoops.

That said, we should not get carried away. For all his apparent qualities, he is not yet a great leader. He has no track record at the international level. Our wish list is far-reaching and broad; the majority of these issues have been on the global to-do list for decades and will not be resolved in two years, one or two presidential terms, or perhaps ever.

To his credit, the president has told us not to get too carried away. The economic meltdown will take time to come to grips with, he has said. Climate change will similarly be a tough nut to crack. But he has nonetheless told us his administration will come up with solutions and steer the world out of the gloom.

Economies move in cycles; Mr Obama is correct to say that the good times will one day roll again. Given that no one is exactly sure of just how deep the crisis will be, whether the upswing will occur while he is at the helm is a matter of guesswork. Global warming could be here to stay. Mr Obama may well get leaders together and deals struck, but just how effective they will be is a matter of wait and see.

His promised approach to foreign policy is laudable. He wants to reach out to old friends and talk to foes. Iraq-style invasions are not on his agenda. But past diplomatic failures make up the bulk of the State Department's in-tray: North Korea, Iran, the Arab-Israeli conflict and terrorism.

With this latter issue in mind, the president has taken up Afghanistan as his foreign-policy priority. Among his first orders was to send in 17,000 additional American troops. History is not on his side, though: time and again, the country's tribes have outfoxed foreigners. Two British occupations in the 19th century and the Soviet Union's invasion in 1979 ended with defeat. The US-led war is seven years and four months old and gains are being turned into losses. Taleban-inspired tribes in neighbouring Pakistan are widening the challenge; some observers are portraying the conflict as America's new Vietnam.

As daunting as all this may be, it is not enough for the Obama enthusiasts. They want him to go even further, getting leaders to reshape the multilateral framework centred on the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, restart the Doha Round of trade talks, and eradicate disease and poverty. Even activists dedicated to issues barely on the radar, like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, see him as their saviour. Expectations are irrationally high.

Mr Obama is not Superman. What he wants to get done is perhaps too broad to be achievable. Proving that he is only human, he has run into problems getting his cabinet filled. Three of his choices had to withdraw their names over tax irregularities. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has proved less adept at his job than was anticipated.

The world is not in good shape. Mr Obama breaks the mould of recent American presidents and, in him, many of us see a chance for change. But, given the scale and scope of what has to be done, it would be wise to tone down the optimism a notch or two. That election campaign chant of 'Yes, we can' should perhaps have been, 'We'll try to do the best we can'.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post