A poignant picture emerged from South Africa during US President Barack Obama’s first state visit to the country. The world’s most powerful leader was photographed, standing alone and looking out from a tiny prison cell where Nelson Mandela spent more than two decades of his life.
The view from the cell was narrow but Mandela emerged from it with a much wider vision to lead his country successfully into a transition from apartheid. The pressure on Mandela must have been enormous, as he was at the helm of a country where generations of blacks suffered under white minority rule. There were vocal sections demanding a redistribution of power and wealth immediately.
But the man rose above such sentiments to hold on to his principles and guide his country into an inclusive society. That moral high ground he took was one of the main things that defined Mandela and set him apart from other modern-day leaders.
Obama has time and again spoken eloquently about Mandela and his influence on him. Yet he has a long way to go to reach Mandela’s stature. As a candidate who got elected promising change and to dismantle the Washington way of politics, Obama seems to get trapped by the very machinations that he vowed to dismantle.
The New York Times and The Guardian newspapers appealed to Obama on Thursday to grant a pardon to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Both argue that his leaks about the NSA started a vital debate about the legality of its vast spying and exposing officials breaking the law, and he should not be facing a long jail term.
Opinion in the country is very much divided, as the rulings of two federal judges showed last month. And a powerful section in Washington wants Snowden to be treated as a traitor and jailed. Yesterday a reader survey on US-based news website Huffington Post on whether Snowden was a hero or a traitor showed more than 40 per cent labelling him a traitor.
It is unlikely that Obama will quickly heed the calls from The New York Times and The Guardian and grant a pardon to Snowden. But he has a chance here to show whether his outlook is limited by his view through the window of the Oval Office.