My dear Q,
It is about 8.30 P.M. here in Washington D.C and I guess you must be in bed by now, as you are five to six hours ahead of us. I arrived in Washington last Wednesday and within minutes of arriving, my entire DNA, including my picture, has been logged on to the American vast Homeland Security system and I am told that it will remain there indefinitely. And oh! Carrying a British passport these days does not give you an automatic right to enter the United States without visa. One now needs a travel authorisation from the US Homeland Security before booking your ticket. This new policy is all part of the US government’s efforts in preventing terrorism inside America.
Arriving in Washington is no fun; from the moment your plane touches down at either Dulles or Reagan airport, the smell of power mixed with high diplomacy and finance tells you that this is a very serious place for serious business – but it is also an easy, comfortable city, with lots of lively pockets in and around the city centre, especially in the evenings.
Then there is the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and of course, the Kennedy Centre or one of Smithsonian galleries or museums. But none of these places can challenge the soulful spirit and romance of Paris, Prague or Vienna; and as you move around the city, you are reminded of a political history and culture that even London or Moscow cannot boast of; this is the seat of world power and the venom and the innate line of thinking confirms that politics in Washington is cruel but bloodless, bureaucratic and transient.
But Washington doesn’t need the buzz and romance to create an excitement about the city. The Obamas are in town and the District of Columbia is officially an exciting place to be. But as the Obamas begin to get a feel of the place and start enjoying themselves, their neighbours spat venom, accusing them of reckless behaviour when dealing with the security of the country.
You see, politics here in Washington is fought on three grounds: Right, Centre and Left, or in other words, Conservatives, Social Democrats and Liberals. From domestic politics and economics to world politics, diplomacy and finance, every policy, statement, and programme that comes from Washington is based on one of these three beliefs. The Republican Party is Conservative and the Democrats are Social Democrats and in between, you will find Liberals in both Parties – but more from the Democrats than the Republicans.
As you read this today, Wednesday 29TH April 2009, Barack Obama would have spent his first hundred days as President of the United States of America-and without any doubts it has been one hell of a ride down 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I walked pass this address the other day, known to many as the White House and as I stood there looking around, I realised that this is not the same place I first visited in 2001. But that is another issue; we can talk about some other time.
Listening to Washingtonians and reading the American press, you will soon get a picture of the Obama presidency. Barack Obama is a detached man who has inspired fierce loyalties, and a cool man who has aroused both warm feelings of affection and a fiery opposition.
According to one of the prominent newspaper commentators here in Washington, Barack Obama loves to engage conservatives, yet few of them have chosen to engage him. He is seen as too moderate by parts of the left, but the right thinks he has a radical, statist agenda.
Wall Street’s critics believe Obama’s approach to rescuing the financial system amounts to cuddling the bankers and financial scammers who got the banking system into a mess. But many on the Street say Obama doesn’t understand them and fear he is a secret populist who would displace finances as the dominant force in the US economics.
On torture, Obama sought a middle ground: He ended the practice, disclosed what happened and proposed that they move on. Yet since my arrival in Washington last week, all I hear on the radio, television and read on the newspapers is that Obama was wrong to have released top-secret Bush administration documents on CIA interrogation techniques.
Having been a victim of state brutality myself, it is very difficult for me to write on the subject with an open-mind especially when you are told that it is done in the name of the State. Who do you blame? The person carrying out the orders or the person who gave the orders? And these are the questions that are being debated here in Washington DC.
Apart from these questions, others have also been asking whether it was right to have released the interrogation documents. Commentators here strongly believe that by releasing the documents, Obama tortured the right, left and centre with his parsing, hedging, and flip-flopping on what next to do after the release of the documents.
You remember I told you about the Right, Centre and Left of politics in America? Well Obama angered the right by releasing the top-secret documents, over objections by the CIA Director, Leon Panetta and President Bush administration officials who worried that it would give information to terrorists how far American Security can go in trying to get information about their activities.
But the President also disappointed Democrats and millions of Liberals by saying that there will be no prosecution of CIA and other security interrogators who might have engaged in what some define as torture and initially suggesting that the lawyers who had advised them wouldn’t be prosecuted either because, according to the president, “this is a time for reflection, not retribution.”
What I learnt, talking to journalists working at the White House, is that the emotional exchanges flying around call to mind the Republican’s ill-founded crusade to impeach President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affairs. One journalist observed that while certainly a moral failing on President Clinton’s part, it was hardly a reason to remove him from office. No good came out of that, and no good will come out of this new attempt to criminalise President George Bush and his officials.
For what it is worth, let me tell you a little bit about the documents; these documents were prepared by lawyers appointed by President George Bush; and their language is the precise bureaucratese favoured by dungeon masters in old days.
They detail how to fashion a collar for slamming a prisoner against a wall, exactly how many days he can be kept without sleep, and what, specifically, he should be told before being locked in a box with an insect all to stop just short of having a jury decide that these acts violate the laws against torture and abusive treatment of prisoners.
One of the authors of the torture directives, Jay Bybee, then an assistant attorney general and now a federal judge, wrote about a contraption for water boarding that would lurch a prisoner upright if he stopped breathing while water was poured over his face.
Frankly, reading the memos directing the CIA on how to torture terrorists and watching a demonstration of water-boarding on television is frightening. Indeed, one memo showed CIA interrogators used water-boarding at least 266 times on two terrorists’ suspects. Legal experts say the memos were designed to provide legal immunity for acts that are “clearly illegal, immoral and a violation of the most basic human values.”
But as Barack Obama celebrates his first 100 days in office as the first black President of the United States of America he is having understandable difficulty in balancing competing claims and demands on what next to do, now that his government has released top-secret documents on how the CIA use to torture terror suspects.
The Republican Party and their supporters on the right are not very interested in seeing the government investigate interrogation tactics used on suspected terrorists by the Bush administration officials. They claim that by his actions, the President has seriously weakened American intelligence capabilities.
Indeed, former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the architects of the Bush security doctrine has been highly critical of the Obama’s administration since leaving office in January and has even gone so far as to suggest that there is a “high probability” of a terrorist attack under the new administration.
The former Vice President’s constant attacks on President Obama is seen by observers of American politics as a break from a deep seated tradition that says presidents and vice presidents stay relatively quiet about the activities of their successors at the White House. But Dick Cheney is not prepared to go away quietly; the former Vice President, with his tenacity and his insider’s knowledge of government and politics, continues to influence the Washington debate. Whilst President Bush has told journalists that the Obama administration “deserves my silence”.
In recent days, supporters of President Obama, and many commentators on the left have called for the prosecution of those who designed the CIA interrogation note-book, causing sleepless in many quarters across the country. On the face of this, the former Vice President has emerged as the chief defender of the right and the Bush administration, and causing the normally steady Obama team to wobble on their stance concerning a possible Congressional inquiry into the Bush’s administration’s handling of terror suspect or even the prosecution of those responsible.
Over dinner at U Street, downtown Washington with a senior Washington lobbyist, it was made clear to me that the former Vice President’s strategy is clear – He wants to paint a picture of an American Commander-in-chief who is “soft” on terrorism. If America is attacked, the president could be blamed for not allowing the CIA to torture those who might have provided advance information.
This is raw politics at the highest level. One should not allow facts or evidence to get in the way of partisan politics. And over the years, as the debate about the “war on terror” progresses from one level to another, I have often asked myself just how far people like Dick Cheney and his supporters would go with their ethically abhorrent and intellectually flawed “ticking bomb” scenario. Indeed, one journalist recently asked the question that most of us have been thinking about; Would interrogators be justified in, say, torturing or killing the children of a suspected terrorist to persuade him/her to give up information that they considered crucial in saving American lives? I suppose the answer will be a YES!!!
Fortunately, the decision of President Obama to ban all forms of torture will not put any CIA or Western interrogators in that position for a long time.
What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts by President Obama to deal with the crises of today? Well, my dear fellow, even if that were true-even if truth and justice came at a high price-that would arguably be a price America must pay to regain their moral compass: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient.
For Americans beleaguered by the pain of a deep recession, Obama appears, so far, to be just what the doctor ordered. Seventy-three percent-including 46 percent of Republicans-hold a favourable view of President Obama, higher than Bill Clinton or George W. Bush at this time in their presidencies. And out of the media blur, a clearer picture of his personal philosophy has emerged-calm, moderate, carefully reasoned and pragmatic. Hardly the socialist radical depicted by some Republican, he is more a centrist Democrat out to repair American institutions and moral authority, not tear them down.
On international issues; after his recent trips to Europe and South America; can one begin to talk of an “Obama doctrine”?
If style and temperament can constitute a doctrine, the answer is yes. The intellectual traits that Mr Obama says he most prizes in himself and those around him are pragmatism and perseverance. Many would say that President Bush also had perseverance, carried to the point of dull-witted obstinacy, but nobody ever accused him of pragmatism. Mr Obama’s willingness to start anew, ask what works, offer respect to governments that crave it (even if they may not deserve it) and patiently seek progress where he may is very refreshing.
But the next 100 days may be even more critical and productive as the president’s legacy on foreign policy and health- care take a sharp turn for the better. This is my first direct involvement with American politics and media and as I received my accreditation to President’s Obama prime time news conference to mark his first 100 days in office today, I realised sometime; “Character is fate,” Heraclitus told us. The adage is telling for presidencies anywhere. And the characters of key appointees-their intellects and professional ethics as well as their personal integrity-also hold a government’s destiny in any country.
I told you that I had to move out of my hotel in Washington DC to Maryland, after the IMF/World Bank Spring meeting, not so much because of the costs but because of a very disturbing and unhealthy situation that is slowly creeping its way into most hotels across America. And you will be shocked to learn of this development.
The United States is facing a bed bug epidemic caused by increased foreign travel and tighter rules on chemicals which can be used to treat them.
Well you should know about bed bugs, although we are kind of fortunate that it is no longer a big problem where we sleep in London or even in Freetown. They live in the crevices and folds of mattresses, sofas and sheets and emerge at night to feed on human blood.
Faced with rising numbers of complaints to City information lines and increasingly frustrated landlords, hotel chains and housing authorities, the United States Environmental Protection Agency hosted its first-ever bed bug summit here in Washington.
According to Lois Rossi, a senior official of the EPA, “the problem seems to be increasing and it could be worse in densely populated areas like cities, although it can be a problem for anyone in the country, including visitors”.
One of the problems, according to researchers and the pesticide industry, is that there are few chemicals on the market approved for use on mattresses that are effective at reducing bed bug numbers. The EPA, out of concern for the environment and the effects on public health, has pulled many of the chemicals that were most effective in eradicating the bugs from the U.S. over the last 50 years.
At the my hotel downtown Washington, I was told by the Manager, that increasing international travel has also increased the chances for the bug to hitchhike from developing countries which never eradicated them completely … a convenient excuse?
And just before I sign off, let me tell you that the American government has started preparing for a potential outbreak of swine flu, following an outbreak in Mexico.
More than 20 new suspected cases were reported last Saturday in Mexico City alone, where authorities suspended schools and all public events. More than 500 concerts, sporting events and other gatherings were cancelled in the metropolis of 20 million people. Mexico shares a border with the United States and since last Saturday over 100 people have died from the swine flu outbreak,
Swine flu rarely infect humans. There have been about a dozen cases in the U.S. since 2005, but almost all were in farm workers or others in contact with pigs. So now you know why people get offended when they are called pigs.
Well my dear fellow, with news like these, I must be getting ready to pack my bag to fly off to “good ole London”, before I get pinned down by either the bed bugs or swine flu … IN Obama country. Bye for now.
Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay Jnr