eyes on the U.S.

Flaws And All, The World Will Miss Barack Obama

President Obama was, on many levels, a major disappointment. But his legacy is one of grace and integrity in a political world that grows uglier by the day.

Bye bye Barack
Bye bye Barack
Richard Herzinger

BERLIN — We will miss him dearly.

Barack Obama will have come full circle on his next visit to Germany in November, this time coming at the very end of his second and final term in office. His first visit to Germany in August of 2008 did, after all, mark the beginning of "Obamania" around the world, this boundless euphoria that was ignited by the man onto whom we had pinned our hopes — even we Germans — even before he was elected for the first time.

His upcoming visit will, once more, feature little more than symbolism, just like eight years ago for his stirring speech in front of the Siegessäule victory column in Berlin, where he made the case for the moral and political renewal of the U.S. and the West. It will be even more symbolic — only this time because he will no longer wield any political power, even as we will know who will succeed him.

But in Obama's case, symbolism is not a trivial matter. If there is one thing that he managed to preserve in his eight years of an exhausting and politically rather unsuccessful tenure, it is his ability to rhetorically lift political issues up into the sphere of morally philosophical abstraction.

He recently demonstrated this dichotomy when he delivered a eulogy at the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres. By elevating Peres to the realms of the role model in the efforts to build peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he managed to, indirectly, portray current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a war-hungry saboteur of Peres' legacy.

Just for a moment, Obama's rhetoric brilliance let us forget that he had actually failed across the board with his high-flying plans for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

President Obama, in general, did not even come close to fulfilling his ambitious objectives. In fact, the world is actually further removed from achieving these goals than when Obama highlighted these problems.

Leading from behind — Photo: White House

Nuclear disarmament is one example of this. In spite of the controversial nuclear deal with Iran, Tehran is allowed to drive forward conventional armament and intensify its military aggression on Syria.

Obama had offered Russia a "new beginning" of a cooperative relationship but Vladimir Putin exploited the president's credulity to position himself as the main hostile global political opponent of the U.S.

The Middle East in particular demonstrates how Obama's redefinition of the role of the U.S. "leading from behind" created a global political vacuum, which is being increasingly filled with destructive powers.

This helps explain why Obama is less proud of what he has achieved than of what he failed to do — namely embroil the U.S. in another armed conflict. He has stated that he feels satisfied to have refused raiding Assad's troops to curtail his military expansion, against the suggestions of the Washington establishment. But it was this decision that actually escalated the rate of killings in Syria.

And yet, despite these catastrophic developments, Obama still point-blank refuses to accept the basic rule that violent, authoritarian powers cannot be forced into accepting compromises through coercion and believable threats.

His belief that an appeal to common sense and reconciliation of interests will, in the long run, be more successful than hostile confrontation, marks him as a hardened idealist.

But this also stands in stark contrast to his apparent cold sense of "realism," as seen when he told The Atlantic"s Jeffrey Goldberg that defending the Ukraine against Russian aggression was not one of the "core interests' of the U.S.

Instead, it was the great and noble goals of humankind, such as saving the planet from climate change, that took priority over championing individual nations aspiring to the values of Western democracy.

JFK analogy

Success on domestic affairs level is also pretty thin on the ground. The only policy achievement that stands out is his health care reform, although it is not clear if even that will survive in its current form.

If you were to look for a case of an American president in whom the chasm between the glamorous appeal as an individual leader and their actual, palpable political success, one can only think of John F. Kennedy.

While the Western world adored the young and charismatic president, JFK failed in the Cuban invasion at the Bay of Pigs and laid the foundations for the disastrous military involvement of U.S. troops in Vietnam.

Kennedy also hesitated to act decisively in the biggest issues of his time on the home front, namely the eradication of racial discrimination. As for JFK"s successor, Lyndon Johnson, his rather successful domestic record was instead overshadowed by the Vietnam War.

Kennedy's rise to mythical status for posterity was of course also helped along by the fact that he was assassinated rather early in his term. The Obama aura has survived the entirety of two rather sobering terms and could, in future, reveal its true potential.

Even diehard Obama opponents will very soon come to dearly miss his presence at the helm of the most powerful nation in the world. This is due less to the content of his policies than to the noble attitude he has displayed with such superior ease.

Obama not only emanates a cool kind of confidence, but also integrity, honesty as well as fairness and humanity. His political career has not been blighted by any scandals or affairs, he was never found to have lied openly or embezzled funds, he never sought gain by belittling or directing personal insults at his political opponents.

Effortless cool — Photo: White House

He lived the basic bourgeois virtues and relaxed self-evident modernity which was expressed in his stylishly genteel appearances and aesthetically demanding civility. This almost fairy-tale-like political career seems to belong to a different age, especially in light of the mud-slinging contest his successors have engaged in, and the more general debasement of political and social manners.

In the months and years after his retirement, we might even begin to ask ourselves if this, his era, was indeed real or just a dream.

But this is also evidence that Obama's pathos, orientated towards unity and reconciliation, was unable to stop the disintegration of political and societal institutions or the increasingly dangerous polarization of American society. And this goes beyond the fact that the presidency of a black man, inevitably perhaps, reanimated latent racial prejudice.

It is only now that reality is finally showing its ugly face, while the same face was hidden from us to some degree, bathed in the soft light of beauty that Obama brought to his nation.

In the end, Barack Obama was probably always more of an inspiration than a politician. In some ways you may even call him an anti-politician. But it is a simple truth that the human race, from time to time, needs the embodiment of hope to believe that the world can become a better place. That decency and honesty can be found at the very top of politics.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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