Great day on Penn Avenue, bad day at Guantanamo

I can forgive the President for his stumbles with the Oath of Office. He was nervous, they were not his words, and his staff had failed to place the words on his prompt screen. It is a detail they will doubtless get right the next time he has to reproduce a traditional statement.

I do not agree with the carping critics that the speech was a let down. The House of Commons decided to have a vote on the financial crisis at the opening of the President’s remarks. I decided to watch it in the Commons tea room so I missed very little, as that provided the nearest TV to the Chamber. Some MPs and the Tea Room staff assembled to see it. The staff from a wide range of backgrounds were visibly moved by the powerful rhetoric, and by the sight of the US coming together after the dreadful past of segregation and racial hatred. Only a few hard bitten MPs were more cynical.

I thought he spoke well. He did not need to dwell on the success of the movement for racial equality – he is its embodiment. He did weave in a wider US history to his approach. As a Conservative he said nothing I wanted to condemn, and some things I admired. I fully support his passionate defence of opportunity, and of freedom, set within the message that people have to do things for themselves to protect that freedom and to grasp those opportunities. As a Brit I had to take the memories of the US struggle against the clumsy British government to gain the Republic’s independence on the chin. It was entirely fair, even if I would like to have seen it balanced by some friendly remark towards us for our more recent support of the US and our shared heritage of freedom and democracy.

I felt let down not by the words nor by the event, but by the actions.

If he is serious about closing Guantanamo, why doesn’t he just announce a date or process for closure? Guantanamo became a symbol of a great democracy failing to live up to its own standards. We democrats condemn torture and believe in no detention without charge and trial. Why is he delaying even military justice for its inmates by seeking another 120 day delay in the trials about to edge forward? If he wishes to transfer them to civilian trials then just do so.

He promised that he would start the withdrawal from Iraq on Day One. This morning there is hesitation in the briefing about that. In a way George Bush pre-empted him, but it would still be good to see the President instructing the Generals to take the necessary steps as promised.

Whilst they were partying on Pennsylvania Avenue, Wall Street was having a terrible day. The transition team should have had something ready to tell the markets about how the Obama Presidency would handle the banking crisis and the recession that might be reassuring. Instead Wall Street sees more of the same – more massive state borrowing to prop up ailing banks, and more state borrowing to create some jobs through Federal programmes whilst many more jobs are lost in the private sector.

He told us it would be tough, and he rightly united his country to take the actions needed to change America. He has little time to spell out exactly what changes he wants, as the markets are already spooked. He implied that the USA has to change its approach to the economy, by becoming more energy self sufficient and living more within its means. We know that, so why not get on with it?


  1. Tony Makara
    January 21, 2009

    The rational behind the Bush administrations’ much publicized ‘surge’ was to make the Iraqi’s more dependent on a US presence and the act of withdrawing troops far more difficult. President Obama has talked about wanting a ‘Rapid Strike Force’ in the region, and, that being the case it would not be logical for him to scale down the US presence in Iraq entirely. Nontheless, an expectant public do want to see an end to this foreign policy quagmire, which, in America’s case, has now dragged on longer than the second world war. We can only wait and see what transpires, but already the new president is learning that promises are easily spoken but often difficult to fulfill.

  2. Ian Jones
    January 21, 2009

    I notice we dont hear so much about human rights from the other side of the pond now. Cant really say much considering they torture 14 year old boys and keep them locked up with no legal process. I dont understand how we think of extraditing people to that country!

  3. Stuart Fairney
    January 21, 2009

    Well said. I could not bring myself to watch the charade (are you going to defend the second amendment Mr President?) but the substantive was pathetic indeed.

    Had Obama been in charge pre-1776 the US would still be a British colony of course, because his anti-gun stance would have disarmed the minutemen.

    Guantanamo is either right or wrong; if it’s right ~ continue, if it’s wrong ~ close the place. He’s had long enough to decide. To simply kick it into the long grass is hopeless. Day 1, policy 1 ~ Dither.

    I was less worried about the lack of financial detail about more bailouts because frankly a ‘do-nothing’ Obama maybe rather better than a ‘borrow-more’ Obama.

    The most serious mistake, having Hilary Clinton on board. I would not have someone responsible for foreign relations who had to put it mildly “extensive ties” with foreign donors*. It may create the impression of a conflict of interest. Also I would like someone who knows whether or not they were shot at, in the Balkans, as that detail is rather important.

    (*Ed ~ this is not in doubt or contraversial, do a simply Google search, it is widely reported in the mainstream US media)

  4. StevenL
    January 21, 2009

    Surely no US court will accept any evidence ‘obtained’ in gitmo, meaning they walk free on US soil if charged in the US.

    Surely any country outside of the EU will refuse to take back any inmates, and if they can be persuaded will simply imprison them, perhaps in even worse conditions.

    Repatriating the inmates in the USA is politically impossible, repatriating them to their own countries is politically dangerous.

    No-one will want these suspected terrorists, well, anyone that does want them will probably just want them as a source of intelligence.

  5. Mike
    January 21, 2009

    Give him a chance John! He’s barely been in the job ten hours!

  6. Von Spreuth
    January 21, 2009

    Oh get OVER it. He is a politician and will be JUST as bent, corrupt and as full of lies as ALL the others.

    Von Brandenburg-PreuĂźen.

    1. mikestallard
      January 21, 2009

      I totally agree, however, the corruption of this excellent intellectual product of the Chicago political machine will be very sad to watch – indeed, hasn’t it already started in Chicago with the Governor?

  7. Nick Rouse
    January 21, 2009

    Barack Obama did not stumble over the oath, Chief Justice John Roberts prompting him got it badly wrong, Obama paused to let him get it right. Pehaps we can see one of the reasons Obama
    voted against his appoinment.

    1. John Redwood
      January 21, 2009

      Between them they stumbled. My post says I do not regard this as a problem!

  8. […] I felt let down not by the words, nor by the event, but by the actions. If he is serious about closing Guantánamo, why doesn’t he just announce a date or process for closure? Guantánamo became a symbol of a […]

  9. Sarah
    January 21, 2009

    I second the note about Obama’s stumbling over the oath coming only as a result of Chief Justice Roberts’ slip-up. Such an obvious clanger at the start of your post, John, might lead those less forgiving than yourself to conclude that your subsequent analysis of the Guantanamo situation isn’t so well-informed, either. Surely you must be aware of the complexities in moving the Gitmo inmates to civilian trials, especially given the manner in which much ‘evidence’ against them has been obtained?

    1. John Redwood
      January 21, 2009

      If it is too difficult moving to civilian trials then the President should let the military trials go ahead. These men deserve their day in court, so they can be punished if they are terrorists and let out if not. Can’t you see the importance of this in a democratic society?

  10. mikestallard
    January 21, 2009

    It felt like a party to which I was not invited: I couldn’t watch, I am afraid.

  11. Matt
    January 21, 2009

    I too would have appreciated it, if Mr Obama’s remarks on the war of independence were tempered by a thank you to UK for standing by as a steadfast friend of the USA during its “War on terror”.

    It would have been a marvellous platform, given the vast US and worldwide audience, to give thanks to our servicemen and women who have given their lives in these conflicts and who continue to serve.

    If successive US administrations had stood by the UK to the same degree, maybe our problems in Northern Ireland would have been alleviated sooner.

  12. […] I felt let down not by the words, nor by the event, but by the actions. If he is serious about closing Guantánamo, why doesn’t he just announce a date or process for closure? Guantánamo became a symbol of a […]

  13. Ed Crawford
    January 22, 2009

    here you go john. he’s set a date to close it.

    i’m suprised that you are so quick to criticise, on this issue, someone who actually managed to vote against the iraq war.

  14. Von Spreuth
    January 22, 2009

    Those in Guantanamo SHOULD be tried. Under the civvy system. Because if they are guilty we need to know, and if not without a trial they can not be compensated for having lost “X” amount of years of their lives.

    Von Brandenburg-PreuĂźen

  15. […] I felt let down not by the words, nor by the event, but by the actions. If he is serious about closing Guantánamo, why doesn’t he just announce a date or process for closure? Guantánamo became a […]

  16. coffee
    January 26, 2009

    Looks to me like Barack is off to a great start, on track to keep his word and restore some international credibility for the US

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