Obama. I try to like him, sometimes. I really do. I mean, the guy’s got a lot on his plate.
But there has been a lot to be unimpressed and frankly angry about. Like his reservation of the right to assassinate American citizens without due process. Or his successful pursuit of the detention of Afghanis captured outside of battle zones “indefinitely in harsh conditions” without a system of judicial review. Or his continued support for a war on drugs that selectively imprisons millions of people of color. Or his continued reluctance to prosecute those responsible for the biggest economic collapse in 80 years. Four more years are gonna be a little too much for some people.
But, his supporters say, he’s had to grapple with a difficult Congress, the pressures of various constituencies and the realities of global terrorism. “Hmmmm,” I say as I furrow my brow.
But there was one moment, a specific action Obama took, that makes me skeptical of the justifications others dress him in.
One of the Obama administration’s first acts in 2009 was the cluster bombing of a village in Yemen via cruise missile, supposedly targeting terrorists. Never mind that 111 counties have signed a United Nations treaty banning the use of cluster bombs altogether. Never mind that cluster bombs indiscriminately carpet large areas with explosions, posing excessive risk to civilians, and that 10 percent of them do not explode on contact, but wait years on the ground until some child picks them up and gets his or her face blown off. Never mind that the attack killed 14 women and 21 children (incidentally, this is one more child than was killed in the Connecticut elementary school shooting). Never mind that the U.S. told Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh (a U.S.-supported dictator) to say it was his air force that did it and that the U.S. was not involved. Never mind that Amnesty International obtained photos of the munitions with “Made in the U.S.A.” written on them as the administration denied involvement.
All of that is pretty ugly. But who knows? Maybe Obama was a having a bad day, maybe all of his advisers told him to do it, maybe people under him made the decision without Obama knowing the full details, maybe the intelligence was wrong, maybe …
Then Obama made a personal call to Saleh. The call was regarding the Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who had originally recovered and photographed the cluster bombs with “Made in the USA” written on them.
After his reports on the bombing, Shaye was arrested, imprisoned and tortured; a tooth was yanked from his mouth and his chest covered in scars when his lawyers finally found him in 2010 after more than a month of desperate searching. Shaye was then convicted of “terrorism-related charges” and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in what Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Journalists denounced as a sham trial.
Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said, “There are strong indications that the charges against [Shaye] are trumped up and that he has been jailed solely for daring to speak out about U.S. collaboration in a cluster munitions attack which took place in Yemen.”
A movement of activist, religious and civic groups mobilized to demand the release of Shaye. President Saleh had reportedly written out the pardon but had not yet publicly announced it when Obama called him in February 2011. According to the White House official summary, “President Obama expressed concern over the release of Abd-Ilah al-Shai [Shaye].” Shaye was not pardoned.
When a guy lives in a big white house thousands of miles away behind layers of bullet-proof glass, bodyguards and bureaucracy, we can never know how directly responsible he is for the actions of his administration.
But the above evidence is about as good as one can get in these circumstances, and it shows Obama personally keeping a human rights journalist in a cage for years because of his reporting on the Obama’s killing of women and children.
May Shaye see his friends and family soon. May the men, women and children of Yemen not be subjected to foreign drone strikes for four more years.
Last week, President Obama took office for his second term. What would you tell him if you could? What should he prioritize? Whose needs must he address? Send us your “Dear Obama” letters by February 15th and we’ll publish our fave 2 letters in the next hardcopy of The Interloper!