The historic potential of a U.S. presidential inauguration is always amazing to contemplate. Beyond the mood of celebration, it often becomes a genuine transition point in the modern journey of our planet, with its impact — for better or for worse — felt well beyond America’s borders. There seemed to be a suggestion of that this past week in Washington when a reinvigorated Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term.
In his surprisingly tough-minded inaugural address, President Obama appeared to be closing the book on the expansionist policies of the U.S. government in recent years. He spoke of a “decade of war. . . now ending,” stressing the limits of western power and intervention: “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully.”
That was in sharp contrast with another American president who spoke 10 years ago this month in his state of the union address on the eve of the 2003 war against Iraq. President George W. Bush then bragged about limitless western power and intervention. This was when Bush falsely claimed “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
As the 10th anniversary approaches of the Iraq invasion, there will inevitably be clashes between Democrats and Republicans over its historical legacy. Few can forget the drama of the run-up to the war as American and British soldiers — accompanied by thousands of journalists — marched “on the road to Baghdad.”
I recall my small role in it as head of CBC news and current affairs at the time. We had a small CBC team of journalists and production staff in Iraq in 2003 awaiting the invasion but, because of the enforced isolation of the country, they were virtually broke.
In early March 2003, a week before the bombing began, I decided to travel to Bagdad to get them some money, to see the conditions under which they worked and look at the exit plans they had if that became necessary.
Since the Baghdad airport was closed, an Iraqi colleague and I drove the 10 hours from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. I had $ 65,000 (U.S.) in $ 100 bills hidden in one of my bags and the Iraqi customs people were choosing luggage to search at random. As the highly strung customs official whisked me through unchecked, I was still trying to figure out how I would have explained away such a large amount of cash.
As Obama knows — with upheavals now going on in Algeria, Mali and elsewhere — one of the key challenges in his second term will be to navigate through the wreckage of these conflicts. Nearly 7,000 American soldiers, as well as hundreds of thousands of civilians, have died in wars that have left both countries and much of the region still largely dysfunctional.
So what about Iran? Obama’s speech clearly pointed to the appeal of compromise with Iran over its nuclear program. The casual talk of imminent war was first promoted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then amplified in the U.S. by the neo-conservative echo chamber, who were largely the architects of the Iraq/Afghan fiascos.
But democratic politics have dramatically shifted the ground. In the U.S., the presidential election in November handed a clear win to Obama over the conservatives. And in Israel’s election last Tuesday, Netanyahu’s support declined; contrary to predictions, Israelis voted significantly for centre-left political parties. This strongly suggests the proponents of war with Iran have suffered a setback.
Obama is a student of history. One senses from his remarkable inaugural speech that he knows what kind of world he wishes to leave when he concludes his second term as the 44th president of the U.S., and what kind of world he wants all of us to avoid.
An example of the latter easily comes to mind. Next year, in 2014, it will be the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.
Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News, teaches journalism at Ryerson University. email@example.com