It was all about the expectations. Would Obama be true to the progressive ethos of his campaign, or would entering office dull the prospects for change? At the end of week one – too early to offer any definitive conclusions, to be sure – things are looking unexpectedly good.
Obama was never going to be a progressive in the sense of even a centre-left, European social democrat. Being American president means embodying the narrative of exceptionalism, individualism and patriotism of that country. But when an inaugural address pays heed to the need for “the tempering qualities of humility and restraint” in American power, its possible something different is afoot.
And the first week quickly and decisively brought many good things with regard to America’s position in the world. The “rule of law” was installed as a motif for the new administration; liberty and security are no longer seen as a zero-sum game; the dubious military trials of terror suspects have been suspended; Guantanamo is to be closed in no more than a year; CIA prisons and other ‘black sites’ (see map from The Guardian, below) in Bush’s war on terror are being shut; torture is ruled out; rendition is no more; and the Geneva Conventions are to be respected.
The new administration’s foreign policy statement contains other promising moves: Iran is to be engaged without preconditions and nuclear weapons development is to be curtailed (though whether the details of this position match the headlines is open to question). And his support of US missile strikes inside Pakistan shows that not all Bush administration strategies are going out the window.
In short, a more ethical American leadership is emerging. Yet what is striking is how this return to a liberal internationalism is so heartily welcomed as progressive. This euphoria reveals how much the destructive radicalism of the eight dark years of the Bush administration has distorted our perspective.