Obama’s Mandela moments
This deal is significant. In Obama’s own words, “Today after two years of negotiation, the United States together with the international community, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not: a comprehensive long term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Although, according to Peter Baker of the NY Times, debate still rages as to whether history will judge Obama’s settlement as a peacemaking or appeasement. The very fact that he’s opened up discussions with one third of the so called “Axis of Evil” cannot be underestimated. It was Obama’s Mandela moment.
Obama has always been inspired by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who similarly was a big believer in negotiation. He also wrote the foreword to Mandela’s biography titled “Conversations with Myself”. In a 2007 presidential debate, Obama sparked a firestorm when he offered to meet, without precondition, the leaders of pariah states like Cuba, North Korea and Iran. And it was at Mandela’s memorial service in December 2013, where Obama delivered an impassioned eulogy about the great leader, and also took time to shake hands with Cuban president Raul Castro. It was a significant moment, because it was the first time the two leaders had ever shaken hands publicly. And only the second time in history that a U.S. President had shaken the hand of a Cuban leader.
When analysing Mandela’s role in ending Apartheid, Robert H. Mnookin, a Harvard Law professor describes the Nobel Laureate as one of the greatest negotiators in history. In his book “Bargaining with the devil, when to negotiate, when to fight” , Mnookin says of Mandela, “He rejected the simple-minded notion that one must either negotiate with the Devil or forcibly resist. He did both. He was willing to make concessions, but not about what was most important to him. With respect to his key political principles, he was unmovable. It is most likely this principle that motivated Obama’s position on the deal. As part of the deal Iran will limit its nuclear activities in exchange for a lifting in sanctions.
On the 17th December, 2014, Cuba and the US agreed to normalise relations. These two countries have a hatred spanning over five decades, all the way back to the bad old days of the Cold War. Back then, an ideological battle of epic proportions was playing itself out between the Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the capitalist US. The CIA’s failed attempt to invade Cuba in 1961, also known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion severed ties between the two countries. That was until the Obama administration took the bold step to mend relations, and drop sanctions against its neighbour.
Another Mandela moment occurred when Obama delivered a stirring eulogy for slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney who was gunned down by a racist terrorist in Charleston South Carolina last month. Nine worshipers at the historical African-American Emanuel AME church were shot and killed by right wing extremist and Apartheid admirer Dylann Roof, whose objective was to start a race war. These murders took place in an already racially charged atmosphere in the US, with ever increasing reports of police brutality against black males, and the Department of Justice’s investigations findings that police departments in at least two states frequently used excessive or deadly force. In an emotional speech Obama did the unexpected, he used religion to turn a tragic event into a message of unity and hope while acknowledging the depth of America’s race problem. He also sang a moving rendition of the hymn Amazing Grace.
Mandela faced a similar situation in April 1993 when popular South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani was assassinated at his home. He too was murdered by right wing terrorists, Janusz Walusz and Clive Derby Lewis, whose motive was similar to Roof’s. The act took place at a terrible time in South Africa when violence in the townships was at its worst, amid simmering tensions and mistrust between the negotiating teams of the liberation movement and the National Party government. Mandela called for peace and a re-commitment to negotiations and elections by all South Africans , at a time when there was a real possibility of civil war. It was a seminal moment, widely recognised today as having changed the course of South Africa’s history.
Barack Obama has just over a year left in his final presidential term. It might be too early to say whether these recent events will do enough to counter some of the criticism of his administration. The drone wars and the thousands of innocent civilian deaths are certainly a blemish on his achievements, as is his failure to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison, which, by his own admission, he would have closed on his first day as president. But it does seem that with these latest incidents, he may have sealed his place in history’s pantheon of great leaders.
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