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Viewpoint: A word of caution to Obama

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu, the first black South African archbishop of the Anglican church and veteran campaigner against apartheid, gives a lecture in London on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the British Council. Here, he explores some of the same themes in an article written for BBC News.

I make no apology for talking and writing, in the UK, about a foreign leader. But expectations of him are so high and attention worldwide is glued to his every step as he reaches the end of his first month in office. He is the story of the moment.

I am obviously referring to Barack Obama.

Three months ago as I watched the news that could define an era, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and wonder. It could not be true that Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan, was to be the next president of the United States.

President Obama
Barack Obama's election has 'turned America's image on its head'

During the previous administration's term, I'd been asked to suggest one unilateral magnanimous gesture or action that the incoming US president might make to counteract anti-Americanism abroad. I said that while there were clearly pockets of anti-Americanism around the world, this was definitely not a global phenomenon nor was it directed towards the American people.

What I certainly could attest to was substantial resentment and indeed hostile opposition to the policies of a particular US administration.

I contended, as I do now, that the two are quite distinct and separate.

An elucidating example dates back to the years of the anti-apartheid struggle. The Reagan White House was firmly opposed to applying sanctions against the South African apartheid regime, preferring what it described as "constructive engagement". Many of us were incensed by this policy and opposed it with every fibre of our being.

Black role models

I probably dismayed many people when on one occasion I was told of the latest Reagan rejection of our call for US sanctions against Pretoria. I retorted, out of deep exasperation, "The West can go to hell!" I was then Bishop of Johannesburg, and some thought it was decidedly un-episcopal language.

I was very angry toward the Reagan administration, but that did not make me anti-American. And that is the point, anger and resentment toward the policies of a particular administration do not necessarily translate into anti-American sentiment.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu meets children in Ireland
Archbishop Desmond Tutu's talk is the first in a series of lectures to mark the British Council's 75th anniversary

When I was nine or so, I picked up a tattered copy of Ebony magazine. I still don't know where it could have come from in my ghetto township with its poverty and squalor. It described how Jackie Robinson, a black man like us, had broken into major league baseball and was playing scintillatingly for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I did not know baseball from ping-pong. That was totally irrelevant. What mattered was that a black man had made it against huge odds, and I grew inches and was sold on America from then on.

Remember the extraordinary outpouring of sympathy and concern after 9/11? That surely could not have happened, certainly not on such a vast global scale if people hadn't genuinely cared. Everywhere, virtually.

But what happened that all these positive warm feelings toward the United States were disrupted and turned into the negative ones of hostility and anger?

'Lean years'

For those of us who have looked to America for inspiration as we struggled for democracy and human rights, these past seven years have been lean ones.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks to the BBC's Allan Little.

When war began, first in Afghanistan and not long after in Iraq, we read allegations of prisoner abuse at Bagram air base in Afghanistan and of rendition to countries notorious for practising torture. We saw the horrific images from Abu Ghraib and learned of gruesome acts performed in the name of gathering information. Sometimes the torture itself was couched in the US government's euphemisms - calling waterboarding an "interrogation technique".

To the past administration's record on torture, we must add a string of other policies that have damaged the standing of the United States in the world: its hostility to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases; its refusal to assent to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; its restrictions on the use of US funding to fight Aids; and the arrogant unilateralism it has employed in declaring to be enemies any countries it deemed "against us" because they were not "for us".

'Bully-boy attitude'

I never imagined in my worst dreams that I would live to see the day when the United States would abrogate the rule of law and habeas corpus as has happened in the case of those described as "enemy combatants" incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. Or that I would hear an American government and its apologists use exactly the same justification for detention without trial, as had been used by the apartheid government of South Africa - a practice that the United States at the time condemned roundly, as was so utterly right to have done.

So, it was a devastating case of deja vu for some of us, thoroughly disillusioning.

The Bush administration managed to rile people everywhere. Its bully-boy attitude sadly polarised our world.

Against all that, the election of Barack Obama has turned America's image on its head.

On US election night last November, I wanted to jump and dance and shout, as I did after voting for the first time in my native South Africa on 27 April 1994.

Iraqi detainee at Abu Ghraib
Abu Ghraib abuse caused a storm of controversy

My wife cried with incredulity and joy as we watched a broadcast of the celebrations in Chicago, after the election results came through. A newspaper here ran a picture of Obama from an earlier trip to one of our townships, where he was mobbed by youngsters. It was tacitly saying that we are proud he once visited us.


Because the Bush years have been disastrous for other parts of the world in many ways, Obama's victory dramatises the self-correcting mechanism that epitomises American democracy. Elsewhere, oppressors, tyrants and their lapdogs can say what they like and, for the most part, they stay put.

But ordinary citizens living in undemocratic societies are not fools; they may not always agree with US foreign policy, but they can see and register the difference between the United States - where people can kick an unpopular political party out - and their own countries.

We owe our glorious victory over the awfulness of apartheid in South Africa in large part to the support we received from the international community

Obama's election has been an epoch-making event that filled the whole world with hope that change is possible.

People everywhere identified Obama as the bearer of a new hope, someone who could electrify crowds with spellbinding oratory, galvanizing many out of their lethargy.

His election also said more eloquently than anything else that we black people are not God's step-children, despite so much evidence to the contrary. That whatever we attempt, we can do it - yes we can.

In the midst of this celebration, however, a word of caution is appropriate. In the first days after 9/11, the United States had the world's sympathy, an unprecedented wave of it. President Bush squandered it.

Obama too could easily squander the goodwill that his election generated if he disappoints.

It would be wonderful if, on behalf of the nation, Obama apologises to the world, and especially the Iraqis, for an invasion that I believe has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

Bridge building

While he's already promised to shut down Guantanamo Bay, he should also move to ratify the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court.

For many of us, an upright US was a great inspiration in our fight against the iniquity of apartheid. I pray that President Obama will come down hard on African dictators, especially because they cannot credibly charge him with being neo-colonialist.

The US administration needs to reach out to other nations, build bridges, listen.

In South Africa, the British Council's work includes Global Xchange, a volunteer exchange programme with the VSO, where teams from both countries work on Youth Leadership and HIV/Aids. It brings together young people from the UK and overseas to create positive change and strengthen community cohesion.

Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have spoken of the importance of smart power and the role of cultural diplomacy in their foreign policy toolbox. The sounds and gestures coming from them are most welcome, but they must now carry through on these.

Keeping the relationships alive between different peoples, and the dialogue going in difficult times is essential. They pave the way for better times. In a world of increasing instability and mistrust and in the face of shared global challenges, we need to build understanding and collaboration between ordinary people, to forge the ties which can last a lifetime whatever is happening on the political stage.

We owe our glorious victory over the awfulness of apartheid in South Africa in large part to the support we received from the international community, including the United States and United Kingdom, and we will always be deeply grateful.

The British Council, where I will speak today to mark their 75th anniversary, worked with us during those years providing educational and cultural activities. These included training in the UK for 200 black South Africans and working with local groups on language teaching and reading in black primary schools. The British Council supported Nelson Mandela's work in reforming the post-apartheid diplomatic service and education system.

UK standing

And here I must comment on the UK government's role as the US's biggest ally this past eight years, in particular in the war on terror. Your standing in the world has also suffered as a result of this close co-operation, although perhaps to a slightly lesser degree thanks to other more favourable actions in tackling climate change, interest in Africa's problems and campaigning on debt relief.

The problem today is that you don't have the redeeming Obama factor and although you perhaps don't come from such a low point, you don't have his advantage of international goodwill in restoring the UK's perception overseas.

Going forward, as we strive to create a stable, prosperous world for all, we need to work together with other nations for justice, equity and peace. We need to believe that the values of fairness and compassion are not only yours and mine; they are shared by all humanity.

Most of us do want to see peace.

And here I want to end with what seems so utterly obvious about what we learned from our particular situation in South Africa. Peace does not come from the barrel of a gun but is achieved when cultural differences are respected and the fundamental rights of all are recognised and upheld.

Your comments:

Bishop Tutu has a strong voice and is well respected throughout the world. He has earned the right to speak on any subject, because he has continually worked to correct the problems in his own land. I am an American citizen who lives in Canada, and I am happy to have been able to vote for President Obama. Let us all pray that he is successful in his goals, for they are lofty and beneficial goals.
Colleen Chapman, Alberta, Canada

Archbishop Tutu is wise to caution President Obama not to squander the goodwill that he has generated around the world. But I can say with certainty that Obama's intellect, vision, moral values and diplomatic skills are light years ahead of the "leadership" that we received from President Bush. Thus, I am not particularly worried that he will squander goodwill. I am concerned that, should his management of our economic crisis not produce positive, tangible results in the near future, that he will only get one four year term in which to lead our nation.
Alan Stein, Maryland , US

In my opinion, Barack Obama is not the person who Tutu should be worried about 'squandering' multi-national goodwill. The people that Obama is forced to work with, who oppose him, should be the focus of Tutu's concern. Obama is quite deliberate, and if everyone in the global community works with him, we may experience positive worldwide outcomes. The 'oppositional approach', which has been implemented by the very people who created our current condition is certainly more deserving of Mr. Tutu's concern.
Larry Ross, US

Desmond Tutu's advice is based on his own world agenda. The problem for Obama is that he has a domestic agenda which he must fulfil to succeed. He may not be able to fully protect America, if he fulfils Tutu's international objectives. Obama is first and foremost an American president, who must serve the needs of his country.
Priya Sunkavalli, Bhimavaram, India

It should go without saying that Obama has a lot to lose potentially. I'm sure he's absolutely aware of the pressure and global spotlight he has brought upon himself. Such sweeping statements by Desmond Tutu strike me as redundant and common knowledge. Instead of bringing attention to the possibility that there is a degree of danger of failure associated with being the President of the United States of America perhaps he should simply pray for Obama along with everyone else.
Joseph Karpos-Maravigli, Portland Oregon, US

Mr Tutu's comments are a warm reminder of the job that Obama faces. I am both proud of my country for electing him and also edgy about the very real crisis that looms for so many.
Jimmer, Korea

I think Desmond Tutu should focus more on solving problems in his own backyard - specifically Mugabe. The US acts as world powers have always done be they Britain, France, Russia or China. They each tried to impact on world events. Compared with other powers, America's record even is pretty good. Obama will suffer greatly politically if he listens to Tutu.
Paul Obembe, North Dakota, US

One man alone will not save the planet. Whether he is called Obama or Tutu. Obama certainly feels the pressure of his people and the world at large. But that is the nature of the job. So, before we fear that he may squander goodwill, let us pray and lend whatever support we can - including through good thoughts - and let us remind other leaders of this world to join him in committing to doing things better.
Saturnin, New York, US

Yes it is very easy for President Obama to squander the goodwill. But you know what, individuals are different. Obama strikes me as a level headed kind of guy and I suppose he has got a lot of credible advisers around him. I pray and hope that he avoids the mistakes his predecessor.
Patrick Serugga, Birmingham, UK

I am British but a permanent resident of South Africa since 1971. I have seen apartheid crumble, as I knew it would, and have come to have the deepest respect for those such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu who worked so hard to have it removed without major civil conflict. It is sad that our new government has not been more continuously supported by the governments of the USA and Britain. They may have provided the influenced for better governance and, from South Africa, influenced the states to the north with the aim of averting the African basket case. The previous US administration inevitably lost that opportunity. The present world financial crisis, initiated in the USA, is the major area in which it messed up. If Barack Obama is to do better (and for the world's sake he must) he must throw off the influence of the military/industrial lobby and be his own man.
Tony Lorton, Edgemead, South Africa

I strongly believe president Obama can guide the world, put it back on its track for better future. He must have the support of peoples' goodwill. He has come a long way, overcome great challenges and sincerely cares - not only for one race, religion, ethnicity - but for all humans.
Ashok Gudka, Nairobi, Kenya

I fully agree with Desmond Tutu. It would send a clear message if President Obama signed up to the Rome treaty and took a lead climate change.
Chris Silva, Colombo, Sri Lanka

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