Letter from Westminster 23.01.09

There was no politics on Tuesday of this week. Sure, the House of Commons sat as usual, the House of Lords were there and the Scottish Parliament did its stuff, but it all passed largely unnoticed. The only real politics was happening in Washington as Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America.

It was the sort of show that only the Americans could put on – and do every four years. The sheer number of people pictured on the Mall was quite breathtaking and all around the world people waited to hear what the man himself had to say.

It was not, in truth, the speech that many of us had expected to hear. But after the emotion and the rhetoric of the election night speech it was always going to be difficult to top that. It was still, however, quite a remarkable performance – forthright, steely and to the point.

It is difficult to imagine how any president could ever take office with a greater burden of expectation than President Obama does but for me this speech said that the work was starting for real. He strikes me as being a man who has sought office for a purpose because he believes in something and now wants to get on with achieving it.

The fact is that the new president is not short of challenges either at home or abroad. America, like the rest of the world, has an economy in crisis. Abroad he inherits military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan which the population would rather not have but from which it could be difficult to walk away.

One thing is for sure, none of the challenges facing Obama is going to get easier for being left. Better instead to make the bold moves early while the goodwill towards him is still fresh and before events pull him into the quagmire that he has inherited.

The earliest signals are promising. His announcement on day one of an end to the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay is a campaign promise delivered. These sham trials were an affront to any notion of justice or fair procedure. It also suggests a greater respect for the rule of law than was evident under George W Bush.

It is to be hoped that this will be the first step towards closing camp delta in Guantanamo Bay completely. That would be a signal to the world (especially those recently hostile to the US) that the country had taken a change of direction.

Some of the commentators declared themselves disappointed by the Obama speech. I would not be among them. We all know that he can do the great inspirational rhetoric. This is what has got him where he is today. The world now needs to see that he can do more than that – that there is substance as well as style.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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