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Obama: the choice of a new generation?

I've never been able to tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi.

Maybe my tastebuds aren't sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtle variance in these sugar and carbonation confections.

I do like the marketing though. Coca Cola practically wrote the advertising rule-book: didn't they invent Santa Claus? But one of my favourite slogans of all time has to be the 1980s' Pepsi offering: 'the choice of a new generation'.

You don't hear much about the Pepsi taste challenge these days, but I find myself recalling it every four years when Americans are called to elect a new President.

According to the polls, it looks like Obama is 2008's choice of a new generation – in the States he's a few points ahead, and around the world he's streets ahead. This time around people really do want to hope. They really do seem to desire change.

Amnesty takes no view on party politics or the outcome of the Presidential election – let's be clear about that. 

Indeed, Amnesty secretary general Irene Khan has already issued an impartial appeal to the election winner: "I hope whichever candidate wins that they will pay very serious attention to restoring the U.S, as a human rights champion at home and abroad,"  and emphasised the need for the new President to close Guantanamo Bay detention camp and give more attention to the human rights crisis in Sudan.

Most people to whom I talk would argue that, from a human rights / respect for the rule of international law perspective, just about anybody seems like a better bet than the White House occupant of the last eight years. And Obama certainly looks and sounds the most different.

But, beyond the rhetoric, if he makes it, how much change could we really expect from President Obama?

Let's leave domestic American issues to one side, and stick to our specialist subject, foreign policy. One can never take campaign stump speeches as a genuine indicator of policy decisions which will actually be taken once in power, but let's start from there.

In a Washington, DC speech entitled 'A New Strategy for a New World', delivered in July, Obama gave five main foreign policy goals:

"- ending the war in Iraq responsibly;
- finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban;
- securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states;
- achieving true energy security; and,
- rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

Speaking personally, there was much that appeared sound in this and some other recent foreign policy speeches from Obama. But there was also much to raise concern among those of us with an eye on US foreign policy and its implications for human rights.

What sort of Iraq will be left behind when the US troops pull out? What will a massive redeployment of troops to Afghanistan mean for the civilian population of that country? What will be the effect in Pakistan of more US attacks across the border in pursuit of Al Qaeda? What would the legal issues be around any such attacks? Will nearly 100,000 more US troops be a good thing for human rights worldwide? What will Obama's commitment to a Jerusalem undivided and under Israeli rule mean for attempts at peace-making in the Middle East?

We don't know any of the answers to these questions yet, but they are worth posing now and repeating over the coming years of a potential Obama Presidency. As the world's most powerful nation, the United States and its foreign policy merit particular scrutiny from advocates for the rule of international law. No American president, however rhetorically impressive, however apparently benign, deserves to be given a free pass by the rest of the world. This is no crude anti-Americanism; this is common sense and good neighbourliness.

Back in July, at the time of Obama's big speech in Berlin, I suggested that his international supporters might as well enjoy the rhetoric and enjoy the ride while it lasted, as they were bound to be disappointed in the end. In the same spirit I say, have an election party on Tuesday night if you want to, but be careful of the hangover to follow.

Maybe we should all stick to own brand cola. At least, in these economically straitened times, we would know we weren't being led astray by advertisers with a half-billion dollar budget

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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