Every time I write about Barack Obama I get a lot of letters, and the most typical goes something like this:
I read your column regularly, and generally agree with what you have to say, but I think you’ve got Barack Obama all wrong. Yes, I know, he went before AIPAC and kowtowed; he pledged to do “anything – and I mean anything” to stop Iran’s nuclear program. He acts “tough” and says he’s going to invade Pakistan; he gets in Russia’s face. But that’s all a show: you see, he has to do this stuff or else he won’t get elected. Once he’s safely in office, he’ll do the right thing.
John Q. Reader
This is an amalgam, but true to the spirit of the many pro-Obama missives I’ve received. They express a sentiment that is very widespread, so much so that it doesn’t seem to matter, much, what Obama says he’s going to do, because, in any case, his fans and supporters will simply insist on projecting their own hopes, desires, and views onto him. This, by the way, is a feature of most all successful populist insurgent candidates: they are blank slates merely waiting to be written on by anxious voters, who know only that they are sick of what is, and pine for what ought to be.
As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, in this instance – because we’ve certainly been through the mill these past eight years, and deserve some relief – I have to say that this attitude is profoundly irrational. After all, why shouldn’t we take Obama at his word? If he says he’s going to “curb Russian aggression” – you know, like one might curb one’s rather-too-aggressive dog – and get up in Putin’s face, is he lying? When he solemnly pledges to go after the Iranians if they insist on deterring Israel’s nukes with an arsenal of their own, is he speaking in Pig-Latin?
The common assumption of these letter-writers is that Obama is just trying to “pass,” so to speak, as a warmonger. Once he’s in office, peace will break out all over. What evidence do we have for this? None whatsoever.
Now, it’s true that the Obama campaign didn’t really take off until he made known his antiwar views on the Iraq question, and a lot of his street cred is due to this early stance. He was against the war from the beginning – and made sure the voters of Iowa knew it. His chief rival, Hillary Clinton, took a rather more equivocal stance, and he beat her over the head with this relentlessly. This was encouraging, but hardly definitive.
At the time, I warned that Obama’s refusal to take war with Iran “off the table” – as the Important People invariably put it – did not bode well, and, given his development over the course of the campaign it turned out I was – unfortunately – right. It isn’t just a pedantic intellectual desire for consistency, or just to give me something to write about, that motivates me to criticize the inconsistencies of ostensibly “antiwar” politicians. Ideas have consequences, as the conservatives used to say, and if Obama makes it to the White House we’re sure to experience some conceptual “blowback.”
Obama lied – people died! How long before we see that slogan emblazoned on a placard at a rather sparsely-attended antiwar rally?
But of course he didn’t lie, and isn’t lying now. He’s telling us he wants to confront Russia and Iran. He’s telling us he wants to increase a military budget already larger than the total military expenditures of all other nations combined. He says he won’t hesitate to invade Pakistan – and, presumably, any nation anywhere – if we have some reason to believe Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are in the vicinity. I think he’s telling the truth – and I challenge the Obamaoids, especially the ones who claim to be sick of eight years of constant warfare, to prove otherwise. If Obama is indeed giving us the real story, and if he actually implements his foreign policy proposals, we are in a world of trouble.
Joe Biden rightly said that, within six months of his election, Obama would be “tested.” This was generally taken to mean tested by America’s enemies – al-Qaeda, the Iranians, possibly the Russkies – but I took it in quite a different way.
Yes, he will be tested, and has been repeatedly tested – by the War Party. So far, he’s passed with flying colors. For evidence of this, just look at all that money he’s raised from some of the biggest players in the game of Empire. The high-rollers aren’t placing their bets on Obama for nothing. You don’t spend $45 million on a single infomercial if you’re financing your campaign with small contributions. I’ve written about Obama’s bigtime Wall Street backers at length, here.
In any case, I hardly think Obama is going to abolish the very Empire that polices the world on behalf of his Wall Street backers. Nor did I ever expect him to, even when I was more favorably inclined to his candidacy. Back in those halcyon days, afflicted as I was by an irrational exuberance due to rising antiwar sentiment, I did expect he wouldn’t get us into any fresh wars, even if he didn’t quite wind up the ones we’re already fighting.
I’m afraid, however, I was quite wrong, In this regard, an interesting bit of reporting appeared in last week’s [Oct. 22] New York Times, where we learn:
“Mr. Obama, the candidate who has expressed far more willingness to sit down and negotiate with the Iranians, said in an e-mail message passed on by an aide that in any final deal he would not allow Iran to produce uranium on Iranian soil, the same hard-line view enunciated by the Bush administration.”
The writer, David Sanger, goes on to point out that the stereotypes of warmonger and peacenik in this race are not only off, they are way off:
“Consider the delicate issue of Pakistan, where it is Mr. Obama who has been far more willing than Mr. McCain to threaten sending in American troops on ground raids. Mr. McCain, by contrast, argues that Pakistan must control its territory. ‘I don’t think the American people today are ready to commit troops to Waziristan,’ he said, months before Mr. Bush signed secret orders this summer authorizing ground raids in Pakistan, including the violent sanctuaries of North and South Waziristan.”
Interesting – not that it means McCain is the real peacenik, just that Obama is, potentially, even more reckless than Mad John. Don’t let that calm demeanor fool you. President Obama is no hyperventilating arm-waving interventionist, for sure, but that’s just a question of style. He’ll no doubt cultivate his own signature brand: Zen interventionism, if you will.
What’s unnerving, however, is that Obama’s foreign policy views have gone largely unarticulated, except in the most general terms. He’s a man of mystery, a characteristic that lets his supporters project their own views onto him, and yet this failure to be more forthcoming is what I find particularly ominous. As Sanger reports:
“Mr. McCain, now the Republican nominee, agreed to an interview during the primary campaign. Obama aides answered questions at length, but Mr. Obama, the Democratic nominee, citing the pressures of time in the campaign, declined requests dating to June to be interviewed in detail on how he would handle potential confrontations beyond Iraq that could face the next president.”
During that interminable infomercial, a total of less than two minutes was devoted to the issue of war and peace. And those two minutes were filled with renewed vows to increase the military budget – with the added fillip of “curbing Russian aggression.”
This should comfort all those “Obama-cons,” alleged conservatives who are jumping on the bandwagon now that his election seems imminent – because we seem to be going back in time, back to the “good old days” of the cold war. In Obama World, the Russians are coming — again! Soon we’ll be hearing dire warnings that if we don’t stop them in South Ossetia, before you know it they’ll be in South Carolina. Hollywood – a bastion of Obama-mania – will do a remake of Red Dawn. Schoolchildren will be subjected to “duck and cover” sessions, and Fox News will do an updated revival of “I Led Three Lives.”
Okay, enough with Obama, because it’s not really about him, personally, or even politically. People need hope: they need to know that they aren’t, ultimately, powerless, that they can make an impact on what we do as a nation — that is, what the government does in our name. They not only like to believe it, they have to believe it, because to not believe it is to fall victim to despair. It is the democratic faith, which one devoutly hopes is not a pretty fiction.
Yet the electoral process is rigged, in this country: the system permits only two political parties. All others must overcome enormous obstacles to achieve ballot status. This give the War Party maximum elbow room to manipulate the political process behind the scenes, and allows them to exercise their dictatorship in a “democratic” fashion. The two–party monopoly gives the War Party a strategic advantage: it merely has to split itself in two, amoeba-like, so that both officially-recognized “major” parties” simply become the “right” and “left” wings of a single party – the War Party.
This limits the political options of the peace movement, and makes it harder to have an impact even at the primary level: the gigantism of the system, with its two monolithic party organizations, is biased against insurgents. It is also more amenable to the advantages of money, large sums of it, which Obama has had access to throughout this campaign.
Political action is fine, and necessary, but there are other, more important tasks for those who want to bring about a real change in American foreign policy – by which I mean a complete turnaround. Such ambition requires a longer view.
America has been an emerging empire for the past half century or so, and now that we’re the semi-official world’s policeman – the “hyperpower,” as the French put it – a good many Americans are beginning to question the value and the morality of playing such a role. The Iraq war, however popular it appeared to be at first, is today as unpopular than the President who started it, he whose polls have hit historic lows. The next President will have to contend with a war-weary public, with very little patience for new interventions.
But – and I hate to tell you this, but somebody has to — the politics of fear and deception have not been patented by the Republicans. Look for the Democrats to add their own ingredient to this bipartisan recipe for overseas disasters: the politics of guilt. White liberal guilt, to be sure. We’ll be smack dab in the middle of Africa’s feuding tribes faster than you can say “Samantha Power.”
And that’s the best case scenario. In the worst case, the Dennis Ross faction of Obama’s emerging foreign policy movers and shakers will maneuver us into a confrontation with Iran, and relations with Russia will deteriorate to a new low as NATO escalates its eastward expansion. In any case, those who are working to effect a fundamental change in American foreign policy have a duty to take Obama at his word — hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.