Sunday, 6 July 2014

Obama on the sidelines

The London Review of Books offers a refreshingly sour perspective on Obama’s foreign policy though the author, David Bromwich, does not characterize it as a ‘doctrine,’ which would suggest internal coherence. But Bromwich detects a pattern, and I suspect he is not only right about Obama’s approach to international affairs but to governing in general.

The author comments that Obama has suffered a string of bad luck in his second term (Obamacare rollout, VA scandal, Ukraine, Iraq) but, significantly, notes that he seemed ‘far from the scene, looking on, we were made to think, with concern and understanding’. Bromwich doesn’t rub it in too much, but he could easily have said, pace Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, “That’s what you married me for!”

If we look back to the magical days of the 2008 campaign, it was precisely Obama’s vaguely soothing reassurances—emphasis on the ‘vaguely’—that gathered such force in his campaign to distinguish himself from Hillary the Inevitable, blow-dried Edwards and the raft of familiar Washington figures like Biden. Obama played on his role as the unusual (read black) guy, the outsider making a historical statement, to argue for a renovated American polity capable of overcoming historical tensions. By lucky accident, his campaign coincided with the meltdown of the catastrophic Bush II government with both Iraq and Wall Street collapsing in front of our eyes.

We didn’t realize until early into his actual administration that Obama’s hold-hands-and-sing rhetoric meant exactly that: he would wait for an elite consensus to develop while murmuring soft background notes, then dutifully carry it out. But he had no interest in, nor stomach for, the political art of confrontation and refused to contemplate the possibility that it might be required of a sitting president. In Obama’s world, the rich and mighty are never enemies, merely players on a variety of teams. He is not a coach driven to win, but a referee with a whistle.

Here’s how Bromwich sums it up:

Obama is adept at conveying benevolent feelings that his listeners want to share, feelings that could lead to benevolent actions. He has seemed in his element in the several grief-counseling speeches given in the wake of mass killings, not only in Newtown but in Aurora, at Fort Hood, in Tucson, in Boston after the marathon bombing; and in his meetings with bereft homeowners and local officials who were granted disaster funds in the aftermath of recent hurricanes. This president delivers compassion with a kind face and from a decorous and understated height. And that seems to be the role he prefers to play in the world, too. . . . Obama roots for the good cause but often ends up endorsing the acceptable evil on which the political class or the satisifed classes in society have agreed. He watches the world at its most important spectator.

The author illustrates this thesis with a telling example from the Ukrainian debacle: the role of a fairly minor State Department official named Victoria Nuland who became notorious after a tape recording was leaked (probably by the Russians) of her saying the EU could go fuck itself. Nuland is married to a known neocon and apparently had free rein to pump up the Maidan revolt with no particular supervision from her ostensible bosses in Washington. (One wonders if Hillary might have been paying more attention than goofy John Kerry.) Nuland and others like John McCain showed up in Kiev to hand out cookies to the protesters, which doesn’t look too smart in retrospect—imagine the feelings in Washington if Russian politicians were publicly running around Mexico City to pump up protests against NAFTA.

There’s also a long and shamelessly self-serving piece in the Washington Post of last week by an Iraqi-American Bushite operative that denounces the Obama team for ruining a perfectly good outcome in the Iraq debacle. The article is a disgrace, blaming Obama for not reining in Maliki when it was the author himself who created the guy and engineered his ascendance through the ranks to prime minister.

But the pattern described is the same one that Bromwich sees: a largely passive acceptance of whoever seems to be in charge, gentle prodding that is quickly abandoned in the face of resistance, rhetorical endorsement of the ideal outcome with no real strategy for achieving it, a permanent wait-and-see attitude that leads to incremental actions instead of quick and decisive ones, et cetera.

We had a huge opportunity in 2008 to make a clean and vigorous break with massive looting by the financier class and the war-making adventurism of the neocons. Obama had a huge mandate and comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress. We mandated a historic and transformative leader and instead got an Observer-in-Chief.

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