Obama the Irresolute
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Obama the Irresolute

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
Playing Hamlet in the White House

By the summer of 2009, it was already clear that Barack Obama couldn’t govern his way out of a paper bag.

Obama apologists blamed Republicans; they still do.  By then, though, anyone who was not still deluded by candidate Obama’s seeming infallibility understood that the President’s aloofness was also part of the problem.

The Obama way was to deliver a speech and then retreat, leaving the burden on others to act on his words.  They seldom did.

Had his aim been to frustrate expectations, he could not have found a better way.

Even his speeches were disappointing.  Ask not for even one memorable turn of phrase.   There haven’t been any since that silly riff at the 2004 Democratic Party convention about how there are no “red states or blue states…just the United States.”

Lately, for all his vaunted eloquence, Obama’s speeches have actually gotten worse.  The one he delivered in prime time Wednesday night, outlining his new “strategy” for fighting the Islamic State (IS) — essentially a hodgepodge of the strategies that created the IS in the first place – concluded with a pathetic recitation of golden oldie pieties.

Those troops of ours must really be as wonderful as he says to survive all those “God blesses.”  And lets not forget how great our economy is  – God and Obama bless it too, just not so as anyone can tell.   Needless to say (but say it anyway), America is “exceptional,” and its worldwide reach benefits all but the irredeemably evil.

The only thing newsworthy about that speech was that the President was able to get through it with a straight face, and that the pundits on hand to review it showed no visible signs of becoming nauseated.

On the other hand, Obama’s aloofness is no longer newsworthy.  It is expected — like the contempt he rains down on traditional Democratic constituencies, and his attentiveness to the wishes of rightwing Democrats and Republicans.  His decision not to take executive action on immigration reform before the November election, after saying he would, is only the latest example.

Meanwhile, a new complaint has emerged.

It was brought on by his administration’s floundering response to the Arab Spring, and by its on-again off-again meddling in the Libyan and Syrian – and now also Iraqi – civil wars.

Not surprisingly, Republicans are leading the charge, but many Democrats are on board too.  So are influential pundits.  They all agree that Obama is irresolute, and fault him on that account.

Irresolute, he surely is.  But this is a good thing.  Indeed, it is his saving grace.

To see why, we need a broader view.

*                     *                         *

In the eighties, it was widely believed that America would be cured of “Reaganomics,” as early onset neoliberalism was then called, just as soon as a Democrat again occupied the White House.

This was an illusion.  There was a better chance of breaking free from “voodoo economics” under the first President Bush.

Bill Clinton, Bush’s successor, was the best — most effective — neo-liberal president ever.  He didn’t set the country or the world on that road to nowhere, and he was not a true believer; just an opportunist.

But, as a Democrat, he was able to bring the “opposition” along.  In the process, he institutionalized the Reaganite turn.

This put to rest the hope that Reaganomics would pass any time soon.

Whether or not robbing the poor to give to the rich was what capitalism needed at the time, it was certainly what capitalists wanted.  Then, as now, those are the “folks” (as Obama would say) that Clinton aimed to please.

His wife too can’t please them enough; it is one of those areas where, despite all his efforts, she plainly bests Obama.

And so, when a Democrat finally did become President twelve years after Reagan took office, we got continuity, not change.  The result was predictable: the neoliberal scourge became worse for nearly all its victims — “the ninety-nine percent,” as they would come to be called years later.

Clinton made things worse in foreign policy too.  Most egregiously, he and his hapless underlings botched east-west relations in the aftermath of the Cold War.  The gravity of their mistakes is only now becoming apparent.

Clinton’s predecessors, Reagan and Bush, along with some of their more prescient advisors, understood the importance and delicacy of U.S.-Soviet (later U.S.-Russian) relations.

They sought to forge a Russia policy that would end the Cold War forever, diminishing the likelihood that the stocks of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction that both sides held in obscene abundance would ever be used.

Then Clinton and his foreign policy team threw caution aside.  They set out to encircle Russia, and to humiliate it.  Their aim was to insure that it would never again rise to the level of a great world power.

The Clintonites were triumphalists, determined to press their advantage.  American governments have been pursuing the same dangerous gambit ever since.

Thus, in plain defiance of promises Reagan and Bush had made to Gorbachev, Clinton expanded NATO right up to Russia’s borders.

In 2008, his successors set their sights on the former Soviet republic of Georgia.  There, through proxies, Russia held them off.   But “the West” is not easily deterred.  It upped the ante by going after Ukraine.

In this misadventure, major media have been utterly complicit.  The “quality” press and NPR are the worst; they cannot blame Russia or demonize Vladimir Putin enough.  The consequences have already been dire.  They could soon become much worse.

Why was Clinton so reckless and why are his successors continuing what he started?  The short answer is because they can.

Going after Russia was foolish, even in the nineties, when, thanks to the reimposition of capitalism – perhaps the clearest example of historical regression in world history – the country was too enfeebled to fight back.

Now, thanks mainly thanks to oil and gas revenues, the Russian economy has largely recovered from what kleptocratic Russian politicians, abetted by America and other Western powers, did to it.

Therefore it can no longer be humiliated with impunity.  What was folly when Clinton was in the White House is sheer idiocy now.  But this plain fact does not deter Washington or other Western capitals.

Clinton’s Russia policy was continued under George W. Bush.  No surprise there: the neocons he and Dick Cheney empowered were raised on anti-Soviet venom.

But by the time Bush’s hardcore neocons got to call the shots, Russia was no longer their main concern.  They were more interested in reshaping the Middle East – for the sake of Israel and to bolster American control of the world’s supply of oil.

They had no idea what they were getting into.

It was all beyond Bush the Younger as well.  There is no indication, even now, that he begins to understand how, under his authority, America destabilized the entire region, conjuring into existence the very dangers he started two full-scale wars, and several lesser ones, allegedly to quell.

Obama is too intelligent not to know better.  Nevertheless, he, like Clinton before him, brought continuity, not change; and, again like Clinton, he made everything worse.

Thus, for some two and a half decades, the foreign policy of the world’s only superpower has been based on reckless triumphalism and clueless ineptitude.

* * *

As neoliberals, Obama Democrats can truthfully say “we are all Reaganites now.”  As unreconstructed Cold Warriors, they can also say, along with their Republican counterparts, “we are all Clintonites.”

The conventional wisdom has it that American politics is highly polarized; and, indeed, it is.  But when it comes to promoting neoliberal nostrums, continuing the Cold War, and (inadvertently) promoting Islamist fanaticism under the guise of a war on terror,  “bipartisanship” has always been the order of the day.

Democrats sometimes pretend to side with constituencies that routinely support them – witness Obama on Labor Day, addressing workers in Milwaukee.  Then they sell them out when it suits their purpose.

This is what the Deporter-in-chief just did by reneging on his promise to the Hispanic community to deal with the current immigration crisis through executive orders.

To be sure, on matters of war and peace, Republicans are generally more hawkish than Democrats.  Even their ostensibly non-interventionist libertarian wing, led by Rand Paul, now seems to have joined the War Party.  But Democrats aren’t that much better, and Hillary Clinton – likely our next Democratic President — is as bad as it gets.

Still, it is hard not to think of Democrats as the lesser evil – if only because they are less identified with noxious ideas and less hospitable to the certifiable whack jobs that Rachel Maddow et. al. turn into comic props.

But because Democrats are more able than Republicans to coopt or neutralize dissent, and to bring progressive forces along, it is far from obvious, in many cases, which side really is worse.

The problem is not just that Democrats govern poorly.  It is that they demobilize popular constituencies by demoralizing them and dashing their hopes.

This is what Clinton did to the hopes liberals harbored in the eighties – for an end to Reaganomics and for a genuine and mutually constructive peace with America’s Cold War rival.

And it is Obama’s stock-in-trade.  Candidate Obama was without peer when it came to raising expectations; only the truly attentive were not taken in.  He therefore crushed more hopes than any other President in recent history, Clinton included.

But this is par for the course in the Democratic Party.  Disappointing voters expecting constructive change is a longstanding party tradition.

In Obama’s case, however, there is a difference.  By crushing the expectations he did, Americans’ basic rights and liberties are now more in jeopardy than ever before.

As the Bush-Cheney “war on terror” unfolded and turned sour, the hope arose that the rights and liberties that were constitutive of what is best in the always elusive “American way” would be restored when the Democrats took control of the White House again.

It was like it had been with neoliberalism in the pre-Clinton era.

Just as liberals and others then understood that neoliberalism was bad for all but the super-rich, their counterparts two decades later understood that America was no longer the country it had been before 9/11 – or, more precisely, before Bush and Cheney seized upon 9/11 as a pretext for undoing privacy rights and other hard won constraints on the state’s power to surveil, police, and control.

In both cases, these turns for the worse were thought to be temporary aberrations that could still be set right.

For restoring basic rights and liberties, Obama seemed just the man.  He had even taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago.

But it didn’t exactly work out the way people expected.  Obama quashed their expectations just as thoroughly as Clinton had quashed the hopes of the eighties.

Clinton institutionalized Reaganomics.  Now Obama has institutionalized what, only six years ago, still seemed just a temporary glitch in the forward march of American democracy.

Thanks to him, it will now be as difficult to make our increasingly tyrannical state less illiberal as it will be to turn around our dangerous and fatally ill-conceived foreign policy or to reverse the ecologically unsound and unjust economic order that Obama, like all his predecessors, has further entrenched.

Still, it would be worse were Obama less irresolute.

*                        *                      *

Obama has never been shy about wielding drones or authorizing hit squads, and he reportedly decides himself whom he shall have killed.

Notwithstanding the official line, the killing is seldom, if ever, “surgical”; women, children and the elderly are as vulnerable as anyone else.  If the Commander-in-Chief genuinely cares about “collateral damage,” he shows little sign of it.

And it was he, after all, who reempowered all those old Clinton hands, and who brought the next generation of liberal imperialists – Susan Rice, Samantha Power and the rest — into the government.  He even called on Joe Biden, the daffiest Clintonite of all, to be his Vice President.  Worse still, for his first Secretary of State, he went straight to the source.

For forging down dead-end paths, he has been as resolutely wrong-headed as can be.  His “strategy” speech Wednesday night showed beyond a doubt that he is still at it.

But, so far at least, when handed opportunities to start “dumb wars” for no remotely plausible reason, his irresolution has saved the day.

Candidate Obama famously called the Iraq War “dumb” – not that this awareness stopped him from escalating it before deescalating it and now escalating it again.

Of course, to count as dumb by Obama’s standards, a war has to be dumb indeed.  He has always been fine with the other dumb war Bush and Cheney started, the one in Afghanistan.

So were most Democrats – including those who, like Howard Dean, comprise the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”  Even on what passes for a Democratic left, good sense has its limits.

Maybe, it is just that Obama read the polls and therefore understood that, until the recent flare up of fear over the IS, Americans were war-weary and war-wary.  Or maybe common sense broke through the bubble that surrounds the Commander-in-Chief.

Whatever the reason, he has resisted Israeli efforts to get him to start a war with Iran, and Republican efforts to get the United States more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war.

Either move would meet anyone’s standard for dumb; anyone, that is, who is not as war-crazy as John McCain or the average Republican chicken hawk – or Hillary Clinton.

Could the man have sound judgment, after all?  Or do we owe our good fortune to his saving grace, his irresolution?  We may never know for sure.

In any case, when the Syrian government, or military commanders not entirely under its control, was reported to have used poison gas against Syrian rebels, crossing one of Obama’s much publicized “red lines,” Obama did not intervene.  Who knows how much worse off we would now be if he had.

Ironically, it was the allegedly villainous Vladimir Putin who came to Obama’s – and the world’s — rescue.   Obama had boxed himself in; Putin’s diplomacy offered him a face saving way out.

Putin has his share of faults and the government he leads is hardly angelic.  But the man is shrewd and capable; and when it comes to finding diplomatic solutions, he and his minions are anything but dunces, unlike Obama and his.

But now, with the consequences of Bush’s and Obama’s stumblebum interventions into Middle Eastern politics falling due, and with the media working overtime to demonize Putin and Russia, our luck may be running out.

It has taken a long time – more than a decade — but the menace that the Bush and Obama administrations used to scare Americans into acquiescence has finally become real.

It was the clueless incompetence of the Bush and Obama administrations that brought the IS into being; and while Obama now flails about because, with elections coming, he and his advisors feel they must do something, the only thing he can do that won’t make the situation worse would be to get America finally to bugger off.  Too bad that the chance of that happening is nil.

The IS has already seen to that; it knows how to push the West’s buttons.

Saudi Arabia, the American empire’s best friend in the region after Israel, routinely beheads prisoners; and, for instilling terror, nothing outdoes Obama’s drones.  Yet the IS figured out that by beheading two journalists, they could stoke up fear and bring the War Party in the United States back to life.

Like Hamas, they know that the way to prevail against an enemy that is militarily much stronger is to draw its soldiers into battle on their home turf – where the enemy is bound to suffer losses.

It is a costly strategy.  But it works on enemies  – like the United States and Israel — that have a low tolerance for casualties in their own ranks.

The IS has succeeded in putting Obama under tremendous pressure to wage war against it; to get America more drawn into the chaos it created in Iraq and Syria and, potentially, in adjacent areas as well.

The IS understands, following Al Qaida’s lead, that they have no more effective way to strike back against America and its allies.

Obama made clear Wednesday night that he would like to wage this latest episode in the war Bush and Cheney started some thirteen years ago the cowardly Clinton way – entirely from the air.  That was how Clinton fought the Kosovo War against the Serbs.  He got away with it too.

But an air war alone won’t work against the IS because the IS’s military is only a small part of the reason why it has been so spectacularly successful.  A more important reason is the widespread opposition of Sunni communities throughout Iraq to the Shia dominated central government that the United States installed and sustained.

Nevertheless, Obama claims that he can defeat the IS without resuming the ground war he still boasts of having ended.

But, as became clear Wednesday night, all he can do is blow hot air.  Some Iraqi Kurds may be willing to fight the IS – the stakes are high for them – but even with American air support, this will not be nearly enough.  The Iraqi army won’t be of much use either; it has already largely disintegrated.  Obama needs willing and able proxies, and there are none around.

It doesn’t help either that the American position is incoherent.  To act upon it, Obama has to make common cause with two regional powers his administration has been waging low-intensity wars against — Iran and the Syrian government headed by Bashar al-Assad.

Either Obama is deceiving himself or he is in even more of a cloud than George W. Bush.  Or he has let political opportunism get the better of him.   Were he more lucid, he would realize that the only real choice he has is to plunge in with “boots on the ground,” or to cut his losses and walk away.

Walking away is the only wise choice.  It will not, by itself, solve the IS problem; but at least it will accommodate the first virtue of any sound foreign policy – to do no harm to one’s own country and its people.

Walking away would require courage — or irresolution.  This time around, the political pressure may be too great for either.

Therefore, count on Obama’s not very new strategy to make things worse again.

America began stirring up Islamist fanaticism during the Carter years.  For getting the Russians bogged down in Afghanistan, it seemed like a good idea at the time.  To Carter’s former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, it still does.

Maybe, when the original Cold War was still on, it really was a good, strategic move.  But that was a long time ago.

Nevertheless, the United States never stopped stirring the pot.  Each time it does, more trouble follows.  By now, this is as well confirmed as any law of nature.

*    *    *

On the whole, Obama being Obama has helped make the American government dysfunctional.   An irresolute leader, who is disinclined to do anything more persuasive than deliver risibly hypocritical speeches, is powerless in the face of Republican obstinacy.

But, in a neoliberal age, where uninformed and fatally arrogant Western meddling has brought havoc to large swathes of Eurasia and Africa, there are worse things than ineffective leadership — effective leadership in the service of Reaganite- Clintonite-neoconservative politics, for example.

If fate puts Hillary Clinton – or anyone similarly inclined and resolute – in the White House after 2016, irresolute Obama, awful as he has been, may actually look good in comparison.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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