The Obama Paradox
Barack Obama ran for office promising change; he delivered continuity. But then, continuity brought change – for the worse.
In 2008, “change” meant whatever voters wanted it to mean. Like the candidate, the word was a Rorschach inkblot.
Many, probably most, Obama voters had no clear idea what kind of change they expected. All they knew was that, under George W. Bush, the country had veered dramatically off course. They thought Obama would fix that.
Some voters did have more specific expectations. Some thought that Obama would wean the country off neoliberalism. With a financial and economic meltdown raging, the time was ripe.
Some expected him to restore the rule of law at least to pre-9/11 levels; many hoped and expected that Bush era war criminals would be brought to justice.
Others thought that the Democratic Party would become more like what it had been before the Clintons had had their way with it.
The list goes on.
Of course, nobody knew what “change” meant to Obama. Perhaps Obama didn’t know either. He could hardly have been more vague.
On one point, though, everybody, except perhaps the candidate himself and his close advisors, agreed: Obama would transform the post-9/11 Bush-Cheney regime beyond recognition.
They could not have been more wrong.
Perhaps he had other ideas; perhaps he was overcome by what the ancient Greeks called akrasia, weakness of will. Perhaps there was never any there there.
Obama’s most ardent supporters, the ones who stuck by him as it became clear that change wasn’t happening, blamed the Republicans; many still do. Corporate America gives them a nightly forum; they call it MSNBC.
But they are fooling themselves. Even in the face of Republican obstinacy and determination, the Obama administration didn’t have to be as Bush-Cheney-like as it turned out to be.
Still, the apologists have a point; Republicans really are pieces of work, and they really have dedicated themselves to making sure that the Obama presidency would fail.
Therefore Obama’s apologists are not exactly deluded. They just give their man – and his opponents — too much credit.
Who knows what Obama really thinks about the issues of the day or how he understands the relation between his words and his intentions. All we can say for sure is that his words are noncommittal and vague; and that, for all practical purposes, he and his fellow Democrats are on the same page as the Republicans.
This is hardly surprising; they feed from the same trough. Their antagonism is tactical, not strategic or ideological.
To be sure, racism shapes Republican attitudes, along with other status anxieties and base ideological convictions. Democrats, on the whole, are nicer people. But ultimately what both parties want is to win the next election. For them, it is all about who gets to serve the one percent.
This is bad news for the ninety-nine percent of us about whose interests and wellbeing they could care less. But that is the least of it. When our leaders, regardless of party, fix their gaze beyond our (increasingly policed and militarized) borders, the whole world suffers.
Even so, one would expect that there would be a level of competence in the White House and throughout the foreign policy establishment commensurate with the tasks at hand. Remarkably, this expectation has been confounded by Democratic and Republican administrations for the past quarter century.
When James Baker and Brent Scowcroft left office, who would have guessed that they would outshine all who would follow in their wake? And, earlier still, who would have imagined that the days of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger would seem like a Golden Age when giants walked upon the face of the earth!
Barack Obama, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him, put a bunch of clueless stumblebums in charge of throwing America’s weight around in the world. Predictably, they keep getting in over their heads.
In Bush’s case, the mess was so bad that not even his Poppy could straighten it out. Then the “change” President came along to continue his work.
The empire’s victims have suffered enormously as a result, but so far the empire itself has survived unscathed. It is too big to fail. But, even so, there are limits.
The Obama administration almost exceeded those limits twice. Vladimir Putin saved Obama both times.
He saved him from being dragged into a potentially catastrophic war against Iran and he saved him from getting America bogged down in the on-going civil war in Syria.
But America’s arch-enemy du jour is not likely to be similarly helpful when the geniuses at Foggy Bottom and in the National Security Council focus their machinations on Russia itself.
Putin’s foreign policy establishment outclasses Obama’s by every measure. Should it be in their interest to stop helping Washington out, Obama’s luck will run out faster than in a New York (or Moscow) minute.
Was it better under Bush and Cheney? No. But the world has changed – partly in consequence of the policies Obama has continued. This is why, for the most part, those policies are even more toxic now than they were in the Bush-Cheney days.
In this sense, we did get change after all. But when the reckoning is made, we will likely find that we would have been better off with less than we got.
Bush and Cheney trampled due process and privacy rights in the name of security. When they were in charge, Constitutional constraints were only a minor inconvenience that they felt free to ignore.
This is how it has been for Obama too. But, in carrying on their work, Obama made the situation qualitatively worse. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now have some idea how bad it was, and how much worse it became.
We do not know how much, if any, terrorism Bush and Cheney – or Obama — actually stopped. What we do know is that they increased the supply of potential terrorists many-fold. Invading foreign lands will do that; so will terrorizing civilian populations by unleashing murder and mayhem upon them.
Obama notched the terror level up, even as he diminished the overall level of violence.
His predecessors used assassins and drones too. But bombers and soldiers were more to their liking. For the most part, they did their foul deeds the old fashioned way.
Obama, the peace candidate, kept their wars going; he even escalated them for a while – the better to repackage the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But his preference has always been to kill covertly – by making the most of assassins and drones. And so, he did change America’s military posture. From a moral point of view, he made it worse.
Now terror is no longer only the last recourse of the powerless; it is also the first choice of a super-power equipped with a military juggernaut as large as the rest of the world’s combined.
In taking up where Bush and Cheney left off, the Nobel laureate let loose the functional equivalent of an army of suicide bombers, casting large swathes of the Muslim world into a perpetual reign of terror.
His drones are especially onerous.
For one thing, they are even worse than suicide bombers because they terrorize civilian populations more efficiently. Ordinary people can avoid places suicide bombers are likely to target; no one can steer clear of those drones.
And, from a moral point of view, killing with drones is plainly more reprehensible. Suicide bombers sacrifice their lives for their cause. When their workday is over, drone operators spend evenings at home with their families.
Their superiors, the ones who order the killings, are even less involved. Obama decides whom to kill, his underlings decide where and when, and then their underlings push the buttons. The higher up the chain of command, the more pleased with themselves they seem to be.
On environmental issues, Obama has made things worse just by continuing the do-nothing policies of his predecessors. Meanwhile, ecological changes already underway are rapidly ratcheting up the peril.
His administration has made a few changes for the better: for example, on fuel emissions standards. But on the main causes of global warming, Obama has done nothing significant. Meanwhile, with each year that passes, points of no return approach and are exceeded.
Then there is Obama’s penchant for enhancing the harm done by his predecessors’ policies through more effective implementation.
One would think that when those policies target key Democratic constituencies, he would at least think twice. But all he does is talk an earful. For example, Obama has spoken out frequently in favor of immigration reform; yet his record on deportations is far worse than Bush’s. Organized labor has fared no better.
In a similar vein, Obama has had nary a bad word to say about government transparency or the importance of a vigorous and adversarial press. To hear him speak, one would think that he is the whistleblower’s best friend. Yet, on this too, he has been worse than Bush and Cheney or indeed any other president before him except perhaps Richard Nixon.
The man plods on. No doubt, on domestic issues, he has his reasons, good or ill. But on the diplomatic front, there seems to be no coherent thought behind what he does; he and his minions have no clue.
This is why the world now seems even more perilous than it did when Obama took office.
The problem is not just that the War on Terror, and its continuation under Obama, has been stupendously counter-productive; that it has conjured up terrorists faster than assassins and drones and “boots on the ground” can kill them.
It is becoming just as clear that the Bush-Obama wars have destabilized the entire region – from Libya to Pakistan, and lately, under Obama’s aegis, from the banks of the Tigris to the Mediterranean Sea.
East Africa and Muslim areas as far away as the Pacific Ocean have also felt the brunt, and are worse off for it.
The Bush-Obama wars have also strengthened Iran’s role as a regional power. Whether or not this is a good thing, it is hardly what the United States and Israel had in mind.
Of course, cluelessness is a two-edged sword. Latin America has benefited enormously from the fact that the United States is mired down in several Middle Eastern quagmires.
While Bush and Obama were otherwise distracted, popular democratic movements in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and Uruguay were able to flourish and even come to power. The governments of Brazil and Argentina veered leftward as well.
And, despite several attempts since 9/11 – the latest still underway – the United States has been unable to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela. America’s never-ending war against Cuba has gotten nowhere either.
South of the border, the 9/11 attacks – or rather the American reaction to them — were, so to speak, a godsend.
It is now becoming clear that, in at least one respect, it has been the same for the rest of the world too. America’s counter-productive maneuverings throughout the Muslim world brought American and European plans to bring the EU right up to Russia’s borders, and to encircle it with NATO bases, to a temporary halt.
That plan was proceeding apace in the Clinton days. Russia then was hardly in a position to resist – not with kleptocrats running the country, and with the vast majority of Russians undergoing the hardships and social dislocations brought on by the restoration of a retrograde economic system.
America’s and Europe’s (mainly Germany’s) success in dismembering Yugoslavia provided valuable lessons and also encouragement. With a new millennium dawning, it looked like full speed ahead.
But then came 9/11 and priorities changed. Now, it seems they are changing back.
Evidently, our foreign policy wallahs have come to believe that in addition to carrying on in the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian sub-content, it is time to put Russia back in the crosshairs as well.
This too may be about oil, at least to some extent; but that is not the main thing. And it goes far beyond the exigencies of running a global empire or making the world safe – or safer – for Western capitalists.
Western capitalists don’t need a revival of eastern European fascism and anti-Semitism any more than the rest of us do. Neither do they – or we — need Al Qaeda-like movements to flourish throughout the Middle East or central and southern Asia.
But that is where our leaders’ policies lead. Needless to say, it is not what they have in mind. But then what do they have in mind? Nothing remotely coherent, most likely; they know not what they do.
Yet onward they go. With the old Soviet “satellites” currently ensconced in America’s and Europe’s ambit, all that is left is to bring the EU and NATO into the old Soviet Union itself.
The idea is ludicrous, and not just because Russia now is far stronger than it was in the nineties. If the American empire were in competent hands, it wouldn’t be happening.
Overthrowing recalcitrant governments is old hat for the empire’s stewards. Their timeworn method was perfected first in Latin America. After World War II, it was deployed around the world.
The formula is simple: spend serious money stirring up chaos. Then, when the time is right, discreetly support coups d’état perpetrated by clients or friends.
This is what they are doing right now – so far unsuccessfully – in Venezuela.
But, until now, our leaders always had the good sense to confine their machinations to American spheres of influence or to peripheral areas that did not raise serious security concerns for other major powers.
After World War II, no power was more major than the Soviet Union. Encouraging dissidents there and in Eastern Europe was acceptable. But no sane leader would actively encourage “regime change”; not with the possibility that a nuclear war would result. Eisenhower’s role in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was exemplary in this respect.
Post-1991 Russia was still able to reduce the world to rubble. Therefore, even Bill Clinton showed some restraint. Circumstances emboldened him – but not to the point of recklessness. And he got away with it.
It is unlikely that his First Lady had much to do with plans for enlarging the EU or for bringing NATO up to Russia’s borders. That doesn’t seem to have been on her to-do list when she was Obama’s Secretary of State either.
But Hillary Clinton is quick to jump on whatever bandwagon is passing by, and so she has lately taken up the cause. In her opening salvo, she famously likened Vladimir Putin to Hitler.
A dumb remark; though, considering the source, that is only to be expected.
Obama went beyond dumb. Speaking in Belgium after meeting with the leaders of the G7 (plus and now minus 1), he went out of his way to insult his (disinvited) Russian counterpart, calling him a leader of a regional power whose actions betoken weakness. Obama calling Putin weak! How did he keep a straight face?
But then how does he keep a straight face when he accuses Putin of violating international law? The man continues to amaze.
Is reviving Clinton-era policies towards Russia his idea too? Or should we blame lesser eminences like John Kerry or those dreadful “humanitarian interveners” Obama empowered? Whoever is at fault, putting Russia’s security interests in jeopardy is the worst idea that has come along since George W. Bush left the White House in ignominy.
It was for not being associated with ideas like that that it used to be possible to argue that Obama really was the lesser evil in 2008, when he ran against John McCain. Despite McCain’s inclination of late to put his recklessness and bad judgment on display, it now looks like it was more of a tie.
In any case, it is already plain that the Americans and Europeans – and the Ukrainian nationalists whose “revolution” they encouraged – lost in at least one key respect; Russia’s annexation of the Crimea will hold.
For all their faults, Putin and his crew so far outclass Obama and his that when they set their minds to it, they get their way, even when their hand is weaker.
Fortunately, they are not only smarter; they are also wiser. They know when not to push their luck; and also, let us hope, how to deal with opponents who are as clueless as theirs are.
This is why we will probably dodge the bullet this time too; the perils Obama et. al. let loose upon the world by setting their sights on Ukraine will probably stay contained.
Unlike the United States, Russia does have legitimate security interests in goings-on in the former Soviet republics. Obama and the others are therefore like little kids playing with matches. Fortunately, though, it seems that the Russians also know how to resist egregious provocations.
Because provoked they have been, and will continue to be. Obama could always decide to put a lid on it, but so far he has been doing just the opposite.
In recent days, anti-Russian animosity seems even to have overcome Washington’s gridlock. And where Democrats and Republicans go, so go the mainstream media. The usual suspects are busily doing all they can to whip up a ruckus.
Not since the build-up to the Iraq War has so much wrong-headed pro-regime propaganda spilled forth from their quarters. NPR has become especially unbearable. I, for one, can no longer keep it tuned in for background noise.
If the Russians were to stoop to Obama’s level by taking his bait, the consequences would be dire.
And the prospects would be no better if they acquiesce. Team Obama gets its way so seldom than when they do it only encourages them.
Therefore, if they are not stopped in their tracks, their provocations will continue and become increasingly dangerous. There are other former Soviet republics out there, after all; and we should not forget that Obama is still itching to “pivot towards Asia.”
In other words, he has China in his sights too. Too bad he doesn’t also have prudence in his head.
How ironic – and pathetic — that our best hope for avoiding the consequences of Bush-Obama policies lies with a conservative Russian strong-man — a leader with autocratic inclinations, but also with political skills, a sense of history, and the wisdom not to act out foolishly.
This is not how it is supposed to be in a democracy; it only shows how distant our democracy is from the ideal. But with inept and clueless leaders at the helm – and a political system too corrupt and degraded to provide the change voters want – this, for the time being, is where “hope” resides.
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).