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Wasn’t Barack Obama supposed to be the smart one? When all other reasons failed, wasn’t that why he was better than Bush?
That thought came to mind when W showed up in Washington at Obama’s “summit” meeting with African leaders, the one called to shill for American corporations and banks and to quash opposition to American military and espionage activities in sub-Saharan Africa.
Bush was there to tout the one estimable deed of his presidency – his underfunded, but still significant, effort to combat AIDS on the African continent. His spiel was self-serving, but otherwise unobjectionable.
Obama’s intentions were more nefarious, but he sounded high-minded; Bush, as always, sounded stupid. Except to Americans who revel in anti-intellectualism, Bush was a national embarrassment for eight long years.
Seeming stupid served Bush well in the nether-regions of American politics, where anti-intellectualism is a way of life. Amazingly too, his class brothers and sisters didn’t seem to mind. Maybe they thought he was just the one to keep the useful idiots on board.
Is it an act? Maybe; it is hard to see how he could have come by his demeanor honestly.
Bush did spend his formative years in an enclave of wealthy Texas oilmen, a milieu not known for refinement. But he prepped at Phillips Academy, graduated from Yale, and got a MBA from the Harvard Business School.
He was admitted to those places because of family connections, and he was a miserable student. Still, something should have rubbed off.
Born and raised in a gilded world, with family fixers always at the ready to keep him on track, he ought to have picked up a little polish. The rest of his family did. They may not be smarter or more articulate, but George W was the only bumpkin.
Since even before the days of W’s grandfather, Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, the Bush family has reeked with gentility. Yet W sounds like a character on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Go figure!
It isn’t just his accent either; it is what he says.
The contrast with Obama is extreme.
Obama too tries to sound folksy. When there are cameras or microphones about, every third word seems to be “folks.” Nevertheless, Obama’s speeches display appropriate gravitas, and there is nothing clownish about the man. His words seem lofty and humane.
George W is living proof that, despite the lies we tell ourselves, nothing trumps family connections and wealth in the land of the Free.
The silver-tongued Obama seems to defy that simple truth. His presence reinforces meritocratic illusions.
Then why all the “what can he be thinking?” moments these past few months? Why is Obama now making Bush look smart?
Part of the problem, of course, is that he still has to deal with the consequences of his predecessor’s reign of stupidity – the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars especially.
But it isn’t Bush’s fault that Obama never really tried to clean up the messes he inherited. As a steward of the empire, maintaining “credibility” has always been his highest priority. He therefore continued what Bush started, masking the noxiousness wherever possible, but carrying it on to its next stages.
Obama’s fondly remembered “withdrawal” from Iraq is a case in point. All he did was repackage the occupation, continuing the war with Iraqi proxies and, when that was not enough, outsourcing the murder and mayhem to private “security” operatives – in other words, to mercenaries.
In other words, he revived the Nixon-Kissinger exit strategy in Vietnam. There too, the ploy unraveled after just a few years. The difference is that in Vietnam, there was an army and a state prepared to seize and wield power. In Iraq the situation is more complicated — thanks, in part, to decades of clueless American machinations.
Winding down the Iraq War – or rather seeming to wind it down — helped Obama in the 2012 election. But it didn’t do much for the situations he inherited. In some respects, it made them worse. This is now becoming impossible to deny.
The stupidity hypothesis therefore suggests itself in his case too.
* * *
The general line among Obama apologists is that everything wrong with his presidency can be blamed on the constraints he has had to face. The constraints they mostly have in mind are Republicans.
This is a hard case to make for the first two years. When he assumed office, Obama had political capital to spare, and both the House and the Senate had Democratic majorities.
When pressed, more than a few of his “boost, don’t knock” liberal supporters can be counted on to say Yes. They maintain, and probably also believe, that evil Republicans were holding a good man back.
This would be a more plausible explanation for what has been going on since the “shellacking” the Democrats took in the 2010 elections – a situation that the administration’s floundering during its first two years largely explains.
Republican obstinacy could, and often did, give rise to legislative gridlock. This is one reason why Obama has been unable to get much of anything done on the domestic side. His leadership skills, or lack thereof, is another reason.
The silver lining in this is that, by not doing much of anything, he hasn’t done anything too stupid; at least not at the policy level.
Not actively supporting public sector workers – in other words, effectively siding with Republican governors in 2011, as they dealt blow after blow to the union movement – was very stupid. It was stupid on the merits, and it was stupid politically.
Before 2010, Obama was stupid at the policy level too, though those who still praise his early legislative achievements – reinforcing Wall Street’s power at everyone else’s expense; setting the cause of health care reform back another generation with the Affordable Care Act – would disagree.
Their argument is that these achievements were improvements over the status quo, and that Obama could not have done better.
That his achievements make things better is at least arguable; that he could not have done better is a groundless assertion. It cannot be proven, and we will never know.
Counterfactual assertions can never be proven either, but it is fair to say that Obama could have put his political capital to better use –that he did have choices and that he was not nearly as constrained as his defenders claim.
We can never be sure, but it seems more likely than not that he got what he wanted, not what he had to settle for.
To the extent that Obama’s defenders are right about his essential goodness, then unless they are right too about the power of the constraints he has had to confront, the only conclusion to draw is that he made stupid choices from the get go.
Those of us who doubt Obama’s goodness — who think that, deep down, he and the Republicans and most Democrats as well are on the same side – and who have a very different view of what was and still is politically feasible, come to the same conclusion. It is hard to resist.
Still, nothing Obama has done on the domestic front comes close to the sheer stupidity of his foreign policy.
Because Congress long ago ceded most of its Constitutional responsibilities over matters of war and peace, trade and other dealings with foreign powers to the executive branch, Obama, like his predecessors, has had nearly carte blanche to do what he pleases in the world outside our borders.
And what he pleases is so stupid that were the consequences not so awful, and were his machinations not so dangerous, he might almost be forgiven for the redeeming comedic value of what he has foisted upon the world.
This has been the case all along, but lately the situation has become more extreme.
* * *
The stupidity is not the same in all cases, however. Distinctions must be made.
Obama’s support for the on-going massacre Israel is conducting in Gaza exemplifies one type.
Since Israel needs American support for its depredations, Obama could force the Netanyahu government to cease and desist whenever he wants.
The Israel lobby would object, but so what? All it would take to call their bluff is for someone in a position to be heard to declare that the emperor has no clothes.
AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and its sister-organizations are well-organized lobbying machines, and they have ample funds at their disposal. But Americans are wising up; young Americans especially.
The Israel lobby is fast becoming a Paper Tiger. Unfortunately, Congress will be the last to know, with the White House not far behind.
The courage to just say No is therefore probably more than our Commander-in-Chief can muster. But, like his British counterpart, he could at least take measures that would convey the message in a politically safer way. An arms embargo while hostilities continue might do the trick.
Instead, Obama decided to resupply the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) with the weapons they use to kill Gazans.
Were we living in a world where there really was equal justice under law, he could be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for this. Any honest court would convict him. He is like a man who supplies a killer with a weapon he knows he will use to commit murder.
In the actual world, Obama has impunity for his misdeeds. But the harm he does cannot be expunged. Enabling Netanyahu is immoral. It is also contrary to American interests, and, if only for this reason, very stupid.
However, it is par for the course for American presidents. In nearly seven decades, there have been only two limited exceptions to the rule.
The first Bush held back loan guarantees when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir expanded Israeli settlements in Palestine in an effort to sabotage peace talks in Madrid. Because the former terrorist was too much in Bush’s face, the White House reacted – mildly. It was an object lesson; Shamir promptly gave in.
Then, of course, there was the time, fifty-eight years ago, when President Eisenhower forced the Israelis – along with the British and the French – to back off during the Suez War. It was one of his finest moments.
The difference this time is just that Israel’s actions in Gaza are exceptionally egregious, and that they come at a time when the United States has more than enough going on already in the Middle East.
Also, by frustrating America’s latest plan for negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israelis have made their unwillingness to agree to any Palestinian state that is not just a collection of disconnected Bantustans on the Gaza model too clear for the White House to overlook.
Israel today characteristically displays a degree of arrogance that any American government would cut down in an instant if it came from any other country. Obama lacks the courage to buck the trend. Israel will get its comeuppance some day, but not on his watch.
Even so, Benjamin Netanyahu is lucky that, unlike Bush the father, John Kerry, in whose remit Israel-Palestine peace now falls, has no self-respect. If he did, he would be doing a lot more than just expressing exasperation off-mike.
Poor Kerry lost his backbone after Vietnam; and so, with only a few milquetoast verbal misgivings, the United States is, again, two hundred percent on Israel’s side. It is the same old same old. This time around, though, it seems qualitatively worse.
This is because circumstances change. Now that backing Israel unreservedly, no matter what it does, is so plainly immoral – and so plainly detrimental to America’s interests –, keeping on the same disastrous course seems even more wrong-headed than in the past; it seems plain stupid.
* * *
Then there are foreign policy idiocies of more recent vintage. For the most part, Obama didn’t exactly contrive them. The Clinton administration is where they mainly took shape. But they came to fruition on his watch.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the reempowered Clintonites Obama brought into his administration are among the culprits. The
worst of them was Bill Clinton’s First Lady, Obama’s first Secretary of State.
Then there are the “humanitarian interventionists”; Obama dug them up on his own.
The Clintons give opportunism a bad name. Humanitarian interventionists do the same for the array of moral concepts that cluster around a more worthy side of human nature: the inclination to protect the vulnerable and endangered.
Keeping Russia down after the fall of Communism and the demise of the Soviet Union was a Clinton obsession. Clintonites today carry on that tradition. There is something in it for humanitarian interventionists too.
The obsession with Russia is a hold over from the days of Cold War anti-Communism. It is built into the DNA of the American political class.
The Clintons’ purchase on it would have been more apparent when they were in the White House had Russia been stronger than it then was. The West’s support for the brutal reimposition of a retrograde economic system precluded that possibility.
In its weakened state, even such hapless incompetents as Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright could put the Russians in their place without calling unwanted attention to American meddling. It helped too that the Kremlin was also in incompetent hands, and that oligarchs and kleptocrats were riding high.
Now Russia has largely recovered. Along with other “emerging” powerhouses – Brazil, India, China, and South Africa – it is even beginning to threaten American economic hegemony. In these circumstances, American machinations take on a more conspicuous and dangerous aspect.
By encouraging a de facto coup in Ukraine, and then permitting the new Ukrainian government to do to the country’s rebellious southeastern provinces more or less what Israel does to Gaza, Obama managed to launch a new Cold War.
Needless to say, the humanitarian crises the governments of Ukraine and Israel cause are of no concern to his humanitarian interventionists. They are too busy promoting the other side to care.
The other side is the dark side. The Ukrainian government, like the government of Israel, is full of extreme nationalists and outright fascists. Obama and his minions seem to enjoy playing with fire.
Even so, a Cold War that could easily turn hot is over the top. Just a few months ago, who would have imagined Washington initiating anything so stupid?
Nevertheless, Team Obama is hard at it now.
Job number one is preparing public opinion. The tried and true method, a Red Scare would be helpful. Too bad for Obama that there aren’t Reds around anymore to scare the public into acquiescence.
And so, we have Plan B– turn Vladimir Putin into a demon du jour. His politics is no Redder than Obama’s, but he is just authoritarian enough for Obama’s media flacks to make him out to be a one-man Red Scare functional equivalent.
Fortunately, the new Cold War has so far remained cold – thanks mainly to Putin’s reluctance to take the bait, and to his considerable diplomatic skills. Obama’s natural cautiousness also helps; so far, he has come up with nothing more provocative than sanctions — targeted mainly, but not exclusively, at Putin’s oligarchical associates and friends.
The EU ought to be helping too; for a while, it did. But, under American pressure, it succumbed. There was never any doubt that it would, if Obama insisted enough.
They like Obama in Europe, especially in France. It is hard to say why; maybe it is because, unlike Bush, he doesn’t sound or act like a simpleton. It doesn’t take much refinement to pull the wool over the eyes of the French political class; the Kennedys, Jackie especially, made a junior partner of Charles De Gaulle in much the same way.
The Germans and the others are not much better; that’s how those “folks” are. And so, with European complicity, the Obama administration is now actively courting catastrophe. What could they be thinking?
Wasn’t perpetual war against the Muslim world enough to keep the military-industrial complex happy? Is the foreign policy establishment lusting after a grander world stage?
Who knows? There is sometimes method in madness, but stupidity, like a force of nature, just is.
* * *
Nothing Obama has done is more dangerous than treating Russia the way Bill Clinton did when he was in Obama’s place.
But for sheer stupidity, nothing tops the administration’s decision, made without Congressional consultation and without public discussion, to resume bombing – and who knows what else — in Iraq.
To be sure, there is (or was) an urgent humanitarian crisis in the north, near the Syrian border (and therefore near the Syrian civil war), in a region populated mainly by Kurds.
On arid Sinjar Mountain, tens of thousands of Yazidis, members of a religious group that hardly anyone in the West who is not a specialist in Mesopotamian religions had heard of a few weeks ago, had taken refuge from the Islamic State (IS).
The IS, formerly known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), is an offshoot of Al Qaeda. Reportedly, bona fide Al Qaeda militants find it too brutal and extreme. In Syria, the two groups sometimes stand opposed.
Thanks to the disintegration of a substantial portion of the Iraqi army, and the widespread support of Sunnis throughout much of Iraq, it has scored sudden and remarkable military successes.
Most spectacularly, it conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and it has taken possession of the nearby Mosul dam, the largest in the country. It threatens the entire, oil-rich Kurdish region, and even Baghdad itself.
It goes without saying that the army units that disintegrated, like the rest of the Iraqi army, were built up, funded and trained by the United States.
It is relevant too that support for the IS among Iraqi Sunnis has, by all accounts, little to do with their Islamist ideology, which most Sunnis oppose, and a great deal to do with Sunni hostility towards the Shi’a dominated central government.
The United States, working more or less in tandem with its archenemy Iran, concocted and sustained that government.
Obama is now insisting that the government about to take power after the recent Iraqi elections be more “inclusive.” It is a worthy sentiment, but he is again stepping clumsily into a hornet’s nest.
The old government, led by Nouri al-Maliki so far refuses to cede power, and the new government, to be led by Haider Al-Abadi, is an unknown quantity. Al-Abadi is backed by the United States and Iran, the former patrons of al-Maliki.
Even if Obama gets the more inclusive government he is demanding, bombing IS strongholds will only reinforce the impression in areas where the IS is strong and getting stronger that the US is on the wrong side.
The IS’s plan, we were told, was to let the Yazidis die of starvation or thirst, or else to slaughter them directly, after taking their women captive.
But now Washington says that the crisis is less severe than it was or than they thought it was. Could it be that, having served as a pretext, they decided to let the Yazidis and/or the Yazdi story go? Time will tell.
All we know for sure now is that Obama called on the Air Force to bomb Iraq again.
What a Bill Clinton-like thing to do. It is the Kosovo War redux; war Clinton-style – with no troops on the ground or otherwise at risk (except psychologically), and an enemy that has no real defenses and that therefore cannot fight back.
This is unseemly, like almost everything Clinton did. It is also ineffectual, and probably counter-productive.
But it will warm humanitarian interventionist hearts. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power must be especially pleased. When memoirs are written, we will find out just how actively she campaigned (nudged) to get the bombs falling and the drones flying over northern Iraq.
These days, America’s U.N. Ambassadors are pieces of work; they epitomize the rot in American foreign policy. John Bolton was another example. The difference is that he exuded neoconservative bluster, not moralistic cant. The effect is the same.
Still, it is remarkable how Power and the others do not notice, or at least acknowledge, the sheer hypocrisy – how there is a duty to protect Yazidis but not Gazans or other Palestinians; or how Ukrainian nationalists – and fascists — are worthy of American support, while Russian speakers in the east of Ukraine are worthy only of contempt.
No doubt, there are analysts in the CIA and the Pentagon who realize what a morass America is getting itself into – again. But Obama is too stupid to listen. He would rather take advice from those who are in beyond their depth and who can be counted on to be wrong: people like Power and Susan Rice and the “folks” Hillary Clinton and John Kerry brought into Foggy Bottom.
The neocons under Bush and Cheney and then the Clintonites under Obama made messes of nearly everything they did. They fixed their messes with more and greater messes, in much the way that the banksters protected from legal accountability by Obama and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, fixed the messes they made.
Bringing Kurdish politics into the mix – something the U.S. was able largely to avoid until recently – makes the situation even more unmanageable. It also has geopolitical implications inasmuch as nearby states – including Turkey, a NATO member, and Iran – have significant and potentially rebellious Kurdish populations
Does Obama or anyone close to him comprehend this? For that matter, does he know any more about Yazidis than the average man or woman he flies over on his way to Martha’s Vineyard?
Thanks to the Obama administration’s witless interventions into the Syrian civil war – and its eventual decision to side with and even arm opponents of the Assad government, many of whom are the same people Americans are fighting in Iraq — there is now a situation unfolding that is embroiling the entire region.
This, of course, includes Iran. It also includes Israel, a state not known for its restraint when it comes to making war.
Has anybody in power in Washington even begun to think the situation through? Is anyone in the upper reaches of the foreign policy establishment remotely capable? Or are they too busy doing Benjamin Netanyahu’s bidding?
Enlightened imperialists and principled anti-imperialists ought to agree at least on this: that starting another overt Iraq War is stupidity on stilts.
Because if anything has become clear since 9/11, it is that American interventions – especially the cowardly and unseemly kind that rely entirely on drones and bombs – only harden resistance.
Enlightened imperialists ought also to have learned that when America does intervene – no matter for what purpose and no matter against whom — it makes everything worse, at least in the long run, which we now know is not very long at all.
In principle, it could be otherwise. But that would require a level of wisdom that is sorely absent in Washington these days.
The lesson is therefore clear: lay off. If you can’t do something that isn’t stupid – and you can’t! – then don’t do anything at all.
Hillary Clinton wasn’t wrong when she said that “don’t do stupid shit” isn’t a “foreign policy organizing principle” worthy of a “great nation.” But as a serial violator of that principle, she might have been a little less eager to invoke that pearl of wisdom opportunistically.
Because she wants to run for President, she no doubt feels that she has to distance herself from the disasters, actual and potential, brought on by Obama’s foreign policy.
But does she really think that she can do that, when the policies she wants not to be identified with are her own? And, anyway, “stupid shit” is all that the American foreign policy establishment nowadays knows how to do.
But, then, only a fool would listen to her.
Therefore, let Clinton and Obama hug it out; at least, they are both smarter than Bush – better at what Bush might call “book learnin’.” Everybody knows that. Or do they?
Neither of them is smart enough to figure out how to stop doing stupid things.
Obama has proven this in his case beyond a reasonable doubt.
If we are very unlucky, as it now seems we likely will be, Clinton will soon have a chance to make her case as well.
Would Bush have figured it out by now? We can only speculate.
It is relevant, though, that as his second term wore on, Bush seemed to have realized that the neocons weren’t doing him any good. Obama has yet to come to any similar conclusion about his motley crew of Clintonites and humanitarian interveners.
Which one, then, is really the smart one? It is hard to say.
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).