Obama and the Iron Cage

Can Obama transcend the Iron Cage of the White House?

The short answer to the question is a simple no!

I hoped with all my might that Obama would win the presidency and end the reign of terror that the Bush Administration has inflicted on the world. Much more needs to be said about the historical significance of a White House with black residents, but not here. I am jubilant that he has won and apprehensive about how soon he and his administration will capitulate to the habitual politics of the District of Columbia. Obama has the power to resist the current, but he won’t. To do that, he would have to launch a paradigmatic shift in the way politics is taught, thought of, and practiced in this country.

Obama ran a presidential campaign with an inherent contradiction between its form and substance. In its form––the ways his campaign mobilized different constituencies, the way he appeared in rallies, and in the very intonation of his oratory––he presented himself as a populist candidate advocating radical change. Substantively––in his economic plan, in his understanding of global conflicts, and in his political vision––he differentiated himself by a hair’s breadth from Clinton-era center-right doctrine. History tells us that substance is enduring and form is ephemeral.

In America, the real polity consists of a small community of elites whose interests and those they represent entangle and overlap. President-elect Obama with all good intentions intends to erect a wall between lobbyists and elected or appointed officials, but he will soon realize that the foundation that could support such a wall does not exist. DC operatives, the political elite and corporate lobbyists, have been engaged in an incestuous relation for too long for any sense of taboo to remain in force, even weakly. No one is stunned these days at the sight of a CEO of a financial giant being named as the chief regulator of the nation’s stock market. No one questions the lobbyists of multinational industries running the office of the Environmental Protection Agency. No eyebrows would be raised if yesterday’s corporate lawyer is today’s Secretary of Labor. No one detects a conflict of interest if big military contractors devise a national security plan at the Pentagon and the State Department. In the way politics actually gets done in Washington, can Obama find people who meet his criteria without stepping outside the conventional norms of the American political machine? I’m skeptical.

Obama also needs to learn a lesson from the leaders of populist movements, particularly in Latin America. I am not a fan of populism. It thrives on creating a mass society, which in turn, typically engenders authoritarianism. In the last four decades, populism has always been associated with the American Right, religious and otherwise. This association has caused many of us to connect populism unconsciously to simple mindedness and gullibility. The McCain-Palin campaign adopted this right-wing populism rather successfully in mocking Obama’s plan to “spread the wealth” through a “socialist” agenda. Whereas protecting the “authentic” American community from the tyranny of the interventionist state defines the right-wing populism, the cause célèbre of left-wing populism has been “redistributive justice,” often associated with socialism. To be true to his constituents, Obama has to defuse the socialist associations of the old slogan, and transform the notion of redistributive justice from being a near-treasonous heresy to a viable policy direction for America.

The scarecrow of socialism lost its political appeal in Europe almost a century ago. But it continues to stifle meaningful debate about the foundational problems of the American economic order. Latin American populist leaders on the left understand — in a way that American politicians don’t — that people respond to their genuine fears (cultural, communal, familial, etc.) as well as their core economic interests. Which one will dominate on Election Day depends on which political discourse becomes hegemonic. The masses are neither inherently right, nor historically left. This was an important oversight in the Barack Obama’s campaign. The precondition of rallying the masses and becoming hegemonic is not a move to the center-right, but a strategy to use language to dominate politics, to introduce not only new faces, but also new concepts to American politics. A strategy that Republicans have deployed successfully for decades.

For the longest time during the past year when Obama was “accused” of being a Muslim, I wondered why nobody in his campaign stood up and said what eventually Colin Powell said in his endorsement: “what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.” Obama needs an appointed person to do with social democracy what Powell did to Muslims. He needs to appoint somebody with enough audacity and hope in his administration to transform redistributive justice from political suicide into a debatable agenda. Even with his centrist agenda, this will be good for his administration.

The time is right for such a discursive and political move. The election is over and Obama does not need to blame only the Bush Administration for all the ills of deregulationism. This policy began in the mid-1970s, found its official voice in the Reagan Administration, and has been followed since by Democrats and Republicans alike. And let us not forget that the economic team that the President-elect has put together looks a lot like the deregulation team of Bill Clinton. Obama is making a historical mistake. His hope should not be to bring back the Clinton regime back minus Lewinsky. If we all agree that the scope of this economic crisis is comparable to the Great Depression, then we cannot simply write off extraordinary social provisions as politically untenable.

This is turning into a vicious pattern that at points of crises all parties scoff at long-term solutions in favor of quick fixes. If we are in Iraq, we don’t need to talk about the political responsibilities for this travesty: we need to fix the problem now. If the stock market has collapsed: rush for a bail out, and address reform later. These kinds of solutions perpetuate injustice and inequality, and negate accountability and the feasibility of new visions. We need immediate remedies tied with written and sealed regulatory guarantees. The banking bail out should have come with stern restrictions on financial and industrial capital. Remember that the collapse of the economy has universal repercussions. If the economic elite uses the threat of the economic collapse to get what they desire, shouldn’t Obama’s administration of hope and change ask for the same on behalf of the disadvantage? President Obama should not retreat from higher taxes and tighter regulations on the industry. In times of prosperity investors exploit the mobility of their capital to avoid regulatory regimes. Today, they do not have that luxury.

On national security and the so-called Global War on Terror, Obama needs to take a radical discursive shift. Does he have the power to do it? Yes. Will he? No. The main objective of a sound international relation is the discovery of the ways through which the United States can reconcile its national interests with the national interests of other nations. The Cold War mentality of irreconcilable American interests with other nations has already taken millions of lives around the world, during the proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to stop the spread of communism, and now in “war on terror” to eradicate militant Islam. Obama must take advantage of the excitement and energy that enveloped the entire world, from the celebrations in an Indonesian grade school to the ritual sacrifices of lamb in his honor in Istanbul, to show in practice that the era of American bullying is over and his administration is ready to engage the world with mutual respect. But before we gloat out of our minds and ask the rest of the world that instead of celebrating “show us the money,” as Thomas Friedman suggested in his Sunday editorial, Obama needs to deliver. Unlike what the likes of Friedman would like to think, the world is not indebted to America, it is really, truly, the other way around. Respect for the dignity of others and the sovereignty of nations is not delivered in a speech. Obama as the President needs to institutionalize that rhetoric and turn it into a lasting policy. “The money” would follow. Mr. Friedman don’t rush, the world cannot afford to give a blank check to any American president, be it the decent Obama or the gangster Bush.

Obama knows that the key to a sustainable peaceful coexistence in the world today is held in the Middle East. Again the first signs are not promising. In his official Afghanistan policy, which was rightly described by John McCain as a replica of the surge in Iraq, Obama has shown little understanding of the political dynamics of the conflict. His solutions appear to be variations on the same “war on terror” theme. The US cannot defeat the Taliban and annihilate al-Qaeda by introducing more troops to the war front.  Obama must take the option of war off the table; nothing terrible would happen if he takes this courageous step. Not only would taking war off the table afford the respect that the US desires in the region, but more importantly it will instantly delegitimize the militants’ violent solutions. There is no shame in talking, there is shame in sending innocent people to their death.

This must also be the guiding principle in dealing with Iran. The US has no right or responsibility to solve Iranian domestic problems. Obama should stay clear from the Israeli lobby on dealing with Iran. Although that option might already have been checked by the appointment of Rahm Immanuel, a hawkish pro-Israel advocate, as the Chief of Staff and choosing Dennis Ross as a senior advisor on the Middle East policy. Since September 11, 2001, the neocons have successfully manufactured a crisis with Iran based on unfounded allegations and regime change policies. It is true that the Bush Administration pulled the rug from under the Iranian reformist President Khatami’s feet and paved the way for the inauguration of an equally hostile administration in Iran. President Obama needs not buy into this manufactured crisis. Iran’s nuclear technology is not an irresolvable predicament. While solving the problem with Iran might ease the situation in Iraq, it is doubtful that it would have any impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Iranian influence in Palestine is greatly exaggerated. This too is another part of America’s fabricated crisis in Iran.

As hard as it might be, the Obama Administration must face the possibility of decoupling its interest in the Middle East from the Israelis. One can hope. The US cannot operate as a peace broker while it unconditionally supports Israeli policies. There are more critical voices inside Israel on their own state policies than in any American administrations or mass media. Being critical of Israeli settlement policies and the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories will neither endanger Israeli security and its right to exist nor is it a sign of anti-Semitism. No American state official has more credibility in the Middle East than former President Carter. Jimmy Carter broke another taboo in American foreign policy by talking to Hamas leaders and by doing so proved that he indeed has the audacity to hope for peace. Obama must immediately dispatch a committee under the supervision of President Carter to layout a plan for a lasting peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.

My hope is that an Obama Administration would augment the spark of November 4th into a flame that will guide us on a path towards sustainable change. We dared to hope. Obama must now have the courage to deliver. There are many taboos in American political culture that he must break. Many call people who talk about social democracy, peace, justice, equality, and respect for the dignity of others “crazies.” But this is a crazy time, a black man rules over the White House.

BEHROOZ GHAMARI-TABRIZI is Assistant Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  He is the author of Islam and Dissent in Postrevolutionary Iran (I.B. Tauris/Plagrave-Macmillan, 2008). He can be reached at bghamari@illinois.edu.





Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi is an Iranian-born American historian, sociologist, and professor.