Every time I write about Barack Obama I get a
lot of letters, and the most typical goes something like this:
I read your column regularly, and generally agree with what you have to
say, but I think you've got Barack Obama all wrong. Yes, I know, he went before
AIPAC and kowtowed; he pledged to do "anything – and I mean anything"
to stop Iran's nuclear program. He acts "tough" and says he's going
to invade Pakistan; he gets in Russia's face. But that's all a show: you see,
he has to do this stuff or else he won't get elected. Once he's safely
in office, he'll do the right thing.
John Q. Reader
This is an amalgam, but true to the spirit of the many pro-Obama missives I've
received. They express a sentiment that is very widespread, so much so that
it doesn't seem to matter, much, what Obama says he's going to do, because,
in any case, his fans and supporters will simply insist on projecting their
own hopes, desires, and views onto him. This, by the way, is a feature of most
all successful populist insurgent candidates: they are blank slates merely waiting
to be written on by anxious voters, who know only that they are sick of what
is, and pine for what
ought to be.
As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, in this instance – because
we've certainly been through the
mill these past eight years, and deserve some relief – I have to say that
this attitude is profoundly irrational. After all, why shouldn't we take Obama
at his word? If he says he's going to "curb
Russian aggression" – you know, like one might curb one's rather-too-aggressive
dog – and get up in Putin's face, is he lying? When he solemnly
pledges to go after the Iranians if they insist on deterring Israel's nukes
with an arsenal of their own, is he speaking in Pig-Latin?
The common assumption of these letter-writers is that Obama is just trying
to "pass," so to speak, as a warmonger. Once he's in office, peace
will break out all over. What evidence do we have for this? None whatsoever.
Now, it's true that the Obama campaign didn't really take off until he made
known his antiwar views on the Iraq question, and a lot of his street cred is
due to this early
stance. He was against the war from the beginning – and made
sure the voters of Iowa knew it. His chief rival, Hillary Clinton, took
a rather more equivocal
stance, and he beat her over the head with this relentlessly. This was encouraging,
but hardly definitive.
At the time, I warned
that Obama's refusal
to take war with Iran "off the table" – as the Important People invariably
put it – did not bode well, and, given his development over the course of the
campaign it turned out I was – unfortunately – right. It isn't just a pedantic
intellectual desire for consistency, or just to give me something to write about,
that motivates me to criticize the inconsistencies of ostensibly "antiwar"
politicians. Ideas have consequences, as the conservatives used
to say, and if Obama makes it to the White House we're sure to experience
some conceptual "blowback."
Obama lied – people died! How long before we see that slogan emblazoned
on a placard at a rather sparsely-attended antiwar rally?
But of course he didn't lie, and isn't lying now. He's telling us he wants
to confront Russia and Iran. He's telling us he wants to increase
a military budget already larger
than the total military expenditures of all other nations combined. He says
hesitate to invade Pakistan – and, presumably, any nation anywhere – if
we have some reason to believe Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are in the vicinity.
I think he's telling the truth – and I challenge the Obamaoids, especially the
ones who claim to be sick
of eight years of constant warfare, to prove otherwise. If Obama is indeed giving
us the real story, and if he actually implements his foreign policy proposals,
we are in a world of trouble.
Joe Biden rightly said that, within six months of his election, Obama would
This was generally taken to mean tested by America's enemies – al-Qaeda, the
Iranians, possibly the Russkies – but I took it in quite a different way.
Yes, he will be tested, and has been repeatedly tested – by the War Party.
So far, he's passed with flying
colors. For evidence of this, just look at all that money he's raised from
some of the biggest players in the game of Empire. The high-rollers
aren't placing their bets on Obama for nothing. You don't spend $45 million
on a single infomercial if you're financing your campaign with small contributions.
I've written about Obama's bigtime Wall Street backers at length, here.
In any case, I hardly think Obama is going to abolish the very Empire that
polices the world on behalf of his Wall Street backers. Nor did I ever expect
him to, even when I was more favorably
inclined to his candidacy. Back in those halcyon days, afflicted as I was
by an irrational exuberance due to rising antiwar sentiment, I did expect he
wouldn't get us into any fresh wars, even if he didn't quite wind up the ones
we're already fighting.
I'm afraid, however, I was quite wrong, In this regard, an interesting bit
of reporting appeared in last week's [Oct. 22] New York Times, where
"Mr. Obama, the candidate who has expressed far more willingness to
sit down and negotiate with the Iranians, said in an e-mail message passed on
by an aide that in any final deal he would not allow Iran to produce uranium
on Iranian soil, the same hard-line view enunciated by the Bush administration."
The writer, David Sanger, goes on to point out that the stereotypes of warmonger
and peacenik in this race are not only off, they are way off:
"Consider the delicate issue of Pakistan, where it is Mr. Obama who
has been far more willing than Mr. McCain to threaten sending in American troops
on ground raids. Mr. McCain, by contrast, argues that Pakistan must control
its territory. ‘I don't think the American people today are ready to commit
troops to Waziristan,' he said, months before Mr. Bush signed secret orders
this summer authorizing ground raids in Pakistan, including the violent sanctuaries
of North and South Waziristan."
Interesting – not
that it means McCain is the real peacenik, just that Obama is, potentially,
even more reckless than Mad
John. Don't let that calm demeanor fool you. President Obama is no hyperventilating
arm-waving interventionist, for sure, but that's just a question of style. He'll
no doubt cultivate his own signature brand: Zen interventionism, if you will.
What's unnerving, however, is that Obama's foreign policy views have gone largely
unarticulated, except in the most general terms. He's a man of mystery, a characteristic
that lets his supporters project
their own views onto him, and yet this failure to be more forthcoming is
what I find particularly ominous. As Sanger reports:
"Mr. McCain, now the Republican nominee, agreed to an interview during
the primary campaign. Obama aides answered questions at length, but Mr. Obama,
the Democratic nominee, citing the pressures of time in the campaign, declined
requests dating to June to be interviewed in detail on how he would handle potential
confrontations beyond Iraq that could face the next president."
During that interminable
infomercial, a total of less than two minutes was devoted to the issue of
war and peace. And those two minutes were filled with renewed vows to increase
the military budget – with the added fillip of "curbing Russian aggression."
This should comfort all those "Obama-cons,"
alleged conservatives who are jumping on the bandwagon now that his election
seems imminent – because we seem to be going back in time, back to the "good
old days" of the cold war. In Obama World, the Russians are coming -- again!
Soon we'll be hearing dire warnings that if we don't stop them in South Ossetia,
before you know it they'll be in South Carolina. Hollywood – a bastion of Obama-mania
– will do a remake of Red
Dawn. Schoolchildren will be subjected to "duck
and cover" sessions, and Fox News will do an updated revival of "I
Led Three Lives."
Okay, enough with Obama, because it's not really about him, personally, or
even politically. People need hope: they need to know that they aren't, ultimately,
powerless, that they can make an impact on what we do as a nation -- that
is, what the government does in our name. They not only like to believe
it, they have to believe it, because to not believe it is to fall victim
to despair. It is the democratic faith, which one devoutly hopes is not a pretty
Yet the electoral process is rigged,
in this country: the system permits only two political parties. All others must
overcome enormous obstacles to achieve ballot status. This give the War Party
maximum elbow room to manipulate the political process behind the scenes, and
allows them to exercise their dictatorship in a "democratic" fashion.
monopoly gives the War Party a strategic advantage: it merely has to split itself
in two, amoeba-like, so that both officially-recognized "major" parties"
simply become the "right" and "left" wings
of a single party – the War Party.
This limits the political options of the peace movement, and makes it harder
to have an impact even at the primary level: the gigantism of the system, with
its two monolithic party organizations, is biased against insurgents. It is
also more amenable to the advantages of money, large sums of it, which Obama
has had access to
throughout this campaign.
Political action is fine, and necessary, but there are other, more important
tasks for those who want to bring about a real change in American foreign policy
– by which I mean a complete turnaround. Such ambition requires a longer view.
America has been an emerging empire for the past half century or
so, and now that we're the semi-official world's
policeman – the "hyperpower,"
as the French put it – a good many Americans are beginning to question the value
and the morality of playing such a role. The Iraq war, however popular it appeared
to be at first, is today as unpopular
than the President who started
it, he whose polls have hit historic
lows. The next President will have to contend with a war-weary public, with
very little patience for new interventions.
But – and I hate to tell you this, but somebody has to -- the politics
of fear and deception have not been patented by the Republicans. Look for the
Democrats to add their own ingredient to this bipartisan recipe for overseas
disasters: the politics of guilt. White liberal guilt, to be sure. We'll be
smack dab in the middle of Africa's
feuding tribes faster than you can say "Samantha Power."
And that's the best case scenario. In the worst case, the Dennis
Ross faction of Obama's emerging foreign policy movers and shakers will
maneuver us into a confrontation with Iran, and relations with Russia will deteriorate
to a new low as NATO escalates its eastward
expansion. In any case, those who are working to effect a fundamental change
in American foreign policy have a duty to take Obama at his word -- hoping for
the best, but preparing for the worst.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Okay, you ask, so who are you voting for? That's
another letter I'll get, due to this column, and so I'll answer it preemptively,
so to speak, here.