Obama Is People
The continuing outrage over Obama’s Afghanistan speech is both justified and predictable. Nevertheless it reveals a few interesting things about his public image, and the different levels of acceptable narrative. Everyone knew he was going to make that speech; the plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan was never in doubt. Perversely, this fact is sometimes used to defend Obama from criticism, the idea apparently being that since the decision was unsurprising it’s hypocritical to attack it. Underlying such a claim is the pernicious view of the president as ‘commander-in-chief,’ a kind of elected king whose every action has the a priori approval of the general will.
There is something to be said for the idea that Obama’s astonishingly successful marketing campaign expanded the sense of public authorship over his presidency beyond the rote mechanism of voting. The sense, not of course the reality. Provided we set aside the bizarre conspiracy theories about Obama’s early Afghanistan rhetoric being merely a clever ruse, Afghanistan was always the issue that no one wanted to talk about. As others have noted, Tom Hayden’s trajectory from starry-eyed supporter to angry critic is exemplary here. A common feature of both Obama’s marketing and his progressive/left-liberal support was that his election would somehow galvanize social movements capable of pushing him leftward into being. Clearly that didn’t happen. I think it’s a mistake to try to look back and claim that, at some point, if not for some failure of resolve, it was possible for an authentic left movement to be generated from the Obama campaign. That was never possible. For a movement of the size Obama summoned to get himself into office to have an independent existence, it would have had to be stolen from him, a fact admittedly more obvious in hindsight.
If the idea of the recent escalation order as betrayal does not exactly hold up in court, it perhaps suggests a different framework for understanding what Obama is for the left: an investment with a variable time limit. An investment of labor (the ‘movement’), fantasy (Hope and Change), and a degree of critical restraint (‘wait and see’). The limit was always Afghanistan, which there was a tacit agreement not to mention until it happened, in order to sustain the fantasy. Within this designated honeymoon period, disappointment after disappointment prepared Obama’s audience for something else: apathy. Now that time is up, the internal battle for the progressives who haven’t been paid for is between anger and apathy.
One battlefield revolves around motive. There is rampant speculation as to why Obama would agree to invade Afghanistan. Just like with Bush, there’s a complete unwillingness to consider the existence of any sort of long-term plan for the region. Obama is motivated by typical Beltway ‘short-sightedness,’ the ideology of preemptive war, he is fooled by inflated reports about the danger presented by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the need to ‘appear strong’ in the face of ‘our enemies.’ His actions are, in short, the products of a series of accidents and stereotypical worldviews. The publicly stated views of his closest foreign policy advisors are ignored, such as this by his National Security Advisor James Jones:
Jones is a fierce advocate of NATO expansion. As commander of the alliance from 2003 to 2006, he pushed for it to take greater responsibility for securing oil supplies in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. “Our activities are definitely moving to the East and to the South,” he declared, speaking to the National Press Club in 2006. He pushed NATO hard–encountering stiff resistance from European allies–to strengthen its commitment to Afghanistan, and he got NATO involved with training missions in Iraq too. No longer, he says, can NATO confine itself to the defense of Europe; it must increasingly engage in out-of-area operations. “The term ‘out of area’ doesn’t really apply anymore, because that geographical restriction has faded into history,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2006. “NATO’s also getting ready to certify a NATO response force, which is also a new operational concept that will give the alliance much more flexible capability to do things rapidly at very long distances.”
In 2007 Jones became president of the US Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, meanwhile joining the boards of directors of Chevron and Boeing. Among the eighty-eight recommendations of the institute–including, naturally, Drill, baby, drill!–is this: “The U.S. government should engage the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on energy security challenges and encourage member countries to support the expansion of its mandate to address energy security.”
Certainly the aforementioned ideologies and bad attitudes exist — further down the page Jones himself voices them: “I personally don’t believe that the United States can afford to be perceived as having not been successful in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and I think the consequences for such a perception or such a reality will be with us for years to come in terms of our ability to be a nation of great influence in the twenty-first century.” But these views are not detachable, standalone, autonomous ‘memes.’ They continue to exist, despite obvious ridiculousness, because they are mutually supportive pieces in an ideological structure that includes a set of rational strategies for ensuring American and ‘Western’ hegemony.
When George W. Bush was president, there was not the same level of curiosity about his individual motives for invading Iraq. He is, after all, a dummy. Obama is not a dummy — he gives inspiring speeches! With liberal values! While Bush and Obama’s bad decisions are commonly accepted as products of external forces rather than their personal villainy, Bush’s decisions were attributed to a conspiracy (Cheney and Rumsfeld snarling at the helm), while Obama is fooled by arguments, the same specious arguments we all read in the papers and online. Or by a completely understandable (however craven) desire to appease opposing interests by giving an incoherent speech. He is then, like his target audience, a figure of contradictions, internal hesitation, self-doubt, and strenuous intellectual turmoil; his failures are shared by ‘us.’ This is the subtle difference in reception between a president we — America’s liberal majority — despise and one we identify with.