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.

And yet.

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.

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20 Responses to “Obama Is People”

  1. gerrycanavan Says:

    As the person to whom this (somewhat sneering? am I misreading your intended tone?) post seems addressed, I should say that for what it’s worth I was interested in Bush and Cheney’s “individual motives” for invading Iraq too. I think we both agree that the stated objectives make no sense; the reason I think the so-called “individual motives” matter is to consider whether (1) our national goals just make no sense or (2) there is some “secret” agenda that, while odious, is at least coherent as a strategic objective.

    There’s a long history in American political discourse of ironic interpretation of presidential statements — stated reasons making real agendas that are open secrets. American foreign policy, as you note, is probably the key example; the sources you cite are not off-the-record but calculated public statements directed at educated audiences who interpret the facile speeches ironically. You’re not outside national security ideology, in other words; there is no outside, because it’s always an ironic and self-negating discourse.

    You make a good case that there’s a long-term plan to solidify American hegemony in the region, which is certainly contiguous with the last sixty years of American foreign policy and something (in the main) I certainly agree is something the Pentagon wants. What surprises me, and why I’m interested in Obama’s intentions specifically, is that — as opposed to, say, Cheney — there isn’t much to suggest in his early public life that this is something he would otherwise want. So considering how he got from there to here is potentially illuminating and not just, on the face of things anyway, naive excuse-making for a president I happen to still somewhat like.

    This post makes some weird elisions to make its point.

    Everyone knew he was going to make that speech; the plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan was never in doubt.

    Well, yes and no. Candidate Obama spoke often of “two brigades”; we’re now on ten, in his first year in office. That *is* a shift, and plausibly construed as “betrayal.”

    There is rampant speculation as to why Obama would agree to invade Afghanistan.

    This is an interesting misstatement of the situation, as that particular bed has, of course, already been long shat. The situation facing the Obama White House is what to do with the bad hand they’d already been dealt, not whether they should invade at all — a distinction that shouldn’t be swept aside in our collective rush to be the first to denounce Obama.

    …This is the subtle difference in reception between a president we — America’s liberal majority — despise and one we identify with.

    This strikes me as neither especially subtle nor especially remarkable. Doesn’t this go without saying? Of course a Left that had to varying degrees been energized by Obama holds him to different standards than we did Bush. Why wouldn’t we, and why shouldn’t we? I continue to be flummoxed by this suggestion that Obama and Bush are plainly operating from precisely identical premises, when this is simply not in evidence from *either* their public statements or their actual actions while in office. It may be that the ideology of national security transcends the petty difference of party ID, but I don’t think we’ve seen that yet, in no small part because (despite what you say above) Obama hasn’t actually invaded anywhere yet.

  2. gerrycanavan Says:

    stated reasons ma[s]king real agendas that are open secrets

  3. traxus4420 Says:

    the post was of course generated from our discussion on your blog but since it’s not intended as an attack on you in particular i didn’t link. sorry if you think that decision was unfair/dishonest/etc.

    contemporary speculations can be found here, here, here…then all these open letters to the president, which we didn’t see much of (from the liberal side at least) with bush, where journalists think they can influence him somehow. in each case obama (and not even his cabinet) is the protagonist.

    on substantive differences between obama and bush re: foreign policy, sure they exist — obama is somewhat more willing (and sells himself as much more willing) to bargain with instead of talk past/intimidate u.s. allies and economic rivals, is much more delicate at handling foreign crises (i.e. israel/palestine, honduras), but i fail to see how they’re fundamentally opposed. the goals for iraq and afghanistan are basically the same, the means are different – the difference between ‘idealism’ (nation-building) and ‘realism’ (any semi-functional u.s. client state). with the iraq withdrawl timetable it’s about ‘did the surge work, does it need to be protected, and if so how much?’ with afghanistan it’s about ‘how big should surge no. 2 be?’ if obama’s plans fail he’ll be blamed and a new strategy to accomplish the same things will be proposed.

    and ok, “agree to invade” should be “agree to escalate.” freudian slip perhaps. but how much leeway does the “bad hand” excuse grant him? why should non militaristic options for phased withdrawl not even be considered? it could be argued that obama ‘invaded’ pakistan. the democratic party has invaded sovereign nations in recent memory. for obama to prove his guiding lights are fundamentally different he would have to substantially reduce/eliminate the wars we’re already in, not just not start new ones.

  4. traxus4420 Says:

    btw i didn’t claim precisely identical premises — it’s more like broadly similar objectives, with different strategies for executing them, different risk tolerance, different public face, etc.

  5. traxus4420 Says:

    oh, and here’s another close reading/psychological profile of obama, which wordpress linked to from my post. though i’m still critical of your focal point, clearly it’s not at the same level as some of the things i’m linking to here.

  6. traxus4420 Says:

    what i’m mainly against i think, aside from obama-centric perspective of much analysis, is the hitting of a sort of reset button when dealing with obama as opposed to bush, as if every theory of u.s. policy toward the countries we’re at war with needs to be rethought from the ground up because we have a new president. it’s like we’ve given ourselves permission to become naive again, which is always bad news.

  7. gerrycanavan Says:

    Not unfair or dishonest and no sweat at all about the not linking.

    for obama to prove his guiding lights are fundamentally different he would have to substantially reduce/eliminate the wars we’re already in, not just not start new ones.

    This is true, but it returns us to the fundamental speculation about his actual motives. The assertion is that we *can’t* leave until we’ve done X because we have to meet condition Y first. For some values of X and Y this is moral atrocity; for others it is a regrettable ideological error; for still others it (could be) the least worst option available from a “bad hand.”

    These are mere “intentions” but they will structure future actions, including whether that phased withdrawal ever materializes. This is precisely why I think a purely consequentialist insistence on actions of the sort you’ve been advocating can (potentially) mislead us. That’s not to say Obama won’t turn out to be part and parcel of decades of American militarism, but I think that remains to be seen, and I’m not sure that taking up a purely oppositional stance, at this early stage, is in any sense our best bet on influencing him.

  8. gerrycanavan Says:

    what i’m mainly against i think, aside from obama-centric perspective of much analysis, is the hitting of a sort of reset button when dealing with obama as opposed to bush, as if every theory of u.s. policy toward the countries we’re at war with needs to be rethought from the ground up because we have a new president. it’s like we’ve given ourselves permission to become naive again, which is always bad news.

    Right, but the refusal to imagine at a different president could be indeed be different is the same error in the other direction.

  9. traxus4420 Says:

    i’m sure you’ve read this, but here’s the NYT on obama’s decision process. it fixates entirely on defeating the taliban and defeating al-qaeda, and what are the best ways to accomplish these objectives. a line about biden is sort of revealing on the content of ‘idealism vs. realism’:

    Just as he had done in the spring, Mr. Biden expressed opposition to an expansive strategy requiring a big troop influx. Instead, he put an alternative on the table — rather than focus on nation building and population protection, do more to disrupt the Taliban, improve the quality of the training of Afghan forces and expand reconciliation efforts to peel off some Taliban fighters.

    why i take a hard stance on this is that i think it’s basically useless to try to be a better strategist than the president, or advise the president. we voted for obama in particular because we expected him to be good at this. i don’t see how the list of intentions are useful for us — even on a practical level obama’s cabinet undoubtedly knows more technical detail about his list of approved choices than we do. we can’t afford to grant them the basic assumptions that would make this list of intentions the chief items for debate because the initial assumptions (the u.s. has to destroy al-qaeda and their allies primarily using its military machine) are the problem. we shouldn’t let ourselves become the echo chamber for cabinet meetings.

    if we’re going to be agnostic then we can only admit actions taken, right? the president (any president) has to be forced to be different, pressured to be different, not imagined to be different. i’m not calling for a dramatic breakup (whatever that would mean). just a stance against ‘faith.’

  10. Buck Swash Says:

    This is extremely unconvincing, and does have the peculiar tone of how the issue is how well Obama suits the left. That’s just not that important. None of you ever expected anythiing, no matter what you’re saying now about ‘a honeymoon period”, and ‘betrayals’, and the only thing you are saying different by now is things like this:

    ” 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.”

    and this:

    “When George W. Bush was president, there was not the same level of curiosity about his individual motives for invading Iraq.”

    Oh yes, there was, there was much MORE. You’ve just forgotten or missed them at the time.

    “‘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. ”

    ‘Fooled again, eh? I doubt it.

    ‘the goals for iraq and afghanistan are basically the same”

    No, they’re NOT. I’m literally startled you’d buy that. If some of them are the same, that’s still not ‘basically’. When I read things like this, it makes me start thinking I want absolutely nothing but ‘U.S. client states’, and I’m going to blame this on the agit-prop of you Far Leftists, which you’ve clearly finally defined yourself as being. Okay, that’s cool, good that I know.

    “progressive/left-liberal support was that his election would somehow galvanize social movements capable of pushing him leftward into being.”

    This is good, because you wrote it clearly enough, although it can be heard as if Obama, if pushed ‘leftward’, would be pushed ‘into being’, as in more authentic sort.

    “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.”

    Pakistan and Afghanistan were always mentiioned way back in his campaign to contrast them with Iraq. It’s not that when he was elected, by leftists among others, that this was not a well-known fact much longer back than you seem to be indicating. That’s why I’m glad he got the Peace Prize.

    “even on a practical level obama’s cabinet undoubtedly knows more technical detail about his list of approved choices than we do.”

    Really? Surprised to hear it (lol)

    “we can’t afford to grant them the basic assumptions that would make this list of intentions the chief items for debate because the initial assumptions (the u.s. has to destroy al-qaeda and their allies primarily using its military machine) are the problem. we shouldn’t let ourselves become the echo chamber for cabinet meetings.”

    Well, I think it’s all right to do this kind of embroidery of the Fringe too. It does stay squarely within ineffectual discourse, of course, at least in the short-term, but I suppose there is some pleasure in ‘just knowing the truth as you Hard Lerftists clearly do, and mebbe, just mebbe, somebody here and/or there will pick up on this message, and the true light of Communism will shine though.

    However, substantial point is that, if leftists weren’t paying attention to Obama’s near-ancient remarks on bombing Pakistan (even without their govt’s cooperation), it may be because that was not the central issue THEN (and it wasn’t). But I don’t see this as anything new. It’s the kind of thing Bush should have been doing himself–and even Kerry kept bringing it up in debates. Of course, since Hard Leftists know that Al Qaeda is not a threat, it’s just the same as what Bush did (who knew full well Iraq was his own adventure inherited from his Daddy, with him only to improve and expand, to his peabrain), and we can only lament, surely, that the Imperialist Powers do tend to put their own interests first, just like the less wealthy ones. I guess what comes as a big surprise to the Hard Left is that most people, even those of us who might come under the designation ‘Anti-Capitalsim for Fools’, say, those of use who actually are, you know, at least TRYING TO PRETEND we’re anti-capitalist, unlike me, who haven’t the slightest interesting in pandering to any Socialist guilt-giving dogma. Hey hey, I should be your new Poster Boy, the one who knows how phony the neo-liberal ‘anti-capitalist’ attitude is, and just went on cooperating overtly with the capitalists, just like the numerous rich Socialists so, even though their ‘anti-capitalism’ is more ‘refined’ than those appalling middle-cult New York Times types, who indeed are boring, but do tend to notice the Real World de temps on temps.

    Oh well, it’s interesting to see this journey you take, but I don’t think you were quite so hard-left back in the old days. But just remember, Obama is not trying to ‘substantially prove his guiding lights are substantially different’, because most people think they are even if the hard left doesn’t. Some wars are necessary, it’s disingenuous to think they’re all the same. And he never gave any indication AT ALL that dealing with Af-Pak would not be something he would resolultely attend to. But I understand the stance, even if I don’t see how there is satisfaction in it, given as it doesn’t weaken what you are opposing nor strengthen what you support, unless, well, maybe intellectual disccourse, I guess.

  11. traxus4420 Says:

    i don’t think anything i’ve said here could not have been said by a self-identified liberal progressive. here, i’ll prove it – maybe you’ll find this more convincing:

    http://openleft.com/diary/16355/afghanistan-and-obamas-liesa-further-note

    my politics are 100% conventional! that’s what’s interesting about the ‘hard left’ and the ‘progressive left’ today. they don’t quite read the same people but they say many of the same things. do you think writing essays that more closely follow what politicians say in speeches will get me in with the white house?

  12. traxus4420 Says:

    ick, and must you use the phrase ‘af-pak?’ it’s hideous.

  13. Buck Swash Says:

    I didn’t even know I used it, I never had. Unbelievable that I learned it on the ballet board about a month ago. Okay, I hate things like that too, although that one is kind of campy, like Max-Pax Coffee things you take to go camping. I have harder time with things like somebody seying to me he was ‘weighing some options about what to do at Thanksgiving’. And I did not feel flattered when he told me that I was a ‘pro-active person’. I guess this new kind of ‘corporate language’ really is emerging. I think ‘get a life’ is the worst single thing I can remember entering popular usage, and ‘I’m outta here’ the best (because often said well in advance).

    Okay, I take your word for everything about your politics. You ought to know by now I can’t possibly figure out anybody’s, although it’s always possible they may not really have any anyway, since they have such desirie to confuse, So, I might as well give you the benefit of the doubt, even thiough you might well be lying. God knows I can’t tell the difference, as ought to be patently obvious by now.

  14. traxus4420 Says:

    “Max-Pax Coffee things you take to go camping”

    lol

    i think i just now fully realized that almost every politically directed critique/screed i utter on this blog has become indistinguishable from the utterances of left-leaning liberals (not the ones on television obviously, but the other internet scribblers). which is, in the abstract, a good thing. sorry if all this twisting in the wind looks like lying.

  15. anxiousmodernman Says:

    i think i just now fully realized that almost every politically directed critique/screed i utter on this blog has become indistinguishable from the utterances of left-leaning liberals

    I agree this is a good thing in many cases. The cases where it is not a good thing seem distant and abstract, very far from the here and now of our wars, torture, parasitic monopoly capitalism, democratic malfunctioning, etc.

    The cases where it is not a good thing, where a leftist like myself parts ways with left-liberals, hardly even arise on “substantive policy issues”, which is to say when we undergo the thought experiment on what a left coalition ought to do (in, say, a ten year timeframe) if it were in a position to govern. A broad left could unite around many things:

    1) A drawdown of aggressive military commitments worldwide.
    2) A serious re-regulation of the bloated finance sector, beginning with some good old fashioned appropriation of the parasitic profits perversely earned on the public’s dime.
    3) Straight-up public investment in alternatives to employment in polluting/wasteful industries. Alternatives include, but are not limited to: renewable energy, transit alternatives, renovation and retrofitting of buildings, etc.
    4) A reconstruction of our apartheid public schooling system.

    …to name a few.

    What do you think?

  16. traxus4420 Says:

    i agree except i think all those things are ‘substantive policy issues’ and perhaps not best thought of in utopian terms.

  17. anxiousmodernman Says:

    Of course! I didn’t mean to imply that the list was what separated leftists and progressives, but rather what ought to unite them.

  18. traxus4420 Says:

    have you seen this yet?

    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/12/08/obama/index.html

    Over the past couple of days, Andrew Sullivan has linked to and published protests from various individuals who are quite angry that people “on the left” are being so mean to President Obama, and several of them are so upset that they have decided they are “leaving the left,” whatever that might mean.

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