CoverStory

The disunited states of Obama

Barack Obama appeared on the political scene promising a new era of consensus, cooperation and a brighter future. So where did it all go wrong?

By William Pfaff

Barack Obama seemed in 2007–2008 
a figure who had all but miraculously appeared in the United States, promising to end what was, to a great many Americans, a hateful and shaming national period, that of the George W Bush administration, in which the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt made itself responsible for actions and policies that disgraced their nation. The progressive Republicanism of the 20th century, exemplified in the Eisenhower presidency, found its last faint expression in the presidency of George H W Bush—and was interred, or repudiated, during his son's presidency.

Obama was not simply a liberal candidate, offering a political alternative to the country, but a black presidential candidate free of those qualities that were in the past obstacles to the election to national office of most black American politicians, constituting a barrier between them and the ordinary white voter. He was not of slave descent, thus free of the inherited consciousness of grievance or the resentments associated with that condition. The American side of his family was white and from a European background. His black father was Nilotic African in origin, a member of one of the traditionally dominant ethnic groups in Kenya. On his return to Kenya, after university education in the United States and long-divorced from Obama's mother, he became a government official. The young Obama thus spent none of his life in segregated mainland America, and was free of the family, cultural and political inheritance of slavery, segregation, and racism experienced by his black contemporaries.

His liberalism was taken as proven by his and his wife's associations with 'liberal' yet privileged American universities (Columbia, Princeton, University of Chicago Law School and Harvard Law School). His choice of career as a social worker, civil rights lawyer, and eventually politician in a largely black constituency, was further evidence of his political commitment. He seemed to his political supporters too good to be true. Yet by the mid-term elections of 2010 he confronted ferocious opposition and predicted defeat by a radicalised official Republican Party and the populist Tea Party movement. What had gone wrong?

An important part of the answer can be found in the fact that the elections in November took place in an American society experiencing a crisis of self-confidence and morale that has provoked public bitterness and demagogy. This is accompanied by a legislative impasse on major social and economic issues that reflects mounting class and economic conflicts, and by a malfunctioning executive branch, with consequent failure to deal effectively with even routine matters of national infrastructure maintenance, transportation, state finance, and state and national administration.

The country is deeply divided on fundamental issues of foreign relations, and driven by simultaneous isolationist and imperialist impulses, both expressions of mounting national disorientation as to the American role in world affairs—self-dramatising victim and avenger of terrorism and radicalism on the one hand, and on the other, unsuccessful exporter of democracy and American political values and economic ideas, increasingly unwelcome abroad.

The politically most urgent problems confronting the Obama administration from its start have been unemployment, which reached 9.6 per cent in September, the reform of discredited financial institutions, and war. The country's foreign policy includes a strategic doctrine that has produced the global projection of American power and bases. This avowedly has been a search for total national security, accompanied by economic and energy invulnerability: goals which are implausible, and in their totality impossible for any president to achieve.

Behind this quest for total security lies an American conviction of separation from and superiority over a contaminated and contaminating 'rest of the world', originally producing a national policy of isolation from Europe that lasted until 1898 and the (colonial) war against Spain, and resumed between 1920 and 1941. This derives from the nation's religious foundation in New England millenarian Calvinism (the Puritan Pilgrims) and, for the majority of the early immigration, the enthusiastic acceptance of the reformist and evangelical doctrines of Methodism and the Baptists.

America's political origin in 16th and 17th century European colonisation produced an enduring national sense of political, cultural and moral isolation from Europe. The American colonies' successful revolt against Europe has ever since been understood as its defining event, the source of its virtue, its barrier against what has always been understood as the threat of that 'old' Europe (monarchical, authoritarian, unjust, and religiously oppressive) from whence it came, and whose continuing imperialism and pursuit of 'power politics' was until the mid-20th century considered the great threat and challenge faced by the United States. The American Navy's dossier of war plans was until the 1920s headed by the threat of war with the British Empire. Franklin Roosevelt considered that, next to defeating the Axis, the natural objective of the United States in the Second World War was to end European imperialism—as the war indeed accomplished.

The global policy America follows today may seem a reversal of this national historical and psychological legacy, but it is not. It is its perpetuation by means of the transformation achieved by Woodrow Wilson's conception in 1917 of world war to end war—an idea that has underpinned American policy ever since. It requires converting the rest of the world to American values, placing it under benevolent American rule. This initially failed when Wilson's League of Nations failed. It nonetheless has been American policy from the end of the Second World War to the Bush administration's interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, perpetuated today by the Obama administration.

That it has not, and logically cannot, succeed, is Barack Obama's (and the American nation's) fateful problem, and quite probably will cause his administration to end in failure. The forces in the Pentagon that compelled him to assume responsibility for the current, and thus far unsuccessful, second intervention in Afghanistan, are now presenting to him the argument that history itself demands from America permanent intervention in the non-western world, to impose peace and democracy, by force when necessary. As his current commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has recently said, this is the Long War—"a fight we're in for the rest of our lives, and probably our kids' lives."

It nonetheless can be argued, despite the contrary evidence of Iraq and Afghanistan, that the American people are nearing the brink of a renewed isolationism. The so-called 'war on terrorism' is emotionally founded on a deep desire by Americans to fend off and flee foreign threats. Even the national healthcare legislation Obama and the Democrats finally succeeded in having passed this year by Congress was bitterly opposed by many Americans primarily because it was 'European', 'socialist', 'foreign'—extending the power of federal government, and thereby alien to the American tradition of capitalist enterprise and individual independence.

The mid-September Republican Party primary elections produced disconcerting (to Republican incumbents, and national party leaders) victories by so-called Tea Party insurgent candidates. This greatly pleased the ascendant extreme-right faction in the party, and their media supporters, and appeared to increase the importance of this populist movement.

To some Republicans, possibly the more perspicacious, the Tea Party victories hinted of danger because of the uncontrollability and the ignorance of national or international affairs of many if not most of the Tea Party candidates, who too often came from circles given over to conspiracy (when not crackpot) theories and wild political rumour.

To some other Democrats, and non-party liberals or leftists, the Tea Party victories lent plausibility to a more dramatic interpretation of the American plight, that of an incipient American fascism. But while the George W Bush administration included many elected or appointed officials whose views were authoritarian, implicitly despotic, contemptuous of international law and domestic legal constraints, indifferent to civil liberties, and devoted to the interests of industrial monopoly, robber-baron finance, 'Big Oil', and the traditional right, these were not people running for office under the flag of the boiling teapot.

Tea Party enthusiasts tend to be anti-authoritarian, and suspicious of 
all government, including quasi-fascist government. The authoritarians, on the other hand, look upon the Tea Party movement as composed of useful idiots, as indeed they may prove to be, in putting the Bush-style 'hard Republican right' 
back into power.

Tea Party voters in America are usually middle- or lower-middle class citizens, with middling jobs or enterprises, who are essentially isolationist in attitude, distrustful of foreigners because foreigners include terrorists with incomprehensible motives and hostile religions, or are believers in such alien ideologies as socialism (not to speak of integrist Islam), or composed of Latinos or other coloured people crowding into America to outnumber and overwhelm 'native' Americans (needless to say, not American native people, but people of European stock with one or many generations' family history in the US). The Tea Potters do not understand that 'their' America was some time ago destroyed by outsourced industry, asset-stripping finance, trade globalisation, and other changes imposed on the American and world economies by that very free-market business ideology they uncritically defend, as well as by mass and frequently illegal immigration of poor Latin Americans to the United States who are willing to accept minimal wages and systematic exploitation, doing the manual labour Americans are no longer willing to do themselves. The people who vote for Tea Party candidates are voting to recapture an America that they and theirs have unwittingly destroyed—or unwillingly cooperated with economic predators to destroy.

The Tea Party also allies itself with the existing social conservatism (even among many Democratic voters) concerning abortion, and homosexual 'marriage' and adoption. These for years have been political causes of the fundamentalist and millenarian so-called 'religious right' but express values shared by most Catholics (Latino Catholics are the most rapidly growing minority in the United States) and Orthodox Jews.

Barack Obama's political intelligence and qualities have been amply 
demonstrated, but one can suggest that his qualifications for the presidency at this moment of national crisis have been seriously overestimated. In electoral matters there is always a tendency for supporters or observers to project their views onto the candidate they support, only to be disappointed or dismayed to discover that their own views are not those (in this case) of the man who is the 44th President of the United States. This phenomenon has been particularly important in the 
case of Barack Obama because of his intelligence and human qualities, among them the impulse to find common ground and cooperation that led him into the fiasco of his effort to cooperate with a Republican Party that seems to have lost all sense 
of non-corporate public interest—as have, in recent years, most of business and the financial community.

An aspect of being a man of consensus is vulnerability to the conventional wisdom. Obama's experience has been urban and metropolitan, one reason he has made 'ordinary Americans', who are neither, uneasy. He has also been a Democratic party man, figuring in one of the most successful big-city political machines in the United States. To 'get along' in a party machine, it is necessary to go along. It would seem to this writer that Obama's crucial weakness has been his willingness to function in the Democratic mainstream, accepting its judgments, and promoting its established policies.

Above all, this has been true in foreign affairs, in which he has no experience, and it would seem no intuitive judgment that might cause him to resist the platitudes and illusions that dominate American foreign policy and strategic discussion. The rationale for his presidential campaign commitment to the 'right war' in Afghanistan was never articulated. The allegedly most influential of his advisers in this matter even at the time emphasised his conviction that the real crisis in the region existed in Pakistan, possessor of nuclear weapons, whose own traditional strategic thinking, focused on the supposed threat from India, required that influence in Afghanistan be provided by Pakistan's support for the Taliban movement. This suggests that Obama's entourage accepted the eventuality of a conflict or armed (if necessary) 'democratisation' or domination of Pakistan, rather than limiting themselves to some kind of victory over the extremist religious sentiment and traditional xenophobia animating the Taliban in Afghanistan, and an element in the religious and political dynamics of the Pashtun people, who make up 40 per cent of Afghanistan's population. This would seem an astoundingly 
rash undertaking.

Obama, according to military witnesses themselves, has fallen under the spell of the uniform. The military inevitably have their own institutional interests to serve, and in the Afghan case their personal interests. General Petraeus has been described by colleagues and journalists (as was his predecessor in Kabul, Stanley McChrystal) as a man with major political ambitions. In Afghanistan, the counter-insurgency program for which Petraeus claims authorship, was first presented to the newly-elected President Obama in terms and to the accompaniment of publicity that made it seemingly impossible for the novice president to do other than endorse the program. He was, as said in Washington, 'bounced' into it.

There is no compelling reason why he could not have demanded a Pentagon program for strategic withdrawal, or turned to the State Department, whose profession is the search for political solutions and diplomatic resolution in difficult situations. One understands the political risk in this for Obama, but the potential political gain was (and continues to be) ignored. He is constitutionally the commander-in-chief of American policy and military forces, and the American government and even members of Obama's own entourage are deeply divided on the issue of perpetuating the Afghan war, not to speak of the 'global war on terrorism' inherited from George W Bush, which has the potential of destroying his presidency and his place in American history.