Thursday, December 3, 2009

Things Fall Apart

Barack Obama is losing friends. Gary Wills' post at the New York Review blog might as well stand in for the others (though its patronizing tone--"I was deeply invested in the success of our first African-American president"--is Wills' own). Obama, so goes the argument, is fighting a war that will not defeat enemies but will only produce more. This is his Vietnam, which is the more galling since he knows very well what happened in Vietnam. He has "betrayed" the people who supported him.

Others, well, huff that he is nothing but a conciliator, hugging the "center" at every opportunity. Just look at his unwillingness to nationalize the banks, or willingness to entertain alternatives to a Medicare style public option. He must be hanging out too much with Wall Street swells. The New York Times narcissism police (which has no internal investigation unit, apparently) told us he is a "cold shower" even to his close friends; during the campaign, the same investigator charged that the child of black and white parents simply cannot stop himself from trying to please everybody. You get the idea.

For my part, I confess my admiration for Obama is only growing as I watch him navigate the extraordinary tangle of decisions he confronts. And for what it's worth, I think the (bi-)racial profiling of Obama misses the point, too. I do not see a child who is trying to please everybody. I see a man who understands that we mainly inherit what happened before we come into responsibility (and I don't just mean his administration inheriting the mistakes of the Bush presidency); that things fall apart much as Achebe, like Conrad before him, warned us they do; that if we struggle to improve things, we must simultaneously struggle to hold together whatever institutions are more or less working, or we are going to create something much, much worse.

I DON'T KNOW any more about Afghanistan than Wills does, which is impressionistic (impressions reinforced, or distorted, I confess, by many drives to the South Hebron hills, where some of my hosts still live in caves). I am willing to believe that Afghanistan is, at best, a chaotic and backward and ruined place; that people in the war zone there (as reported in this poignant report) shoot at chickens to test life preserving amulets. Let us say that, inevitably, Afghanistan will be ruled by a kleptocracy during our lifetimes; that the best we could ever hope for is to shore up an area around Kabul, which gives a certain freedom to women and a leg up to a narco-mafia over the more traditional warlords. You listen to journalist Rory Stewart, certainly, and you conclude that building a modern, democratic Afghanistan is a fantasy.

The point is, what in Obama's speech or policy would lead one to believe he thinks any differently? He did not get us into this mess. So far as I can see, his strategy is contrived to keep the place from falling apart in the event of a too-rapid withdrawal, a prospect that horrifies Stewart himself: think of Cambodia, not just Vietnam. Besides, the real danger to the region would be chaos in Pakistan, not only Afghanistan. Is the Pakistani government asking for a wholesale American withdrawal now? If there is not a wholesale withdrawal, then how to make America's troops not become sitting ducks?

Is there anything in Obama's speech that would preclude trying to reach an accommodation with local warlords, as in Iraq, so that American and NATO troops can be drawn down at the end of next year? Is there any fear of a "wider war" with another superpower? If this is Obama's Vietnam, or even his Iraq, where is the domino theory, or the hollow call for "freedom," or the Kissingerian claim that withdrawal would damage American "credibility," or the cavalier attitude toward allies, or the attempt to have butter without paying for the guns?

And while I'm getting warmed up, would we really have been better off nationalizing the banks, bonuses or no bonuses, wiping out the shareholders (including our pension funds) and rebuilding their management from scratch? Were we right to assume a recovery that was years away, so that toxic assets would remain toxic for years? Let's assume, which is certainly arguable, that a Medicare-like public option is really the best way to contain costs; lets' assume that private insurance companies and non-profit cooperatives (which for all their perverse incentives work, after all) cannot be regulated to serve the commonwealth as well as a government program. Has Obama been failing to stake his presidency on this option because he's lacked courage since childhood or because he's simply been able to count to 41 since March?

Look, this is a man who organized his Chicago community backed by the Catholic church. When he refused to denounce governments working through faith-based services, progressives denounced him as pandering to the right. He refused to denounce the Supreme Court for valorizing the Second Amendment, but tried to come up with new ways to control guns and apply their ruling. As president, he might have let GM fold--that would serve them right!--but he took the time to see the company's potential and, by next fall, he will have made us all majority stakeholders in the world's most advanced electric car and supplier ecosystem. He invested the stimulus in things that will matter in the years ahead, though he could have sent us shopping to gin up unemployment numbers: "cash for what-not." And is his call for bi-partisanship really just playing into the hands of them. He said on "Sixty Minutes" a while back that it was his responsibility to make decency to adversaries "interesting." I could have kissed him for that.

Oh, and he said what he was going to do in Afghanistan. He said it to a million people in Berlin, for God's sake. Look at the way he's engaged China and Russia on a deeply important trip he's got not credit for, except from Jim Fallows, who thankfully is paying attention.

I DO NOT have Obama's temperament, so let me say to my progressive friends that we are courting disaster. There is betrayal here, but it is not Obama's betrayal of us. I saw this kind of thing before with Jimmy Carter, where the president suffered death by a thousand cuts from the people on his left, Kennedy included; people who couldn't deliver the Congress, but could deliver endless polemics against his fear of budget busting or his more pragmatic health care proposals--and they wound up clearing the path for Ronald Reagan. Just listen to Rick Hertzberg, who like Fallows was in Carter's White House, to learn what a cold shower losing was.

We like to think that "independents," where Obama's ratings are slipping, are the really judicious types. In fact, people who remained undecided the longest during the last election were people who could not easily think for themselves; people who were waiting to see what other people were going to do; people who never want to be thought suckers. A big part of Obama's slippage is coming because the most conspicuously progressive people in the Democratic tent think nothing of "going negative" the way Hilary did, and over things Obama either cannot control or may yet prove right about.

We are fanning public anger against Obama about pain Obama did not cause; refusing to see how many in our benighted public are just looking to see if he continues to inspire loyalty and electricity among the people they had flocked to last year. We are sickened by the right but seem not to see how those waiting in the wings are counting on the Democratic Party falling apart, too.

"If we had wanted Bush’s wars, and contractors, and corruption, we could have voted for John McCain. At least we would have seen our foe facing us, not felt him at our back, as now we do," Wills writes. Really. You'd rather have McCain and Palin in the White House, facing you squarely. Then you'd know who your enemy is. Then the world would make sense.


Potter said...

There is much good to be said about Obama and certainly I do not wish we had McCain/ Palin. I read Gary Wills and also some of the opposing comments on it which are interesting and ring true.

I think Mr. Wills is suffering from having hoped too much that Obama would not be a war President at all when we had no such pledge from him. On the other hand I suspect that the Afghanistan decision is more about politics than actually about our security. I have no idea where we are going either. I can't say this feels right.

My own disappointment has to do with the feeling that Obama cannot stand up for principles that he lead us to feel he believed in, that got us enthused. Nothing wrong with listening to everyone, but in the end I expected to feel more of his own center which I was willing to trust more than the country's center going forward. I wanted to see enlightened leadership. And I don't mean making impossible sharp turns of the wheel.

We have no indication that a strategy to keep Afghanistan from falling apart will not be a tar pit, one that increases the jihadist recruits while giving them training in fighting us ( sounds familiar) as we try to make friends with (and learn the customs and languages of) the local warlords who have what incentive to cooperate with us or Karzai/ a central government?

On having butter and guns where does Obama mention how we are to pay for this at this time ( 1 billion per soldier/year I believe)?

The domino comparison (rather linkage) is the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan- Kashmir-India- Iran... and the nuclear issue. The comparison made to Viet Nam is not that specific - it's more about getting stuck, not being able to leave, having to leave with honor, having to win, losing lives to make those who lost their lives not be in vain- and about credibility. There would be those ( no doubt on the right) who will say we never finish what we start etc.

I enthusiastically voted for Obama- and I would, given the choices, vote for him again. I was not one of those that had unrealistic expectations, but I am now somewhat chilled. I did read Jacob Weisberg's positive piece in Slate but I was very much affected and more in sync with what Bob Herbert of the NYTimes had to say in his column A Tragic Mistake

If Obama "kicked the can down the road" as some are saying, I find that I can't kick my confidence in him down the road too. It has suffered.

Anonymous said...

He's pulled the country back from the another great depression. In foreign policy he is pragmatic on Afghanistan, and idealistic on the middle east: I think with some luck we will get a two state solution in Israel/Palestine. If his health policy can be executed in a fiscally sound way - and he has the talent to do it - he will have saved us from a looming entitlement spending disaster and provided a great social service. I think there will be a statue of him on capitol hill yet...

Potter said...

I correct myself- the amount per soldier/year has been estimated at $1 million ( times 30,000) added to previous and other costs. As well I understand that we will have 104,100 non-military contractors in Afghanistan.
Also see Nicholas Kristof's Johnson, Gorbachev,Obama

John said...

Thanks for this. I may be the only other person who thinks the guy is doing a workmanlike job coping with one of the largest steaming pile of you-know-what left in Washington by any administration in my lifetime... with the possible exception of the aftermath of the Nixon era which unfortunately fell on poor Gerald Ford.

He's been in office less than a year but he was engaged in formative decision-making almost within hours of the election. Managing a smooth transition from one train wreck to another is no mean trick, but he pulled it off with elegance to spare.

Facing a no-win situation in Asia he has made the best of several stinking options. I think civilian contractors and defense jobs have been part of the policy metric but I haven't heard anyone else link fighting unemployment with military deployment.

I heard on TV last week that the new Secretary of Education has more money at his disposal than all his predecessors together. ARRA incentives are driving health IT standardization and implementation even before any health care legislation passes. Comparative effectiveness is taking hold despite political smear tactics.

This guy and his administration push every envelope whenever they get a chance. At the rate they are going they will achieve more in one term than most presidents do in two.

Barack Obama will look much better in retrospect than he does at the moment. Just wait.

Dana said...

Bernard - if threading needles were something deserving of admiration, we would have elected a taylor, or the great triangulator herself, Hillary (didn't do too well in the ME did she though? 'unprecedented indeed...).

I am one of the progressives Obama is losing in a hurry. primarily because I see him as having capitulated to the ruling oligarchy that's running the country. I am not saying it's easy to withstand the extreme pressures of corporate (/moneyed) america but I was hoping Obama could try harder or at least make a go of it at the first year (which would have probably resulted in .... I dread to think). I knew we had trouble when he picked rahm as COS. The sinking feeling intensified with the appointment of geithner/summers - the architects of the economic breakdown - and the pretend "recovery". Then it was the political pandering with hillary as SOS, not to mention the dropping of good people like chas freeman and the major sliding on civil rights and the continuing nonsense of 'war on terror' + being bitch slapped by yahoo.

I am with craig Roberts that Obama has become a puppet of forces that are too powerful for him - or anyone - to stand up to. Perhaps he still may not realize who or what plays him and to what end (hinbt: it's not one simple end). As they would any president. Who are those forces? follow the money has always been a good advise; which means follow the oil (since by now Obama must have been informed that the peak has come and gone), and follow the war - the military-industrial complex needs one all the time. That's just for starters.

Here's my prediction: nothing will happen on I/P just a long drag to hell's bottom; the economy will spatter along but the globalist model is in for a rude awakening; there'll be permanent bases in Iraq, afganistan, columbia etc. - that promised draw-down is nonsense - we all know that; finally some HCR will pass but it'll quickly be realized that it's a trojan horse - one that dooms the middle class entitlements of medicare and SS rather than add a new one (republicans too are out to lunch on that one.).

Bernard - you are such an incorrigible optimist. You even think there'll be a "2-state" "solution" or that israel can stop its speedy lurch ever rightward. where destiny awaits.

Potter said...

I just read a very thoughtful piece in the NYRB by Agha and Malley. On the I/P front they give Obama a scathing review and could not be more pessimistic about Obama based on what we have seen so far. Truth is he gives great speeches but so far we have seen little spine, little courage of his convictions, too willing to let it be known that he will soften on principle almost immediately-- and Netanyahu ( as well as Abbas) has taken advantage, played him like an instrument.

Israel & Palestine: Can They Start over?
( the last idea they offer sounds right to me)

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