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Obama: His Words and His Deeds

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Charles Dharapak/AP Images
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in the Oval Office, May 20, 2011

In early June, a constitutional crisis faced Barack Obama over his defiance of the War Powers Act of 1973. The law requires the President to seek approval by Congress within sixty days of committing American forces to an armed conflict anywhere in the world. Two resolutions emerged and were debated in Congress to force compliance from Obama. One, drafted by the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, called for the President to give a justification of US actions in Libya. On June 3, the Boehner resolution passed by a vote of 268–145. An alternative resolution, drafted by Dennis Kucinich, the best-known anti-interventionist among Democrats, would have called for US withdrawal from Libya within fifteen days. The Kucinich resolution was defeated 148–265.

The debate and the two votes were the first major signs of congressional resistance to the aggrandizement of executive power begun by George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq and continued by Obama in Afghanistan and Libya. The reasons the President had cited in a letter to Congress for his circumvention of congressional approval of his actions in Libya betrayed a curious mixture of arrogance and disregard for the War Powers Act. The US military role in Libya, Obama said, was subordinate, and, since NATO was now in command, the Libya war hardly qualified as a war. Congress was free to discuss the matter if it liked, and he would welcome its approval, but in his view he acted within his legal powers in giving the orders without approval.

Few members of Congress as yet hold a fully articulated objection to America’s wars in Asia and North Africa. But other causes in play may trouble the President’s determination to show his sympathy with the Arab Spring by military action in Libya. Obama has an unfortunate propensity to be specific when it would serve him well to avoid particulars, and to become vague at times when dates, names, numbers, or “a line in the sand” is what is needed to clarify a policy. On Libya, he was specific. He said the American commitment would last “days, not weeks.” It has now lasted a little under three months. Reliable reporters such as Anthony Shadid of The New York Times and Patrick Cockburn of The Independent have suggested that an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight.

The narrow aim of enforcing a “no-fly zone” to protect civilians, asserted by Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton as the limit of American aims, turns out to have been a wedge for an air war against Qaddafi, a war, in fact, as thorough as is compatible with avoidance of harm to civilians. The surest thing one can say about the end of this engagement is that the US—along with France, Great Britain, and perhaps also Italy, which arranged the intervention—will at some point install a client state and fit out a friendly government with a democratic constitution. Nothing about the war affords any insight into the intermediate calculations of Obama and his collaborators, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron.

Obama was in Brasília on March 19 when he announced his authorization of “limited military action” in Libya. For that matter, he has been away from Washington for a large part of his two and a half years as president. This fact may be dwelt on excessively by his detractors, especially at Fox News, but its importance is scarcely acknowledged by his allies. (According to figures compiled at the end of 2010 by the CBS reporter Mark Knoller, Obama’s first twenty-three months in office saw seventy days on foreign trips and fifty-eight days on vacation trips.) He has gambled that it pays to present himself as a statesman above the scramble of something disagreeable called Washington.

Here he follows a path trodden by almost all his predecessors. Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush all affected the stance of outsider; only Bush Senior scorned to adopt the tactic (and could not have gotten away with it if he tried). Nor does taking such a position confer an automatic advantage. It worked well for Reagan until the Iran-contra scandal in 1986. Clinton was helped and hurt in about equal parts by the outsider pretense. For Carter and the younger Bush, it seems to have added to the impression of incompetence or disengagement. People came to think that there were things these men could have learned from Washington.

The anti-Washington tactic, and the extensive travel it licenses, have not worked well for Obama. He retains the wish to be seen as a man above party; and a more general distaste for politics is also involved. But what is Barack Obama if not a politician? By his tones of voice and selection of venues he has implied several possibilities: organizer, pastor, school principal, counselor on duties and values. Most prominently, over the past six months he seems to have improvised the role (from materials left behind by Reagan) of a kind of national host or “moderator” of the concerns of Americans. From mid-2009 through most of 2010, Obama embarked on solo missions to shape public opinion at town hall meetings and talk show bookings, but the preferred format now appears to be the craftily timed and planned and much-heralded ecumenical address. Obama’s televised speech on January 12 at the memorial service after the Tucson shooting was his first major venture on those lines. His speech on May 19 at the State Department was the second; and its announced subject was even more ambitious: the entire domain of US policy in the Middle East.

Being president of the world has sometimes seemed a job more agreeable to Barack Obama than being president of the United States. This goes with another predilection. Obama has always preferred the symbolic authority of the grand utterance to the actual authority of a directed policy: a policy fought for in particulars, carefully sustained, and traceable to his own intentions. The danger of the built-up speech venues—the Nobel Prize speech of December 2009 was another example—is that they cast Obama as the most famous holder-forth in the world, and yet it is never clear what follows for him from the fact that the world is listening. These settings make a president who is now more famous than popular seem not popular but galactic.

The speeches also display as a strength a personal trait that can seem, instead, an indulgence. For Obama, protracted moods of extreme abstraction seem to alternate with spasmodic engagement. The blend is hard to get used to. His detachment from congressional negotiations on health care and cap-and-trade was resented by Democrats, while leaders of the Palestinian Authority were at a loss to account for the dissociation from active pursuit of a settlement that followed his Cairo speech of June 2009. His decision to back the Libyan rebels was an instance of sudden engagement, against the prudential advice of a secretary of defense whom Obama trusts and admires.

The May 19 speech at the State Department brought together in a single performance Obama’s vagueness in defining a policy and his wish to embrace a challenge. A broad survey of the events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain committed him chiefly to giving money to the new governments of Tunisia and Egypt. He would move, he said, to ensure financial stability, promote reform, and integrate the emerging Arab democracies into the international economy. To Bahrain, the home of the US Fifth Fleet, he recommended “dialogue” between the government and the peaceful protesters whom it has attacked: “You can’t have real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”

Before an international audience, Obama tends to speak as if he were the United States addressing the world; and he treats the United States as the most grown-up country in the world. This is the picture he has conveyed in speeches from Oslo to New Delhi, and it was the picture he showed again in his Middle East address at the State Department. As, in February, Obama had wielded a grammar of imperative commandment whose authority was unclear (the “transition” in Egypt “must begin now”)—and as, in March, he seemed to trap himself in a similar grammar (Qaddafi “must go”)—so on May 19 the President remarked the imperative of a transition from despotism in Syria: “President Assad now has a choice. He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”

These commandments emanate from a special understanding of the uniqueness of America’s example. Nonviolent protest and peaceful reform, Obama sometimes seems to be saying, are the only means he can support, and constitutional democracy is the only political end he approves of. Some nations may take a long time to get there but that is another matter: we just want them to show themselves on the path. Yet he illustrated his position on May 19 by three American examples: the rebellion against the British Empire, the Civil War to abolish slavery, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Two of these three movements to widen American democracy were violent. Again, in Libya, he is supporting by arms a violent rebellion. The point is worth making only because the contradiction—which seems to have passed into his thinking undetected—must have been instantly obvious to his Arab listeners.

Obama, as much as any American leader, is captivated by an image of America as the world-historical touchstone of generous conduct toward other nations. This understanding had emerged in his Nobel Prize speech, with a nationalist shading oddly mismatched to the occasion:

The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest—because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

The phrase about having “borne this burden” may have looked back to John Kennedy, but Obama’s self-assurance, in speaking for a patriotism innocent of selfishness, went even further back to the liberalism of William Gladstone. “The high office of bringing Europe into concert, and keeping Europe in concert, is an office specially pointed out for your country to perform,” Gladstone told a British audience in 1880. “That happy condition, so long as we are believed to be disinterested in Europe, secures for us the noblest part that any Power was ever called upon to play.” It seems a peculiar temptation for one kind of leader—the head of an empire—to suppose as Gladstone did and Obama does that a policy of national self-interest will prove identical with a policy of international nobility and self-sacrifice.

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Franco Pagetti/VII
A damaged poster of Muammar Qaddafi, Benghazi, Libya, March 2011

Obama in his Nobel Prize speech—which was in large part a defense of American conduct after 1945 and in smaller part a plea for the legitimation of humanitarian wars such as he has now committed the US to support in Libya—went on to say of the duties of a great power: “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.” The idioms of duty and utility are strangely mixed in that sentence. How can we be sure that an act that the President would like the world to see as benevolent will be seen as benevolent? It is surely easier to have that feeling if one knows oneself as the preeminent power, and believes oneself to be carried forward by the momentum of the world. Anyway, Obama appears to entertain as few doubts about this feeling as any of his predecessors. He implied to his audience in Oslo, and again in Washington on May 19, that the world wants commercial democracy. The current metaphor for that condition is “social networks.”

Only a fraction of Obama’s May 19 speech was allotted to Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet the concrete language of that part—which contained names and dates, if not numbers—drew immediate and heated comment. The most controversial sentence was doubtless this: “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” It was a plain statement of an obvious truth. Obama, in addition, said that the shape of a Palestinian state would be based on the 1967 borders of Israel, only altered in accordance with “mutually agreed [land] swaps.”

This had been the common understanding and phraseology of American-Israeli-Palestinian discussions over two decades; but in the past several years, the word “1967” was used less than before; and this became the detail Benjamin Netanyahu seized upon. Immediately after the speech, he issued a statement in Jerusalem that the 1967 borders of Israel were “indefensible.” He repeated the same objection after he met with Obama in the White House. The differences between the two leaders were played out once more in their speeches to the annual AIPAC convention.

Without backing down, Obama explained the meaning of his reference to 1967: the borders of course would not stay the same, but land swaps would offset the differences. This candor, on the occasions when Obama shows it, is an impressive quality, and it seemed to be appreciated even by the AIPAC audience. Besides, on May 19 he conceded most of what Netanyahu could have asked. He alluded to Gaza only once. He offered no criticism of new Israeli settlements, as he had done in Cairo two years ago, and made no mention of the dispossession of Palestinians on the West Bank.

From his silence on these points, it was clear that after the failure of the most recent shuttle diplomacy and the resignation of George Mitchell on May 13, Obama personally planned to initiate no further negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He trusted that under the visible pressure of an Arab Spring of their own, now gathering on both sides of Israel’s borders, most Israelis would eventually see his words as a kindly prophecy.

Netanyahu struck back as if Obama had mounted a deliberate assault with a threat of lasting enmity. Yet Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC was emollient compared to his speech to Congress on May 24. There he made a conquest that can have few precedents. He began with brash familiarity, in a backslapping salute to Joe Biden; spoke with boyish humor about his early years as a diplomat within the Beltway, and his knowledge of an America beyond it; reestablished, with passion and simplicity, the close ties between America and Israel that Obama had sought to view with an impartial loyalty; in short, pulled out all the stops to undercut President Obama on his native ground. The speech itself was a tissue of clichés, anecdotes, and half-truths, but delivered with dramatic buoyancy and urgency as if his life depended on it.

Congress gave Netanyahu twenty-nine standing ovations. How did he do it? By presenting himself to his audience as an all-but-American politician—one less lucky than they, and more brave, a leader with a fight on his hands; a real fight, in his own backyard and not six thousand miles away. He spoke with gusto of his part in an earlier episode of that never-ending war:

I was nearly killed in a firefight inside the Suez Canal—I mean that literally: inside the Suez Canal. I was going down to the bottom, with a forty-pound pack, ammunition pack on my back, and somebody reached out to grab me and they’re still looking for the guy who did such a stupid thing.

Netanyahu did not speak of the subsidized increase of Israeli settlements that accounts for the “certain facts on the ground” he had mentioned at the White House. He invoked the biblical names of Judea and Samaria as if they were as natural to modern Israel as St. Louis is to the state of Missouri. And Congress loved him, or seemed to think it should, from the very moment when he said in a flattering exordium: “Congratulations America. Congratulations, Mr. President. You got bin Laden. Good riddance!” The performance combined the maximum of demagogy with the maximum of smarm, and it mixed aggression, paternalism, and a preening collective self-love, in proportions that Netanyahu assumed Americans would be comforted by. Israel, this speech said, has everything in common with America. We are the home of freedom and wisdom among the ancients, just as you Americans are among the moderns.

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was also part of a larger strategy of his right-wing coalition. He got his invitation to address Congress from Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, and the Republican Party is now working to detach Jewish donors from the Democrats and to convert Republicans at large to the Likud and neoconservative politics that support a greater Israel. In the pitch offered to Americans, taking sections of the West Bank from Palestinians is as warranted as the taking of lands from American Indians. Mike Huckabee has indicated his sympathy with this point of view. Sarah Palin wore a Star of David on her necklace in her recent liberty tour. Glenn Beck has planned a mass event, “Restoring Courage,” on August 24 at the Southern Wall excavations in the city of Jerusalem. Americans of the chauvinist and evangelical right are being invited to think of Israel as a second homeland.

Considered as a response to this predicament, Obama’s speech at the State Department, with its broad-gauge pronouncements and its candor regarding Palestine, was utterly overmatched by Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. It is an unhappy fact of politics that victory goes to the pressure that will not let up. Netanyahu’s belief in his immoderate purpose is stronger than Obama’s belief in his moderate purpose.

Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution divided government into two components, the dignified part and the efficient part. The dignified part is concerned with matters of ceremony, the arrangement and conduct of state occasions for celebration or mourning, the issuance of joint communiqués with foreign leaders and commands delivered from a majestic height. The efficient part is the part of government that governs—by making laws above all, but also by striking bargains between factions, and filling the positions of upper, middle, and lower functionaries, and threshing out party platforms on the way to becoming laws.

Barack Obama from the start of his presidency has exhibited an almost exclusive taste for the dignified part of government. During the BP oil spill, his remoteness from the plod and toil of problem-solving showed day after day. That was a “teachable moment,” if ever there was one: a public catastrophe that implicated the environment and energy resources close to home for all Americans. The moment escaped this president, as the nuclear disaster in Japan has also escaped him. He never broke a sweat as he could have—literally and figuratively—by descending into the muck on the spoiled Louisiana beaches. Few presidents have ever seemed farther than Obama from being “in the thick of things.” The impression came back as he left Washington with Netanyahu triumphant, and took a plane for Ireland to speak of hope and peace.

Obama’s management of the killing of bin Laden is the one action of his presidency in which his leadership has seemed beyond challenge. “Revenge,” wrote Francis Bacon, “is a kind of wild justice,” and that sentiment fitted the reactions of most Americans on hearing the news. Obama guided the popular feeling when he said “Justice has been done.” Yet revenge and justice are, to the citizens of a constitutional democracy, different ideas, and a leader more scrupulous or less confused would take pains to keep them separate. A string of questions in any case soon became a drag on the event. How could bin Laden’s residence in a prominent house in a garrison town have been concealed for so long? Did elements of the Pakistani intelligence service know of this hideout? What now prevents American commanders in the field from concluding that our allies are acting in complicity with our enemies? The aftermath of the bin Laden killing has left the US as deeply entangled as ever in a hostile region, with no prospect of amelioration from any extension of the present policy.

On May 26, at the urging of the President, the Senate and House voted to renew the Patriot Act. Obama signed it with a teleportable pen, from France. He has said that he would look to the future, not the past—a slogan that nullifies the large part of justice that consists of accountability—but here was an element of the Bush-Cheney past that he chose to project into the future with as little discussion as possible. Obama’s real trouble has come, however, in his attempts to inhabit the present. He is slower to react than most people, far slower than most politicians. He gave away six months of the health care debate without pressing his initial advantage while the resistance sprang up all around, the Tea Party was created, and congressional enemies gained on him. He let the controversy over his birth certificate blow up to absurd proportions over two and a half years before dispelling all doubts at a stroke in a press briefing that was hastily called and testily managed. At present, he is waiting for Afghanistan to calm down and let him withdraw troops on a deliberate schedule. But things can flare up while you are waiting, or flare up elsewhere and set back every cautious preparation.

The position of a moderate who aspires to shake the world into a new shape presents a continuous contradiction. For the moderate feels constrained not to say anything startling, and not to do anything very fast. But just as there is trouble with doing things on the old lines, there is trouble, too, with letting people understand things on the old lines. At least, there is if you have your sights set on changing the nature of the game. Obama is caught in this contradiction, and keeps getting deeper in it, like a man who sinks in quicksand both the more he struggles and the more he stays still. This is one lesson of his passage from inaction in Egypt to action in Libya, and from his summons of reform in Cairo in June 2009 to the guarded speech from the sidelines in May 2011.

Netanyahu made the “existential threat” of Iran a major part of his appeal to Congress, as was to be expected. And this is probably the final terrain on which, in the next two years, Obama will have to confront the difference between the reformist intentions he cherishes and the conventional signals he has been sending. In 2007, there were many signs that the neoconservative policy elite, and the Office of the Vice President, wanted the US to back Israel or combine with Israel in an attack on Iran. They were thwarted by Admiral William Fallon, the commander of CentCom, and a letter from the Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to President Bush, and a few other acts of resistance from persons in authority. Most of all, the case for attacking Iran was defeated by the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which declared that no evidence existed of an Iranian nuclear program that could yield a weapon.

The 2011 NIE has now appeared, and it says much the same. But it has been kept under wraps by the Obama administration, in a manner reminiscent of the way the 2007 NIE was suppressed, as far as possible, by Cheney and Bush. According to Seymour Hersh, writing in the June 6 New Yorker, American intelligence has found “no conclusive evidence” that an Iranian weapons program exists. A June 3 New York Times article by Ethan Bronner backs up the Hersh report with testimony from Israeli sources. Meir Dagan, the recently retired head of Mossad, and other senior members of the Israeli intelligence establishment are now warning Israel, and by implication warning America, not to fall in with the adventurism of Netanyahu—the war fever he is drumming up in two countries with no foundation in an actual threat.

Yet Obama’s national security advisers have disparaged Hersh’s findings as warmly as if they were still seeking a pretext to attack Iran. And the tight inner circle around Obama has denied a visit with the President to informed dissenters on Iran policy like Thomas Pickering. As a Times editorial pointed out on June 13, the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency cites new reasons for calling on Iran to disclose the possible “military dimensions” of its nuclear program. Plainly the answers to such questions will form a necessary part of any negotiations between Iran and the US. Meanwhile, the attempt to isolate the President from views such as Pickering’s seems full of hazard; though presidents who are said to be victims of isolation, from Johnson to Reagan to Obama, have become so by staying close to persons who shield them from unwelcome stimuli. In the same way, one recalls, on Afghanistan Obama declined offers of help by dissenters from the Petraeus-McChrystal escalation policy, even when they came from officials as well placed as Karl Eikenberry and Richard Holbrooke.

In appointing a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama passed over the person who was said to have been his first choice, General James Cartwright, the former vice-chairman of JCOS: a skeptic on Afghanistan who had become a trusted adviser of the President. He has appointed instead General Martin Dempsey, who had served as head of Tradoc (Training and Doctrine Command for American ground forces). The Israeli newspaper Haaretz devoted a June 1 article to the appointment of Dempsey under the headline: “Obama’s New Security Staff May Approve Attack on Iran.” The author of the article, the military correspondent Amir Oren, finds it significant that Dempsey has studied closely the operations of the Israeli Defense Forces, and that he worked at Tradoc with an IDF liaison officer. This appointment can stand as the first of many footnotes to the encounter, in late May 2011, between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu.

June 16, 2011

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