Barack Obama writes a 5,000-word manifesto on "Renewing American leadership" in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. I was expecting fresh, bold new thinking-the audacity of liberalism. What I got instead was a Republican hawk in Kennedy clothing. If this is what we are to expect from the new generation of Democratic leaders, Bush's legacy has nothing to fear. It's writhing with life under a new guise. Call it neo-conservatism with a human face.
Obama's essay hits all the right tones: Optimism, ambition, hope, American exceptionalism. It's your basic stump-speech style. He brackets the piece in references to FDR, with a little Truman and JFK thrown in. He delivers the kind of lofty one- and two-liners designed to get applause at a political convention: "We must lead the world, by deed and by example." "The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew." "Our global engagement cannot be defined by what we are against; it must be guided by a clear sense of what we stand for." But this is Foreign Affairs. He can skip the fawning and flattery, which sounds no different than standard-issue speechifying. Give us your program. But what little of it he does give beyond the high-minded rhetoric sounds, with a couple of exceptions, strangely stale and uncomfortably familiar. Obama is going out of his way to sound tough, nationalistic, and most of all, grown up. I've heard that urge before. We've been deafened by it for the last seven years by the current president and his inferiority complex.
The essay's opening reference to FDR's Four Freedoms is deceptive. Those freedoms, Obama writes, "gave purpose to our struggle against fascism." Perhaps he should have listed them: Freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear. The "purpose" wasn't yet the fight against fascism: Roosevelt delivered the speech in January 1941, a year before the country was dragged into war. The purpose held true universally, not just as a counterpoint to fascism. We don't get that sense of universalism from Obama's purposes in this essay. The Four Freedoms barely make it past their initial cameo, anyway. What we get is oppositional arguments. We must do so and so not because it's inherently good, but because-and here, fill in the blanks-we must fight al-Qaeda, restore alliances, ensure that the United States can still compete globally and against China ( China?!). At the very end of the essay he cites Kennedy's line about helping the world's poor to help themselves "because it is right," but by then it feels like an insurance quote so the previous 4,000 words don't get misinterpreted as USDA Grade A expedience.
His opening paragraphs restate, explicitly, America's role as self-appointed leader of the world and bearer of The Truth. That posture may have been bearable, if briefly demonstrably true, in the 1940s and early 1950s. But only Americans who refuse to hear the rest of the world still speak of the United States in Superman terms, as "Leader of the Free World." The United States is a leader. It isn't the leader: that's the inherent assumption of institutions like the G8, the UN's Security Council, even NATO, if NATO is to survive. No European Union nation considers the United Statesthe leader of the free world, especially not since the debacles those nations have witnessed and scorn they've endured from the Bush administration. So what's Obama doing when he's calling for a rebuilding of international institutions? "The mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity"-as long as the world understands that America leads. Which means the rest follow. This is a restatement of the Bush doctrine in humbler terms, and without much substance behind it. A "common security and a common humanity" meets the objectives of a Sunday sermon. It doesn't tell us what Obama means by that common humanity, nor how he'd achieve it. What he does say angles away from "common humanity" and back to a staunchly America-centered world-view.
That world view restates the threats facing the United States in Bush's hyperbolic terms. The notion that al-Qaeda, for all its terrorism, represents a threat as vast and dangerous as fascism or communism has been a staple of the Bush doctrine. Al-Qaeda in particular and terrorism by definition could never amount to a threat on the level of fascism or communism. Terrorism is a crude and short-range method, not a program nor an ideology nor a sustainable enterprise. Yet here's Obama again, reinvigorating the absurd premise: "This century's threats are at least as dangerous as and in some ways more complex than those we have confronted in the past. They come from weapons that can kill on a mass scale and from global terrorists who respond to alienation or perceived injustice with murderous nihilism. They come from rogue states allied to terrorists and from rising powers that could challenge both America and the international foundation of liberal democracy. They come from weak states that cannot control their territory or provide for their people. And they come from a warming planet that will spur new diseases, spawn more devastating natural disasters, and catalyze deadly conflicts." That last, about global warming, is the closest he gets to an accurate comparison to global, existential threats. But conflating it with the threats of terrorism or rogue militarism confuses the issue to the point of sensationalism. Global warming aside, "this century's threats" are not as or more dangerous than the last. They've been made more dangerous than they are because of rhetorical exaggerations and catastrophic strategic mistakes: Bush calling the war on terror a war, and Bush fighting it by expanding it to Iraq while neglecting it in Afghanistan. If terrorism had been fought globally as effectively as it has been in the Philippines (for example), which is how some of us wanted it fought beginning on Sept. 12, 2001, the facile language of war that presidential candidates are using today, left and right, would have been shown to be folly. As it is, the language's folly pales compared to its ongoing execution.
Obama gets worse. Repeating his idea for a "phased withdrawal" from Iraq only to call it a "redeployment" in the same breath (the coy deflection from cutting and running, which is what this is and what it must be, dates back to Ronald Reagan calling the Marines' withdrawal from Beirut in 1984 a "redeployment"), he leaves open the door for a longer stay "if the Iraqi government meets the security, political, and economic benchmarks to which it has committed" and settles on the deceptive language of a permanent stay in the form of "a minimal over-the-horizon military force in the region to protect American personnel and facilities." Facilities? The previous line-I'm not kidding you-was this: "[W]e must make clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq." It isn't Obama's only blatant contradiction (more of those in a moment), although what Iraqis and other Mideasterners will read in this passage is nothing new under American policy's sun.
There's more to Obama's hawkish compulsions. He wants military ranks increased by 100,000. In this, he sounds indistinguishable from Mitt Romney's prescription for the military, in the same issue of Foreign Affairs: "First, we need to increase our investment in national defense. This means adding at least 100,000 troops and making a long-overdue investment in equipment, armament, weapons systems, and strategic defense. The need to support our troops is repeated like a mantra in Washington. Yet little has been said about the commitment of resources needed to make this more than an empty phrase." But where has the case been made for an expanded military force, if not for expanded and semi-permanent military commitments abroad? And who at this point ought to be enabling existing commitments, let alone expanded ones? We remain by far the nation with the biggest and costliest military in the world. The Pentagon's budget is well in excess of all other nations' military budgets combined. There's not a force on earth that can challenge the military conventionally. It doesn't need expansion. It may need some redirection. It certainly needs considerable contraction: There's no need for a fleet of 400 ships, no need for a $10-billion-a-year "missile shield," no need for the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, no need for an endless list of military procurement that does nothing for the defense of the country and everything to grease the job-making base of a few congressman. And there's no need for an American presence in Europe anymore. Those forces should redeploy. The Pentagon is sucking the marrow out of the federal budget and making a Sparta of this alleged "city upon a hill."
Yet what does Obama do? He does Romney one better. He breaks down the numbers: "We should expand our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the army and 27,000 marines." He restates the doctrine of using the military for nation-building: "We must also consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense in order to provide for the common security that underpins global stability -- to support friends, participate in stability and reconstruction operations, or confront mass atrocities." And he restates Bush's doctrine of pre-emption, as in the case of Iran if it becomes necessary because "It is far too dangerous to have nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical theocracy" (because it's not dangerous to have them in the hands of a dictatorship like Pakistan? Or in the hands of the only nation that has used them?) Henry Kissinger must be on Obama's speed-dial. Just in case the jingoes haven't got the point that Obama is all for the bang-bang, he notes again, using that metaphor so beloved by every Fox News talking head plus terminology of Rumsfeld vintage, how "we must also become better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale."
That last, incidentally, is another considerable contradiction. Three pages earlier Obama is lecturing us about how the "Bush administration responded to the unconventional attacks of 9/11 with conventional thinking of the past, largely viewing problems as state-based and principally amenable to military solutions." So what's this business about boots on the ground again? Intelligence, in every sense, is absent.
Obama does emphasize diplomacy. He's been reading Dennis Ross' "Statecraft." But Obama's openings are severely restricted. Iran and Syria are OK to talk to. But there's no mention of opening a dialogue with Hamas, let alone Hezbollah, the Taliban or al-Qaeda. So his international diplomatic initiatives are stuck in the very same "conventional thinking of the past, largely viewing problems as state-based," that he so eagerly and justly criticizes Bush for. On Israel, the best he can say is the same old rehash about Israel being "our strongest ally in the region" (a doubtful assertion anymore) and this incredibly obtuse prescription from a few decades back: "we must help the Israelis identify and strengthen those partners who are truly committed to peace, while isolating those who seek conflict and instability." In other words, don't talk to Hamas. How different is that from the Bush approach? Not very. Obama's thinking is muddy, haphazard, half-baked. And every few paragraphs - like money shots in porno movies - he throws in his bit of brawn to remind us again and again what a tough man he is: "To defeat al Qaeda, I will build a twenty-first-century military and twenty-first-century partnerships as strong as the anticommunist alliance that won the Cold War to stay on the offense everywhere from Djibouti to Kandahar." Take cover.
His understanding of this modern-day terrorism seems simplistic to infantile, too. He quotes an unnamed, "senior U.S. military commander" saying how "when people have dignity and opportunity, 'the chance of extremism being welcomed greatly, if not completely, diminishes.'" The thinking is as harebrained as the syntax. As Lawrence Wright reminds us in "The Looming Tower," terrorism's founders, leaders and ideological gurus-Qutb, bin Laden, Zawahiri-are all the product of middle class wealth. The rank-and-file follows the same pattern. According to the research of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist at the American University in Cairo who studied Egypt's political prisoners, "most of the Islamist recruits were young men from villages who had come to the city for schooling. The majority were the sons of mid-level bureaucrats. They were ambitious and tended to be drawn to the fields of science and engineering, which accept only the most qualified students. They were not the alienated, marginalized youth that a sociologist might have expected." The same can be said of the 9/11 hijackers. The same is being said of Britain's current boil of would-be terrorists-doctors and such, for Khadija's sake. Obama's thinking about terrorism is stuck in a romanticism as pre-conceived and inaccurate as notions of the noble savage. It sounds good to the masses. It's simple. But it's false.
I could go on. But to say what? That Obama decries Darfur but doesn't say what he'd do about it? That he wants to give nations like Brazil, India and Nigeria- Nigeria, one of the most corrupt, violent, repressive, U.S.-supported nations on the planet-"a stake in upholding the international order" without explaining what he means? He goes as far as saying that American foreign aid for the last 20 years "has done little more than keep pace with inflation," but for all of Bush's endless faults, the one thing he has accomplished is spike the amount of money going to foreign aid, such as it is. The problem isn't the amount. It's its spending restrictions to military purposes or American goods. Is Obama proposing to change that racket? He doesn't say. He proposes to increase aid to $50 billion a year by 2012. Let's see now. Even if the $50 billion was measured against today's economy, that would amount to 0.38 percent of American GDP. That's still well below the 0.7 percent agreed to by the European Union (by 2015), and of course well below the percentage contributed by Sweden (1 percent) and other Scandinavian countries, which come in at 0.8 percent or more. (See the chart here.) By 2012, Obama's pledge will actually amount to barely 0.3 percent. Again, a projection that sounds much better than it really is. Again, a page out of Bush tactics.
Obama's last segment is called "Restoring America's Trust." But by then I've lost trust in Obama. "We can be this America again," he writes, evoking the days "not all that long ago [when] farmers in Venezuela and Indonesia welcomed American doctors to their villages and hung pictures of JFK on their living room walls, when millions, like my father, waited every day for a letter in the mail that would grant them the privilege to come to America to study, work, live, or just be free." In that case why is he painting himself as just another Democrat posing as a Republican and using every sly trick in the book so recently written by George W. Bush? The answer, too, is stale. It isn't Obama's. It's the two-party system, triumphant.
© 2007 Pierre Tristam