Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Commentary on Andrew Sullivan's Endorsement of Obama

Andrew Sullivan's December 2007 Atlantic Monthly commentary "Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters" provides a peek into the way that politics in fact operate rather than the electoral show that looks more like professional wrestling - with designated parts that each wrestler plays and pseudo-blows delivered to the opponent. If you've ever watched in wonder as I have at the audience at professional wrestling matches - don't they know that this is all fake? - you get a sense of the ploy being played upon the public with the elections game.

What Sullivan reveals - not purposefully in all of what follows - are some of the exigencies of being the sole imperialist superpower and the fact that none of the designated major candidates will do anything other than pursue a very narrow range of actions that fit into the parameters of being an empire. The very reason why he touts Obama as the answer to what ails us is the very reason why this non-Atlantic Monthly commentator believes that Obama is in fact a much greater danger in some respects than Bush. Omigod, I said it!

If you consider the case of former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, a black, who presided over the 1985 bombing of the MOVE house (leading to the deaths of all but two of the MOVE people in the house, including women and children, who were also black) and the subsequent fire that Goode let spread to much of the neighborhood, you get a sense of the "logic" that Sullivan employs in his piece about how Obama would make a much better face to pursue the aims of empire and prosecute wars such as in the Middle East and Pakistan than the wholly exposed and transparently rotten, narcissistic, ignorant, spoiled, callous George W. Bush.

In what follows I have excerpted elements of Sullivan's piece in bold face and inserted some commentary in plain text.

"The logic behind the candidacy of Barack Obama is not, in the end, about Barack Obama. It has little to do with his policy proposals, which are very close to his Democratic rivals’ and which, with a few exceptions, exist firmly within the conventions of our politics. ...

"Take the biggest foreign-policy question—the war in Iraq. The rhetoric ranges from John McCain’s “No Surrender” banner to the “End the War Now” absolutism of much of the Democratic base. Yet the substantive issue is almost comically removed from this hyperventilation. Every potential president, Republican or Democrat, would likely inherit more than 100,000 occupying troops in January 2009; every one would be attempting to redeploy them as prudently as possible and to build stronger alliances both in the region and in the world. Every major candidate, moreover, will pledge to use targeted military force against al-Qaeda if necessary; every one is committed to ensuring that Iran will not have a nuclear bomb; every one is committed to an open-ended deployment in Afghanistan and an unbending alliance with Israel. We are fighting over something, to be sure. But it is more a fight over how we define ourselves and over long-term goals than over what is practically to be done on the ground." ...

"On domestic policy, the primary issue is health care. Again, the ferocious rhetoric belies the mundane reality. Between the boogeyman of 'Big Government' and the alleged threat of the drug companies, the practical differences are more matters of nuance than ideology. Yes, there are policy disagreements, but in the wake of the Bush administration, they are underwhelming. Most Republicans support continuing the Medicare drug benefit for seniors, the largest expansion of the entitlement state since Lyndon Johnson, while Democrats are merely favoring more cost controls on drug and insurance companies. ... the difference is more technical than fundamental."

NPR reporters have made similar points when discussing the "debates:" the actual platforms and policy papers of Clinton and Obama are very nearly the same. The differences are in their rhetoric and in how they are presenting themselves and who they are trying to appeal to. This is somewhat like the difference between drinking a Cola and an Uncola. The irony of those cola ads is that the very same company in some cases that is trying to tell you that you don't want that uncool colored cola, you want our clear colored cola, is the company that also owns the colored cola!

Even if, for example, former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) were to be elected (it speaks volumes about how the field is narrowed by the two major parties' leadership and the mass media that very few people even know that Gravel is in the race), he would be unable to accomplish what he wants absent a completely different political atmosphere in this country. That new situation would have to involve an aroused, engaged, and determined mass movement in the millions - the "larger force" that David Addington has said would be the only thing that could stop him and the Bush White House. Nothing less than this would be able to counter the forces that run things now and that run things ordinarily.

"At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce."

Throughout his article Sullivan ascribes the trouble within America to the divide within the Baby Boomer generation. In the international arena, he describes it as a war between America and Islamic fundamentalist terror. Sullivan's main point: Obama provides the best possible face for ending this cultural war and for carrying forward the "fight" against terror. He is the best face because, most of all, of the way he looks.

Given this quiet, evolving consensus on policy, how do we account for the bitter, brutal tone of American politics? The answer lies mainly with the biggest and most influential generation in America: the Baby Boomers. The divide is still—amazingly—between those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn’t, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but never dissented at all. By defining the contours of the Boomer generation, it lasted decades. And with time came a strange intensity.

Perhaps the underlying risk is best illustrated by our asking what the popular response would be to another 9/11–style attack. It is hard to imagine a reprise of the sudden unity and solidarity in the days after 9/11, or an outpouring of support from allies and neighbors. It is far easier to imagine an even more bitter fight over who was responsible (apart from the perpetrators) and a profound suspicion of a government forced to impose more restrictions on travel, communications, and civil liberties. The current president would be unable to command the trust, let alone the support, of half the country in such a time. He could even be blamed for provoking any attack that came.

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

He is not opposed to the use of unilateral force, either—as demonstrated by his willingness to target al-Qaeda in Pakistan over the objections of the Pakistani government. He does not oppose the idea of democratization in the Muslim world as a general principle or the concept of nation building as such. He is not an isolationist, as his support for the campaign in Afghanistan proves. It is worth recalling the key passages of the speech Obama gave in Chicago on October 2, 2002, five months before the war:

"I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war … I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars."

Obama's saying that the illegal, immoral and unjust invasion of Iraq is a "dumb war" is like saying that a serial killer is dumb. "I don't object to his doing the killing. I object that he chose his victims stupidly." Obama also said similarly that he thought the problem with the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was that it was "sloppy." What, pray tell, is "sloppy" about torture? That blood is spilled sloppily onto the floor and that someone's got to clean it up? What, pray tell, is "sloppy" about stripping people of the right to challenge their indefinite detention? Is that what one of the American Revolution's explicit grievances - the absence of habeas corpus - was, sloppy?

But if you sense, as I do, that greater danger lies ahead, and that our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable, then the calculus of risk changes. Sometimes, when the world is changing rapidly, the greater risk is caution. Close-up in this election campaign, Obama is unlikely. From a distance, he is necessary. At a time when America’s estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind’s spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable.

Greater danger lies ahead, indeed. But is the constitutional order increasingly vulnerable because of the divisions in society that the 1960s opened up and revealed? Sullivan is turning history inside out. The chasm that the 1960s displayed opened up because blacks were still being treated like second-class citizens, subject to not only legal segregation but also savage violence by white racists and a system that oppresses them, because an imperialist war of conquest in Vietnam was going on in which napalm, for instance, was being routinely used and villages being destroyed "in order to save them," and because American women weren't content to be Harriet to Ozzie Nelson.

Who are these "lethal enemies" that Sullivan speaks of? The very same ones that the lethal leaders of our government have created and fostered. As Michael Scheuer, a senior CIA analyst in charge of tracking down Osama bin Laden, the man who, of all people, ought to know, says in his book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror: “the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.” That is not a typo. He said ally. Chalmers Johnson calls this "blowback."

We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama.

Obama celebrates Reagan as the guy who brought us together and made us feel good about being Americans again. Sullivan hails Obama as the 21st century's first Reagan-redux. Obama was not misspeaking when he lauded Reagan. He meant it and he does intend to try to do something akin to what Reagan did: make Americans feel good about our prejudices (as Rosalynn Carter put it in 1980), except that in Obama's case it will be to feel good about being imperialists waging unjust wars on countries like Pakistan and Iran (both of whom Obama has explicitly threatened). Is that the best we can do? Is that what realism dictates? Is this the world you want to be a part of?


libhom said...

It is a big mistake to take anything Sullivan says seriously. He doesn't think clearly, and his opinions are largely random. Sullivan is neither a positive or a negative indicator of whether a particular position is worthwhile.

As for Obama being more dangerous than Bush, that is getting rather silly. A centrist Democrat is better than conservative Republicans like Hillary McCain and John Clinton. Even they are a bit better than Bush, though not much.

Dennis Loo said...

What's important to consider in evaluating someone's opinion is, more than anything, whether a) the evidence supports their conclusions or not and b) whether or not their approach to the question is reasonable or not. It's possible, in other words, to take someone who's not even reliable and still arrive at useful conclusions based on a critical appraisal of their contention(s). Bush himself is an example of this. He lies as easily as people breathe. But we can determine what he's actually saying by measuring what we know against what he says. Of course, if someone is reliable and accurate than it makes things easier, but nonetheless, I don't think it's a good practice to argue ad hominem.

As for whether Sullivan's someone to take seriously or not: the core points that he makes about the almost indistinguishable differences between the major candidates' positions are verifiably true both by examining their policy papers and on past experience with the two major parties. So I DO take this point seriously.

As for my saying that Obama is more dangerous: Please consider the point both I make in comparing him to Wilson Goode and MOVE and Sullivan's point about his face. Obama doing exactly the same things in essence as Bush would be much more credible to many people precisely for these reasons.

What you have to look at are the actual policy parameters given the nature of imperialist empire. The fact that the US is an imperialist superpower, the only one at this point, is far, far more important than the individual personalities and predilections of the candidates.

The fact that Obama POSITIONS himself to the left of Hillary and John is in itself not germane. That's the actual major virtue of the Sullivan piece - that he reveals this.

You can't judge things by their cover. You have to look at the interior content.