November 03, 2008
The Obama Imperative
“The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
We face tomorrow what could well prove the most consequential Presidential election of our lifetimes. I will be supporting Barack Obama, for reasons I describe in more detail below. First, however, a word or two on the present situation confronting the United States seems appropriate.
Our country is wracked by problems large and small, both at home and abroad. We face the largest systemic financial crisis since the 1930s. The Troubled Asset Relief Program’s (“TARP”) hasty reincarnation(s) (first from Paulsonian l’etat c’est moi three-page minimalist burlesque, then to the more reliably voluminous Congressional assorted mish-mash, and then in its seemingly final iteration—for now at least--into more of a convincing Gordon Brown-like bank recapitalization scheme) will help some so that the credit crisis may finally be entering late innings and beginning to ease (see improvements, if stilll not wholly convincing ones, in the TED spread, LIBOR rates etc.). Meantime however the real economy is hurtling towards greater trouble, at best towards a nasty, protracted (say 18 month) recession in my view. Consumer confidence is at historic lows, with the heretofore almighty American consumer buckling under the weight of the bursting housing bubble, high energy prices (albeit with some recent relief), and rising unemployment (I would not be surprised to see the main unemployment gauge in the high 8% range--or even low 9%--by mid to late 2009).
And all this assuming no further systemic risks precipitated by as yet unknown events of the ‘black swan’ variety, although we must be prepared at minimum for large amounts of hedge fund implosions going forward, greater emerging market contagion, the Euro-zone getting hit far harder than to date (in turn of course negatively impacting our export revenues), as well as the debilitating housing and financial sector tsunamis spreading towards new sectors quite unmercifully (see auto loans, credit card defaults, student loans, and commercial real estate perhaps). Which is to say, massive deleveraging is set to continue for the foreseeable future. All the while, our infrastructure is too often crumbling given long neglect, and too many Americans are concerned about whether they have enough retirement savings, can fund their basic health care costs, or even have a convincing handle on rising food costs. These are not happy go-lucky, freewheeling times, to be sure. Put differently, we can’t just “go shopping”, as the current President once memorably put it.
Overseas the picture for the U.S. is just as ugly, perhaps even worse. The surge in Iraq was undertaken in a near total strategic vacuum, so that whatever hard-won security improvements have been achieved have had a negligible impact on the larger neighborhood. Has the short-term stabilization in local security conditions there been worth the blood and treasure expended? I doubt it, sad to say. Everyone is largely in ‘wait the Americans’ out mode (and no, it’s simply not an option to stay 100 years), whether local Shi’a militias, or regional players like the Turks, Iranians, and Syrians. The Baker-Hamilton recommendation of placing an Iraq policy squarely (including support for a surge should commanders believe it warranted, one this blog supported too incidentally, only if, however, it was tied into a convincing regional approach) into an overarching region-wide strategy was roundly ignored. (How could it not be, it would have meant our current policy-makers had strategic foresight, were not easily satisfied myopic amateurs, and enjoyed a basic understanding of the undergirding dynamics of the region?)
Meantime, Iran’s march towards nuclear weapons continues apace, but save an Undersecretary of State haphazardly hurled into a meeting on occasion with no real follow-through, the United States continues to have no serious diplomatic contact with the Islamic Republic of Iran. What has been achieved by this? One must scratch one’s head in puzzlement, as a freeze in uranium enrichment can’t reasonably likely occur absent direct discussions (it still mightn’t, but is at least worth a try), and this very goal seems in the short-term our main priority vis-à-vis Iran. So why the lack of high-level contact? Lack of imagination and intellectual cowardice, presumably.
In other parts of the neighborhood, lately the U.S. has taken to allowing border incursions to messily spill over into Pakistan with increasing frequency (a depressing reality born of a losing war in Afghanistan where we are—much like Iraq—bogged down increasingly in nation-building where instead discrete commando anti-terror missions are what is more required), albeit cross-border raids seem to be ending some in favor of less politically volatile Drone-powered missions. To the west in Syria, we have recently seen more cross-border adventurism (seemingly a parting shot aimed at Asad from the predictably bovine Bush quarters—while meantime the French, Turks, Israelis, Qataris etc are engaging Damascus not unproductively).
Amidst all this—the fundamental issue of the Arab-Israeli peace process—formerly a priority of every American President since at least Richard Nixon—has become a ribald joke as handled by the current Administration, save alas the real world consequences of this abject neglect are anything but funny.
And what about beyond this strategic morass we face in the Middle East? Well, it is only too clear we are at another ‘Who Lost Russia?’ juncture, where are pitiable ‘support’ of Georgia accomplished little to nothing, while creation of a real, mature Russia policy under supposed Russia expert Condoleezza Rice has gone woefully unachieved, now a good half decade on from the hilarious conceit of some warm and fuzzy Spirit of Ljubljana.
In East Asia, alternate security and economic infrastructure are dutifully being cobbled together without particularly robust U.S. involvement, and one surmises Beijing is far less in the mood for lectures on economic policy-making imperatives going forward, yes, even from ex-Goldmanites of stature. Who can blame them, given the tottering framework of the West’s banking systems?
Our hard power thus poorly employed, meantime our soft power has been set back to a horrific extent these past 8 years. After the short-lived global solidarity resulting from the odious terror attacks on 9/11, a cabal in Washington decided to operate in the ‘shadows’. Habeas corpus was junked, torture legalized, multiple ‘black sites’ created, and the moral Chernobyl of Guantanamo was roundly feted by an increasingly Gestapoish class of Washington provincials who played pretend they were protecting we needy ones, allegedly needing to be baby-sat, as we were so far afield from the harrowing responsibilities facing the national security nomenklatura. Bush 43, blissfully ignorant of the manifold damage being done our international repute as he ferried between 1600 Pennsylvania and his Crawford ranch as the seasons came and went, was surrounded either by incompetent yes-men (Alberto Gonzalez), or arriviste hustlers who dutifully spun the theory of the unitary executive towards fantastical bounds, the better to genuflect on bent-knee and service the Vice President’s whims (John Yoo), or still, thuggish actors hell-bent on always proudly advertising their contempt for any controls on a wayward Executive (David Addington), this last masking deep insecurities born of profound constitutional and historical ignorance.
Across the Potomac over in Virginia this merry band was aided and abetted by Don Rumsfeld, himself only too happy to junk the Geneva Conventions like a good Prussian playing faux-macho at the cost of a few score Arabs or Afghans or whatever the brown-skins in question being killed or sodomized or having scantily clad female investigators swab ‘fake’ menstrual blood on those they interrogated, with thousands upon thousands more detainees beaten, shackled, and otherwise denied the protections of Geneva in ignominious obscurity. Around these real ‘bad apples’ (as opposed to the hapless low-level motley crew of miscreants at the midnight shift in Abu Ghraib) was the neo-conservative intelligentsia—which to this day save some noteworthy defections (Frank Fukuyama, George Will, perhaps a couple others), think all would be for right had we only not tolerated any deviationist cowardice (how dare we allow talented diplomats like Bill Burns to talk with Iran, or Chris Hill with the North Koreans, and so on), while meantime pleased as punch to see torture policy defile our good name as formerly leading avatar of international human rights around the globe.
And then did we, the fat, pop-culture addled, self-contented American mass, rush the barricades, what amidst these serial bungles, these orgies of law-breaking, these violent acts against the dignity of the Republic? In certain blogospheric circles one espied a cyber-samizdat zeitgeist of sorts, and there were other occasional dissents in places like the pages of the NYRB (or more often, the LRB across the pond, where dialogue was somewhat less policed by whatever commissars were busily monitoring ‘acceptable’ narratives to share with overly impressionable types), or even a talking head of two on MSNBC. But no, the shock of 9/11 had been too great, the insularity of our mass media mind-numbing in its naval-gazing inanities, in its coverage of pitiable non-stories amidst these titanic ones, and so now only after almost a decade has passed, and with massive economic problems helping finally spur some to action, does one so belatedly begin to feel we may have a real chance to start turning the page on this disastrous chapter in American history.
So tomorrow we Americans will have a choice. And while it seems too easy to say McCain represents continuity, and Obama an opportunity at a major course correction and even something of a shot at redemption, we must reluctantly conclude this is the core essence of the matter. I say reluctantly because John McCain, after all, has had a storied life, whether his service as fighter pilot, tenacity in captivity, long Senate career of some distinction, and more. And yet none of this matters finally, as he is nevertheless the standard-bearer of today’s Republican Party, alas. And today’s Republican Party is a disgrace, a dim shadow of its former self.
Indeed, the cautiously deliberative, fiscally conservative, great internationalist party one associates with names like Dwight D. Eisenhower is simply dead. Replacing it we have a cacophony of imbecilic voices like Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh (ask yourself—if you were a serious politician with a smidgen of intellect—would you even entertain questions from this veritable moronic inferno, or prefer to steer clear of such cheap carnivals?). Essentially, today’s Republican party is little more than a reincarnation of the Know-Nothing party (like the one of yore, this one too particularly outraged by immigrants, illegal ones only we are led to believe, of course…), a confused morass of vindictiveness crossed with fear crossed with abject ignorance (think Joe the Plumber, the supposed Country First Everyman who rants incoherently about how Barack Obama’s victory would mean the death of Israel, perhaps the greatest inanity I’ve overheard of all among so many in the awful din of this painfully long election season).
To soften some of the bleakness of this assorted Know-Nothingness fused with Christo-Authoritarian lugubriousness (think former ‘leading lights’, really ultimately dullards, like Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson) the G.O.P. has now become the Palin Party, she a somewhat bawdy Neiman-Marcus clad middle-aged ingénue (see the young males who strip down reverentially at her rallies like hard-up frat jocks, painting her name on their bare chests while panting her name breathlessly like desperate adolescents), who meantime warms the cockles of the soi disant compassionate with talk of special needs children (kudos to her, however, and let it be said genuinely, for her walking the talk with her fifth child), while also regaling us with deep policy thoughts on occasion, averring often from the stump about how we can drill our way out of the energy crisis (prima facie absurd).
What to make of Ms. Palin, or perhaps more important, Mr. McCain’s selection of her as his Vice-President (the only small consolation in the Palin pick of course was that it spared us the arguably even greater insult of the execrable Joe Lieberman being selected)? Annapolis Mac’s Hail Mary, then, that Americans would like the frontierish manifest destiny of his surprise pick (she’s from far-away Alaska, not tarnished by the lower 48!), that she’s a fellow “maverick” (why, she took on the old boy’s network over Juneau way!), and so on—is simply all profoundly unconvincing in the face of one simple test—is this individual prepared to assume the awesome responsibilities of the American Presidency? The answer, as serious observers like Fareed Zakaria and others could only conclude, was (and is) a resounding no, and shame on supposed party elders for not shouting this bracing reality more loudly from the roof-tops. Let's be perfectly clear, she is so profoundly ignorant on matters foreign policy it is simply certifiable to think she could navigate the ship of state without a calamitous degree of ignorance dooming her, and so us, every step of the way.
Yes, how sad this political season has been, as eminences like Henry Kissinger--easily lured by a festive klieg-light or two--deigned to meet this hapless woman who should never have been plucked from the wilds of Alaska for this job (imagine Dean Acheson or George Kennan spiriting such an ignorant around in some laughable Potemkin display meant to give credence to their supposed national security bona fides). Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure she’s a decent enough woman on a personal level, but again, wholly out of her depth--and regardless is this who we contemplate, really, as a prospective standard-bearer of one of America’s two great political parties? How can this be, and if so, God help us all! (Her interview alone with Katie Couric showcased the dangers in spades, in which Ms. Couric in that somewhat inimitable passive-aggressive Manhattan way skewered her to high heaven--put a fork in her, she’s done--as Ms. Palin held forth like a glazed deer in the headlights looking Ms. America, with talk about the evil Ruskies entertaining bombing runs across the hot Bering Strait). Let us be clear: shame on Mr. McCain for making such a grotesquely irresponsible choice, not least given his advanced age, but regardless of it, really.
But forget about Ms. Palin for a moment, hard as it may be to do so, given she'd be a heart-beat from the Presidency should McCain win. Ms. Palin apart, Mr. McCain seems to promise more by way of confrontation in the Middle East, with Russia, with China—indeed, he has taken on the highly worrisome trappings of an unreconstructed neo-conservative, always a troublesome prospect. "We are all Georgians!", he blusters. He looks into Putin's eyes and doesn't swoon, but sees three letters: "K.G.B." (what better summation of the total lack of imagination he'd likely bring to the Russian-American relationship). "Victory" will be achieved through the Middle East, even if we stay there many score more years expending countless billions (trillions?) more! He'll never sit with the Iranians like "that one" will. Diplomacy, you see, is really for wimps--our countless meetings and summits with the Soviets and Chinese apart. And so on. Foreign policy aside, on the other major issue of the day, namely the economy, we are left to wonder, does Mr. McCain even have a basic understanding of the economic crisis underway, or would we face a confluence of standard supply-side bromides coming out of what is perhaps the greatest regulatory fiasco and asset bubble in financial history, crossed with Palinomics (drill baby drill!). Early indicators do not inspire confidence, it must be said, as I am still not persuaded I've heard him in a single debate enunciate a persuasive analysis of the economic crisis this country currently faces. The answer, it seems, is lower Joe the Plumber's taxes, hardly a panacea, I'm afraid.
Into this cauldron, and on the other side of the aisle, we have Mr. Obama. He is not perfect, he is no messiah delivered from the heavens, and it is true his resume is relatively thin (to which one might respond, who had bigger, more experienced resumes than Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld?). But let us be very clear: Mr. Obama has nonetheless been a tremendous gift to us, and we would be foolish in the extreme not to hope dearly for his victory. He himself is a consummate professional with undeniable potential for greatness. To have already achieved what he has been able to speaks volumes, given all the road-blocks in his way. Meantime, he is surrounding himself by very serious and knowledgeable people on the economy (think Paul Volcker, Larry Summers, or Warren Buffett). On foreign policy while his posture on issues like Afghanistan and even Georgia have given me some concerns, his overall world-view and appetite to engage in robust diplomacy is light years better than the McCain approach.
Let us be plain: one man offers a continuation of the Bush Doctrine, in the main, the other, a repudiation of it. Mr. Obama's main stress on diplomacy as a neglected tool in our arsenal is of the highest importance, and lives in stark contrast to breezy 'bomb, bomb, bomb' Iran cretinism (as the saying goes, there is always a litle truth in every joke). And his election alone—in one major, fell swoop—would immediately go a long way towards helping restore much of America’s lost soft-power, by reminding the world that an African-American who was just a state senator a few years back, whose middle name is Hussein and last name rhymes with Osama, can, not only unseat the current premier Democratic dynasty (the Clinton’s, of course, who’d replaced the Kennedy’s), but then take on and likely prevail (fingers crossed!) over the hard-hitting, hyper-aggressive Republican Party, this only seven short years after the greatest terror attack ever inflicted on the American homeland.
Yes, we dare dream when we think of this story, and we must respect Obama for always remaining steady, holding on to his dignity, fighting hard but fair (sometimes definitely hard-ball so to win, as with public financing, but so be it, it was a no-brainer), keeping cool amidst the manufactured scandals of Wright, Ayres, Khalidi (even Marty Peretz stood up to be counted on this last), and the rest of the bogus trash hurled his way. It is very rare we have a paradigm-shifting, generational candidate like Mr. Obama, and as I said, we are very lucky indeed he has chosen to run this cycle, not again, because he is some deity, but because he is a major new talent who will inject desperately needed fresh thinking and approaches to a moribund Washington, the capital of a country in steep decline of late.
Why am I confident of this? Perhaps in closing a word or two about Mr. Obama’s foresight and character is called for, and let us begin with his own words. In a speech a few years back, Mr. Obama recounted his memories of 9/11, and too his view of the merits of going to war in Iraq:
I was driving to a state legislative hearing in downtown Chicago when I heard the news on my car radio: a plane had hit the World Trade Center. By the time I got to my meeting, the second plane had hit, and we were told to evacuate. People gathered in the streets and looked up at the sky and the Sears Tower, transformed from a workplace to a target. We feared for our families and our country. We mourned the terrible loss suffered by our fellow citizens. Back at my law office, I watched the images from New York: a plane vanishing into glass and steel; men and women clinging to windowsills, then letting go; tall towers crumbling to dust. It seemed all of the misery and all of the evil in the world were in that rolling black cloud, blocking out the September sun.
This is mostly pitch-perfect, and shows us well that even in an atmosphere where accusations of being limp-wristed (at best) or a rank quisling (at worst) flew easily if one dared oppose the coming Mesopotamian adventure, this young politician—already armed with ambitious national aspirations--nonetheless stood against the mass. And, you say, so what? He was admittedly not alone in seeing the coming folly—borne of hubris and swagger and incompetence—which together conspired to create a fiasco that has cost us so much. And yet this caution was relatively rare, certainly among our supposed political elites, and thus worth noting. Why? It shows a capacity not to be bullied intellectually. It shows a reasoned temperament given to rational analysis rather than shrill hysterics. It shows someone hungry for national office yet unwilling to sacrifice his principles and worldview for any political expediency. It shows a willingness to buck conventional wisdom. And in its own modest way, it shows character and a quiet dignity.
In an informative NYT Magazine piece from about a year ago, James Traub discusses Obama’s 1995 book “Dreams From My Father" writing:
One recurrent theme of the book is how very little the world, at least the world in which most people live, responds to our wishes or our ideals. Obama’s Indonesian stepfather, Lolo, explains the rule of the jungle to the young boy: “Men take advantage of weakness in other men.” Obama’s mother, an innocent abroad, is shocked to learn that Lolo was conscripted into that country’s brutal repression of an insurgency and sent to the jungles of New Guinea, where he saw and did unspeakable things. In America, Obama writes, power was muted; in a place like Indonesia, it was “undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line just when he thought he’d escaped. . . . That’s how things were; you couldn’t change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them.”
This passage from Traub’s article is very instructive in better understanding Obama’s formation and worldview. For one, while I think Obama would not be shy to ultimately use military force if circumstances required (Lolo’s lessons regarding power), he innately realizes the often tremendous costs and stakes involved and so would likely proceed with utmost deliberativeness before resorting to military options. This is not tree-hugging pacifistic kumbaya fare (indeed, I believe Obama is essentially a realist), however, but really more in keeping with the approach of a Colin Powell, say (who unlike other leading former Republican Secretaries of State who should know better, did the right thing and stepped up to endorse Barack recently).
Put differently, he would not be shy to exert power as necessary, whether via recourse to the military (witness his position on al-Qaeda encampments within Pakistan), or via tough, tenacious diplomacy with foes like Iran. Related, however (and importantly), I believe he would prove modest and show real humility during exertions of American power, whether in case of military action, or in diplomatic fora. Put differently, his policy would likely be more muted and sophisticated—yet at the same time fresher and more ‘out-of-the-box’--than those we’ve witnessed these past years, where dynastic torch-passing, the dusted-off rolodexes, and tired nostrums seem to have calcified our policy-making function, so that bold initiatives appear all but impossible.
Worth noting too, Obama is clearly a committed multi-lateralist, but not of the wooly-headed variety. Instead, he strikes me as likely to be a deliberate institution and consensus-builder. At the risk of being accused of over-enthusiasm, I see him as someone who might forge a kind of neo-Achesonism for a post-post 9/11 world, not least aided by a freshness and openness (born of strength) to dialogue more intelligently, not only with all the allies we’ve ignored or treated in ham-handed fashion of late, but also with our foes, in an effort to enmesh them within the broader international community (steadily and with deliberate patience, not under the illusion of any imminent miracles). These would mean flexible institutions less focused on a state-centric lens as per the post-war era, not least given most of the critical problems of today, such as terrorism, genocide, disease, and global warming, often transcend borders. In this, and apart from McCain’s self-serving and reverie-inducing ‘League of Democracies’ fare (if the Russians and Chinese don’t agree, just go ahead and form a new group already!), Obama shows that unlike his opponent, he will work hard to achieve multilateral solutions, and well appreciates the inevitable shades of gray.
There is also this last snippet worth quoting from the Bai article, which further points to the transformational, paradigm-shifting potential Obama's victory could represent:
In 1981, Obama arrived at Columbia University, where he majored in international relations. He wrote his senior thesis on the North-South debate on trade then raging as part of the demand for a “new international economic order.” But he says that he was never much of a lefty. Obama offers himself as the representative of a new generation, free of the dogmas that still burden the Democratic Party. “The Democrats have been stuck in the arguments of Vietnam,” he said to me on the campaign plane, “which means that either you’re a Scoop Jackson Democrat or you’re a Tom Hayden Democrat and you’re suspicious of any military action. And that’s just not my framework.” [emphasis added]
Imagine, finally “that’s just not my framework!” You aren’t either a washed out anti-war activist, or a neo-con fellow traveler hell-bent on advancing 'democracy' via the butt of a rifle, but rather, there are other options afforded us. Put differently, the Albert Einstein quote I opened this post up with sums up my feeling well: (t)he significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” I mean, can we really afford to kick around the same tired narratives and shibboleths for another eight long years? Most certainly not, I'm afraid. Viewed via this prism, the choice for our Republic could not be clearer. McCain represents the past, Obama the future. The past can prove a comforting crutch, but it spells continued decline and backwards movement. We are passing through hugely difficult times where a global financial crisis lurches ahead demanding newfangled regulatory regimes of real complexity, where energy and environmental challenges will become ever more insistent, where we need to de-escalate from two wars and hit a strategic 'reset' button in our overall foreign policy posture, during which it will prove imperative we re-build our moral high-ground. These are the challenges the future presents us, and only Mr. Obama can convincingly tackle them head on with a combination of deliberateness, ingenuity, quiet resilience and confidence, in my view. So, for me, not only is this election not even a close call, but also I hope too that Obama wins by a huge landslide, by visiting a stinging, terrible rebuke to the Republicans. The defeat needs to be so crushing and total as to serve as a massive wake-up call that the Republican Party needs to be retaken by sentient, thinking adults, the better so it is led towards a necessary and massive course correction. Ultimately this is important because it is healthy for our country to have two great political parties, and a resounding defeat tomorrow seems our best bet to slowly have the Republican Party regain its sanity after the wreckage of the Bush 43 years. In the meantime, yes we can, yes we must, yes we will! Change is in the air, and it has never been more welcome than today.
UPDATE: Yes we did!
MORE: I've posted a YouTube below of an impromptu street celebration in Union Square (Manhattan) right after the news hit that Obama won the Presidency. I wasn't there (was further south down in Tribeca), but seeing it caused me to recall vividly the long days after 9/11 when people congregated for days and weeks in Union Square, where I lived at the time. How nice to see a historic event observed in that storied park that lends itself to raucous festiveness, seven years on, rather than long mourning and sorrow.
Note at the 2 minute mark a U.S. flag is held aloft, and at the 3 minute mark the crowd starts chanting "USA, USA, USA", as if to say, "we're back!".
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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