Terra Incognita: The rise and fall of Barack Obama

Obama's administration has fallen not because it is bad, but because it is a nonentity tinkering with foreign policy fixes badly suited for a world that has been slipping slowly into chaos.

February 22, 2015 20:00
Barack Obama

Barack Obama. (photo credit: REUTERS)

On February 19, US President Barack Obama delivered another perplexing speech at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in Washington.

The speech began in a logical manner, addressing the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, terrorism in Sinai, Copenhagen, Paris, Somalia, Nigeria and against Israel and Pakistan. “We must remain unwavering in our fight against terrorist organizations,” he said.

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He claimed that Muslim communities have a responsibility to push back the “lie that we are somehow engaged in a clash of civilizations; that America and the West are somehow at war with Islam or seek to suppress Muslims; or that we are the cause of every ill in the Middle East.”

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Then Professor Obama emerged, who began to lecture the audience. “We must address the grievances that terrorists exploit, including economic grievances...when people feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path for advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption – that feeds instability and disorder, and makes those communities ripe for extremist recruitment.”

He wants us to combat “economic grievances.”

He plodded on, talking about education for girls, and about democracy. He delved into minutiae, recalling a nameless “young Palestinian working to build understanding and trust with Israelis, but also trying to give voice to her people’s aspirations.” And he told people, “The world knows about the attack on the Jews at the kosher supermarket in Paris; we need to recall the worker at that market, a Muslim, who hid Jewish customers and saved their lives.”

His speech was pilloried across the political spectrum, with Peter Bergen at CNN calling it “nonsense.”

The speech was the latest in a litany of strange episodes in which the US president has wrestled with what to say about Islamist terrorism. In Early February he told a Vox interview, “It is entirely appropriate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”

The “random” aspect was latched onto by the media, which lambasted him for his callous terminology. On February 10 the White House press secretary was hammered over the comments, and couldn’t bring himself to have much sympathy with the victims: “These were individuals who happened to randomly be in this deli and were shot while they were there.”

The latest episode caps a whole month of failed speeches. At the National Prayer Breakfast, just after a Jordanian pilot had been burned alive by Islamic State (IS), Obama lectured the audience: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Playing imam, he told people that IS was “betraying Islam” and quoted a Hadith that states, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” He labeled Syria a “sectarian war,” and claimed that there was “murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria,” seemingly unable to admit what was behind these murders. They were, as others would later point out, not random, as much as Obama might like them to be, but part of a carefully planned religious crusade by Islamist extremists.

Some people look at Obama and they see an apologist for Islamism. They look at his momentous Cairo speech in 2009, “A new beginning,” and see him blaming the West.

They were dismayed that the massacre at Fort Hood in 2009 by Major Nidal Hassan was labeled “workplace violence,” when it was clear Hassan had been in contact with Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Then there was the comment by NASA chief Charles Bolden in 2010 that his foremost mission, direct from the president, was “to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.”

In some ways, though, the radical rightwing anti-Obama screed, according to which the president is secretly either a Muslim or at the very least not an American citizen, have helped shield Obama from discussion of his real failures. Those like Dinesh D’Souza, author of The Roots of Obama’s Rage, have claimed “the real Obama is a man shaped by experiences far different from those of most Americans; he is a much stranger, more determined, and exponentially more dangerous s man than you’d ever imagined.” Obama is portrayed as a weakling, a campus radical with connections to Palestinian intellectual extremists, raised to dislike America and find favor in neo-colonial struggles.

Over the weekend former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told people, “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America.” Comments like this may have helped Obama because his enemies have caused us to forget what has actually happened.

REMEMBER BACK in 2008 when he was elected? Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column, “If the election of our first African-American president didn’t stir you, if it didn’t leave you teary-eyed and proud of your country, there’s something wrong with you.” There was a lot of sentiment like that. A cartoon showed the world cheering “Yes They Can,” implying that America could get past its rancorous racial history (it forgot that most of the world is trapped in cycles of racism as bad as the US). Derided as having a “messiah complex” by the Right, Obama went from strength to strength, winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 without having done anything.

What we fail to understand is that both the rise and fall of Obama were of his own making. His rise was tied into what he was perceived as: a youthful African-American president promising change. Not much actually changed following his election. Guantanamo Bay, the US prison camp for al-Qaida members, wasn’t shut. Drone strikes abroad continued and even increased. To his credit Obama encouraged the hunting down and killing of Osama bin-Laden and Awlaki.

Obama’s worldview isn’t anti-American or post-American so much as it is empty. Should the war in Afghanistan continue? Sure, why not. What should America do about Egypt, Iraq and Libya? Something, but not too much. One day it was a “reset” with Putin’s Russia, then it was time to aid the Ukrainians – but not too much, lest they actually win. One day talk of air-strikes for Syria, the next not.

Obama is blamed for causing a mess in the Middle East, but that perpetuates the myth that America alone truly influences the Middle East. The US administration likes to negotiate, whether it is opening relations with Cuba or dragging on discussions with Iran, and that plays into the agendas of both Cuba and Iran while gaining nothing for the US or its interests. When it comes to take a chance at helping protesters in places like Iran, the US shies away. Obama is perceived as anti-Israel, but he isn’t so much anti-Israel as simply bereft of a plan for Israel and the Palestinians. Negotiate forever is the plan; punish the recalcitrant Israelis in minor ways, leak comments like “chickenshit,” but do nothing of substance.

Obama may have been better suited to be a community organizer or college professor than an executive. He likes to lecture. He’s thoughtful and intellectual. All perfectly good qualities. His administration has fallen, slowly, not because it is especially bad, but because it is a nonentity, an incrementalist nonentity tinkering with foreign policy fixes, badly suited for a world that has been slipping slowly into chaos for the 25 years since the end of the Cold War. In 2004 when Noam Chomsky published Hegemony or Survival: America’ Quest for Global Dominance, many questioned the US role in the world. Obama’s failure has been to not answer those questions. He has maintained America’s hegemonic role without knowing why.

In April of 1910 Teddy Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Sorbonne in which he claimed, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena...who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” Obama didn’t dare greatly, and he has failed.

Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman

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