Middle Israel: The Obama years

The Obama years arrived amid great euphoria, which soon gave way to perplexity and, in due course, to widespread alarm.

US President Barack Obama at the Rose Garden of the White House (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)
US President Barack Obama at the Rose Garden of the White House
With his presidency approaching its last year and the last of his major initiatives launched, Barack Obama’s chapter in American history can now be preliminarily drafted.
There is no need to wait for Obama’s departure to rule that his presidency will be memorable. Martin Van Buren, William Harrison and James Polk have long been forgotten, as will be James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and Gerald Ford. Barack Obama will not be forgotten.
Nor will the Obama years, an era that arrived amid great euphoria that soon gave way to perplexity and, in due course, to widespread alarm.
Obama-the-man’s emergence was greeted universally with a sense of awe. In the midst of an economic crisis that cast a pall over Western civilization, America demonstrated its unique ability to surprise, to invent, to inspire and to snatch hope from the jaws of despair.
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 Confounded by the collapse of financial bastions in Wall Street, the free world was relieved to feel a fresh breeze emerge from the American deep, a charismatic face with a clear voice and an eloquent tongue that gave voice to – so people assumed – a decaying elite’s unsung victims and immaculate alternative.
The new leader’s color multiplied the impression that history was being rebooted, that the economic change the world craved was arriving coupled with an unexpected bonus, a long-overdue racial gospel for a society whose racial wounds refused to heal.
Such was the euphoria that animated the dawn of the Obama era, the brief moment when Obama-the-man had already been elected, but the Obama years had yet to unfold.
Perplexity arrived with sunrise.
WITH THE entire world bending under the yoke of the worst postwar economic crisis, a time when the American people’s assets lost within several months a quarter of their value while thousands of the subprime catastrophe’s victims were thrown to the streets, history demanded that Obama waste no money celebrating his inauguration.
That is what Franklin Roosevelt did when the Depression landed him in the White House.
Yet a conceited Obama launched festively a slew of concerts, dinners, balls and parades to which he invited among others Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen and Queen Latifah. A $50 million extravaganza, it was the most expensive inauguration in American history, a Belshazzar’s feast that made people wonder whether Obama understood the gravity of the crisis without which he would not have been given the White House keys.
Perplexity, which at that early point was still about style – soon climbed to substance.
Unlike Roosevelt, who reached office armed with detailed plans of action that he immediately executed, Obama’s pockets proved empty.
The stimulus package he passed was a hodgepodge of what his predecessor and the rest of the world had done since the previous year’s financial meltdown, and the healthcare reform he preached proved to be a sermon rather than a plan.
Even after it turned out that he had no healthcare bill to introduce, Obama didn’t fold his sleeves and prepare one himself. Instead, he asked Congress to prepare a blueprint for his review. The consequent haggling took years to generate action, and when a plan was finally cobbled together, legislated and implemented, it proved to have been so sloppy that even its website crashed.
The gathering sense of perplexity matured in spring 2009, when Obama delivered a much-heralded speech in Cairo that added up to a blending of ignorance, naiveté and frivolity on a scale never previously displayed by an American president.
Even so, his stated urge to appease the Muslim world by crying “Islam is part of America,” apologizing to Iran for a 1953 coup, suggesting Israel is the result of the Holocaust, and comparing the plights of the Palestinians and the American slaves – all still seemed at the time more embarrassing than harmful.
As with the healthcare reform, it quickly became clear there was no plan of action attached to the speech that now crowned a foreign policy that was as long on talk as Obama’s domestic policy was short on deed.
By the end of that year perplexity gave way to alarm.
OBAMA’S FIRST strategic damage to US interests was inflicted 13 days after the Cairo speech, when the Iranian government stole an election.
Obama’s failure to back the popular uprising the ayatollahs faced for the next six months made a mockery of his fresh rhetoric about the Muslim world’s need for democracy, and awarded a sworn enemy of America with a new lease on life.
The damage to American interests, which at that point was still inflicted passively, soon made way for active delivery, when Obama pushed overboard Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, America’s most veteran, dependable and effective ally in the Muslim world.
In a typical display of haste and inconsistency, Obama eased the Muslim Brotherhood’s way to power, dusting off the democratic principles he shelved during the Iranian uprising before forgetting them again in the face of the uprising in Bahrain. While no less democratic than the upheaval in Egypt, this one was anti-Saudi, and the Saudis, though no more Jeffersonian than Mubarak, would hear nothing from the man who aspired to emancipate the Arabs.
The Egyptian debacle matured by fall 2013, when the betrayed Egyptian military, which had by then returned to power, hosted in Cairo the foreign and defense ministers of Russia and signed with them $4 billion worth of arms deals. Moscow, a strategic absentee since Anwar Sadat abandoned it 40 years earlier, had thus been granted Egypt on a silver platter by an American president whose tinkering with a Middle East about which he knew so little was now spinning out of control.
The Russian return to Cairo came immediately after summer 2013, when Obama dealt America another strategic blow, this time in Syria, by reneging on his public vow to attack Bashar Assad’s military should it use chemical weapons.
What began with Mubarak’s abandonment, and its interpretation throughout the Middle East as disloyalty, was now multiplied with a display of unreliability. It took no spy to understand how this intensified the Egyptian sense of alarm, and the Russian sense of scorn, that resulted in the rendezvous on the Nile.
Despite his increasingly glaring, and costly, misunderstanding of the Middle East, Obama refused to learn, as manifested the following year when he said he would attack Islamic State, but only from the air.
Whether or not this was prudent militarily is a separate discussion. Politically, it was the kind of information one could not volunteer to an enemy like Islamic State, which immediately cited it, and genuinely understood it, as proof of American cowardice.
All these accumulating failures of knowledge, experience, intuition and vision culminated in the following year’s deal with Iran, which again displayed a refusal to appreciate enemies’ enmity and friends’ friendship, and granted a criminal, troublemaking and patently anti-American regime urgently needed economic oxygen and political cash.
Meanwhile, back home, the perplexity inspired by the healthcare affair had also given way to alarm, when the US government’s credit rating was downgraded in summer 2011 for the first time ever.
Though economic indicators later improved, the downgrade animated the Obama years’ atmosphere of untreated social malaise, underscored by repeated riots in multiple locations, from Baltimore through Ferguson to Berkeley, following controversial police conduct usually involving a racial context.
Obama was now a disappointment not only abroad, and not only among Republicans, but also in the social periphery that gave him its votes.
AS IT DREW TO A CLOSE, the Obama era generated a debate over its meaning.
Some said it signaled America’s decline, some said the decline had long been under way, and some denied America’s decline. All agreed that, regardless of his record, Obama benefited from a social transition driven by minorities’ expansion and the historic family cell’s decline.
This first draft of the Obama years’ retrospect cannot take sides in this debate, as it will take generations to understand where America headed after Obama, and whether he caused or delayed its subsequent direction.
This draft can say, however, that Obama was the wrong man in the right place.
In fall 2008 America craved social salvation and political gospel. Few innovations could have delivered these more persuasively than the election of a black president. Yet that does not make Obama personally fit for the task.
To be a success, the first black president needed to be a political version of Jackie Robinson.
Before fielding Major League Baseball’s first black player, the Brooklyn Dodgers verified he would be a success, which he indeed immediately became, because he was experienced, tested and humble.
Obama was none of the above. Inexperienced, untested and arrogant, his presidency was a reckless exercise in experimentation, a series of shots from the hip which left America adrift, in quest of a seasoned leader’s vision, perspective, humility and aim.