If the Nobel Prize committee understood U.S. cultural politics, they might have thought twice about awarding President Obama the prize last week. Or maybe it was perfectly calculated to draw us into the discussions we’re having now. The president is being awarded the prize for his change in tone, his use of diplomacy, his well established willingness to talk to supposed enemies in an effort to find common ground. Think: his willingness to talk to Iran, his landmark Cairo Speech, the leaders of Palestine and Israel shaking hands in New York last month, and you see that there are concrete steps taken by the world’s lone super power, and its charismatic leader, to foster diplomacy in some notable trouble spots in the world. Ostensibly, from this gaze, the president deserves the award. But Americans are literal-minded, goal-oriented pragmatists. The side effect of the award at home has been a weakening of the president’s base, and a heightened credibility problem, one that I would say started on the campaign trail. It was in full view with the response to his gay rights speech. It’s a credibility problem that could fragment the world’s last best hope for a peaceful sole superpower: the Democratic Party.
During the campaign, candidate Obama said repeatedly that he wanted to change the tone in Washington. Most of us thought that was a pretty good idea. But it may have conflicted with another stated aim on the president’s a la carte wish list for government: to restore checks and balances. The president’s legitimacy problem (heightened by the award earlier this month, and now dogging him when he speaks about gay rights) actually began, I would argue, when he failed to prosecute lawbreakers in the Bush administration. While President Obama couldn’t personally halt all proceedings or investigations, the tone he set was markedly conciliatory against an administration that had engaged in:
a fraudulent reelection in 2004;
fraud that led us into Iraq;
outing an undercover CIA agent and covering it up (as part of the above);
using government prosecutors politically to go after opponents, firing them when they wouldn’t;
countless instances of fraud involving contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan;
the catastrophe of New Orleans (hostile inaction, tied to privateering, played off as incompetence);
lack of accountability in the way the law worked generally and in the use of government contractors specifically;
narrowly self-serving deregulation everywhere from privatization in Iraq to Wall Street;
and so on. (See “here”:http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/858/the_limits_to_my_selfimportanc_1/, where I fire a longer list at David Frum.)
You could argue that it was noble for President Obama to avoid prosecuting Bush officials in an effort to change the tone in Washington. Just looking at that list, even I want to put it behind me. You could also argue that it was prudent (you don’t fight fire with gasoline).
But there’s change and there’s change; calculating aside, the law cannot be subservient to a wish to change a _tone_. What does that even mean? And it happens to be very Bushlike—indeed, it represents a full continuation of the Bush administration’s corrupt policy—to proceed as if a president’s personal agenda is above the law. It’s also classic Democratic denial to think that just because you won’t engage in them that the culture wars aren’t real. Dare we say cowardly?
It’s also a classic case of American politicians ignoring psychology. Not prosecuting the Bush administration, or cleaning house (as of summer, only five of 93 Bush prosecutors have been ” replaced”:http://salsa.wiredforchange.com/o/5180/t/3541/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=2904 at the Justice Department), has resulted in a public with no catharsis, no public reckoning; the public, therefore, is having its post-Bush catharsis in a somewhat delayed manner. And they’re shouting what Republicans had said about Obama on the campaign trail; as a response to his gay rights speech this weekend: “Enough with the pretty rhetoric; do something.” What Jeffrey Feldman calls the “‘outrage pandemic’”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-feldman/the-outrage-pandemic_b_316405.html is, I would argue, a result, at least in part, of this bottled up rage Americans have felt since President Bush manipulated our mourning after September 11 and massaged it into a bombing campaign and a bankrupt treasury.
Yes, those knee-jerk “conservatives” battling the president on everything from health care reform to his right to be president at all would have attacked him no matter what. But since there has been no accountability for President Bush and his cronies, no public justice, the attackers themselves have seen a nod and a wink style of endorsement from the new administration. Certainly on the bailouts the public has felt that Obama has not only seen Bush’s bet, but raised it.
Even some of the left find it psychologically easier for projections better leveled at Bush (no president in my lifetime was less legitimate than he) to stick to Obama, since there’s been no public discussion (Senator Leahy was pushing for a truth commission). While Bush is holing up at his fake ranch in Crawford, writing his fictional memoirs, President Obama is out in public being called a liar by the likes of… oh, the irony… Joe Wilson. It’s of course the left’s Joe Wilson, the honest Joe Wilson, who owns that gripe legitimately toward the last president. (If you’ve already forgotten, diplomat Joe Wilson had his wife’s career destroyed as an undercover CIA nuclear watchdog, because his fact check on the Bush administration’s war rationale didn’t meet Cheney’s standards.)
Yes, President Obama’s Cairo speech and his healthcare speech and his gay rights speech were inspiring, and perhaps as part of a string of actions like the banning of settlements of Israelis on Palestinian land, the first in the string of pretty speeches could add up to a Nobel-worthy presidency; it showed a profound understanding of history that helped Americans and Muslims get past stereotypes we find ourselves locked in — a sort of Gordian knot of misunderstanding. But what contradicts this new nuanced diplomacy is a war going on in the midst of Islamic lands that seems by now as unjust and unwinnable as Vietnam.
The American left and middle came to hate most of what the Bush administration represented. But something of that resentment lingers. The greatest of Obama’s self-deceptions (spurred by vanity) is the notion that he can do Bush, but better. Can improved tactics win the war in Afghanistan? This is hubris of the highest order—Napoleonic, classic Greek screw-your-own-mom hubris. Why? Because it’s not tactically that the war in Afghanistan is wrong; it’s morally.
If you want to prosecute terrorists then you must execute the war not as a bombing campaign that misses targets and kills civilians with any kind of regularity, not as an attempt to force the will of Afghanis, not as offensive operations at all, but as a charm offensive. In short, not as a literal war, but a war on poverty-style _figurative_ war. Norman Solomon has written much on this site that the numbers (90% for military operations and 10% for humanitarian ones) must be reversed as a first step in Afghanistan. Last night _60 Minutes_ “reported”:http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=5377315n on the US’s Golf Company in Afghanistan; their mission? to push out the Taliban by _not_ shooting.
The degree of calculated human sacrifice that we’re asking (or, forcing) Afghanis to endure will never be acceptable to the people whose family members we kill, maim and displace. Even if in some perversion of psychology it were to be accepted there, we ourselves should oppose it. Imagine any outside country, whether Canada or Mexico or Iran, turning our state, our suburb, our neighborhood into a war zone to catch a few people who bombed one of their buildings eight years before, kicking down doors, taking your fathers and brothers away.
Americans should thank the Nobel Committee for this “surprising and humbling” call for consistency in how the noble goal of peace is pursued: with or without vain self-deceptions? with or without fantasies of absolute power and failures of empathy?