At the very least, all schoolboys know that Cromwell killed the king, Lincoln freed the slaves, and Hitler caused WWII (while possessing one ball). It’s strange practice – and in many cases an unwise one – to condense the life of one of humanity’s great men – or monsters – into a single pithy phrase. How unfair that one of History’s elect or leads (that’s “moulders” for crustier readers) should receive nothing but a sentence for their efforts! But we are endowed with minds that categorise and simplify as a matter of course; and I’m not so bloody-minded to think I can counter that.
We just witnessed the end days of the Obama’s White House (if not the end days, period) and are forced to ask, “how will the 44th President of the United States be remembered?”
(Of course, I’m presuming two things: 1) classrooms and schoolyards of the future won’t be subsumed by hoards of cockroaches seeking substance and shelter in a post-MAD world; and 2) “first black president” won’t suffice.)
Ineloquent as my bid may be, Barack Obama will always be the president that didn’t…
Apparently We Can’t
Seldom has the world set itself up for such crushing disappointment as it did in 2008. Obama promised change we could believe in, and “we” bought it. Even Christopher Hitchens, no stranger to heady nights turning into sour morns, allowed himself to be swept up in the general buzz – or, as he was later to admit, hubris.
Obama had a great many of us hoping – “audaciously” so (Ed.: groan) – and for what? He:
- Promised to close Guantanamo Bay, and he didn’t
- Promised to make Wall Street pay, and he didn’t
- Promised to loosen the lobbyist stranglehold on the Capitol, and he didn’t
- Promised to bring transparency to government machinations, and here, resoundingly, he did not
(There was also the implicit pledge that he wouldn’t be George W. Bush, and, thanks to the basic laws of the physical world, he managed to hold to that.)
Bay of Horrors
If your concept of failure happens by the part of your cortex where Obama’s impression resides, the resulting synapse will likely scream Gwentemeno, Guantelemo or Guantanamo, or however it’s pronounced. (Do you remember just how awful Bush was at everything?)
This blot on Western civilisation remains open today still, now with 40 detainees. Guantanamo Bay, a place of anal rape and constant degradation, where solitary confinement is used frequently, and where the terrible extremes of sensory bombardment and sensory deprivation are imposed. So too, was (is?) anal feeding – which may seem comparatively slight. But remember: starvation is the last – and you’ll have to excuse me here – avenue of protest and/or escape left open for Guantanamo’s detainees. This base, which, thanks to a historical absurdity, resides on Cuban soil, invites suicide and then cruelly denies it.
As far as it’s possible to discern, Obama really was sincere about closing Guantanamo, and really was disappointed that the legislative branch wasn’t conducive. Even if some cynical observers have suggested if only because he missed out on a golden PR opportunity on the international stage. (His 2008 campaign was granted America’s most esteemed advertising award, we ought to remember. For those still unclear about what the Clinton Effect on US politics was, and how it sucked out both conviction and principle leaving only power play and image, this fact hopefully lays a foundation of healthy scepticism.) And, should he have cared, it might’ve gone some way to making the Noble Prize Committee look less ridiculous.
Obama would’ve like nothing more to have had all detainees disappear into the, frankly not too much better, penitentiaries of the Deep South and Midwest. Because, after-all, Guantanamo’s main function is symbolic: Of Obama’s ineffectualness and of the Republican torture fetish.
Conqueror of the East
It has been discovered that many of “Gitmo’s” detainees are in fact fodder in the petty tribal disputes of Afghanistan, and not of bin Laden’s gang.
Both American and British forces have allowed themselves to be used by warlords and charlatans: Is your neighbour causing you problems? What better way of enacting Stalin’s maxim than by telling Coalition forces that he’s with Al Qaeda, a bad sort who harbours jihadi intent. In goes R boys and, if he and his family are lucky, he’ll be in an orange jumpsuit and tranquilised by sunrise. It recalls to mind my reading of the first English colonists’ contact with America’s natives, and how exploitation can – and did – work both ways.
Patrick Cockburn has done an excellent job over the years of documenting how local realities – primarily, but not limited to the sectarian – have had the paradoxical effect of dividing “conqueror” too. With squaddies left questioning a commander class which is never quite sure if the Taliban is to be quashed entirely or granted, with gritted teeth, ‘partner’ status. Brits, too, are left envious and dependent on superior American air and logistical support. And now we’re witnessing that war be exported (or is that imported?) home.
To that extent we can say that the Islamist outrages in Paris, Brussels, Turkey, etc., were successful – ISIS achieved their goal of dividing the “West”. Gone are the “we are the 99%” placards and a grudgingly sympathetic Middle England. Now, one is either the 52% or 48%; Red State or Blue; proud Aryan or some variant of the N word, or far, far worse: race traitor.
(Class is no longer the go-to gauge of voter intent. William James wrote of how you can learn all you need to about a man by familiarising oneself with his temperament. Are his sensory filters grey or rose-tinted, and which passions are most likely to surface in response? It’s these implicit emotions which are the gate keepers too often of logic and reason.)
I’m not suggesting Obama is to blame for any of this – even the world’s most powerful man is subject to History’s whims. But it is “blowback” of a sort, and Obama seemed clueless as how to respond.
Foreign policy wonks from across the spectrum have grimaced at his unfocused response to the Syrian disaster, and claimed, if anything, it has made the West’s lot worse. Alluding to WWII (as they always do) strategists have argued that Obama would’ve been better of knocking off the greater evil even if it meant aligning with a lesser for a time. But I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those drawing this comparison would have no interest in fighting Assad once the chessboard had lost some of that clutter. The Pentagon was quite happy with the “normalising influence” of a “stable” Syrian dictatorship once, and would be again given the chance.
So, just for the record, I was one of the few within my ‘corner’ of the Left who had agreed with the spirit of Obama’s two-pronged assault against both Assad and Islamic State. Fascism – or Ba’athism – is no easier to abide if it has state apparatus and a seat at the UN. And if he had decided to join Putin in crushing the revolt – that wasn’t and isn’t entirely Islamist whatever the self-righteous pundits squawk – I have a hunch Galloway and his cultists would be now condemning Barrack for aligning with a fascist despot (Assad, not Putin, to clarify). Or perhaps not, is he still in the pay of Russia Today? Spudhead, isn’t it?
As it happened though, neither were defeated, and one – Assad’s forces – are shaping up to be a powerful player in the Middle East. As well as, quite unintentionally, beyond.
The Mid-East Legacy
Perhaps it’s unfair to focus on the Middle East. Obama did try to pivot the eyes of the world toward the south-east Asia, along with American destroyers. But there’s certain truths I would be uncomfortable omitting:
- American troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan
- Obama’s drone program, celebrated by liberals of the lesser-evilism variety, had a 10% success rate (according to one of those dreaded whistleblowers)
- Though the slight chiding of Netanyahu at the UN has been completely overblown, Obama’s actual Israel policy has been one of lavish military spending and objectively pro-the illegal settlements. The prospect of a Palestinian state that doesn’t constitute in toto Gaza seems, tragically, an impossibility
- The Egyptian counter-revolution was successful, thanks in large part to American subsidy of Egypt’s state-within-a-state: its military
- The Saudi elite remains untouched, even though it provides ISIS with financial and ideological support (something the Podesta’s emails revealed Clinton knew about and did fuck all about)
- His one success – the Iran Deal – came only after brazen lying which implicated Turkey and Brazil and support for Israel’s terroristic murder of nuclear scientists. And it looks set to be undone by Trump. (What was it we were saying about hubris?)
In a boring but highly-publicized 2009 speech, replete with platitudes and euphemism, Obama cleverly aligned the United States with the forces of “democracy” without getting down to specifics. And, again, “we” allowed ourselves to be duped. Imagine how ready to the mind the above facts would be if a Bush Jr-Jr was in the White House up until 2017.
It is his enemies which have outlived him in every case but bin Laden’s. (Helped by, in no small measure, US support for states which don’t have elections.) In the histories of Egypt, Israel, Syria and Iraq Obama may just about warrant a footnote. And if ISIS is ever allowed to mutate into a nation state, he wouldn’t even get that.