The Washington Spring – 8
If, with the passing weeks, I have expressed concerns and inchoate disappointment, it is only because Barack Obama’s election filled me with hope, because I wish above all that he succeed, and because it would be a disaster should he fail. I am still fairly confident, even if there are more and more sceptics around me – which, in the internet age, means the entire planet.
I regularly hear one objection that seems to me to some extent warranted (but also, therefore, in some measure unwarranted), and which can be expressed thus: the United States behaved the way it did on the international stage during recent years (decades, even) not because of calculated choices made by any one president, but because national interests dictated their deeds.
The proof of this, we’re told, is that successive American leaders adopted more-or-less similar positions on a range of issues. There is, therefore, a sort of determinism preventing any president – no matter how well intentioned – from breaking away from the line imposed by his country’s strategic interests. In the Arab world, you hear this opinion on every street corner. And you hear it in Latin America and in other regions of the world, too.
In my opinion, there is certainly some truth to it. If the American giant has found itself mired in so many conflicts throughout the world in recent years, it is not only because presidents Bush Snr., Clinton and then Bush Jr. deemed them worthwhile. It is also because the United States no longer felt it could play a leading role in the planet’s affairs or protect its own interests without constantly resorting to its military might.
Might Americans now change their attitude? In all sincerity, the most one can say – if one takes into account the objective facts without getting stuck in determinism – is that that remains to be seen. An American president’s margin for manoeuvre is neither negligible nor limitless. For example, should a president want to significantly reduce the US military presence throughout the world, he would meet with obstacles difficult to overcome; conversely, had a president decided it was wrong to invade Iraq, he could very well have avoided that war.
This applies to most of the troublesome matters that Barack Obama found on his desk when he moved into the White House last January – the economy, health care, global warming, and various international questions such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Burma, Africa, the Middle East and so on. In his speeches, first as candidate and then president, and in his earlier writings, Obama has shown an in-depth understanding of these matters. One gets the feeling that he’s thought them through, that he’s sought solutions.
Being a symbol isn’t enough
I freely admit that I hoped Obama would win. At first, my hope was founded on the symbolic value that the election of a person of mixed origins, who comes from five continents at once, to the leadership of the world’s leading superpower represented; but as I heard him speak, as I read what he had written and heard what those who knew him well said of him, I was quickly seduced by his intelligence and moral integrity.
Quite frankly, America hasn’t exactly spoiled us with the presidents she has chosen over the past 40 years; the intelligent and cultivated ones turned out to be cynics or of dubious morals, and the entire world suffered the consequences. Obama’s election filled me with enthusiasm, then, and I still think that, on the symbolic level, it constitutes an historic event of global reach. But I shall be disappointed should History remember this presidency for its symbolism alone.
Disappointment is too faint, too personal a word. The troubled world we live in needs urgent and audacious answers if we are to avoid sinking even deeper into violence, hatred and widespread cynicism. And it would be a disaster if the man who raised ‘the audacity of hope’ into doctrine, who made it a rallying cry, lacked audacity and dashed our hope.
It is too soon to say if this will be the case. For the time being, then, I listen, pay attention, weigh up and consider events. Sometimes I rejoice, sometimes I grow impatient, and sometimes I worry. Without going into the details of any matter in particular, I would like to note here two or three general causes for concern, linked to the character of this administration and to that of the president himself.
Obama is a consensus man, which is both a quality and a liability. It’s a quality if one understands ‘consensus’ to mean that all political views should be taken into account, and that all people of good will should be brought into the fold. But if one gives the right of veto over one’s actions to too many people, including to one’s own opponents, one condemns oneself to paralysis and conformism. Big ideas are watered down until they are vapid and inconsequential.
I have just read a highly illuminating book, one to which Obama consented, and which – despite its ambiguous title, Renegade[i] - is very favourable to him, by the British journalist Richard Wolffe. In it, Wolffe recounts a conversation he had last year with the future president on the manner in which the latter intended to govern. Obama told him, in essence, that if “the ship” were entrusted to him, then his first concern would be to prevent it being wrecked.
It’s an understandable and worthy attitude, but paradoxically also a little risky – ‘risky’ in the sense of excessively prudent. Because from the moment certain people, both within the United States and outside it, realise that Obama is reluctant to use force for fear of upsetting the ship, they will no longer want to let him continue. Not on health, not on the economy, not on the Middle East, not on Afghanistan, not on any portfolio whatsoever.
There are so many people who have not accepted his election, whether for political, racial or other reasons, and who above all want to see him fail. He must prove them wrong. For the United States as much as for the rest of the world, it is vital that Obama succeed.
(First published in French on August 19th).
[i] AUTHOR’S NOTE: ‘Renegade’ was the code word given to candidate Obama by the secret service agents assigned to protect him during the election campaign.