Thursday, December 3, 2009

Things Fall Apart

Barack Obama is losing friends. Gary Wills' post at the New York Review blog might as well stand in for the others (though its patronizing tone--"I was deeply invested in the success of our first African-American president"--is Wills' own). Obama, so goes the argument, is fighting a war that will not defeat enemies but will only produce more. This is his Vietnam, which is the more galling since he knows very well what happened in Vietnam. He has "betrayed" the people who supported him.

Others, well, huff that he is nothing but a conciliator, hugging the "center" at every opportunity. Just look at his unwillingness to nationalize the banks, or willingness to entertain alternatives to a Medicare style public option. He must be hanging out too much with Wall Street swells. The New York Times narcissism police (which has no internal investigation unit, apparently) told us he is a "cold shower" even to his close friends; during the campaign, the same investigator charged that the child of black and white parents simply cannot stop himself from trying to please everybody. You get the idea.

For my part, I confess my admiration for Obama is only growing as I watch him navigate the extraordinary tangle of decisions he confronts. And for what it's worth, I think the (bi-)racial profiling of Obama misses the point, too. I do not see a child who is trying to please everybody. I see a man who understands that we mainly inherit what happened before we come into responsibility (and I don't just mean his administration inheriting the mistakes of the Bush presidency); that things fall apart much as Achebe, like Conrad before him, warned us they do; that if we struggle to improve things, we must simultaneously struggle to hold together whatever institutions are more or less working, or we are going to create something much, much worse.

I DON'T KNOW any more about Afghanistan than Wills does, which is impressionistic (impressions reinforced, or distorted, I confess, by many drives to the South Hebron hills, where some of my hosts still live in caves). I am willing to believe that Afghanistan is, at best, a chaotic and backward and ruined place; that people in the war zone there (as reported in this poignant report) shoot at chickens to test life preserving amulets. Let us say that, inevitably, Afghanistan will be ruled by a kleptocracy during our lifetimes; that the best we could ever hope for is to shore up an area around Kabul, which gives a certain freedom to women and a leg up to a narco-mafia over the more traditional warlords. You listen to journalist Rory Stewart, certainly, and you conclude that building a modern, democratic Afghanistan is a fantasy.

The point is, what in Obama's speech or policy would lead one to believe he thinks any differently? He did not get us into this mess. So far as I can see, his strategy is contrived to keep the place from falling apart in the event of a too-rapid withdrawal, a prospect that horrifies Stewart himself: think of Cambodia, not just Vietnam. Besides, the real danger to the region would be chaos in Pakistan, not only Afghanistan. Is the Pakistani government asking for a wholesale American withdrawal now? If there is not a wholesale withdrawal, then how to make America's troops not become sitting ducks?

Is there anything in Obama's speech that would preclude trying to reach an accommodation with local warlords, as in Iraq, so that American and NATO troops can be drawn down at the end of next year? Is there any fear of a "wider war" with another superpower? If this is Obama's Vietnam, or even his Iraq, where is the domino theory, or the hollow call for "freedom," or the Kissingerian claim that withdrawal would damage American "credibility," or the cavalier attitude toward allies, or the attempt to have butter without paying for the guns?

And while I'm getting warmed up, would we really have been better off nationalizing the banks, bonuses or no bonuses, wiping out the shareholders (including our pension funds) and rebuilding their management from scratch? Were we right to assume a recovery that was years away, so that toxic assets would remain toxic for years? Let's assume, which is certainly arguable, that a Medicare-like public option is really the best way to contain costs; lets' assume that private insurance companies and non-profit cooperatives (which for all their perverse incentives work, after all) cannot be regulated to serve the commonwealth as well as a government program. Has Obama been failing to stake his presidency on this option because he's lacked courage since childhood or because he's simply been able to count to 41 since March?

Look, this is a man who organized his Chicago community backed by the Catholic church. When he refused to denounce governments working through faith-based services, progressives denounced him as pandering to the right. He refused to denounce the Supreme Court for valorizing the Second Amendment, but tried to come up with new ways to control guns and apply their ruling. As president, he might have let GM fold--that would serve them right!--but he took the time to see the company's potential and, by next fall, he will have made us all majority stakeholders in the world's most advanced electric car and supplier ecosystem. He invested the stimulus in things that will matter in the years ahead, though he could have sent us shopping to gin up unemployment numbers: "cash for what-not." And is his call for bi-partisanship really just playing into the hands of them. He said on "Sixty Minutes" a while back that it was his responsibility to make decency to adversaries "interesting." I could have kissed him for that.

Oh, and he said what he was going to do in Afghanistan. He said it to a million people in Berlin, for God's sake. Look at the way he's engaged China and Russia on a deeply important trip he's got not credit for, except from Jim Fallows, who thankfully is paying attention.

I DO NOT have Obama's temperament, so let me say to my progressive friends that we are courting disaster. There is betrayal here, but it is not Obama's betrayal of us. I saw this kind of thing before with Jimmy Carter, where the president suffered death by a thousand cuts from the people on his left, Kennedy included; people who couldn't deliver the Congress, but could deliver endless polemics against his fear of budget busting or his more pragmatic health care proposals--and they wound up clearing the path for Ronald Reagan. Just listen to Rick Hertzberg, who like Fallows was in Carter's White House, to learn what a cold shower losing was.

We like to think that "independents," where Obama's ratings are slipping, are the really judicious types. In fact, people who remained undecided the longest during the last election were people who could not easily think for themselves; people who were waiting to see what other people were going to do; people who never want to be thought suckers. A big part of Obama's slippage is coming because the most conspicuously progressive people in the Democratic tent think nothing of "going negative" the way Hilary did, and over things Obama either cannot control or may yet prove right about.

We are fanning public anger against Obama about pain Obama did not cause; refusing to see how many in our benighted public are just looking to see if he continues to inspire loyalty and electricity among the people they had flocked to last year. We are sickened by the right but seem not to see how those waiting in the wings are counting on the Democratic Party falling apart, too.

"If we had wanted Bush’s wars, and contractors, and corruption, we could have voted for John McCain. At least we would have seen our foe facing us, not felt him at our back, as now we do," Wills writes. Really. You'd rather have McCain and Palin in the White House, facing you squarely. Then you'd know who your enemy is. Then the world would make sense.