Monday, June 27, 2011

Obama's words, personality and policy

I've become particularly fond of David Bromwich's analyses of President Obama. His close reading of Obama's speeches often yields some perceptive insights.

In Obama: His Words and His Deeds 06/16/2011 (07/14/2011 issue), Bromwich brings the story up to date:

Few members of Congress as yet hold a fully articulated objection to America’s wars in Asia and North Africa. But other causes in play may trouble the President’s determination to show his sympathy with the Arab Spring by military action in Libya. Obama has an unfortunate propensity to be specific when it would serve him well to avoid particulars, and to become vague at times when dates, names, numbers, or "a line in the sand" is what is needed to clarify a policy. On Libya, he was specific. He said the American commitment would last "days, not weeks." It has now lasted a little under three months. Reliable reporters such as Anthony Shadid of The New York Times and Patrick Cockburn of The Independent have suggested that an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight.

The narrow aim of enforcing a "no-fly zone" to protect civilians, asserted by Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton as the limit of American aims, turns out to have been a wedge for an air war against Qaddafi, a war, in fact, as thorough as is compatible with avoidance of harm to civilians. The surest thing one can say about the end of this engagement is that the US—along with France, Great Britain, and perhaps also Italy, which arranged the intervention—will at some point install a client state and fit out a friendly government with a democratic constitution.
Stephen Walt is less generous in his evaluation of Obama's bizarre claim that the Libya War doesn't constitute "hostilities" by the United States under American law. In Obama, we're at war. Stop insulting us. Foreign Policy 06/16/2011, Walt writes:

... the Obama administration is claiming that it doesn't need congressional authorization for its Libyan intervention under the War Powers Act. Why? Because what we are doing doesn't amount to "full-blown" hostilities.

Oh, please. Let's start with the definition of "war" itself. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as "a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country." Now, let's see: what are we doing in Libya? What we know is that we've sent cruise missiles, and drones and U.S. aircraft to attack military targets in various places, including several attacks on Qaddafi's own compound. We are continuing to provide targeting information to our NATO allies, who are conducting additional raids on their own. Although U.S. ground troops are not present in force, it's a safe bet that U.S. special forces are operating in various places, probably helping provide some of that targeting info. And of course because the Obama administration isn't telling us everything that it's doing, we have no clear way of knowing exactly how involved we really are.

By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn't matter that we aren't using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn't being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality. [my emphasis in bold]
Walt's comments points to one of the limitations of Bromwich's approach. Bromwich generally does a good job of looking at the policy context of Obama's words. But he tends to treat seeming inconsistencies in Obama's words as some sort of personality quirk. And in doing so, he sometimes makes useful assumptions, such as comments about his own personal wealth that suggest a strong identification with the wealthy and powerful. But it can also downplay policy and political concerns that make even more obvious explanations.

For instance, he writes:

Obama has always preferred the symbolic authority of the grand utterance to the actual authority of a directed policy: a policy fought for in particulars, carefully sustained, and traceable to his own intentions. The danger of the built-up speech venues — the Nobel Prize speech of December 2009 was another example — is that they cast Obama as the most famous holder-forth in the world, and yet it is never clear what follows for him from the fact that the world is listening. These settings make a president who is now more famous than popular seem not popular but galactic.

The speeches also display as a strength a personal trait that can seem, instead, an indulgence. For Obama, protracted moods of extreme abstraction seem to alternate with spasmodic engagement. The blend is hard to get used to. His detachment from congressional negotiations on health care and cap-and-trade was resented by Democrats, while leaders of the Palestinian Authority were at a loss to account for the dissociation from active pursuit of a settlement that followed his Cairo speech of June 2009. His decision to back the Libyan rebels was an instance of sudden engagement, against the prudential advice of a secretary of defense whom Obama trusts and admires. [my emphasis]
Yet he writes further on:

Obama in his Nobel Prize speech - which was in large part a defense of American conduct after 1945 and in smaller part a plea for the legitimation of humanitarian wars such as he has now committed the US to support in Libya - went on to say of the duties of a great power: “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.” The idioms of duty and utility are strangely mixed in that sentence. How can we be sure that an act that the President would like the world to see as benevolent will be seen as benevolent? It is surely easier to have that feeling if one knows oneself as the preeminent power, and believes oneself to be carried forward by the momentum of the world. [my emphasis]
Why do we need a psychological explanation postulating that Obama experiences "protracted moods of extreme abstraction [which] seem to alternate with spasmodic engagement" and that one of the latter moments to the Libya intervention, when Bromwich's observation that Obama used his Nobel speech in part for "the legitimation of humanitarian wars such as he has now committed the US to support in Libya" indicates rather than Obama was looking for such an opportunity as a matter of policy? There are indications, certainly, that the Libya intervention was poorly thought through. And even that Obama may have been suckered into thinking it was going to be quick and easy. But we don't need a speculation about a tendency on the President's part to "spasmodic engagement" to explain it plausibly.

Using grand phrases to deflect criticism from disappointing policies is a routine part of political speech and statecraft. Bromwich is also giving political theater too much credit in the matter of the health care negotiations. The White House was heavily involved with them but didn't make a big public deal about them. In summer of 2009, the White House cut their notorious deal with health industry lobbyists to make sure no public option would be included in the health care reform.

Bromwich gives a lot of attention to Obama's public rhetorical sparring with Benjamin Netanyahu. He thinks the Israeli Prime Minister got the best of Obama. But Bromwich leaves the impression that this is mainly because Obama failed to understand Netanyahu's rhetorical strategy. It seems more relevant to look at Obama's record to date, which strongly suggests that he never intended to apply major pressure to Israel to stop the West Bank settlements, which is essential to any remaining hope of negotiations leading to a viable two-state solution. A more parsimonious explanation of Obama's behavior is that he wanted to wave a diplomatic fig leaf to indicate that he tried to do something to get Israel to negotiate.

But Bromwich is being realistic when he writes, "Obama, as much as any American leader, is captivated by an image of America as the world-historical touchstone of generous conduct toward other nations." Politics, of course, require him to convey the impression to the public that he believes something along those lines. But Bromwich's conclusion in this case is consistent not only with Obama's words but his policy conduct.

Bromwich also seems to miss a basic and simple point here:

Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution divided government into two components, the dignified part and the efficient part. The dignified part is concerned with matters of ceremony, the arrangement and conduct of state occasions for celebration or mourning, the issuance of joint communiqués with foreign leaders and commands delivered from a majestic height. The efficient part is the part of government that governs - by making laws above all, but also by striking bargains between factions, and filling the positions of upper, middle, and lower functionaries, and threshing out party platforms on the way to becoming laws.
And he notes that Obama seems to have a distinct preference for the former. But one obvious distinction between the President and the British prime minister, and also the heads of many parliamentary governments, is that the President is both head of state (the role played by the Queen in Britain and the King in Spain) and head of government. That "dignified part" is a Constitutional role for the US President in a way that it is not for the British and Spanish prime ministers or the German Chancellor.

Also, how is Obama different in that way from other Presidents. The late John Kenneth Galbraith used to observe with his characteristic tone of sardonic amusement that Presidents and diplomats loved to go to summits and make foreign visits. And that the motivation was frequently primarily the pleasure of the trip. Think of Richard Nixon. As much as he may have enjoyed the less "dignified" aspects of his job, when was he enjoying himself more? Traveling to China and being hailed as a world statesman? Or sitting in his office with Haldeman and Ehrichman worrying about Jewish plots against him and planning domestic espionage crimes and figuring out ways of hushing them up?

This is also a useful observation on Bromwich's part:

The position of a moderate who aspires to shake the world into a new shape presents a continuous contradiction. For the moderate feels constrained not to say anything startling, and not to do anything very fast. But just as there is trouble with doing things on the old lines, there is trouble, too, with letting people understand things on the old lines. At least, there is if you have your sights set on changing the nature of the game. Obama is caught in this contradiction, and keeps getting deeper in it, like a man who sinks in quicksand both the more he struggles and the more he stays still. This is one lesson of his passage from inaction in Egypt to action in Libya, and from his summons of reform in Cairo in June 2009 to the guarded speech from the sidelines in May 2011. [my emphasis]
Here it's hard to avoid making judgments about Obama's personality, or at least the appropriateness of his leadership style to the current situation. A lot of frustrated Democrats have been saying, in some form or another, that the public interest in general and the Democratic Party in particular needed a transformative President. But Obama is instead a transactional one. And that's no doubt related to his own temperament and personality in some part. But it's also rooted in Obama's embrace of the neoliberal/Washington Consensus economic orthodoxy. He's a Democratic President who's made sure to keep the phasing out of Medicare and Social Security on the national agenda! It may be a personality quirk. But it's also a policy orientation.

Something similar is true in foreign policy broadly. Obama may want to wind down involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to levels that are less politically disturbing. But his actions in Afghanistan have been consistent with the position he took in the 2008 campaign of supporting that war and promising to escalate it. The Libya War also shows that he buys into the interventionism that has loomed far too big in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. And his embrace of the Patriot Act, his legal pursuit of whistleblowers and journalists, and his extreme claims for government secrecy and the right to designate Americans abroad for assassination on his own authority all indicate that Obama supports the basic structure of the national security state as Cheney and Bush defined it.

Obviously, the personality of a person with such enormous power as the President of the United States is a legitimate and necessary matter for study and concern. But when actions fit into a clear and intelligible policy context (whether or not one approves of the policies), we don't need to postulate personality quirks to explain them.

Tags: , , ,

| +Save/Share | |

Links to this post:

Create a Link


"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


  • What is the Blue Voice?
  • Bruce Miller
  • Fdtate
  • Marcia Ellen (on hiatus)
  • Marigolds2
  • Neil
  • Tankwoman
  • Wonky Muse


  • Krugman on Argentina, Greece and sovereign debt de...
  • Trying to understand the Greek debt crisis through...
  • New York's same-sex marriage law: progress in the ...
  • Michele Bachmann anti-sharia but Christian Reconst...
  • The "religious left" - do we really have such a th...
  • Reuters: "The risks and rewards of the Afghan with...
  • Video reports on the Greek crisis
  • Videos on Obama's Afghanistan War speech and on th...
  • Imagining Obama as a Republican via Ike nostalgia
  • Greece becomes an EU crisis



    [Tip: Point cursor to any comment to see title of post being discussed.]
    www TBV




    Environmental Links
    Gay/Lesbian Links
    News & Media Links
    Organization Links
    Political Links
    Religious Links
    Watchdog Links



    Atom/XML Feed
    Blogarama - Blog Directory
    Blogwise - blog directory



    hits since 06-13-2005

    site design: wonky muse