The Obama Drama

I guess everyone remembers the 2008 campaign when, in the exhilaration of Obamania, the advertising slogan "no-drama Obama" had a fair amount of success. This was supposed to highlight Obama's psychological characteristics and the fact that he was cool, not overexcited like "bomb-bomb-Iran" McCain.

This also reflected a common misunderstanding of politics, for personalities do not matter that much in the running of the U.S. (or any other country) -- much less than the force field of conflicts between the various powerful sectors in oligarchic democracies, in any case. Obama quickly moved to the center, which in effect means the least-uncomfortable common denominator between the business world, the military-industrial complex and the various lobbies with their guns pointed at Congress (the NRA, AIPAC, Big Pharma, Big Oil, the Koch brothers, Adelson, etc.).

In foreign policy there are differences between Obama and his predecessor, but the question to be asked is whether these differences are the result of Obama's thinking or his different approaches or are induced by a shifting international context. In relation to Israel and the Palestinians, Obama had to quickly move away from the implications of his 2009 Cairo speech and hew to the constant post-1967 U.S. line of almost unconditional support for Israel, with a few empty words of warning -- unless Israel really suggested something drastically at odds with U.S. interests (like bombing Iran, which Bush himself opposed in 2008).

As regards Russia, Obama's first instincts were sound, and his reset policy seemed smarter than the quasi-Cold War that had been launched before. Yet the reset fizzled out, drowned under the pressures of various actors in foreign policy, Congress, the military-industrial complex, the war-mongering media, the McCain crowd, etc. The Obama drama is the usual drama of presidents: They are tied down by all the powers that determine policy irrespective of who is supposedly at the helm. John Judis' book on Truman, Genesis, shows that Truman made decisions that did not really correspond with his personal preferences. (See a book excerpt here.) In other words, what presidents want or prefer is only one factor among many in the decision-making process, and often U.S. presidents are more illusions of power or puppets in many other hands than the proverbial "most powerful man on Earth."

On Ukraine the main debate outside the alternative media seems to be between the "bomb-bomb" crowd, with McCain again figuring prominently, and the more realistic and more realist advisers around Obama. The radical left, which is totally critical of Obama, of course, nonetheless approves of his decision not to go to war in or over Ukraine, as it did over the Obama administration's decision not to go to war in Syria.

Strange bedfellows, one could argue, for few on the left like Obama the drone meister. But then in foreign policy strange bedfellowship is the rule. Libertarians and the radical left, which could not be more at odds when it comes to social programs, are often of one mind when it comes to foreign interventions.

At times the military is closer to the left than to the liberals, as when Gates argued that anyone in favor fighting a third war in the Middle East (Libya 2011) ought to "have his head examined." But, as we know, he lost his fight to liberal interventionists like Slaughter, Clinton and Rice. Gates was right on this point, and so was the radical left, as the chaos in Libya today clearly indicates.

The Obama drama means that the president can easily decide to kill bin Laden, resort to drones, establish his own kill list, and refuse to prosecute the torture mongers of the Bush administration, but the president cannot beat the NRA and get sensible gun laws passed in Congress, and he cannot force Israel to stop its illegal settlement policy, which, in the long run, will be harmful to Israel itself, and in the short term is brutal for the Palestinians and disastrous for the image of both the U.S. and Israel.

On Ukraine the president cannot admit that U.S. and Western moves to expand NATO and weaken Russia played a key part in the unfolding events in that country. He can blame Russia for its undeniable violations of sovereignty and human rights, but the blame rings hollow in many countries where U.S. violations are not just remembered but also seared in the flesh of many people, from Iraq to Afghanistan to indeed Libya.

In other words, Obama has to play the diplomatic card and appear to be tough and oppositional. He is caught between a rock and a hard place, calling for sanctions against Russia and trying to find a way to start negotiations. He cannot publicly be as astute as Stephen Cohen in his analysis of the situation, and mostly he cannot reveal in what way the U.S. (and Europe too, when Ms. Nuland does not want to "fuck" it) is or was part of the problem.

So Obama has to lambaste Putin, a very problematic autocratic leader with a few legitimate grievances, and appear powerless because he wisely chose not to go to war with Russia. The war-weary American public does not want a new war, and that should strengthen Obama's hand, yet Obama cannot deviate from the tough rhetoric inherited from the Cold War, so as not to antagonize the military-industrial complex, and also in order to appeal to the U.S.'s new allies in Eastern Europe. Yet even there, in Poland or Latvia, his tough rhetoric is not trusted, since it is mixed with his "neo-pragmatic" approach.

The wise thing to do would be to start a diplomatic process with Ukraine, Russia, the EU and the U.S. to guarantee Ukraine's sovereignty and its independence from all geopolitical units and come to an agreement about how to boost the Ukrainian economy, which would be based on Russian-EU cooperation. Instead, the Obama drama of presidential paralysis leads to posturing that immediately proves empty.

The Obama drama should not be construed as the idea that Obama is a good guy who would do wonderful things if only he were not hampered by the bad guys around him. This would amount to the "ah, if only the king knew" of old monarchies. The Obama drama refers to the gridlock and power games that all aspiring presidents agree to play while running for office. If the drone wielder is far more powerful than the would-be gun stopper, it is because the puppet of oligarchic military forces is more powerful than the principled president of the United States. It is therefore easier for the "most powerful man on Earth" to kill 20 innocent Pakistanis than it is for him to protect 20 American kids at school. So it does not matter whether the president is nice, black, female, liberal or cool if he or she does not toe the line; then he or she is powerless. In that case, the bully in his or her pulpit barks in the wilderness.