The World’s Most Important Spectator

David Bromwich

The first year and a half of Barack Obama’s second term has been preternaturally unlucky. The stymied enrolments for his healthcare plan, the multiple errors of computer co-ordination that forced people to wait days or weeks in front of blank screens, marred the new faith in government the plan had been intended to affirm. Just when, around the end of April, the trouble seemed to be halfway resolved, with millions finally insured and several deadlines put off, there emerged stories of faked records of treatment and months-long waiting lists at Veterans Hospitals. It was another failure of managerial competence, in another branch of government to which Obama had professed the warmest commitment. And there has been nothing resembling a success in foreign policy to offset the embarrassments at home. The United States, which always needs to be doing something, was in no position to do much about the Russian annexation of Crimea or the conflict in Ukraine.

A common feature in all these events was that Obama himself seemed far from the scene. He was looking on, we were made to think, with concern and understanding. But in matters like these, one could easily feel that a conspicuous sign of a ‘hands-on’ president was needed. Apparently Obama was startled by the bad rollout of healthcare – shocked and dismayed like all Americans. But shouldn’t he have known more about it than most Americans? Again, the Veterans Affairs scandal was something he learned about when he read the papers, but why only then? His show of injured trust and surprise had been received more charitably on the still obscure earlier occasion when four Americans were killed in Benghazi on 11 September 2012. He was notified at the time, but he was in the middle of campaigning and left the crisis to the State Department. Absent and accounted for. Yet there has been, all along, an airy and unnerving quality about these absences. Obama launched the bombing of Libya in March 2011, having previously signalled that he intended no such action, in an emergency speech during a state visit to Brazil.

The second term had begun on a quite different note, with a spontaneous initiative which sprang from Obama’s voluntary presence at a scene he could have avoided. After the mass killing of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, he vowed to pass a stringent new measure to strengthen gun control. For anyone who has been watching him, it was the most deeply felt moment of his presidency, and the largest risk he had taken on any issue. The time to publicise the outlines of such a bill was during those December days when the grief of the parents overwhelmed the country. Obama’s solution was characteristic. He announced that Joe Biden would explore the legislative possibilities and report back in a month. As the weeks passed, various weapons bans were drawn up and canvassed in public, but the National Rifle Association had been given time to rally and the moment passed. Much the same happened with the pledge in January 2009 to close Guantánamo. Obama left the room and asked his advisers to call him when they had solved it. A prudential pause was lengthened and became so clearly a sign of unconcern that the issue lost all urgency.

Obama is adept at conveying benevolent feelings that his listeners want to share, feelings that could lead to benevolent actions. He has seemed in his element in the several grief-counselling speeches given in the wake of mass killings, not only in Newtown but in Aurora, at Fort Hood, in Tucson, in Boston after the marathon bombing; and in his meetings with bereft homeowners and local officials who were granted disaster funds in the aftermath of recent hurricanes. This president delivers compassion with a kind face and from a decorous and understated height. And that seems to be the role he prefers to play in the world too. It was doubtless the posture from which he would have liked to address the Arab Spring, and for that matter the civil war in Syria, if only Assad had obeyed when Obama said he must go. Obama has a larger-spirited wish to help people than any of his predecessors since Jimmy Carter; though caution bordering on timidity has kept him from speaking with Carter even once in the last five years. Obama roots for the good cause but often ends up endorsing the acceptable evil on which the political class or the satisfied classes in society have agreed. He watches the world as its most important spectator.

Yet he shuns the company of other politicians – a trait now generally familiar and wondered at. A leading Democrat in the Senate, when asked how often he had spoken to Obama in the past year, answered that they had spoken once. The same senator declined to be named because that degree of intimacy would arouse the jealousy of his peers. Obama’s lack of concern with the daily business of politics – the bargaining and immersion in other people’s interests, the often merely formal but necessary exchange of views – has done much to blunt his sensibility to changes in public sentiment. Conflict-averse as he is, he never sees a fight coming until it is on him and almost out of control. The Tea Party got its start in spring 2009, with a rant at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange by the former hedge fund manager Rick Santelli, who asked why good Americans should pay for the losers whom the financial collapse had sunk with unpayable mortgages. Santelli promised to deliver a new insurgent group in the coming weeks, modelled on the Boston Tea Party. It was a clever speech, but morally ugly on the face of it, and could have been parried. Obama noticed the Tea Party more than a year later. By then, it was well organised and in a position to hand him the midterm congressional defeat of 2010 from which his administration has never really recovered.

Why these recurring shocks? Obama entered the presidency never having run anything. He appointed several qualified-looking but (as they turned out) inept officials with none of the relevant management skills. Steven Chu, the secretary of energy in Obama’s first term, was the winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, but he promulgated without complaint the ‘all of the above’ energy policy, which included, with ecumenical indifference, nuclear power, deep-sea drilling, Arctic drilling, and fracking. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, had been governor of Kansas and a loyal supporter of Obama, but was quite untested as a large-scale administrator before she was handed the gigantic apparatus of the Affordable Care Act. The same was true of Eric Shinseki, the general famous for telling the truth about the number of troops that would be needed to secure Iraq. Shinseki was misplaced as chief VA administrator and sacked a few weeks after Sebelius.

Disengagement has become the polite word for Obama’s grip on his own policies. Absent and not accounted for was the general view of him as the crisis in Ukraine built up in January and February. The overthrow of Yanukovich and seizure of power by a provisional government in Kiev had been anticipated and indeed encouraged by the European and Eurasian desk of the State Department. The assistant secretary in charge there is Victoria Nuland, a neoconservative who made a highly successful transition in 2009 from Dick Cheney’s staff to Hillary Clinton’s. Nuland is married to the co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, Robert Kagan, one of the leading promoters of the Iraq war. We may never know what Obama thought Nuland was up to when she flew in to the Maidan to pass out cookies to the protesters in Russia’s backyard. But the message has got around by now that Obama doesn’t particularly want to know things. On Ukraine, he seemed far out on the margins of the action, and possibly not aware of the implications of the State Department’s investment in civil society and democracy promotion in Ukraine: a subsidy of more than $5 billion since 1991, as Nuland revealed at the National Press Club on 13 December – a tremendous sum by USAID standards. Obama ceded control of America’s public stance to his secretary of state, John Kerry. The result with Ukraine in 2014, as with Syria in 2013, was to render a critical situation more confused, and bristling with opportunities for hostility between the US and Russia. Eventually, in late March, Obama gave a speech to the EU in Brussels that dressed up the debacle as policy.

His obliviousness to the Cheney weeds in his policy garden is characteristic and revealing. As Barton Gellman revealed in Angler, still the best book about Cheney, the vice president in 2001 was given a free hand to sow the departments and agencies of government with first and second-echelon workers who were fanatically loyal to him. Many of those people are still around; Obama made no effort to scour his government of their influence. Disgust with Bush and Cheney, even in the Republican Party, was general in early 2009 and it gave real leverage to a new president. But the idea of a return to the rule of law has not prospered under Obama; the phrase itself has scarcely been heard. We have seen not one significant prosecution of a Wall Street criminal and not one legal action against a lawyer who justified torture or an officer who ordered torture or an agent who committed it. Where Cheney and Bush are felt to have instigated crimes, Obama is seen to have countenanced or condoned them.

His relaxed way with the Constitution has finally put him on the wrong side of his most faithful allies even among centrist Democrats. The White House is now involved in a wrangle with the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, who is almost routinely a defender of the interests of police and intelligence services against suspects and citizens. The CIA’s refusal, over months of delay, to approve the release of a Senate committee report on its actions since 2001 has prompted Feinstein at last to question the role of the White House in suppressing the report. She interpreted Obama’s elaborate show of impartiality as one more extension of executive privilege against the branch of government that is responsible for oversight.

Executive action was once again Obama’s preference in arranging the return on 31 May of Bowe Bergdahl, the American prisoner in Afghanistan, in exchange for five Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo. On 2 June, the Environmental Protection Agency, with Obama’s explicit backing, announced rigorous new carbon limits calculated to shorten the life of coal-fired power plants. These two actions, one in domestic, the other in foreign affairs, are the boldest Obama has taken in five years; but both were presented as executive decisions, owing nothing to consultation with lawmakers. Election-wary Democrats who were not consulted have been reluctant to defend the prisoner exchange, while Democrats from coal-mining states such as West Virginia and Kentucky are actively denouncing the carbon limits. Obama’s determination to do things however he can in his last years in office, and act alone when he cannot act with Congress, has now committed him in ways that allow no exit. These are decisions which cannot by their nature be walked back. If the Republican Party hadn’t squandered an impeachment a little too recently on Bill Clinton, they would probably answer the drumbeat of their rank and file and impeach Barack Obama.

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The Tea Party has the reputation of being the home of American libertarians: defenders of the separation of powers and the Bill of Rights, especially the first, second, fourth and fifth amendments to the Constitution, which assure respectively the freedom of speech, the press, religious practice and peaceable assembly; the right to bear arms; the right of citizens to be secure against unwarranted searches and seizures; and the right not to be charged with a capital crime, or convicted or punished, without due process of law. But the Tea Party encompasses believers of at least two sorts in addition to the ‘rights’ libertarians: fanatical defenders of private property and earnings (no matter how acquired) as a good on a par with life and limb; and haters of government action and government itself, except in the cause of imprisoning criminals and waging war on enemies of the state. So far, only one credible non-Tea Party candidate seems prepared to run for the presidency in 2016. This is Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, younger brother of George W. and, according to their father, the more sensitive of the two.

Meanwhile the Tea Party aspirants are a peculiar array that reflects the still uncertain character of the party. Marco Rubio, the handsome junior senator from Florida, has an effortless flow of speech, fast, glib and shallow, and might possibly be equipped to recapture the Hispanic vote which the Republicans need if they are to survive. Rubio was caught in a patent falsehood a few months ago, having postdated his parents’ flight from Cuba to make them look like refugees from Castro and Communism, but he was soon forgiven: in the Southern states generally, the anti-Castro mania has outlasted its motive, and in such a cause fiction and fact will inevitably be mingled. Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, presents himself as another adoptive and grateful American of Cuban descent (though born in Canada). He bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Joe McCarthy – a clean-shaven, teetotal McCarthy, without the jowl and the after-hours squint. Cruz talks smoothly and skilfully, always in a tone of accusation: a manner that one might suppose had passed with the death of McCarthy, but nationalist rage and resentment have a melody that lingers on.

‘The undisputed party leader’ in Texas (according to the Dallas Morning News), Senator Cruz has pledged to carry into national politics the 2014 platform of the Texas Republicans. The elements of the platform include: sealing off the border with Mexico and prohibiting amnesty for illegal immigrants; permitting owners of businesses to refuse service to persons they find offensive on moral or religious grounds; abolition of property taxes; abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency; repeal of the minimum wage; termination of affirmative action; endorsement of ‘reparative therapy’ to convert homosexuals to heterosexual practice; and repeal of the state lottery. Any hope of tempering the rigours of such a programme by the national Republican establishment was considerably weakened on 10 June, when a Tea Party insurgent defeated Eric Cantor, the majority leader in Congress, in the Republican primary in Cantor’s Virginia district. Cantor had seemed to define the outermost limit of Republican intransigence during the debt-ceiling negotiations of 2011, and he held the status of Benjamin Netanyahu’s virtual representative in the US. The man who beat him on a shoestring budget, Dave Brat, is a professor of economics, a denouncer of crony capitalism, and an immigration alarmist. ‘The guy,’ the blogger who signs himself Pangloss wrote in sheer wonder, ‘found room to the right of Cantor.’

Rand Paul, the son of the libertarian Ron Paul, remains alongside Cruz a contender for Tea Party support in 2016. He is among the most interesting of contemporary politicians, and also the most troubling in his inconsistency. Paul’s speech against the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, which became a 13-hour filibuster against the president’s right to order drone strikes, was a singular event of 2013, yet it has turned out to be a prelude without a sequel. More prudential displays of ambition by Paul, such as his equivocal postponement of judgment on climate change, his trip to Israel (with the usual ritual obeisance), his gimmicky solution to Ukraine (give it to the Russians, cut off all relations and let it bankrupt them), have suggested nothing like the single-mindedness of his father. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see how much of Ron Paul’s libertarianism, shared by no other politician of national standing, might come to be represented in some way by Rand.

On 21 May he delivered an extraordinary speech against the nomination of David Barron to the federal appeals court; and he did so on the grounds that Barron, author of the secret document rationalising the president’s drone assassination of Americans, manifestly held beliefs about executive power that were in themselves disqualifying. Paul read from the writings of journalists hardly identified with the American right, such as Glenn Greenwald and Conor Friedersdorf; and he made the substance of his criticism the all-importance of trial by jury and the legal standard requiring proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt:

In these memos [written for the president by Barron] there’s a different standard … The standard is that an assassination is justified when ‘an informed, high-level official of the US government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.’ So we’re not talking about beyond a reasonable doubt any more. That standard’s gone. We’re talking about an informed, unnamed high-level official in secret deciding that an imminent attack is going to occur.

The interesting thing about an imminent attack is we really don’t go by the plain wording of what you might think would be ‘imminent’ any more … You wonder about a definition of imminence that no longer includes the word immediate … The president believes, with regard to privacy in the fourth amendment, and with regard to killing American citizens in the fifth amendment, that if he has some lawyers review this process, that that is due process. This is appalling, because this has nothing to do with due process … You cannot have due process by a secret, internal process within the executive branch … Next time they kill an American, it will be done in secret, by the executive branch, because that’s the new norm.

You are voting for someone who has made this the historic precedent for how we will kill Americans overseas. In secret – by one branch of the government – without [legal] representation – based upon an accusation. We’ve gone from you have to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to an accusation being enough for an execution. I’m horrified that this is where we are… . We need to ask ourselves: how precious is the concept of presumption of innocence?

In the second term of the Obama presidency, it was left to a Republican to speak these words on civil liberties – though he stood alone in his party. By contrast, the Harvard law professor who wrote the memorandum justifying the assassination of Americans was looked on kindly by the liberal establishment because he had a good position on gay marriage. The Democrats hold the majority in the Senate and Barron’s ascent to the judgeship has now been approved.

The anomaly of Paul’s speech in dissent and the Democratic vote for the drone lawyer points to a deeper puzzle. A perilous and unspoken accord in American politics has grown up while no one was looking, which unites the liberal left and the authoritarian right. They agree in their unquestioning support of a government without checks or oversight; and it is the Obama presidency that has cemented the agreement. The state apparatus which supports wars and the weapons industry for Republicans yields welfare and expanded entitlements for Democrats. The Democrats take to the wars indifferently but are willing to accept them for what they get in return. The Republicans hate the entitlements and all that goes by the name of welfare, but they cannot escape the charge of hypocrisy when they vote for ever-enlarging military entitlements.

At the end of May, Obama added two and a half years to his promised deadline for removing American troops from Afghanistan. December 2016 now marks the date for final withdrawal. Two days later, he hosted a ‘Concussion Summit’ at the White House on the effects of head injuries on small children – just the sort of thing Republicans single out for mockery because it seems beneath the dignity of the presidency. Obama chose the day between those two events to deliver a West Point commencement address, which was advertised by his handlers as the main formulation of the Obama doctrine in foreign policy. The speech faithfully represents the have-it-both-ways tendency of the president, even as it ratifies the bargain on state power that is the overriding force in American politics. He asserted that the United States would engage in more military actions than ever before, but with far fewer American deaths. We would look to the well-being of our own country first, without forgetting the need to defend something broader and harder to set a limit to: our ‘core interests’ and our ‘way of life’.

The invisible epigraph for Obama’s address might have come from Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state in Bill Clinton’s second administration. ‘If we have to use force,’ Albright said, ‘it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.’ Very much in that spirit, Obama told the graduating West Point cadets that the US must lead the world even though it cannot police the world. For that, an international consensus is necessary in order to enforce ‘international norms’. This last phrase has become an important piece of intellectual furniture for Obama: international norms split the difference between international law, which the US reserves the right to violate, and the new ‘world order’ of which the US was the maker and must remain the guardian.

We have pulled out of Iraq, Obama said, and are ‘winding down our war in Afghanistan’; al-Qaida’s leadership in border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan ‘has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more’. Accordingly, ‘the question we face … the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead but how we will lead.’ But why must the United States continue uniquely to lead and enforce? Because ‘if we don’t, no one else will.’ So far, the deference to Albright’s national boast had been preserved, and it clearly left an opening for the doctrine of humanitarian war espoused by Samantha Power – a successor of Albright’s as UN ambassador who has become Obama’s steadiest consultant on the wisdom of foreign engagements. Power helped him to rewrite his second book and may have helped to draft the West Point speech itself. In deference to this way of thinking, which mixes persuasion, force and emergency rescue, ‘US military action’, he went on to say, ‘cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance.’ The preferred mode of address to international problems that ‘tear at the conscience’ will be multilateral. The US, however, will use force unilaterally ‘when our core interests demand it; when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.’

Every key word in that last passage is ambiguous. And the sentence as a whole invites interested construal by those who look for ambiguities to carve an opportunity for force. Even the phrase our people – does that include camp followers and spies? Special forces operating illegally? But the most shifting word of all is the all-purpose excuse for action, security. There follows a sentence that is echt Obama: ‘International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life.’ In short, we try to respect international opinion, by getting it to go along with us, but ultimately we do as we please: enforcement of international norms by violence is not a crime on a par with a war of aggression, no matter what international opinion may say. The president and the secretary of state have called for $5 billion from Congress to support ‘a new counterterrorism partnerships fund’ which will ‘facilitate partner countries on the front lines’. Five billion dollars echoes the amount cited by Nuland for Ukraine, and it calls to mind the curious fact that violent as well as non-violent foreign assistance now often comes from the State Department rather than Defense. Syria will be the first theatre of action for those funds; the partners are to be Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. ‘I believe in American exceptionalism,’ Obama said in conclusion, ‘with every fibre of my being.’ This formulation has lately become the measure of allegiance, hand on heart, expected from every American leader, and Obama spoke the words with the necessary throb and unction. Still, he added that the US should be willing to work with Nato, the UN, the World Bank and the IMF. The international organisations and financial institutions were grouped together without distinction.

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What can be the reason for Obama’s decision to ‘partner’ in counterterrorist training and the supply of weapons to protract the civil war in Syria? This would scarcely seem to be in his interest if he wants a settlement with Iran to round off his record in foreign affairs. And yet Obama has a propensity, which no walk of reason could justify, to pledge to do a thing that looks strong, then call it off, then halfway do it anyway. Syria in the summer and autumn of 2013 was the most damaging instance of this to occur in open view. From threat to hesitation, to declaring an attack, to postponing the attack, to aborting the attack because a solution was offered from outside that didn’t require the use of force: the giddy succession of warlike postures entertained and abandoned last year is now to be followed by the subsidising of a proxy war after all.

The worst American mistake of the past decade was to speak of a war on terror rather than a co-operative international police operation. Obama does not like to say ‘war on terror’ but he speaks constantly in terms of war-readiness and war capacity, and lets Americans take for granted that we will have to be involved in more than one war at a time for longer than a generation. It is instructive that Dick Cheney, in 2002 and 2003, alluded repeatedly by name to the possible ‘criminal’ or ‘police’ description of a hypothetical policy of defence, and heaped contempt on it. He knew that if it ever caught hold of common sense, the panic that his own policy required would be starved of fuel. The fact is that ever since 2002, with the exception of the early months in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has been fighting against insurgencies. The enemies are rebels opposing governments we want to keep in place, in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Somalia and now in Libya too. The adepts of humanitarian war – Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power above all – in their push for the Libya war stretched the target and confused the aim by making the US equally the opponent of a sovereign government, and by claiming the prerogative of siding against a government and publicising its crimes while ignoring the crimes of the rebels. They soon extended the same rationale to Syria. The details might displease Cheney, but the result is much on his lines. The new Obama partnering in counterterrorism will mean there is nothing odd about fighting a dozen little wars at the same moment all around the world.

The next election is already being handicapped by the press. It is widely assumed – almost, indeed, accepted – that the Democratic nominee will be Hillary Clinton. She was a dutiful secretary of state under Obama. She never spoke flashy, quotable and negligent words that could upstage and embarrass the president, as her successor, John Kerry, has done again and again. At the same time, Clinton made Afghanistan a harder and longer trial for Obama by siding with the generals, and she dug a deep ditch for him, and for the country, by pressing for the overthrow of Gaddafi. Mrs Clinton is busy now positioning herself to the right of Obama. This suits her sense of the mainstream consensus, just as it did in 2008. In recent weeks, she has avowed her longtime preference for arming rebel forces in Syria, has compared Putin to Hitler, and has suggested that her view of Iran is more jaundiced than Obama’s: no decent bargain should be expected from the negotiations over uranium processing. It is a craven and cynical approach; who can say that it will not succeed? Iraq – a war that both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry voted to authorise – was a catastrophe that might have jerked us awake; but since American troops have departed, we hold ourselves answerable for none of the subsequent violence there. Even so Obama responded to the June rebellion in the Sunni Triangle by deploying 275 marines to help defend the US embassy in Baghdad. As an afterthought, under pressure, he added three hundred military ‘advisers’; and he has said he may order airstrikes and drone killings. Neoconservatives are on the march again in the op-ed pages. The Republican Party and some Democrats are saying the US should do more, though they don’t know exactly what. To judge by the chaos in the region and the confusion of the American political class, whose most ambitious members continue to outbid one another in delusion and posturing, there will have to be further echoes of the disasters of Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan before the US is forced to think again.

20 June 2014