In a lengthy piece in the London Review of Books, David Bromwich points out many of Obama’s flaws. What he describes (in not the same words) is his tendency to act like a middle managers: Suck up to the people in power, act like you’re one of the gang to the people beneath you: “There’s nothing I can do about it, boys, you know how they are.”
The truth is that Obama exposed himself to the worst the Republicans can do by his conciliatory tone from the first days of his administration. He gave assurance when he entered office that he would not look exactingly into the conduct of the last administration. Bush and Cheney received from him a legal indulgence for any conceivable transgression, on the theory that after the bombings of September 2001, anything that public servants did was a hasty but honourable response to a dreadful emergency by well-meaning persons. To Obama at the time, this must have seemed a magnanimous deed as well as a signal of non-aggression to tamp down the savagery of the Cheney circle. Yet his decision to make justice begin today achieved a different end. It made sure that none of the people from whom Obama had most to fear would ever fear him. It also robbed of reality all his talk of a profound commitment to justice – a justice which he had suggested went beyond considerations of bridge-building for the sake of domestic policy or national expedience. By broadening the claim of state secrets to prevent the disclosure of evidence of torture and extraordinary rendition, the Obama administration has lent credence to the original claim of Bush and Cheney that their actions were dictated by necessities of state. In doing so it has foregone the only assurance the law affords against the repetition of such acts.
If, some years hence, one were to measure when the hope for ending the wars ran out, a critical exhibit would be the ‘final orders’ Obama asked all the participants in his Afghanistan review of 2009 to approve. The text, printed by Woodward, is a strangely lawyer-like set of agreed-on directives, at once imperative and vague. The point of a contract is that it is binding: if it is not followed, there are legal grounds of redress. These final orders are a mimic contract: a list of notions expressing a ‘commitment’ to a consensus that was never wholehearted. Yet Obama thought mere verbal formulae could strengthen the agreement he had forged between Petraeus, McChrystal and Mullen, who wanted a full-scale counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and Eikenberry, Lute, Brennan and Biden, who wanted no more troops to be sent. The words are mechanised and managerial: ‘US troops in early 2010 in order to degrade the Taliban and set the conditions for accelerated transition’; ‘leveraging the potential for local security forces’; ‘working with Karzai when we can, working around him when we must’; ‘implementing a post-election compact’; ‘a prioritised comprehensive approach’; ‘begin transferring lead security responsibility’; ‘effective sub-national governance’. All here is in the highest degree uncertain, obscure, and hedged about by bureaucratic evasion and metaphor. None of the terms has the slightest real precision. Yet Obama agonised over the details of this phraseology; a whole metaphysic of war and peace hung on the difference between ‘degrade’ and ‘disrupt’; the word ‘transfer’ took on the authority of a reprieve signed by a governor.
Perhaps it needs the audacity of De Gaulle in Algeria or Eisenhower in Korea to end this war. Such a stroke is hard to imagine for a president who lacks their military stature. But one has to weigh, against the courage that withdrawal would have required, the dangerous choice Obama made to support the military minority who pushed for escalation. He has since augmented the danger by naming David Petraeus, the general with the best press in America, as the field commander in Afghanistan and the person who will oversee the review of the war next month. Obama never believed in doing what the generals recommended. He must have glimpsed the possibility that it would ruin the rest of his term. His Nobel Prize speech, which came at the end of these discussions, was in this light a sort of consolation. It affirmed a benign view of American war policy since 1945 and of America as guardian of the world.
The next question for a president now in command of two wars, half a dozen superbases, an embassy the size of the Vatican and another that may exceed it, will be asked by Israel about Iran. Obama has been bending the way of coercive action, but has been doing it slowly. Meanwhile he has pushed the Israelis again to negotiate an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the beginning of a Palestinian state. The two engagements seem plainly related in the mind of Obama. Republicans with presidential ambitions are watching closely – in the case of Sarah Palin, last month in West Virginia, giving a clue to the depth of her concern by wearing on her lapel an American and Israeli flag-pin.
The president on whom so much depends is a peculiar person, stranger than any of us realised when we voted for him. He may be most real to himself when he is promising something.