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Obama and the curse of moderation
Promise of radical change abandoned in favour of 'realism', says Mark LeVine.
Last Modified: 19 May 2010 07:37
Obama promised radical change, but pragmatism has prevailed [GALLO/GETTY]

It was meant to be a disaster, but in fact it was a gift.

Faisal Shahzad hoped to kill as many people as possible, but in instead he gave the American intelligence community a unique opportunity to understand the current strategies and tactics of the Taliban and its relationship (if any) with al-Qaeda.

More importantly, he offered the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, and indeed all Americans, an opportunity to take a hard look at the motivations of the emerging crop of militants who are attempting to bring the war against the US back to US soil.

The question is will the Obama administration look a gift horse in the mouth?

Sadly, the answer is most likely yes.

The son of a retired senior Pakistani officer with roots in the war-torn Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, Shahzad did not mean to lay bare for the world to see the multiple fallacies at the heart of US foreign policy under Obama; but he did.

Neither, for that matter, did failed Nigerian "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who like Shahzad comes from a powerful family whose position offered him plenty of opportunity to observe the hypocrisy of his country's ruling elite and the role of US and European powers in perpetuating it.

But the narratives of both men, from their childhood to their botched bombings, offer pointed examples of how even the most well thought out policy strategies can produce the very opposite of the intended outcome.

Specifically, they challenge the basic orientation of the Obama administration's philosophy of governance: that moderation, compromise, and consensus are the only way to achieve meaningful policy goals.

Limited political calculus

Obama's AfPak strategy is the result of an exhaustive policy review [GALLO/GETTY]

Indeed, it is not a coincidence that the attempted car bombing occurred as the Obama administration was coping with a far more destructive disaster - the huge oil slick caused by the blowing up and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil platform, which began on April 20.

So, what do they have in common?

Simply, both are products of a political calculus that does not allow for the possibility of enacting truly transformative political change, even though such changes were a core promise of the election campaign.

Instead, they see the compromise of basic principles and the continuation of immoral and counterproductive policies as the necessary price for enacting "realistic" and "achievable" programmes.

Certainly no one could accuse Obama of hasty decision-making in his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, which was the result of one of the most exhaustive policy reviews in recent memory.

Rather, the problem rests with precisely what options were allowed "on the table" to be discussed.

No questions asked

The "war on terror" might have been retired as the official term for describing US military activities across the Muslim world, but the focus on a military surge in Afghanistan while intensifying covert military operations in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province have in fact doomed the prospects for peaceful reconciliation precisely because they exacerbate the incredibly corrupt and violent political and economic system the US helped create in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan.

Indeed, Obama's "middle of the road" policy of greater violence - touted as a compromise between withdrawal or all out occupation - has helped radicalise increasing numbers of Pakistanis and Afghans.

What was needed was a radical shift in the other direction; ending support for corrupt and autocratic leaders, supporting freedom and democracy unequivocally, demanding more equitable distribution of national resources in client states, and a laser-like focus on what is the only legitimate reason the US has to maintain troops in Afghanistan - to capture or kill the men directly responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and nothing more.

Of course, such a shift vis-à-vis AfPak policy could not occur in a vacuum. It would have to part of a larger and even more radical shift in the orientation of US policy throughout the Middle East.

Instead, however, the incoming Obama administration publicly touted as a refreshing dose of "realpolitik" and "pragmatism" its laying aside of the Bush administration's pro-democracy rhetoric in favour of no - or at best, few - questions asked diplomatic support for, and tens of billions of dollars in military aid or weapons sales to, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and other client states with miserable human rights records.

This policy was doomed to fail. Such pragmatism is precisely what has increased animosity towards the US, who for decades refused to walk the talk when it comes to advocating democracy, freedom and human rights in the Muslim world.

Smoke and mirrors

A year after Obama's Cairo speech, there are few signs of 'new beginnings' [GALLO/GETTY]

What Obama desperately needed to do was radical, but it was and remains achievable: to build credibility through offering tangible support for the peoples rather than the leaders of the region.

He hinted at significant change in his famous Cairo speech of one year ago with his call for a "new beginning" based on "tolerance and dignity," but his rhetoric has turned out to be just more smoke and mirrors.

Not only does his administration continue to "tolerate" dictators and systematic human rights violations, he has sought to continue and in some cases even extend policies that violate constitutional norms and/or US law.

This is evidenced most recently by the administration's support for loosening Miranda rights for terrorism suspects and the extension of assassinations to people who merely share certain "lifestyle characteristics" of supposed anti-US rebels.

As we saw with the Bush administration, and during the Johnson administration in Vietnam, even with the best intentions once a government crosses over to the "dark side" it is almost impossible to come back to the light.

In fact, it becomes a "force multiplier" for militancy among the peoples the US is occupying - expanding the anger and hatred across a region that is already filled to the brim with both (as one friend remarked to me, you can't kick people in the stomach and not expect them to go for your groin in return).

Simply put, as long as the US is not serious about supporting real freedom, accountability and democracy in the Middle East, animosity to and violence against the US - both there and when possible in the US - will continue.

Moreover, when the president needs to make bold moves, such as in trying to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he will not have the credibility to demand major compromises from either side.

Good as enemy of the necessary

Obama's moderation has not only failed as a foreign policy making principle. It has not worked domestically either.

We have now seen where then candidate Obama's explanation that he would support off-shore drilling if it would lower energy prices gets us.

His support for mythical "clean coal" has been similarly answered by the April 5 Upper Branch Mine disaster, which killed 29 miners.

More likely, Obama believed - and continues to believe, since even now he has not withdrawn his support for off-shore drilling - that such compromises are necessary to pass meaningful climate change legislation, even if the price is the occasional disastrous spill or mining disaster whose human, environmental and economic costs overwhelm whatever savings or security is provided by the oil acquired through new drilling.

And after coal and petroleum disasters, who wants to imagine what havoc a nuclear-power related accident could wreak. Does anyone remember Three Mile Island?

Obama seems to be following the dictum not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. But the reality is that when drastic change is needed, the good can too often be the enemy of the necessary.

Indeed, one reason why the administration still does not have the wherewithal to challenge the oil or coal industries is that while Obama has been busy offering concessions and compromises (when he should have been sending in inspectors and regulators by the dozens) the energy industry has been working to consolidate their political power.

And in doing so they have worked hand in glove with the behemoth of the US military - whose budget is larger than the rest of the world's combined - that has clearly become the predominant voice shaping US foreign policy.

The profound consequences for domestic policy of the military's outsized power were clear when less than a month before the Deepwater Horizon spill, Obama announced his approval for off-shore drilling during a ceremony at a Maryland military base, with a navy fighter jet behind him.

When radical is the only way

Obama ran on a platform of hope, but without real change there is little left [GALLO/GETTY] 

The reality is that the changes required to reverse global warming and contemporary environmental degradation are so great that a comprehensive transformation in the basic values, culture, and economic ideology governing American - indeed, global - society is necessary in order for meaningful political reforms to be enacted.

Obama, who ran on a platform of hope and transformation, surely understands this.

He could have gone to the American people at the start of his presidency and spoken with them honestly about the need for systemic changes.

He could have led the way rhetorically and politically.

He could have begun his term by tightening regulations governing the notoriously corrupt mining and oil industries, with their incestuous relationship to the government that regulates them.

He could have put forward a plan to make solar panels mandatory across the southern US and provided subsidies and long-term low interest loans to allow homeowners to afford it. That alone would drastically reduce the need to burn carbon based fuels and the need to support corrupt and autocratic Middle Eastern, Central Asian or African governments to get it.

The president could have coupled such policies with a declaration that it will no longer be business as usual when it comes to American foreign policy, and turned off the cash and weapons pipelines to undemocratic and corrupt allies, holding all governments to one, universally accepted moral and legal standard.

Instead, as Brendan Cummings of the Centre for Biological Diversity, lamented when Obama announced his support for off-shore drilling, it was "unfortunately all too typical of what we have seen so far from President Obama - promises of change, a year of 'deliberation,' and ultimately, adoption of flawed and outdated Bush policies as his own".

The words hold true for almost every area of the administration's policy. We see it in health care reform that in order to offer insurance to more Americans has ensured a financial bonanza to insurance companies that will do little to rein in spiraling costs.

We see it in attempts at reforming the banking and finance industries that have done almost nothing to change the system that produced the current meltdown.

We even see it in the nearly complete failure of a purely humanitarian mission such as in nearby Haiti just to provide adequate emergency housing to the victims of January's earthquake before the summer rains arrive and bring with them yet another public health disaster.

Set up to fail

Instead of challenging the oil industry, Obama has been offering concessions [GALLO/GETTY]

George Bush, the former president, and Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, understood that moderation does not bring real change (consider how easily they undid almost every progressive reform enacted under the Clinton administration).

They knew that pushing a radical agenda without compromise was the best way to force American political culture towards their preferred direction.

Moreover, they counted on the fact that after eight years of veering so sharply to the right, merely attempting to return to the centre will seem like a herculean effort, ensuring the radical changes they enacted would remain in place even under a Democratic successor.

Sixteen months into his presidency, Obama has played his part all too well.

The most frightening part of his unwillingness to recognise the fallacy of moderation is that when his policies inevitably fail, the millions of Americans who tentatively supported him, grasping the discourse of "hope" that was the centrepiece of his campaign rhetoric, will veer sharply to the right - back to the very policies that are most responsible for creating the messes that Obama is struggling to clean up.

They will nurse the emotional and political wounds gotten by placing their hopes in Obama - and for millions of white Americans, the mere act of voting for a black man, or merely allowing themselves to believe that he could make their lives better, involved a huge psychological opening - by embracing movements like the Tea Party in ever greater numbers.

American political discourse will become even more poisonous and the radical change necessary to heal the country, and the planet, will be even harder to imagine.

The specter of one of the world's great water systems, the Gulf of Mexico, devastated for years by a completely unnecessary disaster, opens a small window of opportunity for Obama and his administration to demonstrate the tenacity and political courage that enabled his historic election 18 months ago.

If he uses this moment to begin an honest and unsettling conversation with the American people, and the world, about what is demanded of all of us to heal the interconnected wounds that stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf, he will likely find himself surrounded by allies and volunteers wherever he turns.

If he does not, those same people will likely become the agents of his presidency's downfall.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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