Left Behind

Obama has turned his back on us liberals. So why aren't we screaming about it?

In May 2009, Barack Obama delivered a speech in Prague about global threats that required, he said, "action coordinated across borders." This not-so-ringing phrase he intended to apply to "a global economy in crisis, a changing climate, the persistent dangers of old conflicts, new threats and the spread of catastrophic weapons." To address the global economy, he called for "investments to create new jobs ... [and] a change in our financial system, with new rules to prevent abuse and future crisis. "We must confront climate change," he said, "by ending the world's dependence on fossil fuels, by tapping the power of new sources of energy like the wind and sun, and calling upon all nations to do their part." He declared that the United States would lead the world away from nuclear weapons and "seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons." Most of these imperatives emanated from an agenda of the American left -- albeit one that was not inclined to give him much credit for these words.

When President Obama spoke at Cairo's Al-Azhar University one month later, much of his rhetoric, again, derived from the American left. He deplored colonialism and the former habit of treating Muslim-majority countries as "Cold War proxies." (Later in the speech, he specifically deplored the fact that during the Cold War "the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government.") Addressing Islam, he invoked "common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings," along with the rights of women. He declared that the United States would hold to a presumption against the use of force, quoting Jefferson: "I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be." He spoke of withdrawing American troops from Iraq, closing the Guantánamo prison camp, and ending torture. He declared Holocaust denial "baseless, ignorant, and hateful" and denounced "vile stereotypes about Jews." In the next breath he spoke of the "humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation," declared that "the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," opposed Jewish settlements, and affirmed a Palestinian state. The tone was modest; the hand was outstretched; the finger hit RESTART. Little of this won him points from neoconservatives.

Not that these were the speeches that Noam Chomsky would have delivered. In Cairo, Obama defended a continuing war role for the United States in Afghanistan. He did not call for cutting America's military budget, or winding down American bases, or discontinuing drone attacks; nor did he promote international treaties to improve the lives of the poor billions, or do much to reverse the galloping power of global finance, or announce major initiatives to reduce the world's dependency on fossil fuels and therefore the scope of the carbon dioxide excreted into the atmosphere. Still, he did not shake the big stick. His tone was conciliatory. He displayed some awareness that America's troubles in the world were at least in part of its own making. If he did not proclaim a doctrine of his own, he brought George W. Bush's unilateralism and his preventive war doctrine to a screeching halt. He seemed to take seriously the proposition that negotiations with Iran, combined with smart sanctions, could dislodge Tehran from its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Yet Obama's post-Prague and post-Cairo policies have proved anticlimactic. In the early stages of the Arab spring, he seemed to waffle about democratic commitments. (It was no secret that Tunisia's Ben Ali and Egypt's Mubarak were staunch U.S. allies who were cut loose only reluctantly.) Moreover, Obama had rejected withdrawal from Afghanistan before he supported it, deferring the actual event until 2014. (If it does materialize, it will still have been preceded by a "surge," the installation of hundreds of military bases, and a thousand American deaths, more than twice as many as took place under Bush.) After Obama's Cairo speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu successfully faced him down on Palestinian questions (although at this writing the United States seems to have restrained him from attacking Iran). Guantánamo still harbors prisoners under dreadful conditions, if only because of vehement objections to sending them stateside, Obama having judged it unwise to invest political capital in overriding them. The military budget remains a gargantuan drain. The security-industrial complex rides high. Drones have come to symbolize the impunity with which America resembles a sort of Death Star, meting out punishment from afar -- often enough against innocent targets, whatever precautions are taken. America ranks high in emissions of carbon, yet Obama takes only minor steps to reduce them. He deferred a final decision on the Keystone pipeline but refused to stop it. Fossil fuels still reign supreme. Global financial regulation is stalled. All in all, from a left-wing point of view, the magnitude of Obama's failures is considerable.

The question is why, then, his foreign and energy policies meet with so little resistance from the left. Why so few demonstrations against ongoing and impending wars? As fracking divides New York's Southern Tier and adjacent Pennsylvania, Governor Romney blithely promotes a drill-and-gouge plan on behalf of a chimera called energy independence, while the Obama campaign skirts the energy and environmental issues which, in truth, amalgamate into a single issue. There are no sizable attempts to inject military or environmental questions into the elections.

One reason that should not be discounted is plain relief. Among the small minority who pay attention to foreign affairs, relief is an emotion that lasts. Obama garners no small advantage from not being George W. Bush. Biographically, Obama is a man of the world. Bush's clumsy pugnacity and ignorance were so damaging to America's reputation that his very absence played for most of Obama's term like a formidable coup de theatre.

Once the White House was liberated from Bush and Dick Cheney, then what? Diminishing returns set in. There must have be other reasons why the public has been pacified and the remaining left restrained in its reactions to Obama's defaults. The usual inattention to foreign affairs doesn't suffice to explain the whereabouts of the dog that does not bark on the left. The small scale of Obama's environmental initiatives can be blamed on the fact that the other party is mired in climate change denial -- that is, fantasy -- and that the political capital to override it is, to put it mildly, elusive. The wars are offstage, insulated from everyday life, and however unsavory some of the military efforts, there is no sympathy for those who will likely emerge as victors as American power retreats. There is a lot of grumbling about Obama's defaults, which some see as betrayals and others, as reflections of his political weaknesses and his distraction by domestic travails. What remains to be understood is the absence of concerted pressure from the left. Critical reactions fall short of conspicuous, unremitting opposition.

Not least, the left is divided on the use of force. One wing affirms that when civilian lives are menaced in brutalized countries, there is a moral imperative, an international Responsibility to Protect, which trumps any absolute prohibition of military force. In this view, championed by Samantha Power and, until her departure from Washington, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the United States should exercise moral leadership. Hard power can serve soft power and also save lives. American power is a given, but not to be enjoyed complacently: it entails the responsibility for judicious threats of force. Without the occasional use of force, threats of force are empty. It follows, then, that the United States ought to play a part -- not a minor part -- in collective efforts to limit the punishment that tyrannies administer to their people. Thus, from this point of view, in the skies over Libya, the NATO intervention that failed to materialized in Srebrenica finally arrived -- and proved effective. This line of argument would have been more compelling, of course, had so many liberal hawks not discredited themselves by embracing the Iraq expedition.

At the same time, another -- probably larger -- left-wing current, far more prevalent in the universities than in Washington, deplores all military force as a buttress for imperial domination by global elites decidedly uninterested in a more egalitarian world. In this view, American power is itself the primary menace. Aiming for global domination of resources and capital, it deploys gratuitous violence in the name of an ongoing campaign against al-Qaeda style Islamism -- a campaign that is no longer called by the clumsy acronym GWOT, for Global War on Terror, but is still pursued tenaciously on many fronts. From the anti-imperialist point of view, preventing the massacre of civilians is no more than a pretext for overextensions of power; the intervention in Libya was as reprehensible as the one in Iraq, even if the former came at the call of the Arab League and the latter most assuredly did not.

It must be said that one factor that limits the base of the anti-imperialist left is popular awareness that a defeat for American power is not necessarily, not even likely, a boost for global enlightenment. This is a big change from the romances of older lefts. Under current circumstances, insofar as American power retreats, the vacuums that open up are likely to be filled by brutal misogynists and tribalist gangsters. It is hard to think that defeats for American power automatically point to better lives for millions of people. Heroes are scarce. (There is a reason why T-shirts display the face of Che Guevara, dead for 45 years. It is easier to overlook the sins of a dead man than a living one.) Hugo Chavez sets few North American hearts aflutter. It was one thing, generations ago, to advocate American withdrawal from Vietnam, with the understanding that the successor to Saigon's corruption would surely be a Communist government. Whether naïve about Ho Chi Minh's Communism or not -- some were, some were not -- the antiwar left of the ‘60s and ‘70s was utterly right in its judgment that the American war was the worst of all possible worlds. But much of today's antiwar sentiment cannot be so confident.

As a political force, if not intellectually, the left also suffers in stark contrast with the right. For most of the past half century, the Republicans, in style if not substance, always kept a foreign policy posture on the shelf ready for their next roll-out. Their worldview was, and remains, essentially Manichaean -- "If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists." Parochialism is a point of pride for a party that harbors deep suspicions of policies practiced on other continents and legal principles affirmed there. In keeping with the truculence they rank as high "exceptionalism," the Bush Doctrine was the closest thing in post-World War II America to an explicitly imperialist stance. More force ready, more threats of force, more use of force -- that was a political program easily stated, recognized, and renewed. Clichés about the virtues of "leadership," on conspicuous display at the Republican convention, are as irresistible as they are empty. The pursuit of enemies has an ideological starkness. On the left, by contrast, there is no alternative nearly so well-defined or compelling. Not being Manichaean is preferable to being Manichaean, and negotiation is preferable to war, but simply not being neo-conservatives is not so exciting an option. The left endorses certain policies and opposes others, but it affirms no more or less coherent policy beyond a general disposition for negotiated peace over unilateral war and a suspicion of globalized and globalizing corporate elites. Perhaps this qualifies as a policy, but it is more like a prejudice.

Despite widespread disillusion with Obama on the left -- a disillusion that frequently crosses the line into outright distaste and outrage, as in Occupy Wall Street -- the energy is not there for resolute opposition. No matter how much they disapprove of particular policies, Americans on the left are residually aware -- even if they do not wish to be -- that the alternative to Obama would be distinctly worse. They observe the clustering of neo-conservatives around Mitt Romney's foreign policy team. They observe the Republicans' undiminished enthusiasm for swollen military budgets, and the bombast about "leadership" as if the costs were negligible and as if it were clear where to lead. All told, then, they feel throttled. Willy-nilly, they have made a sort of cold peace with Obama. He is not the angel some of them hoped for, but neither can they deeply believe that he is the devil. For the left, there is no luminous -ism on the horizon-unless one counts realism as an -ism, a status for which, in the wake of the Bush Doctrine, it may qualify.



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