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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Beautiful speech, but...

I am troubled by my tribalism.

I am susceptible, in case no one has noticed, to Obama's rhetoric.  I see myself, as I once noted, in the self-mocking confession of an old graduate school classmate (I give the provenance, because grad students in the humanities are likely to be of this tribe):
I love Obama...Every time he speaks I emit a small sigh of joy, love and delight.  I know, perhaps my eyes are clouded, but he seems so completely appropriate each time he speaks, that he could be singing the national anthem in Swahili, and I wouldn't care.
So when I read Obama's historic address to the students of the University of Yangon, Burma's principal university, my heart naturally swelled in my breast,  and tears welled up. It was, as you might expect (if you're so susceptible), a beautifully constructed speech -- opening dazzling prospects of freedom and prosperity to the Burmese, applying subtle pressure at all the right points on their leaders (as I heard no less tough a judge than Human Right Watch's Tom Malinowski affirm last night), honoring Burma's dissidents, making a cogent case, as Obama always does, that America's best values are or ought to be universal values, softening the paternalism by acknowledging past American error (i.e., in Foxspeak, "apologizing").
And so, at some point before even finishing the thing, I let my inner fan loose and was moved to tweet:
read Obama's speech in Burma, and allow yourself some pride in being represented by this man
The redoubtable LOLGOP picked that up, and more than a thousand people have clicked through, and that's all to the good, I guess. The more people read Obama's speeches, the better. And yet, as I typed that out, something was nagging me, given voice by Nicholas Kristof:
Obama comments on strike me as pathetic. US cld show a bit of concern for Gazans & strongly oppose ground invasion
(Of course, life is complicated - there's also this from Kristof, ten minutes earlier):

I used to argue against sanctions, saying they would hurt the public but not bring change. I was flat wrong.
In any case, that little nagging doubt got a boost from this blunter tweet, in response to mine:
"We stand with Israel." What an asshole.
 Not 'my sentiments exactly', by any means, but it does catch the dissonance of the moment. My reply:
I admit to some hypocrisy there & can only hope he's doing his utmost to prevent invasion.
And I'm sure he is. And U.S. political reality severely constrains Obama's room to maneuver. But as Kristof protests, there is at least room for the reelected president to in some way acknowledge the disproportionality of killing, the dead end for Israel of further bludgeoning, the long-term costs for Israel as well as for Gaza of another ground invasion.

Meanwhile, raising the other ghost haunting the persona of Obama the Peace Laureate, Middle East scholar Gregory D. Johnsen, in a preemptive strike against John Brennan as prospective CIA Director,  writes in today's Times:
For all of the Obama administration’s foreign policy successes — from ending the war in Iraq to killing Osama bin Laden — the most enduring policy legacy of the past four years may well turn out to be an approach to counterterrorism that American officials call the “Yemen model,” a mixture of drone strikes and Special Forces raids targeting Al Qaeda leaders...

Testimonies from Qaeda fighters and interviews I and local journalists have conducted across Yemen attest to the centrality of civilian casualties in explaining Al Qaeda’s rapid growth there. The United States is killing women, children and members of key tribes. “Each time they kill a tribesman, they create more fighters for Al Qaeda,” one Yemeni explained to me over tea in Sana, the capital, last month. Another told CNN, after a failed strike, “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined Al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake.” 
As a nonexpert, reasonably informed citizen, I develop de facto 'trust' lists (maybe 'lists' is the wrong word; I've never really thought about it in these terms). Gregory Johnsen is 'listed.' I believe he's right about Yemen, and about much if not all of U.S. drone activity.

From another quarter, James Traub, calling for the veil of secrecy shrouding the drone program to be peeled back (though he supports drone warfare), warns,
There is a real danger that around the world drone warfare will come to be seen as the dark arts of the Obama administration, as torture and "rendition" were for President George W. Bush.
Political support is not an all-or-nothing proposition, and neither is historical assessment, and neither is frank admiration for another human being. I do not apologize for admiring Obama, or for parsing subtle and rather beautiful thought structures behind his rhetoric, or for investing hope in his ability to bring New New Deals to America on multiple fronts.  But I am troubled by brutal and craven aspects of his foreign policy, and by my own reticence with regard to them.

1 comment:

  1. My feelings, exactly. I don't think you're alone in that. I'm also troubled by the ever-increasing monitoring of the communications of American citizens in the name of national security, enlarged by Bush but further expanded under President Obama.

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