The Radical Critique Of Obama

From Andrew Bacevich:

...however much Obama may differ from Bush on particulars, he appears intent on sustaining the essentials on which the Bush policies were grounded. Put simply, Obama's pragmatism poses no threat to the reigning national security consensus. Consistent with the tradition of American liberalism, he appears intent on salvaging that consensus.

For decades now, that consensus has centered on what we might call the Sacred Trinity of global power projection, global military presence, and global activism - the concrete expression of what politicians commonly refer to as "American global leadership." The United States configures its armed forces not for defense but for overseas "contingencies." To facilitate the deployment of these forces it maintains a vast network of foreign bases, complemented by various access and overflight agreements. Capabilities and bases mesh with and foster a penchant for meddling in the affairs of others, sometimes revealed to the public, but often concealed.

Bush did not invent the Sacred Trinity. He merely inherited it and then abused it, thereby reviving the conviction entertained by critics of American globalism, progressives and conservatives alike, that the principles underlying this trinity are pernicious and should be scrapped. Most of these progressives and at least some conservatives voted for Obama with expectations that, if elected, he would do just that. Based on what he has said and done over the past three months, however, the president appears intent instead on shielding the Sacred Trinity from serious scrutiny.

I wish I was more prepared to tackle this critique. One problem with blogging is you end up talking about everything you're reading. But interest isn't the same as deep knowledge, and when it comes out to national security, I admit to my status as a tadpole.

Nevertheless, indulge me a moment, as I doggie-paddle with the sharks.

Andrew (Sullivan, not Bacevich) posed an interesting question to me yesterday. He asked me if there was anything about Obama that scared me. I answered that the thing that scared me most, was the possibility that Paul Krugman was right.

I mean that in the specific sense (about the economy) and in the broader philosophical sense. I think it's fair to say that Obama is, temperamentally, conservative. I mean conservative in opposition to "radical," not progressive or liberal. I think that approach undergirds everything from his stance on the economic crisis to his unwillingness to push too hard on torture. George Packer summed it all up pretty well:

What underlies so many of Obama's decisions is an attachment to the institutions that hold up American society, a desire to make them function better rather than remake them altogether.

I differ with Andrew (Bacevich, this time) in that I'm not really surprised by any of this. I didn't think Obama's campaign was especially radical, and I thought his anti-war bonafides were more born of caution and skepticism than out of a deep critique of American military power. That is, in large measure, why I voted for Obama. After eight years of dealing, not simply with an impulsive, anti-intellectual, hot-headed, president, but a rigidly ideological president, I thought the answer was someone who was more pragmatic--even when their politics (as on torture) didn't match up with my own.

But what if pragmatism isn't enough? The danger of a conservative approach, of too much respect for institutions, is that it's liable to deeply underestimate that rot eating away at the girders.  It tends to downplay the evil at home, preferring to believe that was is old is, essentially, always good. I think the challenge Bacevich (on foreign policy) and Krugman (on the economy)  are posing is this: Pragmatism isn't going to cut it. Only a deep and fundamental overhaul will do.

Is the radical critique, in these two specific cases, of Obama correct? I wish I had the knowledge to answer that. But one reason why this particular point keeps nagging at me is intuitive--it scares me in the credible way that conspiracy theories don't.

Another reason is my own personal history as an African-American, and thus, a member of a group that's historically paid the price for the desire to preserve American institutions.  It's fascinating to be reading about Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction America, just as all of this is happening. What's clear is how much the broader country, arguably willfully, underestimated the rot of white supremacy.

The underestimation was founded on the interest of preserving the ultimate institution in American life--the country itself. In 1876, Mississippi essentially staged an armed coup, damning the state to a century of racial hell, and we did nothing. Some of our best minds were taken by lynch mobs, and we looked the other way. A large part of it was racism, but another part was the threat of another Civil War.

It is arguably unfair to isolate race in this matter. The country came of age just as long-held ideas about the nature of humanity were crumbling. There were gender struggles, class struggles, ethnic struggles, all happening at the same time. Still, it took children dying in churches to get us to perk up and take note. One could argue that, even then, we did not take the radical action needed to heal the ancient wound.

What are we underestimating this time? What are we missing by not pushing ourselves toward a fundamental critique of the country? In one respect, it's unfair to put this on Obama. I think the polling shows that he is what America want him to be. In another respect, it's totally fair. Leaders have to risk something. They can't just reflect the electorate. They have to push the electorate.