Middle East studies in the News
Summing Up Obama (So Far) [incl. Rashid Khalidi]
by David Solway
So much has been said and written about Barack Obama that, barring some shattering revelation, very little remains to be rehearsed. As columnist Barry Rubin bemoaned, "I don't want to keep writing every day about the Obama Administration's Middle East policy. There are many other topics I'd prefer, but the problem is that they keep doing things." I could not agree more, and not concerning the Middle East alone. Yet the issues continuing to swirl about the president need to be revisited, not only because Obama is arguably the most polarizing figure of our times, but because he is also the most potentially catastrophic.
This statement will be regarded by many as rhetorical overkill, but I would contend that the election of Obama to the most powerful office in the world is quite possibly the most significant political—and dangerous—event of recent times. By being proactive and making informed decisions, he has the ability to create a slightly safer world. By misreading the historical text, making bad choices, engaging half-heartedly in certain conflicts (Afghanistan, Iraq), coming down on the wrong side of another (Israeli/Palestinian), and flinching before yet another challenge of far greater urgency (Iran), he invites retribution. This latter direction is plainly the one he has taken. As such I believe that intense concentration on the man and his compliant administration, and its public reiteration, is both warranted and necessary.
Indeed, the presidential dilemma we are facing is complex and far-ranging. Leaving aside the ongoing "birther" controversy focusing on the vexed issue of the president's legitimacy, the "Obama problem" really has to do with the conundrum of his political identity. Is he a bone-stock socialist or a far-left radical determined to impose a neo-Marxist regime upon republican America, or merely a "person of advanced views and reactionary feeling," as Theodore Dalrymple says of Virginia Woolf? Perhaps, as Jonah Goldberg suggests, coining a phrase, he is a "neo-socialist" who believes "in the power of government to extend its scope and grasp far deeper into society"? Is Obama a closet Islamist, as some have alleged? Is he a media artifact, the digital remastering of an epic hero enacting an ancient fantasy of salvation? Is he a volatile prevaricator, saying one thing, then saying another, making solemn promises and regularly breaking them, whose erratic behavior must leave us bewildered before an ever-widening credibility gap? Or is he a university-educated postmodernist for whom the concept of truth has been relativized beyond recognition? Is he just a political rookie whose lack of executive experience shows up alarmingly in a capricious and anemic foreign policy? An old KGB hand like Vladimir Putin must look at him and think, "What a patsy." Ditto Hugo Chavez, King Abdullah, Bashir Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Castros and a host of other shrewd manipulators and world-wise autocrats.
Who really knows? Perhaps, as Pajamas Media founder Roger Simon proposes, he is frankly deranged, meriting the title of President Weirdo? Children's author Sarah Durand concurs, diagnosing Obama as suffering from liberalomania, archly defined as a "degenerative form of dementia" evidenced in his highly skilled capacity as a blame gamer, his extreme narcissism and his delusions of grandeur. Or is he merely an updated version of tall-tale artist and windy opportunist Christy Mahon in John Millington Synge's comic drama The Playboy of the Western World, "the laughing joke of every woman [read: person] where four baronies meet"—the man who flies Air Force One to dinner, practices his golf swing while a national crisis is unfolding, and throws Budweiser-like parties in the White house, as if to "keep the good times going"? Or is he none of these but, quite the opposite, the "sort of god" whom Newsweek's Evan Thomas worships, "The One" venerated by Oprah, Louis Farrakhan's "Messiah"? Who? What? Searching for Obama is like mining for unobtanium.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is troubled by Obama's lack of identifiable character. Commenting on Obama's casting himself as a bridge between America and the Islamic world (Al- Arabiya TV, January 27, 2009), Taheri notes that "Obama appeared unsure of his own identity and confused about the role that America should play in global politics. And that is bad news for those who believe that the United States should use its moral, economic and political clout in support of democratic forces throughout the world." Obama himself admitted in The Audacity of Hope, "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." Pretty damaging, this confession. And when it comes to Obama's famous "hope," among the most antiquated of imaginable pieties whether audacious or sentimental, American poet C.J. Sage has it about right: "Solve for this: where x is hope/and y is your future, what is surely finite?" Something worth keeping in mind when listening to a political mesmerist.
The question remains open. Who is this guy? And what does so enigmatic a figure augur for the United States and, indeed, for the future of us all? No matter what hypothesis or conviction one espouses concerning his definitive DNA, it seems fair to say that a shadow of the clandestine—or if one prefers, the inscrutable—envelops this president.
Even Obama's most avid supporters, if they are honest, must allow that, compared to his POTUS predecessors, unambiguously little is known about his antecedents or, for example, the salient facts of his academic career—many of his records are still under seal, his college and university transcripts have not been released and, broadly speaking, his significant documentation is rather flimsy. There is not much of a paper trail here; for that matter, there is scarcely a Hansel-and-Gretel bread crumb trail. How such a man could be elected to the presidency boasting a curriculum vitae with more blank pages in it than a Danielewski novel remains a riddle for the sphinx. Nor should it surprise us that it is precisely a blank page, like the blank screen Obama mentions, that solicits conjecture or projection, much of it skeptical or unfavorable.
In any event, there can be no doubt that the dossier is scanty and that this is a truly amazing deficiency. We simply do not have a clear portrait or a crisply factual biography of the president. But what we do know about his close affiliates—America-and-Jew bashing Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former PLO spokesman Rashid Khalidi, hysterical and racially divisive Cornel West, unrepentant Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers, unscrupulous entrepreneur Tony Rezko—is profoundly unsettling. To adapt Obama's ringing slogan, borrowed or plagiarized from African-American poet June Jordan, are they the ones we've been waiting for? But on the whole, the asymmetric relation between what we know and what we don't know must distress any rational person curious about so influential an actor on the current political scene.
That Louis Farrakhan, like millions of others, feels that Obama was "selected" for our times should give us further pause. On the contrary, it may not be out of place to suggest that we are now afflicted with the worst possible president at the worst possible time, with Iran darting toward the nuclear finish line, the Palestinians as intransigent as ever, the Russians moving back into the Caucasus region, negotiating with Venezuela and solidifying ties with Iran, Syria and Turkey, terrorism (oops—"man-made disasters") on the rise and U.S. citizens increasingly at the mercy of the jihadists, China holding massive quantities of American Treasury notes, Obama considering ruinous cap-and-trade legislation at a time when the AGW consensus is collapsing, the American debt estimated to hit 100% of GDP in 2011 and its unfunded entitlement liabilities totaling over 100 trillion, leading to the prospect of monetary collapse. None of these critical issues have been substantially addressed by the president, except insofar as his actions in some cases, lack of action in others, have only exacerbated them. The collateral fact that we really have no valid and comprehensive notion of who exactly is leading us at this crucial historical juncture boggles the mind.
It should be added, however, that we do know something about the ideas which govern his policies: the redistribution of wealth, the expansion of state control at the expense of the private sector, extensive regulation of more and more aspects of quotidian life, bureaucratic bloat, a paternal administration accompanied by the leveling of individual initiative to a lowest common denominator—all very old doctrines gussied up with a defensive terminology like "social justice," "progressivism," "equality of outcome," "only the people will save the people"—which have been tried before and failed spectacularly. The best that can be said of Obama is that, in the realm of political theory, he does not believe in granny dumping, though the dogmas and paradigms he embraces should long ago have been put out of their misery.
We might have twigged by now. Each new measure he introduces or intends to introduce is a camel's nose presaging future debilities. But the president's youthful vigor, toggle-switch charm and exotic presence seem to apply a veneer of novelty to ideological obsolescence. He is like the word "proverbial" which we insert into a tired simile in order to avoid the skank of platitude, as in "smart as the proverbial whip" or "dumb as the proverbial ox." America is saddled with a proverbial president, a man whose principal function is to renovate clichès and make them palatable.
This appears to be as far as we can go for now, with more to come to a political theater near us. One thing, however, seems undeniable: so far, not so good.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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