Charisma and the Imperial Presidency
Note from WoP: Other day, while watching the interview president Obama gave to Anwar Iqbal of Dawn TV, I was tremendously impressed by president’s eloquence, the days he spent in Pakistan, the friends he had from Karachi and Hyderabad, whom he so nostalgically remembered, his experience of cooking daal (lentils) and qeema (chopped meat), the popular Pakistani dishes, his excellent relations with Pakistani Americans, the role they are playing in US economy and lastly Pak US relations, I was so impressed, so delighted, I felt like saying well done brother Obama, You won our hearts.
But that’s where Obama’s charm as a statesman and his charisma as an astute politician, is at its best. It was same in Cairo when he sent his message to the Muslim world waiving his Olive branch to Muslims all around the world. But when it comes to action, Obama’s charming persona, his most befitting, most moving choice of words, his articulation, his perfect command over what the president is communicating comes to end.
by Tom Engelhardt
Let’s face it, even Bo is photogenic, charismatic. He’s a camera hound. And as for Barack, Michelle, Sasha, and Malia — keep in mind that we’re now in a first name culture — they all glow on screen.`
Before a camera they can do no wrong. And the president himself, well, if you didn’t watch his speech in Cairo, you should have. The guy’s impressive. Truly. He can speak to multiple audiences — Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, as well as a staggering range of Americans — and somehow just about everyone comes away hearing something they like, feeling he’s somehow on their side. And it doesn’t even feel like pandering. It feels like thoughtfulness. It feels like intelligence.
For all I know — and the test of this is still a long, treacherous way off — Barack Obama may turn out to be the best pure politician we’ve seen since at least Ronald Reagan, if not Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He seems to have Roosevelt’s same unreadable ability to listen and make you believe he’s with you (no matter what he’s actually going to do), which is a skill not to be whistled at.
Right now, he and his people are picking off the last Republican moderates via a little party-switching and some well-crafted appointments, and so driving that party and its conservative base absolutely nuts, if not into extreme southern isolation. In this sense, his first Supreme Court pick was little short of a political stroke of brilliance, whatever she turns out to do on the bench. Whether the opposition “wins” (which they won’t) or loses in any attempt to block her nomination, they stand to further alienate a key voting bloc, Hispanics. Now 9% of voters, Hispanics went for Obama in the last election by a staggering 35-point margin. Next time their heft might even bring solidly red-state Texas closer to in-play status in the two-party system. In other words, the president has left his opponents in a situation where they can’t win for losing.
Mix Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan…
All this is little short of amazing, particularly if put into even the most modest historical context.
If, in a Star-Trekkian mode — hand me the “red matter,” Mr. Spock! — you could transport yourself back to early 2003 and tell just about any American what’s coming, you might have found yourself institutionalized. If you had said that the new norm would be a black president with Reagan-like popularity, Kennedy-like charisma, and Roosevelt-like skills in the political arena, leading a majority Democratic Congress in search of universal health care, solutions to global warming, energy conservation, and bullet trains, your listener might, at best, have responded with his or her own joke: “A priest, a rabbi, and a penguin walk into a bar…”
After all, back then, before two “hurricanes” — the invasion of Iraq and Katrina — began the process of turning our American world upside down, the Bush administration seemed to be riding ever higher globally and the Republican Party even higher than that at home. Back then, the neocons were consumed with imperial dreams of shock-and-awe-style eternal global conquest and domination (“Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”); and the President’s “brain,” Karl Rove, now exiled to the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, was convinced that he was nailing down a domestic Pax Republicana for generations to come.
And at that moment, who would have denied that things would turn out just that way? So don’t let anyone tell you that history doesn’t have its surprises. A black guy with the middle name of “Hussein,” a liberal Chicago politician from — in a phrase Republicans then regularly spit out, as if saying “Democratic” was too much effort — the “Democrat Party”? I don’t think so.
And yet, in mid-June 2009, less than five months into the Obama presidency, can you even remember that era before the dawn of time when people were wondering what it would be like for an African-American family to inhabit the White House? Would American voters allow it? Could Americans take it?
All that said, let’s not forget reality. Barack Obama did not win an election to be president of Goodwill Industries, or the YMCA, or the Ford Foundation. He may be remarkable in many ways, but he is also president of the United States which means that he is head honcho for the globe’s single great garrison state which now, to a significant extent, lives off war and the preparations for future war.
He is today the proprietor of — to speak only of the region extending from North Africa to the Chinese border that the Bush loyalists used to call “the Greater Middle East” — American bases, or facilities, or prepositioned military material (or all of the above) at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, in Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq (and Iraqi Kurdistan), Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan (where the U.S. military and the CIA share Pakistani military facilities), and a major Air Force facility on the British-controlled Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
Some U.S. bases in these countries are microscopic and solitary, but others like Camp Victory or Balad Air Base, both in Iraq, are gigantic installations in a web of embedded bases. According to an expert on the subject, Chalmers Johnson, the Pentagon’s most recent official count of U.S. “sites” (i.e. bases) abroad is 761, but that does not include “espionage bases, those located in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and miscellaneous facilities in places considered too sensitive to discuss or which the Pentagon for its own reasons chooses to exclude — e.g. in Israel, Kosovo, or Jordan.”
In January when he entered the Oval Office, Barack Obama also inherited the largest embassy on Earth, built in Baghdad by the Bush administration to imperial proportions as a regional command center. It now houses what are politely referred to as 1,000 “diplomats.” Recent news reports indicate that such a project wasn’t just an aberration of the Bush era. Another embassy, just as gigantic, expected to house “a large military and intelligence contingent,” will be constructed by the Obama administration in its new war capital, Islamabad, Pakistan. Once the usual cost overruns are added in, it may turn out be the first billion-dollar embassy. Each of these command centers will, assumedly, anchor the American presence in the Greater Middle East.
Barack Obama is also now the commander-in-chief of 11 aircraft carrier strike groups, which regularly patrol the planet’s sea lanes. He sits atop a U.S. Intelligence Community (yes, that’s what our intelligence crew like to call themselves) of at least 16 squabbling, overlapping agencies, heavily Pentagonized, and often at each other’s throats. They have a cumulative hush-hush budget of perhaps $50 billion or more. (Imagine a power so obsessively consumed by the very idea of “intelligence” that it is willing to support 16 sizeable separate outfits doing such work, and that’s not even counting various smaller offices dedicated to intelligence activities.)
The new president will preside over a country which now ponies up almost half the world’s total military expenditures. His 2010 estimated Pentagon budget will be marginally higher than the last staggering one from the Bush years at $664 billion. (The real figure, once military funds stowed away in places like the Department of Energy are included, is actually significantly larger.)
He now inhabits a Washington in which deep-thinking consists of a pundit like Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution whining that these bloated sums are, in fact, too little to “maintain” U.S. forces (a budgetary increase of 7-8% per year for the next decade would, he claims, be just adequate); in which forward-looking means Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reorienting military spending toward preparations for fighting one, two, many Afghanistans; and in which out-of-the-box, futuristic thinking means letting the blue-skies crew at DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) loose on far-out problems like how to turn“programmable matter” into future Transformer-like weapons of war.
While Obama enthusiasts can take pride in the appointment of some out-of-the-box thinkers in domestic areas, including energy, health, and the science of the environment, in two crucial areas his appointments are pure old-line Washington and have been so from the first post-election transitional moments. His key economic players and advisors are largely a crew of former Clintonistas, or Clintonista wannabes or protégés like Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner. They are distinctly inside-the-boxers, some of them responsible for the thinking that, in the 1990s, led directly to this catastrophic economic moment.
As for foreign policy, had the November election results been reversed, Obama’s top team of today could just as easily have been appointed by Senator John McCain. National Security Advisor James Jones was actually a McCain friend, Gates someone he admired, and Hillary Clinton a figure he could well have picked for a top post after a narrow election victory, had he decided to reach out to the Democrats. As a group, Obama’s key foreign policy figures and advisors are traditional players in the national security state and pre-Bush-style Washington guardians of American power, thinking globally in familiar ways.
And let’s be careful not to put all of this in the passive voice either when it comes to the new president. In both of these areas, he may have felt somewhat unsure of himself and so slotted in the old guard around him as a kind of political protection. Nonetheless, this hasn’t just happened to him. He didn’t just inherit the presidency. He went for it. And he isn’t just sitting atop it. He’s actively using it. He’s wielding power. In foreign policy terms, he’s settling in — and despite his Cairo speech and various hints of change on subjects like relations with Iran, in largely predictable ways.