Obama's Crippling Ambivalence

AP Images/Charles Dharapak

Barack Obama’s presidency is a series of crossroads. The crossroads are moments of decision for a president who is utterly indecisive except, of course, when he’s not a ruthless tyrant trampling the Constitution (or, on more banal occasions, saving the national economy or pressing forward on health-care reform or ordering the execution of the mass murderer of 3,000 Americans). Unlike the topographically comparable term of Bill Clinton when such junctures were psychodramas of his own making, Obama’s junctures are of his own being, which many regard as despicable irrespective of anything he actually does; and now events, dread, myopia, and the congenitally and hopelessly, inevitably and eternally fucked up state of affairs whose address is Syria have conspired to put the president in a lose-lose situation he may win anyway. That no one yet offers a single cogent assessment of just what Syrian policy should be apparently pales beside the president’s handling of the crisis in its sheer inelegance, so irresistible in the eyes of those architects of last decade’s debacles. 

Anyone who supported our incursion and occupation of Iraq, or who supported any political figure who ever supported it (which is to say most of us), can check indignation and sanctimony at the door along with hindsight. Only if you’re predisposed to believe the worst of Obama—some are, you know—can you have suspected a presidential interest in ever committing ground troops to the Syrian civil war, notwithstanding all the ways such a commitment makes no sense from even the standpoint of Obama’s most venal self-interest, not to mention strategy or politics.  The public, however, has become so gun-shy (not a bad thing) and so incredulous of the government (also not a bad thing, though sad) that the argument of the last few weeks—until Tuesday night made less effectively by Obama than by his secretary of state—was steamrolled by the intellectual short hand that is lazy by definition; if those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, those who over-analogize it are doomed to misunderstand it. Thus we were led into Iraq 10 years ago with analogies to Hitler, Munich, and the appeasement that distinguished the 1930s, even as Saddam Hussein bore Hitler no resemblance other than in his fundamental evil; whereas by the late ‘30s Hitler had amassed the greatest military machine on earth, paraded for all to see on the Riefenstahlian boulevards of Berlin, Saddam didn’t have the greatest military machine in the Middle East for no one to see because it didn’t exist. In a cruelly poetic turn this past month the new analogies have been to Iraq, though what was being proposed wasn’t remotely comparable to the United States’ action in Iraq, nor are the weapons, whose existence was always dubious in the case of Iraq while, in the case of Syria, that existence is denied by no one including the government accused of using them. 

Three questions, legitimate and not argumentative, have lurked in this maelstrom of historic parables. Is the use of chemical weapons so beyond whatever barbarism we collectively agree is acceptable as to warrant an extraordinary ban, born of international conventions since World War I and ratified by Congress as recently as the Clinton and Bush administrations? Are extraordinary measures warranted to enforce such a ban, particularly when those weapons are being used by the planet’s second looniest country? And is it possible to take any military action to enforce such a ban without it inexorably leading to a wider American involvement? Rational opposition to what the president proposed in the Rose Garden some weeks ago, when he called on Congress to authorize that proposal, depends on the answers to all three questions being no, in which case a century of consensus on what constitutes civilization is up for discussion.     

Scott Fitzgerald famously characterized the mind that can entertain two opposing thoughts at the same time as “first class,” which is all well and good for novelists and philosophers. Politicos characterize such a mind as “muddled”—presidents don’t have the luxury of any line of thought that evolves with an evolving situation. The president made as convincing a case Tuesday night for what he wants to do as can be made to anyone open to convincing, which is to pursue a diplomatic solution in Syria while holding in reserve a military option: the muddlement of virtually all American foreign policy since Theodore Roosevelt. Apparently the diplomatic brief has been relatively persuasive as well, given the evidence of Russian and Syrian presidents who have taken Obama seriously enough to, at the least, bide for time and try to slap down Obama’s declarations of an “exceptionalism” that Obama’s enemies insist he doesn’t believe in and can’t believe in since he’s not actually an American. That part of Vladimir Putin’s New York Times editorial couldn’t have served Obama’s purposes better if he had paid the former KGB officer to write it. How does the right voice its abhorrence of Putin’s comments without tacitly endorsing the president? 

In the meantime, however, there’s the less ideologically unhinged public for whom arguments like Obama’s three nights ago not only have lost currency but now are definitionally specious. That is to say, presidents are now presumed liars not despite their presidencies but because of them. It took a generation for the body politic to regain its faith following President Lyndon Johnson’s lies about the progress of the Vietnam War; it will take two generations to recover from the lies about not simply the progress of the Iraq War but the very reasons for conducting it. Fool you once, shame on you; but fool you twice, as George W. Bush might put it, and not only is the shame still on you but the joke too. The Iraq War so disemboweled democratic trust that even people who believe Obama about everything else have had a hard time believing him about this. The president’s sense of history and his place in it have convinced him that, however humbling may be the short term process, the long term results are what will count. Until then, in his own deep and articulated ambivalence lies our own. 

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