John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the December 16, 2009 Providence Journal.
Following President Obama’s war speeches at West Point and Oslo— two breathtaking exercises in political cynicism that killed any hope of authentic liberal reform— I’ve got only one question: Have the liberals who worshipped at the altar of “change you can believe in” had enough?
There was already ample evidence of Obama’s feeble commitment to peace, progress and justice. Ever since he started fundraising for his presidential campaign, it’s been clear that the principal change in the offing was skin tone and slogans. One only needed to read “The Audacity of Hope” to see how thoroughly Obama was enmeshed in the neo-liberal orthodoxies of the Robert Rubin-Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. Obama’s impeccably establishment party credentials — that is, his fealty to the Democratic leadership of Chicago and Capitol Hill — practically guaranteed that he would hew to the status quo when forced to choose.
Even before he announced his candidacy for president, Obama endorsed the Iraq hawk Joe Lieberman for re-election to the Senate; then, when Lieberman lost the primary to the antiwar Ned Lamont, Obama made sure that he was never seen with the official nominee of the Connecticut Democratic Party, a bald act of realpolitik that helped Lieberman win as an “independent.” In the U.S. Senate, meanwhile, Obama’s voting record on Iraq war funding was identical to Hillary Clinton’s.
Liberals, exhausted by President Bush and heartened by Obama’s challenge to the pro-invasion Hillary, ignored their new hero’s record and fixated on his one major anti-Iraq speech, delivered when he was a state senator. Ironically, it was Clinton who best characterized Obama’s candidacy when she said that she and John McCain would “put forth” a “lifetime of experience” while “Senator Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002.”
Indeed, apart from extraordinary ambition, there wasn’t much more to Obama than that one speech.
So what’s left of the liberal adoration of Obama? The first major defector among the camp followers was Gary Wills, who denounced the Afghanistan escalation as a “betrayal.” As Wills astutely noted in a New York Review of Books blog, “If we had wanted Bush’s wars, and contractors, and corruption, we could have voted for John McCain. At least we would have seen our foe facing us, not felt him at our back, as now we do.”
But Wills seems to be the exception. For now, the leading liberal commentators are clinging to the belief that Obama’s blatant doubletalk— sending more troops while announcing their eventual withdrawal— is somehow virtuous.
Typical is Frank Rich, who though critical of the troop buildup, doesn’t “buy the criticism that [Obama] contrived a cynical political potpourri to pander to every side of the debate on the war.” For the former New York Times theater critic, good acting still counts for a lot: “Obama’s speech struck me as the sincere product of serious deliberations, an earnest attempt to apply his formidable intelligence to one of the most daunting Rubik’s Cubes of foreign policy America has ever known.”
That Rich is so impressed by the alleged complexity of Afghanistan and Obama’s supposed brilliance speaks in part, I imagine, to Rich’s ignorance of American political history. As Rahm Emanuel knows well, milking the role of “war president” (with a backdrop of men in uniform) is a time-tested winner in re-election campaigns, from Abraham Lincoln in 1864, to Richard Nixon in 1972, to George W. Bush in 2004. I suspect that Rich is disturbed that his matinee idol is suddenly being called a poseur by respectable people whom Rich might meet at a dinner party.
In the same vein, Hendrick Hertzberg, of The New Yorker, twisted himself into knots to present the president as an honorable man. “His speech,” Hertzberg pronounced, “was a somber appeal to reason, not a rousing call to arms.” Of Obama’s “plan,” Hertzberg wrote that “the best that can be claimed for it is that it does not guarantee failure, as, in one form or another, the alternatives almost certainly do.” From Obama’s (and Hertzberg’s) self-contradictory gobbledygook, we may be reassured that “if there is no Obama Doctrine, there is an Obama approach— undergirded by humane values but also by a respect for reality.”
Obama’s West Point speech was nothing if not a tribute to fantasy. Almost everything he said about fighting terrorism and “stabilizing” Afghanistan and Pakistan was counterproductive nonsense (see Edward Luttwak’s recent article in The Times Literary Supplement). As for humane values, it takes more than gall to tell an audience that includes future dead and maimed soldiers that they’re going off to fight for a good cause when, in fact, their presence in Afghanistan will create added bloodshed and recruit more volunteers for the Taliban.
Then there’s Tom Hayden, the former radical and author of the Students for A Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement, who was a belligerent booster of Obama during last year’s campaign. Hayden, too, is upset about Afghanistan, but not enough to cast aside his self-delusion about Obama. Claiming to speak for “the antiwar movement,” he laments that the “costs in human lives and tax dollars are simply unsustainable” and, worse, that “Obama is squandering any hope for his progressive domestic agenda by this tragic escalation of the war.”
Unsustainable? Tragic? There’s no evidence that Obama and his chief of staff see any limit to their ability to print dollars, sell Treasury bonds and send working-class kids to die in distant lands. And what “progressive” agenda is Hayden talking about? So far, Obama’s big domestic goals have been compulsory, government-subsidized insurance policies that will further enrich the private health-care business, huge increases in Pentagon spending and purely symbolic regulation of Wall Street.
While Obama was speaking to the unfortunate cadets, I couldn’t help thinking of Richard Nixon and his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, a plan that entailed a long and pointless continuation of the fighting. Most liberals would agree that Nixon was a terrible president. Yet, for all his vicious mendacity, I think the sage of San Clemente had a bad conscience about the harm he did, about all he caused to die and be crippled.
Instead of shoring up Obama’s image of goodness, liberals really should be asking, “Does the president have a conscience?” Because if he does, he’s really no better than Nixon.