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Obama, Opportunist?

The latest controversy circulating in the American progressive blogosphere is Barack Obama’s choice of evangelist Rick Warren to lead the prayer at his inauguration. Though a conservative on many issues, Warren has nevertheless used his enormous influence in the evangelical movement to focus it on social causes such as fighting global poverty and AIDS. As he put it this 2005 article by Malcolm Gladwell, “The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence…to help those who are marginalized.”

What angers the progressive left is that Warren opposes abortion and gay marriage, in terms they find harsh and demeaning. Obama’s supporters respond that Obama is reaching out to a man and a movement with which he can make common cause on issues like poverty, despite clear differences on abortion and gay rights. Didn’t Obama argue throughout his campaign that Americans need to come together on issues of common concern rather than divide over differences? Nevertheless, many progressive bloggers feel betrayed, calling the Warren invitation “repellent…destructive…inflammatory” and the man himself a “bloated, bigoted bullshit purveyor.” They argue that since racial bigots also represent a broad segment of American popular opinion, why not invite them to the inauguration too?

Supporters of gay marriage and abortion rights feel marginalized by this gesture. To them, it looks like a cynical political calculation. Obama knows they are a constituency he can take for granted, because they have nowhere else to go. He can make them mad and it costs him nothing. In fact, it might even help him ingratiate himself with Warren’s conservative supporters. He will go from someone they feared as a socialist, terrorist and secret Muslim, to a defender of their “mainstream values” against the radical left.

I think view this is exaggerated. Warren, while conservative, is no extremist. He’s no John Hagee or James Dobson. Unlike so many prominent preachers, he’s avoided institutional ties with the Republican Party. He doesn’t endorse candidates. He invited Obama to address his congregation back in 2006, giving him a valuable platform to reach out to evangelical voters on issues of faith and social action. Just as Obama is enduring criticism from the left for inviting Warren to the inaugural, Warren is taking heat from the right for accepting the invitation. In my opinion, dialogue between evangelicals and progressives is long overdue. Why should the left give up on people of faith? If that is the goal of Obama’s invitation, I think it’s one more example of his political ingenuity and foresight.

On the other hand, this story fits a troubling pattern. Ever since the election, instead of reaching out to the progressives who worked so hard to elect him, Obama has seized every opportunity to embrace the establishment. He reappointed Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, endorsed the War on Terror and the tactics of the surge, and shows no interest in going after people like John Yoo and David Addington as enablers of war crimes. I suppose this was inevitable—Obama needs the support of the establishment to achieve his goals—but it does beg the question, did he run for office because his values are fundamentally different from those of the Bush administration, or simply to achieve power for himself?

Take the case of Afghanistan. Obama supports the war there, in fact he wants to expand it as he withdraws troops from Iraq. Unless he orders significant changes in the way the war is fought, he will soon be responsble for stories like this.

    It was 7:30 on a hot July morning when the plane came swooping low over the remote ravine. Below, a bridal party was making its way to the groom’s village in an area called Kamala, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, to prepare for the celebrations later that day.
    The first bomb hit a large group of children who had run on ahead of the main procession. It killed most of them instantly.
    A few minutes later, the plane returned and dropped another bomb, right in the centre of the group. This time the victims were almost all women. Somehow the bride and two girls survived but as they scrambled down the hillside, desperately trying to get away from the plane, a third bomb caught them. Hajj Khan was one of four elderly men escorting the bride’s party that day.
    “We were walking, I was holding my grandson’s hand, then there was a loud noise and everything went white. When I opened my eyes, everybody was screaming. I was lying metres from where I had been, I was still holding my grandson’s hand but the rest of him was gone.”

Over the last few years I’ve become inured to reading about wedding parties blown up by American planes, or whole families killed in their sleep. Often the missiles are fired from robot aircraft, piloted by video game jockeys hundreds of miles away. I no longer feel outrage, only sadness and resignation. I know I can’t do anything about this, not even under an Obama administration. I wonder if Obama is troubled enough by these attacks to put a stop to them, once he becomes the one man on earth with the power to do it? Or will the logic of empire give him the excuses he needs to continue?

In September I came across a post at A Tiny Revolution that quotes from Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father. The theme is how, through opportunism and fear, people learn to make their peace with tyranny. As a boy, Obama was brought to Indonesia by his mother, following her marriage to an Indonesian man named Lolo. Before making the trip, she read up on Indonesia and learned about the recent coup that had brought Suharto to power. Her understanding was that the coup was bloodless and had the support of the people, but after arriving in Indonesia and getting a job at the U.S. Embassy, she heard a different story from Embassy insiders.

    Word was that the CIA had played a part in the coup, although nobody knew for sure. More certain was the fact that after the coup the military had swept the countryside for supposed Communist sympathizers. The death toll was anybody’s guess: a few hundred thousand, maybe; half a million. Even the smart guys at the Agency had lost count.
    Innuendo, half-whispered asides; that’s how she found out that we had arrived in Djakarta less than a year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times. The idea frightened her, the notion that history could be swallowed up so completely, the same way the rich and loamy earth could soak up the rivers of blood that had once coursed through the streets…. And with each new story, she would go to Lolo in private and ask him: “Is it true?”
    He would never say. The more she asked, the more steadfast he became in his good-natured silence….
    Power. The word fixed in my mother’s mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things…. But here power was undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line just when he thought he’d escaped, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn’t his own. That’s how things were; you couldn’t change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo had made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting….

To my surprise at the time, comments on this post accused Obama himself of learning “the wisdom of forgetting.” In 1995, they said, when he wrote his memoir, he’d spoken truthfully about Suharto’s bloody coup and the CIA’s enabling role. But by 2008, as a candidate for president, he’d “made his peace with power.” He was positioning himself to take over the imperial apparatus, so he could no longer afford to speak openly about its crimes.

    john: This worst part of this is that Barack Obama is a smart guy…. That’s why he hung out with people like Jeremiah Wright, to learn that side of history…. And yet now he smiles for the camera and pretends like he’s never heard about it. He’s been “yanked back into line” just like his stepfather and he knows it.
    radish: It’s one thing to speak truth to power when you don’t have much—let alone any—of the stuff. It’s another thing entirely to accept that you’ve become the person you warned your children about.
    Donald Johnson: Obama is very much like Bill Clinton—both of them are extremely bright and know about the skeletons in America’s closet and they can turn the empathy on and off as needed…. It is interesting that Obama wrote about this without prodding, but perhaps he was building up his credentials as the great progressive hope, someone who knew the score. Plenty of time to move to the center once he got closer to power.
    John Caruso: I don’t think he was writing cynically at the time; instead, I take it as evidence of just how far he’s fallen.
    donescobar: It seems comical to me to talk of how our politicos have “fallen”…. Political philosophy has been dead, or at least dormant, in our land for decades. A different war or a few more or fewer crumbs off the table, that’s about it.
    No One of Consequence: No one has provided any evidence that Obama is a particularly good person. This is problematic because an average person with his power would be a complete asshole…. It takes extroardinary people to rule well, and Obama—morally speaking—isn’t extroardinary…. He’s running for the sake of running.
    John Caruso: Obama basically strikes me as…someone whose ambition has overcome (and now all but replaced) his early idealism.

As Chris Floyd put it recently, “One begins to suspect that deep, deep down, our progressive paladin might not be a very nice man.” It was Obama’s invitation to Rick Warren that prompted his remark, but he reached the conclusion long ago, for similar reasons to the commenters above. Obama has “made his peace with power” and seems ready to embrace the way things have always been done in America, particularly the connection between war and profit.

I wonder if this is fair to Obama, or any individual with a viable chance to be president. Despite his mantras of “hope” and “change,” Obama is a realist, not a dreamer. His time as a community organizer in Chicago gave him a sense of bottom-up organizing and exposed him to the concerns of the poor and downtrodden, but his goal was always to make the system work better, rather than to challenge its mission. In his famous 2002 speech against the Iraq war, he took pains to point out that he doesn’t oppose “all wars” but only “dumb wars.” The foreign policy vision he expressed in his campaign never questioned American power, but rather proposed ways to restore its credibility.

Obama strikes me as someone who figures that the apparatus of power won’t go away, so he might as well engage with it and try to reform it. In the process, he will have to rub elbows with some nasty people, and tolerate some ignoble acts. History will judge, as it does for every president, how well he kept his moral clarity and handled the challenges before him. There is no moral purity in this world, and even FDR, our most progressive president, made common cause with Stalin in order to defeat a greater evil. Perhaps it is courageous to risk one’s purity in order to make things a bit better than they otherwise would have been.


Comment from radish
Time: December 28, 2008, 20:28

It’s odd enough to see myself quoted that I think I’d like to elaborate. I was referring not so much to Obama’s compromises as to the confidence that the powers that be have in their own ability to compromise and control him. I think that confidence is perfectly realistic. Look at the difference between what he said then and what he says now.

We accept the “wisdom of forgetting” when we accept power, whether we mean to or not. Power doesn’t necessarily make us monsters, but it does, over time, corrupt. It does, over time, make us stupider. There’s no reason to think that Obama is an exception, and no reason to think that *he* thinks he’s an exception.

As it happens, I agree that it takes courage to do what Obama’s done, knowing — as he surely he does — what lies ahead for him, and how hard it will be to retain any moral clarity at all as president. But Obama’s life is no longer entirely his own, just as surely as Lolo’s life was no longer his own.

Comment from eatbees
Time: December 28, 2008, 21:23

radish, I give Obama credit for being aware of the cognitive dissonance between who he believes he is and what he’ll be allowed to do. That already makes him unusual among politicians. Also, during the campaign he struck me as more likely than most to question the rules of the game rather than accept them as given. As such, he avoided the paralysis Dukakis, Gore and Kerry all were trapped in once they were nominated. Once he’s in office, he may be willing to push the limits in small ways to see what he can get away with. Finally, he’s lucky due to the general agreement that the times require deeper change than most presidents are permitted. I’m moderately optimistic …. more so than I would have been with the alternatives.

Comment from Elizabeth
Time: January 14, 2009, 13:59

Here’s to moderate optimism. Nice post.

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