Monday, May 04, 2009

The New Victorians: Obama’s Hundred Year War

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 5/4/09

I greatly admire Secretary Robert C. Gates and have been writing positively about him since he took command. But he has few options now in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The smoke and mirrors of the recent whirlwind global tour – accompanied by the expected voices of triumph, even those which brought us full tilt into Vietnam – cannot obscure what is turning now into Obama’s Hundred Year War. Once we set on the path, the path was set. Obama should have turned this around. He did not and now it is clear that he will not.

Obama doesn’t feel he has the option right now to just turn it around as President Gerald Ford did in Vietnam and Prime Minister Clement Atlee did in India. Obama is the first black President. There is a pressing national desire and wish to make his presidency a history written beforehand: a mainstream, conventional, distinguished and memorable political experience. History forgets – even despises - the vital, brave and important work people like Ford and Atlee did; leaders who took the responsibility to do the important work that needed to be done in their time.

This is such a time. This too should be Obama’s role. He should end the wars in the Middle East as George McGovern recommended last week in the LA Times. But I don’t see that he can and I am all but sure that he will not.

Obama appears to feel he has to accommodate the hopes and aspirations which have been projected onto him at least until 2012 and he knows his supporters who opposed the war in Iraq during the Bush years will follow with him now to war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But this is not leadership.

He runs the risk now of being reviewed by history as a mediocrity; the black leader book-cased between George W. Bush and Mitt Romney lauded by a fickle white press in a time of high anxiety and transition; a black trophy to Nantucket liberalism; an adored leisure-class appendage to what John Kenneth Galbraith called the Culture of Contentment. Right now he’s got it all plugged in; well cut in the suit, the handsome wife working in the garden with Alice Waters, oh so proud to have been the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and even the glowing recipient of Ted Kennedy’s doggie.

But if true leadership doesn’t begin to come across, Obama could well end up being the kind of black leader Malcolm X held in contempt; the handsome, submissive and entertaining black best friend, a regular at the Georgetown parlors and salons, who appealed so because he posed no threat to the white liberal power establishment.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is today considered among the greatest Americans and greatest of world leaders not because he gave such great speeches, although those speeches were heartfelt. King was great and remains great because he faced the moment and the times with fearless and cutting acuity. He did the work that needed to be done when it needed to be done. Like all great men he didn’t care what people thought of him in his life. All of the liberal press hovered breathlessly as they do with Obama. But they turned on him when he stepped up to oppose the war in Vietnam.

It was out of character. It was not what they expected of him and it was not why they had allowed him into their parlors. White liberalism wanted him to be only concerned with Southern segregation which was on the way out anyway. It expected him to know his place and it does with Obama as well. King had been groomed by the liberal press and nurtured by the Kennedy family as Obama has been. He opposed the war in Vietnam on his own initiative and was denounced by the press, including the liberal press, as a communist and an American traitor.

That is what made King a true leader and not a figurehead of the glowing pretensions and easy ambitions of white liberals. When he opposed the war in Vietnam, a tepid liberal, middle class followed. It was one of the most vital and important turning points in the crisis and subsequently in American history.

There is no such leader to bring a turning here today, only us eccentrics here in the mountains and George McGovern.

Clearly now the Obama Democrats are a touchy-feely, styish aspect of the same political ideas that the Republicans put on the ground in foreign policy. They are one face of a two-party political arrangement. Mitt Romney, who conducted a recent “listening tour” with Eric Cantor, Republican Whip for the 111 Congress, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, all in the line up for 2012, would certainly continue this same direction. The American occupation of the Middle East was the original conception behind the invasion of Iraq; it was to be the cornerstone of a new American century which strangely resembles the Victorian era.

But the low key meetings by Romney and friends had all the spark of a visit by Utah boys on a Mormon mission. Romney would continue the themes of George W. Bush and so would brother Jeb. No question, any team Romney put together would manage them better than Bush or Obama.

Romney is said to be rereading, The American Challenge, a book first published in 1967 by French writer Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber which advanced management techniques, technological tools, and research capacity and general post-war America know how as tools for the world. Romney is said to be writing his own book about this. It would seem to be an obvious theme for a run in 2012.

History does not remember failure and the Bush/Obama war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is not likely to be remembered as a failure. But it will not necessarily be remembered as the cornerstone for a new American Victorian age of pacification and conquest either. My old country people in the hills of North Carolina wanted this war as revenge against the 9/11 attacks but they seem to have been fully satisfied by the getting of Saddam Hussein. That is a legitimate and necessary objective in warfare and it may have been enough to have satisfied the heartland. Americans prefer peace to war and it is mostly the Northeasterners who support the idea of an abstract and conceptual foreign empire. The heartland feels it has done its job. It has had enough.

New times are ahead, they always are, and the vigor of Servan-Schreiber’s America might be seen as a growing pain of something else; something we have already achieved. To repeat it might be like going back and repeating a college internship two decades later when we are already on the verge of becoming something else.

Watching early film clips on You Tube of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. for a school project with one of my children this weekend I was particularly struck by the consistently shocked and confused faces of all the white reporters who interviewed Malcolm X in the early days. The same shock and confusion which erupted in the chorus last summer when Sarah Palin appeared on the scene and again recently when Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, talked about states rights at an April 15 anti-tax “tea party.”

History only repeats itself up to a point. Then it stops and something entirely different begins as we began again with King and Malcolm X. We could be at one of those new beginnings shortly and will leave Bush/Obama/Romney/Bush in the dust. A new generation is forming. It will take a decade yet to fully formulate, but some of those who will influence it are already arising: Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Bella Swan, Edward Cullen and John Galt.

As it is for anyone as predictably competent over the long haul as Romney has been, it is possible to discern his patterns of action. He will follow, modify and improve the Bush model, possibly with Jeb as VP.

W Bush brought to Romney and brother Jeb a raw force seeking a managed advancement, but Ron Paul has brought forth a raw force as well, and right now he is tied as second choice with young conservatives in some polling. Mark Sanford or Rick Perry could modify and streamline this raw political force.

The so-called Bush Doctrine, with its underlying neocon premises, like the Mexican plague has neither the strength nor the genetic complexity to carry. So also for the second phase of the Bush Doctrine, the Obama Doctrine. And both are poisoned by nostalgia, an anchor dragging on the sandy bottom of any political movement.

Ahead we could see possibly in 2012 three parties; traditional Democrats, Obama and Biden (or possibly Hillary and Wesley Clark), traditional Republicans, Romney and Jeb Bush, and a new entity; an independent, heartland-based, libertarian-in-progress, New West third party featuring Rick Perry. Former head of Hewlett-Packer, Carly Fiorina, would make an appealing VP.