Further Signs of Greatness
A little less than seven years ago, Barack Obama was an obscure state senator from Illinois when the Democratic Party anointed him as keynote speaker at its nominating convention. Virtually no one outside of Illinois, including me, knew who he was.
Those of us disillusioned with Hillary Clinton as heiress apparent to the Clinton Dynasty began to pay him some attention. We read his two books. We watched him rise from unknown wannabe, through serious candidate, then leading candidate, to the Democratic nominee on the strength of common sense, personal dignity, respect for himself and others, and a focus on real issues, in one of the longest and dirtiest campaigns in Democratic Party history. Then we watched him win the White House, in an equally filthy presidential campaign loaded with irrational jeers and racism.
By this time, we had some idea that Barack Obama was a man apart, and not just because of his unusual name and background. Those of us, like me, who look for character, wisdom, quiet dignity, concern for ordinary people and a sense of perspective began to see in him a touch of greatness.
He hasn’t had much time to show those qualities since then. A microsecond after his election, the GOP declared making him fail their primary goal. Lesser men than he began to devote all their energy to that end. They still do.
It was and is extraordinary to see a major party in a nation that prides itself on businesslike cooperation and human advancement pursue such mean, negative and narrow goals. But that’s what Republicans did.
In any proper human society, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would be mid-level accountants in stagnant, unimaginative businesses. So far as I know, neither has ever had a single goal besides accumulating political power at the rest of government’s expense. Neither has ever had a single policy idea besides saving money by nixing other people’s ideas. McConnell is so ignorant of his own country’s relevant history that he claimed the mantle of two previous presidents (Reagan and Clinton) in debt reduction, only to have Jim Lehrer point out that both had raised taxes for that purpose.
To say that Boehner and McConnell don’t measure up to the giants of American history—to Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and Kennedy—would be an understatement of Obamanian proportions. They are rodents nipping at the President’s heels.
But they represent far larger forces arrayed against the President. There is history’s greatest propaganda machine and its millions of Fox zombies. There are the billions in donations made by rich people and businesses that, having given no serious thought to the future, look only for short-term gain, including tax savings. And there is the legacy of thirty years of cartoon ideology—“private money good; government bad”—that prevents tens of millions even from seeing their own personal experience.
All these things trapped the President in the political quicksand of filibusters, Senate holds and our other national dysfunctions. He bogged down so deeply in domestic politics that he was barely able to prevent the Crash of 2008, which his predecessor’s stupidity and negligence had caused, from triggering a second Great Depression. His historic health-insurance reform got watered down to the point where private insurers are raising rates and still denying claims, and no one can do anything about it.
So Obama’s supporters and neutrals alike began to judge him by his sworn enemies and their lies. Even his strongest supporters began to lose heart.
But, as I’ve pointed out before, there’s one field on which our dysfunctional national structure does not prevent a president from acting: foreign policy. The President is a thoughtful and deliberate man. He took two years to learn the ropes, get to know his advisors, and work and consult with them endlessly. Now he has started to move.
His first major achievement was killing bin Laden. His detractors say it was the Seals that did it. Of course they did, and their performance was superb. But who made the decision to train them, prepare them for this mission, and give them the go-ahead to proceed, despite considerable risk? And who properly calculated that an in-person killing, with a body and witnesses, plus a treasure trove of intelligence, would do more than a far easier Predator strike, which might leave nothing but building and bone fragments, civilian casualties, no intelligence, and nagging doubt?
Most important, who understood best that a man-to-man assassination was something that every culture in the world, including the most extreme Islamic ones, could understand and respect?
That was just the President’s first move. His second came today. He put our nation solidly behind the most important human development globally in over two decades, namely, the Arab Spring. In the process, he anchored our foreign policy to fundamental principles from which it had gone adrift.
His speech showed that the President gets it. “[W]e have,” he said, “a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals.” He thus made our national policy at home and abroad congruent, based on the principle that ordinary people matter. That’s the same principle recited (in slightly different words) in our Declaration of Independence: “Governments . . . deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed[.]"
He also recognized the obvious, that nations like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria are not going to resemble Switzerland for a long time, if ever. The issue is not democracy, but self-government, the right of people to have a say in their own future and not to be jailed or killed for speaking out. That’s perhaps a long way from democracy, but no democracy can stand without it. And we ought to remember that South Korea and even Spain spent decades in that in-between status.
More important, self-government gives people a chance to improve their own lives. In so doing it decreases their interest in killing or fighting others, against whom tyrants try to direct their justified rage and helplessness.
There is much, much more in the President’s speech today, all of which deserves careful reading. The speech contains a comprehensive blueprint for supporting human rights and self-determination throughout the Middle East as means to peace and prosperity. In addition to the Arab Spring, it covers protecting journalists and freedom of information, trade assistance and expansion of commerce, and of course the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Many will focus on the President’s call for a two-state solution with Israel within its 1967 borders. But many may neglect to mention that he explicitly called for land swaps, too. Israel’s final border will not be precisely along its 1967 lines, and some settlements outside those lines may remain part of Israel. But if Palestinians accept swaps, they will have a contiguous land mass, with room for transit, inside their territory, from anywhere in Gaza to anywhere in their part of the West Bank.
The key point is not just that the President—a good friend of Israel—called for the obvious. Just as friends don’t let friends drive drunk, good friends don’t let friends pursue unsustainable and misguided foreign policies and miss golden opportunities for peace and progress.
The policies announced in the President’s speech do neither. Like the policies of any great leader, they seize the moment, two moments in this case. Bin Laden’s death gave the President much greater credibility, both at home and in the Islamic world. His seizing the Arab Spring reflected his world-historical competence.
Ever since Francis Fukuyama laughably declared the “end of history” after the Cold War, the human race has faced three real and fundamental problems. The first is integrating the quarter of the human race that is Chinese into the global economy and polity. The second is doing the same for another quarter of the human race that follows Islam. The third and final great problem is finding new sources of energy that can maintain our standard of living, avoid wars over resources, and not despoil the planet on which we evolved.
The President’s predecessors since Nixon have had good policies for the first problem, and the President wisely followed them. For the second, his immediate predecessor started a war in Iraq on false pretenses and proposed supporting “democracy” in the Middle East by that war and otherwise. But George W. Bush didn’t have the faintest idea how to win that war or achieve that goal.
The President does. He understands that some form of “self-determination” is both more important and more achievable than “democracy.” And his knows that achieving it requires American support, financing, trade and other assistance, but only rarely (as in Libya) direct military force. As for the third problem, we’ll have to wait and see, for that one involves our domestic quicksand.
We Americans call any president who solves a major problem “great.” Washington won us our independence and nationhood. Lincoln freed the slaves and kept us whole. FDR helped defeat two foreign military tyrannies and brought us out of our worst economic depression. If Obama can keep us on the road to integrating Muslims and Arabs into the global economy peacefully, and if he can help bring the 63-year-old Israeli-Palestinian dispute to a peaceful close, he will deserve a place among these great leaders.
Stymied by pygmies in the House and Senate, he has made his bid for greatness in foreign policy. It is a dangerous field, loaded with pitfalls. But we have not had such a thoughtful, wise and careful president since Kennedy, perhaps since FDR.
The President also has foreign pygmies to deal with, including Netanyahu. But there is nothing that our domestic pygmies can do to stop him from solving one of the three great global problems remaining, using all the resources of what is still the world’s first economy and global power. My bet is on him.