Rebounding with Obama

Posted January 5, 2008

Categories: Articles

After suffering through an abusive relationship, many people will fall in love “on the rebound.” They finally escape the clutches of an ogre only to jump, often without looking, into the embrace of another person, any other person. This leap of love is sometimes a lucky one, sometimes not.

The last seven years of the Bush administration were indeed abusive. And the rebound effect has been so strong that even a good number of alpha-male conservatives — Colin Powell, Francis Fukuyama, Christopher Buckley — fell into the Obama embrace. The incoming president has seemed like such a good match. He’s a good listener. He’s patient. He shows grace under pressure. He’s good with little kids. What a catch!

Beyond these attributes of a sensitive executive, Obama promises to repair some of the damage done by our last bad choice. He is already getting ready to tackle global warming. He will likely roll back the dangerous subversion of the U.S. constitution known as the “unitary executive,” which the previous president used to bypass congressional checks and balances. He has indicated a healthy regard for nuclear abolition. On the economy, the president-elect leans in the direction of FDR at a time when the current crisis “has put just about everyone in touch with his inner New Dealer,” as Steve Coll writes in The New Yorker. So, what’s not to like?

Alas, our deep state of infatuation with Barack Obama tempts us to look the other way when he does or say things that are, frankly, unlovely. For instance, when he talks about change and brings in a bunch of Clinton-era Old Dealers, including the unrepentant Lawrence Summers, we wax rhapsodic about a smooth transition and the return of experienced hands. When he talks about the need to redirect our attention from Iraq to Afghanistan — even when the latter conflict is going just as poorly as the former — we thrill that he will fight the Good War. When he talks about maintaining our military capacity — even as we spend a budget-popping $700 billion on senseless wars, obsolete weapons systems, and unpopular military bases — we talk about the need for Democrats to stand tall and protect their flanks from patriotism-impugning conservatives.

This isn’t love. Nor is this, strictly speaking, a honeymoon period. Instead, we are in limerence. Limerence, a term coined some years ago, defines a state often mistaken for love. Those overtaken by limerence experience obsessive longing for another person. They subject the other person to often irrationally positive evaluations. They develop a degree of emotional dependency on the object of their obsession. And they interpret even the slightest sign of affection in the other as a declaration of reciprocal love. But the love is imaginary. Obama promised to bring a puppy dog to the White House. We are that puppy dog.

How else can we explain such an outpouring of affection for such a cool customer as Barack Obama? He’s a policy wonk who deflected most questions during the campaign with vague pronouncements of change (a wise strategy but not exactly love-connection material). The ugly emotions of the minority of Obama-haters, stoked by that malign cheerleader Sarah Palin, can be easily explained by racism and various strains of fundamentalism. But the love for Obama, so visible on the Internet and in the faces of celebrants on Election Day, cannot be explained by his rhetorical brilliance alone. As Freud might say, something else is going on here.

And it’s not just Americans. After all, the Bush administration had an abusive relationship with just about everyone in the world. (Well, perhaps the relationship with Tony Blair was a little bit kinkier.) The international community — and the U.S. elections created, for a brief time, a truly international community — is on the rebound as well. We’re all, from sea to shining sea and from the axis of evil to the community of democracies, in a state of limerence.

I’m sure Obama is a nice guy. But he’s a politician. And politicians respond not to puppy love but to pressure. We began Foreign Policy In Focus during the dog days of the Clinton administration, when idealistic multilateralism had descended into naked unilateralism. Then, too, we were on the rebound. Then, too, we had felt abused by the previous lords of misrule. Then, too, Monica aside, we fell out of love. This time around, we will applaud Obama for every wise foreign policy decision he makes, not because we love him but because he has done the right thing. And if does the wrong thing, as inevitably he will, we will not let limerence stir our hearts and cloud our vision. Such is the respect that our president-elect demands and deserves. As a democrat, rather than the leader of a personality cult, Obama would have it no other way.

What Would Obama Do?

The list of crises facing the new U.S. president is so daunting that only a madman or a former editor of the Harvard Law Review would run screaming in the other direction. There are two wars, a world financial and economic crisis, and a melting planet. It’s enough to make something like North Korea’s nuclear program, daunting enough to be the plot line of a Hollywood thriller, into a second-tier priority. So, where should Obama begin?

We asked FPIF’s crack team of senior analysts for their top three suggestions. It makes for bracing reading: close Guantánamo, end the new Africa Command (AFRICOM), begin the withdrawal from Iraq, sign a peace treaty with North Korea, terminate Star Wars, bring the war on terror to a close, declare a moratorium on free-trade agreements. Our 10 analysts also provide sage commentary. “Changes in foreign policy are often less about grand declarations than they are about alterations in tone, outlook, and priorities. This is a cumulative process,” writes Mark Engler. “The president-elect should take the enormous goodwill he has throughout the world and lead the world by example, by making diplomacy, cooperation, negotiation, and international law — not war — the center of our international energy plan,” argues Antonia Juhasz. “Can we now make Africa a priority?” asks E. Ethelbert Miller. “Yes we can! Yes we should.”

FPIF contributor Julie Mertus focuses on what Obama should do in the realm of human rights. “President Bush’s scorn of international treaties went so far as to lead him to take the unprecedented move of ‘unsigning’ the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court and the Vienna Convention on Treaties,” she writes in Letter to President Obama on Human Rights. “You might begin by resigning these, as well as signing on to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a convention signed by every country in the world except for the United States and Somalia, and the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, a convention modeled largely on American disability law.”

Then there’s Afghanistan. “Ending Bush’s imperial misadventures in Iraq will certainly be a top priority for the incoming administration, but Obama will also be tested in Afghanistan,” writes Sameer Dossani in The Case for U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan. “His words so far — calling Afghanistan the ‘central front’ in the ‘War on Terror’ and demanding more military action against insurgents allied with the Taliban — don’t inspire confidence that he would chose the [Martin Luther] King doctrine over the Bush doctrine.”

With most pundits talking about Obama following through on his campaign pledges, FPIF columnist Walden Bello hopes that Obama will reverse himself. Just as he changed his mind on the public financing of campaigns, he should alter his promise to beef up U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Pulling out of both Iraq and Afghanistan “will clear the way for focusing on the truly gigantic task ahead, which is to transform the American economy and the global economy,” Bello writes in How to Spend the Honeymoon. “But he has to act fast, taking advantage of the heady days of his romance with American people and the disarray of the Right. Will he do it? Probably not. But then again, one of the man’s greatest assets has been his ability to reverse course, to surprise.”

The Long Shadow

Iraq will cast a long shadow over the United States. The costs of the war are immense, approaching $3 trillion if you factor in everything that Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes include in their recent book. “The connection between the war and the economy is increasingly clear and starting to affect everyone, from those worrying about retirement to John McCain’s Joe the Plumber,” writes FPIF’s Kyi May Kaung in her review of The Three Trillion Dollar War.

The costs aren’t simply measurable in monetary terms. The price is exacted in the bodies and memories of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. Consider the testimony of former U.S. army sergeant Domingo Rosas. “One night I was told to bring a message down to the detainee site,” Rosas recalls in an excerpt from the new book Winter Soldier, by Iraq Veterans Against the War and FPIF contributor Aaron Glantz. “I knocked on the door, and when they opened it, I witnessed one detainee being kicked around on the ground in the mud, rolled over again and again. The agent was just kicking him with his foot, rolling him over in the mud, pouring water on his face, the whole waterboarding thing. Another detainee was standing there with a bag over his head and was forced to carry a huge rock until he just physically couldn’t do it anymore and just collapsed. That image seared itself into my mind’s eye, and I can’t forget it.”

How can we dispel the long shadow that Iraq casts over us? FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo offers a proposal that would carry with it great symbolic weight. “Issue an order to convert the controversial U.S. embassy in Baghdad into a university for the Iraqi people,” he writes in A Bold Step for U.S. Good Will in Iraq, an op-ed published in The Christian Science Monitor. “This powerful message from our new leader would convey to the Iraqi people in particular a new direction for U.S. policy.”

After the Meltdown

We’re continuing to investigate the impact of the financial crisis around the world. In Latin America, as FPIF contributor Joshua Frens-String reports in Postcard from…Montevideo, “The initial reaction of many Latin American leaders to the unfolding U.S. financial meltdown has been an almost gleeful celebration of arrogance’s defeat. As the situation’s gravity multiplies, responses have become more tempered, but disdain for the years in which the region acted as a primary laboratory for the economic experiments of the United States, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank remain.

Finally, FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes writes about fallacy of guilt by association, both in the elections and on the left. “During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, in what became known as ‘guilt by association,’ simply being friends with someone suspected of being a Communist could ruin your career,” he writes in The Cooties Effect. “Today that’s been extended to guilt by spatial proximity, which could appropriately be called the ‘cooties effect.’ If you sit on the same board, have appeared on the same panel, or otherwise have been in close physical proximity to someone deemed undesirable, you therefore must have been infected by their politics or, at minimum, have no problems with things they may have done in their past.”

FPIF, November 11, 2008

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