A battle over American foreign policy is looming such as this country has not seen since the penultimate days of the Vietnam War nearly half a century ago. I can’t remember the last time that two distinguished former Secretaries of State co-signed an article denouncing a presidential initiative in terms as harsh as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger applied to Obama’s proposed Iran deal. Kissinger was the great conciliator, the architect of the opening to China and the advocate of detente with Russia. Obama’s own party is split on the issue, and usually supportive commentators in the press view the outcome of the Lausanne talks with skepticism, if not out right hostility.
What explains the great gulf fixed between Obama’s perceptions and those of a large part of the liberal establishment, not to mention the Republicans?
One has to see the world through the eyes of African-Americans in the years after the Second World War to understand why Barack Obama and his inner circle cling with such passion to the prospect of peace with Iran. More than any other event, the war emancipated American blacks:more than a million migrated from the Deep South to the North, mainly to the industrial Midwest, to take industrial jobs vacated by white workers mobilized into the armed forces. Two million blacks were employed in defense industries: Men whose fathers were impoverished, marginalized sharecroppers became well-paid industrial workers. The first effective anti-discrimination laws were enforced by the Roosevelt administration in defense industries. Despite racial separation in the armed forces, 2.5 million blacks registered for the draft and 125,000 fought overseas, many with great distinction.
War buoyed the fortunes of black Americans, who had been freed from slavery in 1865 and betrayed by the post-Civil War reconciliation with the South. After black Americans proved in their millions that they would work and fight as well as their white counterparts, they were betrayed once again. President Harry Truman made desultory efforts to extend wartime anti-discrimination laws to the postwar economy, but had little effect in practice. To his credit, Truman ended segregation in the military in 1948, and blacks fought in the same units as white soldiers during the Korean War. Through African-American eyes, though, postwar America pretended that black wartime accomplishments had never happened.
A small but highly significant number of black intellectuals emigrated in disgust, including my namesake, Paul Robeson–my middle initial “P.” stands for Paul, for my late parents belonged to the Communist Party in the late 1940s. W.E.B Dubois (1868-1963), the distinguished sociologist and a late-in-life convert to Communism, died in self-imposed exile in Ghana. The writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin moved to France and remained there as expatriates. And Dr. James E. Bowman, trained as a physician by the U.S. Army during World War II, moved to Iran. According to his obituary:
“In those days,” he recalled in a 2006 interview for an oral-history project, “there was complete segregation. … One could only go to theaters, movies, restaurants in the black neighborhood.”
Still, Bowman said, he managed to get a “wonderful education” at Washington’s all-black Dunbar High School, where many of his teachers had PhDs from leading universities but were unable to secure college-level teaching positions….During this period, he met Barbara Taylor, the daughter of Robert Taylor, the first African American chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. They married in 1950, two weeks after she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. Barbara Bowman went on to become president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate program in child development…When his military obligations ended, the Bowmans decided to move overseas. “My wife and I decided that we were not going to go back to anything that smacked of segregation,” he recalled. He was soon offered a job as chairman of pathology at Nemazee Hospital, a new facility in Shiraz, Iran. “We were recently married, so we took a chance,” he said. “It changed our lives completely.”
In 1956, a year after moving to Iran, their daughter, Valerie, was born.
Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s mentor since his first days in Chicago politics, is heiress to this life-changing experience. On the right-wing fringe of American politics rumors abound that Jarrett is a Muslim. That is paranoid nonsense. Jarrett’s family, including her parents and future in-laws, moved in circles influenced by the American Communist Party. That should be no surprise. In those days everyone did. But Jarrett also has roots in the black Democratic establishment; a great-uncle was Vernon Jordan, the longtime head of the Urban League. Betrayed by an American government that required their services during the Second World War, and temporarily suppressed racial discrimination when black workers were needed in war industries, but left them at the mercy of Jim Crow when the war ended, a high proportion of black intellectuals identified with America’s adversaries. The most important and significant activity of the Communist Party during the 1940s and 1950s was in the field of civil rights. My parents were in the middle of it. In 1950, my father, then a PhD candidate in economics at Columbia, drove to Mississippi with a small group of left-wingers to protest the forthcoming execution of Willie McGee, a black man railroaded into a rape conviction. My first memory is of looking up at a circle of white and black faces. It must have been a meeting of the Edison Township, NJ chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which my parents helped to found. At the time there weren’t a lot of white Americans outside the Stalinist left willing to risk life and limb to fight racism.
In retrospect, one marvels at the motivation of the Oxford intellectuals who spied for Russia against their own country–Kim Philby and his fellow traitors. The African-Americans who abandoned America during the 1940s and 1950s hardly felt that it was their country to begin with. James E. Bowman got his medical education from the US armed forces, but he and his wife “decided that we were not going to to back to anything that smacked of segregation.” White Americans chose this country; black Americans were brought here in chains. The Civil War freed the slaves at staggering sacrifice, including 400,000 Union dead, but postwar politics consigned the freedmen to another century of fear, poverty and humiliation. The Second World War mobilized black Americans, brought them out of the rural south, and allowed them to prove their worth, and the postwar government abandoned them again. Exactly a century after the Civil War, black Americans gained equal status under the law in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a new black political class arose in proportion to black voting power. By that point US manufacturing employment already had peaked. Opportunities for economic advanced moved out of the manufacturing sphere into work that required university degrees, and black Americans were again left behind.
Black Americans felt betrayed again–if not by the oppression of law or custom, by the tides of economic change.
To Valerie Jarrett, Persia is a land of wonders, the kind country that offered hospitality to her parents after race hatred drove them out of America, the wellspring of a life-changing experience. Newsweek wrote in 2009:
The fact that Valerie Jarrett spent her early childhood in Iran made it easier to bond with Barack Obama. The subject came up the first time the two met, at a restaurant in the Loop area of downtown Chicago in 1991. Obama had grown up overseas—spending four years in Indonesia as a boy—and Jarrett was born in the ancient city of Shiraz, where her American father, a medical doctor, helped found the city’s first modern hospital. Valerie’s early languages were Farsi, French and “a little bit of English.” To this day, her favorite foods include lamb and rice with Persian spices. “If I walk into a house and I smell saffron, I’m happy,” she says.
In that first encounter, Jarrett recalls discussing with Obama how their years overseas helped shape their world views. “I guess the most basic way is by being around people who have such a broad diversity of backgrounds,” she says.
President Obama went much further than Ms. Jarrett in praising the culture of Muslim countries at the expense of the United States. He (or Bill Ayers) wrote in his autobiography Dreams of My Father, “And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate.”
One has to have been there, back during the death throes of American racism, to appreciate the residual rancor that views America as a malefactor, and views its “post-colonial” adversaries through rose-colored glasses. Iran, to be sure, is not a victim of imperialism, but the rump of an empire with irredentist ambitions that redefine megalomania.
I was there, albeit as a small child, and imbibed these intoxicants through my parents and the radical circles they moved in. America is the worst country in the world, except for all the others, I came to believe as an adult; with no illusions about America’s deficiencies, I believe America embodies the world’s hopes. When Chinese speak of the “Chinese dream,” they know they are paraphrasing the expression, “the American dream” — for we are the country where the right to dream first took root. Today’s Iran is not the fairyland of Valerie Jarrett’s childhood recollection, but a fey, fading remnant of a flawed empire, a case study in cultural necrosis. One can understand, and even empathize, with the emotional impulses that drive Obama’s camarilla. But there is no haggling with this current in American politics. One has to put a stake through its heart.