Actions often have unforeseen consequences. Throughout the campaign and the first few months of the new administration, Barack Obama adopted a number of personas and positions that only now may be coming back to haunt him. Or in the words of the right Reverend Wright the proverbial “chickens are coming home to roost.”
1) The Wars
Obama and the Democrats once understandably figured that the war in Afghanistan was nearly won (between 2002-5 fewer of our soldiers were dying in an entire year there than in a single bloody month in Iraq), while (to quote Harry Reid) Iraq was already “lost.” Obama, like most, not only opposed the surge, but claimed it would be counterproductive.
In contrast, Obama promised that he’d be tough in Afghanistan, pursue enemies hotly into Pakistan, and not take “his eye off the ball” of the theater as did Bush. “Let me at ‘em” was the mood (sort of like the cartoon character who swings furiously and wildly at the air while his larger companion holds him up by the scruff of the neck.)
Remember that in early 2007 when Obama was beginning his campaign, Afghanistan was still thought of as the “good” war—UN approved, mostly quiet with few fatalities (e.g., 59 in all of 2005), and directly linked with the Taliban, 9/11, and Osama bin Laden.
Iraq, in contrast, was the thoroughly bad war—and became even messier as the controversial surge peaked fatalities. Remember the “General Betray Us” ads?
Iraq was seen as George Bush’s albatross, as the once supportive Democrats (cf. the Democratic pluralities who voted to authorize the war in the October 10-11, 2002 votes) had long ago bailed. A wild-eyed public that polled 79% in favor of the war in May 2003 (despite the daily media blaring that there were no weapons of mass destruction), by 2006 was polling only 35% in favor. By 2006 and 2008 the opposition to the Iraqi war was Democratic manna—especially as Obama and others in contrast sought national security cover in chest-thumping about Afghanistan. Remember the Obama promise to bring all combat brigades home from Iraq by “March 31, 2008”?
But there were a few problems.
1) By inauguration, Iraq was already on the road to being saved. This year far more have been killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq; five Americans were lost so far this month in Iraq; 57 in Afghanistan—ten times the losses of the former!
2) the problem with “surging” is now not Bush’s Iraq version which worked, but Obama’s necessary Afghan reinforcement whose efficacy remains to be seen;
3) Obama and the Democrats may have not grasped that security and consensual government in Afghanistan were always the tougher propositions—a country landlocked, with harsh weather, difficult terrain, an illiterate populace, and poor, nuclear Pakistan next door; while Iraq was always the more viable—ports, oil, vital location, easy terrain and access, greater numbers of secular and literate citizenry;
4) Yes, Afghanistan was directly linked to 9/11. But if the ‘war on terror’ was really about radical Islam and its nexus with sponsoring Middle East tyrants and autocracies, then the removal of Saddam would cause in its own right positive ripples in a rather wider region. Iran, for example, was not perennially “empowered” by our removal of Saddam, as the conventional wisdom insisted the last six years. In fact, Ahmadinejad may be now threatened by the idea of a Shiite-majority democracy nearby, one that conducts itself in a fashion that is ipso facto destabilizing to its nearby theocratic cousin and its millions of the unhappy. Iranian popular angst increased after the fostering of Iraqi democracy.
Bottom line? Obama—rightfully so—committed himself to winning a good war in Afghanistan, and now he must accomplish what was a far more challenging proposition than he ever imagined. His doom-and-gloom assertions about Iraq proved wrong, and now in turn he must oversee what may well turn out to be a George Bush-inspired successful constitutional government in the heart of the ancient caliphate.
It is true that the liberal media will give Obama far more leeway (note how violence in Afghanistan and Iraq are not so much on the front pages as in the Bush years; and note how Hollywood will produce no more movies like Rendition or Valley of Elah about an unpopular war). In addition, the anti-war left—for now—will go easier on kindred Commander-in-Chief Obama. The Democrats in Congress, of course, will become suddenly be pro-war in Afghanistan as they were once anti-Bush on Iraq. But all that said, again, Afghanistan won’t be easy. Security and a stable Afghan consensual government will mean Obama cannot vote present. As the casualties mount, so will the left-wing base agitate to galvanize public opinion against the war—and the media will make the necessary adjustments.
Conclusion? Obama should have never blustered about our supposedly hopeless situation in Iraq and his own eagerness to escalate in Afghanistan. Now we expect him to reify his campaign rhetoric. But he cannot easily wish to flee Iraq and turn victory into defeat there; nor easily surge in Afghanistan and have that once good war become Obama’s messy own.
Obama could have downplayed identity politics, and stayed true to his message of racial irrelevance—despite the temptation of hyping the novelty and mystique of his heritage and of tapping the ever present font of white guilt. He could have run as a Colin Powell/Condoleezza Rice-like figure who saw race as incidental, never essential to his persona.
Instead Obama chose the -hyphenated route. That identification played dividends in the primaries as his newfound black fides in key states helped to swamp liberal Hillary, wife of our first “black” President. Suddenly Democrats of all people were voting on mostly black/white lines. Subsequently in his hubris, Obama and his surrogates could from time to time lecture the citizenry on their assorted bias and sins, from racial profiling and stupid policing to their cowardly aversion to racial conversations.
But now what follows from that? When Obama’s polls dived—as they once did likewise for Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush—critics could prove to be loud and obnoxious. But in reaction, as the President’s unpopularity mounts, does he then go back to the buckler of race again—but this time castigating the public for its intemperance rather than as before appealing to its liberalism? Let us get this straight: Americans have transcended race when they voted for Obama, but revert to hopeless racists when they critique him in the manner of past skepticism about Presidential policy?
One can see how the issue can explode as it did with the Gatesgate incident. And when the inept and unpopular Gov. Patterson (D—NY) cried “racism” in New York, the gambit proved devastatingly counter-productive. In short, Obama is now simply a normal President with sliding polls; if he tries to evoke his singular heritage in his decline for political advantage as he did in his ascendancy with real profit, his Presidency could implode. The current public has had it with blame-gaming and victimization of any sort, and will have little tolerance for any who play that card.
It used to be sort of cute to talk of media bias in favor of Obama. The President even made jokes about the infatuation, adding insult to injury in the sense he (ungratefully) seemed to be laughing at the mainstream media for mortgaging their reputations to enlist in his cause. Robert Gibbs in his first few days presided over an “enchanted” throng, not the usual attack-dog press. But now?
It will be hard to believe administration complaints about the You Tube hyped coverage of the Town Hallers and Tea-Partiers. Obama and Company have already complained that the media has jazzed up the health-care protests and that media frenzy is in part responsible for sinking poll numbers. But once you crow over how you’ve mesmerized the print and electronic press, it simply does not work trashing them for unfair reporting. Again, be careful of the climate that you construct.
4) Dissent and the Good Protestor
Between 2001-8, luminaries like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama were sympathetic to those protesting on the barricades. Anti-Bush demonstrations were welcomed. Pelosi even praised the loud antics of Moveon.org. How many times were we lectured about “community organizing”? Remember ACORN? The call for grass-roots action in The Audacity of Hope? The Obama tenure on the Annenberg Foundation?
Once upon a time, we were supposed to think two things about protests: 1) they were good, since they served as teachable moments about the evil Bush/Cheney nexus, Iraq, and the pseudo-war on terror; 2) and Barack Obama was a barricades sort of guy who organized the people to stand up to the establishment. (Cf. Michelle Obama’s warning about her husband’s organizing talents when he was elected to the Senate.)
And now? What about these town-hallers and Tea-party activists? By virtue of speaking truth to power, are they likewise patriotic and authentic voices of dissent? Or have they become disruptive, unpatriotic, and mean-spirited by virtue of opposing The One? Again, be careful what you wish for. If you believe in town hall organizing, prepare to get town hall organized.
5. The Extremes
Also once upon a time, a leftist used to write a novel about killing George Bush (cf. Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint). Mainstream figures from John Glen to Al Gore compared their President to Nazis and brown shirts. A movie envisioning the killing of Bush won acclaim. Michael Moore weighed in, from hoping the insurgent “minutemen” won in Iraq to lamenting the fact that bin Laden had hit a blue-state. The race card was played constantly: Harry Belafonte slurred Colin Powell as a house slave; Howard Dean accused Republicans of Jim-Crow like attitudes. To read the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert, or Frank Rich was to experience a visceral hatred toward George Bush. I could go on. The Left after 2002 had become the Right circa 1951—often unhinged, humorless, prone to conspiracy theory, full of venom.
Few moderate Democrats objected; Michael Moore was even courted at his premiere by Democratic kingpins. No one advised a Dick Durban, Ted Kennedy, or John Kerry to cool the rhetoric about American soldiers as terrorists, Saddamists, Nazis, and Pol Pot. The result is that there is now an established loud, furious leftwing base that during the Bush years became inured to bombastic rhetoric and was not open to reasonable debate and disagreement.
Obama rode to victory on such activism. He surfed on the crest of the loud anti-war movement. He voiced no dissent amid the twenty-years of Rev. Wright vitriol that cemented his reputation as an authentic black Chicagoan. We all knew that extremists like Bill Ayers and Father Pfleger were closer to Obama than he let on.
The result is that President Obama, to be consistent, should see as healthy any grass roots movement against establishment policies. And his own past activism and rhetoric leave him little wiggle room in the present health-care debates—a crisis that was entirely fabricated by his own effort to ram through in a matter of days a 1,000-page mess that would radically change the American economy.
Yet already in the health care raucous, he is being attacked for going soft by liberal activists. Furious left-wingers pounce on him for not going negative and confronting the Town-hallers. Base supporters wonder whether he is partisan enough (ironic—since polls show that he is sinking because of his partisanship and statism that are losing independents and moderates), and urge him to take off the gloves.
Again, life is rough for the community organizer who is getting out community organized.
Call all this what you will—the ends don’t justify the means; what comes around goes around; be careful what you wish for, etc. But the fact is that the President has now been boxed in—by the President himself.