The news spotlight is on the US electoral drama. Everything outside the circle of media brilliance is momentarily in shadow, most especially Obama administration’s governance record. They persist in a singular state of invisibility. Scandals, domestic crises, foreign conflicts — none have been resolved. It is just that the newspapers don’t talk about them any more. Matthew Continetti of the National Review thinks that the normally raucous anti-war groups, even Obama himself, have fallen deliberately silent.
The anniversary of the U.S. war against the Islamic State passed with little notice. It was August 7 of last year that President Obama authorized the first airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, a campaign he expanded a month later to include targets in Syria. So far this month, the president has delivered remarks on the Voting Rights Act, his deal with Iran, the budget, clean energy, and Hurricane Katrina. ISIS? Not a peep.
Obama’s quiet because the war is not going well … One of our most gifted generals predicts the conflict will last “10 to 20 years.” And now comes news that the Pentagon is investigating whether intelligence assessments of ISIS have been manipulated for political reasons. “Analysts,” reports the Daily Beast, “have been pushed to portray the group as weaker than the analysts believe it actually is.” This sort of dishonesty helps no one — except a president whose primary concern is leaving office with his reputation for ending wars intact, and the military brass who wish to remain in his good graces.
The War — if one can call it that — exists without being acknowledged. China, South America, Russia, the border, inhabit the same limbo. These, like massive shadowy cliffs, have faded into an out of focus background under shallow depth of field coverage of the media lens. All we see sharply are the tiny, minutely defined candidates under a harsh glare. Occasionally actual events intrude in the form of attention-grabbing tragedies that have inexplicably multiplied.
We shudder at the sight of drowned Syrian children washing up on Libyan beaches; shake our heads at asphyxiated truckloads abandoned by people smugglers who took the money and ran; wonder at what the meltdown in China might portend. But we shudder without much understanding; these tragedies seem to have a kind of meteoric quality, arriving from parts unknown and vanishing to the same distant parts of the media solar system.
The more widely read know these portents are merely the tip of the iceberg, visible simply because they ride above the water. There’s a vague realization that what really matters is under the surface; inside the imploding countries of the Middle East, unfolding in Eastern Europe, or hatching in Beijing. We know the real reservoirs of broken humanity pools are in regional sumps, too poor and exhausted to run any further. The size of Syrian refugee camps in Jordan defy belief; literally stretching out of sight. But that’s all it is, a picture on a page.
Occasionally some media outlet will blurt out a dissonant observation, suggesting a reality outside the administration’s claims. Joshua Keating in Slate asks: “ISIS Is Probably Using Chemical Weapons. Where Did It Get Them?” From Saddam’s stockpiles maybe, those which didn’t exist or perhaps from Syria’s arsenal, whose destruction Obama negotiated, but clearly from outside the Narrative.
As Continetti notes now is not the time to raise inconvenient subjects. “It’s an unanticipated consequence of Barack Obama’s presidency: his immobilization of the anti-war legions, the way his election immediately neutered the zealots who, if a Republican were in office, would be marching against drone strikes and mass surveillance and war in Afghanistan and air war in Libya, Syria, Iraq and proxy war in Yemen.” To raise these subjects might bring up the question of whether the administration made a fundamental strategic mistake.
There’s no outrage because the media, our bipartisan political establishment, and indeed the American people themselves are unwilling to face the scope of the challenge the Islamic State presents. To uproot it we would have to send U.S. ground forces to Iraq in large numbers, not just special forces operating in tandem with unrestricted air support. We would have to retake and hold ground lost in the years since we departed Iraq, and we would have to commit to remaining in Iraq and Syria for a long time. To deal a blow to radical Islam that would deter recruitment, stop the bandwagon effect, and secure America from attack by militants and their fellow-travelers would require a military and economic commitment the United States, least of all our president, is simply not prepared to make.
The administration probably blundered, but as Continetti seems not to realize, we are in a special situation where the administration’s mistakes don’t matter. We live in a special world without acknowledged consequences. The withdrawal is a done deal; something that is too late to change now. Policies as outcomes of power don’t matter, only the brute fact of it does.
Power means the last word on things. It is not as if some future Republican president can reverse Obama and re-attempt a civil society in the Middle East the way America did in Europe and Japan at the end of World War 2. Obama demonstrated the American Left can veto any attempt to resist imposing its vision upon the nation. It has the will to throw away any victory, however complete, to have the last say.
The mistakes of Obama’s policies are secondary to the principle that a certain point of view should prevail. This is elsewhere illustrated by Jeremy Corbyn, in the running to lead the British Labour Party, who suggested that should he come to power his government will simply give the Falklands back to Argentina correcting what in his view is an historical injustice. Corbyn can do this, as Obama can, because he does not view himself as bound to a going concern but to larger historical arc. Radicals seize power to change the system; not to make it succeed. They are not about governance, they are about change, or rather stasis. The stasis of their power. Their followers judge them not by how efficiently they work the state machinery but by how thoroughly they alter the power relations in society.
At this this time in history the Left may be correct about what truly matters. The institutional Republicans are still playing the game of administration. By contrast Obama is playing the game of revolution. By slow degrees the entire political system is coming around to Obama’s point of view. Perhaps this is no ordinary time. When Hillary calls Republicans “terrorists” and Obama calls them “crazies”; when Sanders and Trump are outflanking the established wings of their respective parties, each of these in its own way suggests the emphasis of the next ten years will not be on public administration but on determining the power relationships within America and among the countries of the world.
President Obama was right when he said that the coming years would be about fundamentally transforming things. Ironically Trump both understands and fails to articulate it. He claims people prefer him because he is “more competent” than his rivals. But he’s wrong. They are supporting him because he’s leading, however indirectly and uncertainly, a kind of rebellion against the status quo. The source of his appeal lies in his revolutionary aspects rather than his public administration qualities.
The spotlight is therefore in the right place. The tragedies unfolding in the world are for the moment a side-show. The real drama is the crisis of Western social democracy and the international security framework that has obtained since World War 2. People are still acting like it can be business as usual when in fact business is most unusual. The forces causing whole regions to implode or destabilize themselves are not the cause but the result of a revolutionary dynamic in the globalized world.
Because this drama is still in a relatively early stage of development, whoever is elected to the presidency in 2016 will himself neither win nor lose the final game but only make the opening move. The most desirable candidates for Western leadership in the coming decades will be those self-aware enough to realize they are setting up, rather than fully completing, a strategy. Men like Corbyn, who are slave to some dead and mechanistic ideology, are doomed to play the part of idiots upon this stage. Their sole role will be to act like a kind of basketball backboard so that their failures will set up a policy rebound.
Until the main issues are resolved or at any rate understood, many events will continue to unfold in the curious condition of irrelevancy. They will be important yet strangely peripheral, in the same way that the Chinese stock exchange meltdown was a only manifestation of something larger. Until the underlying issues are settled, the spotlight will remain where it is while behind it, barely glimpsed in the background, great shapes move silently ready for the next act.
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