Illustration by Jordan Awan
Barack Obama, a Parochial Leader for a Parochial Nation
It wasn’t Barack Obama’s doing -- at least not fully. The crowds in Paris and Berlin, and the Muslims in Cairo and Karachi, eager to be done with President George W. Bush, took the new standard-bearer of American power as one of their own, a cosmopolitan man keen to break with the embattled certitude of the Bush years.
Obama didn’t try to disabuse them. He let the smitten believe what they wanted to believe. He was a blank slate, and they were free to project onto him what they wished.
The French have an apt expression, trompe l’oeil, trick of the eye: The cosmopolitanism of the newcomer was a gloss, and it covered up a political man of an intensely parochial kind.
Behold his entanglements and the passions of a full term in office: health care, the battle over the debt limit and the budget, the rescue of the auto industry, the running war with the Republicans, sequestration. They all bespeak of the priorities and preoccupations of a man who has had so little time, and precious little interest, in foreign lands.
It was no fault of Obama’s that the folks in Oslo awarded him a Nobel Peace Prize before he unpacked what he brought with him from Chicago. Forgive those in Ankara, Cairo and Jakarta who thought the middle name Hussein foreshadowed an affinity with Islam new in American practice.
It is easy to understand how this sense of Obama as a man of the foreign world took hold: the Kenyan father, the Indonesian stepfather and half-sister, the four boyhood years spent in Indonesia, and the mother, a searcher whose curiosity about foreign peoples took her into the most romantic of callings, anthropology.
But a careful reading of this life can yield an altogether different conclusion about the man. The Kenyan father had been a terrible disappointment -- the absentee father who saw his son only once, who died young and disillusioned, losing a battle with alcohol and personal chaos.
The years in Indonesia don’t read at all as idyllic. The mother, in search of foreign assignments and grant money, had taken a boy of 6 to Indonesia, then sent him four years later to Hawaii to be raised by her parents. In the full sense of things, a boy had lost his mother to the calling of foreign attachments.
Nor did Obama’s law school education give him some abiding interest in foreign lands and causes. One treads carefully around lawyers and their curriculum: Lawyers are trained in the arcane details of the law, its reasoning, its methods. This was Obama’s ticket in life, and he wasn’t going to burden himself with taking up the study of the subnationalisms of Pakistan or the tribal affairs of Africa.
He studied no foreign languages; legal education doesn’t call for it. He had this new life before him, and, if anything, its animating drive was to distance himself from the entanglements, and the wounds, of the past. Perhaps the foreign world was menacingly close for him. There were those who could never be convinced that he was born on American soil, who were certain that he was, at heart, a Muslim, the faith of the father he never knew.
Presidents such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush didn’t have that burden. They could plunge into foreign crises and take in distant places, without undue anxiety. A seasoned aide of Clinton’s, Strobe Talbott, wrote a book about his boss, “The Russia Hand,” to pay tribute to Clinton’s obsession with the transformation of Russia.
Clinton could simulate emotions with the best of them, but there is no mistaking the passion he had for Israel and the sorrow he felt for the 1995 assassination of its leader, Yitzhak Rabin. He was dogged and genuine in his interest in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. He stayed with it to the bitter end and the closing days of his presidency -- the Arkansan taking to exotic callings.
Liberals are invested in the image of Bush as a rube who couldn’t pronounce foreign names to save his life. From the security of a high pedigree, however, Bush came into a sincere sense of mission in the greater Middle East. He came to master the arcane details of Iraq. His diplomacy of freedom in the Muslim world was the vocation of a man who had started a war in a faraway world and felt compelled to know its peoples and details. Bush of Arabia, I once dubbed him.
In the Obaman world, we awaken to the crisis du jour. The man at the helm relishes political combat and abhors the idea of losing. The aides around him, those who have his ear, the palace guard, are or have been technicians of power: David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, Thomas Donilon, Denis McDonough, Valerie Jarrett.
The ground burns in Syria, and a transformation as consequential as the one that remade the communist world is at play in Arab and Islamic domains. But the world outside can be ignored.
We behold our leader pronouncing on the same matters in the same way -- have teleprompter, will travel. Obama is at once the author and the expression of the U.S. withdrawal from the world beyond our shores. He has driven us into ourselves, and we neither mind nor even take notice.
(Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “The Syrian Rebellion.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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