What will be the final verdict on President Barack Obama? This month’s mid-term elections, the last elections before his term ends, will provide early feedback before history’s eventual judgement.
As an unstable coalition is put together and yet another war unfolds in Iraq/Syria, perhaps we should look to literature to understand a career which blazed brightly at first, but which increasingly resembles a Greek tragedy.
The perfect literary model for understanding Obama is Trinidadian, Earl Lovelace’s 1980s play, The New Hardware Store. After years of European ownership, the hardware store of the title finally gets an African Trinidadian owner. Things immediately start going wrong. Absenteeism increases, discipline collapses as the mainly black staff begin insulting the new owner.
In despair, the owner asks the ringleader why he is treated so differently to the white owners. With them, responds the ringleader, everybody was acting. But you are too much like us for us to act. The space for a convincing theatrical performance, with everybody playing their duly allotted roles, while suspending disbelief, was no longer possible.
Obama has owned the American hardware store for six years now. Following Bush’s disgrace, and his brilliant campaign, many suspended disbelief. Fatally, he believed his own rhetoric, not understanding that the trust given to and hope placed upon him could easily be shredded. I am not entirely sure when exactly it was that people stopped listening to him, but I fear that we have reached that point. You can judge this by the difficulties he has choosing and keeping “friends”.
Take the aborted bombing of Syria in 2013. With no conclusive proof that the Syrian government had crossed his chemical weapons red line and with no strategy on offer about the end game after the bombing, Obama was abandoned by his usually reliable British satrap, and other allies “headed for the hills”. His humiliation would have been complete, had it not been for the Russians, who offered him a face-saving exit.
Following this, you would have imagined Obama would be eternally grateful to Vladimir Putin. Instead, Putin was rewarded with regime change in Ukraine on Russia’s border.
Take again the uprisings in Egypt. An American military “friend” of over 30 years was abjectly cast aside, and as other “friends” in the region watched this breach of trust, the military was then welcomed back two years later after brutally destroying an elected Muslim Brotherhood government.
Meanwhile, in Libya, after encouraging Gathafi to give up his WMDs, his regime was destroyed for a fraction of the violence tolerated in Egypt, Ukraine or Israel to put down dissent. His death was then publicly celebrated by Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton.
Obama’s central foreign policy problem is thus the question of trust. It is now obvious that few nations trust the US. If you can do Washington’s bidding for 30 years and then be cast aside as easily as Mubarak was, then it is difficult to find others that will take you at your word.
But the problem is bigger than Obama. America currently has over 150 military bases and installations around the world. It pretends that it is not an empire, but it behaves like one as it seeks to protect and advance its geo-strategic interests. Obama as the new owner of the hardware store has merely removed the theatrics. The Empire relies on regional partners, many of whom have their own local interests which conflict with those of its other “friends” in the region. It is not possible to reconcile all these conflicting interests, as the US is currently discovering, in the rapidly shifting alliances of the Islamic State quagmire.
Many people might ultimately have swallowed Obama’s trust deficit, if the actions were successful. But Libya, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine are a mess. Having made everybody expendable, people everywhere are coming to the point where Obama and America, are in turn, increasingly expendable. So expect the unexpected with the new coalition of the “unwilling”.