As Barack Obama and the Democratic Party face a humiliating rebuff in the mid-term elections both these books offer an appraisal of his tenure in office. They could not be more different.
Bob Woodward’s is a meticulously researched exposure of the labyrinthine complexities in the decision making of the defence and security establishments of the US and Obama’s entrapment within them. Woodward made his name with the Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency. He is now an associate editor of the Washington Post, a venerable member of the media establishment in the US, and is obviously trading on his reputation.
While his book is an interesting account of the arguments within the Washington establishment, and in particular those between Obama and the military, it offers no analysis of the implications of these arguments for the people on the receiving end, particularly in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan. It is replete with irrelevant details, included as testimony to how much Woodward knows and little else. Its tone is portentous and self-regarding and not matched by any substance of content. Amazingly, given the book’s title, there is no attempt to evaluate strategy and outcomes in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The wars are taken as read.
There are, however, glimpses into the mentality of some of the principal players. For example, the director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, manages to embarrass his colleagues by the blatant imperial arrogance of his language – “We own him; we own it” – in relation to foreign leaders. It’s not just the security professionals who betray this attitude. Hillary Clinton’s intervention in the argument about cuts in the British defence budget led directly to David Cameron watering down the proposals.
The one issue of substance that has gained the Woodward book news headlines is the argument between the military and politicians about troop increases in Afghanistan. General Petraeus, unbelievably regarded as the hero of Iraq for his strategy of “troop surge”, wanted to apply the same strategy to Afghanistan and demanded an additional 40,000 soldiers. Through a series of pre-emptive media leaks he gets most of what he wants, but Obama places a condition on the deployment. By the end of 2011 they will have to begin a withdrawal and scale down the military operation. If we are in any doubt about the winner in this argument, Petraeus has already repudiated the time limit in public.
Tariq Ali’s book, in contrast, is an angry polemic against both the domestic and international surrenders of Obama to the establishment. In particular, he rails against the rhetoric of “change” which won Obama the election two years ago and contrasts it sharply with the continuity of his policies of “business as usual”. His arguments are a trenchant indictment of Obama in office.
He argues that the final health bill “was a total capitulation to the insurance companies and pharmaceutical giants”. He cites the example of Obama the candidate lambasting the industry’s chief lobbyist, Congressman Billy Tauzin, in television commercials, while Obama the president welcomes him into the White House, making him a partner in the legislative programme. He cites the Spectator, the conservative weekly, in revealing that this legislation was drafted by Liz Fowler, a former executive for a private health insurer who now works for the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who is a beneficiary of millions of dollars in contributions from insurance and healthcare companies.
Similarly in foreign policy he quotes the revelation from the New York Times that since Obama’s election the CIA has mounted more Predator drone strikes into Pakistan than during the eight years of the Bush presidency. Ali argues convincingly that Obama may have been the beneficiary of decades of black political activism, but far from continuing the tradition of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, he has offered little more than vacuous rhetoric.
Ali’s book is a very valuable weapon for us in the ideological war – it is short, sharp and very much to the point. However, I do have a slight quibble. If we are dismissive in describing Obama’s election as merely “symbolic” then we miss the relationship between symbol and reality. His election mobilised tens of thousands of activists who wanted real change and demonstrated the potential for political organisation. Of course, the expectations that he raised were dashed, but that does not negate this potential. The symbolism of his election also worked in a negative way, fuelling those on the wilder shores of political lunacy who couldn’t face the thought of a black man in the White House. It is the combination of the two that is likely to prove the Democrats’ undoing in the mid-term elections.
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