Sunday, January 24, 2010

Is Obama The Most Reactionary President Since Nixon?

Nick Cohen argues that he might well be.

"From Eleanor Roosevelt onwards, the Democrats were meant to believe in universal human rights. Even Jimmy Carter, mocked for his weakness in handling tyrants, tried to make them a part of his foreign policy. The flattering label "realist" – which, like the equally gratifying "sceptic", is not a badge of honour you can award to yourself – was claimed by Republicans, most notably Nixon, Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger. They maintained they were hard-headed men who could see the world as it is, unlike soppy liberal idealists. They would deal with any regime, however repulsive, that could help advance US interests, and ignore what their allies did to their captive populations.

". . .[Obama] comes from an ideological culture which calls itself progressive, but is often reactionary. Many from his political generation use the superficially leftish language of multiculturalism and post-colonialism to imply that human rights are a modern version of imperialism which westerners impose on societies that do not need them. Scratch a relativist and you find a racist and although they do not put it as bluntly as this, their thinking boils down to the truly imperialist belief that universal suffrage or a woman's right to choose are all very well for white-skinned people in rich countries but not brown-skinned people in poor ones."

Poor countries like Afghanistan, for instance.

In tangentially related news, I, too, am Seismic Shock.


Blogger brian platt said...

Look, I love Cohen's writing; I have passages of "What's Left" memorized. But this is not a very good column.

Obama's failed to impress in a lot of areas, but he's done a lot of things right. Given the circumstances, he's given us everything we could have asked for in Afghanistan (I've got quibbles, yeah, but nothing drastic). He stepped up before the Nobel Peace Prize committee and spoke sternly and intelligently about the necessity of fighting fascism.

As Hitchens noted, Obama had the stones to pull the trigger on the Somali pirates and the wisdom not to make a photo-op out of it. He just quietly took care of business, and I suspect that's what he's doing in many of the areas that Cohen is blasting him for.

It's very unfair to accuse Obama of negligence on Iran. He had to walk a fine line, and I think he did it well. The despots on the Supreme Council of Bearded Old Men were just itching for Obama to give them ammunition to use against the people in the streets, just waiting for a nice soundbite to make them all American agents. Yeah, I know they tried anyway, but they failed miserably. And I thought this speech last month was masterful.

I don't defend Obama's mistakes, but the most reactionary President since Nixon? Please. Get a grip, Nick.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...


Everything you say is true enough, as it goes. But you've overlooked quite a bit that Nick wrote, and also overlooked the possibility (the fact?) that although you might well be pleased with Obama, he may still be the most reactionary president since Nixon.

5:28 PM  
Blogger brian platt said...

Well, I don't want to get into a lumbering debate over the definition of "reactionary"; suffice to say that I'm stumped as to how Obama fits that label, and Cohen sure doesn't convince me here.

The paragraphs that you excerpted are agreeable enough. But it's hard to overlook how he ended the column:

"Let us hope that these swallows herald a summer, because if they do not we will be stuck with an American president who combines the weakness of Jimmy Carter with the morals of Richard Nixon."

Obama has neither of these qualities, is what I'm saying. Cohen is falling into the same trap that ol' Hitch falls into every so often, which is contrarianism run amok.

6:56 PM  
Blogger brian platt said...

Wait, sorry, I should have added one more thing.

While I obviously agree with Cohen about the depraved relativism the left has fallen into (the 2nd paragraph you excerpted), I think he's completely mistaken to argue that Obama represents that philosophy. These people may have formed a key electoral base for him, but it's been clear to me for a while that the joke was on them. Jack Layton may be a fan of Obama's, but the feeling isn't mutual.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

The weakness of Jimmy Carter, the morals of Richard Nixon, "Obama has neither of these qualities."

As you like.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Graeme said...

Questions to which the answer is no?

9:57 PM  
Blogger Graeme said...

C'mon Terry, let's hear you make a case for how Obama is more reactionary than Reagan.

10:04 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

I'll let you hear what I feel like, Graeme.

You'll notice, if you read Cohen's column, the refusal to use terms that other people use that require regard for their postures: "The flattering label 'realist' – which, like the equally gratifying 'sceptic', is not a badge of honour you can award to yourself."

So Cohen goes whole hog with the term "reactionary."

Come up with a term that is neither pejorative nor flattering, if you like, but still captures the distinction Cohen between pople who are not serious about universal human rights, and people who at least strive get close to it from time to time. Then have a look at Cohen's column again.

He's got a point.

11:29 PM  
Blogger The Plump said...

When I first read this in the paper yesterday I thought it was overstated, an echo of the liberal disappointment that proved both electorally costly and electorally stupid, maybe even losing the health care reforms. Reading it again, I can see more in it.

Ironically, the liberal disappointment over foreign affairs is not down to the position taken on Iran or Burma, it is over the surge in Afghanistan. As far as I can see, the disappointed are all the 'troops home now and let the Afghans get on with being killed' mob.

On terminology, it is always a bad idea to make comparisons, everyone can come up with other examples - most reactionary since Nixon? I just cast my mind back to the Iran/Contra affair. Arming theocratic despots in order to sponsor right wing terrorism might just be a bit more reactionary.

Then there is his, albeit hesitant and time limited, commitment to the surge in Afghanistan.

The stance on Burma was one that was shared by the Blair government here, despite its boldness elsewhere and Blair's conference tearfulness before he actually got elected. And Blair treated Putin as a close friend (and bummed free holidays off Berlusconi)

If there is one thing that has struck me about Obama is that he is one of the most cautious presidents I can think of and I would argue that caution is different to a commitment to a traditional conservative line, but can easily slip over into it.

So this is the crucial point:

I am glad to see that he turned away last week from the advisers who urged him not to reform Wall Street. Perhaps he is preparing a similar U-turn in foreign policy. In the past month, there have been tentative signs of a change of emphasis. In his Nobel peace prize lecture, he was unequivocal in his support for universal rights and departed from his prepared text to assert that, after all, he was on the side of the Iranian revolutionaries. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has finally managed to speak out in plain language against the censorship of the web by China, Egypt and other dictatorships.

Politicians are constrained by ministries, officials, the military and, in this case, are harassed by crazed loons on both sides of the fence. Overall, I think that this judgement is too early and a bit too hyperbolic. Ever the optimist me.

3:07 AM  
Blogger The Plump said...

And what I meant to add was that no government shows consistency on foreign policy. You tend to see principled action when it is a) possible and b) coincides with real or perceived interests.

So all are appeasers when facing China's economic and strategic importance, but there was no reason to be an appeaser in Kosovo or Bosnia and that is difference between someone committed to appeasement as a principle and one who sees it is a necessity where there is little or no alternative.

Which one is Obama?

4:02 AM  
Blogger scott neil said...

if i take Cohen to mean realist when he writes reactionary (realism is an ugly thing, natch), then wasn't Clinton's semantics over Rwanda in '94 a prime example of realism in action?

(not even strategic realism in the classic sense, more just 'i can't be bothered and i'm too lazy so let's just leave it'. this was only one incident and Clinton's reign for all i know might have had less of the realism overall that Cohen sees in Obama, but let's be frank, the size of the genocide means that the disgraceful washing of hands from the Yanks remains a far bigger stain than any number of lower-level realist misdemeanours Obama may, or may, be promulgating.)

what Brian says up above about Obama's fine line on Iran seems fair to me: he did well enough with the hand he had, and Peter's recalling of Iran-Contra is also important.

incidentally, one of the few unambiguously good things Dubya did in foreign policy was to appoint an envoy to Sudan, starting with John Danforth. (which if i'm not mistaken was a position essentially made up by Bush, although Obama continues it with Scott Gration in the role currently.)

Obama feels that cautious proceedings (i am not specifically referring to the Chinese examples Cohen cites) may do more good than the sometimes overt (and perhaps nakedly welcome from the dissident pov, granted, but also sometimes dangerous due to the added heat it may have entailed) pronouncements Dubya would make on civil liberties issues in some authoritarian states from time to time.

of course Dubya (and Blair, both) sucked up to Putin too. and what of American (or, again, British, for that matter) attitudes to, say, Karimov in the last decade?

let me give an example: an even more idealist mate of mine (more so than myself, and i am fairly idealist) was initially disappointed w Obama's cautious reaction to the Iranian election.

but i feel that George Packer and Juan Cole are both elegantly persuasive on this topic (ie Obama's reaction, which they praise as you will see) below

Cohen is a good lad a lot of the time, but a bit like the Hitch, can occasionally be a bit too absolutist in his sketches.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Old Brooktrout said...

Lord, I haven't heard someone described as a reactionary for many years. Do people actually still talk like this?

Obama is disappointing to idealogues, visionaries, and Utopian dreamers of all flavours. There's no plan, no synoptic vision, no miniature scale model to follow. Instead, there are processes, attentiveness, an emphasis on solving problems locally, flexibility.

It would take a very secure, confident citizenry to accept this kind of leadership.

2:42 PM  
Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

Oops. I see you have already been there ;-)

1:29 AM  

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