“I had meetings with all the leaders involved, including Ortega, who was the chair person of the Central American meeting.”

“I had very cordial conversations with President Morales and I think it’s just that President Chavez is better at positioning the cameras.”

–Barack Obama, responding to criticisms of his conversation with Hugo Chavez

My friends on the Australian left, who still hold out against the charms of Barack Obama, I invite you, I invite you to do yourselves a favour and man, just enjoy the ride. Yes, he’s running an imperialist war in Afghanistan, which we have to oppose utterly. Yes, his economic plan is half-hearted and designed to buttress the system as is. Yes, his justice department is fighting in the courts to preserve many of the operational procedures of the war on terror, yes, yes, yes…

But man, it’s been a rough eight years — twelve if you count it from ’96. And I know that the left yields to none in its pursuit of bitter masochism but look … take a break. Enjoy the moment. Obama, as exemplified in the quote above, is dicking with them.

I mean come on, how funny is it, when the right piles on Obama for shaking hands with Chavez, and he says, yeah but I also met the other Bolivia bloke who’s much worse. And also I met that Ortega guy, and he was up Reagan’s arse! If I could have got a photo I would! Hey, if Raul Castro had been here I would have frenched him!

God knows what the American right will do with that. Ann Coulter will need a chardonnay IV drip! Mark Steyn will be reaching for that dumb handkerchief he keeps in his pocket! Jonah Goldberg will inhale carbs! You don’t know who any of these people are! I’m just hoping they’ll pick this up on Google alerts!

The point is of course that Obama has simply done what any rational leader, left or right, of the largest economy and military in the world would do — treat minor powers as exactly that. Instantly they returned to their natural size — people dealing overwhelmingly with domestic problems, and often as not using the great Satan of the US as an external enemy to round up some domestic support.

For the Bush administration, this had been a godsend — they need cartoon enemies like Chavez as much as Chavez needed them, and they could stave off for a while the obvious corollary question — if Bolivia or Nicaragua were truly threats to the US, how weak would the US have to be?

The rhetorical strategy played to the essential narcissistic hysteria that conservatism draws on, an essential circular process that goes like this:

  1. The US is the greatest most powerful nation on earth, its greatness not incidental but stemming from essential human truths, which ground its institutions
  2. These deeply true and grounded institutions are so fragile that any tin pot leader of a country whose main energy source is burros counts as a threat
  3. Therefore it is necessary to suspend all the institutions that are an expression of those essential truths that we may have mentioned in point (1), in order to preserve the United States, whose identity is defined by institutions which stem from certain essential tru…

And so on. The problem with this is that the more you ramp up the fear factor, the less you sound like a powerful etc nation, and the more like a pissy little milquetoast, scared of your own shadow. (Andrew Bolt had a great example of this a couple of weeks ago, foaming that “Australia had to be saved from bikies”. Saved? After one grisly murder and a little mayhem? Do you have that little faith in Australia, Bolt?)

That all got instantly reversed when Obama simply acted like who he was — the power — and suddenly everyone else looked like a supplicant. Poor old Hugo Chavez, having denounced George Bush as the devil leaving a trail of sulphur, was reduced to presenting the Prez with a book, like an eager student. Pat Oliphant, the Australian genius who should be on a $10 note (that he’s designed), had a cartoon with Obama holding his new Portuguese water dog (and wasn’t that a goddam ordeal) by the leash, while a petulant Fidel Castro sits nearby.

“Do you like puppies Mr Castro?”

“Maybe,” says Fidel, suddenly a six year old with the hump, but nevertheless intrigued.

So we are in topsy-turvy land. Obama is acting as the Prez should act, if he’s the genuine leader of an imperialist power — relaxed, noblesse etc, a little smug. Bush meanwhile spent most of the latter part of his tenure in some sort of weird cringe/swagger combo.

Indeed, in the last few weeks, and no doubt after my stern coaching in these pages, the Obama administration is back on track — with a stimulus underway (that everyone hates), a series of foreign affairs rapprochements (that everyone hates), and the release of detailed torture memos, with announced limits on prosecution of CIA officers (which everyo- you’re way ahead of me). As old Saul Alinsky, the Marxist who founded the organisation where Obama got his secret Muslim shssssh! Training remarked “don’t worry — we’ll weather weather weather this storm of approval and come out as hated as ever”.

Obama’s caution on a whole range of issues will be unwelcome to some, but really, what alternative does he have? You have to take seriously the proposition that, as the first black President (or simply as a President), his first task is not to screw up. The Carter presidency was little but screw up, as was the first couple of years of the Clinton admin (sufficient to lose the Dems Congress). With Obama’s wobbly appointments process, and the dithering on fiscal stimulus etc, it was starting to look like Clinton all over again, but he seems to have got back on track, another example perhaps of his wholly un-American tendency to take some time before deciding on a course of action.

The stimulus package, heavy on banking bailouts, light on structural change, not as committed to grassroots fiscal stimulus as many would like it to be, has pleased no-one, but it seems obvious that Obama is playing for time — doing just enough so that the economy won’t stall completely, and waiting to see what happens. If even this modest measure of stimulus proves to be inflationary — i.e. if the US economy is such a basket-case that even the odd couple of hundred billion just swirls around without doing much to get things moving — then Obama has a deeper-seated problem to deal with, and one which can only be responded to with fundamental structural changes.

The same goes for the overseas overtures, whose object was to simply and visibly put the ball in the other team’s court, at which point almost everyone is willing to play ball, tennis, no ball works — and anyone who doesn’t simply has the onus placed on them and starts to look, a little crazy. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are crazy — after all, it’s still 50/50 whether Obama would authorise a military strike against Iran, for example — but simply judging his actions to date as statesmanship, it has the virtue of baseline rationality, which the incompetent bellicose paranoia of the Bush admin lacked.

The final thing which is really ticking some people off is that, though he’s released the Bush torture memos, he has absolved the serving CIA officers from prosecution. That, as many have pointed out, is against the Nuremburg principle that serving soldiers — including Australian troops in Afghanistan for example — cannot rely on the defence of following orders. But I would guess that Obama is weighing up, among other things, the wrenching political effect that any prosecution of serving personnel would have. I suspect that he has not ruled out investigation and prosecution higher up the line, but any such action would have to deliberately separate the alleged evildoers from the wider stream of American life. If various officials are to be prosecuted they would have to be portrayed as sinister political types who betrayed this great nation, and put serving military in impossible blah di blah.

The move would then give the mass of American people emotional license to hate these people for what they had done, and in their hatred, affirming their faith in the USA. But put serving officers, even spooks, in the dock, and that emotional license is revoked. The object is to ensure that people supporting Obama because they haven’t lost their house, and they’re getting tax relief, are not then forced to choose between that figure and the Chicago radical lawyer prosecuting our boys and gals who did what they had to do.

All in all, news that is potentially good keeps on coming — Obama has made it clear that he won’t be in town for Bibi Netanyahu’s first Washington visit, and even if that’s a pre-existing commitment you can bet that Dubya would cancel his own open-heart surgery to get back to DC and teabag Ariel Sharon, so that is, how they say, interesting…

“I met with all of them, including Ortega…”, that is funny.

And yes, next week we will be yelling at him again for this or that — just as you yell at the team you’ve supported for twenty years, when they finally drag their sad arses into the grand final and miss an easy, or even a hard goal. Because, finally, you’re invested…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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