Two days ago, your correspondent finished off a thousand-something word article on the impact of the production of Obama’s long-form birth certificate on the US right. The key point appeared to be that the appearance of the document had sucked all the life out of the hardcore right, because its hatred of Obama could no longer coalesce around a central myth of alienness.
That energy would not find a new focus until a categorically transformative event came along. At 2am, I sent the article half in sleep and three hours later President Obama came on global TV to announce that he had captured bin Laden.
That wasn’t what I had in mind — like many people I had all but forgotten that bin Laden existed — but it will do to be going on with. Twelve hours after the operation was announced, only the stalwart Rush Limbaugh was attempting to make some sort of anti-Obama spin on events.
Limbaugh it was who had said of an early operation — against Somali hostage-taking pirates, three of whom were killed with long-range shots — that it was “Obama’s gang hit” against “three Somali boys”. He couldn’t do that here, so he attacked the notion that Obama had anything to do with the op’s success:
“I, me, my — three of the most used words in President Obama’s media appearance last night … “Not a single intelligence adviser, not a single national security adviser, military adviser, came up with the idea … not one of them … according to Obama, had the ability to understand the need to get DNA.”
Yet even though Limbaugh’s voice was dripping with sarcasm, such was the nature of the day that most commentators didn’t pick it up, taking it as a naïve volte-face — another example of the first error of analysis as regard the US right, applying the plain standards of sanity.
But Rush was pretty much out on his own in leading with the snark. Others realised this was a hiding to nothing and began on a high note. Here’s Ben Shapiro from Frontpage magazine:
“I was also filled with gratitude to President Obama for authorising the trigger pull. My wife and I were at Disneyland when we heard the news, and I immediately whipped out my cell phone and tweeted, ‘Obama deserves all credit for pulling the trigger as Clinton never could’.”
No, I didn’t make that up. Who could? Shapiro went on to develop the line that “Obama’s fans, like Obama himself, are entranced with Obama’s supposed personal victory here”, which appears to be the emerging line. After a judicious break of a week or more, the right will try to split the difference between Obama and the military; there will be differences in the accounts of who did what, rumours of the inevitable conflicts within a difficult operation.
For the moment, however, there is no possibility of doing that, so the right has to vamp until ready. One angle has been to piggyback on the actual operation. Here’s Daniel Foster in National Review on the possible release of operation images:
“… The pics are said to be grisly, and show a massive head wound above the left eye — a double-tap from an M4 or MP5 will do that. (Aside: I wonder if his fellow team members are giving that SEAL a hard time for ‘missing’ left.) …”
This sort of stuff, a more gruesome version of the fist-pumping U-S-A! chant, is distasteful not out of any consideration for a man of violence such as bin Laden, but because it makes the utterer look pathetic, swaggering and boasting on the basis of someone else’s bravery, a measure of the degree to which bin Laden’s decade of freedom had revealed American weakness.
Though there will now be hectares of articles about how bin Laden was tracked to his lair, etc, it appears that a lot of it was sitting on a phone tap like the bit between the second and third ad breaks of a Law and Order episode. At the heart of much of this story is the passivity forced on America by the wars it has gotten into, and the degree to which torture — the victim’s revenge — has become central to the culture, as a fantasy act.
The right would like to use the means by which bin Laden was traced — the interrogation of captured couriers, some of whom were tortured — to beat up on the left, and as a vindication of the Bush-era methods. That is complicated for two reasons: first, the evidence obtained from Sheikh Khalid Mohammed, the captured al-Qaeda leader, that eventually led to bin Laden was obtained by standard interrogation, not torture.
But secondly, whatever pleasing effect that may have on raddled liberals questioning the methods of the operation, its principle effect would be to strengthen Obama as a representative of centre and right America, something that Obama spends a lot of time striving to do by annoying the liberal-left.
Should they do that, then the Republicans are in a desperate position going into the primary season, because they are defining themselves not against a usurper occupying the office that they should hold as a (white) representative of the American people, but as petitioners going up against someone who has become fused with it.
In the past week, with the one-two of the birth certificate and the bin Laden take-down, Obama has staged one of the most extraordinary political events of modern times, turning the production of a birth certificate from a defensive act imposed on him by his enemies, to the documented affirmation that he is not merely American, but America.
The bin Laden triumph baptised him in blood, born again as a member of the tribe. The trifecta was the White House correspondents’ dinner where Donald Trump — who had a week ago appeared a formidable contender — as the most prominent primary figure, became a joke overnight, a scarecrow coming apart from the top down.
There is a further problem for the right (if you think they’re not thinking this through right now; if you think they’ve said “let’s come back to it in a coupla days”, then you misunderstand American politics), and that is whether they simply let the credit sit with Obama, or try and claim some of it for “years of work” put in by the Bush team.
For no matter what the bluster, the icy efficiency with which the operation went down stands in stark contrast to just about anything team Bush tried to do. Part of that was luck — another helicopter down, and Obama might have been Jimmy Carter redux — but the chance of it was minimised by the quality that the right has most often criticised him for, the willingness to take his time and do something properly.
Whether or not, Americans know the full details of team Bush’s basic and wilful incompetence in Iraq, they know what it looked like — Rumsfeld rabbiting on about “known unknowns”, Bush unable to answer simple questions at a press conference, Bush making a spoof film “looking for WMD” in the Oval Office, Bush showing us his golf swing, Bush, well, Bush.
Now, practically eight years to the day that Bush announced “mission accomplished”, Obama accomplished it, counterposing actual achievement to empty fantasy. Since 2008, the right has been trying to shoehorn Bush into every subsequent event, from the withdrawal from Iraq to the Arab spring. They are less likely to do so here, and really, these events, are a further “double tap” to use the language, to Bush’s standing in history.
Obama is no Lincoln, but on this occasion he looks genuinely Lincolnesque — bearing in mind that most of Abe’s key acts involved extra-constitutional and illegal killing as well. Bush looks more and more like the men who made Lincoln great by giving him a crisis to solve — the disastrous presidents Buchanan and Pierce, who made any peaceful transition out of slavery impossible, and helped bring the country to the brink of secession.
The centre-right has realised this, and seem determined not to get too far leeward of him. The opinion page of the Wall Street Journal is a paean to him, the old Murdoch technique of tucking in behind a leader hitherto excoriated, and then presenting themselves as the authentic voice of Middle America. The cartoon featured — Obama as a musclebound black superhero — would not look out of place in Italy, 1922.
They could hardly do otherwise. But Obama’s new-found status as Captain America will have knock-on effects. When he was withdrawing from Iraq, slowly managing a new, but unchanging, strategy in Afghanistan, and running a proportionate rather than spectacular operation in Libya, he could be portrayed as the guy who wouldn’t step up; that alleged foreign policy diffidence could be fused with his minimal Keynesianism and the whole package portrayed as failure, one of character not of policy.
That ain’t possible now, and that splits economic and foreign policy — making the former something to be assessed as policy per se, rather than as a marker of un-Americanism. That doesn’t get Obama out of the woods by any means — the “recovery” so far is anything but (though the US is doing much better than the non-stimulating UK), and inflation is slowly creeping up.
But for the dozen or so Republicans now starting to stump through the primary states, it is a disaster. It is not merely a question of what they say in the face of such an event; it is a question of who they are at all. The mainstream candidates — Romney, Pawlenty- – look like pallid Obamas (especially to the Republican base). But the symbolic candidates — Huckabee, Palin, Bachmann, et al — look suddenly unreal, even to those who would most identify with them.
As the event fades into the background, they will be able to swing a focus onto the economy. And they will be talking in part — in Iowa, in New Hampshire and South Carolina — to the base of the base, whose loathing for Obama may be stalled but by no means dispelled. Nevertheless, it’s a hell of a thing to happen now, and one wonders if it played any part in the timing of … No, surely not. There is no doubt that the birth certificate issue was brought to a head before the mission, so success could be claimed by Obama, undoubted American. But the mission itself? No. Surely.
For the left, well the less said the better. It is surely madness itself to become Osama bin Laden’s defence counsel. As stories filter out as to whether he was killed in fighting or effectively executed, that is the temptation. But the issue is surely not the particular nature of one extrajudicial killing, but the general practice of it.
Bin Laden may have been got by a bullet, but many of his henchmen (and their families) were taken out by pilotless drones. So this is simply a variation of ongoing method, not of the character of the act, and the focus needs to be the widest possible — not, foremost, the methods of war, declared or undeclared, but the rightness or otherwise of the war itself, and the general question of slowly withdrawing from the most far-flung and outlandish parts of an American empire. That suggests continuing and full withdrawal from Iraq, the end of the war in Afghanistan, and no escalation beyond support in Libya (which point we appear to have passed).
It is unlikely that any of these conditions will be met, for the simple reason that, deprived of a compliant Congress, Obama is now a foreign policy President, a war President. Having knocked the wannabee Republicans out of the park with this recent event, he is now aiming to take out Gaddafi, at which point, in the American imagery, he will join seamlessly with Reagan. When that happens, bases right and left may as well sit out this election, it will come to shore on the tide of history.
And so to bed. And God knows what the morning will bring.