Consider this scenario: a new leader is elected of a vast and over-extended power, still with a vastly powerful military, but with a hollowed-out economy. Drained by two useless wars, battered by a recession made worse by open-slather deregulation, plagued by crumbling infrastructure, social decay, and with vastly more populous developing powers gaining ground, large sections of the country are in the grip of a powerful and self-defeating nostalgia, which makes grappling with the real problems all but impossible.
The new leader pushes through a large stimulus program, which kick-starts a recovery, extracts the country from its most ruinous war, avoids entanglement in two or three others while having antagonists dragged into them, reorients foreign policy to trade, and creates a deal with its new rivals’ closest partners. You would think such a figure would be celebrated, not merely as a good leader but as a good conservative leader, elevating prudence and cautious piecemeal action to a premium, and shunning doctrinaire approaches and sweeping grand theories.
Well, you would, if the country weren’t the US, and the leader weren’t black, and from the progressive side of politics. Towards the end of his eight-year tenure, Obama has re-oriented US policy away from the vast quagmire of the Middle East, a leftover Cold War battleground, and towards Asia, making links via trade rather than direct military enforcement. At the same time, Russia and Iran have been dragged into profitless conflicts in a stateless zone of competing powers. Obama’s only commissioned war has been Libya, which had no US casualties whatsoever, and — whatever the result for the Libyans — has created a country with powerful pro-US currents within it.
This is what good conservative leaders are meant to do (I’m not arguing for the morality of his policies), and yet the response of the right — and of imperial liberal voices, such as The New York Times — has been to assail his recent leadership as some sort of unparalleled disaster, an absence of action, to which the human catastrophe in Syria can be attributed. If only America would lead, they say. Lead how, is the question. Who would you back in Syria? What possible result is worth blood and treasure, and the risk of blowback? There is none of course, and the best result — in brutal realpolitik terms — remains unresolved conflict, in which rivals such as Russia and Iran have no choice but to become involved to support their proxies.
Yet for Obama’s critics, it is this loss of prestige and projection that is the real disaster. Of late, they have become unhinged in their criticism, with right-wing historian and would-be consigliore to power Niall Ferguson going the full tonk. At home, Greg Sheridan and Andrew Bolt do the same. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump sounds the notes the loudest — that “they’re laughing at us”, and it is time to “make America great again”. Such criticisms hark back to Reagan, but they have none of Reagan’s swagger, in relation to Carter’s contradictory foreign policy. They’re petitioning, angry and deprived, not because of what Obama is doing, but because of how it makes them feel, or not feel, which can be summed up in word: unmanned.
For Obama’s critics, there is a supreme difficulty. His foreign policy resembles those presidents from the conservative side of things — Eisenhower, and in the 1840s, Polk — who buttressed American power by limiting its extension, and choosing its battles (relatively speaking, in Eisenhower’s case: he preferred espionage and coups to invasions).
Meanwhile, it is the regime of George W. Bush that most resembled the bellicose military foreign policy of progressives such as Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson and Kennedy/Johnson — vast campaigns undertaken on the idea that American values are universal values, and their imposition on others an act of liberation. The result is always quagmire, disaster and repudiation — but the right find it impossible to admit this about Dubya. So they have developed a now oft-told myth about what happened: Dubya had success and then disaster in Iraq, and was just recovering the situation with “the surge”, when he was voted out, and the irresolute liberal Obama could not stay the distance and tamp down victory.
In this myth, Libya — a success compared to Iraq on any measure — becomes a failure, and Gaddafi, a man we can do business with, who should have been left in power. Judicious abstention from Syria — aside from a minimal program of assistance to the Free Syrian Army — becomes the nadir of Obama’s alleged mismanagement, wherein the world no longer respects us, the skinny bookish kid couldn’t go up against Putin, etc, etc.
This discourse really is fascinating, because the desire to damn Obama is so pervasive. The myth of the surge — largely a bribery program that kept warlords quiet until the US departed, and would have been no more successful at achieving lasting stability had it been instituted for 50 years — was one thing, but the need for “respect” has been so great that many on the Western right develop a soft-fascist crush on Putin. He’s the strong man who gets things done, no-nonsense, etc, etc. In reality, of course, he’s a semi-comical figure, an Austin Powers villain (he doesn’t make the Bond category), under whose watch Russia’s economy has been hollowed out to such a degree as to undermine its military power and threaten internal conflict and further secession in the south. Putin’s failure is for exactly the reasons that dictatorships fail against open societies, as the right once knew: useful and true information cannot reach the centres of power, so the society cannot be accurately steered.
But the crucial appeal of Putin for Obama’s critics is, of course, masculinity. The whining demand for a “real man” to project power is so overwhelming that one wonders if it would not be simpler to soak the pages of Murdoch papers in AndroGel as a way of returning to good sense. The craving for masculinity is general across the right now, especially in the US, a product of broad cultural and social shifts, most prominently the departure of (masculine-identified) industry and manufacturing sectors and the further rise of (feminine-identified) communications and cultural sectors, and the wider cultural shifts attending from that.
In many of the right-wing commentators, it appears to be something of a personal psychological crisis — they have drawn their strength from power-projecting US figures for so long, that a cautious, non-doctrinaire leader creates something amounting to a collapse in identity for them. Obama is seen as actively depriving them of a last pleasure, in a world where China and India are rising unstoppably. But of course, there is no other course of action, except for fantasy ones: hence discussion of something like Syria can only be conducted under the amorphous notion of “respect”.
The bitter bread that Obama’s critics must take is that he is, if not a major President of the first-rank, the only significant one since Reagan — his significance residing in the way he has combined progressive and conservative conceptions of power and strategy, to achieve an economic recovery, a foundation for genuinely universal healthcare, a termination of large-scale foreign wars, the killing of bin Laden (whatever the hell that really was), a deal with Iran, normalisation with Cuba, and a Trans-Pacific Partnership that extends soft power into the whole of east Asia dominated by China. The inability of the right to recognise that, in many respects, Obama was one of them, but better at it, and adjust their thinking accordingly, is another measure of what an ineffectual and bitter cult they have become.