I hope Arab readers of former president Barack Obama’s recently published memoirs were not too hasty to jump ahead to his sections on the Middle East and events of the Arab Spring. The subject is extremely important, of course, and we should continue to study it through the memoirs of those of us who took part, others who interacted with the developments one way or another, as well as those who are currently experiencing the results of the hatreds, hostilities and incalculable human and material losses.
However, to skip ahead is to miss the train of thought of the author who became a president of the US with its immense political, economic and military capacities and, above all, the intellectual capacities that underly all that. The thinking offers an important key to the US. If, when used as a lens to view the world and its problems, it jars with other perspectives abroad, this is less a manifestation of insularism than of radical differences in the phases of the historical and cultural evolutionary processes of nations.
Americans, in general, sometimes see themselves as “the world”. The World Boxing Championship is actually a thoroughly American event. An astute follower of American thought will get the impression that Americans can sometimes fall into one of two categories: the majority who think the US is huge because it has given the whole world so much, and the remaining minority who think that the US is very small in a world where so much history and civilisation has gone before it.
Anyone who has taught international relations in US universities will have seen that students are introduced to two basic schools of thought which have shaped their country’s outlooks towards the policies and behaviours of other countries. One is the idealist school which takes as its basis the founding principles of the American republic, which are seen as the secret to making the rest of the world a better and more prosperous place.
The other is the realist school which takes as its premise that there is an inherent evil in human societies and that power and authority are necessary to tame and lure it into submission so that humankind can thrive and prosper. The two schools converge on a kind of evangelic vision of a new and brighter world on the horizon, and Americans have a hard time understanding why other parts of the world do not follow the model they set given its prospects for freedom, goodness and justice. From this attitude stems advocacy of the use of force to bring regime change or, less visibly, the use of diverse means to mobilise political movements in other countries in order to open their eyes to American wisdom.
From the opening pages of Obama’s memoirs, it is obvious that he falls squarely into the idealist school, but without acknowledging a connection to the other school. The point is obvious. He wants to make a clear juxtaposition between the Obama and Trump eras. But then, when he gets into the nuts and bolts of political affairs, he overlooks a fact he knows very well, which is that such matters are never so simple.
Whatever the issues at hand are, they are enveloped in such a vast and complex array of diverse factors and variables they cannot be reduced to the equation, favoured by the idealist school, that ignorance and lack of sufficient information is the culprit if issues cannot be resolved properly and, therefore, with some knowledge and rational explanations, people will see the light.
As important as our region is in the American scheme of things, what concerns us here is Obama’s approach to the US political arena which, in his view, is built on a foundation of liberal democratic rules and principles accepted by both the Democratic and Republican parties, making it possible for them to work together across the aisle, especially in order to address major economic issues, such as the 2008 financial crisis, which was one of the reasons why Obama swept the presidential polls that year.
On top of the failure to win the two wars he started (in Afghanistan and Iraq), George Bush Jr had to leave the White House after having led the US into the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. As for how this happened, neither Obama or other US liberals undertook a serious study of what might prevent liberal thought from making such gross errors.
On the war in Iraq, Obama had not supported it but saw it as a distraction from the main war in Afghanistan where the 11 September attacks were masterminded. That was the war that needed to be focused on first. But, more important, for our purposes here, was the Recovery Act that Obama felt was necessary in order to boost the economy after the 2007 crash. The stimulus bill easily passed the House of Representatives where the Democrats held the majority. But the Senate was another question. The Democrats needed to win over four Republicans in order for the bill to pass and save the US and the world. That process exposed the weakness in democratic liberalism as it attempted to rise to the task of a major crisis.
The fact is, a large portion of the American people resented the election of a Black man as president and were bent on doing everything they could to bring him down. Obama, in his memoirs, acknowledges that his problem was not so much with Republican senators as it was with a situation that forced those senators to constantly play to the gallery of their constituencies in their home states. Because they always had the next Senate election in mind, they could not afford to come across as weak and unable to stand up to a president their constituencies did not like, regardless of voter sentiments in other states.
Local and regional news media fuelled this phenomenon and the social media revolution fanned the flames with torrents of intolerance and hate speech, generating a climate of us versus them, of the righteous and rightful true Americans versus foreigners, delinquents and un-Americans. Ultimately, Obama failed to produce a liberal solution to the impasse. He basically had to bribe four Republican senators by including certain privileges for their states in the stimulus package even though these concessions may have had little to do with stimulating those states’ economies.
This was a far cry from the liberal ideal of a consensual democratic process in which moderates and rational-minded folk from both the right and the left make the necessary compromises for the sake of the greater good in times of crisis and even in times of happiness and prosperity. The US had succumbed to the politics of bribery and arm-twisting at a time when it was being torn apart by divisions over existential issues.
If this was the situation in the US, which Trump fomented into a new war between those for and against globalisation as he widened the gulfs between Blacks and Whites and Republicans and Democrats, what might happen when democracy comes to countries that are teeming with sectarian, ethnic and religious divisions? Can these countries navigate a safe route to national development projects that serve all their peoples? The result of Obama’s enlightenment project for the Middle East was a huge catastrophe which he could see unfold in the US itself.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly