Monday, December 21, 2009

So was Zawahiri right? Is Barack Obama a house negro?

A little more than a year ago, Al Qaeda's Ayman Zawahiri called Barack Obama a house negro, using Malcolm X's term and contrasting Obama with Malcolm X. At the time, Obama did not have a record and had spoken and written fairly little about US foreign policy or the Middle East. Many of the few expressions of thought on those issues had been clearly authored to advance specific political agendas. Today we have a record that we can evaluate. I'd like to take a look at how Barack Obama has done his first year.

First, I have to acknowledge that Barack Obama worked very hard for a long time to become President of the United States, for almost all of that time, there was no guarantee or even reasonable expectation that his efforts would yield the results they have. At this time in December 2007, it was far more likely that Barack Obama would end up as the butt of jokes than as President of the United States.

By winning alone, Barack Obama gave the world a symbol of overcoming racism. I don't want to over- or underemphasize the importance of that symbol. It is not a tangible benefit. It will not feed anyone who is hungry, but it is not nothing at all. It will inspire people to continue working in the belief that they can succeed when faced with opposition, which is a good thing. So in earning, and he did earn, the Presidency of the United States, Obama deserves some deference. Nobody can claim that Barack Obama is without strength or selflessness.

In early 2008, I actually was very confident that Barack Obama could not become President based on his statement that he would convene a conference and discuss terrorism with Middle Eastern leaders. A conference like that would insert anti-Zionist arguments into the international and US dialogues with an authority those arguments have not gotten until now. Such a conference would weaken the positions of US puppets such as Mubarak and the rulers of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. I would have loved to have seen a US president elected who would do such a thing.

I want to be clear that Obama, Mubarak or any supporter of Zionism, in front of a non-Jewish Middle Eastern audience, would be helpless in a debate or discussion where each side addresses the other's points before Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah or nearly any opponent of Zionism. Like giving Nelson Mandela an international podium before a non-white African audience to debate apartheid against Pieter Botha, the result would just be embarrassing. Barack Obama solved that problem by breaking his pledge to hold a conference and his later statements about the Middle East have always been effectively supportive of Zionism.

Now that Barack Obama is president, the first place that comes to mind to review his record is Gaza. There Obama's policy has been unconscionable. Just horrible. It is normal American policy - Bill Clinton's Ambassador to the UN and Secretary of State was famously asked about the 500,000 Iraqi children who died in sanctions, and she said it's worth it - but normal American policy on this issue is grotesque. The support, or quiet acquiescence Obama gives Israel for its policy of keeping Gaza on what Israel calculates to be the edge of starvation - "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger" - is typically American and absolutely disgusting. Looking only at Gaza, one would conclude that Barack Obama is not a human being. The rationale, that Gazans voted for Hamas which does not accept conditions including accepting Israel as a Jewish state, only makes Obama's position worse.

Barack Obama's policy on Gaza, even though it is the same as Clinton's would have been, the same as Bush's was, is something nobody would expect from a man who identifies as African-American, a man who has Muslims that he considers his family. More can be said about Barack Obama and Gaza. Maybe I will come back to this subject later, but on the subject of Gaza it is very hard to argue that Zawahiri's assessment of Obama was not correct.

On Egypt, and Egypt is very similar to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the string of pro-US puppet dictatorships throughout the region, Obama's policy has been typically American, hypocritical and contrary to supposed US ideals, but not as directly monstrous as his Gaza policy. Responding to a question about Egypt's classification as an authoritarian dictatorship, Obama explicitly says that he supports Egypt's government because its dictator "has sustained peace with Israel which is a very difficult thing to do in that region". I was surprised that he stated that openly. Most US politicians do not, and force critics to rely on deductive arguments. What Obama's position on pro-Israel dictatorship implies about the worth of the five million Jewish people of Israel who have the luxury of a Jewish majority state in relation to the worth of the hundreds of millions of non-Jews in the region for whom he is willing to accept dictatorship as long as the dictators are pro-Israel can only be described as racist.

Acquiesence to, and support of racism against a group with which one identifies is the classical African-American definition of "Uncle Tom", and the illustrative concept introduced by Malcolm X of "house negro". Obama has Muslims in his family. It would be OK for them to live under dictatorships as long as those dictators sustain peace with Israel? And how has Obama not looked at why maintaining peace with Israel would be "very difficult to do in that region". Another US puppet dictator, Congo/Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko maintained peace with South Africa, which was very difficult to do in his region. At best Obama is naively being guided by people with more entrenched agendas than his. Being susceptible to manipulation that leads to policies detrimental to a group he identifies with to the benefit of another group, is a defining characteristic of what Zawahiri describes as "house negros".

In Lebanon, the United States is closer to accepting democracy under Obama than it was under Bush, but not vastly so. Hezbollah's supporters and aligned candidates won more votes than their relatively pro-US opponents in the March 14 movement. Because of a non-proportional allocation of seats, March 14 got more seats in parliament than Hezbollah's supporters. In this context, Hezbollah's reasonable demand that it have a veto over major policy was eventually met. Though the US opposed Hezbollah, US opposition was not as vigorous or unyielding than it may have been under a worse US president. I may be wrong, there is nothing direct that I can point to, but I have a feeling Obama's Lebanon policy is an improvement over Bush's and I do not find the US' Lebanon policy to be as anti-Muslim as some of his worse policies.

In Iraq, Obama's policies have not been particularly bad. Iraq's leadership used the fact that Obama would be the next US President to extract more concessions from the Bush administration on the completeness of the US exit from their country than they would have gotten had Obama not been in place to take over. Since coming to office, Obama has followed fairly faithfully the agreement reached by Bush and the Iraqis under the pressure that Obama would take control shortly. Obama says he would not have invaded Iraq in Bush's position in 2002 and 2003. I don't know if that means he would have left the sanctions in place or if he would find a way to resolve his differences with Hussein for the sake of the people of Iraq. Obama's behavior where he has faced choices in the Middle East do not inspire much confidence that is Iraq policy would be any better than Clinton/Albright's, but they were better than Bush.

Iran. I say again and again that I do not have a good read on what is going in with US policy in Iran. Bush had stopped the race between Iran and the US of increasing sanctions for increasing rate of enrichment. He had also brought about cooperation between the US and Iran in Iraq, and must have introduced talks on some level about Iran's nuclear program because the 2007 NIE reflected a conscious decision to redefine terms in a way that would allow a report that Iran had stopped its weapons program.

What Bush never did was accept what was becoming obvious by the end of his term, and admit publicly that the US, despite its wishes, will not be able to prevent Iran from developing the capability to create a nuclear weapon in what Iran considers an emergency. There is a lot of organized pressure on the US president to refrain, on Israel's behalf, from making this concession to reality. The US making this concession would make life a lot easier for a lot of Iranians and many Americans, especially soldiers and participants in the US war efforts in the region. Making this concession would require a degree of courage and honesty that Barack Obama has never shown in the face of entrenched institutional opposition.

Bush, late in his second term, prevented US/Iran relations from spiraling out of control by instituting a cold peace marked by cooperation in Iraq and a downward scaling of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Obama in 2010 will either renew or undo Bush's policy there, and from the signs available it is difficult to determine which decision he will take. In the battle between the generals and the pro-Israel lobby, the generals were markedly opposed to escalating hostility with Iran in Bush's late administration. We are not getting the same signals sent with the same urgency now, but Obama is a different president and these are different times. It could likely be that Obama does not inspire the near panic that Bush/Cheney inspired, so generals feel they can lobby Obama from behind closed doors.

A safe prediction is that Obama is going to do what the generals tell him to do. The 30,000 troops going to Afghanistan both signifies that Obama listens to the generals even against other voices in his administration and indicates that the US takes some project in Afghanistan seriously. Given Iran's position to thwart any US project in Afghanistan, that also leans toward the generals advising Obama not to escalate hostilities. While the generals would prefer Iran not be nuclear capable, I really doubt they calculate that the chance hostilities would deter that outcome are worth the toll hostilities would exact on US forces in the region.

I'll stop here on Iran. But Obama clearly would not, unless there was countering institutional pressure from the generals, stand up to the interests calling for the people of Iran to be subjected to sanctions even as harsh as the ones that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children in order to maintain Israel's regional nuclear monopoly. On the subject of Iran, the generals may save Obama from deserving the charge of one of the greatest house negros in history, or they may not. Obama is not constitutionally built to save himself.

So was Zawahiri right, is Obama a house negro? Basically yes. The United States would not have elected him president if he was not. But within the contraints of his own personality, and the constraints imposed on him by institutional forces in Washington DC and given his own limited thought on regional issues, we can understand why he would be an Uncle Tom, and appreciate that despite that, he has done some good where he's felt able.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've a fair amount of African-American friends and acquaintances. When talking with them about Obama and ME policy, they are full of excuses. One even went so far as to tell me all Obama had was his good looks and smile, compared to the real power behind a H. Clinton. This same African-American then went on to tell me Islam was fundamentally evil (this was right after the Ft. Hood incident). Well, it didn't take much to put him in his place, for which he was left staring at the ground in shame.

I voted for Obama. I had high hopes. Nearly all of them have been dashed. I just don't think he has any real depth of character. And I don't even think he fits either the "house negro" or "field negro" distinctions. Like some African-Americans charged early in his political career, the man is not truly an African-American. To use 70's street jargon, he hasn't got "soul".