Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Obama's Tragic Equanimity

Steven Johnston

Barack Obama has delivered many superb speeches in his national political career. A gifted orator when inspired, Obama can stir and spur others. Obama’s address to the nation from the Oval Office on December 6, 2015, following the slaughter in San Bernardino, California, may not have moved many citizens, but for that very reason I would suggest it was perhaps the most important speech, even the best speech, he has made as president. As Republican presidential candidates compete with one another to corner the political market on mindless machismo in response to terrorism—with Ted Cruz the apparent winner by insisting that he would order the Defense Department to carpet-bomb the Islamic State into submission—Obama remains preternaturally cool, calm, and composed. When under fire, the world’s most powerful nation-state needs self-possession in those who govern. Ironically, this sensibility seems to frustrate even those well-disposed to Obama. Frank Bruni, sounding eerily similar to David Brooks slandering John Kerry in the 2004 election, “question[s] the intensity of Barack Obama’s focus on the Islamic State and the terrorist threat,” insisting that “we didn’t see quite the passion that this moment demands or quite the strength that a fearful country craves.” Bruni, alas, is too focused on dissecting the fearful bigotry of Donald Trump to notice, let alone admit, his own undue fear of the “barbarians” at the gate.


What was remarkable about Obama’s speech—and about his presidency as a whole—was its utter lack of ressentiment. This is a president with every reason to be furious. The Islamic State is a murderous force that could not have come into being if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had not indulged the neo-conservative fantasy of regime change in Iraq. The blood on their hands knows no apparent end or limit. But he has refused to single them out and hold them responsible for what they have wrought. Obama not only declined to prosecute them for their various crimes against the Constitution and humanity when he first took office. Despite their horrific legacy, he effectively assumes unqualified responsibility for the Islamic State and asks Congress to join him by authorizing the use of military force against it. If Congress really believes that the United States is at war with the Islamic State—which individual members can’t say often enough—then it’s time to prove it with something other than rants and raves.


Obama addressed the nation on December 6 and offered the American people a lesson in “tragedy.” This kind of political education is precisely what many Americans gripped by fear and panic do not want right now, but it may be exactly what is needed. It can provide necessary distance which, not to be confused with indifference, is critical so we don’t blindly make matters worse—not despite but because of actions we take. The tragedy to which Obama referred is not (just) that fourteen people “were brutally murdered.” The tragedy is that the United States, as I mentioned, created the circumstances that made it possible for the Islamic State to emerge and nothing we do can rewrite the past or lessen our culpability. The tragedy is that the Islamic State has “turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common” in the United States, which means that while we can defend ourselves (and can do more to defend ourselves), we will never be able to provide a foolproof guarantee that more terrorist attacks won’t take place. We have engendered that kind of hatred. The tragedy is that Obama must insist, whether it’s credible or not, that the United States will overcome terrorism, destroy the Islamic State, and ultimately prevail “by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.” Yet to prevail here means that the Islamic State cannot and will not be destroyed by American military power. To privilege a resort to arms is self-defeating and self-destructive: “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like [the Islamic State] want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. [Islamic State] fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq. But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.”


Unlike Jeb Bush, Obama knows that the Islamic State cannot “destroy Western civilization.” The tragedy is that the United States has mortal enemies that wish it deadly harm and there is nothing that we can do to eliminate existential enmity and the nihilistic violence it inspires. The world is not ontologically or politically predisposed in America’s favor. The tragedy is that the best we can do is contain and control the Islamic State, a necessarily modest policy that is already showing signs of success in Iraq, which also means that the Islamic State has already made plans and preparations for its strategic retreat to Libya—when the time comes. And should it be driven from Libya in a few years, under a different president, no doubt it will relocate elsewhere. The drive to eliminate evil actors altogether from the world cannot be redeemed. The tragedy is that successful terrorist attacks in the United States do not mean that the Islamic State is not being effectively countered. The tragedy is that it means that the United States is again experiencing the kind of violence that much of the rest of the world experiences routinely—and for which the United States is often responsible.


Barack Obama spent part of his national address suggesting “what we should not do.” He understands better than the Republicans running for his job that the United States must be careful not to betray its own values in the effort to protect the country from terrorist attack. Above all else, we must not become the enemy we oppose and fight, a problem the United States did not negotiate well during the country’s prior global struggle with the Communist Other in the Cold War. Unfortunately, it is a fate to which the United States has already succumbed—that is, long before the United States started thinking publicly about denying refugees that it helped create entry into the country. George Bush resorted to illegal war, rendition, secret gulags, and torture, all in the name of defending the so-called homeland. As I said, no one knows this descent better than Barack Obama, not only because he made a conscious choice not to prosecute the criminals that preceded him in the executive branch. Obama knows this dissolution well because, among other things, his own drone war has killed and maimed thousands of innocent civilians in a callous disregard for life and limb in the pursuit of national security and to protect our way of life. The tragedy is that we may not have become our enemy, but we are not as different from it as we would like to think either, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. The difference may or may not be small, but it is still significant and that is what Barack Obama tried to tell the nation on December 6, especially when he implored us to “make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional.” The tragedy is that it doesn’t look like very many were listening—or capable of hearing.
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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Paris’s Everyday Heroes


Steven Johnston
is the author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

In response to mass murder in Paris, Jeb Bush would launch a third family war in the Middle East. Donald Trump would register all Muslims in the United States and monitor mosques. Paul Ryan and Chris Christie would prevent any and all Syrian refugees from entering the country. Republicans gravitate to horrific moments such as these, especially when they happen elsewhere, because it enables them to articulate and legitimize their reactionary vision of the United States and concentrate politics on a terrain they think they can dominate: national security. Republicans are always prepared to talk tough and demand immediate, decisive action, but they have no real plan to defeat the Islamic State. 
In issuing calls for action, Republicans act like the good patriots they believe themselves to be. When their country is in trouble, when the nation is under attack, something must be done. It is time to act. Patriots can, do, and must act—where action is defined exclusively in security and military terms. They cannot do otherwise. What they usually want to do when faced with external danger is unleash the nation’s awesome military arsenal. They want to launch strikes. They want to punish enemies. They want to kill those who kill us. They are willing to kill—and have many die—to defend their country and its principles, burdens unduly assigned according to class. 
 Republican apparatchiks know that when they advocate for war neither they nor their families will be put in harm’s way. This testosterone-driven response presumes, among other things, that the world is susceptible to American intervention and control—of just the right kind. If danger persists, it is because those who exercise power lack the competence to wield it properly and effectively. America creates its own reality and the world falls into place. Predictably, this ontologically narcissistic neoconservative approach to international politics helped create the conditions that led to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. More of the same cannot eliminate it. To defeat the Islamic State means redressing those conditions, but the coalition of forces America and France would like to assemble to escalate the war on terrorism would see that approach as a threat to their power and interests (unlike perpetual war). 
Those who oppose a foreign policy rooted in hyper-aggressive state violence open themselves to criticism, ridicule, and worse. To question strong action when the country is threatened supposedly separates true patriots from the rest. It means that you are not prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, namely, life, to defend your country, its principles, and way of life. This is the political slander of choice during wartime. It is designed to silence and marginalize, even humiliate those who do not worship at the grave of military zeal.
Is there only one way to understand what it means to take decisive action as a citizen when the polity is under lethal threat? How might a democratic people with a tragic sensibility approach the political dilemmas foregrounded by the Paris slaughter? For one thing, they might take some cues from Parisians. On the Sunday following the attacks the people of Paris were back in public drinking wine at cafes, eating at restaurants, watching films, listening to music, walking in the streets. They did not ask what new steps, what enhanced security measures, the government might take to protect them as they did these things. They took it upon themselves to resume a way of life they prized not just despite but also because of the dangers involved. These citizens were in effect risking their lives for the sake of their country and what it represents at its best. They were enacting and defending their freedoms. They chose to take a different kind of risk, but it too was a defense of their way of life. In doing so, they converted everyday spaces into new nonviolent, nonpatriotic monuments and memorials—to life. 
 Citizens who refuse to sacrifice liberty for security do not take the politically easy way out, panic, and identify themselves with state power and its violent manifestations. It’s not just that the specter of terrorism is cultivated by constituencies that exploit it for political gain and ambition. It’s that freedom entails conditions one of which, in these times, is the responsibility to discipline what Hobbes called a continual fear of violent death. This kind of citizen action is every bit as valuable (and brave) as soldiers willing to don a uniform, strap on a gun, and head to front lines that, ironically, no longer actually exist. Military personnel have no monopoly on courage. If anything, unarmed civilians willing to affirm their way of life given the contingencies of wholesale slaughter might be more admirable. William James once wrote that it did not take any particular bravery for young men to rush into battle, even if they might well be killed, as long as there were plenty of other young men willing to do likewise accompanying them. James’s claim was not meant to denigrate military service, but to give it some much needed perspective and reduce its status and standing in democracy. 
 In the aftermath of a deadly attack, there is always temptation to demand that the state do more to protect its citizens. This is perhaps an understandable reaction, but it should not be the default position from which decisions flow. There seems to be a sense that the French state failed in its fundamental duty to guarantee the lives of its people. Even if the French state did fail, the first question to ask is not what greater powers can be given to the government’s intelligence and security services. The focus of inquiry should be to determine whether or not the state utilized the powers it already possessed to their fullest extent. Given what is known, for example, about inter-agency cooperation in every government, the answer is likely to be no. Aggrandizing government power and militarizing the state do not simply translate into greater security. 
Activists at Paris Climate Negotiations Being Assaulted by French Police.
 More importantly, it’s important to question the assumption that the French intelligence services missed something and that they failed to detect a conspiracy before it unfolded. No state can surveil a population so that it is rendered utterly transparent. Such powers do not exist and they should not be sought. If gun-toting fanatics, whether foreign or homegrown, are determined to murder large numbers of citizens in a democracy, they will succeed sooner or later, at least on occasion. It takes little imagination or thought to execute people in crowded public spaces. Killers can take advantage of a democracy’s openness to inflict terrible carnage. This is a fact of democratic life, something the Marco Rubios of the world do not understand and cannot face. Defeating terror and terrorism requires acknowledging that it cannot always be prevented, which makes it more likely that you will not destroy yourself as you engage your enemies. 

The state is more than willing to “ask” its citizens to assume the dangers inherent in military service. It will honor and salute soldiers who die for the state. It will build monuments and memorials, write songs, and conduct rites for them. Why, then, isn’t the state willing to ask citizens to accept that there are risks inherent in the daily living of a democratic life? Perhaps because it does not feel like we would be doing anything, or that drinking a glass of wine at a café does not amount to a heroic act. As Parisians have taught us, nothing could be further from the truth. Contrary to legend, the military does not make the democratic freedoms we enjoy possible. The people themselves do.
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