By Janet Daley US politics Last updated: August 21st, 2014
Barack Obama is discovering – rather belatedly – precisely what is involved in being president of the United States. How he has managed to avoid this for his first term and a half in office is a historical peculiarity. But we are where we are. He now has a full-blown, world-threatening foreign crisis in which the decisions that he makes from one minute to the next might result in immediate mass slaughter, a prolonged war or a gradual de-escalation of the conflict – or possibly all three in progressive stages. At the same moment, bizarrely, he is facing a domestic upheaval of staggering proportions: the return of riots and racially based violence in the urban streets of a kind which his very election as president was supposed to have made a thing of the past.
Mr Obama has roughly 20 minutes in which to decide whether the hideous slaughter of an American journalist being broadcast to the world can possibly be regarded as anything but a fatal provocation. His “limited air strikes” with the permanent get-out-quick clause will no longer be plausible: this has gone beyond offering tactical assistance to beleaguered victims. There is now a triumphalist challenge to the United States itself: come and get us if you dare. And if the Obama White House does not dare, then the West will be seen to have folded in the most ignominious possible way. It is not just America’s influence that is at stake but that of the entire democratic world.
It was not supposed to have come to this. Obama was going to be the anti-Bush: the president who would pull America back from liberal interventionism with all its supposed arrogance. This was the key message of his foreign policy from the start. The US was finished with global policing. It would turn inwards now and devote itself to developing the democratic socialist welfare programmes (such as Obamacare) which most other developed countries had evolved long before: swords into ploughshares, and all that. The world would have to go away and take care of itself. But when you are the one remaining superpower on the earth, the world does not go away. The US still embodies, more than any other nation state, the values which Isis pits itself against. Isolationism is not an option.
Nor is a unilateral decision to remain a bystander who offers occasional relief to the suffering but remains aloof from any prolonged engagement. Obama may have thought he could create an era of peace and progress at home through America’s new doctrine of non-intervention. What he succeeded in doing was creating a vacuum which every rogue state and lunatic fantasist, from Russia to the would-be Islamic State, would rush to occupy. Explaining this dilemma to a population which (presumably) believed his electoral pitch, will take all the rhetorical skills of which he is capable. Once again, Americans will find themselves with troops in Iraq: there will be some very fancy verbal foot work for a while trying to maintain a plausible distinction between “boots on the ground” and the feet of very real fighting men who are confronting armed nihilists far more reckless than Saddam’s army. But one helicopter shot down, or one “surveillance mission” captured will bring the full-on state of renewed war that was never supposed to happen again. What on earth will the president say to the people then?
And then there is Ferguson Missouri. The violence in the streets there is now widening in concentric circles to encompass larger cities like St Louis and the contagion is spreading further. Every rabble-rousing racial orator in the country is heading for the action and there is little sign of an immediate solution. The election of a black president was supposed to have marked the official end of America’s shameful racial history. But the shooting of a young black man by a white policeman in a town where the overwhelming majority of the population is black and the overwhelming majority of the police are white, ignited the old hatreds just as readily as if the first family were not black themselves. Their colour became an instant irrelevance. In fact, Obama’s response to the events in Missouri has been peculiarly lacklustre. Perhaps he is sensitive to the criticism he received when he intervened rather too personally in the last case of this kind: when a black youth, Trayvon Martin, was killed by a (civilian) neighbourhood watch guard, the President observed that if he had had a son, he would have “looked like Trayvon”. In other words, this might have been my boy who had been gunned down, so I am emotionally involved in a way that I would not be otherwise. Probably not a wise thing for a post-racial president to say.
Or maybe there is something more subtle at work here. For all his early experience as a community organiser in the black neighbourhoods of Chicago, Mr Obama does not share in the American black experience. He is not descended from slaves. He spent much of his childhood outside of the US and he was raised by a white grandmother. He seems, in fact, to have difficulty hitting the right note in addressing the anger and alienation of disadvantaged black youth. His voice is not that of a Jesse Jackson or a Martin Luther King who had really lived the life they spoke of, but of the privileged mixed-race cosmopolitan man that he is: the urbane law professor whose father happened to be Kenyan but who has known little hardship in his own life.
So what is the Obama presidency about now? What is it for? What is left of “hope and change”?