Should we believe in Barack?

A provocative piece by one of my favourite writers, David Rieff:

Europe’s rapturous reception, first to Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy and then to his election, created a good deal of cognitive dissonance in a United States that had become resigned to European anti-Americanism. Had those surveys showing that young Europeans thought Washington to be a greater threat to world peace than Tehran and more responsible for global warming than Beijing been fabricated? And if not, how was it that even conservatives in Britain, France and Germany made no secret of their desire for Obama to defeat John McCain, while the European left seem to segue effortlessly from insisting that the Bush administration was at the root of practically everything that was wrong with the world to the most fantastical hopes for what an America with Barack Obama as its president could accomplish?

While such incoherence brings to mind the old LP title You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, the reality is that European anti-Americanism, particularly on the left, was always a bit of a sham: for every denunciation of George Bush, or rally for Mumia Abu Jamal, or excoriation of the US for issuing Israel a blank cheque, there was an equal measure of admiration for “good America” — “the America we love”, as a French news weekly once put it. To be sure, there was the “wicked America” of God, guns and fat people. But there was also the good America of Charles Bukowski, Noam Chomsky and Sean Penn (and, though mercifully only for the French, Jerry Lewis).

Why Europeans were so ready to assume that Obama was the paragon of that good America is probably more a psychological than a political question. Presumably, the fact that he is black (well, actually biracial) played a role, though it did nothing for Condoleezza Rice or, before her, Colin Powell. And in fairness, many Europeans, above all in immigrant communities, compared America’s willingness to elect a non-white president with their own lack of representation in the corridors of power in Westminster, Strasbourg and Berlin. The fact that mass non-white immigration to Europe is less than 75 years old, while blacks are an essential part of American history from its beginning, somehow got lost in the euphoria.

But it could not have done so had Europeans not been ready — even eager, perhaps, to the point of approaching Stockholm syndrome — to love America again. To be sure, Obama’s decision to in effect form a coalition government with the most hawkish elements of the Democratic establishment of the Clinton years as well as retain George Bush’s secretary of defence has provided something of a wake-up call — a piercing of the sentimental haze. But the question remains: how could Obamamania have taken such a deep hold in the first place? The US is not terra incognita to Europeans. So how could they imagine that a senator from Illinois, a place where you don’t get elected unless the business establishment supports you, was somehow a radical, redemptive figure?

The answer, or at least a very large part of the answer, is depressingly simple: because they needed to, and because, when all is said and done, European anti-Americanism is not only superficial in the extreme but just too much of an effort. What makes it so is not just that such sentimental hopes are the ultimate in vicarious cheap thrills, but that Obamamania allows Europeans to once again cede political responsibility to the United States. Yes, Europe needed to assert itself when George Bush the Bad was in the White House. But now that Barack Obama the Good is its tenant, Europeans can safely go back to sleep, geopolitically speaking.

From his Keynesian plinth, Gordon Brown can once more emphasise the special relationship between Britain and the US, while across the Channel, President Sarkozy is busy driving the last nails into the coffin of Gaullist exceptionalism and following Washington to Afghanistan and — who knows? — maybe to the skies over Tehran as well.

So much for the European project! And yet European Obamamania is not just idiocy, it is a political blunder. Not for the first time Europeans radically misread the United States. For, in fact, Obama’s real job is to restore the economic wellbeing of the United States. Of course he will make all the right multilateral noises. But there is little he has said, and even less in his background, let alone in that of the central players in his government, to offer the slightest basis for believing he will challenge the bedrock faith of all of official Washington, which is that the continuation of American hegemony (just please don’t call it an empire) is what is best for the world.

If that is the global order Europeans want, then Obama will indeed make a fine king. But if it is not, the focus should be directed less west across the Atlantic and more to matters closer to home. At the very least, as the old cliché has it, buyer beware. – By David Rieff, “The Times”, 15 February 2009.

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~ by wanderer and his shadow on February 15, 2009.

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