11.30.09

Bush Lite

Obama’s speech at West Point tonight will be a masterpiece of manipulation. Lee Siegel on how this president has hoodwinked the nation.

Well, what a coincidence. Two days before Obama is set to give a speech at West Point, in which he is expected to announce at least 30,000 more troops for Afghanistan, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report is released that blames an insufficient number of troops for Osama bin Laden’s escape from American forces in 2001. You could be forgiven for thinking that the chairman of the committee, Sen. John Kerry, is serving his commander in chief's interests.

No, Obama is not Bush. More and more, he seems like a continuation of Bush by other means.

The report implies that it was the lack of American soldiers under the Bush administration that was responsible for, in the report’s words, “laying the foundation for today’s protracted Afghan insurgency and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan.” That was Bush’s policy, and since we all know Bush was evil, the opposite policy must be good. The aggressiveness that we associate with Bush is actually, in Obama’s hands, the righteous corrective to Bush’s aggressiveness.

Richard Wolffe: No Wriggle Room for Obama

Meghan McCain: My Anger at Obama
Once again, Obama is using Bush's counter-example as a lever to sway the public. Yet to an even greater extent than his predecessor, Obama is proving himself an expert manipulator of public opinion, capitalizing on the McChrystal and then the Eikenberry leaks to give the impression of anguished, many-sided deliberations over whether to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. The good cop/bad cop routine with Joe Biden, who dutifully argued against more troops, was breathtakingly cynical.

Peter Beinart: Stop Talking About Leaving Like Bush, Obama wants to wage an escalating war without worrying about how to pay for it—though no doubt, on Tuesday, we will be subjected to the same ludicrous vows not to increase the deficit. And it is almost uncanny to hear, this time from the liberal Obama, the same bloodcurdling rhetoric about nation-building and creating democratic institutions, and so on, that led us into implacably undemocratic Iraq. Warlord-run Afghanistan is nothing like Iraq. It is more like Somalia. Remember Somalia?

You want to rub your eyes in disbelief. Six years since the distastrous invasion of Iraq, six years of media deconstructing, unmasking, eviscerating, ironizing the Bush regime’s justification of that foolish war, six years of the Daily Show—six years later, and the weasel-ish, evasive, dishonest patter remains the same.

The media still use the word “surge,” which brings to mind heartening images of a positive rise in electric power, when the truth is that what the administration calls a “surge” is just another name for “reinforcements,” which brings to mind less heartening images of a losing battle. Indeed, just as Obama’s people speak of providing “exit ramps” for our deepening entanglement in Afghanistan—as if it were all a rational question of simple engineering; of road-building—the media have totally bought into talking about the war as if it were all a rational question of simple electrical contracting, what with an “insurgency” here, and a “surge” there, and a “counterinsurgency” everywhere. But war is notoriously foggy. It is impervious to sudden illumination, let alone to the impressive timetables of armchair strategists who think they can control the future with a "plan."

Obama will lead us deeper into yet another pointless conflict, in yet another unremittingly hostile and unassimilable place, but we will be asked to give him time. For the political writer Jacob Weisberg, opining in Slate, one of Obama’s great accomplishments this past year has actually been that “Next week, after a much-disparaged period of review, he will announce a new strategy in Afghanistan.” Winston Churchill, move over. But then, Weisberg praises Obama for the following presidential triumphs: “preventing a depression, remaking America's global image, and winning universal health insurance.” Never mind that unemployment is the highest it’s been in decades, and going even higher, and that any Democratic president with a Democratic majority in Congress would have passed a similar stimulus package to Obama's, and probably a larger one. As for remaking America’s global image—who cares? Anyway, images are made with actions, not words.

And winning universal health insurance? Under the current legislation, health care will be available to a “small slice” more of Americans, as The New York Times recently put it. The rest of us will have to suffer through soaring premiums, as the insurance companies exploit the restructuring. The lucky—and desperate—few who enroll in a weakened public plan will have to endure cost-saving cuts in preventive care, as Obama’s “best practices” panels prescribe fewer screenings and the like.

But Obama is not Bush, we are told, and the people who hate him are dreadful, and the opposition is fierce, and, well, he’s the only game in town, etc, etc. And he’s on Our Side.

No, Obama is not Bush. More and more, he seems like a continuation of Bush by other means. If anything, he is even more convinced than his divinely guided predecessor that he holds the truth in his hands. Unlike Bush, however, Obama seems to withdraw into a passive funk when he cannot convince his fellow Americans that his truth is also theirs.

At the same time, he seems unsure of his bona fides as commander in chief. He seems to have chosen West Point as the backdrop for his speech in order to demonstrate his devotion to the military side of patriotism. That might speak to the military, but it won't be of much reassurance to us civilians. Bush was also insecure about his warrior's image.

Fasten your seatbelts, everybody. Starting tomorrow night, President George W. Obama and his generals will be building an exit ramp to nowhere. The war will eat up economic relief and recovery, health-care reform, and just about every other initiative Obama was elected to begin and bring to fruition—just as Johnson's attempt to build the Great Society and wage war in Vietnam at the same time eventually crushed the economy and gave us nearly 25 years of almost continuous Republican rule.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.