Obama Reality Check

Experience, and particularly Barack Obama’s purported lack thereof, had been a rhetorical hot button throughout this suspenseful electoral race. I personally considered it a powerful argument in favor of John McCain not because I believe experience particularly hones political skill or renders a candidate more fit to govern, but because it provides the electorate with a reasonable estimate of what kind of shortcomings (and of what magnitude) to expect from that candidate. Voters could then assess this empirically observed predisposition for disaster and rationally decide whether they can live with it for the next four years.

The American electorate must not be nearly as risk averse as I am since it just gave Barack ‘Black-Box’ Obama a resounding vote of confidence. He managed to build a vast but unstable coalition around a deliberately vague platform of ‘all-things-to-all-people’ platitudes designed to be meaningful only in the mind’s eye of the uncritical beholder. Not only are his idealistic (read: loony leftist) supporters in for a rude awakening once Obama fails to fulfill their fantasies, but his staunchest critics too may be disappointed when their apocalyptic predictions are not fulfilled: Obama’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

The president elect has not said or done anything earth-shattering since delivering his victory speech, but so far the signals from his transitional team should be encouraging to anyone hoping for a centrist or at least non-ideologically leftist disposition from the new administration. Obama has already hinted at leaving the Bush tax cuts alone, is keeping Bush’s Secretary of Defense, has dropped his windfall profits tax proposal, and has aggregated an economic team which even Karl Rove considers respectable. While the leftist fringes are understandably experiencing buyer’s remorse, some seedy corners of the Right are swarming with hyper paranoid delusions fueled by the urge to preemptively demonize Obama before he has even taken office, let alone implemented any concrete executive orders.

Conspiratorial rumors about Obama’s birth certificate and of him being a Muslim or the son of a communist spy are not just bizarre and ridiculous in themselves, but they signal a failure at constructive political introspection from the Right. Republicans better address their shortcoming and work at redefining their message going forward. Immediately after the election I was concerned whether most voters were so emotionally invested in Obama’s success that they would airbrush his upcoming debacles. Now that the fringes of the Right are starting to agitate so soon after the election, my biggest worry is that some of Obama’s opponents may be so emotionally invested in hatred of their political rival as to lose the ability (and credibility) for mature political debate.

Iraq at Crossroads

Violence in Iraq has progressively declined throughout last summer and is now at record-low levels. Positive internal developments, while conveniently neglected until very recently (read: before the election), have lately flooded the media scene. What are we to make of Iraq today? Two of the most trustworthy independent reporters following the evolving situation on the ground –Michael Yon and Michael Totten– are offering conflicting assessments based on their latest experiences in Baghdad.

Yon is as optimistic as to declare the war won. He perceives successes largely from a military perspective and emphasizes the maturation of Iraq’s security forces under American training with the resulting gains in stability. He acknowledges that much remains to be done but considers the attained achievements to be significant and sustainable.

Totten looks beyond the success of U.S. military efforts and points out the rampant dysfunctionality plaguing Iraq’s social, political, and infrastructural landscape. He sees ubiquitous corruption, political instability, and basic infrastructural deficiencies as potentially fatally corrosive to Iraq’s future as an independent country once its statehood is no longer subsidized by direct U.S. intervention.

We can reasonably hope the insurgency is waning permanently and uncontrolled violence doesn’t manifest after an eventual American pullout. Yet, Iraq’s challenges extend beyond the scope of basic stability, infrastructural proficiency, or even manageable corruption levels. The legislative and institutional flaws of the new Iraqi state apparatus, once sympathetically tolerated in the context of extreme conditions afflicting the country, might emerge to actually be structural, degenerative, and inherent in the political blueprint Western allies devised for Iraq immediately after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. After the overhaul of his dictatorial apparatus, the fresh opportunity to politically redefine Iraq has been largely squandered. America felt exceedingly vulnerable to seething accusations of “Imperialist intentions” regarding its involvement in Iraq. Rushing to reaffirm its “non-imperialist” international standing, the U.S. government prematurely handed over political and administrative control to a corrupt and backward caste of Iraqi leaders. Immediately achieving the “consent of the governed” became such a paramount goal that it trumped any concerns over the long-term political viability of these hastily erected institutions.

Nation building initiatives were successful in West Germany and Japan after WW2 because the U.S. was sufficiently confident in the universal virtues of its government’s founding principles to impose them on these defeated countries even if they seemed to cut against the nations’ cultural grain. A cursory glance at the new Iraqi constitution reveals an astounding lack of ideological assertiveness on behalf of the Coalition Provisional Authority: Islam is promoted as the official religion and primary source for legislation, an unspecified notion of democracy comes second in the hierarchy of political principles, while the respectability of individual rights and freedoms is paid much mitigated lip service last. If it remains unaddressed, this explosive triangulation of conflicting governing principles has the potential to generate power vacuums and internal fractures within Iraq’s frail institutions. Unless the U.S. assertively guides Iraq’s evolution toward a sustainable Western model, all the impressive gains achieved so far could be not only evanescent but worse: never worth the blood of coalition troops or the burdening of U.S. taxpayers in the first place, unless the mission had been to create only a slightly less despotic dictatorship in the Middle East.