The Militarized Surrealism of Barack Obama
The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
It’s already gone, having barely outlasted its moment -- just long enough for the media to suggest that no one thought it added up to much.
Okay, it was a little more than the military wanted, something less than Joe Biden would have liked, not enough for the growing crew of anti-war congressional types, but way too much for John McCain, Lindsey Graham, & Co.
Tell me you weren’t holding your breath wondering whether the 33,000 surge troops he ordered into Afghanistan as 2009 ended would be removed in a 12-month, 14-month, or 18-month span. Tell me you weren’t gripped with anxiety about whether 3,000, 5,000, 10,000, or 15,000 American soldiers would come out this year (leaving either 95,000, 93,000, 88,000, or 83,000 behind)?
You weren’t? Well, if so, you were in good company.
Billed as the beginning of the end of the Afghan War, it should have been big and it couldn’t have been smaller. The patented Obama words were meant to soar, starting with a George W. Bush-style invocation of 9/11 and ending with the usual copious blessings upon this country and our military. But on the evidence, they couldn’t have fallen flatter. I doubt I was alone in thinking that it was like seeing Ronald Reagan on an unimaginably bad day in an ad captioned“It’s never going to be morning again in America.”
If you clicked Obama off that night or let the event slide instantly into your mental trash can, I don’t blame you. Still, the president’s Afghan remarks shouldn’t be sent down the memory hole quite so quickly.
For one thing, while the mainstream media's pundits and talking heads are always raring to discuss his policy remarks, the words that frame them are generally ignored -- and yet the discomfort of the moment can’t be separated from them. So start with this: whether by inclination, political calculation, or some mix of the two, our president has become a rhetorical idolator.
These days he can barely open his mouth without also bowing down before the U.S. military in ways that once would have struck Americans as embarrassing, if not incomprehensible. In addition, he regularly prostrates himself before this country’s special mission to the world and never ceases to emphasize that the United States is indeed an exception among nations. Finally, in a way once alien to American presidents, he invokes God’s blessing upon the military and the country as regularly as you brush your teeth.
Think of these as the triumvirate without which no Obama foreign-policy moment would be complete: greatest military, greatest nation, our God. And in this he follows directly, if awkwardly, in Bush's footsteps.
I wouldn’t claim that Americans had never had such thoughts before, only that presidents didn’t feel required to say them in a mantra-like way just about every time they appeared in public. Sometimes, of course, when you feel a compulsion to say the same things ad nauseam, you display weakness, not strength; you reveal the most fantastic of fantasy worlds, not a deeper reality.
The president’s recent Afghan remarks were, in this sense, par for the course. As he plugged his plan to bring America’s “long wars” to what he called “a responsible end,” he insisted that “[l]ike generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events.” He then painted this flattering word portrait of us:
“We’re a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens. We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination...and when our union is strong no hill is too steep, no horizon is beyond our reach...we are bound together by the creed that is written into our founding documents, and a conviction that the United States of America is a country that can achieve whatever it sets out to accomplish.”
I know, I know. You’re wondering whether you just mainlined into a Sarah Palin speech and your eyes are glazing over. But hang in there, because that’s just a start. For example, in an Obama speech of any sort, what America’s soldiers never lack is the extra adjective. They aren’t just soldiers, but “our extraordinary men and women in uniform.” They aren’t just Americans, but “patriotic Americans.” (Since when did an American president have to describe American soldiers as, of all things, “patriotic”?) And in case you missed the point that, in their extraordinariness and their outsized patriotism they are better than other Americans, he made sure to acknowledge them as the ones we “draw inspiration from.”
In a country that now “supports the troops” with bumper-sticker fervor but pays next to no attention to the wars they fight, perhaps Obama is simply striving to be the premier twenty-first-century American. Still, you have to wonder what such presidential fawning, omnipresent enough to be boilerplate, really represents. The strange thing is we hear this sort of thing all the time. And yet no one ever comments on it.
Oh, and let’s not forget that no significant White House moment ends these days without the president bestowing God’s blessing on the globe’s most extraordinary nation and its extraordinary fighters, or as he put it in his Afghan remarks: “May God bless our troops. And may God bless the United States of America.”
The day after he revealed his drawdown plan to the nation, the president traveled to Ft. Drum in New York State to thank soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division for their multiple deployments to Afghanistan. Before those extraordinary and patriotic Americans, he quite naturally doubled down.
Summoning another tic of this presidential moment (and of the Bush one before it), he told them that they were part of “the finest fighting force in the world.” Even that evidently seemed inadequate, so he upped the hyperbole. “I have no greater job,” he told them, “nothing gives me more honor than serving as your commander in chief. To all of you who are potentially going to be redeployed, just know that your commander in chief has your back.... God bless you, God bless the United States of America, climb to glory.”
As ever, all of this was overlooked. Nowhere did a single commentator wonder, for instance, whether an American president was really supposed to feel that being commander in chief offered greater “honor” than being president of a nation of citizens. In another age, such a statement would have registered as, at best, bizarre. These days, no one even blinks.
And yet who living in this riven, confused, semi-paralyzed country of ours truly believes that, in 2011, Americans can achieve whatever we set out to accomplish? Who thinks that, not having won a war in memory, the U.S. military is incontestably the finest fighting force now or ever (and on a “climb to glory” at that), or that this country is at present specially blessed by God, or that ours is a mission of selfless kindheartedness on planet Earth?
Obama’s remarks have no wings these days because they are ever more divorced from reality. Perhaps because this president in fawning mode is such an uncomfortable sight, and because Americans generally feel so ill-at-ease about their relationship to our wars, however, such remarks are neither attacked nor defended, discussed nor debated, but as if by some unspoken agreement simply ignored.
Here, in any case, is what they aren’t: effective rallying cries for a nation in need of unity. Here’s what they may be: strange, defensive artifacts of an imperial power in visible decline, part of what might be imagined as the Great American Unraveling. But hold that thought a moment. After all, the topic of the president’s remarks was Afghanistan.