Mainstream, VOL LV No 6 New Delhi January 28, 2017
How Barack Obama becomes a Tragic Hero of Our Times
Tuesday 31 January 2017, by
In his famous existentialist essay, “The Tragic Sense of Life”, the Spanish philosopher, novelist, poet and academic, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), describes people’s concern with their legacy as a “tremendous struggle to singularise ourselves, to survive in some way in the memory of others and of posterity. It is this struggle...that gives tone, colour, and character to our society.” The desire to bequeath a lasting legacy is a trait of most politicians. But a theoretical construct of what constitutes legacy is never quite satisfactorily arrived at.
Is legacy the stuff of an abstract concept or a concrete object? There are no easy answers. The point is, there are ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ legacies and it is difficult to make preferences. Soft legacy bequeaths abstract outcome and principles that cannot be quantified or necessarily derived out of empirical data. It is about empathy, shared experiences and collective memory. Hard legacies, on the contrary, are visible in the nature of enduring policies or institutions or events or even pronouncements on historic occasions.
The law of nature is grossly unfair. It’s not the Great Society that today defines Lyndon Johnson’s legacy but the Vietnam War, which almost makes him a tragic figure in American political history. Legacies, for sure, will be severely contested. Jimmy Carter, in the ultimate analysis, is not all about the Iran hostage crisis debacle, but he remains entrapped in that legacy.
Some legacies are hard won, some come inevitably. Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China (despite the Vietnam War and the accusations of being ‘soft on communism’) falls in the first category. But, to my mind, Ronald Reagan’s evocative call, “Tear down this (Berlin) Wall”, on June 12, 1987 gives him a legacy that he timed perfectly, because the Cold War had already begun receding by then with the dramatic summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986 having taken place with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Barack Obama was singularly fortunate. He was born as statesman with a silver spoon in his mouth, a ‘soft’ legacy even before his presidency really got under way—the first Black American President riding to the White House on the wings of an extraordinary grassroots campaign and, to boot it, blessed with a Nobel within 10 months thereafter for reasons that still remain obscure.
Obama didn’t earn this legacy but the legacy nonetheless framed his presidency. It followed him like a shadow wherever he went, whatever he did through the next eight year period, and made an indelible impression in the subconscious mind of those who observed him. Which in turn makes it extremely difficult today to be unsentimental about him.
Then, there was the poignant context.
Obama appeared like a spring flower on America’s wintry landscape desperately in need of new hope after the devastating eight-year rule of George W. Bush. Open-ended wars abroad, curbs on civil liberties at home, the vague stirrings in the air of the impending great financial crisis of 2008—Obama’s soaring rhetoric promising ‘change’ mesmerised the American nation and the people. ‘Yes, we can do it,’ he promised and they believed.
Paradoxically, this becomes exactly the point where Obama becomes accountable today when the content of his legacy is debated in contemporary discussions and its endurance carefully weighed. Obama said, ‘We did it’, in his last speech as President in Chicago a week ago. Indeed, ‘Did we’?
The heart of the matter is that howsoever controversial it may sound at the moment, Donald Trump’s election as his successor also becomes Obama’s political legacy insofar as it is the outcome of his abysmal failure to take note and do something about the ‘losers’ in the globalisation. The balance-sheet shows Obama’s inexplicable ‘tilt’ toward serving corporate interests right from the moment he entered the Oval Office and began working on the bailout. Remember the manifesto Demands for Congress by the Occupy Wall Street protestors in 2011?
A Washington Times columnist at that time derided them as ‘Marxist demands’ and went on to tempt Fate, asking defiantly, ‘The real question here is if these demands are not met, then what?’ We now have the answer—Donald Trump. (See my blog ‘Obama contributed to Donald Trump’s triumph’.)
The Occupy Wall Street protests ought to have been Obama’s wake-up call, bang in the middle of his eight-year term as President. As a cerebral mind and an intellectual with a sense of history, he should have understood that American society was heading for a meltdown. But instead, like a lotus-eater, he continued nonchalantly, wallowing in America’s ‘exceptiona-lism’.
Somehow it becomes difficult to shake off the feeling that Obama did not want all that unpleasantness that would have inevitably ensued if he were to pull himself away from the deep embrace by the American establishment and picked up the threads of his grassroots politics where he left them when he became President. In sum, he allowed himself to be co-opted by the establishment and apparently took pleasure in it.
This had tragic consequences in the foreign policies Obama pursued as well. Under his watch, the US dropped 26,000 bombs in seven countries last year alone; Obama turns out to be more interventionist than his predecessor. His drone war killed hundreds of civilians, including children—and they were on his presidential order with no legal sanctity under America’s canons or the UN Charter, which are, therefore, war crimes.
Obama was, perhaps, at his rhetorical best while on the foreign policy arena in his magnificent speech in Cairo University in 2009 where he held forth eloquently in pledging to open a new chapter in the US’ relations with the Muslim world. Yet, almost immediately afterward, he showed scant respect for international law by pushing the regime change agenda in Syria in furtherance of the Bush Administration’s geopolitical agenda. He unilaterally misinterpreted a UN Security Council resolution, wilfully, to mobilise the NATO’s war in Libya. His policies have destroyed two of the most advanced countries, relatively speaking, in the Muslim Middle East.
His presidency is ending with the US still covertly involved in an interventionist war in Yemen which has caused horrendous death and destruction (where, according to the UN, “at least” one child dies every ten minutes). Obama promised to end the Afghan war but hardly months into his first term, he instead ordered a surge by tens of thousands of troops. The inconclusive, futile war still continues with no apparent purpose other than the ‘great game’ in Central Asia.
The ‘pivot to Asia’ was a thinly disguised attempt to shore up the receding American hegemony in Asia, a region that obsessed him as the locus of growth in the world economy with the high potential to help revive the US economy. Again, Obama stuck to the post-Soviet triumphalist narrative regarding Russia and was determined to tilt the global strategic balance, which kept world peace through modern times, entirely in America’s favour. And the related moves—deployment of the US missile defence system along Russia’s borders (which would deny Russia of ‘second strike capability’), regime change in Ukraine, NATO expansion, forward deployments to Russia’s western borders, orchestrated Western sanctions against Russia—all but created the conditions of a New Cold War as his presidency ends.
Obama began his presidency with a stirring speech in Prague in 2009 on global disarmament but went on to quietly order an unprecedented expansion of the US’ nuclear arsenal, which has no other justification than to establish US ‘nuclear superiority’, and to make this a New American Century. In fact, Obama’s abject surrender to the neoconservative dogmas in his foreign policies stands out as the most challenging and intriguing question for historians while assessing his foreign-policy legacy.
According to Aristotle, a tragic hero should be not only eminent but also be a good man. “There remains for our choice a person neither eminently virtuous nor just, nor yet involved in misfortune by deliberate vice or villainy, but by some error or human frailty; and this person should also be someone of high-fame and flourishing prosperity,” Aristotle wrote.
Those words become an apt description of Obama’s legacy. Aristotle disqualified two types of characters—purely virtuous and thoroughly bad. Obama was neither. His legacy excites remorse and pity because it is out of all proportion to his error of judgement, and his overall goodness is never in doubt. He is neither blameless nor absolutely depraved. Yet, Obama’s eminence has affected his entire state and nation—and the world community. And when he walks out from the centre-stage of the planet later today, and leaves it all to Trump from the break of dawn tomorrow, the plot generates pity and fear in the audience.
(January 19, 2017)
Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).