OBAMA-DJANGO: Reflections on an Unshackled Presidency and the United States’ Future

“President Barack Obama delivers an address on national security," by Pete Souza. CC BY­SA 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

“President Barack Obama delivers an address on national security,” by Pete Souza. CC BY­SA 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The trials and tribulations that Barack Obama has faced from his detractors were recently summed up: “It is hard not to believe they hate Barack Obama because he is black. Before and after his first term they tried to prove he wasn’t even an American.” This was not an African American commenting, but Peter Bruce, the respected mainstream white former editor-in-chief of Business Day, South Africa’s leading financial daily. He was expressing alarm that “Republican rule is one scary thought.”

Bruce’s anxiety places in perspective how, in ignoring the verdict of last year’s midterm election which decimated congressional Democrats, President Obama mounted a fight-back in the requiem lap of his presidency with the unabashedly confident State of the Union address he delivered on January 20, 2015. The 2014 midterms were Obama’s liberation. To what end remains to be written in the future history of his remaining presidency.

Otherwise, it seems, in the aftermath of a midterm disaster that had Obama confronting a solidly Republican and belligerently isolationist Congress, he promptly decided to become his own version of Django Unchained—Jamie Foxx move over. This emerged as the new media narrative, replacing much of an ill-deserved shellacking the president took in mainstream media over much of the past year. Whether this is sustained throughout the remainder of 2015 remains uncertain. But in the aftermath of his seventh State of the Union, at least for the moment, Obama has been riding much better in the polls, which cannot be said for a Congress considered the worst in recent memory.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Rush Limbaugh dictum to make Obama a failed “one-term president” has exacted a heavy toll on the GOP (Republican Party) brand, certainly nationally if not in the midterms. But this is cold comfort for expectations anyone may have about what Obama can accomplish. Yet there may be a silver lining. Now that Republicans must share full responsibility at the legislative level for what happens—or not—in Washington, Obama is already parleying this reality into shaping a Democrat-friendly electoral terrain that the GOP presidential hopeful must navigate in 2016.

If for the sake of scenario-spinning, one indulges an “Obama Unchained” scenario, there are several areas in domestic and foreign policy where one might hope to see a 2015 encore from Obama as he began regaining control in shaping his legacy toward the end of 2014. There is still much to do – if his various interlocutors, internal and external, cooperate as well it might be in their interest to do. Perhaps the most fitting place to start is in the complex realm of state-crafting the United States’ diplomacy.

US-Cuban Relations and the end of Zion?

Obama’s opening to Cuba, blessed by Pope Francis, and his historic Iran nuclear gambit, must go down as master strokes in demonstrating how a lame duck president can reshape the foreign policy landscape. Backlashes to both initiatives are destabilizing the grip of Israel lobby-aligned foreign policy hardliners on a US national security strategy long overdue for radical overhaul. As US foreign policy undergoes a much-needed revamp to adapt to a multipolar environment against a backlog of domestic challenges, there is unfolding an intensifying debate on where Washington’s diplomacy is headed. Whereas Democrats are less ideologically committed to military interventionism and, under Obama, gravitate more toward a “nation-building at home” posture, Republican critics and fellow-travellers among neocons and the reactionary right predictably accuse Obama and the Democrats of weakness, and appeasement.

Yet the GOP is hard put to articulate an alternative course apart from hawkishly default Cold War reflexes in search of evil empires that no longer exist. Not that Democrats have arrived at any coherence. The administration’s own goal on Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) reveals how far Washington is from coming to terms with the new global reality: the geoeconomic centre of gravity shift eastward. Indeed, were it not for congressional isolationist resistance to Bretton Woods reform, AIIB and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) New Development Bank might not exist.

Most of the Group of 7, among other allies, are ‘pivoting’ to AIIB. There are, effectively, two fluidly overlapping suborders: one led by the US, the other by a financially compelling China. Together, they amount to a tacit Group of 2 of Sino-US “coopertition.” Not that China is not a threat.

In one of the perversities of economic dynamism, China belongs to a greater East Asian cultural threat of ecocide targeting global south biodiversity. Washington, otherwise, must recalibrate internal and external responses to interconnected changes at home and abroad, reflecting realities of relative decline as China and other emerging powers assume ever greater stakes in the global economy. Hegemonic “full-spectrum dominance” must give way to a power-sharing approach to global leadership strengthening the United States’ home-base.

“Nation-building at home” should holistically become the cornerstone of reformulating national security to reflect an integrated grand strategy encompassing a burden-sharing global posture of strategic devolution complementing off-shore balancing. Fleshed out, this could not be a one-size-fits-all proposition. Aspects of such an approach have actually long been in play but have not found coherent doctrinal expression. Thus, Obama is vulnerable to cynical accusations of retreat from zero-sum motivated critics at home and abroad.

Doctrinally, strategic devolution needs tailoring to different regional contingencies while recognizing the legitimacy of state actors not beholden to the United States (like Iran) assuming responsibilities for local stability, peace, and security. With qualifications, a prospective Arab League military force might fit this logic. Sustaining Pax Americana suzerainty over geopolitical dynamics in landmasses far from Washington’s continental and hemispheric domain has no moral, politico-diplomatic, security, or financial justification. Otherwise, endless quagmires beckon (think Vietnam for beginners).

Subordinating Great Power Rivalry to Regional Multilateralism

The United States is obliged, however, to selectively accommodate allies in given regions. This could be augmented by balancing a ceding of responsibilities to independent regional actors alongside an elevated role for regional economic communities (RECs). RECs can operate as a constraint on hegemonic compulsions or have potential in this regard given ever increasing economic and security interdependencies. Afghanistan’s post-occupation transition, interacting with the framework accord with Iran reached on April 2, 2015, is a fitting example of how great power coordination between the United States and China could strengthen interregional security. Ideally, it should facilitate a partnership between NATO and a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that may come to include India, Pakistan, and Iran as full members.

"Obama at Town Hall Meeting Shanghai" by Pete Souza. CC BY­SA 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

“Obama at Town Hall Meeting Shanghai” by Pete Souza. CC BY­SA 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

These three, in turn, would have incentive to pursue accommodations that might accelerate integration in Central and South Asia into a convergence of security cooperation in the Indian Ocean along with the United States, China, and India. There is no reason why Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization could not make a NATO-SCO partnership a threesome; that is, if a sustainable peace ever gains traction in Ukraine as Moscow seeks to build momentum for its own REC: the Eurasian Economic Union. But this requires the United States, its allies, and other powers acknowledging and promoting the efficacy of regional and interregional integration within an interdependent and hyper-connected global economy. Hence, the emergence of RECs as important actors in the needed balance and constraint of great power compulsions toward destabilizing unilateralism.

RECs can also be elaborated, potentially, into regional and continental security communities like the European Union. Within a transformed UN system, RECs could become pillars of stabilization mandates in countries and areas of the world requiring nation-building interventions. Here, an updated revisit of 1948 Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace’s advocacy of Europe’s rebuilding may be undertaken by the United Nations instead of what became the Marshall Plan. The point is, overseas nation-building imperatives should be multilateral and regionally-driven, not US-centric. Yet President Obama and his national security minions seem far from such neo-strategic imaginings.

Foreign Policy Fault-Lines and 2016 Repositioning

Meanwhile, a return to the same unilateralist incompetence of the Bush years that drove the United States into isolationism again threatens. Neocons seem to be attempting infiltration back into the Democratic party’s policy apparatus from whence they originated as Henry Jackson “coalition for a democratic majority” Democrats. It should not be forgotten how this Likud-aligned crew destroyed Iraq-Iran dual containment sectarian power balancing. This has made Iran rapprochement unavoidable in reconstructing a complex balancing system involving Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well. Still, based on how incipient US-Iran détente and Cuba normalization backlashes are reverberating, it could be a godsend for Democrats if what unfolds as a consequential foreign policy debate over United States’ future in the world plays out within the GOP as much as between Republicans and Democrats.

As Republican presidential hopefuls jockey for 2016, there was no better circumstance for Democrats than a debate that threatened to emerge between Florida’s anti-Castro Cuban-US Senator Marco Rubio and libertarian Kentucky Senator, Rand Paul. Paul endorsed Obama’s Cuba opening. Irrespective of either of them emerging as GOP standard-bearer, such a showdown within the GOP could contribute to depolarizing the partisan divide in foreign policy discourse with potential for restoring some semblance of bipartisanship emerging along less hawkishly unilateralist lines. This trend of opinion has gained increasing public traction. It is a mistake to conflate this with isolationism as is wont on the US right (though it might be said there is an “economic isolationist” convergence between left and Tea Party right). Further, this debate has already migrated into the Middle Eastern cauldron of US national security dilemmas and regional alignments.

Partisan polarization destabilizing the intersection between US and Israeli domestic politics animating the executive-congressional power-struggle over US-Mideast policy is emblematic. The contradiction of the GOP-Likud alliance producing Benjamin Netanyahu’s brazen address to both houses of Congress and the emerging Obama administration-Iranian rapprochement are indicative. Netanyahu’s GOP-celebrated reelection as Israeli prime minister on the heels of his rejecting a two-state Palestinian solution and racist anti-Arab voter mobilization underlines the magnitude of the tectonic shifts unfolding as Arab-Israelis enhance their position in the Knesset. This has far-reaching implications for US foreign policy overall. Cuba policy is an example wherein anti-Castro hardliners are amongst the staunchest pro-Israel opponents of a US-Iran nuclear deal while maintaining the economic embargo against Havana.

Ultimately, the foreign policy debate is over how the United States engages and asserts leadership, not whether it should. Arguably it can be said that until Obama announced embarkation on normalizing relations with Havana, Washington essentially was devoid of an inter-American policy. The manner and pace of normalization with Cuba, a deal with Iran finalizing the preliminary accord and whether or not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict evolves into an apartheid-like scenario seem certain to shape the contours of the foreign policy debate. This, in turn, will determine Obama’s capacity to shape the landscape over the United States’ future posture as 2016 elections approach. Where there has so far been a shortness of policy imagination is in US-African relations.

A notable mistake was sidelining the African Union (AU) on Libya. Related to that, the Obama administration is yet to connect dots between the Western Sahara stalemate and the northwest African security vacuum facilitating the expansion of the Islamic State as a Wahabist-inspired terror threat throughout the Maghreb. This, in turn, interacts with African and Arab migrants flooding into Europe. The fact that this contributes to anti-EU extremism encouraged by Russia underlines the urgency of a trans-Mediterranean stabilizing initiative revolving around a Western Sahara settlement. This would facilitate the functioning of the Arab Maghreb Union as the African Union’s bulwark against an expanding regional and interregional terror threat.

"Obama African Presidents" by Samantha Appleton. CC BY­SA 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

“Obama African Presidents” by Samantha Appleton. CC BY­SA 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The Maghreb should not be policed by an Arab League force in the absence of AU oversight. Turning to East Africa, it seems that, with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta no longer under International Criminal Court indictment, Obama’s decision finally to visit Kenya in July may signal an upscaling of support for East African integration. Given Obama’s Kenyan roots, establishing an East African Community (EAC)-US Forum would certainly fit the bill in fleshing out a whole of Indian Ocean geostrategy.

The administration is laying the ground for such a possibility by negotiating a free trade area with the EAC. This could likely extend to the tripartite trade integration EAC has with the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa and the Southern African Development Community bolstered by the Egypt-Ethiopia-Sudan accommodation on Nile Basin waters. This would link Africa to rebalancing in Asia, converging with China’s maritime silk route around an ocean rim in need of India-Indonesian orchestrated “Zone of Peace” and cooperation architecture. Furthermore, with plummeting oil prices, Africa needs engagement to diversify away from extractive commodity dependency. This should help in giving momentum to the area where the continent most needs to focus: building economies of scale through regional and continental integration.

Nation-Building at Home: A Conversation of National Justice and Reconciliation?

On this note, the same forces at work in transforming the oil market and its impact in Africa, largely resulting from the United States’ shale revolution, could resonate domestically as well. This is in such contentious areas of partisan polarization as whether or not, ultimately, to go through with a US-Canada Keystone pipeline. Now we enter into the internal realm of “nation-building at home” and, for that matter, the future of regional integration in North America and the hemisphere.

In spite of President Obama’s predictable veto of the GOP’s procedural gambit on Keystone, it was interesting to observe how, at his end-of-2014 press conference, he actually walked on both sides of this issue. He downplayed both Republican insistence on how the pipeline would contribute to economic growth and job creation but was noncommittal on its adverse environmental impact. Could this kind of waffling set the stage for a trade-off with congressional Republicans on much-needed investment in rebuilding US infrastructure?

North American infrastructural integration is the essence of Keystone. Hence, the answer should be a national infrastructure investment bank or perhaps a regionalized version of such a mechanism, co-opting the nation’s governors in leveraging such investment in dealing with their congressional delegations. It would seem that rather than an outright rejection of keystone and/or vetoing GOP legislation on it, that a grand infrastructure investment trade-off might contain compelling legacy potential not to speak of additional stimulus reinforcing economic recovery.

If, however, Obama is to really begin a process beyond his presidency of making a dent in the United States’ nation-building challenge, racial confrontations over law enforcement in black America have become flash-points of such magnitude that he can no longer avoid unveiling a “black agenda.” Here, his political imagination will be taxed to the hilt. After all, what he comes up with will have to be an agenda that is not exclusively African American. It must strike a balance in pointing the way toward genuine national (as opposed to purely racial) integration.

Neither black America, nor the United States generally, needs another civil rights movement. The real challenge is about power and altering the balance of electoral forces. More fundamentally, a mobilizational deepening of democracy that changes the constitutional terms of an electoral system increasingly entrenching a plutocratic class dictatorship is more urgent. Thus Obama’s exhortations on exercising the right to vote reveal the civic educational agenda in need of mounting in overcoming the United States’ divisive legacies. Here, Democrats’ phlegmatic non-ideological liberalism comes up short against the mobilizing fanaticism of the GOP’s shrinking but extremist base. This predicament has historical roots.

With 2015 marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, it should be emphasized there never was a comprehensive settlement linked to enduring post-civil war reconstruction. The result: underlying Union-Confederate tensions between federalism and states’ rights remain fundamental to today’s dysfunction in Washington intersecting with racial polarization. Yet, the United States’ founding fathers intended that the Constitution be periodically revamped to adapt to changing circumstances.

This is where a much belated but urgently-needed revisit of the contested post-civil war legacy of unresolved fault-lines might benefit a transcending of racial and regional tensions, thereby internally strengthening the United States and its role in the world. It would require no less than setting in train a process of reconciliation with the intent of producing a roadmap toward enhanced national integration as the United States transitions into a majority-minority or ‘plurality’ polity.

Obama might do worse than take New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s advice in following South Africa’s truth and reconciliation example by establishing a high-level, non-partisan commission on historical justice and reconciliation. This commission could become the vehicle for structuring a dialogue with the aim of placing before the nation a constitutional reform agenda intended to overcome the United States’ racial and civil war divisions. Only such an exercise will bring closer to reality the post-racial future that was unrealistically assumed to arrive with the election of Obama as the United States’ first black president. Instead, his election ignited yet another round of white backlash ultra-reaction.

Such a commission, as a means of initiating a meaningful conversation about our past, present, and future is urgently needed. Post-civil rights black leadership, such as it is, has not exhibited political imagination in discerning the peculiar US democratic deficit and the kind of struggle needed in closing it. This reflects a historical African American misconceptualizing of the race problem. It has never been about racial integration as much as about the national integration of the African American cultural nation within (not separate from) the larger US republic. This has always implied making US federalism work for all Americans in our socio-racial, ethnic and regional diversities, not simply for southern and small-town predominantly white electorates.

US federalism continues to reflect confederal traits. This is a legacy of a post-reconstruction accommodation in the 1876 Tilden-Hayes Compromise conferring an autonomous racial dictatorship on the former Confederacy. The civil rights movement did not fully redress this peculiarly ‘Southern Comfort.’ This is reflected in today’s reversals of the Voting Rights Act in various and sundry voter suppression offensives gaining momentum not just in the South but nation-wide with a complicit Supreme Court.

This reactionary trend accentuates increasing disenfranchisement at the state level not just of non-white/non-Anglo minorities but of urban America generally. This is occurring at a time of demographic transition toward a shrinking white electorate in national elections, underlying current fault-lines of power-struggle underway in US politics. It carries implications for foreign as well as domestic policies. Reflected also is the de facto partitioning of the United States into two electoral nations: a multiracial one in presidential elections, and a much smaller white nation during mid-terms. Media-driven polling makes no allowance for this reality when presuming to poll opinions of the US public: which “public?”

In any case, nation-building at home involves a lot more than economic renewal. It demands a constitutional updating of US federalism into a balancing equilibrium between predominantly white rural and small-town America with multiculturally diverse urban America. Only then will we truly reflect President Obama’s United States of America. Only then will we begin evolving a more even-keel foreign policy and national security strategy relevant to the currently transitioning multipolar order. Here, the challenge facing US foreign policy is not simply generational, in a sense raised recently by Andrew Bacevich.

Deracializing the Policy Apparatus

It has as much, if not more, to do with its lack of diversity, save for the emergence of Asian immigrant and expatriate intellectuals linked to an increasingly Asia-centric geostrategy. In socio-racial class terms, the Asian-US factor insulates the establishment from having to come to terms with the United States’ black intelligentsia in charting the United States’ post-racial future. Moreover, immigrant infusions interacting with ethnicity have long played a major role in shaping the domestic constituency contours of US foreign policy, often complicating its conduct. With the exception of the anti-Apartheid movement, black America metaphorically remains Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” in the United States’ domestic-
foreign policy calculus; this is especially so when it comes to the United States’ public policy establishment generally, its national security elite in particular.

Thus, Harold Cruse’s “Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” deepens. And this during an era of the first black president leading a liberal Democratic administration, disconnected from black intellectual networks, excluded from the country’s mainstream policy apparatus. To be sure there, are black officials and professionals populating the administration and federal bureaucracies; on the outside there are essentially gadfly celebrity intellectuals like Cornel West whose stock-in-trade is self-promotional Obama-bashing over the president’s presumed failure to double a black leader.

Yet, in the media-turned-think tank publishing hothouses of what passes for contemporary public policy discourse in the US knowledge sector, the ongoing intellectual crisis resulting from black marginalization continues. (The New Republic’s recent introspections on race are instructive.) It is a predicament rooted, at least partially, in well-documented McCarthy era anti-communist hysteria. This period saw the sidelining of leftwing black (as well as white) intellectuals like former communist Jack O’Dell.

O’Dell was one of the reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. came in for surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation under its first director J. Edgar Hoover and Justice Department of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. (O’Dell’s ordeal should be juxtaposed to that of Afro-Cuban communist Walterio Carbonell, a major influence in shaping Cuba’s Africa policy but persecuted for promoting the organization of an independent black tendency within the Cuban revolution). Indeed there seems to have been an unspoken trade-off wherein the Black Leadership would focus on civil rights and domestic issues while steering clear of internationalist causes, an understanding King broke when he came out against the Vietnam war. This was much to his detriment as he came under sustained attack.

Given intimate links between congressional staffers mentored by members of Congress and Washington lobbies, think-tanks, and NGOs, the manner in which Justice Department investigations contributed to decimating of the more internationalist members of the Congressional Black Caucus during the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s may have been another contributing factor in thinning the ranks of a robust black policy elite in the nation’s capital and along the ‘Boshwash’ corridor. This put paid to domesticating the pan-African ‘third world’ internationalist tendency that had emerged within converging black power and anti-war movements.

The United States is the poorer for it given the uniquely dualistic African American experience of being both beneficiary and victim of US democracy; in a word, the children of the ‘double vision’ dissected by W.E.B. DuBois in his Souls of Black Folk classic. Contained in this duality lies a potential bridging consciousness of connectivity between an increasingly majority-minority United States and an emerging global South where ‘nation-building’ evokes shared interest in a sustainable world order. Meanwhile, the Black Caucus will enhance its relevance by upping the stakes on congressional action to scupper an Iran deal. It could, indeed should, support the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. Why? Should Obama suffer congressional defeat on Iran, the United States’ isolation will assuredly result as international sanctions collapse with a vengeance. Another own goal à la AIIB?

Ultimately, the nexus between nation-building at home and transitioning toward a more sustainable diplomacy and national security posture abroad is the only guarantee ensuring the staying power of US leadership (sans hegemony) in a multipolar era of global economic integration; a dynamic driving relative decline between the “west and the rest” (and within the “rest”). By requiring Washington to calibrate a more globally multilateralist burden-sharing posture of devolutionary offshore balancing, this may encourage the striking of an optimum balance between addressing domestic imperatives and sustaining the United States’ lead role in a changing world order.

This places a premium on national and hemispheric integration. But without a more focused and sustained national conversation on this universe of issues, foreign and domestic, in historical as well as contemporary perspective, muddling through into an uncertain and possibly dangerous future may well be the frontier over a murky horizon. Perhaps an Obama commission on historical justice and reconciliation might help bring clarity to the dilemmas that his uniquely crossroads presidency has brought to the fore.

Obama-Django-Lincoln: The crossroads of a future unchained?

In the end, Quentin Tarantino’s Django exacted the justice vindication that was his due. But in the history of real life, the ongoing African American struggle that President Obama wages beneath the radar of his broader national and international agenda, is an ongoing saga intimately caught up in the United States’ never-ending identity search. A superpower in search of itself in a changing world. Just as Django was but the tip of the iceberg of a still unfolding black struggle for vindication, Obama’s post-2014 political unchaining was but an opening to a longer and still unchartered navigation in the US journey. Whether he musters Django-style audacity (of hope?) to parley his come-back into a new chapter in this journey by commencing the new US conversation his successors will have to continue remains to be seen. Otherwise, Obama sits astride a pivotal juncture in the nation’s history.

Indeed, the irony of Django was its juxtaposition to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Honest Abe, in his martyrdom, marked the post-bellum boundary of an emancipation that opened a pathway in what has been a long and torturous but glorious journey leading up to what is now a new boundary in our crossing the racial threshold at the highest level of national and global political leadership. Lincoln was the United States’ crossroads president of the 19th century followed in the 20th by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In similar vein, Obama may be destined to go down as perhaps the most consequential occupant of the White House at the pivotal crossroad of the United States’ future in the first half of the 21st. This is due to his ascendency symbolizing a redefining of the US demographic identity—“post-whiteness” if not “post-racial”—in a fast-unfolding global post-western transition. Otherwise, the US post-racial future is pre-conditional on a decisive resolving of its historical biracial contradiction. No amount of Asian and Hispanic “buffering” will alter this fundamental national integrationist socio-political equation.

If the biracial dynamic underlying the United States’ increasingly multicultural reality can achieve the level of justice and reconciliation that remains outstanding, the global implications could be profound starting, first of all, in the United States’ own backyard throughout the western hemisphere. This prospect brings things full circle in revisiting Obama’s Cuba opening; one that extends the justice and reconciliatory scope of the United States’ coming to terms with its chequered history in its inter-American neighbourhood interacting with its own internal dynamics.

The Cuban revolution (as with Haiti’s in the 18th century), and the United States’ violent reaction to it, and now, 50 years later, contested beginnings of normalization, culminate an evolution within the hemisphere as within the United States itself. It portends a convergence in hemispheric identities wherein Obama’s metaphorical United States of America could well foreshadow an eventual United States of the Americas. It is no telling where an unshackled presidency could take the US experiment—and the world.

About Author

Francis Kornegay

Francis A. Kornegay is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue, University of South Africa.