Thursday, May 26, 2016

Empty Symbolism. Emptier Legacy.

White House photographer Pete Souza posted this image of President Barack Obama on Instagram with the caption, “Beers and dinner with Anthony Bourdain last night in Hanoi.” Pete Souza / White House.

--Updated on May 28, 2016

There is an emptiness to the symbolism of Obama’s visit to Vietnam and Hiroshima; an emptiness borne out of the way he is perceived outside the circle of liberal realist fanboys, both in the U.S. and abroad: as an arrogant and fickle ally who, despite the military and economic strength of his country, managed to be outmaneuvered by his enemies in every confrontation they had, be it in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, or beyond. 

History is being made here for sure, but its significance has been severely undermined by the character of the man making it. Historical firsts that generate a meh reaction at best are not that historical, just as concessions made by a man perceived as weak and fickle fail to generate enthusiasm. Obama could go to Mars tomorrow and no one will be impressed. And he has no one but himself to blame for that. Outside his fan club and on the international scale, he inspires neither fear nor awe, no matter how often and far his drones strike. As such, his attempt at making history at this stage is seen as self-serving at best: a bucket list of moves that can constitute his legacy.

And what a legacy it is! Imploding states in the Middle East and North Africa, deals with autocratic regimes while engaged in severe repression even beyond their borders, and engagement of the type that transformed the U.S. into a willing partner in ethnic cleansing campaigns in Iraq and Syria.

With or without his visits, relations with Vietnam were improving, and Japan was and will remain an ally. In Vietnam, the government kept harassing dissenters even during his visit. Why not? Obama has already made it clear that, beyond shy condemnations, he is not prepared to do anything in regard to issues of human rights.

Obama and the realists don’t see things this way of course. For they have somehow looked into “the eye of history,” it seems, and found that its arc will eventually bend their way, and that the future will vindicate their policies. They probably even think that their decision-making has been quite moral, and that it’s the rest of us who have to catch up with them on both the moral and intellectual plane. That’s why the President seems comfortable calling for a moral awakening, when his foreign policies have been anything but moral.

Still, Obama and Co. will keep on living in their ever shrinking reality bubble until they die of old age while waiting for that imagined moral vindication. For while history does indeed vindicate cynicism far more often than we would like to admit, there is something too crass and, frankly, cowardly about this Realist cynicism, borne as it is out risk-aversion even in the face of mass slaughter, making it more of the kind that history punishes, rather than rewards. 

At end of the day, the true Legacy of one Barack Hussein Obama will not be defined, no matter how desperately he wants it to be, by his truly historic visits to Havana, Hanoi and Hiroshima, or by the equally historic deal he signed with Iran, over the carcasses of dead Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis, but by the “slow-motion genocide” he let happen in Syria, and in which he is now playing an even more active role. The dead, detained and displaced in Syria will have their say yet, the audacity of hype shown by the realists  notwithstanding.   

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