The Obama Syndrome reviewed in the Kathmandu Post

The Obama Syndrome reviewed by Anthony Wentzel for the Kathmandu Post, December 24 2010

Normally, I wouldn’t recommend judging a book by its cover. But in the case of Tariq Ali’s latest release The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad, the image on the cover speaks volumes about the ideas contained within. A surreal picture stares back at the viewer: the face of US President Barack Obama, but with a fragment missing. Where the missing fragment of Obama’s face should be is an all too familiar grin, that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Ali’s thesis is established even before the first page is flipped: Obama does not signal a departure from the status quo of American politics, but instead represents a continuation of the policies of those who ruled before him. For readers familiar with Tariq Ali, this idea should come as no surprise. Ali often offers scathing critiques of most world leaders, and does so firmly from the radical left of the political spectrum. The Obama Syndrome is no exception.

According to Ali, The Obama Syndrome is meant to be “a preliminary report on the first 1,000 days of the Obama presidency.” The book is divided into three parts, each dealing with a specific aspect of Obama’s presidency. An Unprecedented Historical Event describes the time leading up to Obama’s election. The President of Cant, describes Obama’s foreign policy agenda. And Surrender at Home: A One-Dimensional Politician outlines the President’s achievements (or lack thereof) in domestic matters.

In An Unprecedented Historical Event, Ali briefly details the previous 28 years of the American presidency, starting with Ronald Reagan and ending with George W. Bush. Ali describes this as a time where American policy moved steadily rightward, culminating in the eight years of George W. Bush, and his neo-conservative hijacking of democracy. Ali uses this background to establish the context of the 2008 presidential elections, portraying the US as a nation yearning to emerge out of the clutches of eight years of retrogressive, ultra-conservative rule. Ali describes the rise the of the Obama Syndrome: the maniacal way in which his supporters responded to the campaign, projecting onto the president-to-be the qualities of a saviour, ready to usher in the next great Progressive era in the United States. Grand visions of the next “New Deal,” or “Great Society” circulated through the mass of mobilised Obamamaniacs. Everywhere, there was a sense of renaissance, that a new, more liberal and less aggressive America was waiting to be born. But as Ali bluntly states, “forty acres and a mule at home and peace abroad were, of course, never on the agenda, and to be fair, Obama did not pledge anything remotely resembling such a project . . . .”

In The President of Cant, Ali dissects various aspects of Obama’s foreign policy agenda. Included are the Israel/Palestine conflict, the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the promises to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, withdrawal from Iraq, and the prospects for the expansion of American aggression in the Middle East. In each case, Ali criticises the President’s handling of the situation, calling into question the wisdom in Obama’s policies. In Israel/Palestine, Ali sees Obama as maintaining the current course, departing from the status quo in rhetoric alone. In regards US’ war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ali asserts that the current strategy is hopeless, completely out of touch with the reality of the situation. Ali describes what is needed for the US to achieve victory in “Af-Pak” as being so far out of the realm of possibility that it might as well be considered absurd, including the necessity for a quarter of a million troops to occupy the “porous” Durand line separating the two countries. Guantanamo Bay and Iraq amount to empty campaign promises. And the prospects for future US aggression in the Middle East, including such targets as Yemen and Iran, are as high as ever. According to Ali, the only change in US foreign policy under Obama will be an escalation of militarism, a far cry from the hopes of a more pacifistic US.

In Surrender at Home: A One-Dimensional Politician, Ali criticises the President for kowtowing to conservatives. Ali argues that Obama has come to master the “sympathetic gesture,” offering nothing but compromises in his proposals for legislation, and consequently failing in efforts at reform. For example, Ali characterises Obama’s healthcare legislation as basically being a piece of “conservative legislation” which will fails to amend a broken system in any way, but instead strengthens the insurance and pharmaceutical lobby’s stranglehold on health care policy. Furthermore, according to Ali, Obama’s stances on education, national defense, and financial regulation will likely meet the same fate as his failed efforts at healthcare reform: better alternatives will be ignored, compromises will be presented, and the right-wing will get their way. According to Ali, this signifies Obama as a president intent on upholding the conservative status quo, and his “inbuilt pragmatism and brazen opportunism” will continue to move American politics towards the right.

The Obama Syndrome is primarily a left-wing critique of a pseudo-progressive president. Much like the book’s cover, Ali works to dismantle the façade Obama created during his campaign, to disperse the fog of the hope and to illustrate the uninspiring realities of the Obama Administration. In presenting his evidence, Ali makes a persuasive case that Obama’s primary goal is not to usher in a rebirth of American progressivism, but instead to strengthen the conservative chokehold on American politics. Corporate control of American political enterprise will not end with Obama, but will instead find new momentum as the country’s trajectory towards the radical right will not be disrupted by the hope/change president. And the American Imperial machine will not be “put into reverse,” but will instead continue on its present course, ultimately resulting in further US aggression. For those skeptical that this could occur on Obama’s watch, Ali’s book should serve as a wake-up call, as he uses ample detail to characterise the president as just another link in the conservative chain that binds America more