President Obama has a small circle of friends and a sweet tooth. While campaigning in Seattle in 2008, he tried Fran Bigelow's sea salt chocolate caramels. Fran and her family run a small high-quality chocolate factory. She ignited the sea salt chocolate caramel craze in the US, and continues to turn out the finest chocolate made in America.
The Obama White House contacted Fran's and asked the company to produce a special run of sea salt chocolate caramels in a blue box with the Presidential seal. Obama offers them to overnight guests and to friends who come to dinner. Fran was recently at the White House for a food event, and the President kept asking, "Where's Fran?" and then found her, giving her a big hug. Fran is an FOB -- Friend of Barack.
Fran recounted this story while she gave us a tour of her new factory, when my wife and I spent my birthday weekend in Seattle. Located in an old brick building which once housed the Seattle Malt and Brewing Co, the expanded production facilities include a bright, airy tasting room and retail chocolate shop. The conversation reminded me that President Obama does have friends, albeit a small circle compared to Bill Clinton. He is not as cold and distant as many critics and political enemies like to suggest.
This fall, one of his Occidental college classmates, Kofi Manu, who had returned to teach in his native Ghana, died suddenly. I was informed because Oxy students of mine had worked with Manu while studying abroad, so I let the White House know. The President's closest adviser, Valerie Jarrett, replied immediately, asking for details because the president wanted to send a personal message to Kofi's family.
After the tour, we checked into a hotel near Pike Place market and headed to the Seattle Rep for the premiere of The Great Society, the second in a cycle of plays about President Lyndon Johnson. Earlier this year, we had seen Bryan Cranston portray LBJ on Broadway in All The Way, which dramatizes the passage of the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act and celebrates Johnson's mastery of Congressional politics (the play and the actor won Tony Awards).
Obama has frequently been compared unfavorably with Johnson. The usual litany is that LBJ was a master networker and manipulator of people, and that's why he could pass progressive legislation -- not only two civil rights bills, but Medicare and Medicaid, environmental legislation, and bills supporting aid to education and to the humanities, as well as funding for a public broadcasting system. Obama is supposedly a cold fish who can't get much done with Congress because of a lack of people skills.
The argument is badly ahistorical. LBJ had liberal Republicans to whom he could appeal to do what was right for the country, and conservative Democrats whom he could induce using patronage to support his legislative agenda. Obama has neither to work with, and has faced obstruction from a reactionary Republican party from his first days in office. That he has passed financial reform, an expansion of medical care, and strengthened environmental protection is impressive.
Tragically, the second play ends with LBJ destroyed by his support for the Vietnam War; Nixon is elected on a law and order ticket and his "secret" plan for peace. Along the way, MLK and RFK are assassinated, and the promise of the civil rights revolution collides with de facto segregation in the North. Johnson inherited a war in Southeast Asia, but couldn't bring himself to end it.
Here is a more appropriate comparison. Obama inherited war and he is still trying to end US military involvement in two conflicts. Like LBJ, he has bought into many of the arguments of the National Security establishment about how to conduct foreign policy. The war in Afghanistan, the longest US overseas conflict, has cost almost a trillion dollars with billions more to be spent. Almost 80 percent of the spending has come under the Obama administration. The war in Iraq has cost the US another trillion dollars, created millions of refugees, and led to the rise of ISIS.
The challenging events of 2014 for Obama -- Putin's seizure of Crimea and his destabilization of eastern Ukraine, China's assertiveness with neighbors in Asia, the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the Ebola crisis in Africa, nuclear negotiations with Iran, illegal immigration from Latin America, as well as ongoing climate change and racial unrest at home -- take place in a hyper-globalized environment. Unlike the Cold War, there are no clear black and white demarcations, not even an alternative ideology against which to define America (Jihadism is a reaction to globalization and modernization, not a coherent ideology). As daily events unfold, the 'whole world is watching,' Tweeting, posting on Facebook, and sharing on YouTube. Even ghastly events like beheadings are up on the web, or Sony's internal emails because they made a stupid movie on North Korea. It feels anarchistic, as if events are in control, not us. The world continues to be organized as nation states, some failing, yet most problems transcend oceans and borders; the UN is not a world government, and there have been no alien attacks or diplomatic visits to unite the peoples of the Earth.
The US is expected to lead, but is often vilified when we act abroad. Rising nations, especially China, Russia, India and Brazil, seek increased influence; their leaders are not Obama's partners. In these fraught circumstances, how does the President help to build a more peaceful and sustainable global community?
For the mid-term exam in a fall course on soft power -- how nations attract and interact without war -- I asked students to evaluate Obama's presidency and how he has affected American influence abroad. Most pointed out that while Obama's election -- and his Nobel Peace prize simply for being elected -- started out his presidency on a high note and brought US global approval ratings up from their nadir under Bush, Obama's support of NSA spying, the expanded use of drone warfare, and his muddled policies in the Middle East have not been positives. He has tried not to do "stupid stuff," but has frequently not offered a clear and sustained narrative about what he is doing and why.
For example, Obama says he is against torture, but his unwillingness to side with Senators Feinstein and McCain in praising release of the Senate report on the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques or to hold accountable his own CIA director John Brennan is disappointing and reflects badly on the country and on his own presidency.
His singular diplomatic achievement could be a nuclear deal with Iran, but it's likely than any agreement would be opposed and undercut by conservatives in both countries.
When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, especially at the holidays. Like Bill Clinton, the president is a reader and a book buyer. He recently went holiday shopping at Politics and Prose in northwest DC, and left the store with a bag of books. This week, I'm giving an end of the year review talk to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. In addition to covering the global news stories of 2014, I will recommend a few of my favorite books on global affairs including these:
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, by Evan Osnos. Brilliant reporting by a former New Yorker correspondent in Beijing. If you can read only one book on China, this is the one.
Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, by David Pilling, the Financial Times man in Asia. His column in the FT provides the best coverage on Japanese politics and economics.
Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer, and The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain, both by David Goldblatt. The globalization of sports, especially soccer, has made sport an interesting and important form of Soft Power.
A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes, by Sam Miller. A wonderful mix of history, travelogue, and memoir by a talented BBC reporter and observer of India.
Thirteen Days in September, by Lawrence Wright. The story of President Carter's peace negotiations with Sadat and Begin at Camp David, an almost hour by hour account of how diplomacy can make a difference.
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson. The best book I know for understanding how the modern Middle East came into being, and how the problems created by colonialism still plague us.
The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, by Margaret MacMillan, on events leading up to WWI. I also recommend her book on the peace talks that set the stage for another war--Paris 1919.
PetroState: Putin's Power and the New Russia , by economist Marshall Goldman and Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev, a British TV producer who worked in Moscow. These two books explain how Putin gained and holds power.
I also have an appetite (addiction) for detective fiction set in foreign countries, believing (or convincing myself) that such situated novels can inform readers about different cultures and politics. A few of my best reads from the past year:
A Cut-Like Wound, by Anita Nair, set in Mombai; The Prisoner, by Omar Shaid Hamid who served with the Karachi police, a depiction of politics and police work in Pakistan; The Ways of Evil Men, a Mario Silva investigation set in Brazil by Leighton Gage, who died this year; Beams Falling, by P.M. Newton, second in a series by a former Sydney police detective featuring a Vietnamese-Australian officer; Strange Shores, by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason, that ends a series with police inspector Erlendur investigating his own past; The Iron Sickle, by Martin Limon, set in South Korea involving a cover up of war crimes from the Korean War; Cobra, by Deon Meyer, latest in a series set in Cape Town featuring Afrikaans homicide detective Bennie Griessel; and Europe in Autumn, by David Hutchinson, set in a future Europe fragmented into mini-states.
On the documentary front, my favorites: Red Army , directed by Gabe Polsky, a former Yale hockey player, on the rise and fall of the Soviet Union's national team during the Cold War, and
Last Days in Vietnam, directed by Rory Kennedy, which we will show students at Oxy in the spring as part of a conference on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
It's been a messy world in 2014. Human beings do terrible things to one another, yet are capable of acts of kindness, sacrifice and love. One wishes for clearer sailing in the coming year, especially for the use of smarter power (hard and soft more in sync) by President Obama.
Holiday Greetings to one and all.
~ The Ambassadude
PS: My wife Sue (and our dogs Nick and Nora) have reminded me of a little good news as the year ends. Pope Francis has suggested that all good dogs might go to Heaven. For the man with one of the most popular Twitter accounts on the globe, this is no small commitment.
More Breaking News: a few days after I finished this article, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced intentions to normalize diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. Apparently, secret talks between the US and Cuba were hosted by Canada, encouraged and assisted by Pope Francis. This is an historic diplomatic achievement for President Obama with interesting repercussions for the 2016 Presidential race by removing the Cuban issue from Florida politics and very important outcomes for Major League Baseball. Soon, Cuban ballplayers like Yasiel Puig of the LA Dodgers won't have to flee the country to sign with MLB teams. There might even be an MLB expansion team for Havana in the future (something I proposed twenty five years ago in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times). This is a good note to end the year on. Kudos to President Obama for an historic achievement. Now, he merits his Nobel Peace Prize.