Barack Obama is perhaps the least known figure ever to enter the White House. A set of very unusual circumstances, including an economic nose-dive just a few weeks before the election, put him there. Only now, almost two years into his presidency, Americans are starting to ask: who is Barack Obama? This was the title of a recent column in the Washington Post by Richard Cohen. The question was not about Obama’s policies; everyone knows about those. Rather, it was one of Obama’s underlying ideology. What motivates this man?
A picture of Barack Obama Sr in his Kenyan home (GETTY IMAGES)
Europeans are routinely given a pre-packaged portrait of Obama: he is an historic figure, the first African-American president; he is the embodiment of multiracialism and multiculturalism; he is a cosmopolitan, in refreshing contrast to his parochial predecessor; and he looks and speaks the way that many in the world think an American president ought to look and speak. Consequently, Obama’s critics are often dismissed in Europe as a bunch of right-wing fanatics, otherwise known as the Tea Party movement.
So goes the usual propaganda. It was pretty much the same propaganda that helped Obama win. But now Americans have had the opportunity to see what Obama is all about and most of them don’t like it. Obama’s popularity has plummeted. Quite apart from the insatiable right-wing, many moderates and independents who voted for Obama are now suffering buyer’s remorse.
Even some of Obama’s supporters profess to being mystified by what moves the man. Appearing on a TV show, Newsweek editor Evan Thomas said he found himself curiously repelled by a president with whose ideas he generally agreed. Thomas called Obama “slightly creepy” and “deeply manipulative”. He suggested that there was something fake and unreal about Obama’s public persona.
Theories about Obama abound. On the Left, he is sometimes portrayed as a champion of the civil rights movement, a kind of latter-day Martin Luther King. On the Right, Obama is often described as a closet Muslim or more often as a kind of socialist. Neither of these quite works. Obama has never sat at a segregated lunch counter. In a sense, he’s not even African-American. In the US, this means you are descended from slaves. Obama’s father was an educated immigrant from Kenya and his mother was a white woman from Kansas. Obama’s formative experience, in Hawaii, Indonesia and Kenya, seems very remote from that of Martin Luther King.
There is no evidence that Obama is a Muslim. His father Barack Obama Sr was raised as a Muslim, the consequence of his grand-father Onyango Obama converting to Islam. His stepfather Lolo Soetoro was also raised in the Islamic faith. But neither man practised Islam, and Obama writes that his father treated Islam with the same contempt he reserved for African witch doctors. Obama studied Islam in Indonesia, where he lived for four years, but he also studied Catholicism and Buddhism and he seems to have emerged with no firm religious convictions at all.
The charge of socialism is closer to the mark. Obama as President has presided over the largest expansion of state power in American history. To an unprecedented degree, he has extended the tentacles of the federal government into banking, mortgage lending, finance, healthcare, insurance, automobiles, and energy. In Britain and the rest of Europe, such aggressive intervention is customary, but in America it is an anomaly. While Europeans debate ways to trim the bloated welfare state, Obama continues to make America’s welfare state even more bloated. Consequently, America has become the world’s largest debtor, and Obama threatens to stick the bill to the richest Americans, a group that he says is not paying its “fair share”.
None of this amounts to strict socialism — Obama isn’t threatening state confiscation of private property — but it does represent a movement towards European-style socialism. Even so, the charge of socialism, while it may account for aspects of Obama’s domestic policy, cannot account for his foreign policy. Even Obama’s own backers have noted that he doesn’t seem to share the traditional socialist preoccupations with the poor and with social equality. Obama rarely speaks of either subject with passion. Something else seems to be going on here.
A good way to understand the American president is to ask a simple question: what is Obama’s dream? Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about this because Obama himself provides a vital clue. Obama’s autobiography is entitled Dreams from My Father. So there it is: according to Obama, his dreams come from his father. It is not Dreams of My Father. Obama isn’t writing about his father’s dreams. He is writing about the dreams he received from his father.
This isn’t just a matter of a book title. Obama’s book is chock-full of admissions that Obama derived his aspirations, his values, his very identity from Obama père. Although his father was gone for most of his life, Obama writes that “even in his absence his strong image had given me some bulwark on which to grow up, an image to live up to, or to disappoint”. Obama writes: “It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself.” Others who know Obama confirm this account. Obama’s grandmother Sarah Obama told Newsweek: “I look at him and I see all the same things. This son has taken everything from his father. The son is realising everything the father wanted.”
So who was Barack Obama Sr and what did he want? As a man, the senior Obama was deeply strange. He was a polygamist who had four wives and eight known children. He looked after none of them, and was accused by one of his sons, Mark, of being a wife-beater and an abusive father. He was also a chronic alcoholic who was known at Harvard as “Double Double” because he liked to order a double Scotch and tell the waiter, as soon as it arrived, “Another double.” Since he regularly drove while intoxicated, he was involved in multiple accidents. In one, he killed a man; in another, he injured himself so badly that both his legs had to be amputated and replaced by iron rods. Eventually, he became drunk in a bar in Nairobi and drove into a tree, killing himself.
Not much of a role model for a son. But young Obama didn’t know about his father’s misdoings, because a romantic image of his father had been cultivated in his mind by his mother, Ann. She revered her husband even though he abandoned her. When Obama complained about his absentee father she chastised her son, informing him that Obama Sr was a great man, a champion of African liberation.
Eventually, Obama discovered the truth about his father from his half-sister Auma. Still, Obama didn’t give up on his father. He went to his grave and wept. He pressed his hand into the earth and tried to commune with his father “through Africa’s red soil”. But Obama couldn’t get back his dead father, so instead he decided to take his dream. He concluded that, although flawed as a man, the senior Obama had great ideals. Obama would realise those ideals, and perhaps in this way he could complete the family circle and be worthy of his father’s love. Through a kind of sacramental rite at the family tomb, the father’s ideology became the son’s birthright.
But what was Barack Obama Sr’s ideology? First and foremost, he was an anti-colonialist. He came of age in Kenya during that country’s struggle for independence from the British. The Obama family suffered the scars of colonialism. In the 1950s, when the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, cracked down on the Mau Mau guerrillas in Kenya, Obama Sr was arrested for his political activities, and Barack’s grandfather Onyango Obama was placed in a detention camp and allegedly tortured. Anti-colonialism arose out of anger and humiliation, and in the case of Obama Sr those sentiments were the product of direct experience.
I know quite a bit about anti-colonialism because I grew up in India in the period immediately following British rule. Anti-colonialism was very much in the air during the 1960s and 1970s, when I was a boy roaming the streets of Mumbai. My father was an anti-colonialist, as was his father and most of my uncles, and pretty much everyone else I knew. Anti-colonialism was the dominant political ideology in the Third World in the second half of the 20th century. Barack Obama Sr’s anti-colonialism is very familiar to me, although many Americans view it with incomprehension.
The premises of anti-colonialism, although familiar, are worth spelling out. The general idea is that the world is divided into two camps: the colonisers who are the white West, and the colonised, who are the peoples of the Third World. Anti-colonialists usually assume that the rich countries got rich by invading, occupying and looting the poor countries. Further, they claim that today it is no longer Europe but America that is the rogue elephant stampeding its way across the world. America now invades and occupies other countries in much the same way that the French and the British once did. Anti-colonialists hold that even when colonialism formally ends, there remain powerful concentrations of economic power in the rich countries. These economic elites are faulted with “neocolonialism”, which is colonialism in a new form, economic exploitation. In the anti-colonialist view, these wicked elites — the banks, the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, the oil companies and so on — continue to oppress not only their own people but also people across the globe.
Barack Obama Sr was an economist, and he described his economic views as “African socialist”. In 1965, he wrote an article in the East Africa Journal in which he placed his socialist views firmly within the larger framework of anti-colonialism. He began with the anti-colonial objective, which is of course national liberation. But for him, political liberation is not enough. Kenya, after all, became politically independent in 1963. What Obama Sr is concerned about is economic independence. “Is it the African who owns this country? If he does, then why should he not control the economic means of growth in this country?”
Obama Sr says that since wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of economic elites, “We need to eliminate power structures that have been built through excessive accumulation”. He proposes state confiscation of land and high taxation with no upper limit. Just in case the point is unclear, He writes: “Theoretically, there is nothing that can stop the government from taxing 100 per cent of income so long as the people get benefits commensurate with the income which is taxed.”
At first glance, the idea of 100 per cent tax rates seems insane — how could an intelligent man, let alone an economist, propose such a thing? Plug in the anti-colonial assumption, however, and we can see the logic of the proposal. The assumption is that the rich man became rich through exploitation. So if you come to my house and steal my furniture, what’s the appropriate tax rate for you? Well, 100 per cent, because it’s not your furniture.
It may seem incredible to suggest that the anti-Western, anti-American ideology of Obama Sr that justifies massive state appropriations of private wealth is the belief system of the American president. But that is what I am saying. For instance, I believe that the premises of Obama Sr’s paper can help us understand what President Obama means when he says the rich aren’t paying their “fair share”. The top 10 per cent of income earners in America pay around 70 per cent of the taxes. By ordinary standards, it would seem that the affluent are more than paying their share. However, if you assume that wealth is not earned through effort or creativity but is rather the product of greed and theft, then there is no limit to what percentage you can legitimately seize. Obama’s rhetoric and actions suggest that he feels morally justified in state confiscation of wealth to whatever extent he can get away with it.
The anti-colonial hypothesis is not only psychologically plausible — it is rooted in Obama’s own testimony about his father — but it also has tremendous explanatory power. It can account for Obama’s domestic policy as well as his foreign policy, and it can also explain little details about Obama that no other theory can account for.
Consider Obama’s attitude towards the private sector. He seems to regard the private sector as dominated by greedy, selfish, neocolonial exploiters. He rarely misses a chance to flay Wall Street for its excess, insurance companies for their greed, oil companies for their profiteering and pharmaceutical companies for their exploitative prices.
His solution seems to be to “decolonise” the private sector by bringing it under the heavy hand of government control. Obama even refuses banks that have received federal bailouts the chance to repay them. He says that first they have to pass a “stress test”. How odd to require a debtor to pass a test before he can give you your money back. Evidently, Obama wants these banks to keep the federal money because with it comes federal control.
Obama’s environmental policies seem designed to enrich the previously colonised countries and impose the cost on the neocolonial West. In his speeches to the United Nations and elsewhere, Obama calls for sharp restrictions on the use of oil, carbon and other resources by the Western developed nations. But he seeks no equivalent restrictions on the Third World. On the contrary, the Obama administration has proposed massive transfers of wealth from the West to the Third World for the purpose of enabling the poor countries to develop new sources of energy.
In the foreign policy arena, Obama seems to view Iraq and Afghanistan not as venues for a “war on terror”. Indeed, he has virtually banned the term. Rather, Obama appears to view America’s presence in those two countries as the result of wars of colonial occupation. He is determined to withdraw American troops no matter what happens in the aftermath. In Iraq, Obama opposed the “surge” that proved crucial in turning the tide against the insurgency. Iraq remains unstable, but it would be far worse had there been no surge. Obama has already begun a pullout.
He has also announced American withdrawal from Afghanistan starting in 12 months. Recently, the New York Times reported that the Karzai government in Afghanistan has been conducting secret talks with the Taliban. Initially, this appeared to be a regrettable case of untrustworthy allies. When I first read the headline, I thought: “It seems like we can’t trust these Afghans. Just when our back is turned they start making deals with the enemy.” But a few days later the NYT reported that the Obama administration had been orchestrating the secret negotiations. It is Obama who is trying to cut a deal with the Taliban. Once again, it appears as if Obama’s primary objective is to end what he perceives to be a colonial occupation. Whether Karzai rules, or the Taliban rule, or some combination of the two, seems to be a secondary consideration for him.
Now consider the lethargy with which Obama collects international signatures to discourage Iran from building a nuclear bomb. Let’s acknowledge that it’s not easy to deter the mullahs from doing something that they very much want to do. Still, it seems that America should at least pursue policies that have a reasonable prospect of stopping the Iranian bomb. If not, then at least admit that Iran is going to get the bomb and take measures designed to prevent that bomb from posing a lethal threat to Israel or the West. Instead, Obama seems content to pursue a series of symbolic measures, including symbolic sanctions that have virtually no chance of convincing the mullahs to give up their nuclear ambitions.
Obama’s lethargy in blocking Iran’s nuclear project contrasts sharply with his effectiveness in reducing America’s nuclear arsenal. At a recent summit, Obama announced that America and Russia would both be sharply cutting their nuclear stockpiles. The Russian stockpile is mostly decayed, so the net effect is severely to scale back the American arsenal. Obama’s rhetoric was suitably lofty: this was all part of his dream to move us closer to a world free of nuclear weapons. Still, the cynic may be forgiven for noting that the only nuclear arsenal under Obama’s control was that of the US, so the only way he could move us closer to a nuclear-free world was to slash his own country’s stockpile.
Following his nuclear summit, many American conservatives criticised Obama for his foolish hope that a US nuclear reduction would inspire the Iranians and perhaps the North Koreans to limit their own nuclear aspirations. If Obama actually thought this, he would indeed be a fool. But plug in the anti-colonial hypothesis and a more plausible explanation emerges for Obama’s actions. Perhaps Obama views America, not Iran or North Korea, as the rogue nation that has the biggest arsenal, has actually used nuclear weapons in the past and poses the greatest threat to world security. If so, then Obama’s goal was not to influence Iran or North Korea but rather to reduce America’s arsenal, and in this he was completely successful.
Consider a final detail that puts the icing, if you will, on the anti-colonial theory. Shortly after assuming the presidency, Obama decided to return a bust of Winston Churchill that had been displayed in the Oval Office. The bust had been loaned to America from the British government’s art collection, and to many Britons it symbolised America’s relationship with Britain. Chagrined by Obama’s decision to return it, British officials suggested the bust could be displayed elsewhere in the administration. Obama refused and the bust now sits in the residence of the British ambassador.
Now recall Obama’s prejudice against Britain for its colonial rule in Kenya. Recall, also, that Churchill was a champion of British colonialism. He famously said he had not become Prime Minister in order to preside over the end of the British Empire. As noted earlier, he was also Prime Minister in the 1950s when British forces arrested both Obama’s father and grandfather in connection with the Mau Mau revolt. Later, Churchill blocked efforts to have a government investigation of the alleged atrocities in Kenya. So when we use the anti-colonial model we have a perfectly good explanation for Obama’s hostility to Britain in general, and Churchill in particular. Remove the anti-colonial model and Obama’s action in removing the Churchill bust becomes inexplicable.
The world has changed a great deal since the anti-colonial heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. Today countries are rising up not through state socialism but by using what has been termed “the advantage of backwardness”. Countries such as India, China, Indonesia and Chile are using their low labour costs to make stuff that other people around the world want to buy. Thus they are growing at rapid rates. Many countries once labelled “Third World” have now become “emerging markets” and they are engines of global prosperity.
Many in Britain, I know, are deeply ambivalent about Britain’s colonial legacy. But colonialism is now dead and so is anti-colonialism. No one today cares about it — except the man in the White House. He is the last anti-colonial. Obama’s problem isn’t that he opposes foreign subjugation. It is that he is trapped in his father’s time machine. He is trying to apply the ossified, antiquated solutions of a generation ago to the very different problems of the world today. Obama’s approach does poor countries no favours, because his remedies would not help them rise out of poverty. At the same time, Obama is trying to end America’s leadership in the world, bringing to an end centuries of Western dominance. If he succeeds, the future for both America and Europe is likely to be less prosperous and less secure.