The Senators Will Bear the Burden

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2012 may be remembered as the presidential election in which we chose between candidates about whom we could not be sure who they really were. Neither man was a new face. One had been president for four years, the other had been looking to become president for a decade. The best thing, however, about Barack Obama was the Democratic Party, and the worst thing about Mitt Romney was the Republican Party. The distance between the two parties in point of sanity and common sense was now so great as to leave an educated voter no choice at all. The re-election of Obama was a good thing, but it has left us uncertain. His way of negotiating with the Republicans from 2009 through 2011 was to offer them everything in his opening bid. Their response was to ask for more; so Obama asked his party for more; and things ground to a standstill. This pattern became a public disgrace at the time of the debt-ceiling negotiations in July 2011.

The Obama presidency has been commendable (the Affordable Care Act, equal rights for gay men and women in the military) and it has been detestable (permanent detention of terrorist suspects, expansion of drone warfare with no accountability). The performance is hard to characterize, finally, because there isn’t one character who seems to inhabit it. Historians will be puzzled to determine what the president did between April and November 2010, and again between August 2011 and November 2012. Those are long stretches of vacant time, and not all of it can be blamed on the intractability of the Republican congress.

Obama likes to pronounce that the battle is over. (“I won.”) But for a man who worked as a community organizer, he has been strangely resourceless in taking his case to the public. In his first term, he did that sporadically (often on talk-shows and at town-hall meetings), before he had a specific case to recommend, and he went back after the opposition had rallied against him. The conditions that made for this impotence in 2009 remain in place for 2013. His victory speech began with the familiar grandiosity: “Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony…” But people are asking President Obama (at whose doorstep aeons may pause and galaxies wonder) to stop now, and look around, and plant himself in today. Look at the continent that burned last summer and flooded this fall, and say plainly what you mean to do. Obama, in the victory speech, went on to declare that we are not red states and blue states. But that is false; it is a forlorn prayer disguised as a statement of fact; and though the discretion of a moderate leader doesn’t require him to call it false, his need to repeat the ancient theme suggests that more magical thinking may be in store.

Magical thinking that obstructs persuasion and the steady pursuit of policy has come in two kinds. There is the neighborhood kind. Obama on November 3, 2007 told a crowd of supporters in Spartanburg, South Carolina: “Understand this: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I will walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America.” This was an absurd picture. No president could do what Obama asked his listeners to believe he was going to do. The other kind of magical thinking is planetary. On June 3, 2008, when he had clenched that year’s Democratic nomination, Obama said that some day people would look back and say “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Take the words of humble fellowship on walking the picket line, and the words of shouldering the burden as shepherd of the universe, and compare Obama’s actual contribution to care for the environment and his actual behavior in the Wisconsin protests against union-busting legislation put in by Governor Scott Walker. He did not even pause to say hello on a visit to a neighboring state.

There will be obvious signs if a change is in process. A president who saw his mistakes would get a new attorney general and a new secretary of energy. He would speak early and often about global warming, submit legislation early, go to the public early, and not let up. But there is an amoral, debonair streak in Obama that often usurps the dignity of the practical and moral. When, on a recent appearance on the Daily Show, he was confronted about his expansion of the Bush-Cheney surveillance policies, he replied: “We have modified them. Now, they’re not real sexy issues.” That bad reply suggested a cynicism from which there may be no return; but Barack Obama is always at his worst when behaving like a celebrity.

Two phrases this president seldom speaks are: “the Constitution” and “the rule of law.” It is, after all, the Constitution and the rule of law that curb alike the excesses of blue and red states, and even the excesses of a president. Anyway, the largest hope of 2012 surely rests not with the president, but with those senators of political skill and passion who have been elected or reelected: Sherrod Brown, Sheldon Whitehouse, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy, and others. They may give the party a backbone it has missed in recent years. If the story is about “You”—that “we” did it in 2012 and “we” must follow through—let us say this time we believe that we did. And because we believe it, this time let us be sincere from the start when the lack of political courage in Obama gives a shock to conscience. Gifted Democrats, such as those mentioned above, ought to recognize from the start how much of the burden of his second term they will have to bear.

David Bromwich is the author of Hazlitt: the Mind of a Critic and editor of a selection of Edmund Burke’s speeches and letters, On Empire, Liberty, and Reform.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.