Monday, November 16, 2009


(a version of this article appears in the 11/17/09 Bangkok Post)

by Philip J Cunningham

Obama’s Tokyo speech, delivered on November 14, 2009 at a glittering downtown concert hall, gave a select audience the chance to savor the president’s trademark rhetoric, read aloud in now-familiar tones and cadences, accompanied by slightly jarring Janus-like sideward glances, eyes darting back and forth between twin teleprompters.

Designed to set an upbeat tone for the president’s Asia trip, it fell short of his much-hailed Cairo speech as paean to international amity, but served to convince East Asia, despite the late date of his visit, and two distracting wars on the other side of the continent, that the Pacific is somehow the centerpiece of his foreign policy. The pep talk might as well have been subtitled, “America still rules the Pacific.”

The best, if not the most sincere of the many tasty sound-bites offered up in his Yankee-will-not-go-home speech came early, almost haiku-like in brevity, befitting the recollection of a childhood memory. During a visit to the Amida Buddha in Kamakura with his mother, he was distracted by the green tea ice cream.

Thereafter the speech shifts to protocol-laden niceties about the Emperor and warm hospitality of Japan, the usual bromides to reassure his hosts, even though preparations for the visit were marred by serious disagreement about US bases in Okinawa and the pomp and circumstance had to be trimmed due to the president’s arriving a day late and the host prime minister departing a day early.

Despite looming tensions and policy disagreements, President Obama’s speech soon had the select audience in Suntory Hall almost drunk with good cheer, so much so that he could tell the star-struck listeners, who, judging from the applause, were more than willing to suspend belief in order to enjoy the show, that “support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America,” without a hint of humility.

No need to think about nasty headlines from the reality-based newspaper world detailing US involvement in torture, bombing, renditions, spying, war crimes, Guantanamo and the AfPak aerial bombing campaign, when one instead can soak up, in a sumptuous symphonic hall, a golden voice delivering gilded words about an imagined America filled the to the brim with good will and good ideas and high ideals.

Still, sometimes the word master’s poetic rhetoric leaned too heavily towards euphemism, even for Japanese tastes. When it came to describing America’s war against Japan, the president seemed to be whitewashing history when he summed up the long bloody war’s end with the trite phrase, “After the guns went silent.”

What an evasive way to describe the big bang at the war’s end, when the US dropped two nuclear bombs, killing over one hundred thousand hapless civilians! The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the bad luck to live in cities that had been left untouched by conventional bombing which put them on the short list of as-yet-unbombed cities suitable for testing the effects of the terrible nuclear device under almost clinical conditions.

If Obama knew Japan better, instead of appointing as ambassador a political donor who had not managed to visit the country even once before moving into the embassy where Douglas MacArthur famously welcomed the defeated Emperor with a handshake and stiff photo op, he might have realized that the Japanese public, far from wanting more of the status quo, just resoundingly rejected the so-called "sense of purpose that has guided ties with the Japanese people for nearly fifty years."

Memo to Obama: the LPD, and its long, corrupt symbiotic relationship with Washington is history now.

And if Obama had selected an ambassador who could speak a bit of the language and had experienced daily life in Japan as an ordinary "gaijin," he might not have held Japan's racialist society up as exemplar of human rights. Japan is a land where long-term residents of Korean and Chinese descent as well as native Burakumin still suffer as second-class citizens, where housing discrimination is legal, where age and sex discrimination are rampant and where discrimination against non-Japanese is enshrined in law.

“In Prague,” Obama goes on to say, “I affirmed America's commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons,” followed by a boastful caveat. “Let me be clear: so long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a strong and effective nuclear deterrent.”

No apparent irony in this Janus-faced announcement by which the commander-in-chief of the only country to have dropped atom bombs on living cities somehow claims the high moral ground when it comes to disarmament.

If nuclear weapons are, as Obama claims, "a strong and effective nuclear deterrent" does it logically follow that "those without them have the responsibility to forsake them?"

He cites Japan as a country that pleases America for not having pursued nuclear capability, when it is an open secret that Japan possesses ample technological means and fissile material, and just needs snap a few pieces into place, to rank as one of the world's top nuclear powers.

But it is pre-modern Japan that offers the most telling insight here. In a realm once ruled by the swagger of steely samurai, ordinary citizens were banned from carrying swords, keeping the peace, albeit in an extremely undemocratic, top-down fashion. Then, as now, those who wield the most destructive weapons get a free pass.

"As I have said before, strengthening the global nonproliferation regime is not about singling out individual nations. It is about all nations living up to their responsibilities. That includes the Islamic Republic of Iran. And it includes North Korea."

A mild contradiction here. He says he's not going to single anyone out, and he goes on to single out the two countries most likely to be targeted by US missiles should tensions arise.

"It is all about nations living up to their responsibilities…”

Responsibility? Why is it a “responsibility” for the US to keep its nuclearized deterrent capacity, while for others “responsibility” means not to seek or covet the kind of arsenal that the US possesses in spades?

Hold the ‘freedom fries,’ pass the ‘responsibility fries.’ Need any ketchup?

If others did as the US does instead of doing as the US leader preaches, the planet would be in big trouble. The US hypocrisy of exceptionalism, even under the genial Obama, extends not only to nuclear weapons but to pollution, carbon footprint and the rapacious consumption of oil and other natural resources.

"Already, the United States has taken more steps to combat climate change in ten months than we have in our recent history"

Oh really? Obama’s accomplishments before becoming President were notably modest, so he knows a thing or two about how to pad a thin resume. When you have little to show for ten months in office you can set the bar really low by comparing yourself to a discredited predecessor.

What’s more surprising, and not at all a departure from Bush’s imperial presidency, is Obama’s disconcerting willingness to continue to employ, and even augment, draconian executive powers while using violence, or the threat of violence, to pursue thorny foreign policy objectives, again, not unlike his predecessor.

“The United States expects to be involved in the discussions that shape the future of this region, and to participate fully in appropriate organizations”

Here the term “expects” like the term “expeditiously” used in reference to sorting out the Okinawa US base issue, is a veiled warning to Japan. Don't even think of leaving the US out of regional groupings, even though US status as an "Asian" nation is a bit of a stretch.

“We are on the brink of economic recovery…We simply cannot return to the same cycles of boom and bust that led us into a global recession.”

Politicians of all stripes like to claim that things are getting better, nothing unusual here, but it's a stretch to suggest can you avoid boom and bust, intrinsic to capitalism, for all time to come.

And what happened to the free market? Obama may not have shilled for Toys R Us as President H W Bush did during his diplomatically inept visit to Japan, but he is disingenuously suggesting that if we can sell you more of our stuff, even while our people buy less of yours, your workers will be happy.

In place of achievement, --the Obama team hasn’t actually done much despite all the hoopla-- we get from the President policy wonk formulations, he’s forever "taking steps" and "moving forward" and "advancing our goals."

In Obama’s Asia, everyone's a partner (though US is and must remain first among equals) and everyone has "responsibilities."

He calls on his partners to share responsibilities, like “rooting out the extremists who slaughter the innocent." In cold foreign policy parlance, the truly objectionable term here is not “slaughter” but "extremists."

Obama and his Pentagon pals have already slaughtered innocents by aerial bombardment in the “AfPak war,” in addition to the mission-not-yet-accomplished Iraq war bequeathed to him by his predecessor. The US remote bombing of impoverished rural locations, whether due to errant targeting, bad intelligence or perhaps even an unspoken cold-hearted willingness to take out an entire wedding party in order to nail a few suspected criminals, might involve slaughter, but don’t call it extreme.

While the US military has begrudgingly, belatedly acknowledged collateral road kill, it will never, ever see itself as "extremist." In other words, what makes the bad guys bad is not killing per se --the US has killed tens of thousands of people in its most recent righteous wars-- but "extremism" --a useful tag for bad guys since "terror” is suffering from word fatigue. To strengthen the metaphor, Obama rhetorically pairs “extremism” with piracy, trafficking, slavery and infectious disease.

If the speech was understandably a bit easy on host Japan, it was a bit too hard on Burma, the admittedly squalid regime that everyone likes to kick, and North Korea, which everyone likes to hate. One suspects an indirect agenda in which Obama is using two of China’s roguish neighbors as proxy targets for complaints he has about China itself but dare not say too loud for fear of offending the communist country that is bailing out and bankrolling America’s broken capitalist system.

"There must be no doubt, as America’s first Pacific President," Obama boldly declares, "I promise you this Pacific nation will strengthen and sustain our leadership in this vitally important part of the world." By what right does the US rule the Pacific? Why must there be no doubt?

The chameleon-like Obama has gotten great mileage out of identity politics that go beyond the racial complexities artfully described in the books he wrote in prelude to his self-promoting campaign. He wants you to believe he's a died-in-the-wool inner city denizen of Chicago, except when he wants to remind you that he is really a laid back guy from Hawaii, and he talks like a disciple of Jeremiah Wright, except when he's doing the Harvard Law school thing.

And it seems he has a relative for every purpose under the sun, --a spunky white grandmother, a tragic African dad, an Indonesian-born sister, and a Canadian brother-in-law of Chinese descent-- all trotted out for political purposes.

But what does his gnarled family tree have to do with US policy? Is he trying to say the Asia-related factoids about his life, which he tends to brush under the rug when dealing with the black-white dichotomy back home, have some kind of essentialist bearing on US-Asia relations?

Tiger Woods, a man of comparably rich ethnic heritage, doesn't wear ethnicity on his sleeve in the same way, nor would it advance his golf game if he did. Does this tireless posturing, cherry-picking of his own biography and playing to the crowd make Barack Obama a better commander-in-chief? A Pacific leader?

This incessant desire to please has obvious utility during a political campaign, but once power is secured, it can produce deadly results, if, for example, hawks in the Pentagon have his ear, or certain hard-boiled constituencies give him bad advice.

The problem with the silver-tongued superstar storyteller formally known as Barry Obama is that he can spin a great yarn, as good a yarn as any politician in memory, and mesmerize people without actually doing very much.