Pankaj Mishra writes: Perhaps it is time to ask again: who is Barack Obama? And how has Pakistan featured in his worldview? The first question now seems to have been settled too quickly, largely because of the literary power of Obama’s speeches and writings. His memoir, Dreams From My Father, was quickened by the drama of the self-invented man from nowhere – the passionate striving, eloquent self-doubt and ambivalence that western literature, from Stendhal to Naipaul, has trained us to identify with a refined intellect and soul. Not surprisingly, Obama’s careful self-presentation seduced some prominent literary fictionists, inviting comparisons to James Baldwin.
Later biographies of Obama, published after he became president, have complicated the picture of him as the possessor of diversely sourced identities (Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii, Harvard). David Maraniss’s new biography shows that at college the bright student from Hawaii’s closest friends were Pakistanis, and he carried around a dog-eared copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
But Obama also began early, as one girlfriend of his reported to her diary, to “strike out”, “shedding encumbrances, old images”. “Do you think I will be president of the United States?” he asked a slightly bemused Pakistani friend, who then witnessed “Obama slowly but carefully distancing himself from the Pakistanis as a necessary step in establishing his political identity”.
“For years,” Maraniss writes, “Obama seemed to share their attitudes as sophisticated outsiders who looked at politics from an international perspective. But to get to where he wanted … he had to change.” Obama’s Pakistani friend recalls: “The first shift I saw him undertaking was to view himself as an American in a much more fundamental way.”
In an incorrigibly rightwing political culture, this obliged Obama to always appear tougher than his white opponents. During his 2008 presidential debates with John McCain, Obama often startled many of us with his threats to expand the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan. More disquietingly, he claimed the imprimatur of Henry Kissinger, who partnered Richard Nixon in the ravaging of Cambodia, paving the way for Pol Pot, while still devastating Vietnam.
It can’t be said Obama didn’t prepare us for his murderous spree in Pakistan. It is also true that drone warfare manifests the same pathologies – racial contempt, paranoia, blind faith in technology and the superstition of body counts – that undermined the US in Vietnam.
The White House has been used before to plot daily mayhem in some obscure, under-reported corner of the world. During the long bombing campaign named Rolling Thunder, President Lyndon Johnson personally chose targets in Indochina, believing that “carefully calculated doses of force could bring about desirable and predictable responses from Hanoi“.
But of course “force”, as James Baldwin pointed out during Kissinger and Nixon’s last desperate assault on Indochina, “does not reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary and this revelation invests the victim with patience”. [Continue reading…]