Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Obama: What now?

James R. Flynn

Obama may think it safer to keep his sanity intact. But unless he presses on some hotly debated topics, we’ll be left with a world at risk.

Barack Obama will want to show that a black President can fill the office with dignity.The simplest way to do that is to chart a middle course that does not “divide America” into warring camps.This would dictate doing only the minimum needed to solve the present economic crisis and avoid alienating his liberal constituency.It is the safest way to encourage Americans to judge candidates on their merits rather than on their race.Obama has spent so much of his life in activism and advocacy to enhance the status of black Americans; who am I to second guess him if he settles for that?

And yet, he may want to take a shot at being a great President, and try to change the false images of reality that render US domestic and foreign policy so hopeless.

Black America and desperate America

When Jack Kennedy became the first Catholic President, everyone knew that the issue of state funding of church schools could not even arise.This now holds equally true for the expansion of affirmative action for blacks, that is, policies that give blacks preference over whites for government jobs, university entrance, and so forth.

This may seem tragic.Even if Obama’s victory meant the end of serious overt bias in America, blacks will continue to suffer purely because they are black.The market dictates this because it is costly to get to know people as individuals and cheap to use racial profiles.A landlady, succumbing to stereotypes, will still prefer a Korean-American female (quiet, law abiding) to a young black male (noisy, one-third of them convicted felons).The boss at McDonald’s will still feel that someone that his white workers recommend will be less of a risk than a friend of one of his black workers.Nothing has happened to alter the results of a recent study that showed that, even when credentials were equal, black-sounding names got half as many call backs from employers as white-sounding names.

However, color-blind policies that reduce unemployment, upgrade the amenities of poor neighborhoods, and render home ownership more secure would in helping all Americans at risk also help blacks disproportionately, perhaps far more than affirmative action.

The current economic crisis makes certain policies politically viable.It is obvious that just giving banks money will not be enough.The loss of a million jobs during 2008 thus far, and the prospect of almost another million lost over the next three months, favors government spending to create jobs, particularly in construction by repairing America’s infrastructure.

Even foreclosures create an opportunity.“Preventing” these for the moment, and leaving the out-of-work owner to default later on, is not much use.The government should:assume ownership of homes under threat, paying the bank perhaps half of the paper equity owing (more than they are likely to get otherwise); rent them back to former owners at a rate they can pay even on welfare; and have a provision that allows the former owner to resume possession, without encumbrance, by paying an extra stipend per month once he or she get a job again.If you have to switch cities to find a job, the government could arrange a swap to a similar house, carrying over whatever equity you have.Why should this not become a permanent and popular policy, an option for homeowners threatened by adversity, even after the present crisis is over?

Russia and rogue states

Obama can start trying to inoculate Americans against the hysterical view of the world that vetoes both a sane foreign policy abroad and the liberal agenda at home.He’s already using his email list, expanded to include all who want to hear, and integrating a blog site – a sort of 21st century “fireside chat.

The first chat should give his reasons for abandoning the proposed missile sites scheduled for Eastern Europe. We swear that these sites are not meant to be used against Russia, but when she called our bluff and suggested they be put on her territory, we were without an answer. They are merely a boondoggle wasting money that should be spent on America’s recovery. To try to enlist states like Georgia in NATO is no less provocative than Russia’s enlisting Latin American states into the Warsaw Pact.Everyone understands why the new states of Eastern Europe are nervous but a mutual defense treaty with the US is enough. Indeed, now that Georgia has been stripped of minorities, who were lumped with it by Stalin and now prefer Russia, we could see whether a government reconciled to her new boundaries deserved some reassurance.

As for the supposed need for missiles in Eastern Europe to deter “rogue states”, no small state with primitive weapons can threaten America or its allies.We managed to deter Stalin with our weapons superiority – and we are now frightened of North Korea!As for allies like the UK, France, and Israel, all of them have far more weapons than they need to do their own deterring.Japan is covered by the American deterrent.This concept is really an excuse for endless meddling in areas where we would do well to be circumspect.

Think of how refreshing it would be to have the President present these views not as set in concrete, but as ones he wants tested by debate beyond his inner circle!Members of his cabinet could participate on his blog, even including his vice-President or Secretary of State.Anyone who is appalled can join the debate.I suspect these chats and the ensuing debates would be viewed as exciting innovations.

Oil, terrorism, and Israel

The next set of fireside chats would be more risky politically but essential if we really want to rethink the folly of Iraq.One hopes that Obama’s thinking has gone beyond the campaign strategy of shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

America is committed to safeguarding the existence of Israel but everything else the West (and Russia) has done in the Middle East over the last 50 years has been a mistake. No great power has got any permanent gain.Think of how much better off the region would be if the West had introduced no arms and overthrown no regime. For God’s sake leave the Middle East alone.

America is in total denial.It cannot face the hard fact that the price we pay for our support of Israel is that we, above all, can have no positive influence in this area except on Israel.As for oil, it is counterproductive to put bases in the Middle East that are hated. We will get our share of oil by paying the market price with good currency, unless we make it politically impossible for some states to sell to us.

Afghanistan will prove an even greater morass than Iraq.We should use our troops there to strike a bargain with the Taliban that we will withdraw if they do not play host to Al-Qaeda.If they renege, use Special Forces and air power to liquidate the bases and make them wish they had not.We should tell Pakistan the same.

As for Israel, why can their Prime Minister see what we cannot?Now that Olmert has resigned, he says (NY Times, September 29, 2008) what is, I believe, self-evident.The long-term survival of Israel depends on the creation of a viable Palestinian state minimally acceptable to the Arab world; and that means that the new state must control all of the West bank (or be given compensatory territory for a few settlements).

His words have disappeared like a stone dropped into a well.Obama should devise a road map that gives a Palestinian state control over the West Bank but that does not entail dragging screaming settlers from their homes.Israel should begin by declaring that the Palestinian authorities will decide on all new housing on the West bank.

The price of prudence

Obama may think it safer to keep sanity to himself.But unless someone starts such a debate, the best we will get is a lingering war in Afghanistan and the diversion of billions to bases and weapons that make any liberal domestic program difficult.A hiatus of four years (or worse, eight years) will mean America and Israel at risk and a world with America as a source of mischief and fear.When what the world wants above all is an America that forges a consensus to deal with global problems.

I hope he chances his arm.

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About The Author

James R. Flynn

James R. Flynn is the author of Does Your Family Make You Smarter? He is professor emeritus at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and a recipient of the University's Gold Medal ...

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