Who is the real Barack Obama?
It’s an odd question to ask about an incumbent president less than a week before he’s up for reelection. It’s an especially strange inquiry to make of a president as self-obsessed and introspectively voluble as Obama.
Yet Obama has been the subject of so much fantasizing (not least by Obama himself) that the actual man remains occluded.
A simple explanation of Obama’s strengths and weaknesses has finally occurred to me.
The first two-dozen years of Obama’s life saw him on a path for a professional niche that nobody has quite explicated before. Until he upped stakes and moved to Chicago in 1985 to participate in the Council Wars racial struggle with the implausible goal of becoming mayor of Chicago, Obama was gliding down an unusual path: to become an international interlocutor, a graceful go-between connecting America and the Muslim world.
In the classic 1974 science-fiction novel The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, humanity comes into contact with an alien race whose ambassadors are articulate, elegant, and empathetic. They can listen to a human’s stumbling explanation of his wants and repeat it back to him more deftly than he did. Only slowly do the humans grasp that these polite, likable envoys are merely one caste among the aliens, a special breed called the “mediators.”
Here on planet Earth, international intermediaries are not yet bred to specification. Still, area experts and emissaries tend to emerge from certain backgrounds, classes, and personality types.
In American history, Foreign Service specialists are often the mild-mannered descendants of adventuresome old Protestants who became bored with their rocky Northeastern farms, such as the Yankee sea captains, merchants, and Protestant missionaries who dominated 19th-century America’s contacts with less developed cultures abroad such as the Kingdom of Hawaii.
In 1971, the ten-year-old Barack Obama enrolled in Punahou School, Hawaii’s flagship of Yankee culture. Punahou had been founded 130 years before by the Vermont missionary Hiram Bingham I. Upon Bingham, James Michener had modeled his villain, the Rev. Abner Hale, in his 1959 bestseller Hawaii.
As Obama notes in his stump speeches, the Dunhams were from Kansas, but from a particularly Yankee-leaning part of the Jayhawk State. For instance, his grandfather’s brother Ralph, a Berkeley Ph.D., traced his name back to that ultimate Unitarian, Ralph Waldo Emerson. (The president’s grandmother also had a sibling who earned a doctorate.)
The former were typically sons of Protestant missionaries born or raised in China, such as Owen Lattimore, John Paton Davies, Jr., and John S. Service. The left-leaning diplomatic, academic, and journalistic China Hands clashed with the right-leaning China Lobby in the 1940s and 1950s over whether American should back Mao Tse-tung or Chiang Kai-shek. Was Chiang a loser or was Mao a lunatic? (Unfortunately, it turned out that both could be true simultaneously.)
Similarly, as outlined in Robert D. Kaplan’s 1995 book The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite, Protestant missionaries from the Atlantic Seaboard voyaged to the Arab world in the 19th century. They didn’t have much luck converting the locals to Protestantism. (Obama’s Columbia professor Edward Said was a rare Arab Protestant.) But these intermarried families founded influential schools such as the American University of Beirut.
The Arabists played an influential role in American foreign policy until largely being squeezed out by Zionists angered with Arabists’ sympathy for the Palestinians.
Much of the Muslim world, however, is not Arab—for example, Indonesia, Pakistan, and large parts of black Africa. And that opened up a potential career path not as an Arabist per se, but as a “Muslimist.” The Muslimist route became especially promising in 1973 with the Muslim-dominated OPEC’s emergence as an economic power. The oil cartel included not only Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Libya, and Iran, but also Indonesia and part-Muslim Nigeria.
And who was better suited by family, friends, and personality to become a professional Muslimist than Barack Obama? As Obama told his biographer David Maraniss, the “obvious path for me given my background” was to get a graduate degree in international relations and wind up “working in the State Department, in the Foreign Service, or working for an international foundation.…”
After all, how common is it for an American citizen to be the biological son of an East African government official and a Ford Foundation employee in Jakarta, and the stepson of an Indonesian who works in government relations for an American oil company because his brother-in-law was in charge of mineral rights for the Jakarta regime?
A few of us have pointed out that the young Obama had numerous two-degrees-of-separation connections with the CIA. Obama himself implied in his autobiography that his mother worked at the US Embassy in Jakarta with purported diplomats who were actually Company operatives.
But little evidence has emerged that Obama was ever cut out to be a cutout. A less glamorous but more plausible notion is that Obama was never suited for being a spy pretending to be a diplomat. A good agent looks boring on the outside, such as Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In contrast, glory-hogging Obama appears exotic on the outside but is boring on the inside.
Instead, he always had the makings of a plain old diplomat.
Obama’s elders recognized that this career path made sense for him. Thus, at substantial expense, he attended Occidental, an underachieving but quite WASPy/international liberal-arts college, and then majored in international relations at Columbia.
Most of Obama’s male friends from age 18 through 24 were rich Pakistani Marxists, putting him on the fringes of the powerful Bhutto circle. (They all saw Obama as much less African-American than as “international.”)
But it’s also telling that his best American buddy, Phil Boerner, with whom he transferred from Occidental to Columbia in 1981, was the son of a peripatetic diplomat.
Likewise, Obama’s most serious New York girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, was the daughter of a top Australian diplomat/spy in Indonesia who later became Australia’s ambassador to America. Genevieve was also the stepdaughter of the chief counsel of the International Nickel Company, which had lucrative mining interests in Indonesia. (Continuing this Muslimist theme, she rebounded from Obama to marry the son of an Egyptian educator.)
Many have invoked Obama’s mother’s Ph.D. in anthropology as a key to his watchful persona, but academia is not quite the best analogy. His mother frequently abandoned him to his grandparents’ care to work on her 1,043-page Ph.D. dissertation on Indonesian blacksmiths. Obama, in contrast, has been remarkably lacking in the urge to do original work, except in writing about himself. He has All-But-Dissertation written all over him.
Obama’s dearth of creativity would not be a defect in, say, a Foreign Service lifer, where his job would have been to relay messages from the State Department to the host government and vice-versa. The “blank screen” aspect of Obama’s personality would have suited him well for a job as a relay.
Obama’s most obvious talent is that he is good at listening to people speak and then repeating it back accurately and elegantly, showing comprehension as well as rote memorization. This is a crucial skill for diplomats—the ability to grasp the implications of what the foreign official is saying and pass it back to Foggy Bottom.
But Obama didn’t like the messages coming from Washington in the 1980s, enormously successful as Reagan’s foreign policy turned out to be. Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984 was followed by Obama’s bizarre turn to insular Chicago politics in 1985.
Besides Obama’s leftism in a Republican era, the fundamental problem with a Foreign Service career from his perspective may have been that diplomats are intermediaries. They are supposed to be efficient pipelines for messages between the true seats of power.
And Obama has a hunger for power, which is tied into his fixation of “playing out a superhero life,” according to his ex-girlfriend. It’s a seeming anomaly in a low-energy person such as Obama, but the word “power” is a mantra throughout Dreams from My Father.
This helps explain his otherwise ludicrous obsession with becoming mayor of Chicago, the least likely job in the world for an elegantly mannered International Man of Mystery.
When Harold Washington was elected mayor in 1983 and immediately got into a huge racial struggle with the white majority of the aldermen—the Council Wars—Obama became galvanized by the notion of the mayor of Chicago as a powerful man, somebody with clout. That was a comically juvenile ambition because you can’t be mayor of Chicago if you are an outsider. I moved to Chicago a few years before Obama did, and it never occurred to me go into Chicago politics.
Obama’s upbringing to be a Muslimist helps explain something that puzzles all of Washington: What hold does his wife’s old boss, Valerie Jarrett, that empty pantsuit, have on him? Jarrett was Obama’s entrée to Chicago’s tiny black upper class, the only African-Americans with whom Obama feels comfortable. More than that, though, Jarrett, like Obama, had lived in a Muslim country (Iran) as a child.
It’s hard to imagine Obama going terribly far in Chicago politics as a Muslimist. But since he was a black politician, Jewish liberal real-estate interests in Chicago such as the Pritzkers adopted him. They didn’t take his ambition to be mayor seriously; instead, they thought he should be president!
Would they have been as enthusiastic if he was a professional Muslimist? Likely not.
And perhaps that will be history’s judgment on Obama’s extraordinary career: It was all just sort of a misunderstanding.
Photo of Obama courtesy of Shutterstock
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