barack ‘chamberlain’ obama

May 17, 2010

A version of this appeared in DNA on may 17th at or for a pdf version

Barack ‘Chamberlain’ Obama?

Rajeev Srinivasan on why the US president seems hell-bent on appeasement

Once upon a time British politicians were held up as exemplars; they were colorful, and their actions were noted around the world. Neville Chamberlain, former British prime minister, became infamous for appeasing Nazi Germany. He declared, upon returning from the 1938 Munich conference that sacrificed Czech Sudetenland to please Germany: “I believe it is peace for our time!” Famous last words, as World War II started shortly thereafter.

It is worth remembering him for two reasons: first, the recent British election and its pedestrian politicians evoked no more than mild disinterest from the rest of the world – how indeed the mighty have fallen! Second, it is remarkable that US president Obama seems to be following Chamberlain’s playbook in terms of – foolishly – placating his enemies.

It appears that Obama virtually revels in appeasement. So much so that there is valid criticism that it is not clear what he stands for, if anything – he is so busy with attempting to shepherd everybody in the room in some direction that he quite forgets what that direction is. It appears that there is a process, everybody is running around doing something, but the results are woefully poor.

For instance, Obama’s foreign policy has been nothing short of disastrous. He arrived on the scene convinced that he was going to be the Great Peacemaker after the despised warmonger George W. Bush. His chosen method: make unilateral concessions first, expecting the other party to reciprocate the goodwill. Laudable as this might be in theory, it doesn’t seem to work in practice – see how China used Jawaharlal Nehru.

In fact, Obama may well share Nehru’s crowning vanity – the idea of being privy to the secret of World Peace. Nehru appears to have felt he was the Emperor Ashoka reincarnated, equipped with the Panchasheela or Five Principles that would cause World Peace to break out. Obama, although more discreet, seems to suffer from the same mixture of megalomania and naïvete and, above all, inexperience.

This flaw is exploited by hard-boiled practitioners of realpolitik. Obama has tried danam (giveaways) with several foes – China, Iran, and now Pakistan (which is certainly his foe although Americans prefer the fiction that Pakistan is “a valuable ally in the war against terror” [sic]). His kowtowing startled and then amused the Chinese. Iran ignores him.

With Pakistan, and Islam in general, Obama has bent over backwards. He made speeches eulogizing Arabs and Islam, literally curtseyed to the Saudi king, and removed the term “Islamic terrorism” from his vocabulary, preferring the euphemism “man-caused disaster”!

Alas, the net result of Obama’s exertions is that Arabs and Pakistanis despise him and the US more than ever. A Pew survey discovered that Pakistanis – despite, or perhaps because of, the $15 billion sunk there by the US after 9/11 – have the world’s worst opinion of America. But Obama is persistent. In the aftermath of the abortive Times Square bombing, there was the ill-timed news that Homeland Security was reducing its budget for New York City by 30-50%! The New York Post reprised a famous headline: “Obama to City: Drop Dead!”

In domestic policy too, Obama seems to have miscalculated with fruitless ‘reaching out’ to the opposition Republicans. It is remarkable that his landmark achievement – some might say his only achievement – of passing health care legislation came with absolutely zero bi-partisan support. This is far worse than predecessors who generally managed to cobble together a working coalition.

The trouble may well be that Barack Obama really does not stand for anything per se. He may well be a Zelig, the chameleon-like eponymous hero of that film, or Peter Sellers’ remarkable character Chaunce the Gardener in Being There. Someone who is fluid in substance, someone who reflects what others want to see in him. This, of course, is perfect for an election – everybody projects what they desire onto the candidate.

Which may be why Obama seems to be in permanent campaign mode as well. His timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan was sharply predicated on expected sound-bites that would help his party win mid-term elections in 2011.

An erudite Indian friend in Los Angeles, sympathetic to black issues, suggested that this fluidity may well be the very reason Obama was able to win the presidency – and how he has been called the epitome of the so-called “magical negro” trope: the black helper who plays a supporting role to the white protagonist. A black with concrete views and convictions could never have won, he felt.

Be that as it may, Obama is President. And the reason Indians should worry about Obama is that he appears quite willing to sacrifice the last Indian and the last inch of Indian territory in order to placate the ISI and the Taliban. This is hardly in the national interest. Whatever else he may be, Obama the appeaser is no friend of India.

824 words, 15 May 2010


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