"Inside Obama’s White House" reminds us politics can be a deeply tragic affair

The latest in the BBC’s documentary series is the story of the President being reluctantly dragged out of the White House and into the world

March 30, 2016
Barack Obama, then US President-elect, about to walk out to take the oath of office. Backstage at the U.S. Capitol. 20th January 2009 ©White House, Pete Souza
Barack Obama, then US President-elect, about to walk out to take the oath of office. Backstage at the U.S. Capitol. 20th January 2009 ©White House, Pete Souza
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Inside Obama’s White House: Don’t Screw it Up is the story of the discovery that power is not there. The latest installment in the BBC’s documentary series on the US President is journalism of the highest calibre. Everyone who counts has been interviewed, the editing is unobtrusive—which is a sure sign that it is clever—and the chronology of events flows without ever drawing attention to its structure. The programme has an air of authority that never wavers. But even that set of virtues could add up merely to the sum of its parts. Inside Obama’s White House is more than that because it embodies a truth about politics which is so rarely aired. Power is elusive, even in the West Wing. This episode of the documentary ends, as any clever argument does, with its main contention. A rather forlorn Barack Obama sits in the Oval Office and, down the barrel of the camera, says of his foreign policy: “you can change opinions and use your voice to move things towards a more ethical and moral outcome. But you’re not always going to be successful.”

It was a far cry from Obama’s words on assuming the Presidency, which also feature here: “We’re going to change this country. And we’re going to change the world.” Between that statement and his conclusion lies all of politics. Democratic politics is the process by which hopes are raised and then disenchanted. The democratic politician encounters a world which is resistant to his charms and people with a disconcerting tendency to take views of their own. The second programme in this series showed how extraordinarily hampered the President was, especially in the most partisan Congress in history, in trying to establish even a limited scheme of healthcare. The third programme exhibited an even further remove from power—the President attempts to reset the world.

No sooner has the President begun his mission—stated in a speech in Cairo in 2009—of withdrawing the United States from combat than he is thrust into unexpected chaos. It is a great irony that Cairo was the very city that Obama chose to expound the new doctrine that, not long after, exploded. Doctrine is perhaps too precise a word to describe the rather vague and formless warm words that Obama offered in Cairo. Though there was some obligatory blather about human rights and an “unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things” there was nothing to encourage the young of Egypt to take to Tahrir Square in defiance of their leaders.

From the beginning, the White House was home to a split on the Arab Spring and the consequences of its aftermath. The split was generational. The elder statesmen (in the light of what happened the implied compliment is deliberate), Robert Gates, former Defence Secretary and Hillary Clinton, who was then Secretary of State, were cautious throughout. Worried about what came next, Gates and Clinton were at all points tempering the enthusiasm that some of the younger staffers, such as Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser, were offering. The White House wanted President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down but Gates worried about what might stand in his place. Rhodes remains adamant, though, that a President who argues for freedom and democracy would have been caught “on the wrong side of history” if he had not sided with the protestors against a diminished authoritarian President.

The use of the cliché is the tip-off here, as it usually is, to the fact that there is something awry in the formulation. History is not an impersonal force separate from the sides that people place themselves on. History does not have a side. It is the sum total of many individual actions and choices, most of them tragic. Indeed, the suspicion that is left by the treatment of Egypt, Libya and Syria in Inside Obama’s White House is that many of the choices in foreign policy are indeed tragic in the sense that there is no desirable outcome available. Action is always freighted with the weight of what actually happened. In the ethics of policy we weigh a sin of commission far more heavily than a sin of omission. Once again in Libya, Robert Gates was the voice of waiting. “Can I just finish the two wars I’m in before you go looking for a third” he told the President.

Throughout, there is the fact, obvious when stated baldly, that nobody, not even the clever politicians at the head of the world’s most powerful democracy, can predict what will happen. The Libyan mission prevented Muammar Gaddafi’s forces slaughtering their way into Benghazi but the opposition collapsed in short order and anarchy ensued. Syria turned into a desperate civil war in which many unappealing factions revolved around a reviled dictator who had the support of the Russians. There is many a talking head who predicted all this after it happened but here is a reminder that political decisions always take place in the dark before the light of the future has shone.

Repeatedly events mock the President. He is categorical that the use of chemical weapons would “change my calculus” in Syria, then discovers that it doesn’t. “If you threaten America you will find no safe haven” he declares. But his whole Presidency was predicated on disengaging from combat, not resuming it. The old foreign policy struggle, which recurs every generation, between the prosecution of national interest and the wider interest of the good in human affairs, crops up in every conflict. After the vile images from the conflict in Syria Obama is moved to act, even though the British decline to join in. He was clearly anxious about what he said was “military action without a clear UN mandate.” It is a war, he says, “of choice, not of necessity.”

Every dilemma is acutely described and all the better for not being directly stated. The actors speak for themselves with a voice-over that is confined to sketching the vital contextual details. This is not, though, in the end a counsel of despair. The capture and execution of Osama bin Laden, strangely, does not feature in the programme and its absence is a shame. That mission was exactly the vital but focused event that Presidential power can decree to happen. It did not require the allegiance or assent of allies; just the deployment of special forces.

The other successful event, although we should always bear in mind Mao Tse Tung’s important advice that it is always too early to tell, is the diplomatic initiative in Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry was convinced that the best way to reduce the nuclear programme in Tehran was to talk it out of existence. The major concession was to permit some continued uranium enrichment, without which Iran would regard the negotiation as a humiliation. This do not go down well, to put it mildly, with the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

There is a lot more that could be said about Obama’s foreign policy. There is a case to be made that Obama is the first president to understand the limits of US power in a world that will gradually be dominated by economic might in Asia. There is a counter-case too; that Obama has vacated the state and left a vacuum. That the world is a more dangerous place for America’s tactical withdrawal. Though it was without the scope of this programme, Obama has in fact returned America to the isolated position with which it has historically felt most comfortable. The story of Inside Obama’s White House is the story of the President being reluctantly dragged out of the White House and into the world.

But it was not and is not the purpose of a documentary to erect a thesis as such. Inside Obama’s White House soft-pedalled on the opinions and offered an insight instead. That politics is a difficult, sometimes tragic affair. That the hardest choices of all in politics are between an evil and a lesser evil, when it is all but impossible to tell the one from the other and that, even when you are putatively the most powerful man in the world, it is hard to avoid the unforgiving feeling that, if the darker side of humanity is let loose in the world, there is really not a great deal that you can do.

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