Part XIII: Obama – The Politics of Dissent

Why was Iran at the top of the foreign policy list of issues for Obama? Why does it continue to be for Joe Biden? When Mohammad Rouhani was elected as president of Iran on 14 June 2013 with a landslide victory of just over 50% of the votes cast in the first round (Tehran Mayor Mohammas Bagher Ghalibal ran second with 16.56% of the vote), why in Toronto could one hear a huge cheer go up in Washington among members of Obama’s foreign policy team over the election? In this morning’s Washington Post, why was it reported that “no country in the world outside the United States…was more affected by the November election than Iran?”

Rouhani won 50.71% of the vote. Biden in November 2020 won 50.8% of the vote, the highest percentage victory of any challenger to an incumbent president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt won in 1932. In Iran in 2013, 36.7 million voted, a turnout of 72.71% of eligible voters. In 2020, in the United States, 61.6% of eligible voters cast ballots for the president from a total of 131 million voters. Rouhani won after spending ten years serving as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator with the West; he ran on a platform of removing Iran from its pariah status and re-engaging with the West and, more particularly, the U.S. The nuclear deal negotiated and signed by Rouhani on 14 July 2015 was central to his agenda. In the November election in the United States, the reinstatement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, from which Donald Trump had withdrawn in 2018, was the top foreign policy goal of the Biden presidential race. Since 2013 when Obama won re-election, U.S.-Iranian relations had been at the top of the Obama-Biden team foreign policy agenda.

I cite these statistics. not to bring out parallels between the U.S. election in 2020 and the Iranian election in 2013, nor to reengage further with the Iran nuclear deal, but to contrast American relations with China in 2021. America has just under four times the population of Iran. China has just under four times the population of America. China is the third largest economic power in the world, though its GDP still remains at two-thirds the size of America’s. Iran is quickly becoming an economic basket case. However, China is the only major economy in the world that avoided an economic contraction in 2020; in fact, though its lowest growth rate since 1976, China’s gross domestic product rose 2.3% for the full year, The U.S. experienced a second quarter decline in GDP in 2020 of 31%. Economists expect China’s GDP to increase by 8.4% in 2021. America’s projected increase is 1.72%.

Given these and a host of other economic as well as security and other data, one would expect China to be at the top of the foreign policy issues in the U.S. and not just near the top.  At the Davos World Economic Forum (run virtually) on Monday, President Xi Jinping unveiled his country’s four-point plan on how the global leaders need to unify, need to put aside historical, cultural, and socially systemic differences in order to strengthen the world’s economy. Joe Biden in his inaugural address on 20 January made a direct plea for American political unity and increasingly is seen as tilting at windmills given the behaviour of the Republican Party both before and in the aftermath of his speech.

While the U.S. has lost well over 400,000 of its citizens in the COVID-19 pandemic, 20% of the worldwide death toll of two million, in China where the pandemic started in Wuhan Province, the total death toll in a country with four times that of the U.S. population was under .35 per hundred thousand of population, actually under the New Zealand death rate of .51 per hundred thousand of population of the population. In contrast, the death toll in the United States was 128.67 per 100,000 population.

No matter what the issue – except for the democratic and human rights indices – whether it is economic growth rate, leadership in climate change, initiatives in expanding free trade and even on avoidance of war, China seems to be outstripping the U.S. Though America is still by far the leader in technological development, the Chinese rate of improvement in that area has been enormous. Given this clear and unprecedented challenge to American leadership in the world, one would expect foreign policy on China to be at the top of the American agenda, especially in the Obama era when China was widely cited for its theft of intellectual property, its unfair trade practices, its extensive network of intelligence espionage to get access to American technological innovations, its currency manipulation to keep the Chinese currency low, and other questionable international practices.

Obama tells the story of a visit he made to China, when one person in the American delegation had to go back to his hotel room to retrieve a needed document, only to find two Chinese men in dark suits, presumably members of the Chinese secret service, rifling through his papers. They simply brazenly walked out. And the U.S., instead of kicking up an international diplomatic stir, took it on the chin and remained silent.  

The Chinese Revolution has been an economic miracle pulling hundreds of millions out of abject poverty. But it has also been a tale of horror. Obama writes about the students he addressed on his visit to China, “They were too young to have experienced the horrors of the Cultural Revolution or witnessed the crackdown in Tiananmen Square; that history wasn’t taught in school.” (480)

It is not only for those students that “the full weight of China’s repressive apparatus” was experienced simply as an abstraction. That is also, I believe, true for Obama if his memoir is any guide. The above is the only mention of the Cultural Revolution. In contrast, the current issue of The New Yorker has an excellent article on the Chinese Cultural Revolution (“Struggle Sessions” by Pankaj Mishra) which summarizes “a thick catalogue of gruesome atrocities, blunders, bedlam and ideological dissimulation” as depicted by the Chinese journalist, Yang Jisheng in his book, The World Turned Upside Down. The only reference to Tiananmen Square in Obama’s volume is the picture of the Chinese student moving from side to side and stopping a tank in its tracks.

What does Obama have to say about the Uighurs? Nothing, except to refer briefly to the appalling story of the seventeen Uighurs held at Guantanamo by the Bush administration. There is nothing about the genocide of the Uighurs and the re-educations camps to which they are sent, merely more sophisticated updates of the struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution where “victims wit bowed heads in dunce caps” and heavy signboards around their necks faced outlandish accusations.

My wife and I are watching the Netflix romantic period piece set in Scotland in mid eighteenth century, Outlander, In one episode, there is a marvellously portrayed scene of a witch trial held in Scotland. Though the audience was spared witnessing one of the women on trial being burned alive, the same ignorance and mob behaviour on display in The Capitol on 6 January or in these various unconscionable displays of persecution in China are part of a similar phenomenon of intolerance and xenophobia, the surprise for me was how little Obama attended to these issues and how he expressed virtually no outrage. The issues seemed as abstract to him as they were to the students with whom he had talked.

What Obama does do is identify the feeble protests in China against the mighty powers of the state and equated them with his involvement and knowledge of the civil rights movement in the United States. “It was the same feeling I’d had earlier in the year seeing that solitary figure facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square, the same inspiration I felt whenever I watched grainy footage of Freedom Riders or John Lewis and his fellow civil rights soldiers marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. To see ordinary people sloughing off fear and habit to act on their deepest beliefs, to see young people risking everything just to have a say in their own lives, to try to strip the world of the old cruelties, hierarchies, divisions, falsehoods, and injustices that cramped the human spirit – that I had realized was what I believed in and longed to be part of.” (349)

That is a major difference I suppose between the main lessons I took from participating in protests against racial injustice in the U.S. in an extremely marginal way. The injustices in China or the southern United States tore at my kishkas. The resistance inspired Obama’s philosophy of hope and activism. While I ferreted out gross injustices in the contemporary period, Obama concentrated on the opportunities for engagement and cooperation with the Chinese. They are two sides of the same coin, of course. But he who focuses on heads can do more certainly than one mesmerized by the number of times tails turn up.

While Obama identified with protesters and challengers. I saw an identify between the arrogant series of leaders in China and the close call that America just went through. What if Donald Trump had been a more sophisticated or more courageous reactionary revolutionary.?After all, Trump exhibited the same paranoia as Mao Tse Dung, the same reaching outside his own party to rally “the people” previously inactive in politics, the same tapping into widespread grievances in rural areas against the elites in urban centres, and the same quest to acquire direct fealty of a fervent rank and file and, by bypassing the party itself, making the party over into a personal possession. There was much Chinese history could have taught Obama about the real domestic dangers to America which an identification of Chinese and civil rights protesters just never did.

We will observe in coming days the fracking (not simply fracturing) of the Republican Party, the competition among those who claim to have the ear of Trump, the increasing descent into disorder for which 6 January was merely a foretaste, the contrasting way China restored order compared to the steps a democracy has to take to do the same. In reading A Promised Land, I have come to recognize not only Obama’s brilliance, political and rhetorical skills, but his blind spots that led him to ignore the lessons of the past that might have forewarned him about the reactionary and belligerent wave that would grow following his presidency. He did far too little to adumbrate these possibilities because he paid more attention to individual acts of valour rather than structural shifts that sent signals of the enormous series of eruptions on the way.

Trump injected enormous amounts of very disturbing fluids into the social fissures of American society. He did so at high and unrelenting pressure. As a result, enormous volumes of trapped gas were released, but not into a contained pipeline. What if a polished and much more intelligent Republican got a hold of the passions and enmity that Trump tapped into, but controlled and directed its release? I am afraid that Obama missed seeing the domestic threats as well as the technological developments that would enlarge those dangers as well as benefits.

This was not the case when he discussed China’s economic developments and the manipulations in foreign trade and other matters that made China such a formidable competitor. That is the side of the story that I will tell tomorrow.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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