Dear Barack Obama... An Open Letter to the President-Elect of the USA

Tuesday, 11 November 2008 13:26

Dear Barack,

As you know, many people around the world who are not citizens of the USA are hopeful about your election, even people of the left. There are two factors at play here. Firstly, and, I’m sorry to say, most importantly, we’ve all had a bellyful of the previous incumbent and would have been prepared to give almost anybody else an even break. Secondly, like your fellow citizens, we recognise something important and new about you. We are impressed by your intelligence, your demeanour, your openness, even your dress-sense, and quite frankly, your cool. More importantly, we recognise something political in you. We suspect that you analyse problems from a political rather than a pragmatic perspective, and we like that, because for most of us, pragmatism is what our politicians call politics, and the political is a sphere our politicians rarely enter. You come from what the USA calls ‘the left’, and we’re hopeful that you will be able to at least lean in that direction during your presidency.

For my own part I am hopeful for you. In particular I hope that unlike previous presidents of the USA you won’t find yourself, in two or three years time, so far stepped in in blood that to return is as tedious as go o’er. And since war is the first resort of a politician who believes himself unlikely to be re-elected, I hope you will have the grace to allow the electorate rather than the marines to decide your fate. In fact, Barack, at this moment, I believe you do have that grace.

I’ve been reading your speech, and whilst I understand that in the moment of victory a certain amount of rhetorical overkill is to be expected, at the same time I detect in it some worrying trends that have been visible elsewhere during your campaign. The first is what we call ‘American Exceptionalism’, a term which includes, among other things, the belief that in America, and only in America, ‘all things are possible’. I understand that sentence of yours to refer to your election, a black man as head of the greatest ex-slaving nation in the world. But in the broader context it belongs within the rhetoric of exceptionalism that includes the notion that the USA (usually just called America) is God’s chosen country, that it’s the greatest nation on the earth, that it’s the political system towards which all others are progressing, that the so-called ‘American dream’ is superior to all other dreams and the only one that can come true, that the USA is somehow ‘responsible’ for the world, that it must ‘bring democracy’ to benighted foreigners, etc.

The reality is that elsewhere people have overcome difficulties at least as great as yours and have achieved the highest rank in their country. In Britain, bastion of class, for just one example, many prime ministers have come from very poor and very disadvantaged families. James Callaghan (Labour Party) was the son of a non-commissioned officer in the navy. He began his working life as a clerk in the Inland Revenue. Ted Heath (Conservative Party) was the son of a carpenter and a house-maid. John Major (Conservative) was the son of a music hall artiste. I always find this fact strange, knowing how in the past at any rate England was such a class-orientated society. On the other hand, your estranged father was senior economist with the government of Kenya, your mother was an anthropologist and your stepfather worked as a consultant to an oil company during the years of the Suharto regime in Indonesia.

What is exceptional and historic is that you are black. Most of the world is delighted by that. Many of us hope that it will be a blow against racism all round the world, including in our own countries. But it is a singular event and it is not enough. Skin colour shouldn’t count for anything – you believe that, I know – so what counts is everything else. (Besides, how much harder it would be for the USA to elect an atheist!) This exceptionalism business is a dangerous form of nationalism, and we in Europe can tell you that extreme nationalism will lead you to hell in a hand-cart. So how about telling Americans that they’re just citizens of another country – an interesting one, a big one, a powerful one, but in a world full of interesting countries of all sizes and strengths, just another place to be.

There’s something else in your speech that worried me. You addressed yourself to ‘those who are huddled around radios in the far corners of the world’ and told them that ‘a new dawn of American leadership is at hand’. Now I don’t know where you imagine people are huddled around radios to listen to your speech, but if it’s where I think it is, you should be aware that the concept of ‘American leadership’ scares the bejasus out of them – out of most of us in fact.  I’m not saying that anybody else’s ‘leadership’ has been any better, mind you. I know a little history and I come from a country that suffered a great deal from that kind of thing, including the export of a substantial part of its population to slavery. Pax Americana is descended from Pax Brittannia, it’s just that the gunboats have different names.

But it’s also an empty promise. The USA is a superpower in decline, its military no longer feared as invincible (to be honest, not since the Vietnam War), its economy in shreds, its technology falling behind. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem for you and your successors will be to manage the decline of empire on behalf of your citizens. If you could do that without invading anybody, bombing anybody or generating proxy conflicts abroad we would be extremely appreciative. As regards foreign policy, Barack, stow the ‘American leadership’ idea and concentrate on fixing what Bush broke – that’s my advice.

You could begin by lifting the barricade on Cuba. You could start to think of the countries that cover the rest of the continent as friends and neighbours. We could all learn a lot from Castro and Chavez and the others, from Canada’s human rights position. I’m certain you already know the terrible history of Indonesia, where you spent so much of your life, and of Kenya and Africa in general where your family still lives, so you’ll know at first hand that capitalism has at least as terrible a history as any other ism. You’ll know that the USA’s ‘anti-colonialism’ did as much damage as Europe’s empires. Think a little about Chinese history and you’ll see that they haven’t done a fraction of the damage outside their borders that the USA or most European states have done, and China has existed as a state for four thousand years!

I’m also certain that you don’t subscribe to the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory – I’m certain because you’re an intelligent man and the theory is stupid – so a rapprochement with middle eastern countries is not an impossibility. You know very well that Israel’s behaviour in the occupied territories is fascist and genocidal. You must tackle the Israeli interest groups in the USA, and you must do it early not late. The longer you leave it the more you will be hostage to them. Another protracted peace process will wear you out and the next president (eight years time hopefully) will be faced with reinventing that particular wheel. The Palestinians don’t have that much time.

An English newspaper recently carried a list of the books that had been most influential in your life and I found it a bit worrying that you had read Adam Smith but apparently not Marx. I hope you’ll take some time to remedy the situation during holidays at Camp David. (Come to think of it, how about taking your holidays abroad? The kids would love Rome, if you could stick bumping into Silvio Berlusconi.) In the meantime I’d suggest you take a look at Giovanni Arrighi’s book on Adam Smith. There’s a long list of other stuff that I think you should get your head around before taking up office (Hardt and Negri’s Empire, for starters, if you haven’t already read it) but I don’t suppose you’ll have time. So how about organising a series of White House lectures by prominent thinkers from around the world? It’d certainly make a change from the neocon ‘think’-tanks favoured by the Bush regime – the rats who got us into this worldwide disaster we’re now in. Not that Dubya spent too long on the theory side.

Anyway, we’re all pretty heartened by your list of things-to-do in your first weeks in power. For example, we’ll be glad to see the end of Concentration Camp Guantanamo Bay. We hope ‘extraordinary rendition’ is in there too. I hope you really do pull out of Iraq, although I can tell you that switching your attention to Afghanistan will prove a costly mistake. They won’t want it, of course, all the powerful beneficiaries of the military-industrial complex. Don’t let the bastards grind you down, Barack.

I''m heartened also to see someone who can write a good speech and deliver it well.  I sense those almost hidden tropes – in the people huddled around radios an allusion to the ''tired and huddled masses'' for example – and I think, this is a man who knows what he''s doing. Our crowd over here (the Irish Government I mean) spent a lot of time working out how Dubya got elected, and consequently introducing stupid politics to our electoral system, so maybe they''ll study your system and reverse the process.

Now when you get to the White House I imagine the first thing that’ll happen is that you’ll be snowed under with ‘briefings’ about the state of the world. You’re going to learn that everything is much worse than you believed, that the situation is intractable, that your country’s interests are in danger everywhere, that the only safe thing to do is to continue all the nasty little stratagems and fiddles that the boys have been up to all along. I’m pretty sure, though, that you’ll be able to close the door in the evening and sit down with Michelle and take the long view.

I imagine you two as the first really human people to inhabit the White House in a long time, possibly ever, since the inhabitants of previous centuries never seem really human to us. I imagine you sitting on the side of the White House double bed (I hope you don’t get two singles) and saying, ‘Jesus, guess where we are now.’ And then I imagine that you’ll say something about what the spooks have been telling you and Michelle will tell you to stay focused on what got you into politics in the first place. It’s a sad fact that most presidents are remembered for their wars and proxy-wars. Think of Reagan. Think of Clinton. Roosevelt, may be alone in escaping that blighted memory, because the Second World War, of all wars, was really necessary, and because of the New Deal. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but I’m writing a letter and I feel I’ve already taken up too much of your time. So lastly, what I’d like to say, Barack, is better Roosevelt. He’s the man to think about. Be better than him and you’ll be worth hoping for.

In the meantime, I’m hoping for you.

All the best,


Also published at Three Monkeys Online