Rodney Ulyate's Reviews > The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad

The Obama Syndrome by Tariq Ali
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's review
Jul 15, 2010

it was ok
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Read from April 12 to 14, 2011 — I own a copy

** spoiler alert ** NOTES:

Inside cover: Never again shall I ask Ali for his signature. This is the purest cacography.

p. ix: "This essay is offered as a preliminary report on the first 1,000 days of the Obama presidency." One knows what he means, of course -- it becomes apparent later, when he promises an expanded successor volume -- but Obama had been occupying the White House barely 700 days when this book was written ("some months," Ali confirms, "before the midterm elections" of 2010).

ip. 9: The author describes how Obama benefited in 2008 from "a growing disgust with the corruptions of Empire, the officially sanctioned torture, the imprisonment without trial in foreign lands, and the waterboarding so admired by Bush apologists in the media, the most publicity-seeking of whom tried out a designer version and found it not too bad." Now, if you're going to misrepresent someone, you ought at the very least to misrepresent him by name. There is no record of Christopher Hitchens's ever having "admired" waterboarding; as for finding the experience "not too bad," his essay on it is titled "Believe Me, It's Torture."

p. 22: This is dreadful writing; this whole chapter, in fact, is unfocused and self-aggrandising. Does a book so slim really benefit from so lengthy an excursion into the lore of the Black Panthers? Their relevance to Obama and his "syndrome" is unclear.

p. 54: "Even by the standards of today's 'international community,' the Western campaign to oblige Iran to abandon nuclear research, an option to which Iran is entitled under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, is breathtaking.' Where does this man get this stuff? And how does he, like Seymour Hersh, so nimbly avoid the other stuff? If Iran's research were peaceful, as Ali implies, why the hunt for UD3, which has no civilian purpose but is an essential element of the neutron initiator? Why would peaceful research necessitate such secrecy as was provided, before their exposure, by the covert facilities in Qom and Natanz? Why, finally, have the Iranians so frequently rejected Western offers of assistance? As the much-maligned Hitchens puts it, "The chance that this is not a militaristic and messianic design intended to harden the carapace of the dictatorship and help extend its powers of regional blackmail seem ridiculously close to zero."

What makes Ali's denialism even more risible is his very next sentence, in which he reminds us that Iran "ringed by atomic states -- India, Pakistan, China, Russia, Israel -- and American nuclear submarines patrol its southern coast." These facts would be unnecessary except by way of mitigation, and on the assumption that Iran is violating the NPT. And then there's this, in the succeeding paragraph: "The country would do better to choose the right moment and simply withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty." And this: "There will never be nuclear disarmament until it [the legal agreement forestalling nuclear armament] is broken."

Then there is a reference to the "partially rigged Iranian elections of 2010" -- elections in which, according to the regime itself, some fifty cities saw more votes than eligible voters; in which the declared winner may have won as little as twelve per cent of the vote; and whose theft the Interior Ministry scarcely even bothered to conceal. Ali's understatement may be less sinister than ill-informed, however, since apparently he doesn't even know the year of these elections: They were held in 2009.

p. 59: "The mass of the Afghan poor have received little or nothing from the new foreign-imposed order except increased risk to life and limb, as the re-organized Taliban hit back at the occupation and NATO bombs rain so indiscriminately on villages that even Karzai has repeatedly been forced to protest." Leave aside the fact that these words, and those surrounding them, were lazily lifted from an Ali essay for New Left Review 61; overlook, too, the sympathetic portrayal of Mullah Omar's latrociny and its motives. (This is unexceptional from a man who used the word "resistance" to describe the Fedayeen Saddam and al-Qaeda in Iraq.) No, the two words in this passage which struck me hardest were "even" and "Karzai."

To this is added, in a footnote, the fact that "on December 27, 2009 [...] a US black-ops unit killed ten civilians on the same day that Ahmadinejad's militias killed five demonstrators in Tehran." Ali is not brave enough to tell us what he wishes to illustrate by it. The foremost possibilities -- moral equivalence and American moral inferiority -- are both untenable, to put it gently.

p. 66: "General Stanley McChrystal's kamikaze interview had the desired effect." It was desired that he disgrace himself? By whom? The author cannot mean what he says. How this rot escaped the notice not only of the London Review of Books, where it put its original appearance, but also the able folks at Verso, is a mystery.

p. 67: "All the media-hyped advances are illusory." But of course. And I find I'm delighted by the idea that the media are generating "hype" about this forgotten war, as opposed to ignoring it well nigh completely.

p. 156: I come to the end of this book, with its weirdly tangential appendices, none the wiser about what the Obama Syndrome actually is. I was expecting something a touch more substantive and insightful than the subtitular "Surrender at Home, War Abroad." No prognoses are offered either. Ali takes up infinitely more space in agonising over the typeface (p. x), recounting Black-Panther lore (pp. 21-26), promoting Verso's sister journal (pp. 119-130) and reprinting an essay on Yemen in which his book's putative subject appears not once (pp. 131-145). I'll take a pass on the sequel.

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Quotes Rodney Liked

Tariq Ali
“Monotonous talk of the end of American hegemony, the universal cliché of the period, is mostly a way of avoiding mounting a serious opposition to it.”
Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad

Tariq Ali
“It was civil disobedience that won them their civil rights.”
Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad

Tariq Ali
“Proximity to power has an unsurprising ability to mutate a politician's spinal cord into bright yellow jelly.”
Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad

Tariq Ali
“This is the permanent tension that lies at the heart of a capitalist democracy and is exacerbated in times of crisis. In order to ensure the survival of the richest, it is democracy that has to be heavily regulated rather than capitalism.”
Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad

“It is hard to talk about a middle ground for something that is a fundamental right.”
Teri Reynolds, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad

Tariq Ali
“That natural disasters are required to provide Americans with a glimpse of reality in their own country is an indication of the deep rot infecting the official political culture.”
Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad

Reading Progress

04/12/2011 page 37
23.0% "'It was civil disobedience that won them their civil rights.'"
04/13/2011 page 75
47.0% "'Monotonous talk of the end of American hegemony, the universal cliché of the period, is mostly a way of avoiding mounting a serious opposition to it.'"
04/14/2011 page 119
74.0% "'Proximity to power has an unsurprising ability to mutate a politician's spinal cord into bright yellow jelly.'"

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