December
4th 2009
Garry Wills: of betrayals, “fairy tales,” and Pied Pipers

Posted under: American history, book reviews, unhappy endings

piedpiperHere’s an example of the delusions of the so-called “left,” from none other than Garry Wills.  Apparently, the great Progressive Messiah is now revealed to be the Pied Piper:

There was only one thing that brought [Barack Obama] to the attention of the nation as a future president. It was opposition to the Iraq war. None of his serious rivals for the Democratic nomination had that credential—not Hillary Clinton, not Joseph Biden, not John Edwards. It set him apart. He put in clarion terms the truth about that war—that it was a dumb war, that it went after an enemy where he was not hiding, that it had no indigenous base of support, that it had no sensible goal and no foreseeable cutoff point.

He said that he would not oppose war in general, but dumb wars. On that basis, we went for him. And now he betrays us. Although he talked of a larger commitment to Afghanistan during his campaign, he has now officially adopted his very own war, one with all the disqualifications that he attacked in the Iraq engagement. This war too is a dumb one. It has even less indigenous props than Iraq did.

Well, who was the fool for taking this “credential” seriously?  What was the difference between Obama on the one hand, and Clinton, Biden, and Edwards on the other?  What “set him apart” wasn’t his politics, but the fact that he wasn’t in the U.S.Senate in 2002, he didn’t have to cast a difficult vote, and the other politicians did.  They were the ones who had to face the politically perilous Authorization of the Use of Military Force in Iraq (AUMF) vote, knowing that a yea vote might imperil the support from their political base, but that a nay vote might put an end to their political careers entirely.  

Bill Clinton had it right all along:  the idea that Obama was some kind of virtuous peace candidate was indeed a fairy tale.  One poorly documented speech by an Illinois State Senator does not a peace candidate make.  Besides, as I have pointed out here before, Obama pointed repeatedly to Afghanistan as the “good war” in making his (in my opinion) correct arguments against the war in Iraq.  Wills concludes his commentary:

I cannot vote for any Republican. But Obama will not get another penny from me, or another word of praise, after this betrayal. And in all this I know that my disappointment does not matter. What really matters are the lives of the young men and women he is sending off to senseless deaths.

Well, fine:  take your ball and go home, Garry.  But President Obama didn’t invite you over for a game of beanbag, now, did he?  Wills needs to read Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton’s Dominion of War:  Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000 to understand that Obama’s policy is fairly consistent with America’s imperial history.  Most U.S. Presidents have had to grapple with the apparent contradictions of the U.S. as an imperial republic, and most have decided that it was preferable to use violence and military force to advance what they defined as the country’s vital interests.  Wills should know something about the imperial presidency, don’t you think?

By the way, I agree with Wills that the escalation in Afghanistan is probably a bad idea–but this is one instance in which Obama is following through on a campaign promise.  (Unlike, say, his promises to end torture, Guantanamo Bay, Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, and to protect abortion rights, etc.)  Remember:  the Pied Piper did the job he was hired to do–he rid the town of rats, just as he was asked to do.  But he also rid the townspeople of their children, too.

35 Comments »

35 Responses to “Garry Wills: of betrayals, “fairy tales,” and Pied Pipers”

  1. Sweet Sue on 04 Dec 2009 at 11:00 am #

    Wonderful and insightful, Historiann.

  2. Kathleen Lowrey on 04 Dec 2009 at 11:16 am #

    love, love, love the closer. poetic and killer.

    All the same, I am also that sucker: I voted for Obama. And I really did expect, given the outpouring of joy and support that accompanied Obama’s election, for the Democrats in general to grow a spine on this stuff. Last night at the gym I saw the recent Newsweek for which the cover story was a highly sympathetic account of Vietnam revisionism: the military was stabbed in the back, LBJ was too “distracted” by his Great Society agenda to really back the war effort, QED: we coulda won (the definition of “winning”, of course, is left delicately unspecified).

    Of course, of course, of course it was ostensibly about Vietnam and actually about Afghanistan. Why this kind of crap isn’t met with nation-wide howling derision: where is everybody who was out on Inauguration Day? Basically, what the hey?

  3. Matt L on 04 Dec 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    Point well taken Historiann. Except, was it really too much to expect President Obama, the House and Senate to govern as Democrats? I don’t mean that sarcastically. Its just that you would think they could offer something other than a ‘Republican-lite’ agenda.

  4. Historiann on 04 Dec 2009 at 1:05 pm #

    Thanks, Sue and Kathleen.

    Matt, I share your frustrations. I think we’ve got more room to complain about the long list of broken campaign promises than on Afghanistan, though. (But, I urge people to consider: what would they have thought–whether Republican, Democrat, Indepdent, or other–of George W. Bush putting 47,000 more troops into Afghanistan last year, as Obama has proposed doing this year? If you would have opposed it under Bush, oppose it now, tell the White House, phone and write your congressperson. If you would have supported it, support it now.)

    I don’t want anyone to misunderstand my comments here and in an earlier post this week as “STFU complainers.” I would never tell anyone to STFU about their political ideas–I’m still not over all of the insults and STFU-ing that was done to those of us who saw through Bush’s aggregation of executive power in 2001-03, his push to go to war in Iraq, etc. This post is not about Wills’ or anyone’s right to criticize the government–it’s about the epic delusions that many of my fellow Democrats talked themselves into about Obama. IOW, it’s a plea to people not to fall for the siren piping of the piper, not a demand that they not complain about losing their children to him.

  5. Emma on 04 Dec 2009 at 2:23 pm #

    Didn’t the townsfolk lose their kids because they refused to pay the piper? In that case, shouldn’t we be discussing who has paid the piper/Obama, and whether they got to keep their kids.

    Obviously, I think the answer can be found in TARP and the big give to the health insurance industry currently being engineered in D.C. and the casually accepted attacks on women’s rights.

    This post is not about Wills’ or anyone’s right to criticize the government–it’s about the epic delusions that many of my fellow Democrats talked themselves into about Obama.

    1) Wills isn’t criticizing the government. Wills is talking about his (alleged) feelings of being personally betrayed by Obama.

    2) I don’t believe Wills really did have those delusions about Obama. I think he’s responding to the heat Obama supporters should be feeling about the Afghanistan ramp-up by lying about being lied to. See: Colin Powell and the UN.

  6. Emma on 04 Dec 2009 at 2:29 pm #

    Oh, and it’s after-the-fact justification of why all Obama’s right-centrist positions were thoroughly ignored during the primaries: we thought he was lying then!

  7. Historiann on 04 Dec 2009 at 2:39 pm #

    Well, some of us thought he was lying during the primaries (as all politicians do)–but the people who screamed the loudest kept telling us to ignore the man behind the curtain…

    Wills is criticizing the administration AND writing about his feeeeeelinz. I guess the thing that shocks me the most is how many otherwise smart, critical thinkers weren’t cynical at all–they truly were high on the Hopium and drinking every last drop of the Kool-Aid. I take Wills at his word that he honestly believed his projected fantasy candidate would appear and magically fix everything. During the primaries, I thought that they (like Obama) were using the 2002 AUMF as a cudgel against Clinton because it was a convenient weapon–not because they actually believed that it made him morally superior.

    I can’t tell if that proves I’m too cynical, or not cynical enough.

  8. Moria on 04 Dec 2009 at 3:04 pm #

    Unrelated: I would really love a Historiann-style takedown of NOW’s position on cosmetic surgery as outlined in this Judith Warner piece. If you don’t have time, don’t wanna, or are bored with shoddy feminism (theirs, I mean), that’s okay. I’ll just imagine the takedown in my head.

  9. Comrade PhysioProf on 04 Dec 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    Unlike the pied piper, as far as I am aware, Obama hasn’t rid the Village of a single motherfucking nasty rat.

  10. Emma on 04 Dec 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    I take Wills at his word that he honestly believed his projected fantasy candidate would appear and magically fix everything. During the primaries, I thought that they (like Obama) were using the 2002 AUMF as a cudgel against Clinton because it was a convenient weapon–not because they actually believed that it made him morally superior.

    Aren’t those two statements contradictory? I have a hard time following the intricacies of when people believed Obama was lying and about what and for what purpose, and when they realized that he wasn’t, or that he was but about something else, and why it is, exactly, that they’ve been so betrayed.

    I’m taking the simpler approach: I think they pretended to believe Obama was different as part of the campaign to demonize Hillary. I just don’t think they actually fell for their own schtick, and all this “I’m so betrayed” is all CYA to keep their social justice credit good whenever Obama keeps a promise which undermines, breaks a promise and undermines, or follows a clearly established prior pattern of indifference to, social justice.

    But, like you (I think), I wish we’d get off this kick of criticizing Obama for “betraying” us and get into criticizing what he’s actually doing.

  11. Kathleen Lowrey on 04 Dec 2009 at 3:26 pm #

    wait — Emma, do you believe that if HR Clinton were president we wouldn’t be doubling down in Afghanistan? B/c I don’t for a minute — her foreign policy views have consistently been the standard Democratic hawk stuff. Maybe I’m an idiot for having thought better of Obama, but I didn’t think that way in order to hate on HR Clinton. Her previous foreign policy record and statements make clear that she would have gone this exact same route — being foolish enough to believe Obama would not was, yes, very foolish. But not in some way secretly linked to Clinton.

  12. Emma on 04 Dec 2009 at 3:30 pm #

    How is this about what Clinton would or would not do in Afghanistan were she President?

  13. FrauTech on 04 Dec 2009 at 3:34 pm #

    Perfectly stated post.

  14. Kathleen Lowrey on 04 Dec 2009 at 4:01 pm #

    well — perhaps I misread you, but you seemed to be suggesting that people who expressed a belief Obama was “different” than Clinton didn’t really believe it; that in fact we were just motivated by Clinton-hatred. Which struck me, perhaps wrongly, as Clinton-advocacy (because if it’s not, it’s a puzzling thing to say).

    In my case (and I don’t think I am alone), I thought Clinton would implement genuinely terrible foreign policy, not because I have any desire to demonize her, but because her record seemed to me to demonstrate that likelihood. Do you think otherwise?

    I will be the first to admit I hoped Obama might not implement such a terrible foreign policy. But it’s because I saw better foreign policy as such an obvious good — puzzlingly under-unembraced by the Democratic party — not because I hoped to demonize H Clinton.

  15. Emma on 04 Dec 2009 at 5:33 pm #

    On what basis did you hope Obama “might not” implement such a terrible foreign policy as, presumably, Clinton? Especially given the Dem Party’s — of which Obama is a part — under-embracing of better foreign policy.

    And it’s interesting that talking about the demonization of Clinton* immediately translates into I must be advocating for her.

    *Who’s no more hawkish on foreign policy than ANY Dem including Obama if one looks at his Senate votes for war funding. So I don’t understand on what basis you say that her foreign policy would have been “genuinely terrible” as opposed to Obama or any other Dem, or in some way unique to her, as you seem to be positing. AFAICT, her foreign policy is solidly Dem-centrist, and surely to the left of, say, Joe Lieberman — who was embraced by Obama against the clearly less-hawkish Ned Lamont.

  16. Historiann on 04 Dec 2009 at 6:10 pm #

    When I wrote “I take Wills at his word that he honestly believed his projected fantasy candidate would appear and magically fix everything. During the primaries, I thought that they (like Obama) were using the 2002 AUMF as a cudgel against Clinton because it was a convenient weapon–not because they actually believed that it made him morally superior,” I should have further explained that I believe that Wills thinks that NOW, and he may well have believed it then, but I agree with Emma that it was instrumental in defeating Clinton with a certain slice of the Dem primary voters. At the time, I thought they were more cynical than they cop to being NOW.

    Wills references the primary in his post, as did I, so it’s fair to talk about Clinton v. Obama.

    I agree with Emma that some people probably seized on the AUMF vote because it was the one thing that differentiated Clinton from Obama and justified their support for Obama. I also believe that there was a lot of sexism and misogyny unleashed in the campaign. The connections between these two facts are very complex–it’s too simplistic to say that everyone who voted for Obama was repelled by Clinton’s sex, just as it’s too simplistic to tar all Clinton voters as racists.

    Like Kathleen (I think), I’m certain that a President Hillary Clinton would be enacting a similar policy on Afghanistan to the one she’s selling as Sec’y of State. But, here’s where I’m maybe just cynical enough: I didn’t have any illustions about any successful presidential candidate’s ability or willingness to dismantle the national security state, the American empire, or the military industrial complex. I preferred her for domestic policy reasons, but I never saw a milimeter of daylight between Clinton and Obama on foreign policy when you look at their actual votes in the Senate. (I’m sure that’s why Obama chose Clinton as his SoS.)

    I’m fully confident that were Obama in the U.S. Senate in 2002, he would have found his way to a yea vote, just like every other Dem presidential aspirant (aside from Bob Graham! But remember: we didn’t give a $hit about the 2002 AUMF vote in 2004, did we? All of us Dems marched hopefully off to the polls to vote for Kerry/Edwards without rancor. It took some of us 5-1/2 years to get all indignant about that vote.)

  17. quixote on 04 Dec 2009 at 6:11 pm #

    Remember 2007? That screaming impatience to be done with our criminal government? The desperation for anyone, anyone else, just so long as they won.

    Obama was only more callous about using that than the others. (That, by the way, is the big difference between Hillary and him. What she said on the campaign trail is what she would have done. He, on the other hand, said one thing and has done another.)

    I think the people now appalled by what they voted for have forgotten their own desperation. I remember it because I had it too, and I remember how sick I felt when I realized we weren’t going to have a way out, that it was all a lie, and that I’d held on through eight nasty years for nothing. The only difference between me and them is that I realized it almost two years ago, but I’m sure that sick feeling is the same.

  18. Emma on 04 Dec 2009 at 6:22 pm #

    What’s sort of interesting to me is how putative Clinton supporters are constantly called on to justify their support: “surely you didn’t think she’d do anything DIFFERENT?!??!!”

    Ok, maybe I didn’t maybe I did. But she lost. Your guy won. Tell me, why exactly did you believe HE would do something different? It can’t have been what he said, at least not about increasing the military bo 100,000 and sending more troops to the “good war” in Afghanistan.

  19. Historiann on 04 Dec 2009 at 6:31 pm #

    quixote, I found your comment that “That, by the way, is the big difference between Hillary and him. What she said on the campaign trail is what she would have done. He, on the other hand, said one thing and has done another. I’m quite sure that a President Clinton would have already gone back on some campaign promises by now, but what struck me through the campaign is how much nuance (or wiggle-room) was in her answers to policy questions, and it struck me that she was trying to show that she was the superior analyst of the world’s issues, but also that she was trying to preserve some flexibility so she couldn’t be pinned down definitely and accused retrospectively of going back on a campaign promise. Obama seemed much less cautious, which is probably something that many people saw as appealing. (But then, Clinton was the “establishment” “front runner” and Obama was the “outsider/insurgent,” which more than character or temperament probably explains their different strategies.)

    But, Emma’s right: she lost, he won, his ball, his shot, call it and get ‘er done. Or (after Comrade PhysioProf above) go kill some frakkin’ rats, man!

  20. Historiann on 04 Dec 2009 at 6:33 pm #

    p.s. On Emma’s point about “Surely you didn’t think she’d do anything DIFFERENT!” Maybe not, but I think doing things better sure does make a difference.

  21. Kathleen Lowrey on 04 Dec 2009 at 6:52 pm #

    Well, H Clinton was a known quantity — both on the basis of her own Senatorial record and based on her husband’s presidency & the degree to which it was conservative & bad on foreign policy (remember that opportunistic bombing raid on Sudan? Or his Balkan policy?). Obama was more unknown, and sure, there was the fact that he had a Kenyan dad and had spent part of his youth in Indonesia and had been a community organizer and knows what it is to be a person of color in the United States: I read the wrong things into those tea leaves.

    Solidly “Dem-centrist” foreign policy *is* genuinely terrible; I didn’t want more of it and felt sure a vote for Clinton would get us more of it (I haven’t changed my mind about that). I’ll admit my heart already started to sink when Obama picked Biden as his running mate — but not in a “oh, I wish I’d voted for Clinton in the primaries” way. More like a plain old “uh-oh, here we go again” way.

  22. Emma on 04 Dec 2009 at 7:01 pm #

    Oh, right. I forgot Hillary was running foreign policy for Bill.

  23. Historiann on 04 Dec 2009 at 7:21 pm #

    Hey–can we play nice? I like to keep this space open to all comers who want to converse. Kathleen has been a commenter here for several months, and she’s made lots of great contributions, as have you, Emma.

  24. thefrogprincess on 04 Dec 2009 at 10:05 pm #

    I’m not as down on Obama as the rest of the commentors here. It’s probably because I see his importance as being about who he is instead of what he’s doing. He made a big difference just by being elected. I saw this probably more clearly because I was in the UK at the time; it wouldn’t have been so obvious had I been in the US.

    That being said, I kept pretty low expectations for him and I refused to get caught up in the hype, or as Historiann put it brilliantly, the “Hopium.” He doesn’t support gay marriage so I’m not all that surprised that DADT is still standing. He always said that Afghanistan was the more crucial theater of war so I’m not all that surprised he’s increasing troop levels (a move I very cautiously support but I’m very up for being persuaded otherwise). I don’t really feel like I’ve been surprised at all. He hasn’t done as much as I would have liked but he hasn’t betrayed me either. What does bother me is how useless our political system is (but that should surprise nobody who’s read my other comments).

  25. dandelion on 04 Dec 2009 at 10:07 pm #

    One of the most frustrating things for me during the primary was the conflation of Hillary with her husband. The fact is a wife is not her husband: they are actually two separate individuals. I noticed how careful she was NOT to campaign on his accomplishments. But I noticed over and over how she was smeared for his doings — most particularly with regard to NAFTA, despite contemporaneous accounts demonstrating that at the time NAFTA was enacted, she opposed it behind closed doors. In my household, my husband and I share many viewpoints and we also disagree about various issues. Either one of us, if elected to president, would govern differently from the other. I think it was one of the most subtle aspects of the sexism at play during the primaries that progressives, who should in theory know better, could not see Hillary as a person in her own right, hence they coined the smear Billary which essentially annihilated her and/or submerged her beneath her husband.

  26. Sweet Sue on 05 Dec 2009 at 12:35 am #

    Well, I do remember Bill Clinton’s Balkan policy and the countless number of Muslims whose lives were saved because of it. And the fact that not one American serviceman lost his life in that conflict and that the peace treaty engineered by Clinton and Richard Holbrooke was signed in Dayton, Ohio.

  27. Ann Bartow on 05 Dec 2009 at 9:50 am #

    Awesome post. I know Obama would not be perfect (nor would Clinton have been, and I waffled between them quite a bit at various times during the primaries), but I did think he would wind down the wars. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I believed that, but I did.

  28. KoshemBos on 05 Dec 2009 at 10:42 am #

    I didn’t vote for Obama in the primaries or for Kerry in 2004. I am not in the habit of voting for empty suits. And in the case of Obama I didn’t want to join a movement of well off people (I am doing fine myself) who think that they know better.

    I am not surprised by the cruel move of sending 30,000 fresh targets to Afghanistan or that after a year Obama has suddenly discovered the unemployed (after divvying bonuses at Goldman’s).

  29. quixote on 05 Dec 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    (Just to clarify, I didn’t mean that Hillary isn’t a politician. Only that the gulf between word and deed didn’t look quite as wide and intentional.)

  30. Professor Zero on 05 Dec 2009 at 5:02 pm #

    What I don’t understand is why so many people on this thread seem to think Clinton would have been so much better. So much passion and venom, and that election’s over — instead of putting energy there, what about trying to get someone decent elected to some office now occupied by the ultra-right?

  31. Emma on 05 Dec 2009 at 6:03 pm #

    I don’t see anybody arguing that “Clinton would have been so much better”. It seems to me that the relevant question is why Obama supporters thought that Obama would be so much better. Clinton is irrelevant to Obama’s performance as President just as Clinton was irrelevant to one’s pre-elections hopes and expectations for Obama.

    Continuing to focus on Clinton is just another method of evading discussion of why Obama is so bad and why so many people seemed to think he’d be so much better than he is.

    For me, the only reason Clinton comes into this discussion at all is because she was cast as the embodiment of all evil (she wants Obama to be assassinated! she’s ambitious! she’s a racist! she wants you to vote for her just because she’s a woman) against which Obama was cast as the shining prince on a horse. That dynamic is relevant, I think, to discussing why Obama is, apparently, a huge disappointment to so many.

    But how Clinton would have been as President — irrelevant. So, I’m never going to talk about what my expectations were for Clinton should she have been elected. It’s all moot.

    I, personally, don’t care that anyone feels betrayed by Obama. In fact I think it’s kind of bitterly funny with a lot of schadenfreude thrown in. And to all of those people so disappointed in Obama, I’ll give you the same advice given to me after the primaries: Get. Over. It. And, anybody else who feels “personally betrayed”: Get. Over. Yourself.

    IOW, Don’t Agonize — Organize. If you have a commitment to ending the war in Afghanistan, act on that commitment. But, IMO, unless the anti-war movement is ready to destroy Obama’s presidency over this war, it’s not going to have any impact at all. And I don’t see anybody who’s willing to do that. So, IMO, you might as well resign yourselves to another 8 years of total irrelevance.

  32. Russ on 06 Dec 2009 at 5:32 pm #

    Anyone surprised by Obama’s recent actions regarding Afghanistan either weren’t paying attention during the campaign, or were too starstruck to actually hear what he was saying. I think it’s a terrible policy, but he is doing exactly what he said he would do, which was to “get the job done” by sending more troops:

    http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/07/20/obama.afghanistan/

  33. Professor Zero on 08 Dec 2009 at 2:59 pm #

    Alexander Cockburn in the current _Nation_ compares the Obama administration to Eisenhower’s — funny, interesting, and not too far off.

    The thing is, HRC came out and *said* that was how she’d be. Obama said he’d be close to that. Some people, like me, when our actual candidates didn’t make it to the end of the primary, decided to roll dice on the possibility that Obama’s vagueness could mean he’d be slightly more progressive than HRC. He turns out to be just as bad. But he never said he’d be that different. So I don’t get the upsetness from anyone on the Obama vs HRC score.

    I’m more interested in Matt’s comment (I think it’s #3 in the thread), about the Democrats *in general* and their unwillingness to govern as Democrats. This of course didn’t start with HRC/Obama but it really is the larger issue and it is where I think Democrats might want to focus.

    My Democratic senator, for instance, doesn’t support a public option in the healthcare bill.

  34. On the record, 13 months later? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 29 Jul 2010 at 8:02 am #

    [...] I’ve written here before about Wills’s concerns about Afghanistan, and his (in my opinion) strange feelings of betrayal by a man who promised to escalate the war in Afghanistan throughout his 2008 campaign.  But his particular pique at Obama about Afghanistan takes on a new dimension now that we know that Wills was consulted by the President.  Wills gave Obama some good advice in my view, most of which Obama has ignored–but hey:  he’s the President!  He owns it now.  I still don’t get why people are angry with Obama for actually following through on a campaign pledge. [...]

  35. Some people learn nothing, forget everything, and can’t shoot straight : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 16 Jan 2011 at 9:23 am #

    [...] actually hear their words or see their clear meaning.  (Remember about a year ago, when Wills stamped his feet about Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which was after all only a clear fulfillment of a campaign promise?)  In the words of our last [...]

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