Saturday, February 23, 2008

Barack Obama: conciliating a hostile world

Forever Young
Leon Wieseltier
The New Republic

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What you think of a presidential candidate is in large measure determined by what you think of the world. Different circumstances call for different talents, different sensibilities, different approaches to power. "Leadership" comes in many forms. A sterling individual may be historically inappropriate; and a person whom it is impossible to admire may accomplish significant things. The question of whether Barack Obama will make a fine commander-in-chief finally depends on your view of the direction of history in the coming years. I cannot escape the foreboding that we are heading into an era of conflict, not an era of conciliation. I do not mean that there will be many wars, though I cannot imagine that the threat to American security from Al Qaeda and its many associates can be met without a massive and sustained military operation in western Pakistan, and I cannot imagine any Pakistani government ordering such an operation. It is not "the politics of fear" to remind Obama's legions of the blissful that, while they are watching Scarlett Johansson sway to the beat, somewhere deep inside a quasi independent territory we might call Islamistan people are making plans to blow them to bits. (Yes, they can.)

One of the striking features of Obama's victory speeches is the absence from these exultations of any lasting allusion to the darker dimensions of our strategic predicament. He makes no applause line out of American defense. And jihadist terrorism is only one of the disorders in an increasingly disordered world. The most repercussive fact of our time is surely the transformation of China. The "metrics" are all staggering. Quantities, quantities, quantities. China already has the power to wreck the American economy. However many tanks and fighters it has, its hoarding of American dollars is itself a kind of arsenal. And the bounty of wealth that it promises American business, the fantasy of greed-fulfillment that it represents, makes it almost impossible to conduct a serious discussion of the implications of this emerging world power for American principles and American interests---certainly not in Washington, where, when it comes to the art of dodging debate, Beijing is better than Bandar. What China wants, China gets. Not even the gold medal in tyranny that Beijing will win in its Olympics will make a difference. Meanwhile the authoritarian Putin has punkishly succeeded in restoring Russia to its inglorious heritage, reminding the world of the old formula that capitalism plus state power equals fascism. In Iran, none of Ahmadinejad's domestic troubles seem to have modified the state's sense of ascendancy, or its will to nuclearize itself, or its appetite for instability in its region. In Iraq, the streets are safer but the sects are not sweeter. In the Korean peninsula, diplomacy has gone ominously cold. In Palestine there are two Palestines, and one of them belongs to Hamas. In Darfur---well, you know, because everybody knows. In Latin America, the failures of liberal economics have sullied the reputation of liberal politics. And so on.

All this even before we attend to the elimination of poverty. And into this unirenic environment strides Obama, pledging to extract us promptly from Iraq and to negotiate with our enemies. What is the role of a conciliator in an unconciliating world? You might think that in such conditions he is even more of an historical necessity---but why would you think that all that stands between the world and peace is one man? George W. Bush was not single-handedly responsible for getting us into our strategic mess and Barack Obama will not be single-handedly responsible for getting us out of it. There are autonomous countries and cultures out there. The turbulence that I have described is not caused by misunderstandings. It is caused by the interests of powers and the beliefs of peoples. Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang, Islamabad, Gaza City, Khartoum, Caracas---does Obama really believe that he has something to propose to these ruthless regimes that they have not already considered? Does he plan to move them, to organize them, to show them change they can believe in? With what trick of empathy, what euphoria, does he hope to join the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds in Iraq? Yes, he made a "muscular" speech in Chicago last spring; but I have been pondering his remarks about foreign policy in the ensuing campaign and I do not detect the hardness I seek, the disabused tone that the present world warrants. My problem is not with "day one": nobody is perfectly prepared for the White House, though the memory of Bill Clinton's "learning curve" is still vivid, which in Bosnia and Rwanda cost more than a million lives. My problem is that Obama's declarations in matters of foreign policy and national security have a certain homeopathic quality. He seems averse to the hurtful, expensive, traditional, unedifying stuff.

"False hopes?" Obama told a crowd in New Hampshire. "There's no such thing." How dare he? There is almost no more commonplace trait of human existence (and of African American existence) than false hopes. I want universal health care, but I do not want to be relieved of the little that I have understood, and learned to accept, about the recalcitrance of the world. After Bush, who is not for a fresh start? But there is something unfresh about Obama's movement for freshness. We have been this young before. "She starts old, old," Lawrence wrote, in his discussion of the Leatherstocking Tales, "wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing off of the old skin, towards a new youth. It is the myth of America." So can we agree on a ground between cynicism and myth? Or must we have Camelot once more? After all, being young again is also a way of living in the past. There was something mildly farcical about the Kennedys' endorsement of Obama, of this candidacy that is alleged to signify an alternative to the dynasties, and a break with ideological antiquity; but worst of all was its brazen delight in mythologization. (Thanks to the Obama campaign, millions of Americans now hold that John Kennedy was a great president and that Lyndon Johnson was not responsible for making civil rights and voting rights into law.) I understand that no one, except perhaps Lincoln, ever ran for the presidency on a tragic sense of life; but if it is possible to be too old in spirit, it is possible also to be too young.

Copyright © 2007 The New Republic. All rights reserved.

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John King's fantasy and the "city's best-laid plans"

After years of puffery in his Chronicle columns, John King's fantasy about Octavia Boulevard---and what the city has done and is trying to do in that part of town---is finally coming into at least some contact with reality. For reasons he's never convincingly explained, King has been enthralled with Octavia Blvd. since it was in the architectural drawing stage. Why a six-lane street designed to handle the traffic that used to travel over the Hayes Valley neighborhood on the Central Freeway should be the inspiration for King's years-long epiphany remains a mystery. But, if his latest column is any indication, the dream is finally over; even King is now becoming disillusioned with what's happening in that unfortunate part of town.

But King still refuses to face the reality of the ongoing Planning Dept. disaster of the Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan. He even calls it "the so-called Market and Octavia Neighborhood Plan," though that is in fact its name. King now understands that his beloved Octavia Blvd. fantasy is being swallowed up by the Market/Octavia Plan fiasco: "But it's absurd that one small piece of the map---which evolved because of true community involvement---is jeopardized by the larger games...If that happens, Octavia Boulevard won't be such a success after all."

The much-heralded "community involvement" in that area has always been exaggerated, since a relatively small number of people---mostly the leadership of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association---has been encouraging the poor planning choices the city has made in that area. Instead of being satisfied with simply developing housing on the old Central Freeway parcels next to Octavia Blvd., the Planning Dept. hatched the grandiose Market/Octavia Plan that rezones thousands of parcels in that area, eliminating set-backs and backyards, changing height and density regulations, encouraging 40-story highrises in the Market/Van Ness area, and discouraging developers from providing adequate parking for the 10,000 new residents the Plan encourages in the area.

Octavia Blvd. never had a real chance of fulfilling King's "success" fantasies, since six months after it opened in 2005 it was carrying 45,000 cars a day through the middle of Hayes Valley. King blames Ross Mirkarimi and unnamed "activists" for stalling the new housing near Octavia Blvd., but the reality is that the housing on the former freeway parcels always depended on changing city zoning regulations on height, density, and parking to get it built. Octavia Blvd. is in fact located in the heart of the Market/Octavia Plan.

King's animus is misdirected. If the Planning Dept. had left well enough alone and simply encouraged the housing on the old freeway parcels, it would have been built by now. Instead, Planning hatched the grandiose, grotesque and destructive Market/Octavia Plan, which has now subsumed the projects along Octavia Blvd.

The EIR for the Market/Octavia Plan has metastasized constantly since the period for public comment expired way back in 2005. Of course that means the city should have recirculated the EIR to allow the public to comment on the whole Plan that Planning has changed so much in the past three years. And, by the way, since the Planning Dept. has been working on the M/O Plan since 2002, why is there still no landmark study included in the EIR? CEQA requires such a study be included in the EIR, but the city never got around to commissioning it until late in the game, as if the preservation of the many Victorian buildings in the area was only an afterthought.

Hence, King's disillusionment is a consequence of his inexplicable infatuation with a four-block section of a street that is now nothing but a link for drivers coming on and off the freeway. Even the relatively modest housing developments---800 to 900 units---planned for the contiguous freeway parcels have been subsumed by the bogus Planning Dept. vision behind the Market/Octavia Plan, which threatens to further trash that whole area with overdevelopment (6,000 new housing units and 10,000 more residents) and traffic gridlock.

Finally, we have the utterly clueless and irresponsible Board of Supervisors, which, as on UC's land-grab on the nearby lower Haight Street, has been essentially AWOL on the M/O Plan, simply rubber-stamping whatever the incompetents in the Planning Dept. put in front of them.

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