I’ve never been to Burning Man. I just don’t think I could get into hopping around mostly naked with a bunch of post-Druids in Nevada, letting the desert’s energy renew my faith in humankind.
Besides, I couldn’t afford it even if I wanted to. Attendance is now capped by local government, making Burning Man a burning-hot ticket, and the once-inclusive event’s countercultural organizers are pushing out grubby hippies to make room for Silicon Valley billionaires.
I did, however, attend a similarly overheated event in Chicago’s Grant Park just six years ago (although it seems like much longer).
I am among the few who watched from a few metres away as Barack Obama stood onstage that hot November evening, aflame with the promise of a new, inclusive America, accepting the presidency.
And as the new Burning President stood before pure weeping adulation in Chicago that night, celebrations erupted across America. Things were going to change.
Then, of course, they didn’t. Like Burning Man, Obama’s swollen optimism ran into corporate and political power, and had to adapt.
Surrendering U.S. pre-eminence
That’s not to say the president has done such a bad job.
He pushed through a stimulus package which, combined with George W. Bush’s massive, socialist, Wall Street bailout, probably saved the economy.
Obama delivered Obamacare, ending the savage reality of Americans dying because they couldn’t afford medical treatment.
And he wound down the Bush administration’s disastrous foreign military adventures.
'Because so many Americans buy into the manifest destiny, shining-city-on-a-hill stuff, the message seems to be working: Obama has abdicated as leader of the free world.'
That last accomplishment, you’d think, would count in the plus column. Instead, though, Obama is becoming the guy who surrendered American pre-eminence.
It’s a big Republican talking point going into the midterm elections this fall: Obama’s stubborn refusal to save the rest of the world from itself is a national disgrace, a violation of America’s divinely ordained destiny, and a stain on its exceptionalist soul.
He’s clearly responsible, they say, for the atrocities inflicted upon the Syrian people, because he wouldn’t arm the rebels there against the airpower of the Assad regime. (Never mind that the rebels included ISIS; wouldn’t it be wonderful if those characters had surface-to-air missiles, along with all the other ordnance they collected after Iraq’s U.S.-trained troops courageously fled the battlefield?)
The growing chaos in Iraq is also clearly Obama’s fault. Had he only realized the neo-con dream of permanent U.S. military bases there, Iraq’s let-freedom-ring conversion to Western democracy could have continued. (Never mind that the Iraqis didn’t want Americans there, or the lethal Shia-Sunni hatred the invasion uncorked.)
Afghanistan? Obama guaranteed a Taliban return by naming an exit date and sticking to it. He should have stayed indefinitely.
Israel? He’s disgraced America by denouncing the killings of so many civilians in Gaza and Benjamin Netanyahu’s big new land grab in the West Bank.
Ukraine? Why isn’t Obama pounding more on Vladimir Putin? (How exactly he’s supposed to do that, short of declaring war, the Republicans are cleverly not saying. Actually, they’re avoiding any prescriptive solutions).
And because so many Americans buy into the manifest destiny, shining-city-on-a-hill stuff, the message seems to be working: Obama has abdicated as leader of the free world.
No longer burning
This president is no longer burning, or even glowing. Democrats up for re-election in this fall’s midterms are running away from him.
But history, as George W. Bush used to say, renders the ultimate verdict of a president’s greatness. Perhaps Obama’s caution will turn out to be just what America needs.
In a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine titled “Do No (More) Harm,” Harvard University scholar Stephen Walt argues that “every time the U.S. touches the Middle East, it makes things worse. It’s time to walk away, and not look back.”
'Rather than building flimsy excuses for democracies in places that manifestly don’t want them, America could concentrate on rebuilding itself, something everyone here seems to want.'
The fearsome hordes of ISIS would almost certainly not exist had Bush not invaded Iraq on a false pretext. Walt argues that Iran would not be doggedly pursuing nuclear weapons were it not for American war efforts on its borders and Washington’s push for regime change in Tehran.
Walt’s views do not represent the majority here, but he certainly has company. Libertarian Republicans, led by Sen. Rand Paul, generally favour military action only when vital American interests are demonstrably threatened.
Walt also suggests, as have some on the left, that the U.S. simply give up on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and let the parties sort it out themselves, which they appear to be doing anyway. America is generally loathed by Palestinians — and Arabs in general — for its lopsided patronage of Israel, and Israelis sneered at Secretary of State John Kerry for his vigorous efforts to secure a final peace deal earlier this year.
Netanyahu himself has made it clear he will not make the compromises necessary for a deal. So why bother continuing the fantasy that one will happen, or marry America to a risky, expansionist course?
Stepping back from that conflict, of course, would also mean cutting off the billions in aid Washington sends Israel and Egypt.
But what of it?
Rightist Israeli politicians, after all, have talked for years about weaning off the American teat, and what reasonable justification is there for sending money and weapons to the murderous new regime in Cairo?
Rand Paul, in fact, has proposed cutting off all American foreign aid, period.
As for the rest of the Middle East, Walt concludes, “most of the disputes and divisions that are currently roiling the region do not pose direct and mortal threats to vital U.S. interests.”
Rather than building flimsy excuses for democracies in places that manifestly don’t want them, America could concentrate on rebuilding itself, something everyone here seems to want.
Some denounce that thinking as “isolationism.” European nations, which practise it vigorously, call it “self-interest.”
One of Burning Man’s operating principles is to leave no trace in the desert that it was ever there.
America could do worse, and has.