Monday, May 23, 2011

No anti-war movement against Obama?

US President John F Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963, to rapturous applause. When George W Bush arrived in 2004 he was greeted by thousands of anti-war protesters demanding that he leave again.

What caused this shift, from ecstatic welcome to aggressive rejection? Some commentators argued that Ireland, like much of Western Europe, had become anti-American. Others, though, blamed Bush's aggressive foreign policy: this was just a year after the invasion of Iraq.

Today we get to understand this a little better because President Barack Obama has arrived in Ireland, partly to visit the small town his own Irish ancestor emigrated from. Instead of anti-war protests, we've returned to JFK-era rapture and awe. For weeks local people in the town of Moneygall have been tidying up to prepare for the visit, decking it in US and Irish flags, and now he has joyfully arrived:
Barack and Michelle Obama have kissed babies, hugged locals and spent 15 minutes signing autographs, posing for pictures and shaking hands, on their visit to Moneygall in Co Offaly today.

The first couple's walkabout was unscheduled, and locals had been told it was unlikely they would be able to meet the Obamas personally.

However, a grinning Barack Obama took time to chat to well-wishers and kiss a toddler girl as the couple made their way down Main Street, which was lined with cheering locals.

They then crossed the road to the site of Mr Obama’s ancestral home, where a one-storey thatched home once stood, and also nipped into Moneygall's 'An Siopa Beag'.
As I write thousands of people are attending a free open-air concert in Dublin with Obama in attendance. Irish music, cinema and sporting heroes are being paraded cheerfully on stage to shrieks of approval from the crowd. Discussions of this visit have ranged from positive to outright exuberant: even Ireland's state broadcast company RTE featured shamelessly pro-Obama features like that by radio presenter Derek Mooney.

All this would suggest that Bush was simply a blip on an otherwise excellent Irish-American relationship, and his foolish policies were the cause of a brief negative backlash. Certainly the anti-American vibe of the Bush years has been replaced by energetic celebration for the arrival of this new president.

Yet I wonder if there is a little more to it too. Obama's policies are in many ways continuations of Bush's hated policies. Obama has withdrawn some troops from Iraq yet tens of thousands remain. Bush ordered a 'troop surge' into Iraq in 2007; Obama ordered the same thing in Afghanistan so that around 100,000 US troops are now stationed there.

Bush began using unmanned drones to bomb militants in Pakistan, Obama greatly increased these attacks and has killed many hundreds of people with them, of whom at least dozens were allegedly civilians. Obama has also brought his country into conflict in Libya, another war that has thousands of deaths under its belt already and no sign of resolution.

Some American right-wing pundits attempted to portray Obama as a naive dove who would balk at using war. Instead he has repeatedly violated the sovereignty of their Pakistani ally by bombing or raiding their territory, and even bombed targets in Libya. Obama is another hawkish president, keen to get the US involved in wars in distant lands.

So where is Ireland's anti-war outrage? I see two possible reasons for its relative silence:

1) Left-leaning warriors are alright
A study by the University of Michigan showed that many Democrats who were involved in anti-war protests during the Bush era simply abandoned the movement with the election of Obama:

“As president, Obama has maintained the occupation of Iraq and escalated the war in Afghanistan,” says Heaney, assistant professor of organizational studies and political science. “The antiwar movement should have been furious at Obama’s ‘betrayal’ and reinvigorated its protest activity.

“Instead, attendance at antiwar rallies declined precipitously and financial resources available to the movement have dissipated. The election of Obama appeared to be a demobilizing force on the antiwar movement, even in the face of his pro-war decisions.”

...After Obama’s election as president, Democratic participation in antiwar activities plunged, falling from 37 percent in January 2009 to a low of 19 percent in November 2009, Heaney and Rojas say. In contrast, members of third parties became proportionately more prevalent in the movement, rising from 16 percent in January 2009 to a high of 34 percent in November 2009.
Similar things may have happened in Ireland, where anti-war protests were often organised by left-wing groups. Since Obama is considered more left-wing than Bush, his victory reduced the movement's sense of urgency. They couldn't get quite so mad with one of their own.

2) The Retarded Cowboy Effect
George W Bush was notorious for his poor speaking skills, giving rise to talk of 'Bushisms': bizarre and meaningless statements he occasionally came out with. (Like his claim that America's enemies 'never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.' Though perhaps I misunderestimate him.)

This awkwardness was picked up by comic impersonators who depicted Bush as a total idiot, albeit a fairly benevolent one. It wasn't difficult to make Bush look like a dumbass and comedians revelled in it. Bush looked, as British comedian Russell Brand pointed out, like a 'retarded cowboy'.

But Obama was completely different. He had a deep, impressive voice. He was charming, and either he or his scrip-writers were able to write half-decent jokes. He didn't sound like a dumbass. He talked about 'change', a supremely simple concept that lots of people approved of. And he was 'black', or blackish anyway.

So my guess is that lots of people simply warm to this tall, cool, charming man. Since they like the guy, his actual policies become irrelevant and the antiwar movement grinds to a halt.

As I write, a huge Irish crowd is chanting 'OBAMA, OBAMA, OBAMA!' on television as they wait for the president to give a speech in Dublin. Who cares about Pakistan and Libya? He's cool and that's the only thing that seems to matter.


  1. The biggest problem I find with American political discourse is that one stand on a particular issue favoured by a group of people, it automatically means that you should have similar stands on other topics favoured by that group of people.

    For example, If you are against gun-control it means you are pro-war, anti-abortion and vice versa, which I find silly.

  2. Rohan you should be writing this blog, I pretty much agree with everything you say :P


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