New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, among many others, is always gushing about how Sen. Barack Obama's life story gives him an exceptionally sophisticated understanding of foreign affairs. Yet, Obama approvingly quoted in the climax of the Chicago section of his autobiography his spiritual mentor Jeremiah A. Wright's remarkably unsophisticated worldview in his 1980s sermon "The Audacity of Hope": "It is this world ... where white folks' greed runs a world in need ..."
Wouldn't some experience with the Third World raise severe doubts about such an apportionment of guilt? After all, during Obama's formative years there were plenty of anti-American leftist Third World countries that only become needier the more they separated themselves from white folks' greed.
So, why didn't Obama get it?
First, as far as I can tell, despite his image as a world-spanning figure, Obama doesn't actually have that much foreign experience. Obama's overseas travel before becoming a U.S. Senator four years ago (since which he has taken a few junkets) was quite limited, consisting largely of living Indonesia as a child and two visits to Kenya. During his years in Chicago, he typically spent his winter vacations (not irrationally!) in his native Hawaii.
Nor has he exhibited all that much interest in foreign countries not directly connected to his own life story. In his autobiography, Obama is subtly contemptuous of his wandering, exotiphilic mother whose centrifugal tendencies took her from Kansas to Indonesia. In contrast, Obama has concocted for himself a life trajectory from the exotic margins to the heart of African-America, the South Side of Chicago, where he methodically made himself a Chicago politician. (And, as Churchill said about the Pathans, for a Chicago politician, "life is full of interest" right at home, so curiosity about foreign affairs is a distraction.)I imagine Obama took other trips abroad, but clearly Kenya and Indonesia were the two that had a major impact upon this self-absorbed artiste. The common denominator of Indonesia and Kenya for understanding where Obama is coming from is that were two typically cruddy Third World countries — but, they were typically cruddy Third World countries that happened to be Cold War allies of the U.S.A. lined up on the side of "capitalism." Obama had very little experience with, or interest in, all the cruddy Third World countries that were nonaligned or Soviet allies and espoused socialism as their reigning ideology.
Obama's naive mom appears to have assumed when she moved to Indonesia in 1966 that it was still as leftist as it had been under Sukarno, who had been overthrown the year before. She was horrified to learn it wasn't the non-aligned utopia she had imagined. Indonesia had been a leftwing anti-American dictatorship when she had met her second husband Lolo in Hawaii, but by the time she and little Barack arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia was a rightwing pro-American dictatorship. When Lolo (who is just about the only character in Obama's memoirs that I'd like to have a beer with) got a nice job working in government relations for an American oil company, they would argue (p. 47 of Dreams from My Father):
"...about her refusal to attend his company dinner parties, where American businessmen from Texas and Louisiana would slap Lolo's back and boast about the palms they had greased to obtain the new offshore drilling rights, while their wives complained to my mother about the quality of Indonesian help. He would ask her how it would look for him to go alone, and remind her that these were her own people, and my mother's voice would rise almost a shout.Such tensions paved the way for their divorce.
"They are not my people."
Similarly, Kenya's leader Jomo Kenyatta, who persecuted Obama's father for being a member of the Luo tribe, allowed an American naval base at Mombassa and encouraged capitalism — among his Kikuyu tribesman. Thus, Obama's Luo relatives were, increasingly, enemies of Kenyatta's pro-Western policies. The Luo, under the leadership of Obama's kinsman Oginga Odinga (who sent his son Raila Odinga, the current Luo leader who claims to be Obama's cousin, to study in East Germany in 1965), thus were leftist and friendly toward the Soviets.
Time magazine reported in 1969:
President Jomo Kenyatta, who with his fellow Kikuyu has ruled the country since independence in 1963, threw Opposition Leader Oginga Odinga in prison and banned his Luo-dominated party.Kikuyu and Luo, first and second largest of Kenya's 46 main tribes, have long controlled the country's politics. Initially, neither Kenyatta's Kenya African National Union (KANU) nor Odinga's Kenya People's Union (KPU) were organized along strictly tribal lines. ... In recent years, however, both party memberships have become increasingly polarized. ...So, in Indonesia, Obama absorbed his mother's anti-Americanism, and from Keyna, he was exposed to his relatives' opposition to the pro-American tribes.
As Kenyatta's convoy began to move away after the speech, spectators stoned the lead car. Panicky police fired point-blank into the crowd, leaving at least nine dead and 70 wounded. Two days later, Kenya police arrested Odinga, and most of the other KPU leadership, including all eight of the party's MPs. A day later, KPU was banned for allegedly seeking "to overthrow the lawful and constitutional government of the Republic of Kenya." It seemed a clear reference to Communist intrigues. Though apparently no Communist, Odinga is a leftist who has accepted funds from Soviet and Chinese Communist agents; "Double O" was also instrumental in persuading the Russians to build the new hospital in Kisumu.