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WE MET FOR ANOTHER TWO hours that night in the Situation Room, going point by point through the plan I’d sketched out in my mind during dinner, knowing we had to try to prevent a massacre in Libya while minimizing the risks and burdens on an already overstretched U.S. military. I was ready to take a meaningful stance against Gaddafi and to give the Libyan people an opportunity to engineer a new government. But we would do it swiftly, with the support of allies, and with the parameters of our mission clearly spelled out.
I told the team I wanted to start as Susan Rice had suggested—by persuading the French and British to back off their proposal for a no-fly zone so that we could put an amended resolution before the Security Council, asking for a broader mandate to halt attacks by Gaddafi’s forces in order to protect Libyan civilians. Meanwhile, the Pentagon would develop a military campaign that involved a clear division of labor among allies. In the campaign’s first phase, the United States would help stop Gaddafi’s advance on Benghazi and take out his air-defense systems—a task for which we were uniquely suited, given our superior capabilities. After that we’d hand off the bulk of the operation to the Europeans and the participating Arab states. European fighter jets would be principally responsible for carrying out any targeted air strikes needed to keep Gaddafi’s forces from advancing against civilian populations (in essence, establishing a no-fly and no-drive zone), with Arab allies mainly providing logistical support. Because North Africa was in Europe’s backyard and not ours, we would also ask the Europeans to pay for much of the post-conflict aid that would be required to rebuild Libya and help the country transition to democracy once Gaddafi was no longer in power.
I asked Gates and Mullen what they thought. Although they were still reluctant to engage in what was essentially a humanitarian mission while in the middle of two other wars, they acknowledged that the plan was viable, limited the cost and risk to U.S. personnel, and could probably reverse Gaddafi’s momentum in a matter of days.
Susan and her team worked with Samantha through the night, and the next day we circulated a revised draft resolution among U.N. Security Council members. The main drama ahead of the vote was whether Russia would veto the new measure, so while Susan sought to persuade her counterparts on the floor of the U.N., we hoped that our efforts over the past two years with Dmitry Medvedev would help gain his support, stressing to Russia that beyond the moral imperatives of preventing a mass atrocity, it was in both Russia’s and America’s interests to make sure that we didn’t see a prolonged civil war in Libya, as the country could then become a breeding ground for terrorism. It was clear that Medvedev had serious reservations about any Western-led military action that could lead to regime change, but he also wasn’t inclined to run interference for Gaddafi. In the end, the Security Council approved our resolution on March 17 by a vote of ten to zero, with five abstentions (Russia among them). I called the two key European leaders, Sarkozy and Cameron, both of whom showed barely disguised relief that we had handed them a ladder with which to get down from the limb they’d climbed out on. Within days, all elements of the operation were in place, with the Europeans agreeing that their forces would operate under a NATO command structure, and with enough Arab participation—from the Jordanians, Qataris, and Emiratis—to insulate us from accusations that the Libya mission was yet another case of Western powers waging war against Islam.
With the Pentagon prepared and awaiting my order to begin air strikes, I publicly offered Gaddafi one last chance, urging him to pull his forces back and respect the rights of Libyans to engage in peaceful protest. I hoped that, with the world lined up against him, his survival instincts might kick in and he’d try to negotiate a safe exit to a willing third country, where he could live out his days with the millions in oil money that over the years he’d siphoned into various Swiss bank accounts. But it seemed that whatever attachment Gaddafi might have once had to reality had been severed.
As it happened, I had to depart that evening for Brazil for the start of a four-day, three-nation tour designed to boost the United States’ image in Latin America. (The Iraq War, as well as the Bush administration’s drug interdiction and Cuba policies, hadn’t played well there.) The best part was that we’d deliberately scheduled the trip to take place during Malia and Sasha’s spring break, allowing us to travel as a family.
What we hadn’t factored in was an imminent military conflict. As Air Force One touched down in the capital city of Brasília, Tom Donilon informed me that Gaddafi’s troops showed no signs of pulling back—and had in fact started breaching the perimeter of Benghazi.
“You’re probably going to have to issue an order sometime today,” he said.
Under any circumstances, launching a military action while visiting another country posed a problem. The fact that Brazil generally tried to avoid taking sides in international disputes—and had abstained in the Security Council vote on the Libya intervention—only made matters worse. This was my first visit to South America as president and my first time meeting Brazil’s newly elected president, Dilma Rousseff. She was an economist and a former chief of staff to her charismatic predecessor, Lula da Silva, and was interested in, among other things, improving trade relations with the United States. She and her ministers greeted our delegation warmly as we arrived at the presidential palace, an airy, modernist structure with winged buttresses and high glass walls. Over the next several hours, we discussed ways to deepen U.S.-Brazilian cooperation on energy, trade, and climate change. But with global speculation swirling over when and how strikes against Libya would start, the tension became hard to ignore. I apologized to Rousseff for any awkwardness the situation was causing. She shrugged, her dark eyes fixed on me with a mix of skepticism and concern.
“We’ll manage,” she said in Portuguese. “I hope this will be the least of your problems.”
As my meeting with Rousseff ended, Tom and Bill Daley hurried me to a nearby holding room, explaining that Gaddafi’s forces were still on the move and that now was our best window for making a call. To formally commence military operations, I needed to reach Mike Mullen. Except the state-of-the-art, secure mobile communications system—the system that was supposed to let me function as commander in chief from any place on the planet—apparently wasn’t working.
“Sorry, Mr. President…we’re still having trouble connecting.”
As our communications technicians rushed about checking for loose cords and faulty portals, I sat down in a chair and scooped a handful of almonds from a bowl on a side table. I had long stopped sweating the logistical details of the presidency, knowing that I was surrounded at all times by a highly competent crew. Still, I could see the beads of sweat breaking across foreheads around the room. Bill, on his first foreign trip as chief of staff and no doubt feeling the pressure, was apoplectic.
“This is unbelievable!” he said, his voice rising in pitch.
I checked my watch. Ten minutes had passed, and our next meeting with the Brazilians was pending. I looked at Bill and Tom, who both appeared on the verge of strangling someone.
“Why don’t we just use your cell phone?” I said to Bill.
“It won’t be a long conversation. Just check to make sure you’ve got enough bars.”
After some consultations among the team members regarding the advisability of me using a nonsecure line, Bill dialed the number and handed me his phone.
“Mike?” I said. “Can you hear me?”
“I can, Mr. President.”
“You have my authorization.”
And with those four words, spoken into a device that had probably also been used to order pizza, I initiated the first new military intervention of my presidency.
FOR THE NEXT two days, even as U.S. and British warships began firing Tomahawk missiles and destroying Libya’s air defenses, we kept my schedule largely unchanged. I met with a group of U.S. and Brazilian CEOs to discuss ways to expand commercial ties. I attended a cocktail reception with government officials and took pictures with U.S. embassy staffers and their families. In Rio de Janeiro, I gave an address to a couple thousand of Brazil’s most prominent political, civic, and business leaders about the challenges and opportunities our countries shared as the hemisphere’s two largest democracies. All the while, though, I was checking in with Tom for news about Libya, imagining the scenes unfolding more than five thousand miles away: the rush of missiles piercing the air; the cascade of explosions, the rubble and smoke; the faces of Gaddafi loyalists as they looked to the sky and calculated their chances of survival.
I was distracted, but I also understood that my presence in Brazil mattered, especially to Afro-Brazilians, who made up just over half of the country’s population and experienced the same sort of deeply entrenched—though frequently denied—racism and poverty as Black folks did back home. Michelle, the girls, and I visited a sprawling favela on the western end of Rio, where we dropped in at a youth center to watch a capoeira troupe perform and I kicked a soccer ball around with a handful of local kids. By the time we were leaving, hundreds of people had massed outside the center, and although my Secret Service detail nixed the idea of me taking a stroll through the neighborhood, I persuaded them to let me step through the gate and greet the crowd. Standing in the middle of the narrow street, I waved at the Black and brown and copper-toned faces; residents, many of them children, clustered on rooftops and small balconies and pressed against the police barricades. Valerie, who was traveling with us and witnessed the whole scene, smiled as I walked back inside, saying, “I’ll bet that wave changed the lives of some of those kids forever.” I wondered if that was true. It’s what I had told myself at the start of my political journey, part of my justification to Michelle for running for president—that the election and leadership of a Black president stood to change the way children and young people everywhere saw themselves and their world. And yet I knew that whatever impact my fleeting presence might have had on those children of the favelas and however much it might cause some to stand straighter and dream bigger, it couldn’t compensate for the grinding poverty they encountered every day: the bad schools, polluted air, poisoned water, and sheer disorder that many of them had to wade through just to survive. By my own estimation, my impact on the lives of poor children and their families so far had been negligible—even in my own country. My time had been absorbed by just trying to keep the circumstances of the poor, both at home and abroad, from worsening: making sure a global recession didn’t drastically drive up their ranks or eliminate whatever slippery foothold they might have in the labor market; trying to head off a change in climate that might lead to a deadly flood or storm; or, in the case of Libya, trying to prevent a madman’s army from gunning people down in the streets. That wasn’t nothing, I thought—as long as I didn’t start fooling myself into thinking it was anywhere close to enough.
On the short Marine One flight back to the hotel, the helicopter tracked along the magnificent chain of forested mountains that line the coast, with Rio’s iconic ninety-eight-foot-high Christ the Redeemer statue suddenly coming into view, perched atop the conical peak known as Corcovado. We had made plans to visit the site that evening. Leaning in close to Sasha and Malia, I pointed out the landmark: a distant, cloaked figure with outstretched arms, white against blue sky.
“Look…that’s where we’re going tonight.”
The two girls were listening to their iPods while thumbing through some of Michelle’s magazines, their eyes scanning glossy images of dewy-faced celebrities I didn’t recognize. After I waved my hands to get their attention, they took out their earbuds, swiveled their heads in unison toward the window, and nodded wordlessly, pausing for a beat as if to humor me before putting the buds back in their ears. Michelle, who appeared to be dozing to music from her own iPod, offered no comment.
Later, as we sat having dinner at our hotel’s outdoor restaurant, we were informed that a heavy fog had settled over Corcovado and we might have to cancel the trip to see Christ the Redeemer. Malia and Sasha didn’t look all that disappointed. I watched as they questioned the waiter about the dessert menu and felt a little bruised by their lack of enthusiasm. With more of my time spent monitoring developments in Libya, I was seeing the family even less on this trip than I did at home, and it compounded my sense—already too frequent of late—that my daughters were growing up faster than I’d expected. Malia was about to be a teenager—her teeth glinting with braces, her hair in a ropy ponytail, her body stretched as if on some invisible rack, so that somehow overnight she’d become long and lean and almost as tall as her mother. At nine, Sasha at least still looked like a kid, with her sweet grin and dimpled cheeks, but I’d noticed a shift in her attitude toward me: She was less inclined to let me tickle her these days; she seemed impatient and a touch embarrassed when I tried to hold her hand in public.
I continued to marvel at how steady the two of them were, how well they’d adapted to the odd and extraordinary circumstances in which they were growing up, gliding seamlessly between audiences with the pope and trips to the mall. Mostly, they were allergic to any special treatment or undue attention, just wanting to be like the other kids at school. (When, on the first day of fourth grade, a classmate had tried to get a photo of Sasha, she had taken it upon herself to snatch the camera, warning that he’d better not try that again.) In fact, both girls vastly preferred hanging out at friends’ houses, partly because those households seemed to be less strict about the snacks they ate and the amount of TV they watched, but mainly because it was easier in those places to pretend their lives were normal, even with a Secret Service detail parked on the street outside. And all of this was fine, except for the fact that their lives were never less normal than when they were with me. I couldn’t help fearing that I might lose whatever precious time I had with them before they flew the nest….
“We’re good,” Marvin said, walking up to our table. “Fog’s lifted.”
The four of us then piled into the back of the SUV, and soon we were heading up a winding, tree-lined road in the dark, until our convoy halted abruptly in front of a wide, spotlit plaza. A massive, shining figure seemed to beckon us through the mist. As we made our way up a series of steps, our necks craning back to take in the sight, I felt Sasha grab my hand. Malia slipped an arm around my waist.
“Are we supposed to pray or something?” Sasha asked.
“Why not?” I said. We huddled together then, our heads bowed in silence, with me knowing that at least one of my prayers that night had been answered.
WHETHER OUR BRIEF pilgrimage to that mountaintop helped fulfill my other prayer, I can’t say for certain. I do know that the first few days of the Libya campaign went as well as possible. Gaddafi’s air defenses were quickly dismantled. European jets had moved into place as promised (with Sarkozy making certain it was a French plane that first crossed into Libyan airspace), executing a series of air strikes against the forces advancing on Benghazi. Within days, Gaddafi’s forces had retreated and our no-fly/no-drive zone had been effectively established across much of the eastern part of the country.
Still, as our Latin American tour continued, I remained on pins and needles. Each morning, I consulted with my national security team via secure videoconference and got updates from General Carter Ham, the commander overseeing the operation, as well as from military leadership at the Pentagon, before reviewing a detailed list of next steps. Beyond maintaining a clear sense of how well we were meeting our military objectives, I wanted to make sure our allies held up their end of the bargain and that the U.S. role didn’t stray beyond the narrow parameters I’d set. I was well aware that the American public’s support for what we were doing was exceedingly thin, and that any setbacks could prove devastating.
We did have one bad scare. On our first night in Santiago, Chile, Michelle and I attended a state dinner hosted by Sebastián Piñera, the gregarious, center-right billionaire who’d been elected president just a year earlier. I was sitting at the head table, listening to Piñera talk about the growing market in China for Chilean wine, when I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find Tom Donilon, looking even more stressed than usual.
“What is it?” I asked.
He leaned in to whisper in my ear: “We just received a report that a U.S. fighter jet crashed over Libya.”
“Technical failure,” he said. “Two servicemen ejected before the crash, and we’ve picked up one, the pilot. He’s fine…but the weapons officer is still missing. We’ve got search-and-rescue teams near the site of the crash, and I’m in direct contact with the Pentagon, so as soon as there’s news, I’ll let you know.” As Tom walked away, Piñera gave me a searching look.
“Everything all right?” he asked.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” I replied, my mind quickly running through scenarios—most of them bad.
For the next ninety minutes or so, I smiled and nodded as Piñera and his wife, Cecilia Morel Montes, told us about their children and how they first met and the best season to visit Patagonia. At some point, a Chilean folk-rock band called Los Jaivas started to perform what sounded like a Spanish version of Hair. The entire time, I waited for another tap on the shoulder. All I could think about was the young officer I had sent into war, who was now possibly injured or captured or worse. I felt as if I might burst. Not until Michelle and I were about to climb into the Beast after dinner did I finally see Tom heading toward us. He was slightly out of breath.
“We have him,” he said. “It seems he was picked up by some friendly Libyans, and he’s going to be fine.”
I wanted to kiss Tom at that moment, but I kissed Michelle instead.
When someone asks me to describe what it feels like to be the president of the United States, I often think about that stretch of time spent sitting helplessly at the state dinner in Chile, contemplating the knife’s edge between perceived success and potential catastrophe—in this case, the drift of a soldier’s parachute over a faraway desert in the middle of the night. It wasn’t simply that each decision I made was essentially a high-stakes wager; it was the fact that unlike in poker, where a player expects and can afford to lose a few big hands even on the way to a winning night, a single mishap could cost a life, and overwhelm—both in the political press and in my own heart—whatever broader objective I might have achieved.
As it was, the jet crash ended up becoming a relative blip. By the time I returned to Washington, the overwhelming superiority of the international coalition’s air forces had left Gaddafi’s loyalists with few places to hide, and opposition militias—including many high-ranking defectors from the Libyan army—began advancing westward. Twelve days into the operation, NATO took command of the mission, with several European countries assuming responsibility for repelling Gaddafi’s forces. By the time I addressed the nation on March 28, the U.S. military had begun to move into a supporting role, primarily helping with logistics, refueling aircraft, and identifying targets.
Given that a number of Republicans had been vocal advocates for intervention, we might have expected some grudging praise for the swift precision of our operation in Libya. But a funny thing had happened while I was traveling. Some of the same Republicans who had demanded that I intervene in Libya had decided that they were now against it. They criticized the mission as being too broad, or coming too late. They complained that I hadn’t consulted with Congress enough, despite the fact that I’d met with senior congressional leaders on the eve of the campaign. They cast doubt on the legal basis for my decision, suggesting that I should have sought congressional authorization under the War Powers Act, a legitimate, long-standing question about presidential power, were it not coming from a party that had repeatedly given previous administrations carte blanche on the foreign policy front, particularly when it came to waging war. The Republicans seemed unembarrassed by the inconsistency. Effectively, they were putting me on notice that even issues of war and peace, life and death, were now part of a grim, unrelenting partisan game.
They weren’t the only ones playing games. Vladimir Putin had been publicly criticizing the U.N. resolution—and, by implication, Medvedev—for allowing a wide mandate for military action in Libya. It was inconceivable that Putin hadn’t signed off on Medvedev’s decision to have Russia abstain rather than veto our resolution, or that he’d failed to understand its scope at the time; and as Medvedev himself pointed out in response to Putin’s comments, coalition fighter jets were continuing to bomb Gaddafi’s forces only because the Libyan strongman showed no signs of calling them into retreat or muzzling the vicious mercenary fighters he sponsored. But clearly that was beside the point. In openly second-guessing Medvedev, Putin seemed to have decided to deliberately make his handpicked successor look bad—a sign, I had to assume, that Putin planned to formally retake the reins in Russia.
Still, March ended without a single U.S. casualty in Libya, and for an approximate cost of $550 million—not much more than what we spent per day on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—we had accomplished our objective of saving Benghazi and its neighboring cities and perhaps tens of thousands of lives. According to Samantha, it was the quickest international military intervention to prevent a mass atrocity in modern history. What would happen with regard to Libya’s government remained unclear. With Gaddafi ordering further attacks even in the face of NATO bombing operations, and with the opposition fueled by a loose coalition of rebel militias, my team and I worried about the prospect of prolonged civil war. According to the U.S. diplomat Hillary had sent to Benghazi to act as a liaison to the emerging governing council there, the opposition was at least saying all the right things about what a post-Gaddafi Libya would look like, emphasizing the importance of free and fair elections, human rights, and rule of law. But with no democratic traditions or institutions to draw on, the councillors had their work cut out for them—and with Gaddafi’s police force no longer in place, the security situation in Benghazi and other rebel areas now had a Wild West aspect.
“Who is it that we sent to Benghazi?” I asked, after hearing one of these dispatches.
“A guy named Chris Stevens,” Denis told me. “Used to be chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, a bunch of Middle East posts before that. Apparently, he and a small team slipped into Benghazi on a Greek cargo ship. Supposed to be excellent.” “Brave guy,” I said.
ONE QUIET SUNDAY in April, I found myself alone in the residence—the girls were off somewhere with their buddies, Michelle was having lunch with friends—and so I decided to head downstairs to do some work. It was a cool day, in the sixties with a mix of sun and clouds, and walking along the colonnade I took time to appreciate the plush beds of tulips—yellow, red, pink—the groundskeepers had planted in the Rose Garden. I rarely worked at the Resolute desk on weekends, since there were always at least a few West Wing tours passing through, and visitors could catch a glimpse of the Oval Office from behind a red velvet rope only if I wasn’t there. Instead, I usually set up shop in the Oval’s adjoining dining room and study, a comfortable, private area filled with mementos I’d gathered over the years: a framed Life magazine cover of the Selma march, signed by John Lewis; a brick from Abraham Lincoln’s law office in Springfield; a pair of boxing gloves from Muhammad Ali; Ted Kennedy’s painting of the Cape Cod coastline, which he’d sent to me as a gift after I’d admired it in his office. But as the clouds broke and sunlight splashed across the window, I moved myself to the terraced patio just outside the dining room—a lovely, secluded space with hedges and plantings on one side and a small fountain on the other.
I’d carried down a stack of memos to read, but my mind kept drifting. I had just announced that I’d be running for reelection. It was a formality, really, a matter of filing the papers and filming a short video announcement—a stark contrast to that heady, frigid day in Springfield four years earlier when I’d declared my candidacy before a crowd of thousands, promising to deliver hope and change. It seemed like an eternity ago, a time of optimism and youthful energy and undeniable innocence. My reelection campaign would be an entirely different endeavor. Certain of my vulnerability, Republicans were already lining up for the chance to run against me. I’d noticed that my political team had begun to layer a series of early fundraisers into my schedule, anticipating an expensive, bare-knuckle contest. Part of me resented the idea of gearing up for the election so soon—for if my first campaign seemed a distant memory, my actual work as president felt as if it had only just begun. But there was no point arguing about it. I could read the polls myself.
The irony was that our labors of the previous two years were finally bearing some fruit. When I hadn’t been dealing with foreign policy issues, I’d been traveling the country, highlighting the shuttered auto factories that had just reopened, the small businesses that had been saved, the wind farms and energy-efficient vehicles that pointed the way to a clean energy future. A number of infrastructure projects funded by the Recovery Act—roads, community centers, light-rail lines—were already completed. A host of ACA provisions had already come into force. In so many different ways, we’d made the federal government better, more efficient and more responsive. But until the economy really started picking up, none of it would matter much politically. So far, we’d managed to ward off a “double-dip” second recession, in large part thanks to the billions of stimulus dollars we’d attached to the Bush tax cut extension during the lame-duck session. But just barely. And by the looks of it, the new House majority seemed intent on shifting the economy into reverse.
From the moment he’d been elected Speaker in January, John Boehner had insisted that House Republicans had every intention of following through on their campaign pledge to end what he called my “job-crushing spending binge of the last two years.” Speaking after my 2011 State of the Union address, Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chair, had predicted that as a result of such out-of-control spending, the federal debt would “soon eclipse our entire economy and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.” The new crop of GOP members, many of whom had run on a Tea Party platform, were pressing Boehner hard for an immediate, drastic, and permanent reduction in the size of the federal government—a reduction that they believed would finally restore America’s constitutional order and take their country back from corrupt political and economic elites.
Purely as a matter of economics, all of us in the White House thought that enacting the House GOP’s agenda of deep federal spending cuts would result in absolute disaster. Unemployment remained at about 9 percent. The housing market had yet to recover. Americans were still trying to work off the $1.1 trillion in credit card debt and other loans they’d accumulated over the previous decade; millions of people owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth. Businesses and banks faced a similar debt hangover and remained cautious about investing in expansion or making new loans. It was true that the federal deficit had risen sharply since I’d taken office—mainly as a result of lower tax revenues and increased spending on social programs in the aftermath of what was now commonly known as the Great Recession. At my request, Tim Geithner was already mapping out plans to bring the deficit back to pre-crisis levels once the economy had fully rebounded. I’d also formed a commission, headed by former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, to come up with a sensible plan for long-term deficit and debt reduction. But for now, the best thing we could do to lower the deficit was to boost economic growth—and with aggregate demand as weak as it was, this meant more federal spending, not less.
The problem was that I’d lost the argument in the midterms, at least among those who’d bothered to go to the polls. Not only could Republicans claim they were following the will of the voters in seeking to cut spending, but the election results seemed to have turned all of Washington into deficit hawks. The media was suddenly sounding the alarm about America living beyond its means. Commentators decried the legacy of debt we were foisting on future generations. Even CEOs and Wall Street types, many of whom had benefited, directly or indirectly, from the bailout of the financial system, had the temerity to jump on the anti-deficit bandwagon, insisting that it was high time politicians in Washington did the “courageous” thing by cutting “entitlement spending”—using the misleading catchall term for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social safety net programs. (Few of them expressed interest in sacrificing their own tax breaks to address this supposed crisis.) In our first skirmish with Boehner, over funding levels for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year, we’d conceded just $38 billion in spending cuts, an amount large enough for Boehner to take back to his conservative caucus members (they had originally sought nearly twice as much) but small enough inside a $3.6 trillion budget to avoid any real economic harm—especially since a big chunk of those cuts amounted to accounting tricks and wouldn’t reduce vital services or programs. Boehner had already signaled, though, that the Republicans would soon be coming back for more, even suggesting that his caucus might withhold the votes necessary to increase the statutory debt limit if we didn’t meet future demands. None of us believed that the GOP would actually act that irresponsibly. After all, raising the debt ceiling was a routine legislative duty observed by both parties, a matter of paying for spending that Congress had already approved, and the failure to do so would result in the United States defaulting on its debt for the first time in history. Still, the fact that Boehner had even broached such a radical idea—and the fact that it had quickly gained traction among Tea Party members and conservative media outlets—offered a hint of what was in store.
Is that, I wondered, what my presidency was now reduced to? Fighting rearguard actions to keep the Republicans from sabotaging the American economy and undoing whatever I’d done? Could I really hope to find common ground with a party that increasingly seemed to consider opposition to me to be its unifying principle, the objective that superseded all others? There was a reason why in selling our recent budget deal to his caucus, Boehner had apparently emphasized how “angry” I was during our discussions—a useful fiction that I’d told my team not to dispute in the interest of keeping the deal on track. For his members, there was no greater selling point. In fact, more and more, I’d noticed how the mood we’d first witnessed in the fading days of Sarah Palin’s campaign rallies and on through the Tea Party summer had migrated from the fringe of GOP politics to the center—an emotional, almost visceral, reaction to my presidency, distinct from any differences in policy or ideology. It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted.
Which is exactly what Donald Trump understood when he started peddling assertions that I had not been born in the United States and was thus an illegitimate president. For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.
The suggestion that I hadn’t been born in the United States wasn’t new. At least one conservative crank had pushed the theory as far back as my Senate race in Illinois. During the primary campaign for president, some disgruntled Hillary supporters had recirculated the claim, and while her campaign strongly disavowed it, conservative bloggers and talk radio personalities had picked it up, setting off feverish email chains among right-wing activists. By the time the Tea Party seized on it during my first year in office, the tale had blossomed into a full-blown conspiracy theory: I hadn’t just been born in Kenya, the story went, but I was also a secret Muslim socialist, a Manchurian candidate who’d been groomed from childhood—and planted in the United States using falsified documents—to infiltrate the highest reaches of the American government.
Still, it wasn’t until February 10, 2011, the day before Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt, that this absurd theory really got traction. During a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Trump hinted that he might run for president, asserting that “our current president came out of nowhere….The people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.” At first, I paid no attention. My biography had been exhaustively documented. My birth certificate was on file in Hawaii, and we’d posted it on my website back in 2008 to deal with the first wave of what came to be called “birtherism.” My grandparents had saved a clipping from the August 13, 1961, edition of the Honolulu Advertiser that announced my birth. As a kid, I’d walked past Kapi’olani Medical Center, where my mother had delivered me, on my way to school every day.
As for Trump, I’d never met the man, although I’d become vaguely aware of him over the years—first as an attention-seeking real estate developer; later and more ominously as someone who’d thrust himself into the Central Park Five case, when, in response to the story about five Black and Latino teens who’d been imprisoned for (and were ultimately exonerated of) brutally raping a white jogger, he’d taken out full-page ads in four major newspapers demanding the return of the death penalty; and finally as a TV personality who marketed himself and his brand as the pinnacle of capitalist success and gaudy consumption.
For most of my first two years in office, Trump was apparently complimentary of my presidency, telling Bloomberg that “overall I believe he’s done a very good job”; but maybe because I didn’t watch much television, I found it hard to take him too seriously. The New York developers and business leaders I knew uniformly described him as all hype, someone who’d left a trail of bankruptcy filings, breached contracts, stiffed employees, and sketchy financing arrangements in his wake, and whose business now in large part consisted of licensing his name to properties he neither owned nor managed. In fact, my closest contact with Trump had come midway through 2010, during the Deepwater Horizon crisis, when he’d called Axe out of the blue to suggest that I put him in charge of plugging the well. When informed that the well was almost sealed, Trump had shifted gears, noting that we’d recently held a state dinner under a tent on the South Lawn and telling Axe that he’d be willing to build “a beautiful ballroom” on White House grounds—an offer that was politely declined.
What I hadn’t anticipated was the media’s reaction to Trump’s sudden embrace of birtherism—the degree to which the line between news and entertainment had become so blurred, and the competition for ratings so fierce, that outlets eagerly lined up to offer a platform for a baseless claim. It was propelled by Fox News, naturally, a network whose power and profits had been built around stoking the same racial fears and resentments that Trump now sought to exploit. Night after night, its hosts featured him across their most popular platforms. On Fox’s O’Reilly Factor, Trump declared, “If you are going to be president of the United States you have to be born in this country. And there is a doubt as to whether or not he was….He doesn’t have a birth certificate.” On the network’s morning show Fox & Friends, he suggested that my birth announcement might have been a fake. In fact, Trump was on Fox so much that he soon felt obliged to throw in some fresh material, saying that there was something fishy about my getting into Harvard, given that my “marks were lousy.” He told Laura Ingraham he was certain that Bill Ayers, my Chicago neighbor and former radical activist, was the true author of Dreams from My Father, since the book was too good to have been written by someone of my intellectual caliber.
But it wasn’t just Fox. On March 23, just after we’d gone to war in Libya, he surfaced on ABC’s The View, saying, “I want him to show his birth certificate. There’s something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.” On NBC, the same network that aired Trump’s reality show The Celebrity Apprentice in prime time and that clearly didn’t mind the extra publicity its star was generating, Trump told a Today show host that he’d sent investigators to Hawaii to look into my birth certificate. “I have people that have been studying it, and they cannot believe what they’re finding.” Later, he’d tell CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “I’ve been told very recently, Anderson, that the birth certificate is missing. I’ve been told that it’s not there and it doesn’t exist.” Outside the Fox universe, I couldn’t say that any mainstream journalists explicitly gave credence to these bizarre charges. They all made a point of expressing polite incredulity, asking Trump, for example, why he thought George Bush and Bill Clinton had never been asked to produce their birth certificates. (He’d usually reply with something along the lines of “Well, we know they were born in this country.” ) But at no point did they simply and forthrightly call Trump out for lying or state that the conspiracy theory he was promoting was racist. Certainly, they made little to no effort to categorize his theories as beyond the pale—like alien abduction or the anti-Semitic conspiracies in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And the more oxygen the media gave them, the more newsworthy they appeared.
We hadn’t bothered to dignify all this with any sort of official White House response, uninterested in giving Trump a bigger spotlight and knowing we had better things to do. In the West Wing, birtherism was treated like a bad joke, and my younger staffers were heartened by the way late-night TV hosts frequently skewered “the Donald.” But I couldn’t help noticing that members of the media weren’t just booking Trump for interviews; they were also breathlessly covering his forays into presidential politics, including press conferences and travel to the early voting state of New Hampshire. Polls were showing that roughly 40 percent of Republicans were now convinced that I hadn’t been born in America, and I’d recently heard from Axe that according to a Republican pollster he knew, Trump was now the leading Republican among potential presidential contenders, despite not having declared his candidacy.
I chose not to share that particular piece of news with Michelle. Just thinking about Trump and the symbiotic relationship he’d developed with the media made her mad. She saw the whole circus for what it was: a variation on the press’s obsession with flag pins and fist bumps during the campaign, the same willingness on the part of both political opponents and reporters to legitimize the notion that her husband was suspect, a nefarious “Other.” She made clear to me that her concerns regarding Trump and birtherism were connected not to my political prospects but, rather, to the safety of our family. “People think it’s all a game,” she said. “They don’t care that there are thousands of men with guns out there who believe every word that’s being said.” I didn’t argue the point. It was clear that Trump didn’t care about the consequences of spreading conspiracy theories that he almost certainly knew to be false, so long as it achieved his aims; and he’d figured out that whatever guardrails had once defined the boundaries of acceptable political discourse had long since been knocked down. In that sense, there wasn’t much difference between Trump and Boehner or McConnell. They, too, understood that it didn’t matter whether what they said was true. They didn’t have to actually believe that I was bankrupting the country or that Obamacare promoted euthanasia. In fact, the only difference between Trump’s style of politics and theirs was Trump’s lack of inhibition. He understood instinctively what moved the conservative base most, and he offered it up in an unadulterated form. While I doubted that he was willing to relinquish his business holdings or subject himself to the necessary vetting in order to run for president, I knew that the passions he was tapping, the dark, alternative vision he was promoting and legitimizing, were something I’d likely be contending with for the remainder of my presidency.
I’d have plenty of time to worry about the Republicans later, I told myself. Same with budget issues, campaign strategy, and the state of American democracy. In fact, of all that was giving me cause to brood that day on the patio, I knew that one thing above all else would demand my attention in the next few weeks.
I had to decide whether or not to authorize a raid deep inside Pakistan to go after a target we believed to be Osama bin Laden—and whatever else happened, I was likely to end up a one-term president if I got it wrong.
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