How Brainy Is Obama?

Most of the other hypotheses don’t seem to make much sense, so I’m starting to approach the tentative conclusion that Barack Obama is just not that smart. It should hardly come as a surprise. He undoubtedly has an IQ slightly higher than normal or he wouldn’t have made it through college and law school (though it might be interesting to see his transcripts, which to my knowledge he hasn’t released yet). But in retrospect what he seems to have displayed throughout his career is cunning rather than anything resembling real learning.

This would hardly be unique among American presidents, and in fact there are some who argue that high intellect and/or book-learnin’ are not only seldom to be seen in the presidency but perhaps not especially desirable. President Clinton was obviously an engaged policy wonk with what one suspects is a pretty high IQ and a degree of intellectual curiosity. George W. Bush was not quite the dunce some made him out to be, but one would be hard pressed to find evidence of intellectual curiosity, a philosophy of governance formed by much deep thinking, a willingness to dig into policy details, or a capacity to learn much from either study or experience.

Barack Obama has obviously been extremely ambitious for a long time; perhaps he has had the presidency in mind since early college days. So he has been alert to the main chance, aware of the kinds of alliances he ought to make, aware that a sensitive autobiography would make him look special in the eyes of the easily duped intellectuals of our fading empire, aware of how to present himself as a multicultural black man. But his reputation for being really smart is belied by so many of his actions.

What has me going this time is not health care, though there’s plenty of evidence there, but Afghanistan. His recent visit there cemented this war as “his” war. But the war makes so little sense that you would think almost any reasonably intelligent person – I suspect he didn’t take any international relations classes in college, and he certainly has not shown any special interest in that field heretofore, so maybe that’s a mitigating factor – would have been able to figure it out.

The official line about keeping al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan is obviously absurd; al-Qaeda hasn’t been there since 2002. He has to know – doesn’t he? – that the Taliban is an indigenous Afghan outfit without international ambitions, so while a takeover would be sad for many Afghans, it would have few if any international repercussions. He is obviously aware enough that Karzai is a corrupt tool, and uncooperative to boot, that it annoys him. So why does he insist on maintaining a U.S. presence in the Graveyard of Empires?

What are the possibilities? Does he really want to preside over the fall of the American Empire? Is he so deluded as to think we can bring a semblance of democracy, stability, or semi-decent governance in the next 15 months or so? Is he just cunning enough to realize that historians tend to rank American presidents who have presided over wars as “greater” than those who presided over peaceful periods?

I’m coming to think that maybe he’s just not that smart.

So he returned from a whirlwind trip to Afghanistan, where he sought to encourage U.S. troops and reportedly delivered yet another lecture to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the importance of reducing corruption in an endemically corruption-riddled regime and being able actually to deliver services to the people after U.S. troops clear and hold certain areas of the country.

We now know just how seriously Mr. Karzai took the lecture. On Wednesday he delivered a televised speech in which he claimed that the fraud in last August’s election was perpetrated by "the West" and the UN, presumably to deprive him of the satisfaction of a clean and unambiguous victory. We know Karzai has ignored previous admonitions – and it is just possible that what the U.S. asks of him is inconsistent with his remaining in power.

That election last August was so marked by fraud as to lead many observers to believe he stole it. It may be likely that the widespread fraud was unnecessary, that he would have won fair and square without it. But he has been fairly unbearable ever since. His actions toward strengthening the election complaint commission were so unsatisfactory that the White House postponed a scheduled Karzai visit to Washington. So Karzai went ahead and invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – yes, that Ahmadinejad – to Kabul, where he delivered a fiery anti-American speech in the presidential palace with Mr. Karzai standing by, smiling. Mr. Karzai then visited Ahmadinejad last weekend in Tehran.

A New York Times story earlier in the week tells of a luncheon where Hamid Karzai regaled his guests with his “complete theory of American power,” revolving around the U.S. desire to dominate the region and ending with the notion that he is the only one who can stand up to them.

So this is the thinking of an Afghan leader whose continuance in power rests almost entirely on American military prowess and good will? This is the leader whose government we are spilling American blood to prop up?

These major complications are mere sidelights compared with the shaky strategic basis of continuing American involvement in Afghanistan. The stated reason is to keep al-Qaeda, which still has international terrorist ambitions, out of Afghanistan. But most intelligence authorities agree that al-Qaeda is not in Afghanistan just now, and it is far from certain that even if the Taliban, an indigenous Afghan outfit, were to return to power that it would welcome back al-Qaeda. They remember how that turned out the last time.

U.S. military forces are performing with bravery and skill in Afghanistan, but the basis for their presence is deeply flawed. It is high time for the Obama administration to reconsider its decision to escalate the Afghan war and begin preparing for a withdrawal that would eliminate the American crutch and leave Afghanistan to the Afghans.

Is the president smart enough?

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).