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Obama acting like his mother’s son in foreign policy?

April 30th, 2014

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The question posed Tuesday morning on page one of the LA Times clearly puzzles many as, no doubt,  did his response at a press conference in Manila at the end of his latest Asian tour as he answered with a couple of questions of his own:

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs? And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

Quite by accident I stumbled recently on an article published in the Asian Times online back in January 2010 that perhaps helps explain why Barack Obama is the least belligerent US President at least since Dwight Eisenhower. She had a dream is a review of a book by Obama’s mother S Ann Dunham that a  group of economic and cultural anthropologists, who worked with her for more than 30 years, published after her death from cancer.

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Notes the reviewer Dinesh Sharma:

Caught between the Beat generation and the hippies, Dunham was a product of the radical ideals of the 1960s and raised her children with the same idealism and values, recalled Alice Dewey, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii, who was a mentor and friend of Dunham.

When US President Barack Obama accepted the Noble Peace Prize, he fulfilled one of the cherished dreams of his mother to be a peacemaker. “She would be so proud of him right now,” said Alice Dewey as she became tearful. “Ann Dunham was becoming well known in her own right and getting recognized for her development work before she passed away.”

It is these observations by Sharma that suggest the influence the mother might have had on the son:

Her passion for working with the rural poor in Indonesia was founded on her belief in equality, King, and the civil rights movement; her choices in life partners were a reflection of this commitment. Barack Obama literally grew up in the field; when Dunham traveled around the islands of Indonesia and to other cultures both Barack and his sister Maya often accompanied her.

In a recent interview, Dewey bluntly told me that Barack Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for putting an end to the policies that pitted America in a “stupid” death match with other cultures. She said his mother above all was a humanist before she was an anthropologist; not a little Margaret Mead, but perhaps a junior Dorothy Day.

“He learned from her that if you did the right things in the local cultures with everyday people that over time you could a make positive difference in people’s lives,” Dewey said.

Dunham would often work on a dozen or more development projects at a time, ranging from helping women’s literacy development to working with local artisans to secure micro-credits or modest loans. This was long before micro lending to the poor became the hot trend in global economics and probably shortly after Muhammad Yunus, the Noble laureate economist, began his work in Bangladesh.

An Australian art historian and curator at the University of Hawaii, Bronwen Solyom, who also worked in Indonesia with Dunham and provided most of the photographs displayed in the book, suggested that she did not have any particular theory of social and economic justice. She was really interested in people; she was a humanitarian. While she wrote a 1,000-page dissertation on economic anthropology, reformers like Gandhi and King, the archetypes of non-violent social change, inspired her.

After reviewing Dunham’s book and speaking with her circle of friends and colleagues, it dawned on me that the role of the peacemaker, with a heightened ability to deploy soft power as a political tool, is not just an abstract idea or a strategy for President Obama. It seems to be neither a clever gimmick nor a hopefully naive, idealistic and doomed-to-fail policy designed by White House analysts.

This runs deeper; it is in his DNA. Part and parcel of an inheritance that harkens back to his mother’s early socialization, the role of the peacemaker is a product of a transmuted, intergenerational dream of changing the world one village at a time. His mother’s unfinished dreams, albeit tenuously, still bind the elements of Obama’s foreign and domestic policies with his political identity.

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