FOREIGN POLICY SEPTEMBER 28, 2010
The assertion of Newt Gingrich and of the conservative author Dinesh D’Souza that President Obama’s actions can somehow be explained by a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview has already been greeted with the ridicule it deserves.
But the funny thing is that while this theory (let’s call it the “Kenya paranoia”) is silly, it also isn’t entirely new with Gingrich or D’Souza. In fact, the two men were borrowing, modifying and taking to the extreme some bizarre ideas about Obama that have been aired, in less publicized ways, ever since the beginning of his presidency.
And I’m not talking here about simply the ideas of Republicans, the right wing or the political fringes. Rather, the Kenya paranoia has been showing up in the politest society, among journalists and even high-ranking diplomats.
In particular, the idea started with the British, those former colonialists, who have repeatedly invoked Kenya to explain every perceived slight from the Obama administration. If the Obama White House doesn’t always treat British leaders the way Ronald Reagan treated Margaret Thatcher, if Obama doesn’t give a Clinton-like hug to a British prime minister, if he doesn’t bow in front of Winston Churchill’s bust each morning, it must be because of Kenya.
The attendant euphemisms that accompany this idea are many. There is talk of Obama’s different roots, of his new perspective, of his purported lack of European traditions.
I first ran across the Kenya paranoia a few weeks after Obama was sworn in. Gordon Brown, then the British prime minister, was coming to Washington, and a British television reporter asked to interview me about Obama’s views of the world. “He has different roots than all other presidents,” the reporter said. “He doesn’t have ties to Europe.”
I laughed, not thinking he was serious. Obama’s mother was of British descent. He went to elite American schools, not exactly alien territory for British or European influences. Was he really somehow less “European” than George W. Bush, the determined Texan who didn’t like to travel?
But the British press corps had seized upon Kenya—on Obama’s Kenyan father, on his visits to Kenya and on the passages in Dreams From My Father about British colonialism—as the all-purpose explanation for Obama’s worldview, conduct and diplomacy. If there were ever evidence of Britain’s continuing national obsession with colonialism, this was it.
“Revealed: Why Obama Loathes the British” screamed one article in the Daily Mail a few months ago. The article rehashed the history of British colonials and the Mau Mau rebellion. The newspaper sent a reporter to interview an Obama relative in Kenya who had memories of the family’s tribulations during this era. Yet she also told the Daily Mail: “I don’t think his [Obama’s] tough statements [about BP] on the oil spill are influenced by past family experiences with the British authorities.” (The newspaper, seemingly disappointed, buried this last quote at the bottom of a long story suggesting the reverse: that the long-ago family experiences of one side of Obama’s family account for everything.)
High-ranking British officials are, of course, less crude or sensationalist than the Daily Mail. But some of them, too, have portrayed Obama in ways that reflect the Kenya paranoia.
You can’t get more exalted than Sir David Manning, who was Britain’s ambassador to Washington from 2003 to 2007. Yet earlier this year, in testimony to a House of Commons foreign affairs committee, he reached low by warning that Obama “comes with a very different perspective” from other presidents.
“He is an American who grew up in Hawaii, whose foreign experience was of Indonesia, and who had a Kenyan father,” Manning said. “We now have a Democrat who is not familiar with us.”
Manning’s words are worth comparing to a similar passage in the more recent outpouring from Dinesh D’Souza, who wrote of Obama in Forbes magazine: “Here is a man who spent his formative years—the first 17 years of his life—off the American mainland, in Hawaii, Indonesia, and Pakistan, with multiple subsequent journeys to Africa.” (The point about Pakistan was flat wrong, as D’Souza acknowledged after publishing the error.)
To the standard Kenya paranoia that had afflicted the British, D’Souza added some new, even more bizarre notions that were all his own, and with which the British should not be tarred.
One was that Obama embraced all the ideas and views of his father, whom in fact he barely knew. (One theme in Dreams From My Father is that Obama learned in Kenya his absent father was a pretty flawed individual, not so admirable as he had imagined him to be. But D’Souza apparently missed this part of the book.)
The second D’Souza innovation—even more far-fetched, if that’s possible—is that Obama’s purported Kenyan roots explain his purportedly socialist views on domestic economic issues.
D’Souza quotes from an article called “Problems Facing Our Socialism,” published by Obama’s father in 1965 when the younger Obama was four years old and thousands of miles away. D’Souza thinks this is the Rosetta Stone for understanding Obama. “Remarkably, President Obama … has never mentioned his father’s article,” intones D’Souza. (Maybe it’s so obscure and irrelevant that he doesn’t think much about it, or of it?)
D’Souza goes on to conclude that Obama is “the last anticolonial.” As an explanation for Obama’s policies, that’s about as bizarre as you can get. Has D’Souza heard, for example, about Obama’s aggressive policies in Pakistan or Yemen, about the drones and other covert-operation programs that Obama has vastly expanded since taking office?
I have a few gentle reminders for D’Souza, for Gingrich, and for others who fall victim to the “Kenyan anti-colonial” malarkey—just some simple and obvious facts that they should keep in mind.
First, anti-colonialism is itself not exactly alien to American traditions; our country was founded on it.
Second, Hawaii, where Obama grew up, is a part of the United States, a full-fledged state, and there are no rights or privileges inherent to living on what D’Souza calls “the American mainland” as opposed to Hawaii. (By the way, is Alaska part of “the American mainland”?)
Third, there are plenty of patriotic Americans who have lived abroad, as Obama did—even in places other than Europe. And finally, to have views that differ from those of your father is as American as apple pie.
Gingrich and D’Souza—and, for that matter, the British—should stop treating Obama like an outsider to American traditions. Other than the color of his skin, he’s not fundamentally different from his predecessors in the White House. He operates within the same parameters, subject to many of the same forces.
He’s not Kenyan, and Kenya doesn’t explain him. Get a grip.
James Mann is the author of "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet." He is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.