As a young schoolboy, Barack Obama lived in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Down a dusty road about 100 miles away lay the city of Bandung. You never hear about it much today, but six years before our president’s birth, an important conference of newly independent countries took place there that gave birth to several concepts. These included the non-aligned movement, post-colonial agitprop, and the very concept of the Third World.
Almost exactly 60 years later, we are discussing two big issues—i.e., how the mullahs of Iran may in the end get the bomb and how the Castros of Cuba beat the terror rap—that have a lot to do with our president’s worldview. It is a worldview very much “of a piece” with that embraced by what’s come to be known as “the Bandung Generation.”
Pro Nationalization, Anti-West
The heads of state and government of 29 Asian and African nations who met at Bandung on April 18 to 24, 1955, decided to side neither with the West nor with the Soviet Union. That in itself was a telling morally neutral pose. At the time, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact alliance represented the forces of obscurantism (what President Reagan three decades later would aptly call the “Evil Empire”), while the United States and the NATO alliance it led championed liberal democracy and individual rights.
But it was even worse than morally neutral. The “non-aligned movement” that emerged from Bandung, and especially from the founding meeting of the movement in the early 1960s, was a sham. The countries belonging to this loose alliance (Yugoslavia, Cuba, Indonesia) were left-leaning. They adopted positions against “imperialism” and “neo-colonialism” and for nationalization and expropriation that were clearly aimed at the West, not the Soviet Union.
America, the Trouble-Maker
It is not a stretch to say that an echo of this post-colonialist worldview sounds in the statements of our forty-fourth president. In fact, those echoes are a hallmark that separates him from most of his 42 predecessors. One detects it especially in the excuses he makes for being so deferential to the aging mullahs of Tehran and to the even older, gerontocratic generals of Havana.
With Iran, he has talked and written about the West’s sin in taking part in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, becoming in fact the first American president to implicate the United States in his ouster. In his much-ballyhooed Cairo speech in June 2009, Obama said, for example, “For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”
With Cuba, as well, President Obama again and again speaks apologetically about what he believes to be a U.S. colonial relationship with Cuba. “Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism,” he has said, showing once again that he has bought into the spin on history that was so much in vogue among the members of the Bandung Generation.
History Versus Bandung
History, of course, is different. The United States helped Cuba throw off its colonial yoke, just as our liberal values and democratic traditions allowed an African-American to become president. In Cuba, meanwhile, a nearly 100-percent white government represses a population that is increasingly of African or Afro-Spanish descent.
What is striking, when one sees the picture of the relatively young Obama shaking hands with the octogenarian Raul Castro, is that the former would have easily fit in at Bandung while the latter is very clearly of European extraction. In fact, while Obama’s father, Barack Sr., was an African economist involved in the post-colonial development of his native Kenya in the 1960s, Castro’s father, Angel, was a Spanish soldier sent to Cuba in the 1890s to keep the island safely in colonial hands.
Who knows if President Obama imbibed his Bundung-esque views during his days in Java. More likely, he learned these curious lessons in Honolulu, where he lived with his maternal grandparents, or when he went away to university, first to Occidental College and then to Columbia and Harvard. But, wherever he received them, he seems to have overlearned the lessons of Bandung.