His mother's parents, who raised him, seem to have been cogs in the U.S. government's well-heeled, well-connected machine for influencing the world, whether openly ("gray influence") or covertly ("black operations"). His mother spent her life and marriages, and birthed her children, working in that machine. For paradigms of young Barack's demeanor, proclivities, opinions, language, and attitudes one need look no further than the persons who ran the institutions that his mother and grandparents served-e.g., the Ford Foundation, the United States Information Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency-as well as his chosen mentors and colleagues. It is here, with these people and institutions, that one should begin to unravel the unknowns surrounding him.
Two new books deal with Barack Obama's paternal and maternal families. British journalist Peter Firstbrook's The Obamas takes us all the way from the origins of East Africa's Luo tribe to Barack's father's relationship with Barack's mother. Generally fact-filled, it gives vivid portraits especially of Barack, Sr.'s, father, Onyango, who tried to raise a son as upright as he and was deadly disappointed when that son turned out to be a wastrel in the train of Tom Mboya, political leader of Kenya's Luo. The closer the book gets to the present, however, the less trustworthy it becomes. For example, it tells us that Mboya organized the 1959 airlift of 280 Africans to study in America, bypassing the U.S. State Department. Nonsense. This was high U.S. policy and touted as such at the time. The CIA considered Mboya one of its most important covert action agents. The people chosen by him and the CIA to go to America were his flunkies. But the book is irrelevant to understanding the current president of the United States because his African family had only a biological influence on him. Indeed, Barack Obama's African-ness is, as we shall see, strictly the product of his imagination.
No, Obama wrote about how, while he was in Indonesia, his mother emphasized to young Barack his biological father's heroic example. There is a lot of effort by commentators on the President's life to downplay the significance of his having a black father. The chief exceptions to this pattern are myself, David Remnick, and the President.
I would add that Obama Sr.'s bravery in being the anchor witness in the trial of the Kikuyu gunman hired by, no doubt, Kikuyu big men close to the British-affiliated Kenyatta to assassinate the American-affiliated Luo Mboya was likely appreciated by CIA.
The maternal family that raised Barack Obama, which is highly relevant to our understanding, is the subject of New York Times reporter Janny Scott's A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother. But though this book tells us that grandmother Madelyn Dunham's favorite color was beige, that Stanley Dunham and daughter Ann (Barack, Jr.'s, mother) shared a certain impulsiveness, and contains interviews with and personal information on countless of Ann's high school friends, it sheds no light on what the Dunhams were doing with their lives that led their daughter to take a practical interest in international affairs. Magically, Ann Dunham goes from peeking her shy 17-year-old head out of Mercer Island, Washington ("a young virgin," writes Janny Scott), to intimacy with a very foreign person, and a few years later with another, and then to work in one of the Cold War's key battlegrounds. Meanwhile her mother, about whose professional activities the book says nothing, becomes a bank executive. Did Ann speak any foreign language? Had the Dunhams ever taken any trips abroad? The book does not say. A Singular Woman gives the impression that Ann's Indonesian husband, Lolo Soetoro, was just a geographer drafted into the army, a minor, unwitting part of the bloody campaign that wrested Indonesia from the Communists; and that Ann's work in that country was anthropological-humanitarian, as if for her U.S. policy were irrelevant. It certainly was not for her employers-the U.S. government and contractors thereof.
Self-styled investigative journalist Wayne Madsen reports that Madelyn Dunham, the mother of Barack's mother, Ann Dunham, who became vice president of the Bank of Hawaii soon after her arrival there, was in charge of escrow accounts. Madsen's credibility is certainly checkered. But if he is correct about which department she headed, Madelyn Dunham must have supervised the accounts that the U.S. government used to funnel money to its "gray" and "black" activities throughout Asia. Among the conduits of the CIA money through these accounts to secret CIA proprietaries was a company-Bishop, Baldwin, Rewald, Dillingham & Wong-some of whose officers were serving CIA officers. This is a company whose 1983 IRS audit the CIA stopped. Vice President Madelyn Dunham, in charge of these very matters and hence necessarily "witting" (as they say at Langley), would have had to be more than a small cog in the machine. People do not rise to such stations from one day to the next.
Again, if Madsen is correct, two photos belie the portrait of her husband Stanley Dunham, Barack's grandfather, whom young Barry called father, as an insignificant furniture salesman. One, in the early 1950s, shows Stanley with his daughter, Ann, wearing the insignia of Beirut's elite French language school, Notre Dame de Jamhour. Was the family ever in Lebanon? How did Dad get the sweater? U.S. government influence operations are a likelier explanation than the furniture business for any Lebanese connection in the 1950s.
Another photo, published in a Honolulu newspaper in 1959, shows Stanley Dunham escorted by uniformed U.S. Navy officers, greeting Barack Obama, Sr., as he arrived in Hawaii from Kenya. Because Obama was among 80 other Kenyans whom CIA had chosen for sojourns in the U.S. to influence them, it is logical that he and others like him would have been placed around the country in the hands of trusted handlers. The greeting photo suggests that Dunham may well have been one of these, and hence that the Kenyan did not meet Dunham's daughter, Ann, in a classroom. This would fit the chronology: Classes started on September 26. Ann was pregnant by early November. Obama was housed at the University of Hawaii's East-West Center facility funded by the Asia Foundation, itself funded by CIA.
Anyone and everyone knew that Barack Obama, Sr., and others like him had been brought to America to be influenced. How big a part of his attractiveness to her, and hence how big a reason for the pregnancy that produced Barack, Jr., was the foreign affairs angle? The hagiographies, including A Singular Woman, suggest that foreign affairs were the farthest thing from her mind. Yet Ann's second child was born in a marriage to another such person at the East-West Center. The Indonesian government had sent Lolo Soetoro to the East-West Center as a "civilian employee of the Army."
In Indonesia and Kenya, the U.S. was not, initially implicated in trying to maintain European colonialism. The Truman administration had been unsympathetic to Holland's attempts to regain control of the Dutch East Indies after WWII. The Brits' anti-Mau-Mau campaign in Kenya in the 1950s was seen by Washington as their problem. With the coming of independence, the U.S. played a dual game of keeping Kenya out of the Soviet orbit and of trying to lessen British neo-colonial economic ties for the advantage of American business.
But when the shooting started, Soetoro went on active duty, it seems as a colonel. This was arguably the CIA's most significant covert operation, the replacement (between 1965 and 1967) of Indonesia's dictator Sukarno with the Suharto regime that lasted until 1999. Few people on the face of the earth did not realize how important a struggle this was. Suggesting as does A Singular Woman that a very intelligent, very married Ann Soetoro was innocent of and indifferent to the political implications of the struggle she was involved in is incredible.
After the overthrow, Ann ran a "micro-financing" project, financed by the Ford Foundation, in Indonesia's most vulnerable areas. Supervising the funding at Ford in the late '60s was Peter Geithner, whose son would eventually serve hers as U.S. secretary of the treasury. In addition to the Ford Foundation, the list of her employers is a directory of America's official, semi-official, and clandestine organs of influence: the United States Information Agency, the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank. While running a project for five years in Pakistan, she lived in Lahore's Hilton International.
Nothing small time, never mind hippyish.
In sum, though the only evidence available is circumstantial, Barack Obama, Jr.'s mother, father, stepfather, grandmother, and grandfather seem to have been well connected, body and soul, with the U.S. government's then extensive and well-financed trans-public-private influence operations.
I would add that both Barack Obama Sr. and Lolo Soetoro worked, at some points, for U.S. oil companies operating in their home countries.
In the 1950s and '60s few cared where, say, the State Department or foundations such as Ford ended and the CIA began. The leading members of the U.S. government's influence network moved easily from public to private stations and vice versa. Here are a few examples. Howard P. Jones, U.S. ambassador to Indonesia between 1958 and 1965-arguably the chief planner of the coup that removed the Sukarno regime-became chancellor of the University of Hawaii's East-West Center. Ann Dunham's second husband, Lolo Soetoro, returned from the East-West Center to Jakarta to help in the struggle that the coup had begun.
Dreams from My Father hints that Lolo was tormented by memories of what he had seen and done during his active service in the Army during the bloody post-coup purges, and that his subsequent alcoholism stemmed from that.
Another of Ann's employers, the Ford Foundation's international affairs division, was led by Stephen Cohen, who had come to Ford from the directorship of the International Association of Cultural Freedom, previously known as the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which organized countless left-leaning American academics into a corps (lavishly financed by the CIA) to promote social democracy around the world, and to staff many of the councils on foreign relations that spread around America in the 1950s. Among the participants were countless actual and future college presidents, including Richard C. Gilman, who ran Occidental when young Barack Obama enrolled there in 1979. In those years, any number of companies were CIA fronts, including Business International Corporation, which gave young Obama his first job after graduation from college. Perhaps these are only coicidences. More importantly, U.S. international corporations in general had countless officers who were proud cooperators with U.S. covert activities abroad. Any serious attempt to sketch this network would result in something like an x-ray of the American ruling class's skeleton.
The point here is that this network was formed precisely to help the careers of kindred folk, while ruining those of others, and to move the requisite money and influence unaccountably, erasing evidence that it had done so. Exercising influence abroad on America's behalf-the network's founding purpose-never got in the way of playing a partisan role in American life and, of course, of taking care of its own.
As I pointed out in my book Informing Statecraft (1992), when Congress first authorized the U.S. government's various influence activities abroad it worried loudly and mostly sincerely that these activities might "blow back" onto American political life: The U.S. government, so went the widely accepted argument, might have to say and do all sorts of things abroad, train and deploy any number of operatives in black arts on the whole country's behalf, knowing that these activities and operatives might well be distasteful to any number of Americans at home. Because the U.S. government must not take a partisan part in U.S. domestic life-so went the argument of an era more honest than our own-it must somehow isolate its foreign influence network from domestic life. But preventing blowback was destined to be a pious, futile wish, especially since many of those in the influence network were at least as interested in pressing their vision of social democracy on America as they were in doing it to other countries.
Foremost among these was Cord Meyer, who ran CIA's covert activities in "international organizations" beginning in 1954. Between 1962 and 1975 he directed or supervised all CIA covert action. Meyer explained what he was about in his book Facing Reality (1980).
Meyer and his upscale CIA colleagues considered themselves family members of the domestic and international Left. They believed that America's competition with Soviet Communism was to be waged by, for, and among the Left. Their strategy was to fight the Soviet fire by lighting and feeding socio-political counter-fires as close to it as possible. This meant clandestinely giving money and every imaginable form of U.S. government support to persons as far to the political and cultural left as possible, so long as they were outside Soviet operational control. American leftists were best fit to influence their foreign counterparts this way. Paradigmatic was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which spawned and fed many "voluntary" organizations at home and abroad with U.S. influence and money. Its director, Michael Josselson, was so little distinguishable from the Communists, his leftism so anti-American, that the U.S. chapter of CCF disaffiliated in protest. Alas, CIA's fires eventually went out of control and singed American life.
So, there's some fun stuff here, but it's not overwhelming. Still, it's quite reasonable to say that the milieu that the President emerged from was the pro-American international left that was looked favorably upon by CIA and other American establishment organs. Once again, it's more realistic to look upon CIA less as the master conspiracists pulling the strings of intricate plots than as a big player in the international equivalent of the Municipal Favor Bank dramatized in The Wire and Bonfire of the Vanities.
As for Obama's domestic career after he left Business International, a sometimes CIA front, and moved to Chicago ... My guess is that this was something of a rebellion against the easy path open to him in the international sphere. His three years in Chicago's slums were disappointing to him so he got back into the elite sphere, applying to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford law schools (and no other). But he wanted to return to Chicago and become mayor, a job that exemplified "power," a word that comes up throughout Dreams. That proved unfeasible in 2000 when local black voters decided he wasn't black enough, leading to depression and the realization that his ambitiousness could be satisfied without having to prove his blackness to black voters.
Still, if you asked a bunch of sophisticated CIA executives in 1961 like Meyer to mock up a model of who they'd like to see elected President in 2008 to maximize their legacy, they couldn't have come up with a more perfect protege for themselves than a thoroughly establishmentarian half-black whose family comes out of the international left.