Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Viva España

Praise is due Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish counter-terrorism judge whose prosecution of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, led to his arrest in Britain in 1998. Garzón has begun proceedings in Spain against six senior Bush administration officials for the use of torture against (Spanish) detainees in Guantánamo Bay: Alberto Gonzales (formerly White House counsel, then Attorney General), David Addington (formerly Dick Cheney’s chief of staff), Douglas Feith (formerly Under Secretary of Defense) , William Heyne (formerly the Pentagon’s general counsel), and John Yoo and James Bybee (formerly senior Justice Department legal advisors). Unbelievable as it may be in a country officially dedicated to the rule of law, Yoo is presently a Law Professor at U.C.-Berkeley and Bybee is a federal appellate judge in California. The case must now be referred to a prosecutor, who, according to informed sources, would have little choice under Spanish law but to approve the prosecution.

The officials in question are just a rung below the very top – Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice et. al. Typically, this is how prosecutions of this sort work: prosecutors go first for lower lying fruit.

Coming on the eve of Obama’s first trip to Europe as President, this is a fortuitous turn of events. Thanks to Garzón, the only legal way out for Spain now not to pursue the case against the Gang of Six would be for the U.S. itself finally to press charges against them – and, since one thing is bound to lead to another, against their “superiors.”

Obama so far has shown no sign that he will let this happen, much less make it happen. Instead, as Cheney brags repeated about the torture regime he concocted, Obama has allowed the matter to turn into a debate about “security” policy. That is emphatically not what it is: torture is illegal under international and domestic law, and both Cheney and Bush have publicly admitted their culpability in the on-going commission of this crime.

If the Forgiver-in-Chief continues to protect his predecessors for the sake of “looking forward,” then he too will become an accomplice in war crimes. Intentionally or not, Garzón has put Obama in a position where he must do the right thing or else forfeit the claim to be better (less morally and legally retrograde) than Cheney and Bush. Obama must now, at the very least appoint, a Special Prosecutor, who would take the prosecution out of Spanish hands and put it where it belongs – in the American legal system.

But, of course, “must” is one thing, “will” is another. To bring Bush and Cheney and the rest of them to justice, we need public outrage directed towards Obama’s “bipartisan” pusillanimity. And, for that, we need to break through the wall of silence that the media are already beginning to erect around the good news from Spain. There is plenty of outrage already in the Land of the Free about bailouts and subsidies for obscenely wealthy Wall Street malefactors (and, not incidentally, campaign contributors). But there is always room for more. Now is the time to make it as clear as can be to Obama and the Clintonites he has chosen to surround himself with that he cannot afford not to bring to justice the leaders of the criminal administration that preceded his.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hoping Obama Succeeds

Ever since Rush Limbaugh, the GOP’s driveller-in-chief, said he hoped Obama’s presidency would fail, liberal critics of Obama’s banker-friendly “bail out” plans have felt obliged to repeat ad nauseum how much they hope Obama succeeds. To date, liberals have been less vocally opposed to Obama’s plans to fight on in the endless wars Bush started. But, from that quarter too, expressions of hope that Obama will succeed abound.

Not wanting to take on a popular President directly, obstreperous Limbaughites in Congress – the ludicrous Eric Cantor, for example – have lately been more nuanced in what they say about their hopes. Needless to say, they express ambivalence for all the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, they are right to be ambivalent.

There is a sense, of course, in which ambivalence is unwarranted. Obama is, as it were, the Jackie Robinson of presidential politics. As such, it is his burden to be better than his rivals, and better too than his successors. One can therefore only hope that he be, or seem to be, among the “great” American presidents – one of the few that leads the country in a sound direction through extraordinary and difficult times. Since judgments of presidents are always comparative, that should not be too difficult a challenge to meet – especially in the circumstances Obama inherited. After Cheney and Bush, “greatness” in the sense in question has become indispensable even for minimally satisfactory job performance – for the first time since the Roosevelt era. As a highly intelligent, well informed, articulate and even eloquent leader, Obama should be up to the task – of besting all presidents since FDR. One must hope that he is.

But hoping that he “succeeds” in Afghanistan and Iraq is another matter. Inasmuch as both profoundly ill-conceived wars are already lost, succeeding in them amounts just to saving face. Elite opinion in the United States is unanimous on the necessity for that. But just the opposite is what the people, in contrast to their rulers, need. For the United States to make a successful soft landing in the turbulent times ahead, what is required, above all, is an Iraq-Afghanistan Syndrome that dwarfs the salutary but short-lived Vietnam Syndrome of the 1970s. We will survive and flourish only to the extent that our leaders are forced to relinquish their imperial ambitions. To that end, defeat is not enough. There must also be the appearance of defeat. But this is precisely what Obama proposes to spill yet more blood to avoid. One can only hope that he fails.

With regard to his economic policies, the situation is more ambiguous. On the one hand, whatever staunches the misery is unequivocally welcome. If only for this reason, one must hope Obama’s efforts succeed. But inasmuch as those efforts are, for now, more about saving bankers than saving banks, inasmuch as they aim to restore the old regime, not to replace it, “success” will likely mean more – even greater – trouble ahead. Obama’s liberal critics have done fine work explaining why. Why, then, do they also claim to hope these plans succeed? Is this not yet another example of liberals not taking their own side in an argument!

Had liberals been more obstreperous in the days when Bush and Cheney were doing so much harm some of that harm might have been averted. Instead, they were intent on being “reasonable” --cooperative, “bipartisan,” cowardly. They still are. In this regard, there is actually something to learn from their morally and intellectually “challenged” rivals in Rush Limbaugh’s and Eric Cantor’s Greater Evil Party.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Humpty Dumpty President

It was clear from the outset, to anyone not overcome with Obamamania, that the “change” Obama promised would be largely cosmetic. Then, in the days before the inauguration, it became clear that, at least in economic and foreign policy matters, it would not even be that – as Robert Rubin protégés, along with other Clintonites, including Hillary herself, were given all the top slots. The fruit from that poison tree is now beginning to emerge.

What we’re getting is Bush Redux, minus Bush incompetence. Under Obama, the old adage that finance capital knows best, the conventional wisdom since the Days of Reagan, still guides economic policy. The difference is that the former deregulators, supposedly chastened by events, are determined to do the same old same old better – and, at the same time, to make the world safer for hedge fund managers and concoctors of inscrutable financial “instruments” by regulating away their untrammeled greed. Thus Treasure Secretary Geithner proposes to get credit flowing by recapitalizing banks and other financial institutions in a way that assures that tax payers bear the risks of their future machinations, in return for greater transparency and a few other milquetoast concessions. It’s even worse than under Bush: now the free marketeers can gamble with other peoples’ money, knowing that they can keep their winnings and that their losses will be forgiven. The Geithner plan will likely blow up in his and Obama’s face -- sooner than later. Then maybe the powers that be will have no choice but to do the kinds of Rooseveltian things they ought to have done in the first place. In the meantime, unemployment will rise and misery will increase.

Of course, in the long run, the “depression economics” à la Paul Krugman that will be their last resort is likely unworkable too, inasmuch as today’s capitalism, unlike the capitalism of the Great Depression and World War II era, is so rife with overcapacity that investments in the “real economy” are not able any more to keep the system going; for that, we now need bubbles and other shenanigans. But depression economics can address the immediate crisis better than any politically feasible alternative. It can buy time for popular movements to grow and develop – and to figure out how, in light of the failures of the past, capitalism can be not just ameliorated, but replaced by something qualitatively better.

But instead Team Obama is hell bent on resurrecting the old regime on a sounder basis. It will be our misfortune that they will find that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, cannot put the Humpty Dumpty of contemporary late capitalism back together again.

Then there are those pesky Bush Wars. Sensible imperialists (they exist, Obama is one of them) never had any time for the war in Iraq. But once it got going, no imperialist, no matter how sensible, could walk away in defeat. That would be bad for the empire. So the issue there is saving face. Peace candidate Obama has decided that the best way to do that is to wind the war down at a snail’s pace, but never really to end it by withdrawing all troops and contractors (mercenaries). Would John McCain have done it differently? Would the Cheney-Bush torture team if they were still in control? All we can say for sure is that they would have wound the war down less competently. Where so many lives and fortunes are at stake, competence is not to be despised. But neither is it to be confused with change.

Meanwhile, the peace candidate will, as promised, escalate the war in Afghanistan. This is ostensibly a war against the Taliban. But, according to informed observers, there are hardly any genuine Taliban left, especially in Afghanistan. What there are, in the so-called Tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, are various Pashtun factions that identify in one way or another with the Taliban or, more vaguely, with the kind of theocracy the Taliban favored. There are also “international brigades” of islamist fanatics. Apparently there are enough “insurgents” to wage guerilla war against no matter how many U.S. and other countries’ troops Obama can muster. But here too what matters, above all, is saving face. Since that’s hardly a saleable position, Obama and Company insist, just as Cheney and Bush did, that more war will somehow make “the homeland” more secure. Of course, it will have the opposite effect. Change indeed!

Continuing the Afghanistan War could well turn that theatre of the old “War on Terror” into Obama’s Vietnam. It could force the Obama administration to scuttle its feeble efforts at progressive reform, much as Vietnam forced LBJ to give up on the Great Society. But saving face for the empire’s sake trumps all else.

Now there is something to the idea that having broken it, it’s up to the U.S. to fix it. But the way to fix Afghanistan is not to break it more. All the king’s men should know at least that much. But, according to press reports, the only one of Obama’s top advisors to express anything like this eminently obvious view was, of all people, Joe Biden. Given all the Clintonites in the upper echelons of the administration, it’s not too surprising that the one with the most sense is someone who hasn’t the sense he was born with. But, still, how pathetic is that!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Peace President

When the Bush administration signed on to the Status of Forces Agreement last Fall, it acquiesced to the demands of the Iraqi government. No longer Washington’s stooge, the government headed by Nouri al-Maliki called the shots. In signing on, the United States relinquished all the neo-colonial privileges and concessions it imposed on Iraq after the invasion, and agreed to end its occupation by 2011. Although one wouldn’t know it from media accounts or from the representations of U.S. officials, this was an admission of defeat. For their own reasons, most of the relevant players in Iraq were content to have the American occupation continue for a while, as they negotiate their respective positions once the occupation ends. They were also willing not to contradict the American government’s narrative, according to which, by 2011, the U.S. will have done enough “nation building” for Iraqis finally to be able to govern themselves. What the United States gained by the Status of Forces Agreement was a situation that, with ingenuity and deceit and with the active collaboration of the mainstream media, they may be able to depict as a “victory.” The Iraqis were evidently willing to concede on that point, if only because there’s no percentage in humiliating a country that has proven itself all to eager to wage war against them. Thus the United States surrendered in a face-saving way.

But the fact that the United States lost the war Bush started doesn’t mean that the it can’t revisit the scene of its crimes, should the balance of forces in Iraq change in ways that make yet another intervention desirable to whoever is the Commander-in-Chief at the time. The Bush government effectively reserved the right for its successors to try again. Thus 2011 was always more of an aspirational goal than a date certain.

Is it different now that Barack Obama is the Commander-in-Chief? Obama’s February 27 speech at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina appeared to signal the beginning of the end-game in the Iraq War – “combat” troops are to be out in nineteen months (not sixteen, as Obama had promised in the campaign!) and all troops are to be out in 2011, as per Maliki’s agreement with Bush. But like Bush, Obama has left himself wiggle room for keeping troops in Iraq beyond 2011, should it be “necessary” – that is, desirable for furthering what he takes America’s interests to be. Thus the anti-war candidate voters thought they elected has turned out, in this instance at least, to be on the same page as George Bush. The only significant difference is that the Obama plan is explicit on the time-line for withdrawal, though it isn’t clear what difference this makes, given the “flexibility” built into the de facto surrender document, as construed by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Obama wants troops out of Iraq in order to stop the hemorrhaging of taxpayer dollars in times of monumental deficits, but also, mainly, to reposition them to Afghanistan. To their credit, Obama and his national security team acknowledge that Afghanistan could turn into a much worse “quagmire” than Iraq has been; it could be Obama’s Vietnam. But they are willing to take the chance – and, if need be, spill the blood! – ostensibly to deny Al Qaeda the safe haven it enjoyed before the post-9/11 American invasion.

There is a compelling case to be made that the best way to achieve that goal is to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. But Obama and his advisors, along with the hapless General Petraeus and some top brass in the Pentagon and on site, seem determined to take another course. They imagine that an infusion of troops -- accompanied by bribes to local warlords (“counterinsurgency”) -- will set things right enough that the U.S. can leave the mess it stirred up. In other words, they want to do in Afghanistan what they are already doing in Iraq; hoping that by doing so they will be able again to save face.

Even Republicans, the saner ones anyway, realize that this is the best the U.S. can hope for in Afghanistan. Thus, even in this era of spurned “bipartisan” initiatives, they are more on board with Obama’s plan than many Democrats are. Even John McCain voiced support for Obama’s position. Democrats who know better, as many of them do, are still too much in the thrall of that Obama-knows-best frame of mind that took hold after the election to press actively for a peace “we can believe in.” They therefore only squawk, and then go along. This degree of “bipartisan” consensus is not surprising. On foreign policy and military matters, the Greater and Lesser Evil parties differ more on means than on ends.

Though Bush started it, Obama, if he is not careful, will soon own the Afghanistan War. Surely, he understands that it could be his undoing, just as the Vietnam War was LBJ’s. Surely, he understands too how much better it would be for all the relevant players, including the Afghan people, if the United States would just go away. Why then has he dumped the anti-war posture he assumed in the campaign and taken up the cause of permanent war?

I’ve remarked on the reason often in earlier entries: it is that if you’re determined, as both Democrats and Republicans are, to run the world, you can’t afford to look weak or vulnerable. In Afghanistan, the situation is clouded because there is a defensible objective – denying a safe base for terrorists intent on harming the United States. The problem there is not so much the end, as the means. More troops and more fighting will, in all likelihood, produce just the opposite of the desired result. But, no matter. The main thing is that, since we are there now, we can’t leave until a way emerges for us not to look like we are being forced out.

That this conviction is the real cause of Obama’s regretful but determined bellicosity is even more transparent in the Iraq case because there is no plausible objective to be gained by staying there until 2011 or beyond, other than avoiding the appearance of defeat. A strategic retreat – running away to fight another day – is out of the question. Like gangsters intent on maintaining power through sheer intimidation, superpowers must always get their way. The Empire is now in Obama’s hands, and he wants to be sure that it keeps on going under his stewardship.

Those of us who think it urgent that the U.S. abandon its imperial posture, if only to avoid blowback from the intensifying turbulence that America’s wars create, must therefore stand against Obama in this regard. His “base” has never demanded much from him. Even still, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the idea is abroad in the land that Obama knows best. Maybe he does, but he won’t act on what he knows – unless his base gives him no alternative. So far so much of that base remains so mesmerized that the danger is grave.

This is one instance where it would be well to follow the Republicans’ lead. They are nowadays a pitiful lot; their leading “thinkers” make even George Bush look good. The just concluded CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference in Washington showed just how morally and intellectually bankrupt the Grand Old Party has become. But they do know one thing: how to leverage their power. They know how to discipline themselves in order to forge unity, and they understand the value of plain obstinacy. If only “progressives” in the Democratic Party were more like them in these respects, we might just avoid the quagmire towards which Obama is heading.