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!

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