Tuesday, July 28, 2009


It is looking ever more likely that good old-fashioned corruption will undo the Obama administration’s milquetoast plan to reform the health care system. All that needs to happen is for “the public option” to be compromised away, along with the ability of states to set up single-payer systems on their own. The problem is not graft per se; at least not for the most part. It’s the whacky idea, sustained by obtuse Supreme Courts for more than three decades, that constitutionally protected free speech blocks serious efforts to keep moneyed interests from making “campaign contributions” more or less as they please – in other words, from buying benefits by “investing” in candidates.

In this era of “change,” the health care profiteers this time around have been hedging their bets. Some pharmaceutical interests and some in the for-profit health care industry, along with the AMA, decided to cast their lot with “reform.” Of course, if they start to smell blood, they will probably still jump ship. But they will be winners either way, since liberal Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration have already given them most of what they want. The private insurance industry, however, fears an “existential threat” in the so-called public option. That’s why, for the most part, they’ve cast their lot with the blathering ideologues of the Republican Party and their Democratic counterparts, the “Blue Dogs.” The insurance industry is poised to make the month of August a time for “pre-positioning” right-wing forces in preparation for “Obama’s Waterloo,” as the pathetic but dangerous Jim Demint, Senator from South Carolina, famously put it.

Obama could still prevail. Indeed, if only he’d cease his self-defeating bipartisanship and tamp down his zeal for working out deals, his administration could still deal old-fashioned corruption a blow. Then, unfortunately, the moneyed interests would not exactly lose out. But neither would their nefarious greed unequivocally impede a pale semblance of progress.

Thus old-fashioned corruption may still be dealt a blow. Even in our not very democratic system, this is possible in dire enough straits; and the straits now are dire enough. The question is whether liberal Democrats and the Obama administration will rise to the occasion.

But even if Obama gets his way, real (small-d) democrats will have little to celebrate; for defeating the bought and paid for Blue Dogs and Max Baucuses of the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity, and their even worse colleagues in the Greater Evil Party, will not get to the heart of the corruption that afflicts us. Our democracy is riddled with another, deeper corruption that is much harder to extirpate.

It is worth recalling that, until the end of the eighteenth century, “democracy” was regarded in educated circles in much the way that “anarchy” now is – as a theoretical possibility that no one in his right mind would actually favor. That sense of things changed irreversibly when the American and French Revolutions, and cognate movements elsewhere, turned the demos, the people (in contrast to elites), into actors in the political arena. It took several decades, though, for the perceived challenge democracy posed to property to subside.

The first line of defense was to restrict the franchise to (male) property holders. But that strategy seemed increasingly frail as democratic sentiments continued to rise (in tandem with anti-democratic sentiments of various, but mainly ecclesiastical, colorations). It all came to a head in Britain in the 1840s with the Chartist movement -- where a clear attack on propertied interests took the form of a struggle to extend the franchise to adult males regardless of property qualifications. The Chartist threat was a major factor in the development of the modern party system. It is that system that has made “democracy” safe for capitalism – though at the cost of corrupting the democratic ideal fundamentally, irrespective of how much old-fashioned corruption there may be.

The party system works differently in different places. In parliamentary regimes, there are usually many (bureaucratized and disciplined) political parties that are obliged by circumstances to govern through coalition arrangements. On the one hand, this system does allow most citizens to express themselves politically inasmuch as they are able to find a political party with which to identify. On the other hand, the exigencies of coalition governance generally stifle democratic aspirations; usually because small parties, representing parochial interests at odds with the interests of the majority, must be accommodated. Even so, on the whole, the system does permit a semblance of “rule by the demos.” This is especially true when, as in most countries, old-fashioned corruption is not, as it were, constitutionally protected.

Here, in the Land of the Free, where electoral campaigns are, for the most part, privately financed, old-fashioned corruption is built into the system. But even if our judicial and legislative branches were more (small-d) democratic, even if the Supreme Court’s rulings on campaign funding were set aside, the pressures that work against real democracy in parliamentary regimes would corrupt democracy in our system too. The difference would be that, as happens now, centrist-tending coalitions would form (implicitly) before elections take place – effectively disenfranchising many, perhaps most, voters. There is always the “danger,” of course, that, in primary elections, “fringe” candidates will prevail by appealing to their respective parties’ “base.” In recent decades, this seems to have been more a problem for Republicans than Democrats. Being afraid to take their own side, “liberal” voters in Democratic primaries have tended to vote like pundits – gravitating towards “the center,” as conventional wisdom defines it (not because that is where they are in their aspirations, but because that is how they think Democrats can win). John Kerry’s victory in the 2004 Democratic primaries exemplified this phenomenon perspicuously. That a more progressive candidate than Obama did not prevail in the 2008 primaries was, at least in part, a consequence of similar ratiocinations on the part of Democratic voters.

As I’ve pointed out in countless entries, Obama ran to the center-right in the primaries and has been moving rightward ever since. Thus, no matter how much Rahm Emanuel goes on about not letting a good crisis go to waste, that’s exactly what the Obama administration has done – with health care reform and nearly everything else.

With health care, the time was right: we could have replaced the increasingly untenable status quo with a single-payer system. But, for that, instead of taking the obvious solution “off the table,” Pelosi-style, Obama would have had to defend it forthrightly, spending his political capital as freely as he doles out real capital to our real rulers on Wall Street. And because Republicans could never be brought on board, he would have had to drop the whole bipartisan effort that has blighted his presidency to date. That was not to be, because that would constitute a real challenge to the underlying corruption of the regime; something Obama has not shown the least inclination to take on. Single-payer is superior in every way to the mishmash Obama is promoting, but that is an irrelevant, if inconvenient, fact. For Obama and the rest of the Party of Pusillanimity, the POP, it is more important to pay obeisance to the structural corruption that is our party system by supporting the GOP-POP duopoly than to do the right thing.

Obama’s bipartisanship in this matter at least, is therefore not just an ill-conceived strategy. It is that, of course, but it also represents a (re)affirmation of the system in place. The catastrophes Cheney and Bush bequeathed Obama made that system vulnerable in ways it has not been for decades. Had there been a will, there would have emerged a way if not to change it fundamentally, at least to reform it structurally. But this was not to be. In consequence, even the modest reforms Obama envisions may not be either.

Of course, no Democrat could lead an assault on our two-party system itself. But there was a chance fundamentally to modify the structural corruption of democracy that our two-party system institutionalizes. Then the health care crisis could be made better. Then too the rest of an agenda suited for our time could fall in place.

This would be a victory for (small-d) democracy as well. For then those of us not stuck in the dead center, as defined by the arbiters of conventional wisdom, might actually be genuinely enfranchised for the first time. We might then have something not just to vote against, but instead to vote for. It isn’t happening though. Thus, sadly but predictably, we can only conclude that the time is now past due for even the most inveterate Obama boosters to face reality; and to realize that, barring a major change of course, “change we can believe in” is not going to happen on Obama’s watch.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Flicker of Light

It was just a flicker. At his prime time July 22 news conference on health care reform,one of the corporate media stage props pre-selected to ask questions asked President Obama how close to 100% health insurance coverage would be enough to satisfy the “guidelines” he has given Congress. Obama replied that the only way to insure 100% coverage would be with a single-payer system that provides health care for everyone as a matter of right. Then he launched into his usual answer – about how he proposes to get close but not all the way there. Thus, briefly, a flicker of light shone through. It was then immediately quashed by the unforgiving steamroller that is Obama’s “pragmatism.”

How much more salutary it would have been had Obama gone on, for just a few more seconds, to say what he clearly knows to be the case: that a single-payer system is unthinkable – notwithstanding the plain fact that its superiority over the alternatives (including the left-most version of Obama’s still vague plan) is indisputable. It is unthinkable because health care profiteers in the private insurance industry, Big Pharma and the for-profit health delivery system own Congress. So, Obama might then have said, “we might as well just get on with seeing what we can accomplish within that constraint.” If only Obama had dared say this, he would have done more to advance public deliberation and debate than anything any President has done in decades.

It’s a familiar syndrome. Everyone, Obama included, knows that the only feasible way to bring a semblance of peace and justice to Israel/Palestine is to establish a Palestinian state on all or nearly all the territory Israel has occupied illegally since 1967. But, of course, this is unthinkable given the Israel lobby’s control over Congress and the White House. Thus Obama babbles on about a two state solution and halting settlement growth (he doesn’t dare talk of dismantling settlements!). His babble may be enough to unnerve the right-wing politicians who run Israel, but everyone understands that it’s just words. Because American legislators are bought and paid for, the obviously right solution is unthinkable.

Or again: everyone with the sense they were born with – including Obama most emphatically -- also knows that continuing the occupation of Iraq and ratcheting up the war in Afghanistan is all but guaranteed to make “the homeland” less, not more, secure – and also to squander public monies needed urgently for constructive purposes (including health care). But “cut and run” is an unthinkable option. After all, it would prove the empire vulnerable – and the many interests who also own Congress, not just the military-industrial complex narrowly defined, can’t have that. Thus perpetual war has become the norm. Since Obama has become president, hardly anyone even notices anymore.

Ditto for turning the economy over to “the malefactors of great wealth,” as earlier generations of Progressives called them; the people who brought the economy to the brink of collapse, and who continue to do so, as they enrich themselves egregiously. In these matters too Obama, along with nearly everyone else, knows better. But with bought and paid for Democrats (and Republicans), doing otherwise is unthinkable. It is hardly even mentionable in policy debates.

The problem is not just Obama’s “pragmatism” (which comes to nothing more than unprincipled and ultimately self-defeating tactical flexibility). It’s that who pays the piper calls the tune. Back in the darkest days of the Cheney/Bush administration, it was easy enough for “liberals” to see how wrong-headed everything was, and how the country was headed for disaster upon disaster. Not so anymore. Instead, in Obama’s Washington, the who-pays-the-piper phenomenon has reached almost totalitarian levels. The obvious, the known to be obvious, has become unthinkable, with only the occasional and easily quashed flicker of light showing through.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Right and Righter

If David Brooks is good for anything, it is for getting everything wrong by about 180 degrees. Today’s column in The New York Times is true to form. There he “argues” that liberal Democrats (in whose ranks he includes President Obama) are committing “suicide” by “overplaying” their electoral mandate, much as Republicans did in the aftermath of George Bush’s electoral victories. According to Brooks, the Democrats are way to the left of the American people. Only the right-most flank of what I have been calling the POP (the Party of Pusillanimity), the Blue Dog Democrats, gets it right. Evidently, the Republicans in Congress are too coarse, too obstructionist, and too transparently stupid even for Brooks. So, for the time being, he’ll cast his lot with the Blue Dogs.

Like most of what The Time’s “conservative” columnist writes, these latest reflections hardly merit comment. But they do inadvertently bring two thoughts to mind:

-first, that to the degree Obama is slipping in the polls (which is how Brooks and other pundits have been spinning recent poll results where Obama is still doing extraordinarily well), it is not because his proposals are too far ahead of the people who voted for him, but because they lag so far behind. The “anti-war” candidate is continuing one of the Bush wars he was elected to stop; and, at great cost (not just to the treasury but also to the safety and security of the American people), escalating the other. The candidate who was supposed to clean up Wall Street has put Wall Street predators in charge of the economy – with utterly predictable results. The candidate who was supposed to bring the United States to the level of other developed countries with respect to health care has seen fit to take the obvious solution, single-payer, off the table, while promoting (for the time being) only an anemic “public option.” The candidate who was supposed to bring transparency to government, to end preventive detention (and other violations of U.S. and international law), to end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and so on and on – has been prevaricating shamefully. Obama cannot even find it in himself, so far, to bring anyone, much less the ringleaders of the Cheney-Bush torture regime, to account for clear violations of bedrock human rights and inviolable principles of international law. Overreaching? Hardly!

-Brooks’ babble also raises a question about the real liberal Democrats, the ones to the left of the “bipartisans” in the White House. They’re hardly out of step with the American people; in fact, even genuine conservatives should be in favor of ending the Bush wars, saving capitalism from the capitalists, and making health care a right, not a commodity. Real conservatives should also favor transparency and the rule of law and, so long as they’re more worldly than godly, they should not even object to such challenges to “family values” as gay marriage and gays in the military. Thus the positions most members of the “Progressive Caucus” advance are hardly outside the mainstream; they are not even genuinely “left” positions, but only positions the left (along with nearly everyone else) can get behind in the circumstances. Yet these “progressives” have been remarkably unable to influence outcomes! Unlike the Newt and his minions back in 94 when they took out a contract on America, or the Blue Dogs now, they seem constitutionally unable to “leverage” their power – which could become considerable with only minimal effort, given just the force of numbers. Even more than Obama, their error is not that they are too bold or too far ahead of the people they “represent.” Where they go wrong is in their strategic and tactical ineptitude and their eagerness to acquiesce in whatever Obama and his “bipartisans” propose.

Thus, yet again, Brooks gets it just about 180 degrees wrong!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Roberts Redux

A Martian who had last visited earth for the John Roberts confirmation hearings and then returned for the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor might reasonably conclude that Roberts and Sotomayor are of one mind on almost anything – or rather that they both operate on a legal plane where precedent decides almost everything and the narrowest possible construal of legislative intent decides the rest. Had that Martian also attended the hearings for Sam Alito, he, she or it might have come to a similar conclusion about that nominee as well. But if pressed to say which of the three is the most independent thinker, the Martian would have to opt for Alito. Worse, unless that Martian was well versed in the nuances of Democratic and Republican politics and able to draw inferences from the tone of the questioners, he, she or it would be quite unable to discern any political difference between Roberts, Alito, and Sotomayor. I feel sorry for Sotomayor for having to go through this nonsense -- and not just because she has to accord “all due respect,” as they say in Washington, to Senatorial cretins. But girls gotta do what girls gotta do; and, given the white male resentment Republican senators exude, that dictum holds especially for wise Latina ladies.

Call it kabuki theater, call it farce. In either case, the hearings would be a major bore but for two things -- both of which are, unlike Sotomayor’s testimony, outrageous. Only the first, however, has any entertainment value. That would be the chance to witness conspicuous displays of stupidity from Republicans. I would hazard that, in a free and fair election, most observers would vote Jeff Sessions MIP, Most Imbecilic Player. However, I’d vote for Tom Coburn for his performance in not understanding how dumb his questions about his “right” to defend himself with a gun were. I especially liked how, when he finally stopped badgering the wise Latina over the point, he opined that, as a doctor, he understands how difficult it can be not to think like a doctor – implying that the reason Sotomayor just couldn’t get his point is that she thinks too much like a judge. [Coburn is the Senator who advised his pal and fellow Christian cultist Senator John Ensign to pay off his mistress and her family, but who won’t talk about it, claiming “doctor patient privilege.” Coburn is an obstetrician!]

There is a certain voyeuristic pleasure in watching Republicans act dumber than fifth graders, but there is none in watching Democratic senators, with one partial exception, endorse the persona Sotomayor is obliged to project. Al Franken was the partial exception. The rest of them had not an unkind word to say about the Roberts court, plainly the most noxious and reactionary in recent history. Instead, they outdid themselves suggesting how Robertsonian Sotomayor is, notwithstanding her Latina “identity.” They couldn’t even find it in themselves to cast aspersions on Antonin Scalia – the Mafiosi character I call “Tony Two Vote” (because it was his second vote for the Bush boy, along with the votes he marshaled from the other right-most Supremes, that unleashed the horrors of the past eight years). When Sotomayor joins the Court, as she surely will, it will not make the Roberts court appreciably better; for that, she’d have to be replacing one of the more reactionary Justices. Her appointment, much like Obama’s milquetoast stimulus package, will just keep what is very bad from getting even worse. But there was at least a chance for Democrats, even the milquetoast Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, to explain to a receptive public just how awful the Roberts court has been. So far, they haven’t done anything of the kind, and time is running out. It has been yet another “educative” moment lost.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fidelity to the Law

As everyone with more grey matter than a Republican senator knows, the stock phrase Sonia Sotomayor invoked in her statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, that her guiding principle as a judge has always been “fidelity to the law,” implies exercising judgment; after all, what else are judges are for. [As everyone also knows, in exercising judgment, one cannot help but rely on one’s own life experience; what else do the Republican Sentators think all those white male Supreme Court Justices have been doing all these years!] However, judges exercise judgment within the sometimes broad, sometimes narrow constraints of the legal system. They draw conclusions in “gray” areas where reasonable people can disagree about what the law requires. But not all areas are gray. “Fidelity to the law” implies recognition of this fact as well.

Until the past few days, the Obama administration – intent on “looking forward” – has been, to put it mildly, unmindful of Sotomayor’s guiding principle. Along with a compliant media, intent on promoting the rather dubious idea that serving justice would be a “distraction” from Obama’s domestic and foreign “agenda,” they have been the main protectors of the Cheney-Bush torture regime. But now, finally, key House and Senate Democrats have stopped playing ball with the administration on this point. This happy turn of events has come about, it seems, because CIA Director Leon Panetta told them that Dick Cheney told the CIA to keep Congress in the dark about a pet assassination program of his. [If this allegation turns out to be true, as it surely will be (if it is properly investigated), that would in itself be a violation of U.S. laws dating back to the Ford administration.]

With key Democrats on board, The New York Times was sufficiently emboldened to confirm what journalists not “of record” have been reporting for a long time. Thus the truth has been brought in from the margins, setting a process in motion that is more consistent with Sotomayor’s principle than Obama’s practice to date. Obama might still quash it, of course; but with each passing day, as “revelations” mount, he’d have a harder time doing so. The very egregiousness of the Cheney-Bush administration’s infidelity to the law is now forcing the prospect that justice (or, more likely, some semblance of justice) will be served.

Thus Attorney General Eric Holder is floating the prospect of a special prosecutor (though it isn’t entirely clear yet what his or her mandate would be). Neither is it clear whether this is Holder’s initiative or Obama’s; no one outside the highest echelons of the Justice Department and the White House really knows how much freedom of action Holder has in these matters. But whatever lies behind what Holder is reported to have in mind, the appointment of a special prosecutor is an initiative worthy of enthusiastic support. It is therefore urgent that we bring public pressure to bear! The Justice Department and the White House must be made to understand that, notwithstanding all the slack Obama’s admirers are eager to cut for him even as he betrays their “hopes” for “change,” now is the time to make “fidelity to the law” the Obama administration’s guiding principle too.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What "Bipartisan" Means

One reason why our “democracy” is so undemocratic, not just by the standards of democratic theory but even in comparison with other existing so-called democracies, is that our electoral competitions are all but monopolized by two semi-institutionalized parties. On the whole, the Democrats are, by far, the lesser evil of the two, partly because they are “nicer” and more competent, but mainly because they depend for votes on constituencies like organized labor that, however feebly, force them into less onerous positions. But the two parties do not really differ in principle; they both represent, first and foremost, the interests of our economic elites. For this, our system of (private) campaign finance, sustained by philosophically indefensible Supreme Court decisions going back more than three decades, is partly to blame. But we should not forget that both parties are ideologically committed to the status quo in any case -- to such a degree that even full public financing would not entirely solve the problem, even if private financing (unequal economic power spilling over into electoral competitions) could somehow be proscribed.

What then does “bipartisanship” mean? Not quite what the word suggests: that two ideologically distinct political formations collaborate on common purposes. Rather, with Democrats and Republicans differing only on degrees of onerousness, it means that the two wings of what is essentially a one party state collaborate for the sake of realizing the interests of the elites they represent.

[Just to be clear, I do not mean that all Democrats are less onerous than all Republicans. There are few, if any, decent Republicans left, but there are plenty of indecent Democrats – they even have their own “Blue Dog Caucus.”]

This, at least, is what “bipartisanship” means to Barack Obama and his fellow “bipartisans.” The problem they’re confronting, though, is that the Republicans are unwilling or unable to go along. They’d rather just obstruct. They’re doing this partly for reasons they consider principled but mainly because they think it will help them eventually in electoral competitions to pander to the Fox News/right wing talk show demographic. This last belief is transparently false, but then, as noted, they are not the brightest bulbs on the tree.

Which fact underscores what the true meaning of “bipartisan” in our time and place is. What the term betokens is an unstinting dedication to suffer fools. For anyone who doubts this, watch, if you can bear it, the Sotomayor hearings about to begin – and wonder why anyone, even Barack Obama with his infinite patience and ill-conceived governing style, would want to take such fools seriously, much less go “bipartisan” with them.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Under Cover

As is often the case, Stephen Colbert got it about right – Mark Sanford’s mistake was not getting caught at the Atlanta airport coming back from a tryst with his Argentine soul mate. It was getting caught at the Atlanta airport coming back from a tryst with his Argentine soul mate the day before Michael Jackson died. Characteristically, the Obama administration is more sagacious.

Thus in recent days, more or less under the radar of the all-Jackson-all-the-time cable networks, Obama has ratcheted up betrayals of his voters’ expectations. The CIA inspector general’s report on “enhanced interrogations” (torture) that, thanks to an ACLU law suit, was supposed to be released a month ago but wasn’t, and that was then supposed to be released today but won’t be, is now scheduled for release in two months time. Evidently, our self-declared proponents of transparency and the rule of law think they can play out the clock in their efforts to protect the war criminals of the Cheney-Bush era from prosecution. The less we know, the more likely they will succeed.

Worse than that, though, is how the Peace President has given carte blanche to the Pentagon to finally get “counter-insurgency” right. After failing miserably decades ago in Vietnam, and failing again in Iraq, they’re now back at it, big time, in Afghanistan – in other words, in the continuation of a war that has been lost for years. Is there a point to invading southern Afghanistan en masse and then staying there indefinitely to win over “hearts and minds”? Not really, unless, as in Iraq, the idea is to make more terrorists. But reason not the need! Obama, it seems, only wants to get right – or, rather, to do competently – what Bush and Company did incompetently. His Afghanistan “surge” is, accordingly, a (vain) exercise in competence for competence’s sake.

Strictly speaking, Obama’s antics in Afghanistan only betray the spirit, not the letter, of his campaign promises. After all, like other “peace” Democrats -- Howard Dean among them -- he never exactly opposed the Bush War in Afghanistan, just the ill-advised Bush War in Iraq. It is in that still on-going lost war that Obama is at odds not just with the spirit, but also the letter, of his campaign promises. According to the lame timetable for withdrawal that he once made so much of, he was supposed to be pulling entire brigades out of the country by now. Instead, he’s pulling “combat troops” (as if there are any other kind!) into bases around Iraqi cities, leaving the dirty work of sustaining the occupation to Iraqi forces, while foreclosing absolutely no options for the U.S. military. There are some 140,000 American troops in Iraq now, and the numbers are not expected to decline significantly for a long time, or ever to decline to zero in the foreseeable future.

But who cares now that the Michael Jackson spectacle is in full bloom! Certainly not MSNBC or CNN. However, we should not hastily conclude that it’s all their fault. The “public” is making them do it. Where are the “culture critics” who can explain why? Michael Jackson was a creature of the Bad Old Days of Seventies and then Reagan era mind-numbing pop. His genius was commercial, not artistic. Thus his most memorable, indeed his only, contribution to race relations was to break down the race barrier at MTV! Before he turned creepy and, as much as medically possible, white, he was a fair singer and a good dancer; nothing more. Yet even the people for whom Barack Obama wasn’t black enough, the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world, are now adding their own two cents to the mass hysteria. If it is so important to them to celebrate dead black superstars, they have had, in recent years, far more worthy exemplars from which to choose – Ray Charles, for example, or since mindless “entertainment” now seems key, James Brown. Why all the fuss for a washed up, washed out “troubled soul”?

Someday perhaps somebody will explain this strange phenomenon. But there is nothing strange or hard to explain in the way liberals, especially the ones let into the media after the 2006 elections, are adding to the hysteria. For these Obamamaniacs, Jackson-mania gives their Supreme Leader cover to do his worst. If they can keep the Jackson “news” coming, Obama may even be able to get away with outdoing his already thoroughly “bipartisan” self by junking that half-assed “public option” in his health care reform program altogether. Chuck Grassley and Max Baucus await his acquiescence.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Great Expectations

Though the plain fact is easily lost on all-Michael-Jackson-all-the-time cable networks, Barack Obama seems to have come to the conclusion, six months into his term, that so long as he talks a good earful, he can neglect or even betray his most loyal constituencies – acceding instead to bureaucratic inertia and the wishes of America’s corporate masters.

But will Obama’s friendly, but skeptical, audiences in the Middle East be similarly forgiving? In Cairo several weeks ago, he talked a good earful. He generated great expectations. What will happen if, in due course, nothing happens? In particular, what will happen if the Israel/Palestine conflict gets put on the back-burner – along with the Employee Free Trade Act, the prosecution of Bush era war criminals, the promises of transparency, of homosexual equality, of serious efforts to avert environmental catastrophes and all the rest?

The short answer is: there will be hell to pay. That’s why Obama’s Cairo speech, along with other expectation raising gestures, could misfire badly. Given Obama’s governing style, that could well come to pass. Time will tell, and there isn’t much time left. The only thing that is clear at his point is that Obama could make good on the expectations he raised -- if he wants to badly enough. That’s a big if.

Because Israel is utterly dependent upon the U.S. diplomatically and on the U.S. (and Europe) economically, and because, even with its nuclear arsenal, it is largely dependent upon the U.S. militarily as well, Obama – or any American President -- can in principle force Israel to pursue peace. But, at this point, that would require more than just “facilitating” negotiations. Involving the U.S. in negotiations worked, sort of, for Jimmy Carter at Camp David; it brought about a Cold Peace between Israel and its only real military rival, Egypt. It might have worked for Bill Clinton at Taba too; there was a chance there to force Israel to live side by side with a viable Palestinian state. But Clinton was too weakened politically by “the Lewinsky affair” and other factors, and he was on his way out in any case. It was an opportunity missed.

That was ages ago, however, in diplomatic time. Negotiations alone can’t work now – especially not with a right-wing government in Israel, vulnerable to pressures from theocrats and nationalists even farther to the right, and opposed not by feckless social democrats (Labor is part of Netanyahu’s coalition!) but by the party of Ariel Sharon. It probably couldn’t work any more even in a more propitious political climate because of demographic changes within Israel: there just aren’t enough progressive and “moderate” Israelis any more or professionals and entrepreneurs who would benefit from peace to counter the theocrats (many of them benighted North American Jews), the nationalists (many of them recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union), and a “mizrahi” underclass brimming with hostility towards their Arab cousins who want – and need – an eternal enemy.

This is not to say that there is nothing Obama can now do; quite the contrary. The United States is now, more than ever, in a position, in concert with other world and regional powers, to impose a durable settlement of the conflict – by simultaneously promising to guarantee Israel’s security (if not within its 1967 borders then within the framework established at Taba) and by threatening Israeli elites with isolation and outright abandonment if they don’t go along. Bilateral negotiations, facilitated by the United States, were never the best way to force Israel to make peace. More direct interventions by the powers that created a Jewish state and that sustain it were always more likely to result in success. Now the better way is the only feasible way.

This is to say that Obama must force Israel’s business and political classes to take on the settler movement and their ideological allies. They can do it, if Obama makes them an offer they can’t refuse. Of course, for Obama to do this, he would have to take on the Israel lobby. That’s not as ominous a prospect as may appear because the Israel lobby is fast becoming a paper tiger. It never really represented mainstream American Jewish opinion; most American Jews, after all, are indifferent to Zionist concerns and only vaguely attached to the Jewish state. Recently, the Israel lobby – essentially a lobby for the sectors of Israeli society that doom a negotiated settlement – has been increasingly threatened by growing numbers of mainstream American Jews willing, in varying degrees, to stand up to it. J-Street, the liberal-moderate alternative to AIPAC, is just the tip of the iceberg. The Israel lobby is also weakened by the diminished power of fundamentalist Protestants, including “Christian Zionists,” in the post-Bush era. For as long as there has been a powerful, organized Israel lobby (in other words, since the 1967 and especially the 1973 wars), there has never been a better time to become free of its influence.

Obama knows what he has to do, and he has the political skills and political capital to do it. But he has so far been too much the Democrat to do much of anything bold or visionary, much less this. On the domestic scene, he has yet to pay a price for his “pragmatic” “bipartisanship” – in other words, for his pusillanimity. That’s because it has so far been only his liberal supporters he’s been stringing along. Just as liberals won’t take their own side in an argument, as Robert Frost wisely put it, they positively thrive on being shunted aside for civility’s sake. They value their own “reasonableness” over everything else, including results. However Obama’s Cairo speech was not addressed to American liberals, but to people in the Muslim world – or, better, the historically Muslim world. They are wiser to the ways of the world and therefore not likely to be so forgiving.