Monday, November 30, 2009

Obama Is the Enemy Now

The Afghanistan War is not and never has been “a war of necessity,” as Barack Obama has claimed. By now, it is not a “a war of choice” either. It’s a pointless, inexorable, nightmare.

In the beginning, the Afghanistan War was arguably less pointless. It was a war of revenge. Too bad that it was fought mainly against the wrong target, against ordinary Afghanis, not “terrorists” or their protectors. Those pesky terrorists were just too hard to round up and kill. Most of them weren’t even in Afghanistan, even then. Still, back in the day when George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld set the moral compass, revenge was the best revenge.

As a legal scholar and reader of Euripides, Obama should know that revenge is a motive that civilized societies are supposed to rise above. But never mind: after 9/11, there was not holding back the Furies. Never mind too whether Osama bin Laden might have been captured “dead or alive” years ago but for the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-neocon obsession with Iraq. The fact is that the Afghanistan War could never have been “won” in any plausible sense, and it certainly can’t be won now. If history teaches anything, it is that occupations breed resistance, not acquiescence. And if, say, the history of the Vietnam War is no guide (as apologists for escalation have lately been proclaiming), then surely common sense is. Put enough troops on the ground and, of course, the level of violence will diminish while they are there. But even if our economy were not wrecked, and even if the Home of the Brave was not already war-weary, it would be impossible to keep enough troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. Eventually, Obama’s “exit strategy,” whatever it may be, is bound to give way to the only sensible exit strategy there is: cut and run. The question is only whether that day will come sooner or later, and how much more murder and mayhem there must be before it arrives.

The sad fact is that Obama knows this at some level; and so do his advisors and all but the most deluded Democrats in Congress. Maybe even some Republicans know it too, if there are any sane ones left. But it doesn’t matter. Whatever “it” is, we’ll be there for as long as “it” takes. Why? Because we must “support the troops,” of course; in other words, because we’re there.

Is it that Obama is the prisoner of remarks he made about Afghanistan during the campaign? According to the conventional wisdom, he had to say that he was gung-ho for that war in order to show that, despite his opposition to Bush’s Iraq War, he’s no sissy; that, as well or better than Hillary Clinton, he could play Commander-in-Chief. [It is worth noting that, despite Obama’s supposed opposition, the occupation of Iraq continues unabated!]

Or maybe the problem is that Obama is the prisoner of forces in the military, the Petreuses and McChrystals and their demented ilk, who, having come of age as Vietnam was sputtering out of control, are aching for a chance to get “counterinsurgency” right?

Or is it, as many on the left now believe, that Obama is afraid of the right? Fear of the right is now the favored explanation for why Kennedy and Johnson did their own Afghanistan thing in Vietnam. Why not Obama too?

Or perhaps it’s the Nixon-Kissinger preoccupation with “credibility.” After all, a successful bully can never just walk away. I favor this explanation, though the correct answer is probably “all of the above” and then some.

I think credibility is the main culprit because I believe that Obama is nothing if not foolishly consistent. Our vaunted agent of “change,” has proven himself a good steward of the interests of the powers that be: not just on Wall Street but in the corporate boardrooms of health-care profiteers, reckless polluters, and wherever else contributions for Democrats lie waiting. Surely Obama would not treat those who benefit egregiously from U.S. world domination and perpetual war differently.

But whatever the reason, one thing is clear – that for many months many Americans were in the thrall of an illusion. Remember how all the Clintonites and Wall Streeters Obama brought into his administration were there only for their expertise, and how Obama, from his perch on Mount Olympus, would use them to promote the changes people thought they’d voted for? Can anyone be so deluded any longer? The problem isn’t just Obama’s needlessly excessive servility. It’s worse than that. Bush’s wars didn’t have to become Obama’s wars; not with all the political capital he had to squander. But they are Obama’s wars now. Thus the great non-white hope of the willfully blind months ago has become, for all to see, the enemy today.

It never made sense to cut Obama endless slack, but it surely makes no sense now that he has proven himself an enemy, not an agent, of “change.” Obama is no savior. He’s not even part of the solution -- not now, anyway. Can it still be made otherwise? Hope fades fast but, to the extent it still survives, there is only one way: fighting back. Militance is again abroad in the land – witness the building occupations at University of California and Cal State campuses and the demonstrations marking the anniversary of the Battle of Seattle. The time is past due to make Obama and his wars its target. Gentle lesser evilists will just have to deal with it! There is no other way.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wishful Thinking

In the 2008 election, Barack Obama was the Rorschach candidate -- what people saw in him depended more on their hopes than on what was actually there; and after eight years of Dick Cheney and George Bush there was a lot of pent up hope in the land. Obama took full advantage of it and won handily. Then, slowly but inexorably, came the crash. By the end of the summer, disillusionment was already a mighty force. If, as expected, Obama announces a major escalation of the Afghanistan War next week, expect disillusionment to be triumphant; expect all but the last redoubts of Obamamania to fall. In just a year after that Grant Park moment, Obama will have succeeded in disappointing nearly everyone; even those of us who never expected much. There are exceptions, of course; they can be found on Wall Street, in the military, and in the board rooms of corporations engaged in health care profiteering, environmental degradation and similarly nefarious exercises of business as usual.

To be sure, Obama is still better than Bush – much better. But Democrats know they cannot pin their hopes for the 2010 and 2012 elections on that; not in what Gore Vidal calls the United States of Amnesia. That’s why the wishful thinkers have transferred their hopes from Obama himself to such cartoonish characters as Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Lou Dobbs. If only these worse than Bush GOP “leaders” will run, baby, run! Or, failing that, if only they’ll do to “moderate” Republicans what Doug Hoffman did to Dede Scozzafava in up-state New York. Then, the “moderates” will stay with Obama, even if hardly anyone any longer believes it will do much good. Then, reduced to its base of misfits, losers and godly looney tunes, the GOP will effectively cede the election to its POP rival, the Party of Pusillanimity and now of Wall Street too.

Maybe, but don’t count on it. Like the idea that Obama would be an agent of change, this is wishful thinking. The lunatics now run the Republican asylum, but the more sophisticated pillars of American capitalism, the “malefactors of great wealth” who brought them on board, still have the resources to call them off and take their party back. With disillusionment in the erstwhile Rorschach candidate mounting, they won’t have to take very much of it back to win handily.

The question for progressives, though, if not for party functionaries is: why care? There is some reason – bad as things are with Pelosiites in power, a Republican controlled House and Senate would be worse. So, yes, by all means, lets hope Democrats win; lets even vote for them faute de mieux. But the main thing is what the lunatics do understand: that what really matters is not how many elections they win, but how much influence they have. Sarah Palin’s fans, few as they may be and oblivious as they are to the facts and to reason, have already had an enormous influence over policy; they have dragged the healthcare reform debate even farther to the right than it already was. Blue Dog Democrats in the House of Representatives and “moderate” (right-wing) Democratic Senators, not to mention Joe Lieberman, know this too. When will what passes for a left in the Lesser Evil Party catch on? If they don’t soon, forget about even the small “changes” that are still possible under Obama – as he capitulates far more than need be to the darkest forces of American capitalism, and as he takes over leadership of the Party of War.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Perils of Niceness

There is no doubt that political factors constrain the Obama administration’s freedom of action severely, but it is impossible to say, with anything approaching precision, just how constraining those constraints are. They would have to be contested to tell, and the Obama administration hardly tries. Instead, groveling before the powers that be –“business as usual” in Washington – is the Obama style, notwithstanding claims to the contrary repeated throughout his campaign last year and still occasionally heard from willfully blind Obama supporters.

Bowing before the Emperor of Japan, as Obama did last week and as protocol requires, is a sign of weakness, according to the still unprosecuted war criminal Dick Cheney; a charge taken up by the Republican Party and therefore echoed across Fox News. This is ludicrous, of course; like almost everything else emanating from the bowels of the GOP. But it is true that the Obama administration exudes weakness – precisely because it does not test the limits of the constraints confronting it. This is one reason why the healthcare legislation passed by the House is so awful, even if, on balance, it does improve upon the status quo. Awful healthcare legislation is what you get when you grovel before health care profiteers. And it is why Israel is now flagrantly jerking Obama around – by authorizing illegal settlement expansion on the fringes of occupied Jerusalem just days after Hillary Clinton praised Bibi Netanyahu for his flexibility and openness to resuming negotiations. There are countless other examples that might be adduced: from the administration’s positions on environmental issues, on “free” trade, on questions of war and peace, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, of course, on Wall Street (re)regulation.

Again, it is not clear how necessary Obama’s groveling before entrenched economic and political power is -- though it is surely excessive. What is clear, though, is that the Obama administration, with the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate in tow, evinces weakness of another kind altogether; and that, despite what Rahm Emanuel and other Clintonite Obama advisors may think, there is nothing necessary about it. This weakness is a bi-product of Obama’s excessive civility – of his “niceness” in situations where ruthlessness is called for. Republicans don’t understand much, but they do understand the value of party discipline; and they understand that, when “reasonable” (cooperative) people are at odds with obstreperous ones, the obstreperous almost always prevail. Democrats are clueless about such things.

That’s why three right-wing Democratic Senators – Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and Blanche Lincoln – can threaten to keep the health care bill Harry Reid fashioned from even reaching the Senate floor; and why Joe Lieberman threatens to filibuster the bill if it includes a “public option,” even one as innocuous as the one included in the bill passed in the House.

[Shame on the Senate leadership for allowing Lieberman, sanctimonious and treacherous as ever, to receive the public attention he craves by holding hearings on the Fort Hood shootings, raising the prospect of throwing the government’s case into legal jeopardy!]

It is also why Blue Dog Democrats have the power they do; and why anti-abortion Democrats, led by the hapless Bart Stupak, were able to join Republicans in putting women’s reproductive rights in mortal jeopardy. There is plenty of blame to go around for these shenanigans and others like them, but the buck stops with the Forgiver-in-Chief.

He is proving himself too nice to fight -- too deferential to people whose views are not only unworthy of serious consideration, but harmful in ways that exceed the harms inherent in the political constraints he faces. Obama is turning out to be the quintessential “reasonable” liberal; well-meaning, but ill-disposed to take a principled stand or even, as Robert Frost famously said of liberals generally, his own side in an argument.

Before it’s too late, if it isn’t already, Obama should look around and see that in the real world nice guys, as they say, finish last. He should realize that to cede an inch to the Moronic Minority – or to their representatives in both political parties -- is to give up almost everything. And he should realize that it is impossible to govern, much less institute “change,” without offending the Republican Party’s “base.” One need only look at the spectacle reported from Grand Rapids, Michigan yesterday where hordes of benighted non-readers gathered to buy the book of that cartoonishly incompetent Republican “superstar,” Sarah Palin, a petty and vindictive woman who can’t write and doesn’t think, and who would be yesterday’s lunch were she less easy on the eyes, less ostentatiously patriarchal and God-fearing (professing to Oprah her belief in “Todd and God”), and less identified with the delusions of the terminally mediocre.

Make nice to Palin people? Well, maybe some of the “patriotic Americans” waiting in line in Grand Rapids turned out just to see a celebrity; and maybe a few of them are teachable. But I wouldn’t count on very many of those true believers breaking loose. If the future is like the past, the hopelessly benighted will be always among us. Of them, all one can say is what William Blake, an author Sarah Palin may never have heard of, despite her attendance at any of a half dozen colleges, said -- that “as the air is to birds and the sea to fish, so is contempt for the contemptible.” In other words, it isn’t just bought and paid for Republicans and Blue Dogs and Lieberman who merit contempt, and who should be treated accordingly. Those who placate the contemptible, who shower them with "niceness," merit it as well.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bad for the Party

Republicans under Nixon and then Reagan recruited the useful idiots of the “moral” (moronic) “majority” (minority) to wrest control of Washington from the Democrats. In time, they took the Republican Party over too. In consequence, one would have thought that the GOP would have long ago divided against thanks to the cultural contradictions separating the nation’s rulers from the benighted souls who elect Republicans to do their bidding. But that rift has been slow to develop; no doubt because, in ruling circles, greed trumps all. However, with Obama in the White House, the useful idiots, reacting more to the promise of “change” than to the reality of it, have grown even more Angst-ridden, and also less cautious about expressing the racism Nixon set out years ago to exploit. Thus they are tightening their grip. The more they do, the more acute the cultural contradictions will become. It is happening already; the Scozzafava affair is a sure sign that a purge of “moderates” is underway. The pillars of the party can hardly be pleased. They could well turn to Democrats to fill the void; their traditional allegiances speak against it, but it would certainly be in their interest.

Thus it is becoming conventional wisdom that the Republicans are fashioning themselves into a mainly regional (Southern) party, and that they will therefore remain a minority party for an indefinite future. This is one instance where the conventional wisdom has gotten it right. So-called independents may be cool to Obama’s style of governance and to what they understand (or misunderstand) his policies to be, but the fact remains: the narrower the Republican tent becomes, the worse it will be for the electoral prospects of the Grand Old Party – all the more so, when the only ones let in under the tent are Palin-besotted, god-fearing, certifiable loonies.

But the conventional wisdom misses the point. For true believers, the idea was never just to elect Republicans. Why would any self-respecting reactionary care about that? The idea was and is to affect policy. This, the moronic minority has succeeded in doing beyond their wildest expectations of just a few months ago. With a Democrat in the White House and with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, they have dragged the entire political scene to the right. They will likely continue to do so, no matter how well or poorly Republicans fare in 2010. Last week’s events illustrate the situation perspicuously: Republicans lost a Congressional seat in up-state New York, but they turned the Obama-Pelosi health care reform bill into an anti-abortion bill that solidifies the power of private insurance companies over health care while guaranteeing that pharmaceutical companies will continue to be able to charge extortionist prices for their wares. Which matters more?

What goes for the Republican goose goes too for the Democratic gander. By recruiting and supporting right-wing Democrats – in accord with the theory and practice of Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer and with the approval of liberal pundits – the Democrats did win control of the House of Representatives in 2006 and of the Senate in 2008. They have a good chance too of retaining control of both houses in 2010, even if ruling parties do generally lose seats in off-year elections. But why should anyone to the left of the Clinton family care if this only means that Blue Dogs and Liebermans rule the roost?

The tea-baggers et. al. have a point, and not just, as it were, on the top of their heads. A principled, organized cadre of legislators can affect policy mightily whether or not their party is in the majority. Progressives would do well to take that lesson on board – in this respect only to become more like the lunatics who have taken over the Republican asylum.

There is not much risk involved. Bush era incompetence and Obama era Republican insanity have provided Obama and the Democrats with an unending string of opportunities, most of which they have dutifully squandered. Count on the gift to keep on giving – all the more so as the erstwhile favored party of the ruling class is purged of anyone who, like Dede Scozzafava, is more or less reality-based. That’s why were liberals to stand up more for themselves – for what has come to be called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” -- they would probably not put Democratic control of the House or Senate in jeopardy. But, again, that’s not the point. What matters is affecting policy. The idiots have shown the way.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sinking In

The full measure of the Pelosi-Obama 220-215 “victory” Saturday night, passing their health care reform bill, H.R. 3962 with all but one Republican and thirty-nine Democrats voting against, is finally sinking in.

Out maneuvered, the Pelosiite leadership allowed right-wing Democrats to turn the measure into significant anti-abortion legislation. If the victorious Stupak Amendment or some functional equivalent makes its way into the final bill, it will effectively prohibit private insurers participating in government organized “insurance pools” from offering funding for abortion services. This would be a major step backward from the long established and already horrendously backward Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal money from going directly to pay for abortions or related services.

As bad or worse, the House legislation, with its weak “public option” and mandated insurance coverage would provide a bonanza to the insurance industry, and also to Big Pharma, which could continue to sell its wares domestically at extortionist prices. A truly “robust” public option, available to everyone (or nearly everyone) would provide a way for America eventually to back into the mid-twentieth century – into a world in which health care is a right, not a commodity. So would the Kucinich Amendment, which would allow states to establish their own single-payer systems without fear of being put in legal jeopardy by rapacious private insurers. The Kucinich Amendment passed in committee; but, along with a robust public option, it is not included in H.R. 3962. Thus, as matters stand, the Pelosi-Obama “reforms” would further entrench the existing indefensible and failed system.

Who is at fault? Throughout the process, the so-called “stakeholders,” the profiteers, have acted predictably; their involvement has been deplorable, but it was only to be expected. It was also clear from the outset that the Pelosiite leadership and our pathologically “bipartisan” President would end up giving away the ranch. Their role has been deplorable too, but they too are only acting out their “moderate” natures -- which render them incapable of not groveling before power. Thus the blame lies with the so-called progressives. Whether out of pusillanimity, incompetence or just because they wanted to win won for the Gipper – not Reagan this time, but the New Gipper, the agent of “change,” Barack Obama – they won one for the religious Right (and the Catholic bishops) and for the insurance companies.

I have argued in countless entries that most of the self-identified progressives in the Progressive Caucus are hardly progressive at all by any reasonable standard; and that even the best of them are, for the most part, feckless. They are unwilling or unable to leverage their power in the way that, for example, Newt Gingrich’s minions did in 1994, when they executed their “contract” on America. Over eighty House members were on record as supporters of a single-payer system. As it turns out, had just a few of them organized themselves with a modicum of skill and resolution, they could have blocked the worst features of H.R. 3962 by threatening not to support the bill. They didn’t even try.

Dennis Kucinich was the sole exception – but his No vote was too little, too late. It was essentially a feel good vote, though I wonder how well he can feel voting in the same way as Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats. Still, I sympathize: I too almost always vote “expressively” -- against not for someone because there is seldom anyone to vote for. But I realize, as should Kucinich, that these gestures are largely pointless.

The sheer impotence of progressive Democrats is staggering. Suppose, for example, that, after a wave of gun violence, popular opinion turned against the Second Amendment fetishism that does so much harm to our public safety; or that, after ever more blatant Israeli atrocities, public opinion turned against continuing to provide Israel with the blank check it is now given automatically. Suppose, in consequence, that a few less than usually pusillanimous Democrats were inclining towards doing the right thing. Then imagine how the NRA or AIPAC would yank on their chains. How different it is with the Progressive Caucus and its single-payer advocates!

To be sure, H.R. 3962 does include some worthwhile insurance reforms. If progressives continue to be unwilling or unable to make the bill better, then they should think about passing the insurance reforms on their own, and scuttling the rest – especially the assault on abortion rights and the solidification of the power of health care profiteers. Then true progressives can continue the struggle for genuine health care reform. But then too,unless his spin-doctors do an A+ job, it might look like a loss for the Gipper. Would that be a bad thing -- especially now, when Obama is on the brink of escalating the long failed wars he was elected to stop? I’m conflicted on that if only because I want our first African-American president to “succeed.” But one thing is clear: were Obama to continue along his present path, he certainly will “fail” and, even more certainly, he’ll deserve it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Health Care in the House

Score one for the pope, who got his way on abortion (no way, no how, unless he says it’s OK) but, even with this additional blemish on its face, the Pelosiites did get their milquetoast health reform bill through – by a hair. One and a half cheers for that, and two cheers if they learn something from the experience – if they figure out, at last, what their pandering, and Obama’s, to Republicans and Blue Dogs was worth. Don’t count on it, though; in all likelihood, one and a half cheers is all the outcome of months of Sturm und Drang will ever deserve.

We’ll never know whether it would have been worse had the Party of Pusillanimity gone for something worthy of three full cheers. I think not, if only because it would then have been possible to make a clear moral argument, the one that has been the consensus in all developed countries for decades; that health care ought to be a right, not a commodity. And since the Blue Dogs and the others purport to be deficit hawks, even as they eagerly vote to finance Bush’s and now Obama’s perpetual wars, it would have also been possible to make a sound economic argument about drastically reducing health-care costs while providing care to all without diminishing the quality of care people receive (indeed, improving it for all but the most fortunate under the old, profit-driven regime).

Of course, the liberals will say that had Obama and the Pelosiites gone for the obvious solution, the health care profiteers and their media flacks would have played even dirtier, and the political culture would have been even more debased. Maybe, but it’s hard to see how.

Still, even a not very “robust” public option, combined with sensible insurance reforms, is better than nothing, and far better than the ludicrous Republican proposal that emerged in the “debate’s” final days. Therefore last night’s much touted “victory” was indeed a victory of sorts. One and a half cheers for it, and more if the experience deflates bipartisan fetishism in Democratic ranks and sparks competition in the up-coming primary season. For there is no doubt about it (except in the minds of Democratic leaders): the Blue Dogs have to go.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Change Obama Style -- in Israel/Palestine and Afghanistan Too

Whatever Hillary Clinton may say about how helpful Benjamin Netanyahu’s “promise” not to start new settlements in the occupied territories may be, and no matter how much Palestinians may find themselves without alternatives to acquiescence in the face of overwhelming Israeli military dominance, the fact remains that the prospects for a viable Palestinian state are rapidly diminishing as settlements expand; the point of no return may already have been reached. Because Israel is utterly dependent on American support – economically, militarily and diplomatically -- the United States effectively calls the shots there, even if only by giving Israel carte blanche to do whatever it pleases. In the present circumstances, there are three general courses U.S. policy can take; the first two involve departures from the past (i.e. change); the third would continue the usual policy of (depending on one’s point of view) malign or benign neglect:

1) The United States can demand not just that the pace of settlement construction slow down or even stop altogether, but that some, indeed most, settlements be dismantled – along the lines indicated in the near-agreement reached at Tabah in the final days of the Clinton administration. Unless Israel is forced to give back at least that much of what it has illegally appropriated since the so-called peace process began, a two-state solution will be out of the question because there will be no way to make a viable state out of geographically isolated Bantustans.

2) Or it can impose a one-state solution in which, as throughout the modern world, members of all ethnic groups enjoy equal citizenship rights and full human rights. Since the very idea of an ethnic state rightly offends modern (post-American and French Revolution) sensibilities, this is plainly the preferred outcome for everyone who is not in the thrall of Israeli nationalism, Jewish ethnocentrism or Christian Zionism. But since a secular democratic state in “the Land of Israel” would entail the end of a Jewish state, and since Israeli nationalism, Jewish ethnocentrism and Christian Zionism are weighty positions in the United States and Israel, this outcome would be much harder to implement than a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian state.

This is why (1) is what the United States should impose, even if it is morally and philosophically indefensible. It is indefensible; the idea of a Jewish state – not a state of its citizens but of a self-identified ethnic group scattered around the world -- was always a bad idea – even in the aftermath of the Nazi Judeocide when, thanks in part to the efforts of anti-Semites and Zionists alike, Western countries, the United States especially, were unwilling to absorb more than a handful of Jewish refugees. But belief in the legitimacy of a Jewish state in “the land of Israel” has become so entrenched in our political culture, and in the political culture of Israeli Jews, that it may now be impossible to expunge the idea. There may be no alternative other than to come to terms with it.

The Obama administration is, of course, officially in favor of a two-state solution, as is most of the rest of the world and most of the (increasingly disorganized) leadership of the Palestinian national movement. But, as in so many other areas, Obama only “talks the talk” – raising expectations that are soon dashed thanks to his singular reluctance to turn his words into deeds.

Of course, in the case of Israel/Palestine, the transition from words to deeds would be unusually difficult even if the will were present – because the Israel lobby has a stranglehold over the Congress of the United States. To implement real, not just verbal, changes in American policy towards Israel would require that Obama spend vast amounts of his rapidly diminishing political capital. He could have done it last spring; maybe he can do it still. But don’t hold your breath.

3) Thus the most likely prospect is that the United States will continue to permit Israel to dictate its Israel/Palestine policy – continuing the status quo in Israel and the occupied territories. The State Department’s reaction to the Goldstone Commission Report – saying only how “disappointing” it is – is a portent of things to come. Israel will therefore remain the settler state it has always been, and will continue its policy of creating “facts on the ground” accordingly. It will also continue to crush opposition to its Apartheid regime on the West Bank and to its on-going crime against humanity in Gaza -- by any means it deems necessary. Count on Obama to let it happen.

The Occupation has persisted now for more than forty years, and its trajectory has been, almost without exception, from bad to worse. Unless Obama rises to the occasion, expect the downward trend to continue into the near and not-too-distant future. But it can’t go on forever; the demographics of the situation and strategic factors beyond American control make a Final Solution to the Palestine Question impossible. In the long-term, supporting the status quo will mean not only a further diminution of Israel’s Herrenvolk democracy and its generally liberal civil society, but a diminution in the very prospect of maintaining Israel as a Jewish state.

The end of Israel as the state of the Jewish people would not be an outcome to regret. The beneficiaries would not just be the indigenous population of Palestine and peoples elsewhere who are historically or currently Muslim. The end of Israel would be good for “diaspora” Jews too, inasmuch as Zionism has hijacked Jewish identity and the Jewish religion – to no good ends in either case. I would venture that the end of Israel as an ethnic state would be an especially good thing for Israeli Jews as well. If nothing else, it would relieve them of the burden of oppressing their Arab compatriots. It would even advance the cause of establishing a safe haven for world Jewry, one of the few Zionist aims that is worth preserving. After all, the Israeli settler state is now the only place on earth where, thanks to the Palestinian resistance, Jews are in danger just for being Jewish. But the end of Israel as a Jewish state is an outcome that will be vigorously resisted in ways that could well put the region and indeed the planet in grave jeopardy. The American government can prevent this result. But don’t count on Obama to do anything of the sort. He’s too much of a go-with-the-flow and don’t-make-enemies kinda guy.

Change Obama style is change in words only – and even then, if the words are carefully parsed, there’s less change spoken of than most people assume. In this case, that’s bad for Israelis and for Palestinians and for diaspora Jews. It’s bad for Americans who are not Jews too.

The so-called realist position in international relations theory holds that there are genuine “national interests,” interests of the entire nation as distinct from its national elites. I am skeptical of this contention. But if anything does count as a national interest, surely a more “balanced” Israel/Palestine policy is a prime candidate. From a realist point of view, unqualified support for the policies of Israeli governments may have been warranted when the “enemies” were “International Communism” or Arab nationalism. Then, arguably, it was useful to have an independent state in the region that could function as an offshore military asset of the American empire; which is more or less what Israel became after 1967. But when the enemy is religious fanaticism, Islamicism, there is little that Israel can do that is in the American national interest. What it does instead is help generate even more fanaticism. Along with the continuing occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s Israel/Palestine policies are doing untold harm to the American national interest already. Needless to say, Obama is doing nothing to change this unhappy state of affairs, except by raising expectations that his inaction then quickly confounds.

* *

Political difficulties in the way of doing the right thing are less formidable in the case of Afghanistan, where nothing like an Israel lobby exists. But, even there, it is change Obama style, not real change, that is in the offing.

Would withdrawal, a “strategic retreat,” be in the national interest? Here the situation is more complicated than with Israel/Palestine. There is no doubt that the American people, the vast majority anyway, would be better off were the United States not at war with Afghanistan – if only because it would diminish the likelihood of the kind of blowback experienced eight years ago at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But, for America’s ruling elites, the situation is not so clear. To be sure, there are sectors of American capitalism that benefit from on-going wars, and Afghanistan is not without strategic importance. But, even from the vantage point of those who do benefit from the Afghan War, it is far from obvious that the benefits outweigh the risks. After all, blowback blows back over everyone equally.

Once upon a time, Barack Obama called the Iraq War a “stupid war.” For reasons having mainly to do with his electoral campaign in 2008, the Afghan War got a different billing; it was somehow a “war of necessity.” That made no sense then, and it makes even less sense now. The time is long past due that Obama should come out and declare that the Afghan War is a stupid war too.

This would hardly be news to anyone. But, for our elites, it hardly matters. They know it’s a stupid war from which no good will come, but they also believe that, once in, there is no obvious way out. Like street-level gangsters who think they must never be seen as weak, the commanders of our capitalist economy think that they cannot permit their state, the imperial center of the empire from which they benefit egregiously, to seem to back down in defeat. As their counterparts did four decades ago in Vietnam, they will therefore do their best to keep the war going beyond any chance of victory -- whatever “victory” might mean in this case -- just to avoid (or postpone) an outcome they cannot abide.

That’s why the “debate” over what to do next, eight years into a long lost war, is between the likes of General Stanley McCrystal, Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator John Kerry; and why withdrawal is “off the table.” McCrystal wants more troops – 40,000 of them at least – to keep the murder and mayhem going Iraq-surge style. He and his fellow “counter-insurgency” advocates – including the hapless but wildly popular General Petreus – are proponents of “nation building;” they therefore propose staying engaged in Afghanistan for as long as it takes. Leaving aside the moral fact that Afghanistan’s fate is for the Afghan people to decide, not American elites or defense intellectuals or Generals who lead economic conscripts into battle, the good General is plainly pissing in the wind. It is beyond the means of the American military to accomplish anything like what he has in mind. This is why his might be called the throw good money after bad strategy. And not just money – lives and limbs too.

Meanwhile, our Vice President wants a technological fix – targeting “terrorists” only, wherever they may be (in other words, expanding efforts to bring the war into the tribal areas of Pakistan, in plain disregard of our ally’s sovereignty). His strategy, compared to McCrystal’s, would probably save lives and money, but it would also destabilize the region as much or more than McCrystal’s would. No surprise there: Joe Biden has always been a reliable source of atrocious ideas. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m glad that Obama made Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State. It could have been worse; it could have been Joe.

That leaves John Kerry, who proposes keeping things pretty much as they are. Kerry’s position is the most honest of the three main contenders: it reflects a realization that the only reason to remain in Afghanistan -- the only achievable outcome, in any case – is to avoid, or rather postpone, the appearance of defeat. Ironically, Kerry’s proposals, eschewing even the appearance of change, would do the least harm. But they are still bound to lead eventually to as bad or worse consequences for Afghanistan as would immediate withdrawal, and like Biden’s proposals, though to a lesser degree, they will continue to destabilize the region.

I’d wager that Kerry will win the debate. After all his pondering, Obama will decide that the best, least bad, course of action is just to keep on keeping on. He owes it, after all, to the ruling class.

But this is foolishness. No good will come from muddling on ahead in Afghanistan, just as no good will come from letting Israel continue to dictate America’s policies in the Middle East. For anything good to come out of the present situation the only real alternative is, as it were, to give peace a chance. That would be a real change, not a change Obama style. But for that to happen, Obama would have to be the agent of change that most of his supporters thought he was. A year after he made an indelible mark on history just by the fact of having won, Obama has yet to show that he is anything of the kind.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Bad Day for Plutocrats

The good news is that election day 2009 was a bad day for plutocrats; New Jersey’s sitting governor, John Corzine, lost his bid for reelection. That he was an incompetent administrator and a right-wing Democrat sweetens the result, but the best part is that he was a former CEO at Goldman Sachs. New Jersey voters therefore had the rare opportunity, and exquisite pleasure, of voting against Wall Street, the “homeland” of the masters of most Democrats (including Barack Obama) and all Republicans . But, alas, good news seldom comes unadulterated. By kicking Corzine out, voters put Republican Christopher Christie in. The standard bearer of the Greater Evil Party will likely be even worse than his predecessor was.

Plutocrat Michael Bloomberg did succeed in buying himself reelection as mayor of New York City, spending some $100 million of his own money to that end. The good news there is that, confounding expectations, he only won by about 5% of the votes. Bloomberg made his billions in the financial news industry not in finance itself and, despite some conspicuous shortcomings (in the civil liberties area especially), he has done a far better job than Corzine as a chief executive. It is therefore not wishful thinking to conclude that winning by only 5% against a little known and poorly funded opponent who was all but ignored by Obama and other leading Democrats represents a repudiation of plutocrat-friendly capitalism too.

Nevertheless, count on Democratic Spinmeisters to ignore or disparage “populist” rage against Wall Street, and to conclude instead that the 2009 election results attest to the wisdom of Obama-style centrism. Strictly speaking, the case the Spinmeisters are likely to make applies to Republicans, not Democrats, inasmuch as “centrist” (actually, right-wing) Democrats did not do all that well yesterday. But Democrats are eager to seize on any opportunity to conclude that making nice to all is the wisest course to follow, no matter how ill conceived or disabling that strategy may be. On the other hand, having put the inmates in control of their asylum, Republicans are impervious to notions that their “base” doesn’t already accept; they are beyond – or rather beneath – the point of drawing conclusions based on evidence. This is why I would not expect much support for centrism to emanate from their quarters in the weeks and months ahead.

Leaving aside the fact that centrism helped few, if any, Democrats yesterday, the electoral results do provide Obama-inspired Spinmeisters with a thing or two to spin. Virginia’s new Republican governor, Robert McDonnell, has the credentials – and also the character and intellect -- to please even ardent tea partiers, but he did run towards the center and he did win the election. The fact that McDonnell had the good fortune to be opposed by Creigh Deeds, an undistinguished, right-wing Democrat, is a consideration that promoters of centrism will surely ignore. But the best evidence the cheerleaders for centrism will adduce is, of course, the victory of Democrat Bill Owens, a Blue Dog in waiting, over the hopelessly in-over-his-head Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in an up-state New York Congressional District that has voted Republican for the past century and a half. Because the Republican base had already dispatched the “moderate” Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, several days earlier -- with more than a little help from national GOP “leaders” like Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty and from Fox News and its ilk --the lesson will surely be drawn: that “moderation” is the path to victory.

Maybe it is, for what is left of the Republican Party. But if Democrats draw that conclusion too, count on them to become even more like what their electoral rivals would still be had the movers and shakers of American capitalism not let their useful idiots take their favorite party, the Grand Old Party, over. Already today, many of the most burdened victims of the system in place associate Democrats, even more than Republicans, with the Wall Street establishment. The last thing Democrats should do, if they want to take advantage of the opportunities provided by a self-destructing GOP, is to embrace that perception. It’s a losing gambit – a point it cost John Corzine dear to find out, and Michael Bloomberg too.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Wrong Lessons

The Age of Obama will be remembered as an age of missed opportunities. Team Obama is missing another one right now -- by not using the illegitimacy of Afghanistan’s Bush installed Karzai government as an excuse for a “strategic retreat,” saving countless lives and billions of dollars, while diminishing homeland insecurity in the process. With the cancellation this morning of the planned November 7 election re-run -- after Karzai’s only rival, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew -- the illegitimacy of the corrupt and now out of control Karzai regime has become blindingly obvious. Nevertheless, the best we can hope for from Obama is that he will not increase troop levels -- withdrawal being “off the table, along with so many other morally urgent and politically expedient measures and policies.

The Age of Obama will also be remembered as a time when ostensibly right-thinking pundits drew all the wrong lessons from developments on the political scene. Witness the reaction to the sudden withdrawal, also this weekend, of Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava from the race to represent New York’s 23rd Congressional District in tomorrow’s election. Whether or not the Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, beats the Democrat, Bill Owens, the conventional wisdom is that the contest was a battle for the soul of the Republican Party – between broad tent “moderates” and crazed tea-baggers – and that the latter won. The lesson drawn: that if the GOP doesn’t put the tea-baggers in their place – turning them back into useful idiots, not lords and masters – they will not come back into power any time soon because the only way to win general elections in most jurisdictions (New York’s 23rd being a possible exception) is to run to the center.

This has long been the unjustified and patently false belief of the movers and shakers of the Lesser Evil Party, the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity; and it is advice Obama has taken wholeheartedly on board. It is why right-wing Democrats, so-called Blue Dogs (a designation demeaning both to dogs and the color blue), are running the show.

Let me be clear: Scozzafava supported Obama’s insufficient but still useful stimulus package, and her positions on gay and reproductive rights are in the American mainstream; this is all to the good. Hoffman, on the other hand, is, to put it mildly, morally and intellectually “challenged.” In the race to the bottom, Scozzafava therefore beats Hoffman, just as some (not all!) Blue Dog Democrats beat Scozzafava, the “moderate” Republican. Let me be clear too: lesser evilism has its place. Except in cases where going for the lesser evil (in the short-run) is likely to make outcomes worse (in the middle- or long-run), it is obviously wise to opt for the lesser, not the greater, evil.

But it does not therefore follow that running to the center, as Democrats do and as mainstream columnists and the talking heads of cable news (Fox excepted) think Republicans should, is anything to applaud. Quite the contrary. Running to the center is what has given us the race to the bottom now being conspicuously played out in New York’s 23rd Congressional District. The electoral contest there does have much to teach “progressives.” But the right lesson is emphatically not the one that the generators and sustainers of conventional wisdom draw.

The lesson is that there is no more need for progressives to suffer Blue Dogs or, for that matter, Pelosiites intent on taking opportunities “off the table,” than there is for tea-baggers, birthers, deathers and other assorted looney-tunes to suffer “moderate” Republicans. All it takes is mobilization at the base and support from a few nationally recognized party figures.

What the Lesser Evil Party has instead is a largely demobilized base – thank the lingering effects of Obamamania for that! – and “progressive” leaders who, notwithstanding some conspicuous displays of courage in the on-going struggles over health insurance reform, are loathe to do anything that might put their role as “players” in jeopardy. Thus the race to the bottom continues. Indeed, its pace has accelerated since Obama took office -- driven now by the inmates who run the asylum the GOP has become and by the increasing disillusionment of Obama voters,as it becomes clearer, day by day, how the “change” so many thought they had voted for isn’t happening on his watch.

Would, therefore, that the Democratic base were more like the Republicans’. Depraved as the tea-baggers et. al. may be, there is actually something to learn from them: that it is not necessary for voters to remain helpless spectators while the people they vote for – most of whom are just feckless followers of their parties’ paymasters -- treat their interests and beliefs with contempt.