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A Day in the Life of … Barack Obama
[Apologies to Solzhenitsyn for cribbing from his title. Goodnight, Ivan Denisovich, wherever you are. But to be serious: Ordinarily the writer does not reach out to the reader; rightly so, a work should stand on its own. Yet I feel, as part of the work itself, to say something, not in anticipation of failure to communicate, but to provide a minimum of guidance here because I think it may be needed. This is a short piece, not of major consequence to anyone but the writer, but also one that is difficult to read and understand. I refer to the problem of conceptualization. As the title suggests, I have confined or frozen the analysis to a single day, a rather perfunctory one, as the events of our times goes. Yet, by taking three comments I wrote to The New York Times on that one day, in themselves hardly earth-shattering, but having the possibility of illuminating three different, distinct, and important areas of Obama’s policies and actions, I believe I was able then to probe more deeply the wider configuration and consequences of his presidency, past and prospective. Regulation, cyberwarfare, military / strategic policy and planning, all three areas touch base on what I have termed elsewhere, a framework of liberal fascism. I hope this explanatory note is not viewed as trespassing the bounds of authorial prerogative.--NP]
Obama’s Second Term commences shortly. I expect nothing, except more of the same: financialization and militarization of American capitalism; a two-pronged foreign policy already in place (a) the Pacific-first strategy, predicated on heavy weaponry–supercarriers for starters–to surround and contain China, and (b) the heightened use of paramilitary forces, notably, CIA and JSOC, coupled with armed drones for targeted assassination, i.e., counterterrorism qua counterrevolution in Third World regions, and as part of a geopolitical strategy to plant a not-so-light global footprint for ensuring US-led political stabilization of the world trading system on terms favorable to American interests; domestic retreat in all pertinent areas, e.g., deregulation of the corporate and banking structure, depredation of the environment and consequent failure to respond to climate change, diminution of the scope and resources of the social safety net, and relatedly, a widening of extremes of wealth and poverty, disparities of power grounded in ideological and systemic features sanctioning unrestrained capital accumulation promoted and protected by the State– but why go on? Wherever one turns, job creation, mortgage foreclosures, health insurance, all the obvious points of contact between a democratic government and its citizenry, the Obama administration, placed on a scale from 1 to 10, is somewhere between 3 and 4, as measured by the potential of a society in light of its wealth and resources. The list is achingly long and I only scratch the surface. As I review it, and factor in the context of militarism, which breeds acquiescence, and absorbs the funds for societal reconstruction, as well as view each element in turn (whether drone warfare or the social safety net), I realize that I must stand corrected. When I said, “more of the same,” what we shall see instead is the intensification of these various policies, trends, omissions, because, safely reelected, Obama is emboldened to execute a course of market fundamentalism at home in all its gross inequalities (a regressive tax base, subsidies to favored sectors and corporations, among government’s probusiness functions under his leadership), and in the interrelated fields of defense and foreign policy, a new gusto in embracing technology to achieve lethality and conquer markets. Who would have known, 2004-2008, that he would somersault from left to right always, and always land on his feet, until winding up in a position on the political-ideological spectrum today called moderate or centrist only because the spectrum itself has tilted far rightward, and lopped off the left? Republicans make him look good by comparison, but objective criteria of societal welfare, such as economic democratization, the willingness to confront squarely long-term problems of climate change and natural-resources planning, and a foreign policy accommodative to the aspirations and needs of others, make him look, in each and every case, a dismal failure if not worse.
The day is January 8, moments away from the Inaugural, an ordinary day by most standards, yet the next day, three items from The New York Times grabbed my attention, prompting one of my favorite pastimes, writing Comments to the paper, hoping, wholly unrealistically, that I might stimulate discussion of issues through an alternative framework from that which is generally offered. Times groupies, like myself, know the paper does not accept criticism kindly; for me, and perhaps others, failure to publish a Comment is a sure sign that I had struck a nerve, did something very right, which proved unassimilable, while routine acceptance seldom toppled any columns (excuse the pun, not intended). Here then are three which, I am ashamed to say, were all accepted (unlike several others during the week), and which I have chosen to signify three “moments” in the Obama administration’s policy making, that is, areas of considerable or potential importance. which point to a future—the Second Term—darker than the admittedly dark days we’re presently going through.
The first, where The Times is at its best, and deserves commendation, that is, an editorial which recognizes a problem and meets it between one-half and two-thirds of the way, staying clear, as usual, of demanding that Obama be held accountable for what is here a clear case of anti- or nonregulation (euphemistically, “self-regulation”) rather than independent government authority backed by law and criminal penalties, to oversee and prevent abuses in the financial industry’s mortgage and foreclosure practices. The editorial, “Another Slap on the Wrist,” criticizes the “illegal foreclosure practices” of the banks, and the regulators delay in stepping in to pronounce the self-review process inadequate. Bravo, because it writes: “If it’s timely review they [regulators] wanted, they would not have instituted the deeply flawed review process in the first place, nor would they have let the sham reviews drag on for more than a year. Worse, the settlement amount is inadequate.” The remedy? Still no word about the responsibility of the Obama administration, merely an “independent monitor” for overseeing “antiforeclosure aid” and asking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Obama savaged from the start, to draw up rules. [NYT, 1/9/12]
Excellent description of the problem, yet inadequate in conceptualization and remedial action. Self-regulation has been essentially the American Way since T. Roosevelt’s Bureau of Corporations (1903), a wholly misleading mode of regulation if by that term is meant, a framework of law and constituted authority, as it should, whose purpose is to enforce principles of control in the PUBLIC INTEREST, not that of the industry or other body presumably to be controlled. Self-regulation in fact is a sweetheart arrangement legitimated and winked at (for its abuses), what NYT correctly calls “a wrist slap,” by a compliant government working not for the people but rather for throwing a shield of protection around that which is to be regulated to ensure its continued questionable behavior.
Self-regulation historically represents therefore the interpenetration of government and business (including, of course, the financial sector as well), which is just a scholarly and/or polite way of saying, deregulation per se, so that independent control is neither wanted nor permitted. It is a hoax, and The Times must here put the ball more squarely in the Obama administration’s corner for its generalized lack of regulatory commitment. Even CFPB, which you pin your hopes on, was weakened from Day One when Obama marginalized Elizabeth Warren, its creator, from assuming directorship, just as it marginalized, also early, Paul Volcker from banking reform. Obama does not want effective regulation.
The second, an article by reporters Perlroth and Hardy, ably describes the recent cyberwarfare attacks on US online banking sites, more serious than previously because, “instead of exploiting individual computers, the attackers engineered networks of computers in data centers,” revealing a greater degree of sophistication and maximizing the impact of the interruptions. It is believed, but not established, that the attacks originated from Iran—for which Obama’s national security staff is understandably angered and alarmed, not, of course, conceding the obvious, that John Brennan started the whole cyberwarfare round by first initiating an attack on the computers of the Iranian nuclear research facility, the same Brennan now famous for “enhanced interrogation,” the president’s most trusted adviser on counterterrorism, geopolitical strategy, and founder, patron saint, and ideologue for the armed drone for targeted assassination, and nominee for head of CIA. None of this reflects well on Obama, from approval of an escalation of cyberwarfare tactics, incorporating them in fact into a broader strategy which rests upon the reliance of paramilitary forces and armed drones, ostensibly in advancing the “war on terror,” but actually a geopolitical outreach to have a greater Middle East presence and, globally, warn and/or counter real and imagined adversaries, to, once again, the importance attached to the advice of the everpresent Brennan—or should I say, Svengali? [NYT, 1/9/12]
More power to the Iranians. When the US engages in criminal activity, of course there shall be blowback–and deservedly so. The paternity for cyberwarfare against Iran’s nuclear site is John O. Brennan, chief adviser to Pres. Obama, & now nominated to CIA directorship (while probably still having Obama’s ear)–the same Brennan who has consistently lied about civilian casualties as a result of armed drones for targeted assassination. Since drone technology is not rocket-science (pardon the pun), how soon will the US find other nations using armed drones against America when the next intervention rolls around? Only psychopaths hit below the belt when weapons development is already so sophisticated. I hope we are taught a lesson, so that when we finally stop (because the price is too high), then the world can catch its breath, and diplomatic truly trump military solutions. With Brennan in place, Obama reveals the destructiveness at the base of his character and thinking.
In the third piece, David Sanger, the paper’s Crown Prince of political analysis, sets the appropriate tone for The Times’s authoritative place in both the newsgathering world and, more immediately important, the White House Press Corps—the group of elite reporters vying with each other for access to high level officialdom, and, in turn, are skillfully played off against each other, thereby ensuring there would be a selective process of partiality based on the favorable treatment shown the administration. This does not question the integrity of reporters, so much as it reveals the subtlety of the manipulation and their dependence on a loaded system if they are to gather the news. I suspect Sanger is a a step above the fray, given the White House’s desire to cultivate The Times as an influential opinion-molder; yet, granting his entire convictions in the matter, his thinking resonates to a remarkable degree with official policy, as can be seen in his introductory comment that, “[W]ith the selection of a new national security team,” Kerry at State, Hagel at Defense, Brennan at the CIA, this is a group “deeply suspicious of the wisdom of American military interventions around the world….” When I was a kid, we called that a “snow job,” according to Webster’s, “an intensive effort at persuasion or deception,” and although I don’t know whether or not the phrase is used today, what we have here is expected but objectionable, as the willing suspension of critical insight or dereliction of duty. I’m glad Sanger casts “intervention” in plural form, but the renunciation itself—yes, its streamlining (Robert McNamara’s more-bang-for-the buck Vietnam War military thinking, back in vogue) and changing guise (for what else is armed drone- and cyber-warfare and the continued establishment of military bases to conduct these and paramilitary operations but intervention?), but no, this is one leopard that does not change its spots. America without intervention would not only strip diplomatic history textbooks of most of their pages, but make the nation unrecognizable to itself and others. Thus, Sanger helps us usher in a new era of groupthink, in which moderation prevails, intervention fails the test of cost-benefit analysis, and a serene cloud settles over 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Gone, he writes, is the old team of hawks, and now Brennan, “who helped devise the ‘light footprint’ [the presently fashionable phrase for the supposed turn to moderation] strategy of limiting American interventions, whenever possible, to drones, cyberattacks and Special Operations forces,” steps forward as the eminence grise of what I described in a previous CounterPunch article as the new dispensation—to me a somewhat horrifying thought, in which he enjoys, by Times’ reports, the ear of the president more than other advisers, his famous “playbook” in hand, together with Obama modernizing the whole schema of US global ascendance to register swifter, more efficient, more terrifying force on any who stand in the way. For Sanger, inexplicably, “drones, cyberattacks and Special Operations forces” are the salutary wave of the future—perhaps what I had in mind without quite realizing when I called attention in previous references to liberal fascism. We are to be congratulated because Doctor Strangelove has not been given a Cabinet post, and the US has not thus far threatened a Nuclear Holocaust if we don’t have our way. Sanger continues the preceding quotation, “All [Kerry, Hagel, Brennan] are advocates of those low-cost, low-American-casualty tools [i.e., drones, etc.], and all have sounded dismissive of attempts to send thousands of troops to rewire [my italics, watch it!, a new entrant in Pentagon jargonize] foreign nations as wasteful and ill-conceived.” So, intervention is not abandoned after all, and instead we now merely rewire foreign nations, i.e., interfere with, rearrange, and/or control their internal affairs to suit ourselves, but of course at cheaper cost. This moderation may then be described as liberalism-on-the-cheap, the moderation and the liberalism, however, subject to qualification along what I believe to be fascist lines because the hierarchical structure, including business consolidation, government-business interpenetration, and, increasingly, their systemic integration with militarization as the unifying glue of the social order, has not been changed, and, under Obama, rather, intensified.
Finally, Sanger, the inveterate insider, deserves credit for an insight here, although it flatly contradicts all reference to moderation, namely, that the new team, marking the supposedly major internal shift in national-security policy will, with these appointees, contribute to a decision-making process which will be White-House centered: “[The three] are likely to accommodate themselves, in ways their predecessors often did not, to a White House that has insisted on running national security policy from the West Wing.” This is a gem. I think Stanger knows whereof he speaks, and he here makes clear what observers have failed to notice through all of the alleged compromises with Republicans (I say “alleged” because I don’t see them as compromises but rather as his adoption of conservative policies, from the inadequacy of job creation to the abrogation of civil liberties to the weakness of the regulatory system to the emphasis on military power, positions therefore that his supporters see as compromises because they had been originally hoodwinked by the promises of ‘08 or, even partly for that reason, find comfort in their state of deep denial, but which he favored from the outset and—in the infamous ritual, probably the product of public relations, of negotiating with himself—went through the motions to disguise. It is better to be thought a compromiser—with fawning attention to his sweet reasonableness and desire to unite the red and black states—than a con artist, self-promoter, careerist, or narcissistic, psychologically fragile, dissimulating figure of, despite an urge to power, and relatedly, payback to his inner demons, somewhat undistinguished proportions. To what, then, did Sanger call attention which most of us, on the mistaken characterization of Obama as unprepared for or ill-suited to the hurley-burley of political negotiation, and hence, in his character, disposed to reconciliations of all sorts, missed? The opposite—a centralization of power, as in the enlargement of executive authority, free to adopt a policy course of his own choosing, now tilted heavily to military aggrandizement embodied in the reliance on, and, I suspect, pleasure he derives from, drone warfare, “collateral damage” and all, as well as the way he has repelled efforts at government transparency. But psychology is less important than actuality. [NYT, 1/9/12]
I beg to disagree with Mr. Sanger about the light footprint, in general–given the huge military budget, the “pivot” from Europe to Asia, and esp. the Pacific-first strategy itself (as in NDAA provisions for supercarriers and littoral craft) with an eye to the containment qua isolation of China. The Obama foreign policy IS aggressive, in regard to great-power geopolitical strategy. But beyond in general, Mr. Sanger truly neglects the in particular: John Brennan. I am not persuaded that armed drones for targeted assassination leaves or creates a light footprint. Brennan, as Obama’s chief adviser (which will not change when he goes to CIA) is, I believe, a war criminal. Period. You may refuse to publish because of that assertion. Fine. But the record is clear: despite Brennan’s consistent denial of civilian casualties, yes, including children, the program is a moral affront to rule of law and democratic governance. The Stanford-NYU report, “Living Under Drones,” is one of several authoritative findings, which include second strikes on funerals and first responders. Brennan’s cyberwarfare, which, as in today’s Times, shows playing with fire–i.e., blowback–, is frosting on the cake of his fascistic tactics. Why Mr. Sanger views the CIA-Spec. Ops PARAMILITARY approach as a light footprint, in view, e.g., of the world system of airstrips for drone launchings, needs explanation. Obama’s team, new or old, will continue Tuesday night hit-list merriment in murderous glee.
Times groupies, again like me, revolt, break your chains, you have nothing to lose but… the companion to your breakfast roll and coffee. Fight back. Insist the oftrepeated principle be honored in practice: “Speak truth to power.” It is an honest and convincing standard, violated through currying favor with advertisers, etc. , and remains more than ever the underpinning of a free press. By that token, The Times has been seriously remiss in its obligation, not just to its readers, but the society and, given its reach, the world. In this case, Obama has been allowed to escape not only serious criticism, but the demand that he be held accountable for policies pointing in every direction injurious to the achievement and maintenance of a democratic system of government. In this article, I have taken a single day, geared to the reporting of the preceding day’s events—not Pearl Harbor, not Hiroshima, not the Kennedy or King assassinations, but an ordinary day–covered by The Times in a fairly straightforward way, yet showing Obama, however far from its intentions, as up to his neck in wrongdoing, not personal corruption, but policy making which, either by commission or omission, is the falsification of the trust a presumably democratic nation places in its leadership. We start with banking regulation, or the lack thereof, and the broken homes and broken bodies resulting from despicable mortgage practices still largely extant, themselves mere surface for the absolute failure of the nation’s regulatory framework, apparatus, and independent execution, all to be laid at the president’s door, both for not demanding enforcement of his own executive departments and agencies, and not formulating principles, standards, groundrules to achieve the public welfare. Which is worse here, SEC or FDA in doing the people’s business—frankly, a toss-up? We then turn to cyberwarfare, which opens a real can of worms, or better, snakes, a vile elicit messing-around, sabotage on a grand scale, with or into other peoples’ affairs, and itself prompting a mental-set wherein anything goes: Why not, by the same logic, and minds, from the president down, which finds it appealing, assassination? The wish here is father to the act, as, of course, in the use, and whole purpose, of the armed drone. Obama, and this is what is meant by the centralization of power and authority in the White House, or Executive Power in general, is personally responsible for cyberwarfare, a major decision, especially in light of its retributive consequences, whether or not he signs a specific order. In the third case, the entire posture of the United States in its foreign relations is at stake, the “lighter footprint” changing nothing fundamental about the historical pattern of expansion, the articulation of doctrines and their translation into practice which favor unilateralism in ordering the global system of monetary, trade, and investment activities, and the resort to military implementation of America’s hegemonic aspirations. Obama, like most previous presidents, takes hegemony and unilateralism as articles of faith—that is how we confer the honor of statesmen on our leaders—but it is hardly what many of us expected, perhaps we might include the Nobel Committee for the Peace Prize here, a warrior verging on if not already qualifying (as I think he does) for the status of war criminal, in which the full record of drone strikes, including secondary strikes on funerals and first responders, amply testifies. The Times in its investigative reporting has contributed admirably to that record, but its editorial page and now Sanger have failed to catch up. Apparently, Obama has little to worry about. He is not Herbert Hoover hiding behind the curtain, watching, as the Army forcibly ejected the Bonus Marchers from the Washinton flats. Instead, he is his affable self, successfully—on most occasions—masking his tensions, as he meanwhile turns the screws on the American people and anyone else within reach, knowing he will never be held accountable for his failed presidency, never be found out. Period.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.