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The Metamorphosis of Vladimir Putin

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Suddenly last summer, Vladimir Putin, formerly once a decent enough Russian leader (with a few unsettling quirks), turned into a malevolent, almost demonic, force.

Congratulations to the American propaganda system for putting over this remarkable metamorphosis.

At the same time, the verdict on Barack Obama did not change – not last summer, not since he assumed office.

From the moment that it became clear that his presidency would be rife with “disappointments” and sparing in achievements, Democrats have maintained that he means well and would be a force for good – were it not for pesky Republicans thwarting his every move.

Republicans, meanwhile, have a different view.  For them, Obama has always been evil incarnate – like Putin now is, maybe worse. Hell, he may not even be a Christian, and he doesn’t “love America.”

Needless to say, the Republican take on Obama is preposterous. But then the liberal view is preposterous too. Disappointed Obamaphiles are not as in-your-face stupid as GOP Obamaphobes, but it is hard to say which is worse.

* * *

Obama’s first term was, for the most part, a continuation of George Bush’s second.

Winding down (repackaging) the never-ending wars Bush and Dick Cheney started in Afghanistan and Iraq was one of Obama’s principal objectives. Bush and Cheney had been working on this too, at least since 2006.

It was the same with 24/7 surveillance.   Obama’s predecessors got it going; then Obama picked up the ball and ran with it, taking it as far as he could.  In this case, there was not even a pretense of winding anything down; the point was to rev the snooping up.

The war on whistleblowers, and on investigative journalism generally, was more Obama’s obsession than Bush’s. But Bush and Cheney laid the groundwork; their goal too was to keep the public uninformed and therefore easier to control.

Under Obama, no one has been held accountable for Bush era war crimes. Not long into his first term, it became obvious why.

The administration’s line was that Obama wanted to “look forward,” to let bygones be bygones. So much for retributive justice. So much for honesty too; Obama’s excuse was a patent subterfuge.

His real reason for granting war criminals de facto immunity was that he wanted a free hand to do more of the same. And so he has, though with a few differences.

The Bush-Cheney way was to capture “bad guys” and “render” them out to be tortured in dark sites in client states, or else to imprison them indefinitely, usually without charges, in secret prisons overseas or at Guantanamo. Obama prefers to kill suspects on the spot – preferably with unmanned drones or, when that isn’t enough, with special ops assassins.

The tactics are different – in part, because, unlike Cheney, Obama is not one to boast about crossing over to the Dark Side.   Also, he learned something from Bush and Cheney’s experience: that torture gets bad press.

None of this alters the fact that in fostering a warfare-surveillance state, and in many lesser, but no less noxious ways as well, the Obama administration has been on the same page as the administration that preceded it.

This is true even of “Wall Street versus Main Street” issues. On trade, there is no real difference; and neither are the two administrations at odds on according carte blanche immunity from prosecution to banksters and high-end corporate criminals.

Obama may care more than Bush and Cheney about keeping global warming in check – how could he not as weather disasters mount, and as voters catch on to the reasons why?  But to the extent that his environmental policies depart from Bush’s, the differences are more cosmetic than substantive.

On issues close to the hearts of Democratic voters, Obama changed the atmospherics – somewhat. Even then, the real world consequences have been minimal.

Like other Democrats in recent decades, Obama offers verbal support to organized labor around election time, while practicing malign neglect all the time.

Republicans would like to be done with the labor movement altogether. However, while Bush was President, malign neglect was all they could muster.

Still, the two administrations were not quite the same. As Republicans, Bush and Cheney had no reason even to seem to care about organized labor. Democrats have every reason to seem that they do.

The Republican war on public sector unions waged by Republican governors and state legislators at the behest of the plutocrats who bankroll them, came after Bush was gone. No doubt, he likes what they have done, and, had he still been in office, he would not have lifted a finger to stop them. But then Obama hasn’t lifted a finger either.

The state Democratic Party in Wisconsin did try to send Governor Scott Walker, the first of the pack to go after public sector unions, on his way. Obama did nothing to help them.

He must have thought that his time would be better spent chatting up wealthy donors than campaigning against a union buster.

This, anyway, is what he did in the days before the 2012 recall election that Walker won. When he could have been campaigning in African American neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Racine, where he might have done some good by getting potential Democratic voters to the polls, he chose instead to hobnob with the rich and heinous at fundraisers – for his own 2014 campaign — in Minnesota and Illinois.

Then, the night before the election, he sent out a tweet in support of the recall movement. Yippee!

Now Walker is going after private sector unions too; Wisconsin is about to become a “right to work” state. Liberals blame ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Koch brothers and their ilk for this great leap backwards; they might rethink their support for Obama as well.

The contrast between his indifference towards the efforts of pro-labor Democrats in Wisconsin and his support for pro-corporate, pro-machine politicians in Chicago is striking.

In last Tuesday’s primary election for Mayor, Obama went all out in support of his former majordomo, the unreconstructed Clintonite Rahm Emanuel, the man now known as Mayor One Percent.

That Emanuel, his coffers stuffed with truckloads of money from the usual suspects, still could not garner fifty percent of the vote, suggests that maybe God does exist after all. If he goes on to lose in the run-off election in April, there will be no better inference to draw.

Cronyism is not the only reason why Obama was there for Emanuel but AWOL in the struggle against Walker.   Obama will sometimes support Democrats who run against genuine progressives. But when a Democrat runs against a rightwing miscreant, he can’t be bothered.

Indeed, he seems to relish sticking it to all of his core constituencies – organized labor most of all. Unions do yeoman service for the Democratic Party at election time. Even a Scott Walker can figure out that the weaker unions are, the less service they are able to perform. But Obama doesn’t care.

Along with other like-minded “liberals,” he seems to think that unions have no place else to go. Donors always have Republicans; they like them better anyway.

Walker could have been crushed in 2012. Because he wasn’t, Democrats may have to deal with him again before long. The man is a flyweight even by Republican standards, but, partly thanks to Obama’s indifference, he is now a serious contender for winning the GOP’s nomination in 2016.

If by some unlikely but not impossible course of events, Walker or someone similarly god-awful actually becomes America’s next President, Obama will have much to answer for.

But then he will have much to answer for too when Hillary Clinton moves back into the White House in January 2017. With Obama, we got a third and fourth Bush term. Number five is waiting in the wings.

* * *

This is not the worst of it, however – not by any means.

Even with the entire gaggle of first generation neocons behind them, Bush and Cheney never dared to provoke Russia to such an extent that war with the West — not a covert war, not a proxy war – but a world devastating hot war would become a live possibility.

Maybe they were too busy destroying Afghanistan and Iraq. Or maybe they had too much common sense.

No one can accuse the cold warriors and humanitarian interveners Obama listens to of common sense. If they had any at all, they would have long ago ended, not expanded, Bush’s “war on terror.” And they would certainly not have initiated the troubles in Ukraine.

Bush and the people around him wrecked a large chunk of the world and set a perpetual war regime directed at Muslim countries in motion.   Obama is playing with greater fire still. He could destroy the world itself.

His innate hesitancy may come to the rescue yet. And we can count on saner heads in Moscow doing their best to defuse the situations his “liberal” and “humanitarian” advisors concoct.

The chances therefore are that the world will dodge the bullet this time. But low chances are not good enough. The first priority of any President worthy of the office should be to bring the chances of war with Russia down to zero.

How pathetic is it that we have no worthy leaders in Washington these days! What we have instead is Barack Obama — and worse. Republicans are worse; this goes without saying. But so are Democrats who support Hillary Clinton. Dumb, reckless, warlike shenanigans are her stock in trade.

Obama is not nearly as dangerous as she is, though some of the people around him surely are. With his backing, they are presently laying the groundwork for war.

And yet, to hear our media tell it, Putin is the bad guy!

It is important to the War Party that he be thought of this way. If he were not, they could hardly concoct the cold war – or worse – that they long for. To this end, they have been well served. The demonization of Russia’s leader is now so deeply entrenched in the media narratives that assail us that hardly anyone objects; hardly anyone even notices.

But is far from clear what Putin – or Russia – did to merit the sudden and overwhelming condemnation they are now receiving.

It is disturbingly similar to what happened with Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi.

They too were de facto American allies; they too had recently been more than a little helpful to the United States in its never-ending “war on terror.” Then, suddenly and abruptly, the United States turned against them both.

Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was the immediate cause in his case. He may well have undertaken that ill-fated adventure with what he reasonably took to be tacit American consent.  But, no matter: he crossed one of Bush the Father’s lines in the sand.

What led Washington to turn against Gaddafi is less clear. It might have been urging from the French. Or, having botched up so much already, it may just have been a clueless attempt to get ahead of events on the ground as the Arab Spring unfolded.

Whatever the reasons, the consequences have been horrific. And, in both cases, they keep getting worse — to the detriment of Iraqis and Libyans and everyone else.

In those cases, though, one could argue — disingenuously and wrongly, but plausibly enough to fool a lot of people — that America’s intentions were at least beneficent, and that the means it employed were proportionate to the good it hoped to achieve.

The demonization of Putin, and of Russia and Russians (in Ukraine) more generally, only makes sense if we drop the pretense of beneficence, and admit outright that the American aim is to enfeeble Russia – for geopolitical and economic reasons that have nothing to do with making Russians or Ukrainians better off.

Even then, however, there is not even a remote semblance of proportionality.

What, after all, could American and other Western capitalists hope to gain? It is not as if Putin champions qualitatively different ways of organizing the economy and society than those that benefit them. Those days are long gone, and if any semblance of them ever returns, it will not be Putin’s doing.

Putin’s government is authoritarian and corrupt, but then Western governments are too. More on point: political influence has always been for sale in Washington DC, and in state capitals as well.

And throughout the world, but especially in the Middle East, the United States actively supports regimes that are more authoritarian and corrupt by any measure than Putin’s.

And yet they demonize Putin. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

But, of course, Putin is not and never has been the issue.

American power is; that, and the unreconstructed Cold War mentality of the West’s foreign policy elites.

Since the Bill Clinton days, the United States has been intent on expanding NATO to Russia’s borders – in plain violation of promises Ronald Reagan made to Mikhail Gorbachev. The first President Bush honored those promises. Why wouldn’t he? They make eminently good sense – just not, it seems, to Clinton Democrats.

In the race to the bottom that our politics has become, Republicans, these days, are even worse; it is not just war-mongers like John McCain and Lindsey Graham anymore.

NATO expansion is in plain violation of Russia’s security interests, a point that one would expect the leaders of a country that nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation over the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba to understand.

Of course, it is not hard to see why the empire’s leaders would want NATO, essentially an instrument of American military power, ensconced as close to Russia as circumstances allow. In conjunction with China and other “Eurasian” partners, a strong and independent Russia could become a powerful counter to American capitalism’s global reach.

Inasmuch as the European Union has chosen to be more of a sidekick than a rival to the United States, EU expansion is supported by the United States too — for much the same reason that NATO expansion is.

Stirring up anti-Russian forces in Ukraine therefore does make a kind of sense. America’s grandees stand to gain in power and wealth, if all goes well.

But, thanks to those machinations, all is not going well; not for Ukraine and not for the world.

It never does when Team Obama is given free rein.

They destroyed Libya in order to save it. Now, they are at it again in Ukraine. They got the process going and they keep stirring the pot. Before long, that country too will be undone — unless they cease and desist.

Worse still by many orders of magnitude, their shenanigans could lead to nuclear war.

Were that to happen, the consequences are too horrible to contemplate. Only a fool would even think of risking life itself in order to enfeeble and disempower Russia.

But, then, it is not exactly news that the man the pundits once praised for filling his inner circle with a “Team of Rivals,” supposedly following Abraham Lincoln’s lead, in fact empowered a dangerous Team of Fools.

And yet, he is the good guy and Putin is as bad as the devil himself.

Go figure!

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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