In the last few weeks of the grueling primary campaign, Senator Barack Obama made two important visits. He spoke to the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). To both groups Obama provided some red meat. To the Cubans in Miami, he said that he would be tough on the Cuban Revolution, that never in his lifetime “have the people of Cuba known freedom” and that he would join CANF to “stand up for freedom in Cuba”.
To the Jewish American lobby in Chicago, Obama affirmed the “special relationship” between Washington and Tel Aviv, supporting Israel’s view of its relationship with its Arab neighbours and of the Occupation and going so far as to say that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel. As the Democratic presidential nomination comes his way, Obama tacks right on foreign policy, to the dismay of many of his left-liberal allies. How can the man whose campaign is centred on the idea of change inhabit American foreign policy’s two most tired shackles?
Over the past 35 years, the United States electoral map has settled into stasis. Appealing to the anxiety of a large section of the white working class, the Republican Party has cemented its hold on the U.S. South and sections of the heartland. The Republicans explain away the attrition of white working class livelihood due to globalisation and to neoliberal policy as the fault of the new social programmes of the 1960s designed to ameliorate the harsh history of U.S. racism. Thanks to the way the Republicans explained the decline of good jobs and the victory of the Civil Rights movement, this section of disgruntled Americans turns its ire based on lost opportunities onto relatively powerless populations. The defeat of the working class led to the evisceration of labour laws and the withering away of union power.
The Republicans also carefully cultivated the blocs that dominate the heartland of America, the farming states such as Kansas and Nebraska. Family farmers who lost out to agro-businesses and rural workers who lost their jobs in meat-packing plants and dairy factories to undocumented workers lay the blame on the free trade policies of the Democratic Clinton administration of the 1990s. The Republicans capitalised on that sentiment to seal up these States, even though their party had no agenda for the relief of distress in the heartland. The South and the heartland, because of this, are lost to the Democrats, who have, but for some pockets, failed to make inroads there, particularly during the presidential contest.
The two coasts (the north-east and the west), on the other hand, are guaranteed to enter the Democratic Party’s column in the November general elections. Cosmopolitan and liberal, with a mass base of immigrants and people of colour, these regions are off-limits to the Republicans. So, too, is a pocket in the middle of the country, States such as Illinois and Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. These have substantial black and Latino populations, liberal political traditions and reasonably robust unions. The bulk of the U.S. population lives in these areas, which also happen to have the more vibrant economies in the country (California has the 10th largest economy in the world). There is no question that New York, Massachusetts, Oregon and California will be won by the Democrats in the presidential election.
The entire contest turns, therefore, on a few “swing States”, such as Florida and Ohio. That is why the contests in these States are so ugly, and why it was the Florida recount that ended up delivering the 2000 election to George W. Bush and the Ohio recount that allowed him to be re-elected. The two parties earn an equivalent number of the popular vote (in the high 40s). But the winner must attain the largest number of votes in the electoral college, an arcane system based on gaining votes per State (so that even if the Democrats win the popular vote, as Al Gore did in 2000, they could end up losing the election).
Short of a landslide, the balance of power is held by a handful of States. In these States, as well, the numbers of registered Democrats and Republicans are relatively even. For that reason, the parties target the “independent” voters and try their best to mobilise their base to the polls. Obama needs to win Florida, for instance.
The Obama campaign believes that Florida can only be won if the Jewish American elderly, who retired there from the north-east, flock to the voting booths and if the Democratic Party is able to break the Republican hold on groups such as the Cuban Americans, concentrated as they are in southern Florida. To this end, Obama went to the two groups that claim to represent Jews and Cubans to reach out to those populations. His campaign feels that he needs their votes.
AIPAC and CANF have for decades been united by an obsessive fixation on making U.S. foreign policy line up with their parochial view of distant unresolved crises. AIPAC, founded in 1953, generally operates to defend Israel at all costs, regardless of the actions of the Israeli government. Israel is always right, and AIPAC makes it its business to push that view in Washington. Anyone who disagrees with AIPAC, and its various affiliates, is positioned as being anti-Israeli or even anti-Semitic.
After the 1967 war, the U.S. began to cultivate Israel as its forward military position in West Asia; it was in the wake of this geopolitical reassessment that groups such as AIPAC became effective in Congress.
Over the years, AIPAC has served to fashion this opening into a totally bipartisan Congress, with little opposition to AIPAC’s general goals (which are allied to the Israeli Right). Despite the ambivalence of many American Jews to the aggressive policies of the Israeli Right (including the Occupation), AIPAC has been able to silence opposition in the community largely because it effectively used the languages of victimhood (“never again” to genocide) and racism (every critique is anti-Semitism) to claim that others were unwilling to stand up for Israel, surrounded as it was in a sea of hostile states. Even those who are otherwise wary of AIPAC are guided to some extent by it. Obama had to go and offer his version of aliya (trip to the Holy Land).
CANF, founded in 1981, assembled the frustrations of the Cubans who left the island in 1959 and those who came after them. It was organised specifically to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro and has been accused of acts of terror against the island and Castro himself. There is an ongoing controversy about the relationship between CANF and the terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, who bombed a Cubana Airlines flight in 1976 killing 73 passengers; CANF president Francisco Hernandez told the press in 1997 that he did not consider the bombing of three Havana hotels “as terrorist actions”. If CANF has a terrorist arm, its real strength has been less in terrorism than in the political work it has done in the U.S.
Like AIPAC on Israel, CANF has made all discussion of Cuba claustrophobic. It is now impossible for an elected U.S. official to survive re-election if he or she takes a position on behalf of the Cuban Revolution. At the most, one can talk about weakening the embargo, but until recently even that would have been considered treasonous, not only against Cuban exiles but also against the U.S. To operate in this situation is delicate because the machinery at the disposal of AIPAC and CANF is considerable. They are less interested in holding a principled debate on the issues and more prone to come out with all kinds of dirty statements accusing those who do not toe the line of either a specie of racism or else of sympathy with authoritarian regimes (whether Hamas or the Cuban Revolution).
Swimming against the very swift current of opinion pushed downstream by AIPAC and CANF is not an easy task. Even sober academics have a hard time opening up the question of U.S. fealty to AIPAC-CANF, however analytical their work. The axe of disapprobation is heavy. Cuba and Israel, because of Florida, are two pitfalls of U.S. democracy.
I asked Bill Fletcher Jr., a veteran labour organiser and now one of the leaders of Progressives for Obama, what he thought of Obama’s speeches. “He was pandering; he was giving away too much,” Fletcher said. It might have been better if Obama had not spoken or if he had tried to reshape U.S. foreign policy for these two groups. Nevertheless, Fletcher continued, Obama “wants to have a foreign policy of engagement as opposed to a foreign policy of confrontation”.
Fletcher sees a direct line running from Jimmy Carter to Obama, one that “goes around Reagan and Clinton and Bush”. It is Carter’s rhetoric of human rights and detente that Obama revives, and perhaps extends. It is no surprise then that one of Obama’s big backers is Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser. Indeed, buried deep in Obama’s two speeches is an echo of this foreign policy of engagement.
At CANF, Obama was introduced by Jorge Mas Santos, who represents a new, almost liberal, wing of CANF. The centrepiece of U.S.-Cuban policy, Mas Santos said, “has been that there should be no negotiations and conversations with Raul Castro. Although this may sound tough, on its own it is ineffective and plays into the hands of Raul Castro.” Obama then underscored this point, saying: “It is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.”
To AIPAC, he was more circumspect, saying on the one hand that there should be no dialogue with Hamas and on the other that “Yitzhak Rabin had the vision to reach out to long-time enemies”. Taking the lead from his comment on Rabin, Obama then said that the U.S. needs “direct engagement with Iran similar to the meetings we conducted with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War”.
Here again was a muted signal for a politics of engagement. Muted signals are dangerous. If the listener is unwilling to read the complexity, other surface signs could provoke them to do what they want to do regardless. Obama’s strong words about Iran might give the Israeli military carte blanche to attack Iran; this is on the cards for the tin-eared generals of the Israeli Air Force (its new head, Major General Ido Nehushtan, seems eager to launch an attack on Iran).
Havana is defter in its analysis. Fidel Castro, from his perch as a columnist for Granma, wrote of Obama: “This man is doubtless, from a social and human perspective, the most progressive candidate for the presidency of the U.S.” Castro recognises that if U.S. foreign policy in the past 30 years has been rooted somewhere in prehistory, the Obama approach promises to take it to the 17th century. For now, that might be the best road forward to the present.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published by Frontline, India’s national magazine.