These days, it’s an almost irresistible temptation to believe that when the present incumbent finally rides his mountain bike off into the sunset next January the world will be a better place merely by the fact of his absence. Amid the sinister twilight of the Bush years, such hopes are understandable. Looking at the blazing bodies of their comrades, used as torches to brighten up his banquets, the early Christians must certainly have rejoiced when Nero passed, little knowing that not so far over the horizon loomed Domitian and other emperors eager to add uplifting chapters to the Book of Martyrs.*
Is it conceivable that Obama or McCain could be as bad or worse than Bush?
Six weeks ago, out in the desert two hundred miles east of Syria’s Mediterranean coatline, Alya and I visited the old oasis city of Palmyra. It looks at a glance like Las Vegas’s future a couple of thousand years after the water finally ran out, and all that’s been excavated are some columns and broken statues from Caesar’s Palace, maybe the campanile from the Venetian Hotel and the sphinx in front of the Luxor south down Las Vegas Boulevard.
Early in the second century opportunity knocked for the Palmyrans and they seized their chance. A shift in the political situation suddenly made Palmyra the safest route between Rome and Parthia for the desert caravans carrying textiles, spices and oils along the old silk road from China. The emperor Trajan finished off Petra as an independent trade entrepot and that made him “good” in the eyes of Palmyrans, just as he became very “bad” in the eyes of the merchants of Petra.
For nearly 300 years the good times rolled as Palmyra taxed the trade shipments. There’s a carved stele from 134 AD recording Palmyra’s specific excise duties on the silk, dyes, perfumes, ivory, precious stones, jade, slaves, prostitutes and gold coming through. Palmyra flourished. Stone for the new tetrapylon on Main Street? Let’s ship pink granite columns in from Aswan! Cemetaries? Stow the clan in a big tower which everyone can see on the way into town. The super-rich gladly ponied up the hefty fee for mummification. Palmyra’s special contribution to column design seems to have been a projecting ledge about halfway up where the tycoon paying for the column could put a nice bust of himself. Many of the statues were pre-carved on an island in the sea of Marmara, shipped across the desert on oxcarts like everything else and then chiselled into final resemblance onsite. Bountiful were the animal sacrifices in the Temple of Bel, a vast temple complex personally rehabbed at staggering expense by Palmyra’s precursor to Donald Trump, Male Agrippa, who also footed the bill for a visit by the Emperor Hadrian.
Then, as quick as the ascent came collapse. The power vacuum in Rome seized to her advantage by Palmyra’s Queen Zenobia had suddenly filled. The political situation changed further east, in Persia. Was there anything specifically and personally “bad” about the Emperor Aurelian, who sacked Palmyra in 273? Not really, though the Palmyrans no doubt thought so. He was just pushing ahead with the Empire’s long term policies.
The day I was in Palmyra the Emperor Bush II gave his speech in the Knesset, a slab of rhetoric so exuberant in its homage to Israel that the New York Times had to reprimand him editorially for bad taste. In its immediate aftermath I had an opportunity to ask a member of the Syrian cabinet, Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, whether she thought the installation of a new U.S. president next January would diminish the forebodings which she had just been outlining with great passion, from the continuing human catastrophe in Iraq, to the horrors of Israel’s siege of Gaza, to the U.S.’s obvious intent to provoke another terrible civil war in Lebanon. (For the record, Dr Shaaban does not think a war with Iran was likely.) She didn’t hesitate to answer me by saying she envisaged no change, if a candidate such as Barack Obama settles into the Oval Office next January.
The continuous policy of the United States is to divide and rule, she exclaimed, has been and will be for the foreseeable futuree, to fan schism and internecine bloodletting in the region, to set Arab against Arab, whether it be the communities of Lebanon or the Shia and Sunni in Iraq.
Just before Dr Shabaan was giving this answer, one of the New York Times’s extensive stable of neo-conservative columnists, David Brooks, was fretting that a statement Obama had made after Bush’s Knesset speech did indeed constitute “appeasement”, indicating he had drifted off into “Noam Chomskyland”. Obama’s sin had been to say that “it’s time to engage in diplomatic efforts to build a new Lebanese consensus,” focusing on electoral reform, an end to a corrupt patronage system and the promotion of an equitable economy.
So anguished was Brooks by these dread prospects that he phoned Obama who promptly furnished answers resoundingly mollifying the columnist’s suspicions. According to Brooks, Obama said that “in some ways he’d be tougher than the Bush administration”, doing more, to take one specific example, to arm the Lebanese military. (This schedules a bloodbath in Lebanon in Year One or Two of the Obama administration.) Obama’s bottom line to Brooks was straight-up Caesarism: “The [U.S.] generals are ight-years ahead of the civilians. They are trying to get the job done rather than look tough.”
Let our prayers be for incompetent emperors who talk tough but screw up.
Footnote: To introduce a pet peeve here I’ve never fully understood why the Emperor Constantine threw in the towel and took Jesus into his life in 313 AD and and under the edict of Milan ordered toleration for Christianity, a short step before making it the official religion of the Empire. Surely only a couple more diligent centuries of steady persecution of the Christians would have done the trick and made the world safe for paganism. Perhaps such reveries on what-might-have-been stem from direct confrontations with legend. Only last Sunday in Damascus I looked down through a hole in the parapet of the church from which his followers lowered St Paul in a basket. Why didn’t the rope break or the bottom of the basket give way It would save saved the world no end of trouble.
The Tyranny of Over-Expectations
There was a time when Americans didn’t expect the evangelical sermonizing now required of a presidential candidate. As Gene Healy writes in the June issue of Reason, “The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise.” For Healy, the infantilism of these expectations congealed in the question a pony-tailed male social worker asked Clinton, Bush Sr. and Perot in 1992: “I ask the three of you, how can we, as symobolically the children of the future president, expect the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it.”
Having defined himself as the candidate of change and inspirational hope, Obama’s been busy making it clear that when it comes to serious issues like the American Empire, change is parsed as running the planet with greater efficiency. A real candidate of change would announce that by the end of his first term America would have withdraw from at least half the roughly 1,000 overseas bases it occupies, quitting the rest at the end of eight years.
Wishful thinkers comfort themselves with the thought that deep in the undergrowth, biding his time, is the “real” Obama, a progressive, even radical fellow. They’re like Pascal, pondering his bet:
“If I saw no signs of a divinity, I would fix myself in denial. If I saw everywhere the marks of a Creator,I would repose peacefully in faith. But seeing too much to deny Him, and too little to assure me, I am in a pitiful state, and I would wish a hundred times that if a God sustains nature, It would reveal Him without ambiguity.”
There have plenty of articles recently, some in this site, with headlines such “Obama’s Lunge to the Right”. I find these odd. Never for one moment has Obama ever struck me as someone anchored, or even loosely moored to the left, or even displaying the slightest appetite for radical notions, aside from a few taglines tossed from the campaign bus. In economics and foreign policy he has swaddled himself with right-wing orthodoxy to a degree that trangresses on the grotesque. He released the list of his “senior working group on national security” the other day. Not since Jimmy Carter entered the White House and promptly chose Cyrus Vance as his secretary of state and Zbibniev Brzezinski as his national security adviser has there been so dreary a news rele ase.
–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
–Senator David Boren, former Chairman of the Senate Select Committee
–Secretary of State Warren Christopher
–Greg Craig, former director of the State Department Office of Policy Planning
–Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig
–Representative Lee Hamilton, former Chairman of the House Foreign
–Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder
–Dr. Tony Lake, former National Security Advisor
–Senator Sam Nunn, former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
–Secretary of Defense William Perry
–Dr. Susan Rice, former Assistant Secretary of State
–Representative Tim Roemer, 9/11 Commissioner
–Jim Steinberg, former Deputy National Security Advisor
Here’s a crew ripe marinated in orthodoxy, running the gamut of inspirational rhetoric from Madam Albright’s “We think the price is worth it” (killing half a million Iraqi kids through sanctions in Clintontime) to Dr Rice, now of the Brookings Institution and formerly in charge of the African desk at the State Department in the Clinton years. A souvenir of Rice in 2002 or 2003? Here are a couple of pearls:
Ms Rice: “I think he has proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them, and I don’t think many informed people doubted that. …The Iraqis have threatened to unleash a rein of suicide bombers on US and allied targets around the world. And I think that’s one of the real risks, as well as the use of chemical and biological weapons, that we face. (NPR, February 6, 2003)
Ms. RICE: “ It’s clear that Iraq poses a major threat. It’s clear that its weapons of mass destruction need to be dealt with forcefully, and that’s the path we’re on. I think the question becomes whether we can keep the diplomatic balls in the air and not drop any, even as we move forward, as we must, on the military side.” December 20, 2002 NPR
Where’s the “real” Barack Obama in all this? There isn’t one. It’s like looking for the “real” Cressida in Shakespeare’s play, whereas in fact there are only successive Cressidas, as she refashions herself amid new circumstances. In the end Pascal said it made sense just to bet that there is a God. Democrats, despite the bleak testimony of the form sheet, make the same wager decade after decade.
More on Russert
I always enjoy your commentary and analysis. I just subscribed to Counterpunch, something I have been meaning to do for quite a while.
I feel compelled to comment on one point made in the letters you published on Russert last week. The architect’s letter on the health impact of high stress but high paying jobs largely plays into popular mythology. Countless studies have shown that health is highly correlated with class, to the point where class is stronger a predictor of health than participation in a lot of risky behaviors. (Check the great PBS series Unnatural Causes.) Was Russert’s job more of a strain on his health than what a single mother working two different part time jobs goes through (the situation of many Americans)? It is seriously doubtable. The majority of the people who have similar class backgrounds and occupational demands as Russert will certainly live longer than the average person below him who lacks control of his or her work and suffers much greater levels of stress as a result.
According to the statistics, the average person in Russert’s position will even have better health than your average comfortable, upper middle class individual. The type of stress that someone with a demanding job, but who also has control over it, seems to not be as debilitating as the stress suffered by people with less control.
Russert and Moynihan
Dear Mr. Cockburn,
I recently read with interest your 22 June column, “The Russert Sendoff”. I was particularly interested in your quotation from Carl Ginsberg, in which he asserted that Tim Russert, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that Russert “recycled [a dogma] for years: if poor blacks just made more of an effort with their families they could set their lives straight.” I would argue that Moynihan’s private statement that the problems of blacks were “more than economics” is completely reasonable. How could anyone argue that the only problem facing blacks in America today (or in the 1970s or 80s) is the fact that, on average, they make less than other races? Of course there are otherissues in play. The other idea Moynihan expressed, that “we can’t help them” is perhaps more troubling, though it seems it could very easily be more of an admission that it requires a concerted effort by Americans as a culture to help our underprivileged brethren, and merely handing out welfare is not the answer.
Regardless, the main reason why I am contacting you is to ask how you came to the conclusion that Russert felt that if poor blacks just made an effort, they could escape their circumstances. Ginsberg notes that Russert was influenced by Moynihan, but fails to assert any instance in which Russert stated or implied that he agreed with Moynihan’s feelings on underprivileged blacks (and as I mentioned, Moynihan’s feelings were unclear at best). I just find it shocking that you would tack the label of racism upon a recently deceased man based on a comment that is, at worst, slightly self-aggrandizing. I don’t claimthat your opinion of Russert is totally baseless. It just seems poor journalistic judgement to make (or, in actuality, just quote, and implicitly support) such an audacious claim soon after a man’s death. Thank you very much for your time, and I look forward to your response.
I asked Carl Ginsberg for his thoughts. Here’s Carl’s answer:
As a producer at NBC News in 1985, when Russert first arrived there as a VP, I found myself interviewing Moynihan on the topic of the inner city. I was appalled at his views. To suggest that someone’s behavior is “beyond economics” is to say he is not of this earth. I was terribly uncomfortable, to say the least, at including Moynihan’s quotes without qualifying them as controversial. (In fact, as the historic record shows, legions of blacks and supporters railed at Moynihan’s pronouncements over the years.) The “controversial” label itself became a controversy and made its way up the ladder at the network, finally to the desk of VP Russert. He was very disturbed at the characterization of his mentor’s beliefs as anything but enlightened truth and told me so. He killed the story.
Moynihan was an architect of a society that consciously and inequitably allocates resources to whites. And Russert was his follower. Call it what you want.
Will the US Attack Iran?
The CounterPunch high command remains dubious, even though some of our most diligent contributors have bet on it weekly for the past three years. Andrew Cockburn reports from Washington that Gen. Petraeus loses few chances, public or semi-private to vent his obsessions about the Iranian troublemakers. For a fascinating dissection by Gareth Porter of how Petraeus manipulated his “surge”, and deceived press and Congress, I urge you to subscribe to our CounterPunch newsletter, where you can also be edified by former US senator’s Jim Abourezk’s detailed account of how he – born on the Rosebud reservation, tried to curb the liquor trade that lays Indians waste; also by my own harsh remarks about yet another stupid book on the Sixties.
Footnote: a portion of the first item ran in The Nation.