A month after he won the White House Barack Obama is drawing a chorus of approval from conservatives who spent most of this year denouncing him as a man of the extreme left. “Reassuring”, says Karl Rove, of Obama’s cabinet selections. Max Boot, a rabid right-wing commentator, confesses, “I am gobsmacked by these appointments, most of which could just as easily have come from a President McCain.” In Murdoch’s Weekly Standard, mouthpiece of the neocons, Michael Goldfarb reviewed Obama’s appointments and declared that he sees “nothing that represents a drastic change in how Washington does business. The expectation is that Obama is set to continue the course set by Bush in his second term.”
But on the liberal-left end of the spectrum, where Obama kindled extraordinary levels of enthusiasm throughout his campaign, the mood is swiftly swinging to dismay and bitterness. “How… to explain that not a single top member of Obama’s foreign policy/national security team opposed the war?” Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, asked last Monday. She went on, “For Obama, who’s said he wants to be challenged by his advisors, wouldn’t it have made sense to include at least one person on the foreign policy/national security team who would challenge him with some new and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century?”
“How nice, how marvelously nice it would be,” wrote the left-wing historian William Blum sarcastically here on the CounterPunch site last week, “to have an American president who was infused with progressive values and political courage.” Blum speedily made it clear that in his estimation Obama is not endowed with these desirable qualities: “He’s not really against the war. Not like you and I are. During Obama’s first four years in the White House, the United States will not leave Iraq. I doubt that he’d allow a complete withdrawal even in a second term. “
Similar sentiments came from another popular left-wing reporter, Jeremy Scahill, who wrote here on Tuesday, “The assembly of Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Susan Rice and Joe Biden is a kettle of hawks with a proven track record of support for the Iraq war, militaristic interventionism, neoliberal economic policies and a worldview consistent with the foreign policy arch that stretches from George HW Bush’s time in office to the present.”
Suddenly a familiar specter is shuffling back under the spotlights. A long piece on Obama’s foreign policy advisors last Tuesday carried the headline, “Are Key Obama Advisors in Tune with Neocon Hawks who wants to Attack in Iran.” The author is Robert Dreyfuss, a level headed leftish commentator. He sketched in the political backgrounds of advisers to Obama and concluded that “Tony Lake, UN Ambassador-designate Susan Rice, Tom Daschle, and Dennis Ross, along with leading Democratic hawks like Richard Holbrooke, close to Vice-President-elect Joe Biden or Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton — have made common cause with war-minded think-tank hawks at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and other hardline institutes.”
These Obama-hawks, Dreyfuss gloomily told his readers, reckon that talks with Iran about its nuclear program will fail. On the heels of this failure they urge “a kinetic action” in the form of a savage bombing campaign by the US Air Force.
Four more years of anxious articles about the impending attack on Iran? I’d rather read Piers Plowman again, the dullest work I ever had to trudge through when I read Eng Lit at Oxford. Criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy team are, if anything, outstripped by gloom and indignation over his economic team. The economist Michael Hudson complained here recently that Obama was meekly following the advice of banker and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, putting Rubin’s protégés in key Obama administration posts: “Larry Summers, who as head of the World Bank forced privatization at give-away prices to kleptocrats; Geithner of the New York Fed; and a monetarist economist from Berkeley, as right-wing a university as Chicago. These are the protective guard-dogs of America’s vested interests.”
More mouldy cabbages are being hurled at Obama’s picks at the Pentagon, starting with the familiar visage of Robert Gates, already in occupation of the top job, having been put there by George Bush Jr, to replace Donald Rumsfeld. Winslow Wheeler, for many years a senor Republican staffer in Congress, has a solid reputation as one of the best-informed of all the observers of that vast sink hole of fraud and waste, the US Defense Department.
During Gates’ tenure, Wheeler complains in an interview by Andrew Cockburn here last Wednesday, “things have only gotten worse. The budget’s going up faster than ever before in recent history; the size of our forces is going south; the equipment continues to get older.”
Wheeler says “the second tier of appointments that they’re talking about in the press for the Obama team are mostly holdovers from the Clinton era, when things were almost as bad as they were during the Bush era. Most of the major hardware programs that are now coming a cropper as major cost and performance disasters were conceived during the Clinton era. Things such as the Future Combat Systems, or the Navy’s DDG 1000 Destroyer known as the Arsenal Ship and later the DDX Destroyer, spawned when Richard Danzig was Secretary of the Navy. Danzig is under active consideration to be deputy secretary of defense and Gates’ natural successor when Gates finishes whatever short timer term he has under Obama. The F-22 fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, it goes on, all these programs that are cost and performance disasters had their genesis during the Clinton era.”
Asked by Andrew about Obama’s National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, Wheeler replied tartly , “He is a man of great stature, physically and figuratively, in Washington. He is a Washington ‘heavy’ but if you look at his record, nothing much ever happened. Things went south in Afghanistan pretty rapidly when he was supreme commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan. When he was Commandant of the Marine Corps, a lot of the marines’ overpriced underperforming hardware programs, such as the V-22 [vertical takeoff troop transport plane] and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle were endorsed and continued happily along. He seems to have been mostly a placeholder when he had these very senior and important positions.
In Jones’ favor I have heard that at some point in Bush time he lodged with Condoleezza Rice a report on Israeli conduct that was so harsh it had to be swiftly tossed to the shredder. I look forward to reports of a mano a mano between the vast Jones and the diminutive Emanuel. One striking feature of these complaints is that if the many of complainers had their suspicions about Obama during the campaign, they kept their mouths firmly shut. Across eight presidential campaigns, since Jimmy Carter’s successful run in 1976, I’ve never seen such collective determination by the liberal left to think only positive thoughts about a Democratic candidate. Indeed, some of the present fury may stem from a certain embarrassment at their own political naivety. In fairness to Obama, beyond the vaguely radical afflatus of his campaign rhetoric about “change”, Obama never concealed his true political stance, which is of the center-right. In every sense of the phrase, he can say to his left critics, “I told you so.” And indeed he did.
The obvious question is whether this chorus of political disillusion on the liberal left is of any political consequence. Obama is sensitive on the matter. He defended himself last week by saying that in these dire times Americans need to be comforted by the installation of familiar and respected figures in the new administration. The polls bear him out. The public is mostly happy with what it has seen thus far. The new President, Obama insisted, will be the man setting the new course.
In his salvoes against Obama’s awful economic team Michael Hudson brought up one ominous parallel. Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, after eight years of Richard Nixon. The hopes of the liberal left were similarly high. Almost immediately Carter dashed their hopes with hawkish foreign policy appointments. Two years after Carter took over the Oval Office, Jim Ridgeway and I, working for the Village Voice, went to interview William Winpisinger, president of the Machinists’ Union and one of the most powerful labor leaders in America. We put a tape recorder on his desk and asked, “Is there anything President Carter could do to redeem himself in your eyes? Winpisinger eyed the tape recorder bleakly and said, “Die.”
A year later Carter was grimly fighting a liberal-left challenge to his re-nomination by the Democrats for a second term. The challenger was Teddy Kennedy. Though Carter beat off the Kennedy threat, he was seriously weakened and lost his relection bid. One can surmise that one reason Obama has made Hillary Clinton Secretary of State is to head off a Kennedy-type challenge. The trouble with slogans like “change” is that they are like zeppelins. The wind can whistle out of their pretensions with dreadful speed.
But it would be foolishly premature to conjure up the possibility of serious left resistance emerging in any form that would be bothersome to Obama. All it will take for now will be a bone tossed out of the limo, in the form of one or two halfways decent appointments on the enviro side. Nixon launched his green crusade (Earth Day, EPA, etc) in an effort to split the left and Obama could do the same. How about a “war” on global warming, with some version of the Roosevelt era’s Civilian Conservation Corps waging “war” on the fictive foe known as man-made global warming.
In the present juncture, with untrammeled “free enterprise” reeling in bankrupt disorder into the state’s vital, albeit servile embrace, Obama’s rallying of youth to the cause of “hope” and “change” could head off into some unpalatable directions, as a glance at the popular “crusades” launched in the 30s will swiftly attest. As has often been pointed out, there were close similarities between the CCC and similar quasi-militarised bodies of this nature in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. If you want to see fascism in action, don’t look in the direction of militia men in camo clustered around Hayden Lake, Idaho. Look at the Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles, the model Rep Waxman will be brandishing in the coming war on bad things in the air, though not – to be sure – the bad things in the air that make serious money for big corporations. If the price of a rhetorical crusade against “global warming” is to be bombing Teheran, I think most of the GW fanatics will echo Madeleine Albright and cry out, “We think the price is worth it.”
Off He Goes
Bush’s new house in Dallas scarcely looks palatial. I suppose he will spend most of his time in Crawford, while Laura smokes in the Dallas living room and gets on with her memoirs.
Pending her report I offer in our latest CounterPunch newsletter a review of her husband’s unrelenting onslaughts on freedom, with the caveat that he built on the sound foundations of similarly unrelenting assaults in Clinton’s terms. Here are some of my opening paragraphs:
If there’s one thing defenders of civil liberties know, it’s surely that assaults on constitutional freedoms are bipartisan. Just as constitutional darkness didn’t suddenly fall with the arrival in the Oval Office of George Bush Jr., darkness will not dissipate with his departure and the entry of President Barack Obama.
There’s no more eager and self-righteous hand reaching out to the Bill of Rights to drop it in the shredder than that of a liberal intent on legislating freedom. As illustration, simply take “freedom from hate,” expressed in the great liberal drive to criminalize expressions of hate and to impose fierce punitive enhancements if the criminal had been imprudent enough to perpetrate verbal breaches of sexual or ethnic etiquette while bludgeoning his victim to death.
For years, I have reminded my left and liberal friends of a juror’s constitutional right to set the law aside and issue a verdict consonant with the dictates of conscience. Each time, I sadly rediscover that most liberals mistrust juries and have no interest in an institution, which is the ultimate bedrock protector of liberty. This steady push to erode the role of the jury has continued steadily through every administration.
We are thankfully near the exit door from the Bush years, after enduring appalling assaults on freedom, built on the sound foundation of kindred assaults in Clinton time –perhaps most memorably expressed in the screams of parents and children fried by U.S. government forces in the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, and in Bill Clinton’s flouting of all constitutional “war powers” inhibitions on his executive decision to wage war and order his commanders to rain bombs on the civilian population of the former Yugoslavia.
Also in our fresh newsletter are fierce exposes by Kathleen and Bill Christison on the horrifying siege of Gaza, and by Barbara Rose Johnston on the efforts to obtain justice for those murdered in Guatemala, to make way for the Chixoy Dam. In a just world, the directors of the Word Bank would be doing time for these crimes, but the world isn’t just and they moved on to wreak fresh destruction elsewhere and in the case of Larry Summers will be comfortably ensconced in the Obama White House.
A crackerjack newsletter and I strongly urge you to read it.
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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org