Acting Responsible

Look on the bright side. They finally found a WMD. Not in the desert wastes of Iraq, nor in the cellar of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. Not in an Iranian nuclear facility. In Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear. He’s been charged by a US grand jury with “attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.” Who’d have thought it could be so small? Or that  “mass” could mean something less than a four digit casualty list? “Suitcase bomb” used to be about as low as WMDs would go in dimension.

Connoisseurs of the ritual known as “Accepting full responsibility” will surely grade Obams a mere B for his performance Thursday at his White House press conference.

“Ultimately, the buck stops with me,” Obama said, apropos Terror’s near Christmas Day miss on Northwest Flight 253. “As president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people, and when the system fails, it is my responsibility.”

First strike against Obama’s speech writer is the weasel-use of “ultimately”, not to mention the mawkish use of “solemn”.   Second strike is his habitual dive into “systemic failure”, as he termed it earlier in the week. . Everyone knows that systemic failure – which Obama has been hawking all week – spells out as “No one is to blame. This is bigger than all of us.”  That’s the phrase’s  singular beauty. I give John Brennan low marks too. “I told the president today I let him down,” said Obama’s top counterterrorism aide, who followed his boss at the press briefing . Okay so far. Exciting, even. In medieval Japan he would have stuck a sword in his stomach at this point.

Not Brennan.  “I am the president’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism and I told him I will do better and we will do better as a team.”The all-time champ at not accepting, while purporting to accept, “full responsibility” was Ronald Reagan, shouldering blame for the criminal saga known as “Iran-Contra,” for which he was indeed entirely responsible and for which he should have been impeached and thrown into prison. The 76-year old president  addressed the nation on March 4, 1987, after the Tower Commission had issued  damaging report about the White House’s guiding role.

Stage one: artful deflection of blame: “First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I’m still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior. And as personally distasteful as I find secret bank accounts and diverted funds – well, as the Navy would say, this happened on my watch.”

A small masterpiece, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Stage 2: Manly openness about some trifling blunders: “One thing still upsetting me, however, is that no one kept proper records of meetings or decisions. This led to my failure to recollect whether I approved an arms shipment before or after the fact. I did approve it; I just can’t say specifically when.” (A lot better than Nixonian lawyer-speak:  To the best of my recollection I cannot recall at this point in time.) Then Reagan’s pledge to do better. “Well, rest assured, there’s plenty of recordkeeping now going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Stage 3. Onward and upward! “You know,” Reagan concluded affably, “ by the time you reach my age, you’ve made plenty of mistakes. And if you’ve lived your life properly – so, you learn. You put things in perspective. You pull your energies together. You change. You go forward.”   And all this from a man with incipient Alzheimer’s.

The problem with all the gabble about systemic failure and with not making Brennan or at least the head of the US embassy in Lagos resign is that it reminds people that Obama hasn’t got much of a spine, also that systemic failures are impossible to fix within the system’s terms, a judgment wonderfully ratified by Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano’s insistence on December 27 that “the system worked.”

America’s defenses against terror fouled up on December 25, 2009 for the same reasons they fouled up on September 11, 2001, even though  the 9/11 attacks were followed by vast bureaucratic upheavals and searching scrutinies of intelligence procedures.

Now Obama is listing the orders he’s issued to improve interagency cooperation: expand the Watch List, enlarge the overall Terror data base, train-up more security personnel at airports. It fulfills the first law of reactive politics, Do something. Issue orders. Look busy.  But beyond that, will it stop the next bomber?

It was Napolitano herself, formerly governor of Arizona, who said of the wall being built to stop illegal migrants crossing the southern  border, “You show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border. That’s the way the border works.” By the same token, show me a top red alert urgent intelligence report and I’ll show you 100 other red alert  intelligence reports piled on top of it. Show me the sixteen agencies which maker up the  “U.S. Intelligence Community”, plus  tactical military intelligence and security organizations, plus  those responsible for security responses to transnational threats including  terrorism, cyber warfare and computer security, narcotics trafficking, and international organized crime, and I’ll show you bureaucratic rivalry and confusion, buck-passing,  active sabotage of rival agencies, incompetence, sloth and all the sins and inefficiencies familiar to anyone who has ever read a decent work of history about such matters.

Add to all this the fact that no one  “responsible” ever does have to pay any sort of price. A lot of people lost their lives on September 11, 2001 but so far as I can recall not one lost their job for letting it happen.  No lives at all were lost on December 25, 2009, but no jobs lost either, from Brennan on down.

Maybe there’s progress. The lowly TSA guard who didn’t notice that man going through the “No Entry” gate to give his girl friend another goodbye kiss at Newark Airport  (mass panic, total shut-down) has been placed on leave.

Now there’s an avalanche of punditry about Britain’s Islamic minority as the petri dish in which toxic cultures of militant Islam flourish and multiply. At this rate they’ll soon be deploying the Delta Force in Tower Hamlets and assassinating imams.

As noted here last week, the petri dish for terror is US national policy, abetted by junior partners in the UK, France and Germany: widening attacks on Afghanistan, an unfolding record of torturing captives to death since 2001, full support for Israel’s onslaughts on Palestinians and calculated mass murder.  It’s scarcely surprising that we’ve now had this terror bid in the new Age of Obama, and a supposed swerve into rationality. The swerve has been the other way and guess what, the Muslim world has noticed.

What words can a radical imam in the UK or Yemen have to offer as incitement to attack America  as vividly persuasive as the policies adopted by Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, expanding the war in Afghanistan, cheerleading for Israel and – it turns out – initiating a dirty war in Yemen? When the US Congress on November 4 last year voted 334 to 36 to condemn the Goldstone Report for its charge that Israel committed war crimes in Gaza how many young Muslims exclaimed, that does it, and headed for their local Terrorist recruiting office?

How the terrorists – Al Qaida or some cognate organization – must be exulting! All that has to be done is to get someone on a plane bound for a US city, with explosive deployed on or in their person. The carrier doesn’t need even to successfully detonate the bomb, just be discovered. Result: political hysteria in the US; another savage blow at the aviation industry and tourism here in the Homeland.  The latest U.S. Dept. of Commerce statistics show a continued drop in foreign visitors to the U.S. Since 9/11/2001 there’s been a 17 per cent decline – 60 million tourists . A survey concludes a negative impression of the U.S. is the primary reason for this decline. The wearisome new security screenings, with travelers fretting about TSA guards chortling lewdly over full-body scans, will accelerate that trend.

Back in 1962 Roberta Wohlstetter published Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, a famous reconstruction of the indications and warning process preceding the successful Japanese surprise attack of December 7, 1941. The book was a disingenuous one since part of Wohlstetter’s agenda was to discredit the fairly persuasive evidence that Roosevelt was aware of an impending Japanese attack – though not its dimensions – and saw it as something that would finally allow him to trump all opposition to the US’s entry into World War Two. But Wohlstetter, excavating all the “systemic” obstructions to the efficient use of intelligence, did accurately conclude that “We have to accept the fact of uncertainty and learn to live with it”. It’s no solution to requisition bigger and better x-ray machines at points of departure and entry, to expand watch lists and computer data bases. Obama promised change, in his campaign and in Cairo. So far as the Islamic world is concerned – he’s betrayed that promise. That’s the systemic failure.

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Subscribe and read our latest newsletter. Danny Weil has a superb piece on the debate on education we should be having right now and where the left has largely quit the field of battle.  Back in the last century the philosopher John Dewey and elite liberal pundit Walter Lippmann squared off on the purpose of education. Dewey wanted it to foster human potential to become fully rounded human beings. Lippmann, echoing business sentiment, favored a shrivelled “functionalist” model, dooming most of the poor while nourishing tomorrow’s elites. Weil sets this debate against the kindred schemes to privatize education of billionaires like Gates and their functionaries like Obama’s appalling Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Also, newsletter subscribers get a  fine angry report from Cairo by Yvonne Ridley, who was among the 1400 who rallied to Cairo for the Gaza Freedom March. Also in this bumper issue is  Saul Landau on Cuba in the heroic years and Cuba now. Plus, Jeffrey St Clair and Yours Truly on what to expect in 2010. Clue: Look back, not forwards.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.