Friday, November 14, 2008

An Embarrassment Of Laundry Lists

I've been feeling a bit embarrassed at the sudden proliferation of laundry lists in the wake of the election: open "Dear Santa" letters to our new president-elect, from people who ought to know better. It's as if they had never seen politics before.

Among writers I still read without knowing why, Bob Parry has been working on one extreme, while Bob Kohler works the other. Parry has been writing in intricate detail about how, in 1993, the incoming Clinton administration refused to hold the outgoing Bush administration accountable for the crimes they committed in office. Parry urges Obama not to make the same "mistake".
Barack Obama seeks a new era of bipartisanship, but he should take heed of what happened to the last Democrat in the White House – Bill Clinton – in 1993 when he sought to appease Republicans by shelving pending investigations into Reagan-Bush-I-era wrongdoing and hoped for some reciprocity.

Instead the Republicans pocketed the Democratic concessions and pressed ahead with possibly the most partisan assault ever directed against a sitting President. The war on Clinton included attacks on his past life in Arkansas, on his wife Hillary, on personnel decisions at the White House, and on key members of his administration.
And so on... and on and on ... until he reaches this conclusion:
Now [...] – with Barack Obama’s victory and with solid Democratic majorities again in the House and Senate – the Democrats are back to a spot very similar to where they were at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

They have all the power they need to initiate serious investigations into the widespread criminality of George W. Bush’s presidency, from torture and other war crimes to war profiteering and other lucrative influence peddling.

But President-elect Obama is receiving nearly the identical advice that greeted Bill Clinton after his election 16 years ago: In the name of bipartisanship, let bygones be bygones.
The problem here, I must point out, is that all through the campaign, Barack Obama made it very clear that he intends to let bygones be bygones. And all through the campaign, Bob Parry supported him anyway. Parry even went so far as to write a condescending column trying to dissuade those who would vote for third-party candidates.

Obama needed your vote, even if your state was safely in his column already, according to Parry, so his popular vote total would give his administration more legitimacy. Or something. The logic is stunning: Vote for a candidate who rejects your position; then once he's in office you can pressure him to support the position he's already rejected.

At the other tactical extreme, Bob Kohler has a list of lists:
The ACLU, for instance, has put forth a transition plan titled: “Ask President-elect Obama to restore the America we believe in.” On day one, it calls on the new president to stop torture, close Guantanamo, restore the rule of law for detainees and end the practice of extraordinary rendition.

Beyond this, the organization has dozens of recommendations to be accomplished during the first 100 days and first year: stop warrantless spying; implement sensible and humane policies toward immigrants, prisoners and many other groups; ban all workplace discrimination against sexual minorities by the federal government and its contractors; and much more.

Jonathan Steele, in an article in The Guardian (U.K.) on Nov. 7, headlined “Now he must declare that the war on terror is over,” wrote: “Obama’s preference for diplomacy can help to forge new, individual relationships with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Paul Krugman, in the New York Times on Nov. 7, wrote: “Helping the neediest in a time of crisis, through expanded health and unemployment benefits, is the morally right thing to do; it’s also a far more effective form of economic stimulus than cutting the capital gains tax. Providing aid to beleaguered state and local governments, so that they can sustain essential public services, is important for those who depend on those services; it’s also a way to avoid job losses and limit the depth of the economy’s slump.”

My friend Kathy Kelly, a peace activist for decades, is part of a campaign called Camp Hope: Countdown to Change, which plans to maintain a presence in Obama’s Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park from Jan. 1 to Jan. 19 (Martin Luther King Day), urging him to make a number of actions, which are “early steps to more profound policy changes.”

These include: reduction and eventual withdrawal of military forces from Iraq and immediate cessation of offensive combat operations; a 90-day moratorium on all housing foreclosures; submitting the Kyoto Protocol to Congress for ratification; and taking all nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert and beginning negotiations with other leaders of nuclear weapon states to reduce and eliminate all nuclear weapons.
Jonathan Steele can write all he likes in The Guardian about how Obama must declare the War on Terror over; he can write anything at all about what Obama must do; but what does Obama say about the War on Terror?

He has already pledged allegiance to Israel, the clearest beneficiary of the War on Terror and the country that would least like to see it stopped. He has said, as in his highly praised speech in Philadelphia, that our problems in the area are caused by the "perverse and hateful ideologies of Islam". Are these the words, do they represent the thoughts, of a man who is ready to declare the War on Terror over?

The ACLU agenda for transition is lovely; but who is the ACLU to set an agenda? Where was Barack Obama when "the America we believe in" was being plundered? Ah, yes! He was in the Senate, voting for some of Bush's most atrocious "political victories".

Kathy Kelly can plead for the reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons all she likes, but how far will she get with a president who has hinted at wanting to use them against Iran?

All these questions are far too difficult, aren't they? We'd better ignore them.

In a recent sprawling piece, Tom Englehardt summarizes Obama's rejection of truth, common sense, and progress:
Winning an election with an antiwar label, Obama has promised -- kinda -- to end the American war there and bring the troops -- sorta, mostly -- home. But even after his planned 16-month withdrawal of U.S. "combat brigades," which may not be welcomed by his commanders in the field, including former Iraq commander, now Centcom Commander David Petraeus, there are still plenty of combative non-combat forces, which will be labeled "residual" and left behind to fight "al-Qaeda." Then, there are all those "advisors" still there to train Iraqi forces, the guards for the giant bases the Bush administration built in the country, the many thousands of armed private security contractors from companies like Blackwater, and of course, the 1,000 "diplomats" who are to staff the newly opened U.S. embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone, possibly the largest embassy on the planet. Hmmmm.

And while the new president turns to domestic matters, it's quite possible that significant parts of his foreign policy could be left to the oversight of Vice President Joe Biden who, in case anyone has forgotten, proposed a plan for Iraq back in 2007 so filled with imperial hubris that it still startles. In a Caesarian moment, he recommended that the U.S. -- not Iraqis -- functionally divide the country into three parts. Although he preferred to call it a "federal system," it was, for all intents and purposes, a de facto partition plan.

If Iraq remains a sorry tale of American destruction and dysfunction without, as yet, a discernable end in sight, Afghanistan may prove Iraq squared. And there, candidate Obama expressed no desire to wind the war down and withdraw American troops. Quite the opposite, during the election campaign he plunked hard for escalation, something our NATO allies are sure not to be too enthusiastic about. According to the Obama plan, many more American troops (if available, itself an open question) are to be poured into the country in what would essentially be a massive "surge strategy" by yet another occupant of the Oval Office.
Not bad enough? There's more:
President-elect Obama accepted the overall framework of a "Global War on Terror" during his presidential campaign. This "war" lies at the heart of the Bush administration's fantasy world of war that has set all-too-real expanses of the planet aflame. Its dangers were further highlighted this week by the New York Times, which revealed that secret orders in the spring of 2004 gave the U.S. military "new authority to attack the Qaeda terrorist network anywhere in the world, and a more sweeping mandate to conduct operations in countries not at war with the United States."

If, however, Obama accepts a War on Terror framework, as he already seems to have, as well as those "residual" forces in Iraq, while pumping up the war in Afghanistan, he may quickly find himself playing by Rumsfeld rules, whether or not he revokes those specific orders. In fact, left alone in Washington, backed by the normal national security types, he may soon find himself locked into all sorts of unpalatable situations...
And then there's all this, too:
We won't know the full cast of characters to come until the president-elect makes the necessary announcements or has a national security press conference with a similar line-up behind him. But it's certainly rumored that Robert Gates, a symbol of continuity from both Bush eras, might be kept on as secretary of defense, or a Republican senator like Richard Lugar of Indiana or, more interestingly, retiring Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel might be appointed to the post. Of course, many Clintonistas are sure to be in this line-up, too.

In addition, among the essential cast of characters will be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Michael Mullen, and Centcom Commander David Petraeus, both late Bush appointees, both seemingly flexible military men, both interested in a military-plus approach to the Afghan and Iraq wars. Petraeus, for instance, reportedly recently asked for, and was denied, permission to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

All these figures will represent a turn away from the particular madness of the early Bush years abroad, one that actually began in the final years of his second term. But such a national security line-up is unlikely to include fresh thinkers, who might truly reimagine an imperial world, or anyone who might genuinely buck the power of the Pentagon. What Obama looks to have are custodians and bureaucrats of empire, far more cautious, far more sane, and certainly far more grown-up than the first-term Bush appointees, but not a cast of characters fit for reshaping American policy in a new world of disorder and unraveling economies, not a crew ready to break new ground and cede much old ground on this still American-garrisoned planet of ours.
What to do? As Englehardt puts it, "Don't Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart"
Let's assume the best: that Barack Obama truly means to bring some form of the people's will, as he imagines it, to Washington after eight years of unconstitutional "commander-in-chief" governance. That -- take my word for it -- he can't do without the people themselves expressing that will.
But why, after all this, would anyone assume the best? And why should you or I take the word of somebody who does so? These are very difficult questions, so difficult that they must be dodged.
It's a natural reaction -- and certainly a commonplace media reaction at the moment -- to want to give Barack Obama a "chance." Back off those critical comments, people now say. Fair's fair. Give the President-elect a little "breathing space." After all, the election is barely over, he's not even in office, he hasn't had his first 100 days, and already the criticism has begun.

But those who say this don't understand Washington -- or, in the case of various media figures and pundits, perhaps understand it all too well.
It's not difficult to understand:

When the telecoms wanted legal immunity for their lawbreaking activities, Barack Obama said he would try to prevent that from happening. Then he voted for a law that made it happen.

When the big banks wanted $700 billion of your money, with public opinion running 100-to-1 against the idea, Barack Obama voted for the bill that gave that money away.

He needed your support then; he slapped you across the head. You voted for him anyway.

Those bills were always going to pass. They didn't need his vote. He could have voted against them, as a token gesture. But he didn't. He didn't even pretend to be on your side, even though he needed your support so very much. And you gave it to him anyway.

And now ... he doesn't need you anymore. He's already made his intentions as clear as day ... and yet here you come with your Dear Santa letters full of free advice -- advice your man has already rejected.

If he didn't even bother pretending to be serious when he needed your support, what makes you think he'll listen now, when he doesn't need you at all?

I guess I just don't understand politics.

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