The answer has been sharp and clear, and working people did not have to wait very long to find it out. EFCA quickly vanished. And to make priorities even clearer, a few weeks after taking office, President Obama decided to show his solidarity with workers by giving a talk at a factory in Illinois (February 12, 2009). He chose a Caterpillar plant, over objections of church, peace, and human rights groups, who were protesting Caterpillar’s role in providing Israel with the means to devastate the territories it occupies and to destroy the lives of the population—also killing an American volunteer, Rachel Corrie, who tried to block the destruction of a home.21
Apparently forgotten, however, was something else. Following Reagan’s lead with the dismantling of the air traffic controllers union, the new hardline CEO of Caterpillar, Donald Fites, rescinded the contract with the United Auto Workers in 1991, instituted a lockout, threatened to bring in “permanent replacement workers” (scabs), and later did so, for the first time in generations in manufacturing industry. The practice was illegal in other industrial countries apart from South Africa at the time; now the United States appears to be in splendid isolation. It is hard to imagine that Obama and his advisers purposely chose a corporation that led the way to undermine labor rights. More likely, they were unaware of the facts, which would be an even worse indictment of the business-run doctrinal system.
At the time of Caterpillar’s innovation in labor relations, Obama was a community organizer in Chicago and visiting fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. He must have been reading the Chicago Tribune, which ran a careful study of these events.22 They reported that the union was “stunned” to find that unemployed workers crossed the picket line with no remorse, while Caterpillar workers found little “moral support” in their community, one of the many where the union had “lifted the standard of living for entire communities.” Wiping out of those memories is another victory in the campaign to destroy workers’ rights and democracy that is relentlessly waged by the highly class-conscious American business sector, elementary facts about American society that the union leadership had stubbornly refused to understand. It was only in 1978 that UAW president Doug Fraser recognized what was happening and criticized the “leaders of the business community” for having “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and for having “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress.”23
Placing one’s faith in a compact with owners and managers is suicidal. The UAW is discovering that again today, as the state-corporate leadership proceeds to eliminate the hard-fought gains of working people while dismantling the productive core of the American economy, with government assistance.
Continuing to run through Obama’s appointments, his transition team was headed by John Podesta, Clinton’s chief of staff. The leading figures in his initial economic team were Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, both enthusiasts for the deregulation that was a major factor in the current financial crisis. As treasury secretary, Rubin worked hard to abolish the Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated commercial banks from financial institutions that incur high risks. Economist Tim Canova comments that Rubin had “a personal interest in the demise of Glass-Steagall.” Soon after leaving his position as treasury secretary, he became “chair of Citigroup, a financial-services conglomerate that was facing the possibility of having to sell off its insurance underwriting subsidiary…the Clinton administration never brought charges against him for his obvious violations of the Ethics in Government Act.”24
Not surprisingly, Citigroup was a leading beneficiary of the Bush-Paulson bailout. That breaks little new ground. Walter Wriston, the CEO of its predecessor Citicorp, followed World Bank/IMF advice and lent so heavily to Latin America that when the debt crisis broke out in 1982, only a bailout (via the IMF) “saved Citicorp from a preemptive run on its interbank deposits, which could have been fatal,” international economist David Felix wrote. He adds that Wriston, like the treasury secretaries, was a firm believer in pure laissez-faire: “for others, not themselves.” These are the normal workings of state capitalism, for other industries as well.25
A curious feature of commentary on the 2008 financial industry bailout is that it was perceived as a radical departure from the norm, raising the threat of “socialism.” That is far from true for the economy in general, though the financial industry did adhere more closely to market doctrines, leading to repeated crises, increasing in severity and requiring state intervention to rescue the casualties among the wealthy and powerful.
The bailout of Rubin’s Citigroup was necessary, Paul Krugman wrote, but it was done in a manner that was “an outrage: a lousy deal for the taxpayers.” That holds of the bailout generally. His fellow Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz observed that “as we pour money in, they can pour money right out” if we “don’t have a veto.” If the government—in a functioning democracy, the public—does not have a degree of control, the banks can pour the public funds into their own pockets for recapitalization or acquisitions or loans to government-guaranteed borrowers, thus undermining the alleged purpose of the bailout. That appears to be what happened, though details are obscure, because the recipients refuse to say what they are doing with the gift from taxpayers. Indeed they regard the question as outrageous, so the AP discovered when it sought answers: “No bank provided even the most basic accounting for the federal money,” most ignoring the request or saying that “we’re choosing not to disclose that.”26
Again, the normal workings of state capitalism. The general population is to be satisfied with “necessary illusion” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications,” as the distinguished moralist Reinhold Niebuhr advised.
After leaving the government for Citigroup, Rubin was replaced as treasury secretary by Summers, who presided over legislation barring federal regulation of derivatives, the “weapons of mass destruction” (Warren Buffett) that helped plunge financial markets to disaster. He ranks as “one of the main villains in the current economic crisis,” according to Dean Baker, one of the few economists to have warned accurately of the impending crisis. Placing financial policy in the hands of Rubin and Summers is “a bit like turning to Osama Bin Laden for aid in the war on terrorism,” Baker adds.27
Another achievement of Rubin and Summers (together with Greenspan) was to prevent Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, from regulating credit default swaps in 1998—more WMD. “The best example of politics thwarting effective regulation,” Baker writes.
Obama’s appointment for treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, a close associate of Summers, elicited a favorable reaction from Wall Street, which may be “hoping that little will change with Geithner at Treasury,” Tim Canova observes: “Supporters of President-elect Obama will be tempted to embrace the experience argument, and it is true that Geithner and Summers have lots of experience at crisis management and doling out bailout funds to their Wall Street clientele.”
As the crisis began to hit, Geithner hinted that he would use the enormous leverage he had as president of the New York Fed to impose some controls on exotic financial instruments, but “there is no evidence,” Canova writes, “that there has been much action, even though Geithner has used this time to negotiate multibillion-dollar bailouts and deals associated with the collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and now Citigroup.” He adds that “the selection of Geithner and Summers to top administrative posts rewards past failure and protects special interests [and] also sends the wrong message to those who thought they were voting for change.”28
Not much help in “changing” the world of finance could be expected from the Democratic Congress either. Charles Schumer, who led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, broke records in obtaining contributions from Wall Street, helping the Democrats win Congress and increasing “the industry’s clout in the capital,” the New York Times reported. He also “helped save financial institutions billions of dollars in higher taxes or fees. He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent,” the last a move to which rational business groups would have no objection. He also weakened efforts to regulate bank debt and supervise the credit-rating agencies, also agents of disaster. His personal reward was to collect more campaign contributions from the financial industry than anyone in Congress except for John Kerry. “He built his career in large part based on his ties to Wall Street [and] has given the Street what it wanted,” said the director of a leading firm that advises investors on the regulatory system.29
The business press reviewed the records of Obama’s Transition Economic Advisory Board, which met on November 7, 2008, to determine how to deal with the financial crisis. Bloomberg News columnist Jonathan Weil concluded that “many of them should be getting subpoenas as material witnesses right about now, not places in Obama’s inner circle.” About half “have held fiduciary positions at companies that, to one degree or another, either fried their financial statements, helped send the world into an economic tailspin, or both.” Is it really plausible that “they won’t mistake the nation’s needs for their own corporate interests?” He also pointed out that Chief of Staff Emanuel “was a director at Freddie Mac in 2000 and 2001 while it was committing accounting fraud.”30
Dean Baker observes that “Obama faced the same sort of problem as those hoping to de-Baathify Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It would have been almost impossible to establish a government without including members of the Baath party, since membership was a virtual requirement for holding a position of responsibility under Saddam Hussein. Similarly, it would have been almost impossible to get to the top echelons of power, or even the middle ranks, during the Clinton-Bush years without giving lip service to the policies of one-sided financial deregulation and bubble-driven growth that were so fashionable at the time.” And those leading Obama’s economic team gave more than lip service. They were instrumental in designing the policies that have led to the present crisis.31
Early on, as noted earlier, the chair of the prestigious corporate law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, predicted “that Wall Street, after getting billions of taxpayer dollars, will emerge from the financial crisis looking much the same as before markets collapsed.” In fact, strengthened, as it turned out. The reasons were explained by Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the IMF: “Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions, or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here,” and the “elite business interests…[who] played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse…are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive” while “the government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.” Again no surprise, at least to those who remember their Adam Smith.32
The outcome was nicely captured by two adjacent front-page stories in the New York Times, headlined “$3.4 Billion Profit at Goldman Revives Gilded Pay Packages” and “In Recession, a Bleaker Path for Workers to Slog.”33
A headline in the Financial Times reads, “Applause as Obama Picks All-Star Team.” No one is relevantly mentioned who is not on the right. Bush speechwriter David Frum, said, “I cannot recall the last time Republicans felt so positive towards a Democratic presidential figure.” Fellow speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote that “Obama’s appointments reveal not just moderation but maturity.… Whatever the caveats, Obama is doing something marvellously right”—where the term “right” should be understood in its dual meaning.34
Critical choices in foreign affairs followed much the same script, eliciting applause from Henry Kissinger, among others. Even super-hawk Richard Perle felt “relieved.… Contrary to expectations, I don’t think we would see a lot of change” from the Bush neocons. Retiring senior Republican senator John Warner, former chair of the Armed Services Committee, said “the triumvirate of Gates, Clinton and Jones to lead Obama’s national security team instills great confidence at home and abroad and further strengthens the growing respect for the president-elect’s courage and ability to exercise sound judgment in selecting the best and the brightest to implement our nation’s security policies.”35
Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates need no comment. James Jones is less known. Security analyst Robert Dreyfuss describes former marine commandant Jones, Obama’s new national security adviser, as “Obama’s hawk,” who “seems least compatible with Obama” among his hawkish team—though there is little reason beyond “hope” to justify the judgment about compatibility. Jones, Dreyfuss observes, “is a fierce advocate of NATO expansion,” Clinton’s policy that reneged on gentlemen’s agreements with Gorbachev, guaranteeing confrontation with an encircled Russia. Jones urged that NATO should move to the south as well as the east, to expand U.S. control over Middle East energy supplies (in preferred terminology, “safeguarding energy security”). He also advocates a “NATO response force,” which will give the U.S.-run military alliance “much more flexible capability to do things rapidly at very long distances.” Europe has been reluctant, but will probably succumb to pressure from a militaristic and expansionist administration in Washington.36
The new director of national intelligence is Dennis Blair, former head of the U.S. Pacific Command. In that post, he was a strong supporter of U.S. military ties with the murderous Suharto regime in Indonesia, sometimes skirting State Department and congressional objections. In early 1999, Indonesian violence began to increase again in East Timor, surpassing anything officially attributed to Serbia in Kosovo prior to the NATO bombing, and of course the background of atrocities was vastly worse than anything in the Balkans; and incomparably more significant for the West on elementary moral grounds, not only because the U.S./UK–backed Indonesian crimes were in the course of outright aggression (in contrast, the West then insisted that Kosovo must be part of Serbia) but because these were our own crimes, not someone else’s. Reactions among the intellectual classes were the opposite of what elementary moral principles would dictate, in conformity to the historical norm. Blair was sent by the National Security Council to urge Indonesian general Wiranto to curb the violence. Instead, “Blair took a cordial approach,” the outstanding correspondent Alan Nairn reported. He told Wiranto that he “looks forward to the time Indonesia will resume its proper role as a leader in the region,” according to U.S. officials who reviewed a cable written about the trip—which coincided with a particularly brutal slaughter in a church in Liquiça, leaving at least dozens killed. Blair proposed new U.S. training programs for Indonesia, which were implemented, right through the last paroxysms of violence in September 1999 that practically destroyed what was left of the tortured country.37
As his special assistant on the Middle East, Obama selected Dan Kurtzer, Clinton-Bush ambassador to Egypt and Israel, respectively. According to Israel’s leading diplomatic correspondent, Akiva Eldar, Kurtzer took part in writing Obama’s speech to the Israeli lobbying organization AIPAC in June 2008. This remarkable text went well beyond Bush in its obsequiousness, even declaring that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” a position so extreme that his campaign had to explain that his words didn’t mean what they said. Kurtzer is close to Obama adviser Dennis Ross, whose position as a negotiator for the failed Camp David negotiations was that Israel has “needs”—including parts of the occupied territories—while Palestinians only have “wants,” which therefore are less significant. His disgraceful book on the negotiations evades the major issue—the illegal Israeli settlements that expanded steadily under Clinton—and terminates conveniently just before the book’s major thesis about Arafat’s culpability completely collapsed at the Taba negotiations, in Clinton’s last month in office.38
Like other Obama Middle East advisers, Ross has been closely associated with the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy (WINEP), an offshoot of AIPAC and a barely disguised component of the Israeli lobby. Hillary Clinton’s record of support for Israeli extremism is well known.
Asked in a press conference about the recycling of familiar faces, Obama responded that, as the New York Times reported, “Americans would be rightly ‘troubled’ if he overlooked experience simply to create the perception of change.” Explaining further, he said: “What we are going to do is combine experience with fresh thinking. But understand where the vision for change comes from first and foremost: It comes from me.”39
That should satisfy doubters, mesmerized by the “soaring and persuasive rhetoric” about “change” and “hope.”
It was hoped, and indeed with some early degree of realism, that Obama would reverse some of the more flagrant abuses of the Bush administration in dismantling the legal system. But it was not easy to be too confident. Obama’s choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, had a good reputation in the legal profession. However, he had explained on CNN that we cannot adhere to the Geneva Conventions in interrogation of those accused of terrorism—which seems to mean that torture of suspects is legitimate, in gross violation of the foundations of international humanitarian law, by which the United States is theoretically bound.40 Those suspicions were unfortunately confirmed, along with much more to which we return in chapter 11.
The primary concern for the administration was to arrest the financial crisis and the simultaneous recession in the real economy. But there is also a monster in the closet: the notoriously inefficient privatized and scarcely regulated health care system, which threatens to overwhelm the federal budget if current tendencies persist. A majority of the public has long favored a national health care system, which should be far less expensive and more effective, comparative evidence indicates (along with many studies).41 The United States is alone in relying on such a system, which, quite apart from its impact on those who are left out, introduces numerous wasteful inefficiencies (complex billing costs, close surveillance of doctors by insurance company bureaucrats, advertising, profits, the expenses of cherry-picking and denial of treatment on the basis of small print, reliance on expensive emergency room care for the tens of millions of uninsured and underinsured, etc.). Largely for these reasons—and because of the legislation, unique to the United States, that bars government negotiation of drug prices—per capita health care costs in the United States are about twice those of other industrial countries, and outcomes rank low among them.
As recently as 2004, any government intervention in the health care system was described in the press as “politically impossible” and “lacking political support”—meaning: opposed by the insurance industry, pharmaceutical corporations, and others who count, whatever the irrelevant public may think. In 2008, however, first John Edwards, then Obama and Hillary Clinton, advanced proposals that approached what the public has long preferred. These ideas now have “political support.” What has changed? Not public opinion, which remains much as before. But by 2008, major sectors of power, primarily manufacturing industry, had come to recognize that they are being severely damaged by the privatized health care system. Hence the public will is coming to have “political support.” The shift tells us something about dysfunctional democracy and the struggles that lie ahead.
The aftermath tells us more.
Obama quickly abandoned the popular and sensible single-payer option that he had previously said he favored. He also made a secret deal with drug companies that the government would not “negotiate drug prices and demand additional rebates from drug manufacturers,” under pressure from lobbyists and in opposition to a mere 85 percent of the public. A “public option”—essentially an option of Medicare for all—lingered, but came under intense attack on the interesting grounds that private insurers would not be able to compete with a more efficient government plan (more sophisticated pretexts were only marginally less odd). As of June 2009, it was favored by over 70 percent of the population, despite the unremitting and often hysterical attack mostly traceable back to the insurance industry.
Two months later, the cover story of Business Week was headlined “The Health Insurers Have Already Won: How UnitedHealth and Rival Carriers, Maneuvering Behind the Scenes in Washington, Shaped Health-Care Reform for Their Own Benefit.” The industry has “succeeded in redefining the terms of the reform debate to such a degree that no matter what specifics emerge in the voluminous bill Congress may send to President Obama this fall, the insurance industry will emerge more profitable…insurance CEOs ought to be smiling.”42
By mid-September, as the committee bills were coming to the floor of the Congress, business groups expressed their support for the version proposed by Senator Max Baucus’s Finance Committee, which had worked “in close talks with employer groups,” more so than others, they approvingly related. The House proposals they rejected as not sufficiently business-friendly. The chairman of the Business Roundtable described the Senate Finance Committee proposal as “very closely aligned to” its principles, particularly in that it “doesn’t call for creation of a public plan.”43
Of course, no success is enough, another intrinsic property of a market system. Hence as the health care reform struggle virtually paralyzed Congress in late 2009, business lobbies undertook a major campaign to gain even more, and they did. The public option was finally “scuttled” along with a related “Medicare buy-in” that would have permitted people fifty-five or older to join the national health care system. At that point the public favored the public option by a 56 to 38 percent majority, and the Medicare buy-in by an even greater 64 to 30 percent. The poll yielding these results was reported, but with these facts omitted: the heading read, “Polls: Majority Disapprove of Health Care Legislation.” The report leaves the impression that the public is joining the right-wing assault against government involvement in health care led by the business classes, contrary to what this very poll reveals, and what polls have shown for decades.
And what polls continued to show into 2010. A CBS poll released on January 11 found that 60 percent of Americans disapprove of how the president and Congress are dealing with health care. The detailed figures show that of those who object to the way the proposal regulates insurance companies, a large majority feel that it does not go far enough (43 percent not far enough, versus 27 percent too far). A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 64 percent of voters disapprove of the Republicans’ handling of health care (55 percent disapproved of Obama’s handling). Health care was an issue in the January 2010 Massachusetts senatorial election, in which Republican Scott Brown was the victor. Among Democrats who abstained or switched to Brown, 60 percent felt that the health care program did not go far enough (85 percent among those who abstained). Among both abstainers and Democrat Brown voters, about 85 percent favored a public option.44
In brief, the evidence indicates that there was indeed growing popular anger about Obama’s health care bill, primarily because it was too limited—though there was more, to which we turn directly.
The insurance executives were smiling along with the directors of the major financial institutions, who not only emerged unscathed from the catastrophe they precipitated, but even gained in wealth and power, and were in an improved position to move on to create the next financial crisis, as we have already discussed. The power of the business world to undermine democracy was again revealed very clearly, along with the institutional imperative to rank short-term gain above such externalities as severe consequences for the species not far down the road, as the petroleum industry at once began to mimic the successful tactics of the insurance industry in the manner already described.
While the financial industry had every reason to feel satisfied about the outcome of their efforts to have their man Obama elected, the love affair was turning sour by January 2010, as Obama began to react to rising public anger about the “Gilded Pay Packages” for bankers while they were mired in “a Bleaker Path for Workers to Slog.” He adopted “populist rhetoric,” criticizing the huge bonuses of those who had been rescued by the public, and even proposed some measures to constrain the excesses of the big banks (including the “Volcker rule,” which would partially reinstate Glass-Steagall, preventing commercial banks with government insurance from using depositors’ funds for risky investment). The punishment for his deviation was swift.
The major banks announced prominently that they would shift funding to Republicans if Obama’s talk about regulation and rhetoric about greedy bankers continued. Leading the charge, the press reported, was Jamie Dimon, chair of JPMorgan Chase, which along with the perennial champion Goldman Sachs, was one of the major beneficiaries of the bailout programs. Chase executives were also big Democratic donors “from Chicago’s Democratic dynasty,” reportedly close to the White House as well. In reaction to Obama’s veering from the approved path, “Chase’s political action committee is sending the Democrats a pointed message,” the press reported, rebuffing solicitations from the national Democratic House and Senate campaign committees and donating instead to their Republican counterparts, who are “rushing to capitalize on what they call Wall Street’s ‘buyer’s remorse’ with the Democrats.” Meanwhile “industry executives and lobbyists are warning Democrats that if Mr. Obama keeps attacking Wall Street ‘fat cats,’ they may fight back by withholding their cash,” which had poured into Obama’s campaign in record amounts from the securities and investment business. “The shift reflects the hard political edge to the industry’s campaign to thwart Mr. Obama’s proposals for tighter financial regulations,” the press reported, along with his harsh criticism of excessive bonuses.
Obama heard the message. Within days he informed the business press that bankers are fine “guys,” singling out Dimon and Goldman Sachs chair Lloyd Blankfein for praise, and assuring the business world that “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth,” such as the huge bonuses and profits that are infuriating the public. “That’s part of the free market system,” Obama continued; not inaccurately, as “free markets” are interpreted in state capitalist doctrine.45
A revealing snapshot of Smith’s maxim in action.
In a parallel thrust, there was a massive infusion of funds for Republican Scott Brown from financial executives in the final days of the Massachusetts senatorial campaign, helping to swing the election to Brown, and providing Republicans with a magical “41st seat” in the Senate.46 The forty-first seat gains its significance from a new development in American politics since the Republicans lost power. By now, the Republican Party scarcely resembles a traditional U.S. political party. With rare exceptions, they vote in a uniform bloc, whatever the issue, under strict party discipline, rather like the old Communist Party. And their most prominent plank is “No,” to anything the majority initiates. With the cooperation of right-wing Democrats (called “moderates”) they have been able to change the filibuster from a device that had been occasionally used to an automatic mechanism to require a supermajority, 60–40, for any legislation that Obama might propose, even nominations for federal positions. Hence the Brown victory, or a shift by a single Democrat, provides the Republican Party with a mechanism to undermine majority rule on virtually any issue by threatening a filibuster—at least, as long as the Democrats acquiesce to these means of undermining majority rule, or the public tolerates the blows to democracy.
In the Massachusetts vote, the party of “No” took over the seat of the late Edward Kennedy, the “liberal lion” of the Senate for many years, for whom health care reform had been a prime concern throughout his long career. The outcome was depicted as a right-wing revolt of an angry population against the excesses of the liberal elitists who run the government and “are taking our country away from us,” and so on. But the data tell a rather different story, not just the flood of funding from the financial institutions in punishment for Obama’s belated “populist” rhetoric and proposals. The official data showed that Brown was carried to victory by very high voting and enthusiasm in the “affluent suburbs,” alongside low turnout and general apathy in the urban areas that are largely Democratic. Furthermore, “55% of Republican voters said they were ‘very interested’ in the election,” the Wall Street Journal reported, “compared with 38 percent of Democrats.” The outcome can be construed as an uprising against Obama’s policies: for the wealthy, he was not doing enough to enrich them further, while for the poorer sectors, he was doing too much to achieve that end.47
Doubtless there was some impact of the populist image crafted by the PR machine (“I’m Scott Brown, this is my truck,” “regular guy,” nude model, daughter an American Idol contestant, etc.). But this appears to have had only a secondary role. The popular anger is quite understandable, with the banks thriving thanks to bailouts while the population remains in deep recession. Official unemployment is at 10 percent and in manufacturing industry at the level of the Great Depression, with one out of six unemployed, as was reported the day of the Massachusetts election; and with few prospects for recovering the kinds of jobs that are lost as a result of the increasing financialization of the economy and concomitant hollowing out of productive industry. The poll results on health care conform to this conclusion, as noted.48
There is more to say about the Democrats’ compromises on health care. One striking fact about the election was that the majority of union members, Obama’s natural constituency, voted for Brown. The reasons were explained in the labor press. Union leaders and activists reported that workers were angered at Obama’s record generally, but particularly incensed over his stand on health care. “He didn’t insist on a public option nor a strong employer mandate to provide insurance. It was hard not to notice that the only issue on which he took a firm stand was taxing benefits” for health care, contrary to his campaign pledge, a tax that hits unionized workers.49
The effects of the election of the forty-first seat were felt at once. Health care reform, such as it was, drifted to the back burner. Congressional efforts to do something about the looming environmental crisis, weak enough to begin with, were immediately scaled back, which means that other countries are unlikely to make the required moves either. Apparently emboldened by the magic forty-one, the Republican minority on the Security and Exchange Commission “accused the agency of placing ‘the imprimatur of the commission on the agenda of the social and environmental policy lobby’ by issuing guidelines encouraging corporations to disclose the effects of climate change on their businesses.” The Republican hold on the nomination of a pro-union lawyer to the National Labor Relations Board, what’s left of it, was invigorated as the forty-first vote arrived, another step in carrying forward the determined government assault on unions that took off when Reagan came into office. Republican Senator Richard Shelby carried the obstructionism a long way forward by announcing that he would place a hold on at least seventy Obama nominations (unless he received some special earmarks), paralyzing a good part of the government. Shelby also announced that he would no longer cooperate with Senator Dodd’s legislation on financial reform, even though it had been greatly weakened to accommodate Republican demands; the main issue he brought up was the last residue of consumer protection that remained. An administration effort to “take billions of dollars from the profits of private lenders and give it directly to students” stalled thanks to a vigorous lobbying campaign, which picked up steam after the Supreme Court decision and the Brown vote. With business having its reliable forty-first obstructionist seat, and the Court having declared open season on buying elections, the sky’s the limit.50
The consequences of the undermining of any reasonable environmental legislation are likely to be dire. In the domestic arena, the unwillingness of the political class to allow health care reform to be addressed will also have serious consequences, not only for those who suffer from the rationing of health care by wealth but for the economy generally. Economists David Rosnick and Dean Baker show that “the huge debt numbers that are being used to scare the country—especially the young—are largely projections of how much debt today’s young will pass onto future generations” primarily because “per person health care costs are projected to far outpace the rate of per capita GDP growth” unless there is serious reform of the dysfunctional health care system. The more general impact of turning Congress into a comical version of seventeenth-century Poland, with nobles having a right of veto, is also not pleasant to contemplate, however inadequate the government has been from the standpoint of the public good.51
The business community can appeal to respectable antecedents in its dedicated campaign to increase its already overwhelming power in the political system. James Madison framed the constitutional order so that power would be in the hands of the Senate, which represents “the wealth of the nation,” the “more capable sett of men,” who have respect for property owners and their rights and understand the need for government “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”—though it was not long before he came to deplore “the daring depravity of the times,” as the “stockjobbers will become the pretorian band of the government—at once its tools and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, and overawing it by clamors and combinations” (1792).52
Returning to the Obama programs, internationally, there was never much of substance on the largely blank slate of the political campaign. What there was gave little reason to expect much change from Bush’s second term, which stepped back from the radical ultranationalism and aggressive posture of the first term, also discarding some of the extreme figures like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz; Cheney could not be sent away, because he virtually was the administration.
The immediate issues had to do mostly with the Middle East. On Israel-Palestine, rumors began circulating that Obama might depart from the U.S. rejectionism that has blocked a political settlement for over thirty years, with rare exceptions already discussed. The record, however, never provided any basis for taking the rumors seriously.
Before the primaries, I reviewed Obama’s formal positions at the time.53 They gave no reason for any expectations beyond uncritical and in fact enthusiastic support for Israeli crimes. Above, we have seen how his position evolved since he took office (pp. 177f). Even before, he had made them quite clear. Particularly revealing was his reaction to Israel’s sharply accelerated assault on Gaza, opening with its violation of the cease-fire on November 4, 2008, as voters were going to the polls to elect Obama, then breaking out in full fury on December 27 after rejection of Hamas initiatives to reinstate the cease-fire. To these crimes Obama’s response was silence—unlike, say, the late November terrorist attack in Mumbai, which he was quick to denounce, along with the “hateful ideology” that lay behind it. In the case of Gaza, his staff hid behind the mantra that “there is one president at a time,” and repeated his comment when he visited the Israeli town of Sderot in July 2008: “If missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that” (as it happened, no Hamas missiles were falling, because Hamas was strictly observing the cease-fire, as the government of Israel conceded, even though Israel had not relieved the punishing siege, an act of war). But he was able to do nothing, not even make a statement, when U.S. jets and helicopters with Israeli pilots were causing incomparably worse suffering to Palestinian children. The Israeli attack was carefully timed to end as Obama came into office, so that he could then content himself with familiar rhetoric about how we must move on and put the past behind us—when it’s our crimes, that is; the crimes of others can never be forgotten or forgiven.54
Israeli president Shimon Peres had informed the press that on his July 2008 trip to Israel, Obama had told him that he was “very impressed” with the Arab League peace proposal that calls for full normalization of relations with Israel along with Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories—basically, the long-standing international consensus that the United States and Israel have unilaterally blocked (and that Peres always rejected when in office, as noted earlier). That might have suggested a significant change of heart, except that the right-wing Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu said that on the same trip, Obama had told him that he was “very impressed” with Netanyahu’s plan, which called for indefinite Israeli control of the occupied territories.
The paradox was resolved by Israeli political analyst Aluf Benn, who observed that Obama’s “main goal was not to screw up or ire anyone. Presumably he was polite, and told his hosts their proposals were ‘very interesting’—they leave satisfied and he hasn’t promised a thing.” Understandable for a politician, but it leaves us with nothing except his fervent professions of love for Israel and disregard for Palestinian suffering.55
On Iraq, Obama has frequently been praised for his “principled opposition” to the war. In reality, as he has made clear, his opposition has been entirely unprincipled throughout. The war, he said, was a “strategic blunder.” When Kremlin critics of the invasion of Afghanistan called it a strategic blunder, we did not say that they were taking a principled stand.
After intensive debate, the government of Iraq finally agreed on a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) on the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The U.S. position, released by the White House in November 2007, called for “facilitating and encouraging the flow of foreign investments to Iraq, especially American investments” and for a military presence with no specified limits, allegedly to combat terrorism and “deter foreign aggression against Iraq”; “foreign” of course does not include the United States. The talks dragged on, the Washington Post reported, because Iraq insisted on (and obtained) “some major concessions, including the establishment of the 2011 withdrawal date instead of vaguer language favored by the Bush administration [and] also rejected long-term U.S. military bases on its soil.” Iraqi leaders “consider the firm deadline for withdrawal to be a negotiating victory,” Reuters reported: Washington “long opposed setting any timetable for its troops to withdraw, but relented in recent months,” unable to overcome Iraqi resistance.56
Throughout the negotiations, the press regularly dismissed the obstinate stance of the Maliki government as pandering to public opinion; understandable for reasons of politics, but regrettable—on the assumption that what is decided is no more the business of Iraqis than it is of Americans. U.S.-run polls continued to report that a large majority of Iraqis opposed any U.S. military presence, and believed that U.S. forces make the situation worse, including the “surge.” That judgment was supported, among others, by Middle East specialist and security analyst Steven Simon, who wrote in Foreign Affairs that the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy is “stoking the three forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism. States that have failed to control these forces have ultimately become ungovernable, and this is the fate for which the surge is preparing Iraq. A strategy intended to reduce casualties in the short term will ineluctably weaken the prospects for Iraq’s cohesion over the long run.” It may lead to “a strong, centralized state ruled by a military junta that would resemble the Baathist regime Washington overthrew in 2003,” or “something very much like the imperial protectorates in the Middle East of the first half of the twentieth century” in which the “club of patrons” in the capital would “dole out goods to tribes through favored conduits.” In the Petraeus system, “the U.S. military is performing the role of the patrons—creating an unhealthy dependency and driving a dangerous wedge between the tribes and the state,” undermining prospects for a “stable, unitary Iraq.” As David Gardner observed while reviewing the dismal consequences of “the surge,” the Iraq invasion, “seen in the region as the epitome of U.S. unilateralism, powered by a deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance…has both proliferated jihadism and primed a sectarian time bomb in the heart of the Arab world,” leaving Arabs “shocked but not so much awed as disgusted and enraged by this bloody fiasco.”57
Iraqi opposition to the U.S. presence was underscored by reporting from across Iraq after parliamentary approval of the Iraqi version of the SOFA. The International Herald Tribune, drawing from interviews by Iraqi journalists from around the country, reported opposition to the pact on grounds that the Iraqi government had been “bullied into a deal by an occupying force,” that the United States would not live up to its terms, and that the central government gained too much power. Apart from one voice disturbed by the parliamentary brawl, there was no report of opposition on grounds that U.S. forces were needed to defend Iraqi interests.58
The latest Iraqi success culminates a long process of resistance to demands of the U.S. invaders. Washington fought tooth and nail to prevent elections, but was finally forced to back down in the face of popular demands for democracy, symbolized by the Ayatollah Sistani. The Bush administration then managed to install their own choice as prime minister, and sought to control the government in various ways, meanwhile also building huge military bases around the country and an “embassy” that is a virtual city within Baghdad—all funded by congressional Democrats and as noted above, set to expand under Obama along with similar “embassies” in Islamabad and Kabul. If the invaders do live up to the SOFA that they were compelled to accept, it will constitute yet another significant triumph of nonviolent resistance. Insurgents can be killed, but mass nonviolent resistance is much harder to quell. Though the conclusion is unpopular in the United States, it is understood by the most knowledgeable and astute observers of Iraq.59
Many comparisons are being drawn between Vietnam and Iraq, most of them untenable. One, which is not being discussed, is of some interest. In both cases, Washington was faced with strong pressure from the invaded countries to withdraw. JFK discovered a few months before his assassination that the U.S. client regime was seeking a peaceful diplomatic settlement that would lead to U.S. withdrawal. To avert this threat, his administration backed a military coup to install a more compliant regime in South Vietnam. As the internal and public record demonstrate, while JFK did contemplate withdrawal (as was accurately reported at the time), he always imposed a crucial condition: only after U.S. victory was assured. The record shows that he remained dedicated to this goal to the end. In the case of Iraq, in contrast, Washington has been unable to resort to such means to get rid of a government that is calling upon it to leave. There are many reasons for the differences. One is that the domestic population today is much less willing to tolerate U.S. aggression than it was in the early ’60s. A few years later strong opposition did develop, but only when the U.S. invasion of Vietnam far exceeded the scale of its aggression and crimes in Iraq.60
Within the political class and the media it is reflexively assumed that Washington has the right to demand terms for the SOFA in Iraq. No such right was accorded to Russian invaders of Afghanistan, or indeed to anyone except the United States and its clients. For others, we rightly adopt the principle that invaders have no rights, only responsibilities, including the responsibility to attend to the will of the victims, and to pay massive reparations for their crimes. In this case, the crimes include strong support for Saddam Hussein through his worst atrocities on Reagan’s watch, then on to Saddam’s massacre of Shiites under the eyes of the U.S. military after the first Gulf War; the Clinton sanctions that were termed “genocidal” by the distinguished international diplomats who administered them and resigned in protest, then the invasion and its hideous aftermath. No such thoughts can be voiced in polite society.
The Iraqi government spokesman said that the tentative SOFA “matches the vision of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.”61 Obama’s vision was in fact left somewhat vague, but presumably he would go along in some fashion with the demands of the Iraqi government. If so, that might require modification of U.S. plans to ensure privileged access to Iraq’s enormous oil resources while establishing a major military presence in a client state, and thus reinforcing its dominance over the world’s major energy-producing region.
Obama’s announced “vision” was to shift forces from Iraq to Afghanistan. That stand evoked a lesson from the editors of the Washington Post: “While the United States has an interest in preventing the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, the country’s strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world’s largest oil reserves.”62 Increasingly, as Washington has been compelled to accede to Iraqi demands, tales about “democracy promotion” and other self-congratulatory fables have been shelved in favor of recognition of what had been obvious throughout to all but the most doctrinaire ideologists: that the United States would not have invaded if Iraq’s exports were asparagus and tomatoes and the world’s major energy resources were in the South Pacific.
The NATO command is also coming to recognize reality in public. In June 2007, NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer informed a meeting of NATO members that “NATO troops have to guard pipelines that transport oil and gas that is directed for the West,” and more generally to protect sea routes used by tankers and other “crucial infrastructure” of the energy system. This may turn out to be the sole operative component of the fabled “responsibility to protect.” The decision extends the post–Cold War policies of reshaping NATO into a U.S.-run global intervention force, with the side effect of deterring European initiatives toward Gaullist-style independence. Presumably the task includes the projected $7.6 billion TAPI pipeline that would deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India, running through Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, where Canadian troops are deployed. The goal is “to block a competing pipeline that would bring gas to Pakistan and India from Iran” and to “diminish Russia’s dominance of Central Asian energy exports,” the Toronto Globe and Mail reported, plausibly outlining some of the contours of the new “Great Game.”63
Obama strongly endorsed the Bush administration policy of attacking suspected al-Qaeda leaders in countries that Washington has not (yet) invaded, disclosed by the New York Times shortly after the election. The doctrine was illustrated again on October 26, 2008, when U.S. forces based in Iraq raided Syria, killing eight civilians, allegedly to capture an al-Qaeda leader. Washington did not notify Iraqi prime minister al-Maliki or President Talabani, both of whom have relatively amicable relations with Syria, which has accepted 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and is bitterly opposed to al-Qaeda. Syria protested, claiming, credibly, that if notified they would have eagerly apprehended this common enemy. According to the Asia Times, Iraqi leaders were furious, and hardened their stance in the SOFA negotiations, insisting on provisions to bar the use of Iraqi territory to attack neighbors.
The Syria raid was harshly condemned in the Arab world. In pro-government newspapers, the Bush administration was denounced for lengthening its “loathsome legacy” (Lebanon), while Syria was urged to “march forward in your reconciliatory path” and America to “keep going backwards with your language of hatred, arrogance and the murder of innocents” (Kuwait). For the region generally, it was another illustration of what the government-controlled Saudi press condemned as “not diplomacy in search of peace, but madness in search of war.” Obama was silent. So were other Democrats. Political scientist Stephen Zunes contacted the offices of every Democrat on the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, but was unable to find any critical word on the U.S. raid on Syria from occupied Iraq.64
Presumably, Obama also accepts the more expansive Bush doctrine that the United States not only has the right to invade countries as it chooses (unless it is a “blunder,” too costly to us), but also to attack others that Washington claims are supporting resistance to its aggression. In particular, Obama is relying more heavily than Bush on the raids by drones that have killed many civilians in Pakistan. Former Petraeus counterinsurgency adviser David Kilkullen reported that drones have killed about fourteen alleged terrorists and seven hundred civilians—“a hit rate of 2 percent.”65
These raids of course have consequences: people have the odd characteristic of objecting to slaughter of family members and friends. There has been a vicious mini-war waged in the tribal area of Bajaur in Pakistan, adjacent to Afghanistan. BBC described widespread destruction from intense combat, reporting further that “many in Bajaur trace the roots of the uprising to a suspected U.S. missile strike on an Islamic seminary, or madrassa, in November 2006, which killed around 80 people.” The attack on the school, killing eighty to eighty-five people, was reported in the mainstream Pakistani press by physicist and dissident activist Pervez Hoodbhoy, but ignored in the United States as insignificant. Events often look different at the other end of the club.66
Hoodbhoy observed that the usual outcome of such attacks “has been flattened houses, dead and maimed children, and a growing local population that seeks revenge against Pakistan and the US.” Bajaur may be an illustration of the familiar pattern.
On November 3, 2008, General Petraeus, the newly appointed head of the U.S. Central Command that covers the Middle East region, had his first meeting with Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and other high officials. Their primary concern was U.S. missile attacks on Pakistani territory, which had increased sharply in previous weeks. “Continuing drone attacks on our territory, which result in loss of precious lives and property, are counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government,” Zardari informed Petraeus. His government, he said, is “under pressure to react more aggressively” to the strikes. These could lead to “a backlash against the U.S.,” which is already deeply unpopular in Pakistan.
Petraeus said that he had heard the message, and “we would have to take [Pakistani opinions] on board” when attacking the country. A practical necessity, no doubt, when over 80 percent of the supplies for the U.S.-NATO war in Afghanistan pass through Pakistan.67
The United States had generally supported Pakistani dictators since the country’s independence. The most extreme case was Reagan. His administration pretended not to see when Pakistan developed nuclear weapons, outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), so as to ensure that congressional resolutions would not hinder Reagan’s “unstinting support” for the “ruthless and vindictive” dictator Zia ul-Haq, whose rule had “the most long-lasting and damaging effect on Pakistani society, one still prevalent today,” Ahmed Rashid observes. With Reagan’s firm backing, and Saudi funding, Zia moved to impose “an ideological Islamic state upon the population.” These are the immediate roots of many of “today’s problems—the militancy of the religious parties, the mushrooming of madrassas and extremist groups, the spread of drug and Kalashnikov culture, and the increase in sectarian violence.” Hoodbhoy adds that “radical extremism is the illegitimate offspring of a union between the United States under Ronald Reagan, and Pakistan under General Zia-ul-Haq.” Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, a specialist on the region, concludes that “all of the nightmares of the 21st century come together in Pakistan,” including Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group blamed for the terrorist atrocities in Mumbai in November 2008 and other atrocities.68
The Reaganites also “built up the [Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, ISI] into a formidable intelligence agency that ran the political process inside Pakistan while promoting Islamic insurgencies in Kashmir and Central Asia,” Rashid continues. “This global jihad launched by Zia and Reagan was to sow the seeds of al Qaeda and turn Pakistan into the world center of jihadism for the next two decades.” Meanwhile Reagan’s immediate successors left Afghanistan in the hands of the most vicious jihadis, later handing it over to warlord rule under Rumsfeld’s direction. The fearsome ISI continues to play both sides of the street, supporting the resurgent Taliban and simultaneously acceding to some U.S. demands.
The United States and Pakistan are reported to have reached “tacit agreement in September  on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy that allows unmanned Predator aircraft to attack suspected terrorist targets” in Pakistan, according to unidentified senior officials in both countries. “The officials described the deal as one in which the U.S. government refuses to publicly acknowledge the attacks while Pakistan’s government continues to complain noisily about the politically sensitive strikes.”69
Once again problems are caused by the annoying population who dislike being bombed by an increasingly hated enemy from the other side of the world.
Shortly before this report on the “tacit agreement” appeared, a suicide bombing in the conflicted tribal areas killed eight Pakistani soldiers, retaliation for an attack by a U.S. Predator drone that killed twenty people, including two Taliban leaders. The Pakistani parliament called for dialogue with the Taliban. Echoing the resolution, Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said, “There is an increasing realization that the use of force alone cannot yield the desired results.”70
Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s first message to President-elect Obama was much like that delivered to General Petraeus by Pakistani leaders: “End U.S. airstrikes that risk civilian casualties.” His message was sent shortly after coalition troops bombed a wedding party in Kandahar Province, reportedly killing forty people. There is no indication that his opinion was “taken on board.” Karzai has informed the Afghan public that “he is powerless to halt U.S. airstrikes in his country and he would stop American warplanes if he could,” the Voice of America reported. He told a UN Security Council delegation visiting Kabul that he has demanded a timeline for withdrawal of foreign forces from his country. But this plea has also not been “taken on board.”71
The British command has warned that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and that there will have to be negotiations with the Taliban, risking a rift with the United States, the Financial Times reports. Correspondent Jason Burke, who has long experience in the region, reported that “the Taliban have been engaged in secret talks about ending the conflict in Afghanistan in a wide-ranging ‘peace process’ sponsored by Saudi Arabia and supported by Britain,” and such efforts have apparently been pursued since.72
Some Afghan peace activists have reservations about this approach, preferring a solution without foreign interference. A network of activists is calling for negotiations and reconciliation with the Taliban through the National Peace Jirga, a grand assembly of Afghans, formed in May 2008. At a meeting in support of the jirga, three thousand Afghan political figures and intellectuals, mainly Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, criticized “the international military campaign against Islamic militants in Afghanistan and called for dialogue to end the fighting,” Agence France-Presse reported.
The interim chairman of the National Peace Jirga, Bakhtar Aminzai, “told the opening gathering that the current conflict could not be resolved by military means and that only talks could bring a solution. He called on the government to step up its negotiations with the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami groups.” The latter is the party of the extremist radical Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Reagan favorite responsible for many terrible atrocities, now reported to provide core parliamentary support for the Karzai government and to be pressing it toward a form of re-Talibanization.73
Aminzai said further that “we need to pressure the Afghan government and the international community to find a solution without using guns.” A spokeswoman added that “we are against Western policy in Afghanistan. They should bury their guns in a grave and focus on diplomacy and economic development.” A leader of Awakened Youth of Afghanistan, a prominent antiwar group, says that we must end “Afghanicide—the killing of Afghanistan.” In a joint declaration with German peace organizations, the National Peace Jirga claimed to represent “a wide majority of Afghan people who are tired of war,” calling for an end to escalation and initiation of a peace process.
The deputy director of the umbrella organization of NGOs in the country says that of roughly 1,400 registered NGOs, nearly 1,100 are purely Afghan operations: women’s groups, youth groups, and others, many of them advocates of the National Peace Jirga.74
Though polling in war-torn Afghanistan is an uncertain process, there are some suggestive results. A Canadian-run poll found that Afghans favor the presence of Canadian and other foreign troops, the result that made the headlines in Canada. The small print suggests some qualifications. Only 20 percent “think the Taliban will prevail once foreign troops leave.” Three-fourths support negotiations between the Karzai government and the Taliban, and more than half favor a coalition government. The great majority therefore strongly disagrees with the U.S.-NATO focus on further militarization of the conflict, and appears to believe that peace is possible with a turn toward diplomacy and negotiations.75
Though the question was not asked, it is reasonable to surmise that the foreign presence is favored for aid and reconstruction. More evidence in support of this conjecture is provided by reports about the progress of reconstruction in Afghanistan six years after the U.S. invasion. Six percent of the population has electricity, AP reports, primarily in Kabul, which is artificially wealthy because of the huge foreign presence. There, “the rich, powerful, and well connected” have electricity, but few others, in contrast to the 1980s under Russian occupation, when “the city had plentiful power”—and women in Kabul were relatively free under the occupation and the Russian-backed Najibullah government that followed, possibly more so than now, though they did have to worry about attacks from U.S.-backed radical Islamists, like Hekmatyar, who felt it his duty to throw acid in the faces of young women he thought were improperly dressed.76
Such considerations suggest that Afghans really would welcome a foreign presence devoted to aid and reconstruction, as we can perhaps read between the lines in the polls. There are, of course, numerous questions about polls in countries under foreign military occupation, particularly in places like southern Afghanistan where the government/NATO presence is limited. But the results conform reasonably well to other evidence, and should not be dismissed.
A study of Taliban foot soldiers carried out by the Toronto Globe and Mail, though not a scientific survey as they point out, nevertheless yields considerable insight. All were Pashtuns, from the Kandahar area. They described themselves as mujahideen, following the ancient tradition of driving out foreign invaders. Almost a third reported that at least one family member had died in aerial bombings in recent years. Many said that they were fighting to defend Afghan villagers from air strikes by foreign troops. Few claimed to be fighting a global jihad, or had allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who is reported to be in Quetta, Pakistan. Most saw themselves as fighting for principles—an Islamic government—not a particular leader. Again, the results suggest possibilities for a negotiated peaceful settlement, without foreign interference.77
A valuable perspective on such prospects is provided by Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a specialist on Afghanistan who was UK ambassador to Moscow during the crucial 1988–92 period when the Russians withdrew (and the USSR collapsed), then became chair of the British Joint Intelligence Committee. On a fall 2008 visit, Braithwaite spoke to Afghan journalists, former mujahideen, professionals, people working for the U.S.-based coalition—in general, to “natural supporters for [Western] claims to bring peace and reconstruction.” He reports that they were “contemptuous of President Hamid Karzai,” regarding him as another one of the puppets installed by foreign force. Their favorite was
Mohammad Najibullah, the last communist president, who attempted to reconcile the nation within an Islamic state, and was butchered by the Taliban in 1996 [having been overthrown in 1992 by the warlords who virtually destroyed Kabul]: DVDs of his speeches are being sold on the streets. Things were, they said, better under the Soviets. Kabul was secure, women were employed, the Soviets built factories, roads, schools and hospitals, Russian children played safely in the streets. The Russian soldiers fought bravely on the ground like real warriors, instead of killing women and children from the air. Even the Taliban were not so bad: they were good Muslims, kept order, and respected women in their own way. These myths may not reflect historical reality, but they do measure a deep disillusionment with the “coalition” and its policies.78 These matters were discussed at the time by Rasil Basu, UN Development Program senior adviser to the Afghan government for women’s development (1986–88). She reported “enormous strides” for women under the Russian occupation:
Illiteracy declined from 98% to 75%, and they were granted equal rights with men in civil law, and in the Constitution.… Unjust patriarchal relations still prevailed in the workplace and in the family with women occupying lower level sex-type jobs. But the strides [women] took in education and employment were very impressive.… In Kabul I saw great advances in women’s education and employment. Women were in evidence in industry, factories, government offices, professions and the media. With large numbers of men killed or disabled, women shouldered the responsibility of both family and country. I met a woman who specialized in war medicine which dealt with trauma and reconstructive surgery for the war-wounded. This represented empowerment to her. Another woman was a road engineer. Roads represented freedom—an escape from the oppressive patriarchal structures.
By 1988, however, Basu “could see the early warning signals” as Russian troops departed and the fundamentalist Islamist extremists favored by the Reagan administration took over, brushing aside the more moderate mujahideen groups. Saudi Arabian and American arms and ammunition “have been vital in giving fundamentalist groups an edge over the moderates,” providing them with military hardware used, “according to Amnesty International, to target unarmed civilians, most of them women and children.” Then followed much worse horrors as the U.S.-Saudi favorites overthrew the Najibullah government. The suffering of the population was so extreme that the Taliban were welcomed when they drove out Reagan’s freedom fighters. Another chapter in the triumph of Reaganite reactionary ultranationalism, worshipped today by those dedicated to defaming the honorable term “conservative.”
Basu is a distinguished advocate for women’s rights, including a long career with the UN during which she drafted the World Plan of Action for Women and the draft Programme for the Women’s Decade, 1975–85, adopted at the Mexico City Conference (1975) and the Copenhagen Conference (1980). But her words on Kabul under Russian occupation were not welcome in the United States. Her 1988 report was submitted to the Washington Post, New York Times, and Ms. magazine, but rejected.79 Also rejected were Basu’s recommendation of practical steps that the West, particularly the United States, could take to protect women’s rights.
Highly relevant in this connection is the testimony of the remarkable young Afghan woman Malalai Joya, who has spoken out with incredible courage against the torturers of the Afghan people: the Soviet invaders; the Islamic fundamentalists unleashed by Reagan and the Pakistani intelligence agencies; the medieval Taliban fanatics trained in the U.S./Saudibacked madrassas established by Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq; and finally the U.S. forces and their NATO subordinates who restored the rule of the warlords and are now themselves killing and destroying in the name of “liberation” and women’s rights. The United States lost little time in demonstrating that the fine words of Colin Powell and others about protecting women’s rights were cynical farce, Joya observes. “It was obvious from the very first days that the United States had compromised the rights of Afghan women by supporting some of the worst enemies of women that our country had ever seen,” as she relates in painful detail.80
After having been expelled from the “house of warlords” called the Parliament for denouncing the corruption and crimes of the warlord rulers, Joya lives in hiding, moving secretly from place to place, protected by bodyguards and a wide network of supporters. But she continues, relentlessly, to reveal ongoing atrocities from all sides and to call for democracy and justice. In her powerful 2009 memoir and commentary, she writes that “the situation in Afghanistan is getting progressively worse,” not just for women but for all Afghans, “caught between two enemies—the Taliban on one side and the U.S./NATO forces and their warlord friends on the other.” What Afghans really need is not landmines, bullets, and bombs, but “an invasion of hospitals, clinics and schools for boys and girls.” Whatever hope Obama might have aroused at first, his “military build-up will only bring more suffering and death to innocent civilians,” and more violence and corruption by his warlord associates. Liberation will not be brought by outsiders, even if they were to try: “These values must be fought for and won by the people themselves. They can only grow and flourish when they are planted by the people in their own soil and watered by their own blood and tears,” ideas with a distinguished pedigree in the West but drowned in imperial greed and arrogance.
Apart from the record of her own life and work, perhaps the most captivating part of her powerful memoir, and surely the most uplifting, is the account of how supporters rallied to her side, braving terror and violence, including many women “protesting with empty hands,” evidence that “we are not only victims, and that women have the power to make changes in their lives and in their country.”
Joya also has advice for the West. “The very first thing that the international community must do is to reject the United-States led war.” The next task is to “send real humanitarian aid,” most importantly to the “many great, small projects run by democratically minded Afghans,” which are almost never reached by Western funds. Then to “put an end to the rule of the warlords” and “withdraw all foreign troops.” Joya feels confident, based on her own rich experience and Afghan history prior to the last terrible decades, that “if foreign countries stop meddling in Afghanistan and if we are left free from occupation, then a strong progressive and democratic force will emerge,” Afghanistan may recover the path to progress that was brutally reversed by foreign intervention, and may join Latin Americans and others who are escaping from imperial domination and taking steps toward progressive change.
Joya has won many prestigious awards for her impressive work. None will compare in value to careful attention to her eloquent words.
Also highly relevant, from a different point of view, are the investigations by Nikolai Lanine, a former soldier in the Russian army in Afghanistan, bringing out striking comparisons between Russian commentary during the occupation and that of their NATO successors today81—a topic that in general merits careful study.
Specialists on the region urge that U.S. strategy should shift from more troops and attacks in Pakistan to a “diplomatic grand bargain—forging compromise with insurgents while addressing an array of regional rivalries and insecurities.”82 They warn that the current military focus “and the attendant terrorism” might lead to the collapse of nuclear-armed Pakistan, with grave consequences. They urge the Obama administration “to put an end to the increasingly destructive dynamics of the Great Game in the region” through negotiations that recognize the interests of the concerned parties within Afghanistan as well as Pakistan and Iran, but also India, China, and Russia, who “have reservations about a NATO base within their spheres of influence” and concerns about the threats “posed by the United States and NATO” as well as by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The immediate goal should be “lowering the level of violence in the region and moving the global community toward genuine agreement on the long-term goals,” thus allowing Afghans to confront their internal problems in relative peace. The then-incoming U.S. president must put an end to “Washington’s keenness for ‘victory’ as the solution to all problems, and the United States’ reluctance to involve competitors, opponents, or enemies in diplomacy.”
It appears that there may be feasible alternatives to escalation of the cycle of violence, but there was little hint of such possibilities in the electoral campaign or political commentary. Afghanistan and Pakistan did not even appear among foreign policy issues on the Obama campaign’s website.
Iran, in contrast, figured prominently on the campaign website—though not of course as compared with effusive support for Israel; Palestinians remained unmentioned, apart from a vague reference to a two-state settlement of some unspecified kind. For Iran, Obama called for tough direct diplomacy “without preconditions” in order “to pressure Iran directly to change their troubling behavior,” namely pursuing a nuclear program and supporting terrorism (presumably referring to support for Hamas and Hezbollah, “terrorists” in U.S. doctrine not because of their crimes—others not so designated have much worse records—but because they resist U.S.-backed aggression and violence). If Iran abandons its troubling behavior, the United States might move toward normal diplomatic and economic relations, Obama proposed, but “if Iran continues its troubling behavior, we will step up our economic pressure and political isolation.” And as Obama informed the Israeli lobby AIPAC, “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” repeatedly stressing “everything”—up to nuclear war, if he meant what he said.83
Furthermore, Obama proceeded, he will strengthen the NPT “so that countries like North Korea and Iran that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions.” He made no mention of the conclusion of U.S. intelligence that Iran had not had a weapons program for five years, unlike U.S. allies Israel, Pakistan, and India, the three countries that maintain extensive nuclear weapons programs (with direct U.S. support), all unmentioned as well. We have already discussed their current defiance of the Security Council and the IAEA, with Obama’s full support.
The final mention of Iran on the website is in the context of Obama’s strong support for Israel’s “Right to Self Defense” and its “right to protect its citizens.” This commitment Obama demonstrated by recalling his cosponsorship of “a Senate resolution against Iran and Syria’s involvement in the war, and insisting that Israel should not be pressured into a ceasefire that did not deal with the threat of Hezbollah missiles.” The reference is to Israel’s U.S.-backed invasion of Lebanon in 2006, with pretexts that are hardly credible in light of Israel’s regular practices of kidnapping, hijacking, and internment in secret prisons, as already discussed.84
The invasion that Obama supported so enthusiastically, Israel’s fifth, killed over one thousand Lebanese and once again destroyed much of southern Lebanon as well as parts of Beirut.
This is the sole mention of Lebanon among foreign policy issues on Obama’s campaign website. Evidently, Lebanon has no right of self-defense. In fact who could possibly have a right of self-defense against the United States or its clients?
While ignored as irrelevant to policy formation, American public opinion at the time was close to that of serious analysts and also to world opinion. As already discussed, large majorities opposed threats against Iran, thus rejecting the Bush-Obama position that the United States must be an outlaw state, violating the UN Charter, which bars the threat of force. The public also joined the majority of the world’s states in endorsing Iran’s right, as a signer of the NPT, to enrich uranium for nuclear energy (the position endorsed also by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Kissinger, and others when Iran was ruled by the tyrant imposed by U.S.-UK subversion). Most important, the public favors establishment of a nuclear weapons–free zone in the Middle East, which would mitigate and perhaps eliminate this highly threatening issue—a plan to which the U.S.-UK have a particularly strong commitment, as already discussed.85
Such observations as these suggest an interesting thought experiment. What would be the content of the “Obama brand” if the public were to become “participants” rather than mere “spectators in action”? It is an experiment well worth undertaking, not just in this case, and there is some reason to suppose that the results might point the way to a saner and more decent world.