Other people’s kids

December 1, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International | Leave a comment

As President Obama prepares to explain why an extra 30,000 American service personnel are needed in Afghanistan, it’s probably wise to reacquaint ourselves with some of the young men he’s ordering to save the country from ruin. David Wood has met a few of them in his time:

They are tough, boisterous and mostly likable. They are offered enormous responsibility, which most of them seize with an eagerness that would catch the attention of anyone who has raised teenagers. I forget sometimes just how young they are. A few years ago, I was lazing in the dust with a bunch of Marines during a break in training. Already combat veterans, they were about to deploy back to Iraq. They’d been practicing getting ambushed and killing the ambushers, and now they were chatting about computer games.

“Hey, did’ja ever get ‘Gears of War?’ ” asked Louis Duran, 19

“Nah, I was gonna,” said his buddy, Steven Aspling, 20, “but my Mom wouldn’t let me.”

I’m sure the President’s speech this evening will be a sombre occasion, filled with poetic flourishes about freedom, American bravery and foreboding about the costs of failure. I’m sure we’ll hear the requisite warnings about what might happen if terrorism flourishes in Afghanistan, but little mention about the terrorism which already flourishes in countries we don’t occupy, like Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen & Indonesia. I’m sure we’ll be reminded that the battle will be hard, that success isn’t inevitable, and that the cost will include yet more ‘tough, boisterous and likable’ young American lives.

What we probably won’t hear is why we should continue to lend legitimacy to an illegitimate government, or how stability can be achieved throughout the country when the cancer of corruption has spread throughout its capital. The calamity which was Afghanistan’s recent election still hasn’t been properly addressed by the Obama administration, its impact on security still hasn’t been properly considered, and its effect on NATO’s mission has never been fully absorbed.

None of this means the President’s policy is doomed to failure, but it does demonstrate that the obstacles to success in Afghanistan are quite luminously clear, and any attempt to articulate a strategy without recognising this does a grave injustice to the young men & women this President commands.

They don’t need hope, Mr President. They need truth.

How Soon Is Now? – Obama & Gay Rights

July 18, 2009 at 8:03 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, Gay Rights, U.S. Politics | 5 Comments

A few days ago, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the NAACP , Barack Obama stood before a room packed with African American supporters and reflected on how far the civil rights movement – and the country as a whole – had come in such a short century:

From the beginning, these founders understood how change would come — just as King and all the civil rights giants did later. They understood that unjust laws needed to be overturned; that legislation needed to be passed; and that Presidents needed to be pressured into action. They knew that the stain of slavery and the sin of segregation had to be lifted in the courtroom, and in the legislature, and in the hearts and the minds of Americans. They also knew that here, in America, change would have to come from the people.

For anyone who has followed the President’s public rhetoric over the past few years, all of this will sound very familiar. His theory of change, as enunciated in town halls and stadiums, campaign stumps and churches, is one of communities banding together, organising and, with one voice, demanding change from their elected officials. It’s a theory which envisages people as the drivers of change, and reduces government to the role of facilitator, merely acceding to the clamour of its citizens. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a vision of change which is compelling and often true – but, as recent events have shown, not without its flaws.

A little later in the speech, the President reminded his audience that the NAACP’s mission to overcome prejudice was far from over. Whilst America had taken the momentous step of electing a black President, the pain of discrimination was still felt by African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and by “our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.” Very true, but as he spoke those words, Obama must’ve known that he is now complicit in the kind of discrimation he’d spent much of his life working against.

As the head of a federal government which bans gays from serving in the military and denies them the right to marry, it is now Barack Obama who is involved in denying LBGT people the same rights as their heterosexual friends and upholding – however reluctantly – the last form of state-sanctioned discrimination. Whilst the President promised to repeal both injustices during the campaign, gay rights activists have been frustrated by the lack of legislative action and concerned that the White House does not consider gay equality to be any sort of priority.

In fact, you could argue that his administration has done more to extend discrimination against homosexuals than he’s done to end it. When the Defense of Marriage Act was challenged in the courts, the Obama Justice Department filed a brief not only defending the legislation, but invoking incest and the marrying of children in doing so. On top of this, officers are still discharged from the military for the ‘crime’ of being gay: in May, an Arab translator was dismissed after his sexuality was revealed, depriving the country of an able linguist at a time when there aren’t enough people who can do that job. With these things in mind, even some of Obama’s strongest supporters have been questioning his commitment and wondering whether the LBGT community has been taken for a ride yet again.

In this context of growing dismay, journalist Rex Wockner interviewed Steve Hildebrand – Obama’s deputy campaign director, who has also advised the President on gay issues and recently met him to convey the concerns of activists. Hildebrand said that Obama was unhappy with the way the defense of DOMA was handled and restated his commitment to fulfilling all the promises he made on the campaign. He expressed confidence that the President would stay true to his word, but was being painstakingly methodical in trying to bring it about:

He has to move the minds of the public, he has to move the minds of Congress and he has to move the minds of military leaders. And once that happens, and the ducks are in a row, I believe he can successfully move forward for repeal, something that he feels very strongly about and something that he spoke very passionately about.

So what might these events reveal about the theory of change which Barack Obama espoused from the first day of his campaign for president? Well, on the one hand, the gay rights movement is an example of a group which has already banded together, already organised, already contributed a great deal to American political life, and yet still can’t get their few simple wishes granted – even under the most liberal president of modern times. Does that not reveal the limits – maybe even the futility – of Obama’s vision of grassroots political campaigning?

In some ways, perhaps, but I think that if you turn your gaze away from Washington, you’d find a much healthier picture. For one, take a look at the states already recognising same sex marriage or civil unions. In each state where this was achieved, there needed to be grassroots support, organisation, campaigning and commitment, and that’s only possible when ordinary people give up their time to help others. Even in places where activists have come up short, such as Prop 8 in California, the arguments for marriage equality have now been embedded within that state’s political rhetoric, and the passing of time only makes it likelier that they’ll win in the end.

On top of this, there should be some solace or inspiration to be found in the extraordinary dedication & bravery shown by people from a bygone era. Even a superficial reading of American political history will tell you that it wasn’t enough to simply rid racial discrimination from the statute books; it had to be ended in the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans. Likewise, whilst the President can and should repeal legislation aimed at discriminating against gays, that alone won’t end discrimination in the minds of their fellow citizens. The only way you can do that is by waging a permanent campaign, by making the political seem personal and by slowly helping shape communities into the change you want to see.

None of which should let President Obama off the hook. When he told his supporters that their ‘moment is now‘, his words spoke not just of the need for change or the opportunity for change, but the necessity and urgency of change. For that reason, all those who shared the big dreams he sold on that memorable campaign should stay restless, impatient, loud and determined to help him achieve what he promised. The gay community, which has already waited far too long for that elusive change to arrive, must not be let down again.

Almost crimes

May 14, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

obamacheney2 copy

There’s an episode of The West Wing where an Air Force One filled with figures from a fictitious past flies to the funeral of a former President. In the background is a Middle East which is once more a powder keg of political turmoil, and in the lulls between each earnest, highly-charged debate, Jed Bartlett’s staff glance at the Kissingeresque ex-statesmen around them and rue the role they played in shaping the ruinous, explosive politics of the region.

Meanwhile, Bartlett has a difficult decision to make: he can either opt for a radical, risky change in foreign policy which carries countless unknown consequences, or he can stick to convention and opt for a safe, formulaic retread of the Presidents who preceded him. He opts for the latter, and in a moment tinged with as much resignation as honesty, tells Toby Ziegler: “when we were elected, I really thought we were going to own the place — do it differently, better. Now I realize the men on this plane are the only others who have been there before — who really know.”

The present-day relevance of that scene shouldn’t be lost on Democrats who, throughout the powerlessness of the Bush era, saw in The West Wing a dream of how they could do things differently; how they might do things better. Like his fictional counterpart, Barack Obama embodied the highest hopes of his liberal supporters, distilled their idealism into bumper sticker slogans and sold a rhetoric of change which promised a clean break with the failures of the past. But barely 100 days in to his term in office, a growing number of his supporters are seeing a President so straightjacketed by the actions of his predecessor that he’s even continuing those policies he once renounced.

On its own, the decision to reverse a promise to release photographic evidence of detainee abuse could’ve been seen as just a mild mis-step on America’s road to accounting for the crimes of the Bush era. But when taken in the context of his administration’s mimicry of Bush’s line on secrecy, the revival of military trials at Guantanamo Bay, the promise of immunity for torturers and the flagrant bullying of the British state over Binyam Mohamed, we see not a few isolated incidents, but a concerted effort by the White House to control and restrict what the public is permitted to know about the torture committed in their name.

There are, of course, rational explanations for all of these decisions: the wish to avoid seeing the CIA descend into acrimony & recriminations; the desire to avoid inflaming anti-Americanism when the country is trying to rebuild its image; the need to protect the troops from having the same torture inflicted upon them that we know was inflicted on America’s detainees; the desire to insulate Obama’s Presidency from the warfare which would erupt if it was to investigate and prosecute figures from the Bush administration.

However reasonable these excuses may sound when they’re made by Democrats, and however much we might understand that pragmatism is often necessary, it remains true that each of these excuses could’ve been (and were) made during the eight inglorious years of Republican rule. Put another way; had it been a President McCain making these decisions, Democratic activists would already be demanding impeachment.

None of this is to detract from the good progress being made in his adminstration’s domestic policy, nor the promising – if patchy – beginnings of his general foreign policy. We also should refrain from seeing these incidents as proof that Obama will spend his term obstructing the pursuit of justice; given the scale of the furore and the fact that his administration has allowed some openness, it’s still quite possible that proper public investigations will be carried out during the next 3 1/2 years.


But what these obstructions do show is that opponents of torture – especially among those who supported him – can no longer afford to give his administration the benefit of the doubt. They must decry every attempt at secrecy, denounce every delay and immerse the White House in such a sustained wall of sound that full accountability becomes the only politically sensible course of action.

For a demonstration of why it’s so important to hound the administration, one only need glance at the snarling figure of Dick Cheney. The former Vice President – whose office is strongly implicated in allowing the abuses we know about – has granted a startling number of interviews since his supposed retirement, and all have been in staunch support of his administration’s actions. At the simplest, most superficial level, Cheney is trying to save himself from prosecution by mounting an early and public defense, but he is also up to something with far greater long-term consequences. By continuing to proclaim the advantages of ‘harsh interrogation’, Cheney is trying to frame torture not as a matter of Right & Wrong, but as a policy argument where the choice isn’t between what is ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’, but what what works to secure America’s safety.

If President Obama’s term ends without a full public inquiry, without a single investigation of war crimes or prosecution for acts of torture, Cheney will have won the argument & given his successors a precedent to allow future abuses. For if he leaves office without successfully pursuing justice, Obama will have helped relegate torture to an ‘almost crime’; a breach of decorum which is too ugly to be admitted to, but not serious enough to prevent. And something which won’t ever be prosecuted again.

And if any of that ever came to pass, Cheney’s last act in public life would’ve been one final, lasting victory over the President who promised change and the public who voted for it. For the sake of America’s values, its future and its traditions, he cannot be allowed to win.

The Torture Memos

April 17, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International, Terrorism, U.S. Politics | 2 Comments


From the moment Barack Obama became President, there was much debate inside his party over how the new administration should investigate and prosecute any crimes committed by his predecessor. Of the two most widely-discussed proposals, liberal activists argued for a Special Prosecutor to take action against officials at all levels of the government, from CIA interrogators who conducted torture to anyone in the White House or Justice Department who may have sanctioned it. Others have embraced Sen. Patrick Leahy’s idea of establishing a bi-partisan ‘Truth Commission’ which would try to lay out the facts as impartially as possible, but with the primary aim of establishing truth rather than prosecuting crime.

Thus far, neither of these proposals have materialised, but following the release of another round of DoJ ‘torture memos’, the case for an independent inquiry becomes much stronger – as does the conflict between the pursuit of truth and the search for justice.

The four memos released by the Department of Justice are at once shocking and unsurprising. They shock not just because they provide further evidence of the depths the Bush administration sunk to, but because of their clinical, legalistic, matter-of-fact descriptions of depravity. That said, the steady drip-drip-drip of leaked stories and accusations from Guantanamo detainees have already prepared us for much of what is contained in these documents, and to that end, they only serve to confirm what many people suspected.

But what will keep this story running for months – maybe years – to come are the important questions these documents dare us to ask. As Spencer Ackerman writes:

What the memos leave unclear is how much the CIA jumped into the torture game and how much the Bush administration pushed it. The memos are written to be responsive to the CIA lawyer — the malefactor going to the priest to give his work absolution. They’re written to guide the interrogators. But they leave unclear — as does most of the narrative so far — who’s compelling Rizzo in the CIA counsel’s office to keep pushing for more. The senior leadership of the agency? The heads of its directorate of operations, which overseas the interrogators? The Counterterrorist Center leaders? Without this information, we don’t have a clear sense of moral culpability for the torture. And then we’ll need to know what kind of pressure they were under from the Bush administration. Who was pressured? Who was eager to comply? Who resisted? Who pressed his or her colleagues into acquiescence or insubordination? All of these questions are related but separate to the question of legal culpability.

Reacting to the release of the memos, President Obama argued that this is a “time for reflection, not retribution”, and warned against ‘spending our time and energy laying blame for the past’. A nice sentiment, perhaps, but he must surely know that by releasing these memos, the call for more information, for investigations and for the commencement of criminal prosecutions is becoming irresistible. According to Glenn Greenwald, there is clearly enough evidence already in the public domain to prosecute several individuals for war crimes, and that’s without anything like the kind of far-reaching investigation which is now being demanded.

But the Obama administration remains reluctant to talk about prosecutions, and for a number of reasons. First, I think the (admittedly rather weak) Nuremberg Defense reflects a desire to (a) avoid embroiling a department which should be fighting terrorism in accrimony & accusations, and (b) to avoid a repeat of the situation where someone like Lynndie England was made a scapegoat for abuses which went much higher up the chain of command. Second, the ultimate responsibility for sanctioning these acts of torture looks likely to rest on some very senior figures in the CIA, the Justice Department, and possibly the White House itself, and with that comes the risk of engulfing the Obama administration in the kind of highly-charged partisanship not seen since Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

By releasing these memos, I think the Obama administration is attempting to reveal the truth of America’s torture regime whilst (for now, at least) resisting the call for justice. I can’t see how this will succeed in the long run; these revelations have only prompted calls for more information, and as Guantanamo Bay begins to close down and more inmates tell their stories, the administration will be forced to reveal even more about what the prisoners were subjected to – and who was ultimately responsible. The steady trickle of horror stories about the Bush administration’s brutality hasn’t stopped yet, and those responsible may yet drown in it.

Nut of the week

February 22, 2009 at 6:38 pm | Posted in Barack Obama | 4 Comments

Okay, so it isn’t exactly news that Alan Keyes is clinging onto reality by his fingernails, and our hours are much better spent pointing and laughing rather than frothing with outrage, but this quite mesmerising rant does raise a fairly serious question: at what point do your efforts to villify your political opponents cross the looney bin threshold and become plain, unvarnished incitement? Keyes certainly treads a very thin line here: the talk of Obama proving himself to be a radical communist, of beginning the destruction of America, of not even being a real American, of military officers wanting to disobey their Commander-in-Chief, and “we are either going to stop him or the United States of America is going to cease to exist.” All of this stuff is straight out of the rhetorical playbook of the far-right, and whilst it might be a rather extreme example of Obamanoia from a man who’s a walking joke even in some Republican circles, it also wouldn’t sound out of place on Stormfront.

Just as an aside, does anyone care to guess what Keyes did for a living before he morphed into a wandering rant-merchant and would-be theocrat? Yep, he was a diplomat. It’s a wonder we’re all still alive.

A deal with the devil

February 8, 2009 at 7:58 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International | 3 Comments

It’s funny the kinds of people you’ll have to make nice with if you want to spread freedom overseas…

Military officials say the U.S. is considering resuming military cooperation with hard-line Uzbekistan to help get troops or supplies into Afghanistan.

Such considerations come as a surprise because diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Uzbekistan are rocky at best. The Uzbeks expelled the U.S. from a base on its soil in 2005, and the two nations have traded accusations ever since.

But U.S. officials say the Central Asian nation has emerged as one potential alternative now that the future of a key U.S. air base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan is uncertain. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

So right now, you’re thinking “hey, isn’t that the same Uzbekistan which has a human rights record even Saddam Hussein could admire?” Oh, yes:

Most discussions of human rights in the region begin with Uzbekistan, for good reason. It is one of the worst human rights offenders on the planet. Torture is systemic, there is widespread harassment and persecution of minority groups, and corruption is rampant. In its Freedom in the World index, Freedom House ranks the country near Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe — higher than North Korea, but not by much.

Tom Bissell vividly described pre-War on Terror Uzbekistan in his 2003 memoir, “Chasing the Sea.” Over six weeks, he explored a country whose oppressive police force is driven by bribery, and whose petty and venal dictator uses Islamic terrorism to justify torture, even while actual Islamic terrorists gather just outside the border. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Uzbeki people barely manage to scrape by, sinking further into abject poverty as forced labor gangs bleed fertile cotton fields into desert. A friend recently finished a weeks-long research trip to Tashkent and described the human rights situation in much the same way: corrupt regular police and an oppressive secret police force that is trained in the finest tradition of the KGB, and not always kept on a leash.


In this environment, torture is widespread and fairly common. Torture’s prevalence is partly driven by the government’s extreme opacity. High-level officials change positions with no outside warning or context on a regular basis. Combined with a lack of institutionalized policies, this creates interlocking and competing interests that are often expressed in the form of oppression. The courts, for example, face a tug-of-war between expediting cases and achieving justice — and justice almost always loses. (The police are very good at “extracting” confessions.) It is, however, unclear whether torture is ordered from the top down and imposed nationwide. There is little evidence that torture is a mandated state policy.

That raises a very uncomfortable question for Western policymakers, namely whether Europe’s and America’s constant scolding over human rights make the situation better, or worse. The diplomatic approach of lecturing high-level bureaucrats in Tashkent on the “problem” of justice fails to address the institutional and local reasons behind the use of torture.

Meanwhile, the Uzbek government seems to measure “justice” in terms of the number of people convicted. Thus, the token measures these officials put into place in response to Western pressure can have the countervailing effect of institutionalizing torture, as decrees calling for “more justice” are met by more torture. This dilemma was proven somewhat moot when Uzbekistan unceremoniously revoked American access rights to the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in southern Uzbekistan in 2005, after American officials complained loudly of the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the city of Andijon. Despite the international uproar, Uzbekistan’s behavior has remained relatively unchanged — even during the current rapprochement, which involves limited U.S. use of the Termez border crossing to transport supplies for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Publicly, no U.S. official has admitted anything changed in the relationship.

So why on earth would the new administration want an air base in a country which is only slightly more pleasant to live in than North Korea? The answer is that if the U.S. and NATO want to claim victory in its costly, bloody and possibly unwinnable war in Afghanistan, it can only do that with supply lines and logistical support in Central Asia.

Having read a little too much into that message of Change!, last week, Kyrgyzstan announced that it was planning to close its Manas Air Base, which the coalition has relied on for refuelling missions, medical support and as a point of transit for personnel. Now that the Kyrgyzstan government – apparently pushed by the Kremlin – has withdrawn its services, the U.S. is forced to find another country in the region capable of servicing Afghanistan.

But the cost of choosing Uzbekistan is the extent to which it’ll compromise the Obama administration’s commitment to human rights. The Uzbeks revoked America’s access in 2005 when the Bush administration got a little testy over its massacres; if the new administration won the right to return, it’d have to become uncomfortably mute about the human rights abuses happening under their noses. It’s a deal with the devil if ever there was one.

Obamafying Israel

February 5, 2009 at 8:44 am | Posted in Barack Obama, International | Leave a comment

Haaretz has a pretty humerous take on how the Israeli elections are seeing the most unlikely parties adopting the President’s campaign platitudes of Hope! and Change!

Gone are geometrically-sound Stars of David of royal blue on white. This election’s banners seems to all be cut from the same cloth, with identical sky blue Stars of David billowing as if thrust upon the winds of change, with headshots of party leaders looking off pensively, full of hope, floating out of the cotton ball backdrop like old friends in a fever dream.

Even the right-wing National Union party has adopted the same robin’s egg blue Stars of David and fuzzy white backdrop motif, with Aryeh “MK least-like Obama” Eldad gazing westward off camera, promising a return to Zionism, return being a sort of change, in a way, maybe.

The most obviously mimicked and plagiarized aspect of the Obama tale has been the appropriation of the “Yes, we can” slogan so central to BHO’s campaign. Starting months ago, the Shas party was the first and most blatant to claim the slogan, plastering buses across the country with the Shas logo and “Yes, we can!” in Hebrew.

This campaign was presumably driven by the assumption that when people think of “Hope” and “change” and groundbreaking presidential campaigns, they think of the inclusiveness and progressiveness of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party, the party that brought you “gays cause Earthquakes” and “secular IDF soldiers are killed” because they aren’t observant.

Yeah, Obama possibly should’ve pointed out during the campaign that there is some change you can’t believe in.

The big let down?

February 3, 2009 at 11:47 am | Posted in Barack Obama | 2 Comments

For someone who likes to spend his time subjecting the ‘dead tree press’ to much scrutiny & scorn, you’d think Guido would be the last blogger to succumb to crappy reporting. Not today, folks:

The Guardianistas will have to revert to anti-Americanism, the Messiah is a very naughty boy. Sure he is closing Gitmo, but he isn’t going soft on the War on Terror the Networks of Terror Inducers. Fresh from signing the Executive Order barring former lobbyists from joining his Administration, he exempted a Raytheon defence contractor lobbyist, allowing William Lynn to become Deputy Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon – his old customer base. Obama has signed a few Executive Orders which, it is widely reported in the U.S. press, authorise and expand on the policy of extra-ordinary rendition.

Well, if the globe’s Guardianistas really do visit his establishment seeking Absolute Truth, I guess they’re all either choking on their bruschettas or assuming the foetal position & muttering “that’s not change we can believe in”. If, on the other hand, these Guardianistas happen to enjoy reading, they might’ve come across this, this, this or this. Or, if the written word’s a bit too unwieldy, they might’ve found this helpful little video. Here’s Harpers’ Scott Horton, who knows a thing or two about this kind of thing:

The Los Angeles Times just got punked. Its description of the European Parliament’s report is not accurate. (Point of disclosure: I served as an expert witness in hearings leading to the report.) But that’s the least of its problems. It misses the difference between the renditions program, which has been around since the Bush 41 Administration at least (and arguably in some form even in the Reagan Administration) and the extraordinary renditions program which was introduced by Bush 43 and clearly shut down under an executive order issued by President Obama in his first week.


In the course of the last week we’ve seen a steady stream of efforts designed to show that Obama is continuing the counterterrorism programs that he previously labeled as abusive and promised to shut down. These stories are regularly sourced to unnamed current or former CIA officials and have largely run in right-wing media outlets. However, now we see that even the Los Angeles Times can be taken for a ride.

And so the quest to find Obama’s Great Liberal Betrayal goes on. For some people, the wait is proving too much to bear.

A good start

January 21, 2009 at 8:54 pm | Posted in Barack Obama | Leave a comment

Marc Lynch on how the inauguration went down in the Arab world:

Obama’s inauguration dominated the front pages of Arab newspapers, editorials ranged from effusive to cautiously welcoming. Tellingly, many of the papers (including the Saudi pan-Arab paper al-Hayat) led with his promise to begin responsibly withdrawing from Iraq — clearly words that the Arab observers were keenly looking to hear. Al-Jazeera reported that 38 Islamic figures (including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Rashed Ghannouchi, and other prominent personalities) offered an immediate response to his invitation to a new way of interaction between the U.S. and the Islamic world.  Even al-Quds al-Arabi, a newspaper staunchly opposed to U.S. foreign policy, allowed that Obama’s inauguration demonstrates that for all of America’s flaws and hypocrisies, democracy remains the best form of government.

Deeds must follow the words, for any of this to matter — skepticism is high and resentments running hot over Gaza.  During the seemingly endless period of “one president at a time,” Arab observers pounced on every piece of evidence no matter how slim to prove that nothing would really change.  It will take some real effort to begin to demonstrate the credibility and sincerity of this new way forward.   But this is a good start.

There’s still hope for politics

January 20, 2009 at 11:26 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

Throughout our lives, we learn that whenever we think or talk or write about politics, it’s a mistake to succumb to optimism. We learn not to set our hopes too high; not to trust too easily; not to rush into the embrace of some silver-tongued chancer just because (s)he claims to share our values. We learn all about false dawns, the self-serving instincts of politicians and their tendency to tell us only the most convenient truths.

We learn these things through bitter experience. Our histories are filled with opportunities lost, hopes unfulfilled and promises broken. Each time a leader fails to meet the high standards they’d set, good people who’d shown enough faith to cast a vote become a little more tired, more cynical, and more inclined to withdraw or abstain from those causes they once held dear.

But whilst there are days which cause us to wonder what on earth led us into such delusions of hope, so too are there times when you could wonder whether we’re not hopeful enough.

After Barack Obama’s inaugural speech as President of the United States, there was a benediction by Joseph Lowery. An icon of the civil rights struggle, Reverend Lowery led the march from Selma to Montgomery demanding the right for black people to vote, and has remained a voice for equality ever since. Of all the moments – both symbolic and substantive – from this day, I’m not sure any can top the image of this 87-year-old man – who risked his life in the peaceful persuit of freedom – standing before a monument built by slaves and offering a prayer for America’s first black President.

We know, of course, that the progress towards social justice in the past 40 years has been too slow, partial and incomplete. We know that Obama’s potential to hasten the pace of change is as limited as his potential to disappoint is limitless. And we know that despite his best efforts, there will still be much left undone when he leaves office.

But whilst we can accept all of that as true, we should also remember that everything which has been achieved was done in spite of strong opposition along the way. What if George Wallace had succeeded in stamping down the insurrection in Selma? What if John F. Kennedy had lost that most narrow of elections? What if Lyndon Johnson had failed to find enough votes to pass the Civil Rights Act? Or the Voting Rights Act?

The past 24 hours have been the culmination of a history which is filled with small victories won in spite of great resistance – victories which were only achieved through the force and nagging persistence of activism. Had Kennedy lost to Nixon, had the Civil Rights Act failed or the murderous menace of the Klan managed to scare ordinary Americans out of supporting their black brothers and sisters, the United States would be waiting a lot longer to see this day arrive. Instead, through the hard work and high hopes of millions, Reverend Lowery and his comrades have finally completed their long march from Selma to Washington and witnessed that most self-evident of truths being finally, conclusively affirmed.

If only for a few fleeting days of celebration, perhaps that’s enough to give people hope that politics – for all its frustrations, failures and imperfections – can still be a worthwhile, noble pursuit.

In search of a British foreign policy

January 15, 2009 at 11:35 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, British Politics, International, New Labour | 1 Comment


Coming just five days before the next President is sworn-in, David Miliband’s sudden recalibration of British foreign policy has been widely – and rightly – interpreted as a make-over to match the more refined tastes of the Obama administration. By abandoning the brutish, unloved ‘war on terror’ and embracing complexity, pragmatism and an acceptance that our enemies can’t be thwarted by force alone, Miliband’s Guardian piece bore a striking resemblance to the language of ‘smart power’ that Hillary Clinton promised in her appearance before the Senate.

However, the question of whether or not this is ‘change you can believe in’ is up for debate. Scribo scribe James Hooper declares himself ‘reassured’ and notes that a foreign policy pinched from Barack Obama is still a huge improvement on eight years of Britain saying “I’m with stupid“. On the other hand, Claude at Hagley Road catches a whiff of opportunism and points out that this is the same man who spent years waving pom-poms behind his Prime Minister’s gallantly stupid war. Meanwhile, Aaron just wants to know: what the hell took you so long?

There are some good points in each of these posts, but what I think’s been missed about Miliband’s rather blatant fawning is that he seems to think that by mirroring the rhetoric of the incoming administration, Britain will be the same kind of sidekick to President Obama as Tony Blair was to President Bush. In my view, that seems unlikely.

Of course it’s in Britain and America’s interests to enjoy strong co-operation, but whilst the Bush administration could achieve its foreign policy objectives either by striking out alone (see: Kyoto treaty; Israel-Palestine) or feigning multilateralism (see: Iraq; ‘you forgot about Poland!’), Obama’s foreign policy brief is so vast that it will be more a case of ‘all hands at the pump’.

To help form a global response to the financial crisis, the climate crisis, the food crisis, the crisis in the Indian subcontinent, Zimbabwe, Sudan or the Middle East, the next President will need far more than a ‘coalition of the willing’. No, he needs a coalition of the unwilling, the reluctant, the haggled & cajoled. These most intractable problems will require the broadest of coalitions, and for that reason any hopes Miliband or Brown might’ve had of playing Alfred to Obama’s Bruce Wayne will surely be dashed.

Sure, Obama will need Britain’s input on various issues, but my guess is that he’ll seek that help in the context of our membership of the EU – a point David Cameron seems to have missed spectacularly when the two of them met in July. He won’t seek to use Britain as a likeminded dogsbody, but nor will he need to lean on our support like a crutch of legitimacy.

All of which should have been a sign that British foreign policy doesn’t need to sound like an exact replica of the US. Whatever you might say about his domestic agenda, the past months have shown that Brown (if not Miliband – yet) can be an influential figure on the world stage and the next President will neither ask nor thank him for giving up the stature of an experienced statesman to become some slavish sycophant.

President Obama will be completely relaxed about Britain persuing a British foreign policy, and if Miliband and Brown can begin to articulate what form that should take – and produce the action to back it up – then both our countries will be much better off.

Obama on Gaza

January 6, 2009 at 10:07 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International | Leave a comment

From Ben Smith:

Breaking his silence on the conflict in Gaza, the president-elect deplored the civilian casualties, which have been overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side, after a meeting with fiscal and economic advisors today.

“I’m very concerned with the conflict taking place there,” Obama said. “I’m monitoring the situation on a day to day basis.

“The loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern to me, and after January 20th I’ll have plenty to say about the issue.”

Obama said he was “not backing away at all from what I said during the campaign” and that “starting at the beginning of our administration, we’re going to engage effectively and consistently in trying to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.”

Obama’s emphasis on civilian casualties breaks slightly with the White House line, which has been to blame Hamas first.

There’s not much there, of course, and certainly nothing which could break the diplomatic constraints I wrote about earlier. Nonetheless, his statement is telling for what isn’t there; Obama doesn’t refer to the civilian deaths in the absract, nor does he seek to blame all those deaths on Hamas. Beyond that, the reassurance that his administration will “engage effectively and consistently” in trying to resolve the conflict should be a sign that he won’t allow situations like this to develop on his watch.

14 days to go.

Obama’s Silence

January 4, 2009 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International | 1 Comment

Even in the transition from running a campaign to governing a country, much is still expected of the not-yet-President Barack Obama. As Israeli tanks thunder into Gaza towards an outcome where the only certainty is the loss of yet more innocent life, the demands for Obama to publicly address the crisis get louder and more numerous, as do the interpretations of his silence. Is he implicitly condoning Israel’s actions? Is it a sign that he’s reluctant to criticise Israel until he’s in office? Or is it an example of what some critics have long thought to be a fence-straddling cautiousness that his soaring rhetoric manages to disguise as unifying leadership?

My hunch, which is based partly on observing his positions for the past two years and partly on the methods of the Clinton era, is that a President Obama would’ve supported limited, intelligence-based air assaults on known military targets, most probably Hamas’ rocket-launching sites. That would’ve been too hawkish for my liking, particularly as the civilian casualties involved would’ve been considerable and the chances of destroying Hamas’ rocket-launching capability from the air would’ve been slim.

However, given that Israel is seen throughout the Middle East as a proxy for American power, and remembering that the incoming administration needs ‘moderateArab states to deal with Iran and Iraq, I don’t think he would’ve allowed the air bombardment to go on as long as it has, and I’m reasonably certain that all but the briefest of ground incursions would’ve been forbidden.

So why hasn’t he said any of this, and instead left the world’s commentators desperately thumbing through the tea leaves of adviser David Axelrod’s vague appearance on Meet the Press? Well, for a start, the “one President at a time” rule might sound like a platitude, but it is also an undeniable fact. There is simply no equivalence between Obama’s condemnation of the terrorism in Bombay (which had no diplomatic consequences and where America couldn’t influence the outcome) or his statements on an economic recovery plan (which were essential to reassure panicked markets and dispirited consumers) and what is happening in the Gaza Strip.

The moment the President-elect makes a statement on an explosive ongoing conflict in which the U.S. is a major stakeholder, you essentially have the appearance of two Presidents: one a deeply unpopular lame duck who just happens to be squatting in the Oval Office, and the other his longed-for successor who’s making conflicting statements but has no authority to take action. Not only that, but the political capital he would’ve wasted creating a mini constitutional crisis would’ve been matched by the waste of spending it criticising Israeli leaders he’ll need to work with after the inauguration.

But beyond the practical impediments to Obama taking a role in this crisis, his silence reminds us of his broader criticism of Bush-era foreign policy. As Obama adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski points out in this interview, had the Bush administration been dedicated enough, had they thought and acted strategically enough and had they been more even-handed in their approach, this latest conflict could’ve been avoided. By acting as the ‘honest broker’ it has always purported to be, America could’ve at least prevented the conflict from escalating and pointed out to Israel that their actions would breathe life into a grasping, politically hobbled Hamas.

The problem is, the vast majority of this necessary, exhaustive work can only happen in private, takes years to build and a breadth of diplomatic talent to make it happen. From 20th January, Obama will have the opportunity – should he choose to take it – to make use of the power and influence and his disposal. But by speaking out now, not only will he fail to stop Israel’s attacks, but he’ll most likely compromise his ability to do so in the future.

Policy vs personality

December 19, 2008 at 11:12 am | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

Over at Gristmill, there’s a slighly folorn post by Sharon Astyk on Barack Obama’s selection of Tom Vilsack – the former Governor of Iowa and a man politically indebted to the entrenched interests of agribusiness – as his Secretary of Agriculture. For Astyk, this appointment follows the same dispiritingly changeless trajectory as the appointments of Hillary Clinton, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Robert Gates:

In order to be the president many of us hoped Obama would be, he would have to be willing to betray many of the people who brought him and dismiss their hopes and investments in his future. This is no easy feat for anyone, and it is probably less so for someone who came so far, so fast, with the hand of so many.

But presidents are known by the company they keep — the reality is that no man can supervise all the elements of the nation alone — they depend enormously on appointees. He will rely on reports and summaries from those he appoints, and those summaries will be given by men whose viewpoints are already formed. Vilsack cannot but describe our food system through the lens of his prior investments, and this will be disastrous.


Obama has overwhelmingly chosen one, very narrow set of viewpoints — the viewpoints of people who have power now and to whom he is already indebted for his power. I don’t claim that there is no hope for Obama, but before he chose these people to surround him, there was hope that an ordinary man of integrity, hearing a range of viewpoints, might choose something different. Now, we have to imagine that Obama is an extraordinary man, one with the power to find unconventional paths to knowledge and the willingness to override the viewpoints in which he has invested himself.

I wrote in an earlier post that it’s mistaken to interpret Obama’s cabinet as marking a break from the policy content of his campaign, and I still think that’s the case. None of the appointments he’s made necessarily conflict with his campaign promises to reinvest in the country’s infrastructure, create ‘green jobs’, start taking firmer action on regulating & reducing carbon emissions and expanding health coverage to all Americans. Nor do they conflict with his pledge to raise the minimum wage, pass the Employee Free Choice Act, close Guantanamo, stop waterboarding, become more diplomatically engaged and begin a cautious withdrawal from Iraq. What’s more, I didn’t read online progressives campaign for anything beyond these core issues, which perhaps indicates they were too narrow in their focus and too indiscriminate in their support.

Policy will be the real litmus test of the Obama administration, and if he’s too timorous in chasing EFCA, if his environmental plans are too tepid or his economic rescue plans prioritise capital at the expense of labour, then those policies will reflect badly on both the people Obama appointed, and the President himself.

That said, I don’t think it’s unfair to conclude – as Astyck does here – that these appointments place greater pressure on Obama to be the driver of change. His Defense Secretary has been on the opposite side to Obama on nuclear disarmament. His Secretary of State has been on the opposite side to Obama on Iraq, relations with Cuba and the use of cluster munitions. His economic team is full of ghosts from an era where easy credit, low wages and the abandonment of effective regulation was thought to fuel long-term prosperity. With people like this, creating an administration which is markedly different from its predecessors will require a greater resolve from the President than if he were surrounded by outsiders with new, untested ideas.

Let’s not forget that Obama hasn’t renounced one of his general election pledges yet. If he does, then his choice of advisers will take some of the blame, and that will reflect badly on the President. But until then, and as awful as ‘wait and see’ is in an opinion-thirsty blogosphere, it’s still the most sensible advice I can give.

Netroots 2.0

December 5, 2008 at 6:41 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

In the aftermath of the US election, there was much speculation about what would happen to the supporters who had engaged, organised & evangelised through his official online community. Would the netroots machine his campaign had constructed just be allowed to wither on the vine, with sites like MyDD and DailyKos regaining their lost pre-emminence as the focal point of ‘netroots’ activity, or would he seek to keep those supporters energised by engaging them in a kind of permanent campaign the change?

I think the smart money was always on the latter, and there are signs that this is already beginning to materialise. Via Ezra Klein, the Washington Post reports that the incoming administration is already beginning to draw on the high-tech organising tools which helped him get elected in order to stoke support for an expansion of health care – perhaps the single most important progressive policy of the campaign.

Former senator Thomas A. Daschle, Obama’s point person on health care, launched an effort to create political momentum yesterday in a conference call with 1,000 invited supporters culled from 10,000 who had expressed interest in health issues, promising it would be the first of many opportunities for Americans to weigh in.

The health-care mobilization taking shape before Obama even takes office will include online videos, blogs and e-mail alerts as well as traditional public forums. Already, several thousand people have posted comments on health on the Obama transition Web site.

It is the first attempt by the Obama team to harness its vast and sophisticated grass-roots network to shape public policy. Although the president-elect is a long way from crafting actual legislation, he promised during the campaign to make the twin challenge of controlling health-care costs and expanding coverage a top priority in his first term.

Daschle, who is expected to become the next secretary of health and human services, is waging the outreach campaign by marrying old-fashioned Washington-style lobbying and cutting-edge social-networking technologies.

You should follow the link for some of the more technical details, but this move should prove a valuable resource for enacting Obama’s domestic policy agenda. The more progressive promises he made during the campaign, such as on health care, carbon emissions and green energy, will require more than just Democratic votes to pass through Congress. Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania & Ohio all went strongly for Obama in the last election, and since each of these states have a Republican Senator up for re-election in 2010, being able to point to an active and vocal support for the measures he’s proposing might be enough to win some of their votes.

One criticism you could make of this development, and it’s one that I think David Semple has made on a couple of occasions, is that what this amounts to is the Obama team leading the netroots, rather than the other way around. I think that’s true to an extent, and I think it would be troubling if the existing organising structures – which, prior to the last election, had some measure of independence –  became servile to the wishes of the White House and DNC.

Personally, I think there’s merit to having two ‘netroots’; one with the institutional influence and ability to engage up to 13 million people, and another with a greater degree of ideological firmness which is able to hold the administration’s feet to the fire when it’s falling short. Either way, it’ll be very interesting to see how it all develops.

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