This Commentary was written on January 19, 2009, the day before President Obama (my, now, those two words have a nice sound, don't they?) delivers his Inaugural Address. It is likely that you will be reading it after the event. By that time we will both know whether I got my wish(es) in whole, in part, or not at all. But here they are, and here's hoping.
A couple of weeks ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a questionnaire to its contributors (of which, I must admit, I am one). It asked for one's top pick for the must-deal-with problems. The list consisted of the usual suspects, beginning with what can be called "The Five 'E's' " (with liberties taken): Economic stimulus, Education, Environment, Ealth Care, and Eraq (well some people do pronounce it that way), as well as Tax Reform (?!) and somewhere on the list "national defense/security." My answer, had I answered, would have been "None of the above." One will likely hear some version or another of the list above in Pres. Obama's address. But I am really hoping, oh boy am I hoping, that some significant percentage of the time in what will, we are told, be a relatively short speech (20 minutes or so, so we have been told) will be devoted to the Big "C:" the Constitution, and the restoration of Constitutional Democracy (C.D.) in the United States.
Many observers on the Left have been concerned with signals coming out of the Obama Transition team that may indicate the political and policy directions in which he may be going and from our own Mark Karlin (1/11/09): "Message to Barack - You are Carrying Things a Bit Too Far with This "Bipartisan" Nonsense. The Repubs are Just Going to Betray You, So Start Punching and Stop Trying to be "Liked" by Everyone. "Obama to honor McCain on inauguration eve." Yuch!") I have shared those concerns, for example in regard of the abominable choice of Rick Warren to do the inaugural invocation.
Many folks on the Left (U.S. and otherwise) were sure that the Georgites were going to spring an "October Surprise" just before the 2008 election. It would be "something big" to aid McCain's chances which, especially with the Wall Street collapse that started in September 2008, needed some pretty big aiding. It would have something to do with "national security," and it would come in October, that is if it had not come already. As examples of the latter were those absolutely firm predictions by authorities on the Left "in the know" that there would be a U.S. attack on Iran, "for sure," as far back as June 2006. Certain other not-so-authoritative sources for a variety of reasons thought at the time that this was nonsense. For one thing, once Jim Baker had installed Bob Gates in the Defense Department, with a strong chorus of support for a "no" from the Joint chiefs, that one just wasn't going to fly.
So OK, if there was to be no U.S. attack on Iran, how about an Israeli attack on Iran. Well, that would require Israeli flights over Iraqi airspace, controlled by, you guessed it, the U.S. Defense Department. At the same time, the original mission in Iraq, which was either oil and bases, permanent war, or both had come undone. The Georgite-negotiated Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) itself provides for a U.S. withdrawal by some time certain. (Now there's a "Mission Accomplished," isn't there? Why, by golly, on January 1, 2009, the Iraqi government took control of even the Green Zone in Baghdad.)
Gee whiz. Talk about measuring for new furniture in the White House. Bush's SOFA looks pretty much like what Obama was proposing during the Presidential Campaign, and really got skewered for by the O'RHannibaugh "Victory [without ever defining it] At All Costs" wing of the Republican Party, along with ol' Catch-up McCain. So Iraq was not good for an October Surprise either, at least not the kind of one that Republican supporters had in mind. They would hardly be trumpeting the 180 that Bush did on "no timetable for withdrawal, ever, ever, ever, that's just giving into the terrorists" within a period of weeks.
So what to do? Well, they couldn't get one in before the election. And anyway, after the failure of the years-long efforts of Treasury and the Federal Reserve to put off until AFTER the 2008 election the financial collapse that every informed observer knew was coming, McCain was pretty much a lost cause anyway. But that did not mean that Pres.-elect Obama could not be presented with a nice housewarming present, a really good foreign policy imbroglio to take up much time and political capital that the incoming Administration would otherwise need to deal with the domestic economic crisis.
And so, on November 5, the day after the election, Israel launched an assault on the tunnels leading from Egypt to Gaza, through which Hamas funneled small arms and ammunition, parts for their mainly homemade rockets and other material, under the very effective land, sea, and air blockade that Israel has imposed upon Gaza for many months now. Rearming? Sure. But after all, throughout the same six-month ceasefire, Israel was rearming as well, with weapons from the U.S. just slightly (sic) more powerful than Qassam rockets. That was the first breach in the cease-fire. Now the full-scale invasion of Gaza is underway, preceded by the methodical destruction of its civilian infrastructure by the Israeli air force, artillery, and naval forces. The world demands a cease-fire. Israel says "no." Hamas fires some more rockets (and some more sophisticated ones as well) and the carnage continues.
It is not my purpose here to get into who is "right" and who is "wrong." There are plenty of both to go around on all sides in this multi-sided conflict. But what can Israel's objective possibly be? For an indication, one can turn to a document produced in 1996 called "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm." It was produced by those inestimable authorities on peace in the Middle East, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser, et al. You know, the folks from the Project for the New American Century who gave us the Iraq War. Their goals for Iraq were some combination of oil-and-bases, Permanent War, and "bringing Democracy to the Middle East" (out the barrel of a gun). Number one for "A Clean Break" was to end the "Oslo Peace Process" (which had already come pretty much to a halt with the convenient assassination of Yitzhak Rabin). Number two was to encumber any future negotiations with so many preconditions as to make success of same highly unlikely, and so continue Israeli military dominance of its immediate neighborhood.
Accompanied by the continual Settlement Movement for the Occupied West Bank, it was a recipe perhaps not for Permanent War but surely for Permanent Non-peace. And funnily enough, even during the Bush years, whenever there was some glimmer of hope that something might push the parties into a negotiation based on the original 1967 UN resolutions, by golly there was an "outbreak of terrorism" emanating from the Palestinian side. Even authorities in Israel thought that these coincidences might not be so coincidental, but that's another story.
And so, here comes Obama. His principal foreign policy advisor for the Middle East is Zbigniew Brzezinski, who advocates a "two-state solution" roughly based on the 2003 Geneva Accords negotiated between unofficial but formerly highly placed foreign policy experts on both sides, plus the 2002 proposal from, of all places, Saudi Arabia. The day after his election, Israel starts a process that must lead inexorably towards the present situation, which is anything but conducive to finding a workable two-state solution. The question arises, why should that be? To paraphrase the Fox "News" Channel (oh my gosh, I'm really doing that), we present, you decide.
Right-wing commentators such as the sometimes hard-to-categorize Pat Buchanan, comedian Bill Kristol, still-trying-to-shake-her "Reagan Hagiographer" label Peggy Noonan, and so-called "even-handed" cable news personalities such as "Morning Joe and Mika" are all het-up about why the "left" (these folks wouldn't know a real Left if they saw one) is so het up about Obama's choice of Rick Warren for the Inauguration Invocation. "It's a free country," they say. "There's a wide range of views on gay marriage" (which happens to be Rick Warren's least odious on-the-gay-question position), they say. "Obama is showing himself to be tolerant," they say. Obama is looking for "common ground," they say.
"You'se guys" (which is what they would say to us lefties if they spoke Noo Yawk) are just a bunch of whiners. Or worse, you are just as bad as the Christian Fundamentalists (except I cannot remember when any of the above listed "authorities" ever criticized the latter group for anything. But that's another story.)
Walking home from seeing "Milk," I found myself humming a song about another great American leader of people, Joe Hill. He was an organizer for the International Workers of the World who was framed on a murder charge and killed in Utah in 1915. A song by Earl Robinson that was famous when I was a boy (frequently performed by Pete Seeger) goes in part:
"I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, Alive as you or me. Says I, 'But Joe, you're ten years dead,' 'I never died,' says he, 'I never died,' says he. 'The copper bosses killed you, Joe, They shot you, Joe,' says I.
'Takes more than guns to kill a man,' Says Joe, 'I didn't die,' Says Joe, 'I didn't die.' And standing there as big as life, And smiling with his eyes Joe says, 'What they forgot to kill, Went on to organize, Went on to organize.'"
To understand where President-elect Obama is going with is appointments, I think it is very important to understand something about his psyche. As far as I can tell from a distance, Mr. Obama has his ego out of the way. He is not making decisions based on meeting internal ego needs. He feels really good about himself, and so he should. But even people who should, based on externals, feel good about themselves, sometimes don't. In fact, Mr. Obama appears to me to be the first U.S. President since Dwight David Eisenhower (you can do your own analysis) who makes his decisions on everything, from his policies to his personnel to his choice of White House dog (see last week's New Yorker cover), based on objective reality as he sees it, not on dealing one or more self-perceived personal deficiencies or emotional needs.
This leads me to admire another important element of his thinking that is becoming clear as one analyzes his decision-making process. The first question he asks and answers for himself is: "what is the objective here?" That became oh-so-clear when he intervened in the Senate's process for dealing with poor ol' Joe Lieberman (who will be a lame duck in the Senate for so long that he will need crutches just to get into the chamber by the time 2012 rolls around). Many of us on the Left (and yes, I do count myself as being on the Left) wanted to do nothing more than "get 'im." What a SOB. "Out, out, damned spot" on the escutcheon of the Democratic Party.
In the past month or two, peace talks have been going on between the new, democratically elected (!) government of Pakistan and the Congress Party government of India (democratically elected, of course). The peace talks would eventually have to get to the status of the disputed region of Kashmir, of course. They would ultimately be considered successful only if a final settlement was reached of that dispute which was set up by the British when they left the Indian Raj split in two in 1947 (three, actually, for the original Pakistan had an East portion, now Bangladesh, and a West portion, now Pakistan). Initiated by the new Pakistani President, a businessman, they have focused at a much lower level, concerning such matters as visa-free travel (at present there are not even scheduled flights between the two nations' capitals), the opening up of trade between the two countries on a broad scale (essential for the Pakistani economy, now heavily dependent on the International Monetary Fund for its survival), and a joint "no nuclear first strike" treaty.
It is often said that the United States "has no energy policy," that we "need to develop one as quickly as possible," and that it should be based on alternate fuels and more importantly, alternate and renewable energy sources. Well the last two parts are true; the first is definitely not. As we enter an era of debate on and development of a new energy policy, it is very important to understand these facts. We would not be substituting something for nothing. Rather we would be replacing the current energy policy with another one. Further, the new one would be highly antithetical to the interests (to say nothing of the profits) of the developers and defenders of the old one. They would (and indeed will) constitute a very powerful enemy of change. It is impossible to estimate just how far they will go in defending their interests. But these folks have fought dirty in the past and there is no reason to believe that they will change their stripes anytime soon. But no old policy can be changed to a new one if one does not clearly understand just what the present one is.
Remember the original bailout package? Yes, that one was some years ago for some hedge fund or funds. The Republicans were all for that one. Several billions. Then there was the bailout/buyout package for Bear Stearns. Billions more. Lehman Bros. wasn't so lucky (but then again it's primarily Goldman Sachs folks who populate this Treasury Dept., not Lehman folks). Then came the broader financial sector $700 billion bailout, the first draft of which was essentially written on the back of a paper napkin. (OK, that's an exaggeration. It was actually two-and-a-half typed pages long.) That package eventually got into a very long bill. It was eventually passed to help the investment banking sector recover from its excesses of greed in the process of securitizing mortgage loans.
The process was enabled, courtesy of McCain's Treasury Secretary-designate Phil Gramm and the repeal of the New Deal Era Glass-Steagal Act. It had separated investment and commercial banking to forestall exactly the kind of financial meltdown that has occurred over the past six months, courtesy of investment banks not being required to have the reserves to back up mortgage loans at anywhere near the level commercial banks are still required to hold. And then there is AIG, running through government funds at a great rate, currently around $150 billion. Boy those resort/spa costs are high, aren't they? No problem there for the Republicans.
If your neck got turned around watching "Fox and Friends" on the Fox "News" Channel almost immediately following the Obama victory, you are likely not alone. I can't say that they did a 180-degree turn, but they went at least 90 degrees, at least in what I saw. No more Ayers/Rezko/Wright 24/7. All of a sudden they were doing three things. The President-elect was being treated with a modicum of respect. They were back to spending lots of time on "schoolgirl gets dumped from school bus two miles from home" stories. The "anti-Democrat Party" red meat that they regularly feed their loyal listeners (such as the soon-to-be-former Vice President) came in smaller amounts and was hardly so red anymore.