Election week, November 2008.
Progressives are working up a head of gloom over Barack Obama’s pending staff choices. In international relations his readiness to talk is a big plus, but he shows no more signs of being a peacenik than any of his predecessors. He's closer to Clinton than to the Cheney neocons and more organized and cautious than Clinton. But if his Clinton era advisers aren't neocons they're still hawks. It all begins with the hawkish, big Israel supporter Rahm Emanuel, a "shameless neoliberal, friend of big business, and staunch advocate of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories," as Joshua Frank put it in Dissident Voice
. Having Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff sets up a filter tuned in the hawkish direction. Since Obama is very much a mainstream politician and his people are to a big extent Clinton’s, he isn’t likely to cause any paradigm shifts.
Except--there have already been paradigm shifts that could dramatize the Obama administration and make it unique.There has been 9/11 and the Bush administration’s generally disastrous responses to it. Iraq, Katrina, the economic meltdown. And now has come the miraculous moment of a Democratic sweep and Obama's landslide victory. He’s got his work cut out for him, as they say. But in a way he’s in the best of all possible positions, one in which anything decent he does will evoke the observation, "Bush would never have done that." Things are so bad they can only get better. This is a historic moment, and if we have trouble finding change we can believe in
, we still are filled with hope
In dealing with the economic disaster Obama can be Hoover or FDR—there's no in-between. The stakes are high, so if he wins, he can win big. He won’t push for single-payer health care, but if Congress' new Democratic power base legislates it, he’ll sign off on it. If he chooses the right economic czars and the crisis turns around throughout our system, the global repercussions will enormously enhance his already positive image. The US will start to look good again in the world, and Americans themselves will feel a little less pain and a lot more pride.
By all accounts Bush's greatest disaster—and the competition's tough—is Iraq, and in the Middle East it’s really hard to see what Obama can do. Withdrawing from the country is all Americans discuss, except for the conservatives' fantasy talk of "victory." But everybody knows the Americans are on the way out of Iraq, even though they’ll also never leave completely. What they never mention is compensating the Iraqis for all the damage we've done them and their country.
The problems in the Middle East have, thanks to Bush policies, metastasized. Israel has been allowed to fester. Bishop Tutu is just one of many, notably Billy Carter and UN officials, who’ve pointed out
that the Palestinians’ plight in the Occupied Territories is worse than that of black South Africans under apartheid. Apart from its heavy US monetary and arms support, Israel fares well on its own economically. Businesses are booming amid chaos, illustrating the principles Naomi Klein defines
in Milton Friedman "shock doctrine" terms as disaster capitalism
. If you don’t need stability to thrive economically and your mindset allows you to ignore moral responsibility toward the people you have subjugated and ethnically cleansed because you think your cause is more just than all others, there's no motivation to make peace. That's the way it stands with Israel and its American supporters now. But Obama wants to talk and he will at least start some kind of negotiations in which the US will have a chance of being effectively involved again.
But there is serious trouble with the new President’s image in this area. In an "open letter" to the then candidate in the same recent issue
of Dissident Voice
, Ralph Nader pointed out Obama's support of Zionist hardliners and new disregard for Palestinians--whom he once wooed. This was especially evident in a speech to AIPAC right after his nomination that, in the words of Israel peace activist Yuri Avnery, "broke all records for obsequiousness and fawning." Nader notes that Obama has snubbed Muslims more than Bush. We can see why; he wanted to win, and during the campaign no supporter dared utter his classically Muslim middle name. After his landslide victory suddenly there was a flurry of relieved mentions of it the pro-Obama press.
Whether the Hussein in his name and his dark skin somehow give Obama more credibility in the Arab world as it does in Africa remains to be seen. Given his concern to be seen as representing everyone in a race-neutral fashion, role-playing may be fraught. The world would have elected him if it could, but it’s hard enough for him to try to be President of the United States of America. In any case, Iraqis in the street are skeptical. Obama’s opposition to the invasion doesn’t help them now, and his centrism means we don't know whom he’ll withdraw from Iraq and how soon, or what he can do about Iran--in that area the choice probably won't be entirely his. How encouraging is it that Obama wants to up the troop level in Afghanistan, where Karzai is already protesting civilian killings? When it comes to Middle East policy, the progressives' gloom seems justified. As Obama said in his acceptance speech about other goals, four years aren’t enough.
There is a sad new link between Israel and Iraq: refugees, caged by the Israelis and hovering outside the borders of Iraq. Nir Rosen believes that Iraq is a failed state and finds its conditions analogous to Mogadishu, Somalia. Iraqi refugees, already 2.2 million and growing by the thousands daily, carry the virus of sectarianism and discontent mainly to Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, with only Syria still accepting the thousands still fleeing daily. Parallel to the long-term effect of the Palestinian refugees, this will grow the forces of terrorism and discontent exponentially in the years to come. As for Afghanistan, where Obama wants to increase US involvement, that's the site of Nir Rosen's latest reportage, which he summarizes in an October 30 article
: "How We Lost the War We Won: A journey into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan." The reason Rosen is often discounted must be the kill-the-messenger syndrome: people don't want to hear bad news. This is unfortunate, because for my money Rosen's reports are as accurate and realistic as it gets. Rosen finds the Americans can't win against the Taliban militarily and the only hope may be negotiating with them and the only solution is to leave. "The Afghans are not a major threat to anybody," he says in a video. "Al Qaida is in Pakistan. Pakistan is the real problem."
The best beginning of Obama's "listening" should be heeding the words of plain-speaking field reporters like Nir Rosen who have been there and are beholden to nobody. Only in that way can he know what can and can't be done. Too often the US has tried to do things in the Middle East that were not and never could be possible. Pressuring its closest allies, the authoritarian regimes of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would be a good way to work outside the realm of make-believe. We can try to negotiate elsewhere, such as with the Taliban. The effort may prove futile, but at least it will not leave a wake of destruction and civilian casualties that will be covered vividly on Al Jazeera and seen throughout the Middle East. And this is where, if he is able to stay close to his declared preferences as a leader for communication and listening, Barack Obama can create a Middle East markedly different from George W. Bush's if he chooses to do so.
Two recent comments on the topic of Obama and Israel:
Gideon Levy, "Let's hope Obama won't be a 'friend of Israel'."
Patrick Seale, "Can Obama Bring Peace to the Middle East?"