By Stephen Gowans
The view of the New York Times and its columnist Paul Krugman is that the Obama presidency isn’t proceeding the way it was supposed to. The president has failed his liberal Democratic supporters and capitulated to the Republicans.
Here’s their charge sheet:
Obama failed to end the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, failed to create a government-run health insurance system, and failed in his negotiations with Congress on raising the debt-ceiling to shelter Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
And in a yet-to-be approved deal to avoid default of the US government’s debt, Obama agreed to automatic cuts in social programs and defense spending if a bipartisan panel fails to agree on a deficit-reduction package, or its recommendations are rejected by Congress. Conspicuously missing are tax increases on the wealthy as one of the automatic triggers.
The ultra-wealthy will continue to avoid paying their share of taxes, loaning their spare cash, instead, to Washington, to be repaid in full with interest — an attractive deal for the rich, a swindle for everyone else. The upward redistribution of wealth continues as strongly as it ever did under Bush, the only difference being that Bush admitted the ultra-wealthy were his “base,” while Obama doesn’t.
On foreign policy, Obama’s record is no better. He has failed to close Guantanamo Bay, stepped up the war in Afghanistan, extended the war to Yemen, and wages war in Libya without Congressional authorization — which is only slightly worse than the fact that he’s waging war on Libya. What’s more, he has failed to prosecute his predecessor for authorizing the use of torture, arguing pathetically that he prefers to look forward, not backward.
All this means that for liberal Democrats, Obama is a clear disappointment. But that sure doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him. And Obama knows it. Liberal Democrats, progressives and even Communists are so terrified of the Republican Party right-wing, that they’ll vote for anyone to the left of it, even if “to the left”, means a long way toward right.
Which leaves Obama plenty of room to manoeuvre to advance the agenda of his ultra-wealthy backers. Michael Moore and others lambasted Ralph Nader for his third party presidential bid. It allowed Bush and his pro-war, pro-wealthy agenda to come to power, they charged. Okay, so now that a Democrat has succeeded him, what’s different?
To be fair, this kind of political dynamic isn’t unique to the United States. In Canada, a left-wing party with Marxist-Leninist roots greets every election campaign with the same rallying cry: Let’s stop the Conservatives. By which is meant: Vote for whoever can stop the Tories, even if it means a vote for the Liberals, whose record, policies, and class affinities are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Conservative bogeymen.
And in Britain, the Communist Party of Britain backs Labour against the Conservatives.
Which means that the parties of the nominally liberal wing of the business establishment can count on the support of everyone to left of conservatives, even while trampling all over them.
That liberal Democrats in the United States would quickly become disappointed with Obama can hardly be a surprise except to the politically naive and to those who put their brains in park and let wishful thinking take the wheel.
It was always clear that a president backed by corporate money and surrounded by a cabinet of ruling class partisans was going to advance the corporate agenda and champion the privileges of the ultra-wealthy. After all, that’s who bankrolled his presidential bid, and is bankrolling his re-election bid.
Trouble is, desperate for some kind of respite from the depressing string of defeats the left has endured (or inflicted upon itself) no one on the left wanted to hear this.
Neither did anyone else for that matter. The day after Obama was elected, a TV news crew showed up at my son’s school. A small group of students, my son included, was assembled and asked what they thought of Obama’s election. All gushed about how inspired they were and how relieved they were that the Bush era had come to a close, to be succeeded by a new, more hopeful, day. Except my son. He pointed out that it was unlikely that an Obama presidency would be much different from a McCain one. Obama was backed massively by corporate money, and he would depend on Wall Street to get re-elected. The piece aired with comments from all the students …but one.
“Oh sure,” it will be said, “Obama’s just a handmaiden of the establishment, but even if he’s only a little better than a Republican president, he’s still a little better.” And a little better can, as Noam Chomsky once said, make a big difference. I guess that’s true, depending on what your goal is. If your goal is to keep public pensions intact for another three years instead of one, little differences do count.
But there’s a point at which goals can go from difficult to reach but achievable to so modest that setting them amounts to capitulation. What’s more, it’s doubtful that the Democrats are even a little better.
The view on the left that they are comes from the belief that the Democrats and Republicans differ only in the degree to which they’re willing to make concessions to labor to buy social peace. Democrats will go further, we’re told.
But there’s another view, which liberals, progressives and timid radicals impatiently dismiss as “ultra-left.” It says that because they’re widely but erroneously supposed to be the party of the common man, the Democrats can go further in advancing the agenda of the ultra-wealthy—and do. The reason why is that once in office the common man goes to sleep.
Ultra-left or not, this view seems to more closely fit the facts than the competing view that the Democrats are friendlier to the average person (if only to serve ruling class purposes) compared to the Republicans.
Commenting on the difference between Labour and Conservative governments in Britain, the radical sociologist Albert Szymanski once remarked that Labour “followed the same sort of conservative economic policies vis-a-vis balancing the budget, reducing the trade deficit and resisting workers’ demands for wage increases as the Conservative and Liberal governments that came before and after.” But the “main difference between the two types of governments was that a Labour prime minister was better able to get the working class to accept” sacrifices that benefited banks, investors and corporations. (1)
In other words, if you want to pacify labor and the left while ramming through measures that advance the interests of capital at the expense of everyone else, bring in a Labour or Democrat or (in Canada) NDP government. Sure, they’re more apt to guarantee social peace, but only because voters think they’re in their corner.
So, what did Bush do that Obama hasn’t done?
Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, escalated Bush’s war agenda, but faced no concerted public opposition. Parts of the antiwar movement have been in hibernation since Obama stepped over the White House threshold. The Communists are heartened that Obama initiated a troop withdrawal from Iraq (seemingly oblivious to the reality that he needed to transfer troops from Iraq to Afghanistan where the occupation was going badly.)
While Guantanamo Bay was an embarrassment under Bush, its continued operation is not even remarked upon under Obama. And nowadays, the United States is prepared to carry out extra-judicial assassinations of its own citizens. Even Bush didn’t go that far.
Bush was scorned for lying about WMDs to justify an illegal war on Iraq, but Obama lies about the reasons for war on Libya. No one even maintains the pretence it’s about protecting civilians anymore—except when NATO covers up the war crime of bombing civilian infrastructure, claiming the heinous deed was necessary to protect civilians. There has hardly been a peep of protest. On the contrary, liberals, progressives and many leftists have fallen into step with the peace president on Libya.
Of course, in reality, Obama isn’t the peace president. He’s the pacifying president. And it seems a great injustice, to consistency at least, that the Nobel committee didn’t award its peace prize to Bush. After all, Obama’s contribution to peace is no greater than Bush’s was. Indeed, it’s marginally worse.
Today, 25 million US citizens want full time jobs but can’t find them. By agreeing to cut spending when the US economy is stagnant (its annualized rate of growth for the first half of the year is no better than US population growth), Obama will add to the Himalaya of idleness that has gripped his country, courtesy of capitalism, but exacerbated by a lack of political will to significantly palliate the problem.
And why palliate it? There’s no restiveness on the streets and an expanding reserve army of labor offers the welcome promise (to Obama’s real base) of downward pressure on wages, benefits and working conditions. Profits will soar – as they have been.
True, it can always be said that McCain would have encroached even further on working class interests, and that the Tea Party’s strength is a factor, but as Krugman points out, Obama has staked out positions even further to the right than the average Republican is comfortable with. And it’s doubtful that McCain could have got even half as far as Obama in stepping up the war and agreeing to budget positions that are indulgent to the wealthy and harsh to the poor without provoking pressure from below.
Obama is a failure? For the vast majority of US citizens, yes. But not for an elite of owners and high level managers of income producing property. Which is the way it was always supposed to be.
Albert Szymanksi, The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class, Winthrop Publishers Incorporated, 1978. P. 268.
Peace is “not what we’re offering,” says U.S. secretary of state
By Stephen Gowans
North Korea recently let Washington know that it will dismantle its nuclear weapons if the United States signs a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War. This, offered Pyongyang, could be negotiated through bilateral talks between the United States and north Korea.
Alternatively, Pyongyang said it was prepared to return to six-nation talks, aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, if the United Nations removes the sanctions it imposed after north Korea launched a satellite and conducted a nuclear test.
North Korea regards the sanctions as unjust, and with good reason – they are. Neither the satellite launch nor the nuclear test were illegal under international law.
No law prohibits a country from launching satellites, or even testing ballistic missiles — what Washington accuses north Korea of doing under cover of a satellite launch.
And since north Korea is no longer a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – it withdrew after the United States re-targetted some of its strategic nuclear weapons from the defunct Soviet Union to north Korea in the early 1990s — it is not prohibited from developing and testing nuclear arms.
The reality that north Korea’s satellite launch and nuclear test were not illegal, did not, however, stop the United Nations Security Council from imposing sanctions, while at the same time overlooking Washington’s repeated violations of international law, a double-standard made inevitable by Washington’s veto and domination of the council.
North Korea says that it would not have built nuclear weapons had the United States not threatened it with military aggression. This is almost certainly true.
In the early 1990s, long before north Korea developed a rudimentary nuclear weapons capability, Washington announced it was targeting north Korea with nuclear weapons. A month later, Pyongyang withdrew from the non-proliferation treaty. Cause and effect.
Washington, which quashed the basis for a nascent independent Korean government in 1945, has stationed tens of thousands of troops on Korean soil since (but for a single brief hiatus.) U.S. warships patrol the fringes of north Korea’s territorial waters, and U.S. warplanes patrol the margins of north Korean airspace … and not infrequently, intrude upon it. The U.S. military conducts annual war games with south Korea – the south’s military budget is much larger than the north’s – keeping the north off balance and on an unremitting war footing.
Soon after 9/11, the United States ratcheted up its sabre rattling when the Bush administration listed north Korea as one of three countries making up an axis of evil, along with Iraq and Iran. The illegal invasion of Iraq, carried out soon after and for fabricated reasons, made two things clear:
• North Korea could be next.
• Disarming – as Iraq had done – was not a good idea.
In the face of Washington’s threats — indeed, because of them — Pyongyang stepped up its entreaties to Washington to sign a peace treaty.
At the same time, it worked on developing a nuclear weapons capability that would make the Pentagon think twice about another illegal war.
But Washington was dismissive of Pyongyang’s overtures of peace. Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, said “We don’t do peace treaties.”
Today, a U.S. administration led by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who wages wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, says it will only discuss a peace treaty if north Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons first. Washington promises only to discuss, not sign, a peace treaty. If Pyongyang delivers what the United States demands, Washington will think about signing a peace treaty…maybe. The United States, of course, won’t be dismantling its own nuclear weapons.
Washington also says that north Korea’s “appalling” human rights record stands in the way of normalizing relations, even though the appalling human rights records of Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Colombia and Afghanistan, hasn’t prevented Washington from maintaining normal, if not favored, relations with these countries, including showering Israel, Egypt and Colombia with billions of dollars in annual aid. And that’s to say nothing about Washington’s own appalling human rights record – one replete with restrictions on mobility rights (i.e., travel to Cuba), secret prisons, prisoner abuse, extrajudicial assassination, unlawful detention and torture.
Clearly, the United States is not interested in peace on the Korean peninsula. Its military intimidation leaves north Korea no option, short of surrender, but to allocate a punishingly high percentage of its meagre budget to defense, with unhappy consequences for the well-being of north Koreans and the civilian economy.
Washington uses north Korea (and a few other sanctioned and threatened countries) to send a message about what happens when countries try to chart an independent course, especially one that is a top-to-bottom alternative to Washington’s prescribed US investor-friendly free market, free trade, and free enterprise regime.
Washington’s real interest is to engineer the collapse or surrender of the pro-independence government in the north, to clear the way for U.S. domination of the Korean peninsula up to China’s borders.
And so it is that an offer of peace and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula – one that would seem to appeal to any administration led by a deserving Nobel Peace Prize laureate – has been summarily rejected. “That is what they want,” sniffed the peace prize-winning warmonger’s secretary of state, “but that is not what we’re offering.”
Q. Is Obama better than Bush?
A. It depends how you like your imperialism – with a white face or a black one.
By Stephen Gowans
US president Barack Obama’s speech at Accra, Ghana on July 11, 2009 was equal parts jaw dropping hypocrisy, outright fiction, sound advice for Africans if taken literally, and advocacy for institutions ideally suited to capital accumulation in Africa by Western investors. Africans should heed the US president’s call to embrace the idea that Africa’s future is up to Africans (and Africans alone) and to build their own nations, but the path Obama proposes, if followed, would condemn Africa to continued underdevelopment and perpetual dependence on the West.
It should come as a surprise to no one but the weakly naïve and politically untutored that the role of the US president in Africa is to promote and defend the interests of the United States, not Africans. This is so, even if the US president shares the skin color of Africa’s majority. What may not be so apparent, but which is true nevertheless, is that Obama represents the interests of his country’s hereditary capitalist families, banks, corporations and wealthy investors whose resources and backing have brought him to power, and in whose interests the logic of imperialism compels him to act. It is Obama’s goal as representative of US capital to open, and keep open, Africa’s vast resources to exploitation by Western, and particularly US, capital without impediments of corruption, war and pan-African, nationalist or socialist projects of independent development getting in the way. His color and African heritage give Obama a leg up on a white president, allowing him to immediately connect with an African audience. But his message is no less racist, imperialist and informed by the interests of Wall Street than that of his white predecessors.
Obama used his speech to sell two fictions: (1) that Africa’s underdevelopment has nothing to do with colonialism and neo-colonialism, but is rooted in corruption, tribalism and Africans’ blaming others for their poverty; and (2) that Africa’s development depends on adopting institutions that allow foreign capital unfettered access to African markets and resources.
“It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for (Africa’s) problems on others,” said Obama, explaining that,
“Countries like Kenya, which had a per capita economy larger than South Korea’s when I was born, have been badly outpaced. Disease and conflict have ravaged parts of the African continent. In many places, the hope of my (Kenyan) father’s generation gave way to cynicism, even despair.”
During the years of its rapid economic growth, south Korea did not follow the development path Obama prescribes for Africa today. Instead, it built five-year industrial plans that singled out industries the government would nurture through tariff protection, subsidies and government support. Foreign currencies necessary for importing machinery and industrial inputs were accumulated through foreign exchange controls, whose violation was punishable by death. 
The government completely regulated foreign investment, welcoming it in some areas but banning it in others. Attitudes toward intellectual property were lax, with south Korean businesses encouraged to reverse engineer Western technology and pirate the West’s patented products.
This approach to development was the rule, not the exception. Virtually every developed country has followed the same path, using tariffs, subsidies and discrimination against foreign investors, to industrialize.
The first countries to adopt free trade, apart from Britain, where weak countries on whom free trade was imposed by colonial masters. The free trade was typically one-way. Countries in Asia and Africa barely grew economically during the period of colonial rule, while Western Europe – the beneficiary of one-way free trade — grew rapidly. Latin America also grew strongly, but at the time, followed an import-substitution model, not the open markets model industrial powerhouses favored because it favored them.
Under the rule of Britain, the United States was treated much as African countries are today. It was denied the use of tariffs to protect its fledgling industry. It was barred from exporting products that competed with British products. And it was encouraged, through subsides, to concentrate on agriculture. Manufacturing industry was to be left to the British.
Alexander Hamilton rejected this model, creating an infant industry program that allowed the United States to industrialize rapidly. Hamilton’s program — which remained the basis of US economic policy up to World War II — created the highest tariff barriers in the world. US federal mining laws restricted ownership of mines to US citizens and businesses incorporated in the United States. (When Zimbabwe’s government developed legislation to require majority Zimbabwean ownership of the country’s resources, along the lines of earlier US policy, it was denounced for grossly mismanaging the economy.)
Other developed countries also used foreign ownership restrictions to help them industrialize. Prior to 1962, Japan restricted foreign ownership to 49 percent and banned it altogether in certain industries.
In his speech, Obama created the impression that south Korea developed rapidly because it followed policies the World Bank endorses, while at the same time Africa stagnated, because it didn’t. This is doubly false. Not only did south Korea not follow World Bank policies – in fact, it did the very opposite – Africa has been practically run by the IMF and World Bank since the 1980s. Under their guidance, African living standards have worsened, not improved. Over the same period, the Western world’s financial elite – which exercises enormous influence over the World Bank and IMF – saw its wealth expand greatly.
Corruption, Obama argues, and not the legacy of colonialism, has also held Africa back. There must, he insists, be “concrete solutions to corruption like forensic accounting, automating services, strengthening hot lines and protecting whistle-blowers to advance transparency and accountability.”
These measures are desirable. But spectacular corruption in Indonesia, Italy, Japan, south Korea, Taiwan and China didn’t hold these countries back. The critical issue in development isn’t whether corruption happens, but whether the dirty money stays in the country. Mobutu took stolen money out of Zaire, wrecking the Zairian economy. But massive corruption and economic growth can co-exist, if the dirty money is invested in the expansion of the country’s productive assets.
Moreover, corruption is more a consequence, and less a cause, of underdevelopment. Poor countries, because they’re poor, pay meager salaries to government officials. This increases the likelihood officials will stoop to corruption to pad their paltry incomes. And limited government budgets mean there are few resources to prevent graft.
But Obama’s concern about corruption has little to do with its role in hindering development, and everything to do with safeguarding the investments of US banks, corporations and wealthy US citizens. US investors don’t want to invest their capital in countries where the returns can be stolen by corrupt government officials, any more than they want to invest in countries in which there is a high risk of expropriation by nationalist or socialist governments following paths of independent development. A major foreign policy function of the US president is to create safe and stable overseas environments in which US businesses and investment can thrive. Corruption is inimical to that goal.
On top of corruption, conflict based on religious, ethnic and tribal differences is also keeping Africa poor, according to Obama.
“We all have many identities, of tribe and ethnicity, of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century.”
It has long been a practice of imperialist countries to foment ethnic and religious tension as a means of keeping oppressed people fighting each other rather than their oppressor. The ancient Romans called it divide and conquer. The British elevated it to an art form, and used it to undergird their empire. It has always served to: (1) disrupt and disorganize a united front of the oppressed against the oppressor; and (2) to provide a humanitarian justification for imperialist countries to continue their domination of subordinate countries.
The imperialist country must maintain a guiding hand, it’s said, otherwise the ethnic and religious tensions that roil beneath the surface will spill over into open warfare. The massacres in Rwanda have served the useful purpose for the West of reinforcing the imperialist idea that Africans are ready on the flimsiest pretext to go on bloody rampages out of atavistic tribal bloodlust. Exploitation, oppression, unequal access to critical resources, and foreign meddling: none of these causes of conflicts in Africa figure in Western accounts. Instead, the causes of war are to be understood to originate in irrational hatred. And irrational hatred, the narrative goes, is best held in check by Western powers.
While Obama attributed Africa’s poverty to corruption and tribalism, he also, indirectly, and unintentionally, pointed to one of the true reasons for Africa’s underdevelopment: one-way free trade. “Wealthy nations,” he said “must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way,” which says the doors of wealthy nations are not open in a meaningful way today. And they’re not, and never have been. Despite African doors being pried open, usually by force, threat or economic coercion by wealthy nations, the doors of Western countries have only ever been open to Africa on terms that benefit the West. And that’s because there has never really been anything Africa could do about the unfair bargain the West has forced upon it, except to unite and pursue a path of self-reliant development, drawing upon its own immense resources and seeking out critical machine and industrial inputs from sympathetic countries. It didn’t have the military power to force the doors of Western Europe and North America open, as the West forced its doors open. Nor could it use the tools of economic coercion to exact concessions from wealthy countries, for African economies, having been adapted to the requirements of their colonial masters in the period of colonial rule, and never having escaped this legacy, have typically been based on agricultural monoculture. What could African countries do — stop all exports of groundnuts, tobacco or bananas to force the West to open its doors? Doing so would hardly hurt the West, but would deprive Africa of the foreign exchange it uses to import a multitude of goods it depends on the West to provide. To put it succinctly: the West has always had Africa over a barrel.
There are two other egregious misconceptions that Obama articulated in his Accra speech: (1) That “the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade…” and (2) that “African-Americans…have thrived in every sector of (US) society.”
The decline in Zimbabwe’s economy since 2000 is attributed by US officials to Robert Mugabe’s mismanagement, an explanation amplified by the Western media and treated by both the media and Western publics as indisputable. The year 2000 marked the beginning of Zimbabwe’s fast track land redistribution program. The goal of the program was to reclaim prized agricultural land stolen by force by European settlers. The land was to be redistributed to indigenous farmers. And it has been. Zimbabwe has democratized land ownership patterns, distributing land previously owned by 4,000 farmers, mostly of British origin, to 300,000 previously landless families, of African origin.
In more sophisticated analyses, the root cause of Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties is understood to lie in the disruption of agriculture caused by land reform. According to this analysis, had the Mugabe government not pressed ahead with its aggressive land reform program and settled for the sedate, glacial affair that characterized land redistribution prior to 2000 — and which has marked agrarian reform elsewhere on the continent — Zimbabwe would not be in the straitened circumstances it finds itself today.
Until 2000, land reform moved at a snail’s pace. As part of a negotiated settlement with Britain, the independence movement agreed to a willing buyer-willing seller arrangement, whereby land could only be acquired for redistribution if the owner wanted to sell. This restriction was to remain in effect for the first 10 years of independence. Since most farmers of European origin were unwilling to sell, little land was available to redistribute.
Eventually Harare was free to expropriate land from farmers who didn’t want to sell. Britain had agreed to help compensate expropriated farmers but renounced the agreement, denying it was ever under any obligation to fund land reform. Since Harare didn’t have the funds to pay for the land it needed for redistribution, it had two choices: Carry on as is, with land redistribution proceeding at a glacial pace, or expropriate the land and demand that expropriated farmers seek compensation from London, which after all, was ultimately responsible for the theft of the land and had promised to underwrite the land reform program. The Mugabe government chose the latter course, setting off alarm bells in Western capitals. Mugabe couldn’t be allowed to get away with uncompensated expropriation of productive property.
Analyses that attributed Zimbabwe’s economic disaster to mismanagement overlooked the reaction of Washington to the Mugabe government’s lese majesty against private property. For not only did the turn of the century mark the beginning of fast-track land reform, it also marked the passage of the US Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA.)
ZDERA is not a regime of targeted sanctions against individuals, as many believe. Sanctions against individuals do exist, but ZDERA is something altogether different. ZDERA has two aspects. First, it authorizes the US president to “support an independent and free press and electronic media in Zimbabwe” and “provide for democracy and governance programs in Zimbabwe.” This is code for doing openly what the CIA used to do covertly: destabilize foreign governments. Second, it instructs the United States executive director to each international financial institution (the World Bank and IMF, for example) to oppose and vote against:
(1) any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit, or guarantee to the government of Zimbabwe; or
(2) any cancellation or reduction of indebtedness owed by the government of Zimbabwe to the United States or any international financial institution.
Since ZDERA was passed in 2001, Washington has blocked all lines of credit, development assistance and balance of payment support from international lending institutions to Zimbabwe.
When the act was passed, then US president George W. Bush declared his hope that “the provisions of this important legislation will support the people of Zimbabwe in their struggle to effect peaceful democratic change, achieve economic growth, and restore the rule of law.” 
Since effecting peaceful democratic change meant ousting the Zanu-PF government and restoring the rule of law meant forbidding the uncompensated expropriation of white farm land, what Bush was really saying was that he hoped the legislation would help overthrow the government and put an end to fast-track land reform.
ZDERA was co-drafted by one of the opposition MDC’s white parliamentarians, and introduced as a bill in the US Congress in March of 2001 by the Republican senator, William Frist. The legislation was co-sponsored by the Republican rightwing senator, Jesse Helms, and the Democratic senators Hilary Clinton (now Secretary of State), Joseph Biden (now Vice-President) and Russell Feingold.
Helms died in early July, 2008. He denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was a spokesman for the tobacco industry and was a slum landlord. He opposed school bussing, fought against compensation for Japanese Americans, and hated Communists. He complained that public schools were being used “to teach our children that cannibalism, wife-swapping, and the murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior.”  Helms was also fond of sanctions. He co-authored the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which tightened the blockade on Cuba.
The MDC had always been reluctant to admit that sanctions had crippled Zimbabwe’s economy, and more reluctant still to call for their removal. This is to be expected. In opposition, the MDC’s goal was to blame the government for the country’s economic difficulties. If it could do so convincingly, and at the same time persuade voters it could do a better job, it chances of prevailing at the polls would increase accordingly. Likewise, if it refused to add to the pressure on Western governments to lift sanctions, and even encouraged Western governments to maintain or escalate them, the government would remain burdened with the political liability of an ailing economy. But times have changed. The MDC has formed a coalition government with Zanu-PF, and the MDC controls the finance ministry. Sanctions are no longer in the party’s interest, and the MDC has, as a consequence, changed its tune. Not only does it now acknowledge ZDERA, the finance minister, Tendai Biti, complains about it bitterly.
“The World Bank has right now billions and billions of dollars that we have access to but we can’t access those dollars unless we have dealt with and normalized our relations with the IMF. We cannot normalize our relations with the IMF because of the voting power, it’s a blocking voting power of America and people who represent America on that board cannot vote differently because of ZDERA.” 
As bad as ZDERA is, it’s not the only sanctions regime the United States has used to sabotage Zimbabwe’s economy. Addressing the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee, Jendaya Frazer, who was George W. Bush’s top diplomat in Africa, noted that the United States had imposed financial and travel restrictions on 135 individuals and 30 businesses. US citizens and corporations who violate the sanctions face penalties ranging from $250,000 to $500,000. “We are looking to expand the category of Zimbabweans who are covered. We are also looking at sanctions on government entities as well, not just individuals.” She added that the US Treasury Department was looking into ways to target sectors of Zimbabwe’s critical mining industry. 
On July 25, 2008 Bush announced that sanctions on Zimbabwe would be stepped up. He outlawed US financial transactions with a number of key Zimbabwe companies and froze their US assets. The enterprises included: the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (which controls all mineral exports); the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company; Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe; Osleg, or Operation Sovereign Legitimacy, the commercial arm of Zimbabwe’s army; Industrial Development Corporation; the Infrastructure Development Bank of Zimbabwe; ZB Financial Holdings; and the Agriculture Development Bank of Zimbabwe. 
In early March 2009, Obama extended sanctions for another year, announcing that,
“The crisis constituted by the actions and policies of certain members of the government of Zimbabwe and other persons to undermine Zimbabwe’s democratic processes or institutions has not been resolved. These actions and policies pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States.” 
It would be more accurate to say that US sanctions pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the economy of Zimbabwe.
Topping off the falsehoods in Obama’s speech was his assurance to Africans that “African-Americans…have thrived in every sector of (US) society.” This is nonsense. Income, employment, education and opportunity are profoundly unequal in the United States, and inequality is bound up with race. The per capita income of blacks in the United States is 40 percent lower than that of whites. One in four blacks live in poverty, compared to eight percent of whites. The proportion of blacks without health insurance is twice that of whites.  And the official seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for blacks in June 2009 was almost twice as high as the jobless rate for whites. 
The degree to which blacks haven’t thrived is evident in who languishes in the country’s jails. While the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, it has one-quarter of the world’s prisoner population, and US prisoners are disproportionately black. One-third of black males born in 2001 are expected to be imprisoned at some point in their lifetime, compared to six percent of white males.  Poor, unemployed, without health insurance and in prison. That’s hardly thriving.
Jaw dropping hypocrisy
As leader of a country currently engaged in three wars of aggression (Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) and which threatens to escalate its aggressions against Iran and north Korea, one might think Obama would be ashamed to lecture anyone on the importance of resolving conflicts peacefully. But US presidents know no shame. Boldly, Obama told Africans that “for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun. There are wars over land and wars over resources.” Africans, he continued, must learn the “peaceful resolution of conflict.”
Indeed, there are wars over land and wars over resources, and this, the United States knows well, for over the course of its history it has initiated many of them, and most of the wars over land and resources over the past 60 years have been planned at the Pentagon. The United States’ vast military, which Washington methodically nurtures through the misappropriated tax dollars of ordinary US citizens, allows the country to dominate and plunder much of the world, while at the same time piling up profits for US corporations engaged in “defense” industry work.
Particularly galling is the reality that the United States had a hand in the bloodiest and deadliest war on the continent.
“In early May 1997, when it became apparent to western observers that the broad coalition of rebel forces in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) headed by veteran freedom fighter, Laurent Kabila, would eventually topple the Mobutu kleptocracy and establish ‘a popular government, linking all sectors of our society,’ the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and others in the corporate media slowly began to criticize the ‘excesses’ of the CIA-installed Mobutu regime, in power since 1965. But at the same time they began a relentless campaign against Kabila and the rebel coalition.
“The Wall Street Journal spoke of Kabila as an ‘ideological throwback’ to the politics of the 1960s. It decried his relationship with Che Guevara, who had gone to the Congo in the early l960s to work with a progressive coalition (including Kabila) to support the Patrice Lumumba forces and to oust another CIA-installed regime, which had been installed in the diamond-rich region of Katanga. The Journal warned that ‘western interests’ would now be in jeopardy under Kabila.
“For thirteen months, Kabila sought to consolidate a broad coalition to democratize and develop the Congo. But by August 1998, two neighboring states, Rwanda and Uganda, aligned with ethnic forces inside the Congo, (and backed by Washington) invaded several towns and cities. Both invading countries charged Kabila with ‘corruption’ and human rights violations, and with being ‘undemocratic.’
“Both Rwanda and Uganda are governed by de facto military regimes. Both governments are hosts to U.S. military training facilities and U.S. military personnel. The Congo has been regarded by leading scientists and economists as one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world. It contains roughly 70 percent of the world’s cobalt. More than half of the U.S. military’s cobalt comes from the Congo. It is the second largest producer of diamonds in the world and is known for large deposits of gold, manganese, and copper. The Congo’s peculiar type of high-grade uranium was used by the U.S. to make the atom bombs that were dropped on Japan in WWII. And the U.S. dominates mining in that area even today.” 
An estimated five million died in the war from 1998 to 2003. The conflict continues, with 45,000 people dying each month from war-related causes, primarily hunger and disease.  And yet war in the DRCongo is barely mentioned in the Western media. Instead, attention is focused on Darfur, home to vast oil reserves the United States does not control, but would like to lay its hands on. Raising public alarm over Darfur is a way of manufacturing consent for Western intervention in Sudan. The outcome – and unstated goal – of such an intervention would be to bring another oil-rich country under Washington’s domination.
“The United Nations has estimated some 300,000 may have died in total as a result of the years of conflict in Darfur; the same number die from the Congo conflict every six and a half months. And yet, in the New York Times, which covers the Congo more than most U.S. outlets, Darfur has consistently received more coverage since it emerged as a media story in 2004. The Times gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, while Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly 10 times the rate of those in Darfur. “
Washington also orchestrated a recent war in Somalia. In 2006, the US-backed, UN-recognized government of Somalia was limited to the inland town of Baidoa. Mogadishu, the capital, had fallen to Islamic militias, who had formed a de facto government in June of that year. The militias’ power wasn’t based on their military strength, which consisted only of a few hundred armed pickup trucks and a few thousand fighters, but in their popular support. In the capital Mogadishu, the Islamists organized neighborhood cleanups, delivered food to the needy and brought dormant national institutions like the Supreme Court back to life.
According to Ted Dagne, the African analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, the de facto government provided “a sense of stability in Somalia, education and other services, while the warlords maimed and killed innocent civilians.” What’s more, “instead of acting like the Taliban and ruthlessly imposing a harsh religious orthodoxy” the Islamists delivered social services and pushed for democratic elections.
That’s when General John P. Abizaid of the United States Central Command, or Centcom, flew to neighboring Ethiopia to meet Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who told the US proconsul that he could cripple the Islamist forces in one to two weeks. Abizaid gave the Ethiopian prime minister the go ahead, and soon Ethiopian soldiers — trained by US military advisors — were flooding over the border into Somalia.  The United States supplied battlefield intelligence, the US Fifth Fleet enforced a naval blockade, US Marines deployed along Somalia’s border with Kenya, and US AC-130 gunships, operating out of Djibouti, struck targets within Somalia. 
The invasion was a brazen affront to the United Nations Charter. Somalia hadn’t threatened Ethiopia, and indeed, couldn’t. With a few hundred armed pickup trucks, Somali forces posed no danger to surrounding countries. And yet there wasn’t a peep a protest from the “international community”.
The war created what has been called Africa’s largest and most ignored catastrophe. One million Somalis were displaced. Some 10,000 were killed.  And the United States, whose president counsels Africans to learn to resolve conflicts peacefully, started it.
To discourage what Obama views as Africa’s addiction to war, the US president pledged to “stand behind efforts to hold war criminals accountable.” What he didn’t say was that he meant African war criminals, and only the ones who aren’t puppets of the West. Obama has no intention of holding accountable either Meles Zenawi or Western war criminals (including his predecessor; former British prime minister Tony Blair; or himself) or CIA operatives who used torture and those who authorized their crimes. Instead, he says, he would rather look forward, not backward. White war criminals are to be forgiven; black war criminals, who fail to toe the imperialist line, are to be held accountable.
The body through which most African war criminals are to be held accountable is the International Criminal Court (ICC), a court the United States itself refuses to join, on grounds its soldiers and officials would face frivolous prosecutions. If the United States would face frivolous prosecutions, why not other countries? The ICC has received
“2,889 communications about alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in at least 139 countries, and yet by March 2009, the prosecutor had opened investigations into just four cases: Uganda, DRCongo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan/Darfur. All of them in Africa. Thirteen public warrants of arrest have been issued, all against Africans.” 
Conspicuously absent from the list of opened investigations are the perpetrators of the world’s most blatant recent war crimes: the US, Britain and Israel.
Yes, but “there cannot be an African exception to (the Nuremberg) principles,” argues David Crane, who was chief prosecutor for the special court on Sierra Leone (which is trying former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, for doing what practically every US president since World War II has done: support rebel troops in another country.) Crane’s “no African exceptions” cry is taken up by the Western media. Referring to Taylor’s trial, Guardian columnist Phil Clark, wrote that “for many, the trial represents another victory for international justice and another signal for the end of impunity for the likes of Taylor, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Alberto Fujimori.”  He might have added, but not for George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, P.W. Botha, and Ian Smith. The Western media and state officials don’t seem to be concerned about the impunity of these war criminals. The reality that there have been many African exceptions to humanitarian law – where whites are concerned – seems to have escaped the notice of Crane, a white US citizen, who indicted Taylor, a black African.
Martin Kargbo wonders why the West insists that black Africans be held accountable, while celebrating the truth and reconciliation commissions which have granted impunity to white war criminals.
“Impunity has not been an issue in DRCongo where the wars waged by Rwanda and Uganda between 1996 and 2003 on behalf of America and Western interests have led to an estimated five million deaths in Congo…
“Impunity, again, was not an issue when South Africa decided in 1994, in the interest of national peace and stability to forgive the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity – people who had terrorized and killed black Africans for 50 long years during the apartheid era. And no human rights group said it was wrong to forgive P.W. Botha & Co.
“Impunity was also not an issue when Zimbabwe decided in 1980 in the interest of national peace and stability to forgive the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity – people who had terrorized and killed black Africans for decades before independence. And no human rights group said it was wrong to forgive Ian Smith and Co.
“Impunity was again not an issue when Namibia did the same thing in 1990 — to forgive the atrocities committed against black people during the pre-independence era. And no human rights group spoke against Namibia’s act of forgiveness.” 
Obama also promised to “support strong and sustainable democratic governments” while supporting the strong, but hardly democratic, Egyptian government, with $1 billion per year in military aid. Washington has also been instrumental in undermining the popularly elected Hamas government. These two examples – and only two of many – show that Washington has no commitment to democracy abroad. It’s all rhetoric. Washington supports governments which enlarge the interests of the US ruling class, whether democratic or not, and opposes foreign governments which don’t, whether democratic or not. US democracy promotion, a multi-million dollar per year industry that does what the CIA used to do covertly, is simply a cover for regime change carried out by non-military means in countries that are open enough to allow US agents and fifth columns sufficient room to maneuver. Obama’s administration will continue to run “democracy promotion” programs, working to ensure that foreign governments that pursue independent paths of development, including those in Africa, are overthrown.
Promoting the profit interests of US capital
Washington wants Africa to be a profitable place in which US corporations, banks and investors can do business. Africans want foreign investment to help Africa develop. It seems like a win-win situation. If Africa does what’s necessary to help foreign investors reap handsome profits, corporate America gets profits and Africans get investment.
But the history of Africa’s engagement with the world economy hasn’t been the win-win situation US politicians and the West’s mass media promise. Instead, foreign capital has profited and Africans have remained deeply mired in poverty.
That’s because foreign capital can win bigger if it doesn’t have to share the economic surplus it expropriates with the people who produce it. So, it goes for the big prize.
And why wouldn’t it? Foreign capital, like all capital, wants to maximize profits. So it demands a low wage environment, unburdened by corporate taxes or stringent environmental regulations, in which profits can be taken out of the country, and in which governments abjure efforts to meet social goals by making demands on corporations and investors. Those with capital to invest don’t want to pay high taxes (or any taxes at all if they can get away with it), comply with expensive environmental regulations, pay high wages, or be forced to take on local partners. They don’t want to have to invest any of their profits in the host country if a higher return on investment can be obtained elsewhere. Neither do foreign corporations and investors want local governments to give local businesses a hand up by offering subsidies and tariff protections. And they don’t want profitable areas of investment – like energy, telecommunication and banking – placed off limits. In short, all of the measures a local government might implement to satisfy local development needs – mandated re-investment of profits, state-controlled enterprises, foreign investment restrictions, price controls and meaningful minimum wage laws, a heavily graduated tax, and so on — are anathema to foreign capital.
In addition, foreign corporations, banks and investors want a business environment that is free from the threat of disruption by war, strikes and insurrections, and in which private productive property is protected from corruption and expropriation. Delivering what businesses want is called good governance.
As Obama explained,
“No country is going to create wealth (Obama means: for investors) if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt.”
In Washington’s view, good governance is created when societies are sufficiently open to domination by those who own the most wealth – that is, by those who own and control the world economy. For example, multi-party electoral democracy is lauded because it allows those who assume a leadership role in representing the interests of capital, to have the best chance of being elected. They’re able to attract the funding that allows them to run effective campaigns. And what, as a consequence, ends up being a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, has enormous apparent legitimacy because it is based on an electoral exercise.
Likewise, a “free” society in which “anyone” can open a newspaper can seem to legitimately have independent journalists, even though the only people in a position to open their own newspaper and command a mass audience are members of the class that owns the society’s productive property. An open society with a vibrant civil society which participates in the society’s governance is also one in which the wealthy can pursue their interests by furnishing the funding on which civil society depends. This allows capital to influence the agenda of civil society through its funding decisions. In short, any government trying to achieve authentically democratic goals can be more readily opposed if it provides sufficient space for foreign capital to operate through strong parliaments, independent journalists and a vibrant civil society.
Accordingly, Obama speaks glowingly of institutions that open up space for foreign money to operate.
“In the 21st century, capable, reliable and transparent institutions are the key to success – strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in peoples’ lives.”
In point of fact, what matters in peoples’ lives — that is, in the lives of ordinary people, and not the bankers, corporate lawyers and CEOs that Obama cares about — is having enough to eat, a job, shelter, clothing, health care, recreation, time with friends and family, dignity and social justice. Strong parliaments, journalists employed by the capitalist press, and a strong private sector, create environments adapted to capital accumulation; they have little to do with restoring stolen land to its rightful owners; investing the economic surplus created at home in local development; and using state-owned enterprises and fiscal and monetary policy to satisfy social welfare goals.
Sound advice, if taken literally
“Just as it is important to emerge from the control of another nation,” observed Obama, “it is even more important to build one’s own.” And yet most African countries remain economic colonies of the West, their independence limited to political forms (their own flag, parliaments and political leaders) but whose economies are dominated by Western banks, foreign corporations, and the descendants of European settlers; whose militaries are trained and funded by the United States, Britain and France; and who rely on aid from Western governments, and receive it, in return for political and economic concessions. African countries that have followed Obama’s advice to build their own countries have been harassed, undermined, destabilized, sanctioned and in many cases have seen their governments overthrown by the US and former colonial masters who pay lip service to independent development, but are deeply hostile to it. US presidents don’t want Africans to build their own countries. They want them to turn their countries over to the US business elite, and to continue to do so indefinitely.
Under the leadership of Zanu-PF, Zimbabweans have tried to build their own country according to their own needs, expropriating land confiscated by European settlers when the former colonial master, Britain, reneged on its promise to fund land reform. Zanu-PF has also led efforts to bring Zimbabwe’s resources and economy under the control of indigenous Zimbabweans, following methods reminiscent of the ones south Korea used to industrialize. But while south Korea’s subsidies, tariff protections and foreign ownership restrictions were tolerated by Washington as a necessary evil of the Cold War –- south Korea needed to be given space to develop into a capitalist showpiece on the Cold War’s frontlines – Washington has been unwilling to tolerate Zimbabwe’s efforts to follow the same path.
Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana, the first African country to achieve independence, argued that the less developed world would not become developed through the goodwill and generosity of the developed world. Instead, it would only become developed by struggle against the external forces – foreign corporations, banks and investors — that had a vested interest in keeping it underdeveloped.  Nkrumah would have agreed with Obama that “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” He would surely have disagreed with Obama’s prescription for how Africa ought to arrive at its future.
1. Discussion of south Korea’s development strategy, free trade, and corruption based on Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008.
2. “President Signs Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, December 21, 2001. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/12/200111221-15.html
3. The Guardian (UK), July 4, 2008.
4. The Herald (Zimbabwe) May 5, 2009.
5. TalkZimbabwe.com, July 16, 2008.
6. The New York Times, July 26, 2008; The Washington Post, July 26, 2008; The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), July 27, 2008.
7. “Obama extends Zimbabwe sanctions,” TalkZimbabwe.com, March 8, 2009.
8. US Census Bureau Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007, August 2008.
9. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.
10. US Bureau of Justice Statistics, cited in Hannah Holleman, Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster and R. Jamil Jonna, “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis,” Monthly Review, Vol. 61, No. 2, June, 2009.
11. Elombe Brath and Samori Marksman, “Conflict in the Congo: An Interview with President Laurent Kabila,” Covert Action Quarterly, Winter, 1999, Issue 66.
12. Julie Hollar, “Congo Ignored, Not Forgotten,”
Extra, Magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, May 2009.
14. Stephen Gowans, “US fomenting war in Somalia,” What’s Left, December 15, 2006, http://gowans.blogspot.com/2006/12/us-fomenting-war-in-somalia.html
15. Stephen Gowans, “Another US military intervention,” What’s Left, January 11, 2007, http://gowans.blogspot.com/2007/01/another-us-military-intervention.html
16. Stephanie McCrummen, “With Ethiopian pullout, Islamists rise again in Somalia,” The Washington Post, January 22, 2009; Stephen Gowans, “Spielberg: Chauvinist in humanitarian drag,” What’s Left, February 13, 2008. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/02/13/spielberg-chauvinist-in-humanitarian-drag/
17. “Selective Justice,” The New African, No. 484, May 2009.
18. Phil Clark, “Can Africa trust international justice?” The Guardian (UK) July 16, 2009.
19. Martin Kargbo, “The case against the ICC,” New African, July, 2009.
20. Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., London, 1965. http://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/nkrumah/neo-colonialism/index.htm
By Stephen Gowans
The Obama administration’s recent get tough policy on Israel over expansion of West Bank settlements may seem to signal a welcome reversal in Washington’s Israel-first foreign policy, but it is anything but. On the contrary, it drives toward the same aims that have structured US Middle Eastern policy for decades: pacifying the Palestinians.
The program of quieting Palestinian resistance was set back when Hamas, an uncompromising opponent of the Zionist project of colonial settlement of historic Palestine, won Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006. Israel, which had warned it would not tolerate a Hamas government, whether democratically elected or not, garnered US and EU support for a blockade to destabilize the newly elected government.
A Palestinian civil war eventually split the population, with Hamas, disinclined to sacrifice fundamental goals to immediate gains, ruling in the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, willing to compromise on just about everything, ruling in the West Bank.
Israel and Egypt imposed a total blockade on Gaza. The blockade prohibits entry of all goods – including the building materials Gaza’s residents need to rebuild hospitals, homes and infrastructure destroyed by Israeli forces earlier this year. The only goods that make their way in are those which can be smuggled through tunnels and the food and medicine that Israel and Egypt allow in.
“The aim is to keep Gaza at subsistence and offer a contrast with the West Bank, which in theory benefits from foreign aid and economic and political development. Hamas supporters will then realize their mistake,” (1) withdraw their support of Hamas, and overthrow the government. In subsequent elections, Gazans will vote for Hamas’s rival, Fatah, fearing a return of the blockade if they repeat the mistake of voting for Hamas. Hosannas will be sung to the birth of democracy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and all — from the narrow perspective of the Western media – will be well.
The problem with this scenario – and the reason why the blockade hasn’t worked — is that it ignores the reasons Palestinians voted for Hamas in the first place. Under Fatah’s watch, poverty and misery got worse, while Fatah’s leaders lived lives of growing extravagance. By contrast, Hamas’s leaders continued to live modestly, side by side with ordinary Palestinians.
Equally vexing were Fatah’s conspicuous political failures. Fatah led Palestinians into the “peace process” but had nothing to show for it. Israel continued to expand its settlements, was adamant that it would never honor the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, and insisted Jerusalem would remain in Israeli hands – the eternal and permanent capital of a Jewish state. Fatah had presented the peace process as a way of making compromises to secure concrete gains. Compromises were made, but the promised gains never materialized.
Instead, Palestinians were presented with an increasingly collaborationist Fatah leadership, ever more willing to settle for a state comprised of an agglomeration of disconnected areas, making up a tiny fraction of the land Palestinians had been dispossessed of, its borders controlled by the Israeli military, without a capital, and with no adequate redress for refugees.
What’s more, Fatah’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, owes his allegiance more to Washington, which funds and trains his security force and keeps him in power in the West Bank, than to the goals of Palestinian national liberation and self-determination. Abbas recently appointed himself president of the Palestinian Authority (with the full support of the self-declared champion of democracy, the United States), and, as leader of the dominant party of the PLO, sole legitimate spokesman for the Palestinians. This, despite his electoral mandate having lapsed and despite his party having lost the last elections.
With Abbas unable to command much popular support, Washington is in the position of having to do something to make their man in Ramallah more appealing to Palestinians. The latest tactic is to demand Israel cease expansion of its settlements in the West Bank. Washington has made this demand countless times before, only everyone knew US officials didn’t mean it, and there were no consequences if Israel chose to ignore it (which it always did.) But this time Washington means it, or says it does. Not because it has leaned a tiny fraction toward the Palestinians and away from the Israelis, but because administration officials believe this stance “will bolster Mr. Abbas.” (2) If Abbas is going to dance to Washington’s tune, he had better get something – even a lagniappe – to show for it; otherwise his credibility with Palestinians will continue to falter.
We shouldn’t, therefore, think that the US administration’s latest moves represent a victory for the Palestinians or a shift in US foreign policy objectives. On the contrary, by coming down firmly on the side of Abbas, Washington is trying to strengthen the position of a leader favored for his willingness to compromise, capitulate and collaborate. The intended victor is Israel, who, if Washington is successful, will have a tractable and more attractive Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas and whatever fellow Quislings follow.
(1) Ethan Bronner, “Misery hands over Gaza despite pledges of help,” The New York Times, May 29, 2009.
(2) Helene Cooper, “Obama calls for swift move toward Mideast peace talks,” The New York times, May 29, 2009.
By Stephen Gowans
Michael D. Yates wrote an MRZine article accusing Fox and CNN journalists, and Michael Steele, the first black person to be selected to chair the Republican National Committee, of being complete boneheads. That Yates chose MRZine as his vehicle for launching a diatribe against the intellectual failings of the likes of Lou Dobbs and Wolf Blitzer means he must have been looking for an easy sell. He might as well have told Palestinians that Zionists are not their friends.
Everyone on the Left knows there are plenty of right-wing morons, but rarely acknowledged is the plenitude of liberal morons. Progressives, for obvious reasons, don’t talk about them, though liberal morons are no less deserving of invective than Dobbs, Blitzer and Steele are.
Consider, for example, Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org. MoveOn.org, to quote directly from Sourcewatch.org,
“is a web-based liberal advocacy organization that raises tens of millions of dollars for Democratic Party politicians and causes from the millions of people on its e-mail list. MoveOn funds or sponsors with other liberal advocacy organizations various coalitions such as Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI), SavetheInternet.com Coalition, and Win Without War. It endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, fundraised and organized for him, and has become perhaps the lead lobby organization for his policies in 2009, apart from Obama’s own Organizing for America.”
My evidence for Ruben’s gobsmacking stupidity lies in the following four paragraphs from the New York Times of February 26. Discussing President Obama’s plans for “withdrawal” from Iraq, Times’ reporters Peter Baker and Thom Shanker note that “Even after August 2010 (the target date for withdrawal) as many as 50,000 of the 142,000 troops now in Iraq would remain.”
Obama says he intends to withdraw the remaining 50,000 “by 2011 in accordance with a strategic agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush before he left office,” (1) but has carefully chosen his words “to avoid a firm commitment.” (2) Intending to withdraw is different from committing to withdraw, and is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s talk of aspirational goals, as in: I aspire to do something, but that doesn’t mean I will.
Obama, the February 26 New York Times article continued,“plans to seek more money for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from a separate fund outside the Pentagon’s base budget, which will also grow beyond the 2009 spending plan of $513 billion. The separate ‘war costs’ budget proposal for 2010 could reach $130 billion to $140 billion, officials said.”
These are hardly the actions of a president preparing to wind down the war, but are entirely in keeping with the actions of a president whose country is structurally compelled to pursue an aggressive foreign policy.
“Word of Mr. Obama’s impending decision generated little of the anger that has flavored the Iraq debate for years,” The New York Times’ reporters noted. “Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, a group that has strongly opposed the war, said activists were willing to give Mr. Obama the benefit of the doubt.”
“’People have confidence that the president is committed to ending the war’,” Mr. Ruben said. “’This is basically what he promised in the election.’”
What Obama promised and what people think he promised are not often the same. But even in the face of Obama acting against what people thought he promised, morons like Ruben are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. In the divide between those selling you a bill of goods, and those being suckered, Obama sits on one side and Ruben on the other. Or is Ruben on Obama’s side? Is he the confederate who shouts from the crowd, “I’ll take ten of those,” after the snake oil salesman finishes his spiel on his amazing elixir that cures cancer, heart disease, flagging libido and the fleas?
It should be noted that plans for a stay-behind-force of around 50,000 troops were in the works under the Bush administration — another brick in the wall of evidence showing there are no foreign policy discontinuities of significance between Republican and Democrat administrations. Regime change in Iraq was official policy under the Clinton administration and the permanent military occupation of Iraq is as much a fixture of Obama’s foreign policy as it was of Bush’s. Indeed, that Obama has chosen to retain the Bush team’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates (who has served under seven previous presidents (3)) and Generals Petraeus and Odierno, shows he has not only “decided not to challenge the fundamental strategic orientation” of the Bush administration, but that he has chosen not to break to with the US policy of permanent military aggression. Obama’s carry-overs from the Bush administration will “oversee and manage the Iraq occupation” and “the widening U.S war in Afghanistan and the aerial assaults on Pakistan.” (4) Nothing has changed.
That Obama is carrying on in the traditions of previous US presidents should come as no surprise. What matters are not the personnel in Washington, and whether the president is black, brown, yellow, red, white, liberal or conservative, but the systemic imperatives that structure US policy and the interests of the corporate class whose wealth and connections are used to place people with the right politics in senior state positions.
1. Peter Baker, “With pledges to troops and Iraqis, Obama details pullout,” The New York Times, February 28, 2009.
3. “Iraq: Will Obama’s ‘change’ be more of the same?” Proletarian, Issue 28 (February 2009)
4. ANSWER coalition response
By Stephen Gowans
Obamamania was on full display Thursday in Canada’s capital, as the new US president made his first foreign visit – a six hour stop to wintry Ottawa, to exchange bromides with Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper.
When Obama stepped off Air Force One at Ottawa’s snow-swept airport he immediately thanked the Canadians who had worked to get him elected. That Canadians would volunteer their time and money to help the Obama campaign in an election they could not vote in reveals how wide Obama’s popularity is in Canada. It also reveals that Canadians recognize that the world’s longest undefended border does not insulate them from decisions approved in Washington. They do not, therefore, look upon US politics with indifference.
Given Canadians’ obsessive interest in the political affairs of their closest neighbor, and their sense that Obama represents a welcome relief from the dark and frightening night of the Bush presidency, it is not so outlandish to suggest that Obamamania may be more fervent in Canada than it is in many parts of the United States.
On the eve of Obama’s visit, Canadian newspapers vied to outdo each other in the race to provide their readers with essential information about the 44th president of the United States. “Why is Obama so sexy?” they asked. “Find out how Obama stays in shape.” And “Obama’s Canadian connection. His sister lives in Burlington, Ontario!”
Nothing about Obama was overlooked, except what mattered most — his decisions.
Friday’s headline in The Ottawa Citizen provided an especially embarrassing glimpse of how infatuated Canadians have become with Bush’s successor, and how obsessed they are (or at least their media are) with the minutia of the Obama presidency, and how ignorant they are of its substance.
“Six hours that B-rocked Ottawa.
“A few of us stood and watched. A lot of us got stuck in traffic. We twittered. We fawned. We groaned. We spent millions. He flew into Ottawa. He met with Stephen Harper. He left Parliament Hill. He bought a Beaver Tail.”
See Obama arrive. He arrives good. See Obama’s limousine. It is big. Obama loves Canada. Hurray for Obama. Long live Obama. He has a nice smile.
Obamamania ought to be written up as new chapter in Charles McKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, to nestle between chapters on the South Sea Bubble and Tulipomania.
And yes, Obamamania can be aptly described as mass insanity, for it is based on delusion and estrangement from reality. Canadians, like many others in the world, believe that Obama is different from George Bush. To be sure, he is. He’s younger, smarter, friendlier, fitter, more articulate, cuddlier and has more melanin. But Canadians, like everyone else, have been bamboozled into believing that US policy under a younger, smarter, friendlier, fitter, more articulate, cuddlier and more melanin-replete Obama, as president, will be different than it was under a dumber, darker, flabbier, less articulate, repellent and melanin-scarce Bush, as president.
A colleague of mine was at first skeptical, then shocked, to discover that Obama is dispatching more troops to Afghanistan. It seems the label “anti-war” candidate kept many from even a cursory examination of Obama’s policy statements during the presidential campaign – and from keeping tabs on what he’s been up to since. Why pay attention to policy statements and cabinet appointments and broken promises (referred to in Friday’s New York Times not as broken promises but as “recalibrations”) when there are more important matters to attend to – like Obama’s shoe size, where he spent his 2004 vacation, and his wife’s “refreshing” style.
Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian signer-songwriter, wrote a song many years ago which contained what I always thought to be a cautionary line meant for his compatriots about the behemoth that lies to their south.
“Let us not be beguiled,
By a nation so wretched,
With a handshake so mild.”
Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Koreans, Cubans and others would be mystified. Handshake? What handshake? But Canadians, more often than not accomplices in US aggressions against Third World peoples, are accustomed to mild handshakes and not the fist the unfortunates who sit on oceans of oil and prized geo-strategic positions and who get in the way of US corporate profit-making have been met with….and under presidents who wore pleasant smiles and were young and fit and sexy too.
Obama: the wretched nation’s latest version of the mild handshake.
If 10 times more people claimed to have attended Woodstock than were actually there, I suspect 10 times more people claim to have wept at Obama’s election victory than actually did. Weeping on the night of November 4 – or claiming you did — has now become a fashion. I, too, wept, though not because Obama won, but because the number of times I heard the words “Obama is the embodiment of hope” was too much to bear.
The day before the election, my son called me from school.
“I was just interviewed on Obama for the national news,” he related excitedly.
“”How’d that happen?”
“Actually, it was a group of us who were interviewed. I’m not sure I’m going to make it on the newscast, though. The reporter was looking for gushing reactions, and I pointed out that I had some concerns about Obama because he had received more in corporate donations than McCain had. I don’t think that’s quite what she was looking for.”
No mistake there. Two days later the segment aired in the last 10 minutes of an hour-long news show devoted to documenting (and manufacturing) excited reactions to the Obama victory. After 50 minutes of Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans delivering encomia on the Obama victory, my son’s chance at a brief moment of public exposure arrived. A group of high-school students, my son among them, is seen walking into a room. The reporter turns to each in turn and asks, “What do you think of Obama?” The first, a young man born in Canada to Chinese parents, says he identifies with Obama, because they’re both ethnic minorities. Another talks of hope. A third says she gets shivers down her spine whenever she hears Obama talk. (Demonstrating a talent for prophecy, my son predicts two days earlier that “She’ll make it on the newscast for sure.”) And so it goes, each student joining in the celebration, because, wasn’t that the implicit contract? Gush over Obama, and see yourself on TV. My son, whose concerns over Obama’s netting more corporate donations than McCain clashed impolitely with the intoxicated atmosphere of Obama worship, became a voiceless image; the one student who, for reasons never explained, was seen, but not heard, on camera.
To those grasping at straws, the election of a black man as president signals the recession of anti-black racism in the United States. For the gullible, it signals the dawn of a new age of hope.
There have been black people in numerous positions of power in the US before, from CEOs to mayors to governors to secretaries of state to the country’s top soldier. Now we can add president. Will anything of substance change because of this? Obama’s victory hasn’t caused anti-black racism to recede; it is, instead, a consequence of this. Will a black man in the White House make clear to the romantics who haven’t figured it out yet that black people are no different from white people, equally capable of oppressing, exploiting, plundering and killing on a massive scale? Add that liberals are as capable of these things as conservatives, and Obama, the black liberal president, offers no hope of departure from the accustomed trajectory.
Despite its recession, anti-black racism has only receded to the point where a privileged black man with rare forensic talents, the massive backing of the corporate community, and the help of the best marketing talent money can buy, can get elected; it has by no means disappeared, nor receded enough to make a substantial difference in the lives of most black people.
But for black people there’s inspiration to be found in one of their own ascending to the highest office in the land. The joy is misplaced. The only thing Obama shares in common with 99 percent of blacks in the United States is the color of his skin, and skin color, when you get right down to it, is only of consequence to bigots who continue to embrace the echo of a racist ideology once used by slave-owners (who happened to be white) to justify exploitation of slaves (who happened to be black.) If you’re going to screw people over, it’s useful to have a body of legitimizing ideas; after all, who wants to come face to face with the reality that he’s an unconscionable prick living off the toil of others? That’s where racism comes in handy. And if we’re talking about people exploiting others of the same skin color, there’s a whole other body of ideas to justify that, which, in these days of thin class consciousness, most of us mistake for common sense. To be sure, skin color does matter to the victims of racism because they can’t escape the fact that the bigots who continue to embrace the echo of a racist ideology keep making a fuss about it. But that makes Obama as much like them as George Bush is like me.
Come to think of it, George and I are alike in many ways. We’re middle aged; we both trip over words; we’re white; we’re male. But so what? George comes from a ruling class family; my forebears worked in factories, did manual labor, and in recent years, ascended to the ranks of the white-collar proletariat, deluding themselves that by wearing a tie and acting “professional” they had transcended their class. George snorted coke; I worked in a pharmaceutical factory for his friend Donald Rumsfeld. George went to Yale and the Harvard Business School on his family’s money; I went to two undistinguished public universities, one located in the gritty industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario, paying subsidized tuition with money saved up working at a grocery store. Whatever we have in common is picayune next to what sets us apart.
The very best comment I’ve heard on the Obama victory comes from Mickey Z. Obama’s ascendancy, he said in a Dec 1 interview published in the British newspaper, The Morning Star, “is an excellent illustration of how the system handles dissent. A black face, a soothing voice and a vague message of change – all designed to keep the rabble pacified without changing anything at all.”
While a debate whirled around me during the days leading up to the election over the question of whether leftists ought to vote for Obama or opt for someone who wasn’t going to put more boots on Afghan soil and rattle the Pentagon’s sabre at Iran, I kept my counsel. For one thing, I’m not a US citizen. The job of everyone else in the world is to bear the brunt of the stupid decisions Americans make. As much as the rest of us wish the consequences of their choices were limited to the US, sadly, what happens in the United States often has dire consequences for those living everywhere else. For another, all the reasons for not voting for a Democrat or Republican had been made cogently and repeatedly before, apparently, to no avail, and having exceeded my limit in flogging dead horses, I was tapped out. What’s more, it was clear that the Obama-supporters had formed an impermeable seal around their brains that admitted no appeal to reason. This was to be a purely emotional choice; hence, the tears of joy on election night.
While a vote for Nader had its merits, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Nader-supporters shared a delusion with the Obama-backers – that of believing that the right person in the Oval Office would make a difference. Americans might be excused for this delusion; after all, they’ve never elected a leftwing president and therefore have been spared the cold blast of reality that disappoints those who’ve worked to elect a leftwing government. Had they not been deprived of this sobering experience, they would recognize their faith in third party politics for the naïveté it is. A quick survey of what has happened when social democrats, socialists and even communists have won elections and formed governments with a program of reforming the system from within, leaves no doubt as to the possible outcomes. A new socialist age is not one of them. Either the new government:
o Recognizes that it must cater to the imperatives of the system it has chosen to work within to prevent its rule from being destabilized, and therefore behaves as any other pro-capitalist government does.
o Boldly introduces anti-capitalist reforms, only to suffer a backlash as investors and businesses withdraw their capital and refuse to make further investments. This provokes an economic crisis, and the government’s supporters, menaced by rising unemployment or shortages or rampant inflation, withdraw their support.
o Is ousted in a military or fascist coup.
o Is destabilized by outside forces.
Only where the energy of the bulk of people has been mobilized to tear the system down and replace it with one friendly to popular interests, have leftwing forces prevailed for any substantial period.
How is it, then, that substantial reforms, such as the public health care systems of Western Europe and Canada, came into being, if not by the agency of leftwing governments voted into power to reform the system from within? The truth of the matter is that reforms were just as likely to be introduced by conservatives as social democrats (and none of the reforms ushered in by Western governments, often as Cold War expediency, ever matched the programs established under Marxist-Leninist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern European.) It was Bismark and Gladstone – hardly lefties — who introduced the first modern social welfare programs. The basis for social security in the US came not from the Democrats or organized labor, but from the Rockefeller-founded Industrial Relations Counselors Inc., to head off labor unrest. While a Labour government was introducing the NHS in Britain, conservative governments on the continent were introducing their own NHS equivalents. And in Canada, it was the conservative government of John Diefenbaker that introduced the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act of 1957. Social democrats have claimed social programs as their own, but they can lay no claim to being the sole parents, and have just as often been involved in dismantling the reforms predecessor (and often conservative) governments had introduced.
The programs pursued by governments are shaped by the circumstances they encounter, surrounding events, and for those with reformist aims, by the constraints of the constitutional system and the logic of the capitalist system they’ve chosen to work within. Left-leaning governments bow to the demands of the capitalist economy to survive; conservative governments introduce reforms and concessions to head off labor militancy. Often these constraints are ignored by critics, who assume implicitly that the right person, once elevated to a position of power, is free to make history as he pleases. “Once our man is in power, just wait to see what happens.” The answer is often, more of the same, or policies the government’s backers revile.
Across from me sits a book on whose spine is written “Giving Away a Miracle.” It’s the story of the unlikely election in the 90s of a social democratic government in Ontario (the miracle.) The giving away began the very same night the party was elected, as its leader began beating a hasty retreat from the party’s campaign promises. It ended with the party, the supposed voice of organized labor, tearing up collective agreements it had negotiated with public sector unions.
The transformation from rhetorical champion of the average worker to just another pro-capitalist government was inevitable. The promises made – among them public auto insurance — would have ended in a messy fight with corporate Canada. Investments would be delayed, capital would be taken out of the province, and jobs would be lost. The news media, which exert a powerful influence in shaping public opinion, were uniformly hostile, warning that the new government would turn Ontario into an economic basket-case. The only way the government could have pursued its agenda was to have had massive popular support, toughened by the people’s readiness to suffer the inevitable blows that the corporations whose interests would be encroached upon, would rain upon the province. This, the government didn’t have, nor could have for long under circumstances in which conservative forces were allowed to continue to control the means of production and means of persuasion. What would have truly been a miracle is if the powerful opponents of the government’s agenda had stepped aside in deference to the people’s will and allowed anti-capitalist reforms to go ahead. But this never happens. The problem, then, wasn’t that a miracle had been given away; the problem was that the miracle of absent opposition never materialized.
The same can be said about Obama. Even if he were pro-labor and anti-war — which even a superficial look at his voting record, campaign statements, and cabinet choices will reveal he is not –- the course he pursued would have infinitely more to do with the socio-economic forces that press upon him than the color of his skin, his political leanings, or the fact that he belongs to one party of business rather than another. The same goes for Nader. If by some miracle he had won, his good intentions would prove no match for the system he chose to work within.
Obama’s election is no miracle, just what was needed to create the illusion of change. Any chance of meaningful change will require more than the election of another exhibitionist lawyer whose charm, forensic skills and ambition allowed him to catch the eye of people with the connections and resources to get him elected – the people who really rule America. The United States’ first black president is just another instrument of moneyed interests whose decisions will be structured by his obligations to the people who put him power and the logic of the capitalist system in which he must work — a charming Bush, with darker skin and a liberal pedigree. A better alternative than McCain? If you prefer the used car salesman who sells you a piece of crap while making you feel good about yourself, to the one who’s less talented in hiding his guile, yes. But shit is shit, whether you mask the odor with perfume or not.