Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Great Reconciler - How Obama is Making the Far Left Look Like the Far Right

So the title of this article is a little overzealous. This is really a response to a single article, the article Obama Looking Very Short on Change at newmatilda.com. You can read the whole article here. However, I find the criticisms made against Obama in this article representative of things I have been hearing from my ultra-leftist friends, and, oblivious to the irony, the right-wing pundits. The latter not out of conviction but out of a desperation for arguments against Obama that could stick. The former out of a desire to cling to the almost tantric sense of disenfranchisement imposed by George W. Bush.

“Consider first the case of Afghanistan. Obama — more intelligent and candid than Bush — has admitted the occupation of Afghanistan is going badly. What has he learnt from this? To respect Afghanistan's sovereignty and the wishes of its people? No. Obama has inherited Bush's imperial arrogance, which is considered so natural that it goes unnoticed, even when openly reported. British paper the Independent, for example, reported that Obama has decided he doesn't like Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, and wants to find a new one.”


First, you have to be careful when you assert that you know the will of a people without pointing to evidence. What if the will of its people is to impose a fundamentalist Sharia Law not only on its own citizens but on the rest of the world as well, say a Sharia Law that legalizes marital rape for instance, or a death penalty for being gay, And what if they are willing to allow mass terror attacks to be organized and administered in their sovereign territory? I’m not saying that IS the will of the Afghan people, I think it’s more likely they want to live a normal happy life free from war, but I also think that they’d prefer not to have 4th Century repression imposed on them by the barrel of a Kalashnikov. It’s a serious question to ask because you have to make the decision of what you value more – State sovereignty, or human rights. Is it more important for China or Sudan to have impunity for committing acts tantamount to genocide, or is it more important to stop the Genocide itself? If you would stop Genocide where would you draw the line? There is no hard and fast answer to that question.

You also need to consider if it is moral to leave a despot installed by George Bush who is among the most corrupt leaders in the world, one who cannot even provide the most basic governmental services to his people while at the same time allowing government officials to bribe people for anything from entering the airport to delivering food aid, to leave the Afghan people at his discretion? Because he is elected? How free and fair are Afghan elections when the local warlord who controls every aspect of you public life tells you which way to vote because Karzai’s people look the other way on his opium fields? How free and fair can election be when the majority of the population is ill-informed, illiterate and terrified? Those are other questions to consider before you declare the paramount status of state sovereignty, or the so-called will of the people.

“However, lately even Karzai has been speaking out against American arrogance towards Afghanistan. The Economist notes that he has been publicly condemning the US airstrikes that have been killing Afghan civillians. It even called him "strident", as it is considered inappropriate and audacious for poor countries to dare lecture the rulers of the world about who they should or shouldn't be killing.”

The Obama administration has apologized for civilian casualties. Of course that doesn’t make them right, but it is not fair to pretend that he callously overlooks them. You have to look at it in the context of whether you believe we should fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda or not, and then consider the very important distinction between deliberately targeting civilians, which Al Qaeda and increasingly the Taliban does as a matter of policy, and the unforgiveable yet unintentional killing of civilians in the act of fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It is like if a police sniper misses a target in a hostage crisis, one in which the hostage taker has already killed several people, and the sniper kills a hostage, you berate the sniper as if there was no hostage crisis and that he/she intentionally killed the hostage while remaining eerily silent on the presence of and murders committed by the hostage taker.

“But then, any Middle Eastern country, no matter how tyrannous, which is willing to obey Washington (and perhaps tacitly support Israeli crimes against the Palestinians), is ipso facto considered "moderate".”

Look, I agree that the ties the US has with S.A., Egypt and Israel are terrible in many aspects in that there is a certain level of complicity in not standing up to them. But I also think that you can’t make that argument when you condemn the US for ‘imperialism’ in Afghanistan and Pakistan when it is fighting against tyrannical elements at least as bad as in any Middle East dictatorships (or democratic systems engaging in large scales crimes against humanity). And I think this type of argument was exploited in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Because either they’re tyrannous and we do something about it (sanctions, or war, both of which I was opposed to) or we don’t and we have people do what is being done here, which is criticize for complicity in their tyrannous rule, ignoring what is in between the two extremes. I agree that more should be done, but don’t accuse Obama of being disingenuous on these issues, he has been clear about his intentions to support Israel from the start, but he also acknowledged that they will no longer be given a blank check. He has already worked to strengthen ties with Turkey, the flagship Islamic democratic republic. And he has softened the tone with regards to Iran, which he gets criticized for either way – complicity or arrogance, right? But in reality it is inclusion, engagement and dialogue that will bring progress. Look how well isolation has worked in North Korea, Burma and Cuba.

“Obama's "change" platform did, however, include one substantive issue. He virtually pledged that he would bomb Pakistan, and that is what he has been doing.”


This is another example of the invocation of the sovereignty uber alles argument and the ‘ignore the hostage taker’ syndrome. First of all the territory the U.S. has bombed is not administered by the Pakistani government, despite the name Federally Administered Tribal Areas. And more importantly they are bombing targets they believe are Al Qaeda and Taliban. Sometimes they are not correct. That does not excuse it. But it does explain it. People are being trained and armed in these areas of Pakistan to go and shoot up restaurants and hotels in Kabul, and blow up women and children doing their shopping (as well as fighting Coalition Forces [forgive me for use of that term I could not think of a better one]). As uncomfortable as it is as a supporter of non-violence I still find it imperative to draw the distinction of motive – in judging the purposeful killing of innocent civilians as worse than the unintentional killing of innocent civilians. You can argue then that ‘well we shouldn’t be there in the first place, and we should just leave’. And that is easy for you to argue if you’re not the president of the U.S. If we just leave Afghanistan and let the Taliban flourish there and provide safe-haven for Al Qaeda, there is a credible threat to U.S. national security that is created that, as president, Obama is responsible for. I say it is credible because it already happened once. It is different from Iraq, because the threat there was not credible. But that’s not what we’re arguing about here. Ultimately it comes to whether or not you cede control over an area to the Taliban (which Pakistan is doing increasingly). You can object to the US imposing its will on States it doesn’t like, and even tacitly supporting dictatorships, which I do, but it is a wholly different scenario when the authoritarian entity in question has the means motive and will to attack you. It is like a non-violence advocate saying that he wouldn’t stop someone from raping and murdering his wife and daughter. Some principles are more valuable than others – like the principle of not having your family raped and murdered (that is a principle right?) vs. the principle of non-violence. And it is Obama’s responsibility to the U.S. and Afghanistan in this situation; the Afghans who are not violent-religious-zealots, and the Americans – violent-religious-zealots and all.

“Plainly, Obama's "radical reversal" doesn't include worrying about the nagging of people in foreign countries. They fail to understand that they should not determine what happens in their own land.”


Again, it is certainly the case that the U.S. throws its weight around with less powerful nations to get policies it prefers. Sometimes that is actually a good thing – like human rights conditions for aid. A lot of the time though it is a bad thing – ignoring human rights for corporate access to markets, materials and labor. This example (U.S. military involvement in Pakistan) is a completely different species. And when you conflate them, you devalue the left’s arguments against U.S.-corporate exploitation because proponents can simply point out your implicit support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan by saying it's okay for them to have a safe haven there.

“The depressing continuities extend to US policy on Israel. Obama appointed Dennis Ross to his administration, making as plain as possible that he is going to continue America's support for the Israeli occupation.”

“Obama is also continuing the boycott of Hamas.”


I am with you on this. I am sure Obama will be mildly better on Israel than Bush was, but I’m not optimistic. You are right on in your criticism of David Ross appointment and the aid continuance. A couple of interesting points that I have heard recently are that the US support of Israel is solely a product of Israel’s current position as preeminent power in the Middle East, and that that could change accordingly; the other was that Israel is running out of concessions to leverage (the Golan Heights, and Palestinian Statehood being the two realistic options left), and that they are afraid that if they make those concessions they will lose their position of power and also their favored status with the U.S. That means that I hope they make those concessions and their prediction comes to be. But it also means that they will be less likely to make those concessions any time soon.

I do agree with Obama’s decision not to recognize Hamas. It is selective memory to pretend that because they were democratically elected that legitimizes them. Milosevic was democratically elected. It doesn’t change the fact that they commit acts of terrorism. And while I absolutely sympathize with Palestine, I do not support and strongly oppose Hamas, as I oppose the Israeli government for their terrorist policies.

“And finally, to Iraq, and what the Australian's Geoff Elliot interpreted as Obama's "radical reversal". In his article from last month, Elliot tells us that Obama will withdraw 12,000 American troops by September. However, this news doesn't constitute any substantial change.”


That is true, but it ignores the fact that Obama has outlined a plan to withdraw all troops by 2011. I am with you in that I don’t think it’s fast enough, but I don’t claim to have the intelligence insight that I am sure Obama has that prompted him to expand with withdrawal target by three months.

“In an interview with Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill noted that when Obama was questioned on the campaign trail about ending the occupation, Obama declared he would not support a withdrawal that included the new "embassy" that the US has just unveiled in Baghdad. As Scahill says, it is the "largest of any nation anywhere in the history of the planet", and defending it will require a "sizeable armed presence in Baghdad".


I’m with you 100%. Mercenaries are bad. The embassy is ridiculous. End of story.

“Consider also the opinion of regional expert Juan Cole. Cole has consistently opposed the war on Iraq, and is convinced that Obama is ending the occupation. Yet he also notes that Obama's plan includes leaving up to 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of 2011. Cole recognises also that Maliki remains dependent on US military support, so the "caveat about Obama's pledge to remove troops by the end of 2011 is that he cannot possibly be including the US Air Force, which is almost certainly in for a longer mission".

I have to call you out on a word choice here where you say BY instead of UNTIL in the sentence “Obama's plan includes leaving up to 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of 2011”. What you wrote suggests that by the end of 2011 there will still be 50,000 troops in Iraq (which by the way is less than the number of US troops in Germany). While it may be true that there will be 50,000 US troops present until the end of 2011, BY the end of 2011 Obama has pledged to withdraw all troops. Yes, Iraqi forces are still dependant on US forces at this point in time, but using that to argue that Obama is just a continuation of Bush in Iraq is, well it’s like what Juan Cole said in the article you referred to –

“Some Republicans claimed that Obama's plan vindicated their Iraq policies, which is sort of like claiming that Captain Sullenberger's water landing in the Hudson vindicated the geese that knocked out the jet engines.”

“Obama was elected promising change. But in all the U.S.'s recent actions — in everything from a new series of embarrassing gaffes right down to a new Guantanamo — the changes are noticeable to anyone but the victims of US foreign policy.”


You leave out that the gaffes are from Clinton and the ‘series’ consisted of pronouncing a Spanish name Solano instead of Solana, and proclaiming that US democracy was around a lot longer than in Europe which is actually true for most parts of Europe.

But I will grant you that Obama’s position on Bagram airbase is a major disappointment. So is the continuation of extraordinary rendition which you didn’t mention. It is deplorable, and hopefully will be reversed soon, because I have to believe that that is the kind of person Obama is. He is the one that has decommissioned CIA Black Site prisons, he is the one who IS closing Guantanamo Bay, he is the one who has repudiated torture and removed it from US policy (your assertion that just because torture happened at Bagram and Bagram still exists so torture continues is unsound and repudiated by the public policy change Obama made declaring an end to US torture. He does have a genuine concern for human rights demonstrated by his experience as a comunity organizer and a civil rights lawyer.

There are many keen observations and valid points in this article. But they were undercut, by the often confused and sometimes false accusations made toward Obama. It is absolutely important to hold Obama’s feet to the fire. But it is also important to encourage the encouraging and not ignore it.