What to expect from the Obama administration on domestic issues

On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I want to muse on what we might see in the coming years.

There has been considerable hand-wringing amongst some liberal supporters of Obama about the people he has selected so far for his administration, since many of them are warmed over Clintonites and other establishment types. But I have not been really surprised. As I have said repeatedly, Obama is a cautious and centrist politician. He is definitely not a progressive, even though some progressives read into his words and campaign more than what he actually said he stood for. The willingness of so many people across the political spectrum to think that Obama represents them is probably a measure of how fed up they are with Bush. Obama is seen as not-Bush and that is enough for them.
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Journalistic courage

(On January 8, 2009 Lasantha Wickramatunga, the outspoken editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper The Sunday Leader was brutally murdered on his way to work in the heart of the capital city Colombo. It was the work of a so-called ‘death squad’, those shadowy armed and violent groups that act with impunity in many countries.

Anyone who follows these things closely knows that the reason such ‘death squads’ can act so brazenly and are almost never captured and tried is because they are almost always a paramilitary arm of the government itself, often consisting of security forces out of uniform, and thus enjoy immunity. Their role is to intimidate and terrorize and eliminate all those whom the government dislikes. See this report on the murder and the events leading up to it to see how these death squads operate in Sri Lanka, but it is similar in many countries.
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Breaking the rule in discussions about US policies

In yesterday’s post, I spoke about the unwritten rule that politicians, reporters, and commentators in the US are expected to follow when it comes to discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A similar rule exists when it comes to discussion of the policies of the US government. Glenn Greenwald points out where this rule leads, where now ‘serious’ commentators dismiss the idea that people in the Bush-Cheney administration should be tried for war crimes because ‘they meant well’ and supposedly had ‘good reasons’ for committing awful acts, such as trying to ‘keep the country safe from terrorists’. He points out what happens if you carry that argument to its logical conclusion.

“[V]irtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking “excessive” measures. Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality.

But people like Goldsmith, Drezner, Douthat, and The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page can only see a world in which they — Americans — are situated at the center. They cite the post-9/11 external threats which American leaders faced, the ostensible desire of Bush officials to protect the citizenry, and their desire to maximize national security as though those are unique and special motives, rather than what they are: the standard collection of excuses offered up by almost every single war criminal (my italics).

If ostensible self-protective motives are now considered mitigating factors in the commission of war crimes — or, worse, if they justify immunity from prosecution — then there is virtually no such thing any longer as a “war crime” that merits punishment. Every tyrant and every war criminal can avail themselves of this self-defense. But advocates of this view — “Oh, American officials only did it to protect us from The Terrorists” — can’t or won’t follow their premise to this logical conclusion because their oh-so-sophisticated and empathetic understanding that political leaders act with complex motives only extends to their own leaders, to Americans.

But the rest of the world’s war criminals — the non-Americans — have no such complexities. They are basically nothing more than Saturday morning cartoon villains who commit war crimes not for any rational or justifiable reason or due to some grave predicament, but rather, out of some warped, cackling pleasure or to satisfy their evil, palm-rubbing plot for world domination and conquest.

This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression. Russia’s four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation. Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs. Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness.

Jim Henley adds that “The United States government has always engaged in war crimes and human rights violations. What’s different this decade is that, under the leadership of a terrible president, our elites have become vociferous advocates of the goodness and rightness of war crimes and human rights violations.” (emphasis in original)

Matthew Yglesias says, “According to the perverse rules of our post-9/11 discourse, willingness to verbally endorse the idea of having other people torture strangers counts as a form of courageous “toughness” akin to, you know, actually doing something brave. And the rot has, I’m afraid, spread pretty far.”

There are occasions for comparing actions and trying to create some kind of moral calculus especially if one is looking at the unfolding of history and trying to point out how cycles of violence usually become more cruel. But if an act is a murder or an atrocity or a war crime, then it remains so irrespective of who commits it or whether other people also do it. Justifying or excusing or minimizing an evil by pointing the finger at another evil only leads to a continuing cycle of evil.

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in August 2006, I covered some of this ground before in a four-part series of posts (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4) describing how this kind of tribal thinking leads to never-ending violence and death and destruction, made even worse by smug feelings of self-righteousness by the perpetrators.

Part 3 is particularly relevant to today’s and yesterday’s posts. In re-reading what I had written in it, it was depressing to see that if you replace the words Lebanon with Gaza and Hezbollah with Hamas, that essay would apply with equal force to the events of today. Will we ever learn?

POST SCRIPT: Prosecutions for torture and war crimes

Lawyer Phillipe Sands, who directs the Centre for International Courts and Tribunals at the University of London and is author of the book Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betryal of American Values, discusses with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air how war crimes are considered so evil that international treaties have declared that people who commit them should have no refuge. They are considered crimes against humanity, so that citizens of one country who committed those acts within their own country, can still be prosecuted by other countries.

So the fact that US authorities may choose to ignore the war crimes committed by its own citizens by not prosecuting them because they were done by ‘our’ people only increases the chances that prosecutors in other countries might open investigations. He says that many people in the Bush administration had better be very cautious about going abroad because they might be subject to arrest, the way Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was when he visited England.

The Year of Reason-2: Starting the process

When in social situations people hear that I am an atheist, they often ask why I don’t believe in a god. The answer is extremely simple and can be given in just one sentence: There is no sense in believing in something for which there is no evidence. But I have noticed that when people say, for example, that they belong to some religious sect like the Catholics or Judaism or Islam, no one asks them why they joined that sect or why they believe what members of that sect believes, though we would normally do that if people expressed a preference for anything else, say a film or book or a sports team.
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The Year of Reason-1: Understanding the reasons for irrational beliefs

(I was planning to start the new year with this post, but it got pre-empted by the posts on the horror that is being perpetrated on the people of Gaza.)

I think we should declare 2009 the Year of Reason.

This should be the year when we make a concerted effort to wipe out superstitious and irrational beliefs of all kinds. This category includes not only religious beliefs but also absurd and divisive and harmful ideas such as that the people who share one’s own nationality and ethnicity are somehow better than those who don’t, and thus deserve greater allegiance and consideration.

Familiarity breeds false rationality. For many people, irrational beliefs are what other people hold, not their own. Their own irrational beliefs seem reasonable because they acquired them at a very young age when they tended to believe what the adults in their lives told them and they have rarely been asked why they believe. The power of myths is that it never even occurs to people to question the validity of ideas that they have always had and which everyone around them seems to share.. [Read more…]

On Gaza-5: The public reaction

The largely one-sided nature of the response in the US to the events in Gaza is seen by the fact that even university academics, who are supposed to have the knowledge and independence to speak their minds, become suddenly silent when Israel takes actions like what is currently happening in Gaza. Neve Gordon and Jeff Halper point out that even the bombing of a university in Gaza did not arouse indignation among US academics, who are quick on other occasions when academic rights are infringed upon and academic institutions attacked.

Not one of the nearly 450 presidents of American colleges and universities who prominently denounced an effort by British academics to boycott Israeli universities in September 2007 have raised their voice in opposition to Israel’s bombardment of the Islamic University of Gaza earlier this week. Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, who organized the petition, has been silent, as have his co-signatories from Princeton, Northwestern, and Cornell Universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most others who signed similar petitions, like the 11,000 professors from nearly 1,000 universities around the world, have also refrained from expressing their outrage at Israel’s attack on the leading university in Gaza. The artfully named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, which organized the latter appeal, has said nothing about the assault.

Of course, Bollinger has already revealed that consistency and principles are of little concern to him. Some may recall how he gave a vicious tongue lashing to the democratically elected Iranian president Ahmadinejad while he was actually introducing him as a guest at his university, while fawningly and fulsomely praising the Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf on a similar occasion.

I do not expect Barack Obama to shift much from the standard practice of support for even the most appalling of right-wing Israeli policies. During the primaries Obama and Hillary Clinton seemed to be competing to see who could grovel more towards the Israel lobby groups and to right wing Israeli politicians, ignoring those who advocate a just solution to the Palestinian issue. Obama has tried to curry favor with hardline Israeli political groups and has also pandered quite shamelessly to AIPAC, even at one time calling for Jerusalem to be the ‘undivided capital’ of Israel, though he tried to walk that statement back a bit.

I do not expect him to do much about the atrocious treatment by Israel towards the people of Gaza, where the Israeli government has implemented a blockade that has caused immense hardships to everyone, or to pressure them to remove the settlements in the occupied territories, or to insist that they remove the wall being built that effectively annexes parts of the occupied territories and splits Palestinian communities. I do not expect him to go to that region and echo Ronald Reagan’s words to the Soviet Union in Berlin and to call upon the Israelis to “Tear down this wall!”, let alone call for the return to the pre-1967 borders called for by UN resolution 242 and others. The appearance of new organizations like J Street that challenge the impression that only groups like AIPAC represent the views of American Jews is an encouraging sign and one hopes that the Obama administration will talk to such groups more.

This series of maps by Siun shows how Israel has been steadily squeezing the Palestinians so that they end up living in Bantustan-like enclaves surrounded by the Israel military and have to pass through checkpoints to go from one enclave to another, similar to those created for blacks by the white South African regime during apartheid.

To take on the issues that would lead to justice for that region would require a level of political courage from Obama that he has not so far revealed. As Alexander Cockburn says:

It’s certainly true that the minute the new Obama administration made any move, however tentative, deemed “anti-Israel” by the massed legions of the Israel lobby – stretching from vice president Biden’s office, through Obama’s own Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to about 98 per cent of the U.S. Congress, the major newspapers and TV networks, the think tanks in Washington, the big Democratic Party funders – political mayhem would break loose. The White House would see its prime political enterprise, the economic recovery program, immediately held hostage.

Hamas has been greatly strengthened by the current attack and the status of President Abbas reaffirmed as a spineless collaborator with Israel; Mubarak likewise; Syria and Turkey alienated from Western designs; Hezbollah and Iran vindicated by the world condemnation of Israel’s barbarous conduct. For months Israel besieged Gaza, starving its civilian inhabitants of essential supplies with no effective international reproach. It’s hard to take dramatic photographs of an empty medicine bottle, but easy to film a bombed out girl’s dorm or a Palestinian mother weeping over the bodies of her five dead daughters, featured on the front page of the Washington Post this week.

Palestinians are considered expendable people by the US elites, somewhat less than human, whose deaths and suffering do not count for as much. It is similar to the way the million Iraqi casualties of the US invasion or the millions of Vietnamese casualties were regarded during the US invasion of that country.

The invaluable Glen Greenwald puts his finger on the basic problem: the tribal ways of thinking that permeate our societies.

So many of these conflicts — one might say almost all of them — end up shaped by the same virtually universal deficiency: excessive tribalistic identification (i.e.: the group with which I was trained to identify is right and good and just and my group’s enemy is bad and wrong and violent), which causes people to view the world only from the perspective of their side, to believe that X is good when they do it and evil when it’s done to them. X can be torture, or the killing of civilians in order to “send a message” (i.e., Terrorism), or invading and occupying other people’s land, or using massive lethal force against defenseless populations, or seeing one’s own side as composed of real humans and the other side as sub-human, evil barbarians. (emphasis in original)

He quotes George Orwell who long ago pointed out that this kind of tribalism blinds people to their own glaring inconsistencies:

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side … The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.

The results of this kind of tribal thinking that Greenwald and Orwell describe are on clear display in almost any conflict that is going on now, such as Gaza. This is why I argue that taking pride in, and having excessive allegiance to, one’s religion, race, ethnicity, region, and nationality are all evils that an enlightened person will not countenance.

POST SCRIPT: Getting wider news sources

Eric Garris of the absolutely invaluable website Antiwar.com provides some important information about a new application called Livestation that enables you to get live TV and radio stations from around the world, including BBC World Service and Al Jazeera (English). The download was easy and the quality is excellent.

Thanks to Livestation I can now see Al Jazeera live and see first hand what is going on there because it is the only major news organization that has reporters in Gaza. Al Jazeera was unable to gain access to US cable channels because the cable companies here would not agree to include them as an option, thus reinforcing the one-sided view of the conflict. This is another example of how the internet is allowing people to bypass the media filters and gain access to a broader news spectrum.

On Gaza-4: The US and UK government reactions

In response to the Israeli attack on Gaza, the US and UK governments and the mainstream media in those countries have been as usual almost unanimous in their support for the Israeli actions and in condemning the Palestinians.

Paul Craig Roberts comments on the underlying reasons why Gaza is being strangled and the hypocritical reactions of especially the US and UK governments.

Israel’s excuse for its violence is that from time to time the Palestinian resistance organization, Hamas, fires off rockets into Israel to protest the ghetto life that Israel imposes on Gazans. The rockets are ineffectual for the most part and seldom claim Israeli casualties. However, the real purpose for the Israeli attack is to destroy Hamas.

In 2006 the US insisted that the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank hold free elections. When free elections were held, Hamas won. This was unacceptable to the Americans and Israelis. In the West Bank, the Americans and Israelis imposed a puppet government, but Hamas held on in Gaza. After unheeded warnings to the Gazans to rid themselves of Hamas and accept a puppet government, Israel has decided to destroy the freely elected government with violence.

For the US and UK governments, Israel can do no wrong. Israel doesn’t have to stop withholding food, medicine, water, and energy, but Hamas must stop protesting by firing off rockets. In violation of international law, Israel can drive West Bank Palestinians off their lands and out of their villages and give the stolen properties to “settlers.” Israel can delay Palestinians in need of emergency medical care at checkpoints until their lives ebb away. Israeli snipers can get their jollies murdering Palestinian children.

The Great Moral Anglo-Americans couldn’t care less.

The fearful conditions in Gaza have existed for a long time. Chris McGreal in the UK newspaper The Guardian in 2005 reports on life under Israeli occupation:

In southern Gaza, the killings take place in a climate that amounts to a form of terror against the population. Random fire into Rafah and Khan Yunis has claimed hundreds of lives, including five children shot as they sat at their school desks. Many others have died when the snipers must have known who was in their sights – children playing football, sitting outside home, walking back from school. Almost always “investigations” amount to asking the soldier who pulled the trigger what happened – often they claim there was a gun battle when there was none – and presenting it as fact.

And now we hear of over 40 people being killed in separate attacks on two UN schools in a refugee camp where they had sought shelter from the bombardment. As of yesterday, over 200 children have been killed out of a total of about 600 deaths.

Columnist Mark Steel of the UK newspaper The Independent uses black humor to make some sharp points about the way that the US and British politicians and media have reacted to the latest events in Gaza.

When you read the statements from Israeli and US politicians, and try to match them with the pictures of devastation, there seems to be only one explanation. They must have one of those conditions, called something like “Visual Carnage Responsibility Back To Front Upside Down Massacre Disorder”.

For example, Condoleezza Rice, having observed that more than 300 Gazans were dead, said: “We are deeply concerned about the escalating violence. We strongly condemn the attacks on Israel and hold Hamas responsible.”

Someone should ask her to comment on teenage knife-crime, to see if she’d say: “I strongly condemn the people who’ve been stabbed, and until they abandon their practice of wandering around clutching their sides and bleeding, there is no hope for peace.”

The gap between the might of Israel’s F-16 bombers and Apache helicopters, and the Palestinians’ catapulty thing is so ridiculous that to try and portray the situation as between two equal sides requires the imagination of a children’s story writer.

The reporter on News at Ten said the rockets “may be ineffective, but they ARE symbolic.” So they might not have weapons but they have got symbolism, the canny brutes.

It’s no wonder the Israeli Air Force had to demolish a few housing estates, otherwise Hamas might have tried to mock Israel through a performance of expressive dance.

Or there’s the outrage that Hamas has been supported by Iran. Well that’s just breaking the rules. Because say what you will about the Israelis, they get no arms supplies or funding or political support from a country that’s more powerful than them, they just go their own way and make all their weapons in an arts and crafts workshop in Jerusalem.

But mostly the Israelis justify themselves with a disappointing lack of imagination, such as the line that they had to destroy an ambulance because Hamas cynically put their weapons inside ambulances.

They should be more creative, and say Hamas were planning to aim the flashing blue light at Israeli epileptics in an attempt to make them go into a fit, get dizzy and wander off into Syria where they would be captured.

But they prefer a direct approach, such as the statement from Ofer Schmerling, an Israeli Civil Defence official who said on al-Jazeera, “I shall play music and celebrate what the Israeli Air Force is doing.”

Maybe they could turn it into a huge national festival, with decorations and mince pies and shops playing “I Wish We Could Bomb Gaza Every Day”.

In a similar tone Dov Weisglas, Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff, referred to the siege of Gaza that preceded this bombing, a siege in which the Israelis prevented the population from receiving essential supplies of food, medicine, electricity and water, by saying, “We put them on a diet.”

That Weisglas, such a kidder.

Stephen M. Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of the book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy points out that there is almost complete unanimity in this country’s political leadership for providing unconditional support for any and all Israeli policies. He says that the perception that Americans in general support their government’s stance needs to be challenged:

The evidence suggests otherwise: although most Americans support Israel’s existence and have more sympathy for them than they have for the Palestinians, they are not demanding that U.S. leaders back Israel no matter what it does. But that’s what American politicians reflexively do, even though it encourages Israel to continue immoral and self-destructive policies (including the continued expansion of settlements) and contributes to Arab and Islamic anger at the United States.

Mearsheimer made similar arguments in a very funny appearance on The Colbert Report that yet managed to convey some of the crucial points at issue.

Although there had been criticisms of the US government’s almost unconditional support for Israel and against the Palestinians in the alternative media, it was the appearance in 2007 of the Mearsheimer and Walt book based on their 2006 article in the London Review of Books that took it more mainstream, since these two scholars were very much establishment figures of the ‘realist’ school of political scientists, hardly radicals. For those interested in what the book says, my earlier three part series of posts on their book (here, here, and here) provides an introduction.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the one-sided response in the US to events in Gaza

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On Gaza-3: The media reaction

The mainstream media in the US and UK follow the line of their respective governments, who in turn follow Israel’s lead and place almost the entire blame on the Palestinians. The power of this conformity can be seen in the kinds of things that Martin Peretz, for over three decades the owner and publisher of the ‘liberal’ magazine The New Republic, says. Eric Alterman profiles the vicious racism against Arabs that characterizes his writings.
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On Gaza-2: Countering the myths

Mustafa Barghouthi, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, in an article well-worth reading titled Palestine’s Guernica and the Myths of Israeli Victimhood painstakingly tries to refute all the reasons given by apologists for Israel’s actions to justify this latest assault on the Palestinians. Those myths, which the mainstream media and both democratic and Republican politicians in the US tend to repeat uncritically, consist of the following:
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