Sunday, August 28, 2011

Not so fast: US-NATO the clearest victors in Libya

Rebels celebrating victory in Tripoli, Aug. 23, 2011

 Not so fast:  US-NATO the clearest victors in Libya

Last week, with a large part of Tripoli taken from loyalists, it finally looked as though, sooner than expected, the rebel forces were winning in Libya. Despite the illegality of the US-NATO intervention and the considerable number of deaths, casualties and infrastructure damage caused, it has evidently both helped the rebels gain control more quickly and prevented Qaddafi from massacring his own people. This is of course fortunate. Perhaps we were wrong to oppose the no-fly zone. Once the rebels requested it, it might have been immoral to deny it, despite the loss of independence for the rebels that results. But it's hard to see this as a clear victory for Libya.

Photographs in major western media showed young men celebrating victory. It seemed like a joyous moment, the apparent overthrow of a dictator, the anticipation of a new freedom. Not as pretty a sight as the crowds in Tahrir Square in Egypt's relatively peaceful revolution, yet cheering to see that the bloodshed may not go on very much longer. But the premature way a victory has been declared recently in the western press is suspicious. Qaddafi hasn't stepped down or been captured yet. While rebels were celebrating in Tripoli August 23, Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam had escaped again and was free on the street there taunting them. Victory can't be declared as long as Qaddafi forces still control parts of Tripoli, or certainly did when the celebrating began. Things are still very difficult in Libya. 

In the first place we do not know who the rebels are. Gilbert Achcar has called that "the one billion dollar question." The US-NATO allies have chosen to anoint one leading rebel element, the TNC, the Transitional National Council, to make things look orderly. They're aware of the need to avoid the perceived disaster of Iraq, where the army was disbanded, the Baath Party purged from the bureaucracy, the seeds of total disorder and factional conflict thus sown immediately following the invasion. It's not so clear what governmental infrastructure there is to preserve here, however. We don't even know where Qaddafi and his sons are. Unlike the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt Qaddafi has not shown an inclination to step down. On the other hand, when he is truly out, Libya has a better chance of starting from scratch, since it has relatively little governmental or military structure.  A dubious advantage, perhaps.  But Egypt seems to have had almost too much structure, since the military has wound up continuing to control the country just as it always did. Uncertainty about who the various rebel groups are in Libya and how potential political leaders may be variously allied with them makes everything uncertain.

Sail al-Islam al-Qaddafi free in Tripoli, Aug. 23, 2011

Some Middle East analysts, like Michigan professor and blogger Juan Cole, are cheerleaders for the US-NATO intervention in Libya's revolt and are claiming a great result. Others like Phyllis Bennis and Conn Hallinan, are extremely sceptical of this supposed "victory." The basic objections are not surprising, and so are the justifications, for intervention. Even Hallinan acknowledges Qaddafi "has a crazy streak." To many he looks simply crazy through and through. But the fact that a ruler is a dictator or even a madman is not a justification for overthrowing him from outside. Or rather, it is a kind of justification, but we can't just overthrow every regime we don't approve of. In fact interventions are highly selective. And this is particularly evident with the Arab revolts. So let's not kid ourselves. The Libyan intervention is a matter of self-interest. It might have been immoral to refuse it, but it's still opportunistic, not democratic.

The US is involved in the Libyan revolt for alliances and obligations, because Libya's location makes it so important to Italy and France, and the US wants to keep these key NATO allies indebted for help in its other wars, notably Afghanistan. More than that, the overwhelming concern, as in the case of Iraq, is obviously oil, of which the US is by far the major world consumer. Juan Cole called this idea "daft," quaintly using antiquated British slang. Not very daft for oil to be a concern when we are talking about the twelfth largest world producer and the largest producer in Africa. As Hallinan and Bennnis point out it's not the oil deals themselves that will change significantly but the specific contracts. The companies, Total, BP, and the rest, will remain the same, but the rebels will make "sweetheart deals," as Hallinan puts it, since they're beholden to the NATO allies and the US for holding the purse strings. Hence the NATO intervention will be of great economic benefit to western oil consumers and particularly the US.

Cheerleaders like to soft-pedal the fact, but despite Obama's claiming this isn't war and downplaying American involvement, the US has played a key role throughout the Libyan conflict. Make no mistake, the US will be one of the chief economic beneficiaries in the long term -- and also a military one. Hallinan stresses the role in these events of the new unified American military command for Africa, created in 2006, called Africom. He calls the Libyan intervention Africom's "coming out party." Africom will mean massive intervention in Africa. Behind this are plans for huge land grabs and competition among the world's most powerful and and fastest rising economies, including China and India, for the wealth of cheap resources, cheap land, and cheap labor that the African continent offers. Now that America's traditional alliances with the dictatorial right wing Arab governments are being undermined by the destabilizing effects of the Arab Spring, a new economic, military, and paramilitary stranglehold on Africa may compensate and help offset that, as well as helping resolve the US's current economic woes. The sweetheart deals may include Libyan bases as well.

While the American empire may be in decline as the late Chambers Johnson argued in his Blowback Trilogy,  the US still seems to be the one to emerge unscathed from conflict.  Despite its heady glimpse of liberation from tyranny, Libya still remains stuck in some ways in a no-win situation. Perhaps the western powers had a moral obligation to respond to the rebels' request for intervention.  But this aid in turn has to be paid for in economic and military domination -- a price Egypt has avoided by carrying out its own revolution.   The future of Egypt's revolution may be infinitely complicated, but the revolutionary spirit there seems solid, and greater independence from the US and Israel so far evident. The US-NATO Libyan intervention further extends the long reach of American economic and military power whose newest focus is Africa.

Demonstrators, Tahrir Square, Cairo

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Obama the people-pleaser

 Barack Obama
 Obama the people-pleaser

 We have needed the strongest democratic president in a generation and we have gotten the weakest. Letters to the Editor of the New York Times inspired by Drew Westen's Sunday article, "What Happened to Obama?" (Sunday Review, Aug. 7, 2011 ) outline a problem that more and more of even the president's strongest former supporters are coming to recognize: he has not been the firm, decisive leader America has needed during this difficult time. "The president has allowed events to control him, not vice versa," one writer sums up. "Barack Obama has just not been tough enough to confront the myriad transgressions of the Congressional Republicans, who have decimated our economy and our political process," states another letter. "I am heartsick about this failure to offer strong, firm and effective leadership, particularly at a time when our country so desperately needs it," the writer concludes. Another writer to the Times expresses disappointment from the inaugural address onward. "I hadn't realized it then, but what we heard was the first of many lifeless lectures to come from the professor in chief." The president has failed to show his famed rhetorical gifts of late, and the lifelessness of his public speeches reflects his weakness in action. The writer laments the President's "passive handling of the debate over stimulus, jobs and the health public option."

Still another letter on this day focuses on what is the latest and perhaps most crucial turning point in confidence: the debut ceiling fuss, in which the Tea Party Republicans made their "narrative" more visible than the Democrats'. The writer points to a persistent criticism of the President: "Barack Obama is unwilling to identify a villain, without whom he has nothing to triumph over. Moderate Republicans face a similar challenge." The Tea Party, the letter says, showed its willingness to sink the American economy. They "are the villains here," the letter says, and "the president who is willing to say so is going to win the 2012 election." Another writer, still responding to Westen's powerful essay, says the people "elected an amateur with no record of accomplishment to the presidency," and wishes we could "reanaimate Lyndon B. Johnson."

Other letters to the Times look for the roots of President Obama's shortcomings and find them in the experience he describes in his books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. One writer sees Obama's "centrist posture" as "an expression of a lifelong struggle to please people and make sense of what it means to be both black and white." Still another asks, "What happened to President Obama? Nothing. He is the same person he described in Dreams from My Father, as unsure of his own identity and obsessively seeking acceptance from others, all others. But that is not the way governing and politics work."

There are deep ironies in the contrasts between Obama and George W. Bush. Bush had lackluster beginnings, but secure, patrician ones. Obama was a child of mixed race raised by a single parent, but he showed brilliance. However he may have started out and however much he relied on his posse of neocons, Bush in the White House spoke with sure tones. His posturing, macho, cowboy style was the reverse of the dry, compromising, professorial Obama. Bush's presidency was a disastrous one for America and for the world, but he went about creating his destruction with a sure hand and a firm voice. Obama creates his by dodging issues and changing sides.

Another letter in Obama's defense listing his accomplishments leaves decidedly mixed feelings. Yes, the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty strikes a positive note. Abolishing the gays-in-the-military fumble "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is an improvement -- except that it has not yet taken place. The two Supreme Court nominations may be "superb," but that remains to be seen. The "Affordable Care Act" is a disappointment for all who wanted it because it lacks the one essential feature, a public option, and how much it may still be undermined by conservatives in Congress remains to be seen. The letter-writer cites the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform, but that is evidently a failure. The same things are happening again. Three years later, the front page headline of this same issue of the Times is "Financial Turmoil Evokes Comparison to 2008 Crisis." The Dodd-Frank reform is a hollow accomplishment. The writer cites a "restored" Environmental Protection Agency under Lisa Jackson and a "restored" Justice Department under Eric Holder. These changes show Obama is not Bush, but it's not enough to be not Bush. Too many Bush-era practices, especially under Justice, are continuing, or being augmented. The "effective" secretary of state represented by Hilary Rodham Clinton is obviously not carrying out the policies of Bush either, but she represents the same kind of hubristic and imperialistic posturing that have characterized American foreign policy. Finally, the writer lists "the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden." But whether that raid was "successful" depends on whether anything positive comes of it, such as an end to the scare-mongering "war on terror" (like the counter-productive "war on drugs") and withdrawal from Afghanistan. But Afghanistan on the contrary is Obama's pet war, it would seem -- though he has greatly stepped up attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere as well. Given the overwhelming problems that still face the country, these "accomplishments" seem very much a mixed bag.

Whatever Obama has so far achieved, whether he is still the leader people voted for with such enthusiasm or has now become a Democrat manqué or simply not-Bush, or even Bush-lite, the biggest issues a liberal president must confront in America and the world today remain disturbingly unresolved, and one could even say unconfronted. Above all there is the economy. Obama is flunking Economics 101. He has fed the public a series of lies and misconceptions about what the economy now requires and how it functions at the federal level. He has failed to recognize the need to float debt to achieve stimulus and to create jobs. He has failed to assert that revenue must be produced both to revive the economy and to reduce the deficit. Led by extremist ideologues, Congress has been engaged in an insane charade about financial non-issues, and the president has been held hostage by this, allowing "events to control him, not vice versa." He has made debt and deficit that chief targets at a time when they should be set aside in favor of reducing unemployment and getting the economy going again. The public strongly feels this. Many economists have been saying it over and over. And Obama instead has been listening to and seeking to placate the Republican right. In doing this he is perhaps pleasing people in Washington, but he is not pleasing the electorate. One thing about Bush: he knew his "base" and how to give it what it wanted. But Obama's supporters feel abandoned by him. The people-pleaser who has no true center runs into trouble eventually, because he winds up creating enemies among his original friends. And then the man who wanted to be everybody's friend is left standing alone, the friend of no one.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Obama flunks Economics 101

Boehmer and Obama

Obama flunks Economics 101

Well, we have watched many governments make the wrong decisions about their economies and now, 2 1/2 years later, we are facing another global economic crisis, perhaps worse than the 2008 one. Increasingly dire economic problems prevail. America is far from unique in its problems, but what the US does is particularly crucial to the global economy both as a driver and as an example. And we need to recognize that things would be better if different steps were being taken. It is hard not to feel that leaders have been blinded by ideology.

In America the situation is that a shift to the right some trace back to the Seventies peaked after the Obama administration took a midterm hit and the House got a "Tea Party"-driven republican majority. Since then the Tea Party extremist tail has wagged the republican party dog, making it difficult for the only relatively moderate House Majority Leader John Boehner to make deals with the administration on the economy. Advocacy of a rapacious, dog-eat-dog capitalism reigns. America is like a business, the advocates say, and should be run like one. But what they advocate wouldn't work for a business. You don't make profits by cutting back; you just survive a little while before shutting down. Actually the Tea Party republicans want to shrink and cripple government. They want everything privatized. Survival of the fittest. And fittest means richest.

The absurd debt ceiling flap is an objective correlative of how blindly ideology-driven and ultimately clueless Tea Party republicans are about economics. A basic Keynesian principle, which the right rejects out of hand, and not just in the US but internationally, is that when a national economy is failing, the government's first duty is to stimulate it through spending. After it recovers, then debt can be dealt with. Making austerity the watchword from the get-go guarantees continuing and worsening economic woes. And for everybody, though of course different factions differ radically on priorities, and the very rich always have resources to survive until a better day. The middle class does not, and is faltering and vanishing as real income continues to drop and unemployment increases.

There are widespread international mistakes at work here. But the American twists are in the way the Congress works now. The right is increasingly intransigent, willing to gamble away the whole game in order to win the hand. This is what they have done with the invented issue of the debt ceiling. The right uses the bad economy as an excuse to unravel the social safety net, including Social Security and Medicare. Talk about the debt is really an excuse to shrink the federal government. How this can work when state and local governments are out of funds is unexplained. The future involves cutting education, parks, highway repair, all the public works whose stimulus would create jobs -- which the "job-creator" rich (as the republicans call them) are not doing, because they're sitting on their money. And the job stimulus would increase spending, so that industries would sell more products and corporations would use some of the money they're hoarding to hire more employees. And the economy would recover. Instead, nothing of the kind is happening. In Congress, the talk is of the debt ceiling and the deficit, which in Keynesian terms are non-issues at this stage in the crisis.

In other words, they are doing exactly the opposite of what they should do. And most of the public thinks this. Polls show that Americans think creating jobs should be the first priority. They worry about the deficit, but they don't understand how it figures now.

In some ways the financial sector agrees with the Tea Party program. Bankers don't much mind having the rules and recent economic history ignored. The right rails about the debt and says the government's "out-of-control spending" created the current crisis, which isn't true. The crisis was created by the housing bubble and unscrupulous and unsafe banking practices. The banking sector wants to continue with those practices, so it doesn't want them to be seen as the cause of the great recession of 2008, though they were. The Tea Party republicans have their own separate agenda. They are using spending cuts and the debt as excuses to continue to pamper the ultra-rich and shrink government, thus putting all the burden on the poor and the middle class. And they are generally succeeding in this aim.

Liberals greeted the election of President Obama ecstatically because they saw him as a nice guy who was also clearheaded and smart, but he has not proved to be a good poker player. He's not tough enough. An awareness of this aspect of his character has increasingly dawned on his former supporters as a result of the recent struggle with Congress. Obviously Obama is not responsible for all the woes we now face. They were seeded in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and some of the US's worst current debt-makers, like the tax cuts for the rich and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, are the responsibility of the previous administration. But Obama has missed many opportunities to play a strong hand. Evoking the Fourteenth Amendment to override the debt ceiling issue is one example.

Guest NYTimes op-ed writer Kurt Anderson, clearly no conservative, heaps praise on Nixon, to Obama's detriment, in a recent column. Nixon, Anderson writes, "governed further to the left than any president who followed him." Under Nixon, spending on social services doubled and defense spending decreased. He oversaw the establishment of various agencies protective of consumers. He signed the Equal Rights Amendment. The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts expanded six-fold. And these are just a few of the things Anderson lists. Anderson cites Nixon's "Madman Theory," used to scare the Southeast Asian communists with the idea that he was unhinged and dangerous. He suggests the right in Congress plays the Madman card every day now, only with them it's not a pose. They're actually mad. We need to understand that the country has shifted to the right, Obama is not a liberal, and republican vs. democrat is a distinction that's ceasing to matter, given that many of today's democrats are to the right of Nixonian republicans.

All this can't be blamed on Obama, but despite the good things he has done, some of them countering steps taken by Bush, he is a leader who is looking every day more and more like a follower. And it is no longer clear that in economic matters he knows what he is talking about. The troubling thing about Obama is not so much that he has lied to us repeatedly about what's good for the economy, but that he may believe these lies. Anyway, he is mouthing ideas that the right agrees with. And he seems not to understand that to do so gets him nowhere, because whatever he proposes, the republicans will reject, because it comes from a democrat. That is how they operate now. We can't say in Obama's case that he's blinded by ideology. He seems merely to be weakened by his lack of one. He is taking a highly dangerous real-life class in Economics 101. The classroom is full of crazies yelling nonsense, and he keeps listening to them. He's going to flunk the class.