Notes From An Observer: Obama’s Victory

CounterPunch, November 16, 2012

Bitter Adversaries

The longest, most expensive elections in one of the most polarized democracies in the Western world are over. Now we see contrasting reactions and unforeseen fallout––in the form of elation, bitter disappointment, investigation and resignation. The downfall of the CIA director David Petraeus and investigation into Gen. John Allen’s emails concern both their personal conduct, as well as the uncomfortable fit between President Barack Obama and the conservative military hierarchy.

Nonetheless the current turmoil at the top should not distract us from deeper analysis of American politics. The overwhelming nature of President Obama’s win over his Republican rival Mitt Romney in the Electoral College was achieved by a series of narrow but even victories in hotly contested states. A win by a small margin in a state can deliver all of the Electoral College votes, so the outcome is distorted rather like in Britain’s parliamentary elections, where a candidate can win by just one vote. It hides a greater truth––that the United States is a society split almost in two halves as its demographic transformation continues.

The Republican Party’s hysteria on a range of issues––from Muslims, Hispanics and other non-white communities to slogans of “small government” which threaten the vulnerable, low-income groups, women in particular––has damaged the social fabric of the United States and the party’s own prospects. The trend is most conspicuous in the presidential and senatorial races, where constituencies are huge. However, it is not so accurately reflected in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans have maintained their majority. The omens for President Obama are hardly better in the second term, for there will be fierce battles over the budget. The Republican majority will likely do all it can to thwart the president’s fiscal proposals, clouding his legacy.

Split America

The depth of polarization in American society is reflected in the overall vote. More than 90 percent of blacks and 70 percent of Hispanics and Asians supported Barack Obama. And 88 percent of those who voted for Mitt Romney were white. Yet the difference in the popular vote between the two was smaller than 3 percent. How can these numbers explain Obama’s solid victory over Romney and the Democratic majority in the Senate, but the Republican hold in the House?

Is it because the ethnic (white–black), ideological (Republican–Democratic) and economic (rich–poor) divides are reflected in the smaller House districts more accurately? Is it because House districts are more definitely white or mixed, rich or poor, rightwing or moderate? In other words, has segregation––ethnic, economic, ideological––in the United States widened? Or have other factors been responsible for a very different outcome in the House? An expert with intimate knowledge of the landscape may shed more light on this.

Many of America’s domestic afflictions remain as they were under President Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush––possibly with two notable exceptions. One is Obama’s rescue of the auto industry; the other his healthcare plan, which was compromised during the legislative passage. Its utility will be proven in time. Mitt Romney fatally damaged his presidential hopes by playing the politics of exclusion. Barack Obama helped his reelection by taking steps to rescue the U.S. auto industry and delivering a healthcare plan despite disruptions and dilutions by his adversaries. The former contributed to his victory in the industrial states like Ohio; the latter in states like Florida with large numbers of Hispanic voters and pensioners worried about healthcare.

Now that the victory has been achieved, what are the prospects for President Obama’s second term? I have alluded to the prospect of stalemate between the White House and Congress. The conservatives in the House showed dogged opposition to block Obama’s healthcare plan, resist tax proposals and thwart his presidency in the first term. Obama’s reelection has made the political right more bitter even as its support base shrinks. The real question is whether he will continue to be the compromiser-in-chief, reluctant to stand his ground and fight for the substance of his program. Or his goal remains that the headlines show his presidency in good light, so he can leave a legacy of his choice, not necessarily much needed solutions to problems at home and abroad.

Global Hegemony

In foreign policy, Barack Obama did not take long following his inauguration in January 2009 to get back in tune with the past agenda, albeit with some adjustments, seeking U.S. hegemony over the globalized system. Initial promises of solving the Israel-Palestine dispute, rapprochement with Iran and the wider Muslim world and elimination of nuclear weapons were either diluted or abandoned or not heard again. Aspirations of a better U.S. human rights record were managed by silence, disingenuous definitions of combatant and civilian, and covert operations.

Withdrawal of American troops from Iraq was accompanied by the surge in Afghanistan––and those drones in the skies of Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. President Obama’s announcement of a reduction in America’s military presence in the Middle East actually meant a switch to increased reliance on special forces, drones and other mechanized tools of war, often deployed off-shore. A game of deception in the wider Middle East enables him to turn greater attention to encircling China. Will Obama’s second term be very different from the first? Or will he continue to walk away from positions he appeared to take in the fist six months of his presidency in 2009? That is the million dollar question.

[END]

American Stingers’ First Casualty is Diplomacy: Syria’s Parallels with Afghanistan

CounterPunch, August 13, 2012

The revelation about President Barack Obama’s decision to provide secret American aid to Syria’s rebel forces is a game changer. The presidential order, known as an “intelligence finding” in the world of espionage, authorizes the CIA to support armed groups fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government. But it threatens far more than the regime in Damascus.

The disclosure took its first casualty immediately. Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria, promptly announced his resignation, bitterly protesting that the UN Security Council had become a forum for “finger-pointing and name-calling.” Annan blamed all sides directly involved in the Syrian conflict, including local combatants and their foreign backers. But the timing of his resignation was striking. For he knew that with the CIA helping Syria’s armed groups, America’s Arab allies joining in and the Security Council deadlocked, he was redundant.

President Obama’s order to supply CIA aid to anti-government forces in Syria has echoes of an earlier secret order signed by President Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, in July 1979. Carter’s fateful decision was the start of a CIA-led operation to back Mujahideen groups then fighting the Communist government in Afghanistan. As I discuss the episode in my book Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (chapters 7 & 8), the operation, launched with a modest aid package, became a multi-billion dollar war project against the Communist regime in Kabul and the Soviet Union, whose forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. In the following year, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, who went for broke, pouring money and weapons into Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation forces to the bitter end.

Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later claimed that it was done on his recommendation, and that the motive was to lure Soviet forces into Afghanistan to give the Kremlin “its Vietnam.” The Soviets’ humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism and the rise of the Taliban triggered a chain reaction with worldwide consequences. President Obama’s decision to intervene in support of Syria’s rebels, who include fundamentalist Islamic fighters, points to history repeating itself. Brzezinski, now in his 85th year, still visits Washington’s corridors of power. And General David Petraeus, a formidable warrior, is director of the CIA.

Three decades on, it seems likely that President Carter’s motive behind signing the secret order to provide aid to the Mujahideen was to entice the Soviets into Afghanistan’s inhospitable terrain, thus keeping their military away from Iran in the midst of the Islamic Revolution which overthrew America’s proxy, Shah Reza Pahlavi, in February 1979. If that was indeed the plan, then the Soviet leadership fell right into the Afghan trap.

China was then part of the U.S.-led alliance against the Soviets. Now Beijing and Moscow stand together against Washington as the conflict in Syria escalates. Otherwise, the U.S.-led alliance has many of the old players––the much enlarged European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others in the Sunni bloc in the Arab world. And Turkey, which is now the base for the anti-Assad forces, channeling help to them. Turkey’s Islamist government plays a crucial role in Syria, like Pakistan in the 1980s during America’s proxy war in Afghanistan.

In Washington, an American official told Reuters that “the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.” And a few days before, the news agency reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had established a “nerve center” in Adana in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, to coordinate their activities. The place is home to America’s Incirlik air base and military and intelligence services.

According to NBC News a few days ago, the rebel Free Syrian Army has acquired American MANPAD Stinger missiles via Turkey, clearly to target Syrian government aircraft. It reminds of President Reagan’s decision in the mid-1980s to supply Stingers to Mujahideen groups for use against Soviet aircraft. Their use was first reported in 1987 and it soon emerged that the heat-seeking weapons were so accurate that they were hitting three out of four aircraft in Afghanistan. As I have discussed in my book Breeding Ground, some of the hundreds of Stingers were likely to have been passed on to the Taliban and their allies after the Soviet forces left Afghanistan and the last Communist government in Kabul collapsed in 1992.

In recent months, American and European officials have been busy feeding information to media outlets that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main sources of weapons to rebels in Syria through Turkey. The pattern is consistent with the long-standing Saudi policy to keep Islamists out of Saudi Arabia itself, lest they challenge the ruling family. Long-term lessons of proxy wars remain unheeded for immediate perilous “gains.”

Reports of the Obama administration sending Stinger missiles to Syrian rebels carry the first indication that non-state players now have advanced U.S. weaponry in the Middle East. That Washington is in such a cozy alliance with forces including Islamists soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden on Obama’s personal order is as incredible as it is consistent with follies of the past. The present will define the future again.

The situation in Egypt is becoming explosive. The killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in the Sinai Peninsula by “suspected Islamists,” and violence thereafter, represent challenges on several fronts for the new president Mohamed Morsi. Israel has been quick to blame Islamic militants in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, which has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of the Egyptian president. For its part, the Brotherhood has pointed the finger at Israel’s secret service Mossad, claiming it is a plot to thwart Morsi’s presidency. These developments cast a shadow over Morsi’s relations with Hamas and, at the same time, increase his dependence on the Egyptian armed forces to quell the unrest, thereby undermining his authority. Murderous optimism of powerful and suicidal pessimism of victims in an oppressive environment blight the lives of many.

[END]