Repeating Falsehood and Making Stuff Up to Divert Attention from Social Woes

The Citizen

President Barack Obama’s recent commencement address at Rutgers University in New Jersey has raised some uncomfortable truths about public life.

In a wide-ranging critique of the 2016 presidential campaign, Obama warned against a culture of chauvinism and falsehood. He pointed out the dangers of wilful ignorance of leaders and commentators who insist on the supremacy of the past, and dismiss science and facts as elitist. He singled out the issue of inequality, and rebuked leaders for “repeating falsehood and just making stuff up” to divert attention from real social woes.

It is easy to say that Obama is a lame duck president, but this description ignores significant achievements in his second term. He has defied the powerful Israel lobby, and started reconciliation with Iran. He has overcome the lobby of Cuban exiles in the United States, and normalised relations with Havana. His visit to Vietnam and lifting of the American arms embargo has been hailed as opening a new chapter between the two countries. At home, Obama has nominated Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court position vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. A battle with his Republican opponents is expected in the Senate in the coming months.

Obama’s address at Rutgers University was primarily a commentary on the current state of affairs in America, but it could equally apply to Britain, India, indeed many other countries. Therefore, the theme of his address – in politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue – is worth reflecting upon. For counter-factual and anti-intellectual tendencies anchored in cultural and religious chauvinism permeate many societies today.

Obama had Donald Trump in mind – the man with enough delegates to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination for the November 2016 election, and who has made disparaging remarks about women, Hispanics, Muslims, almost every other minority, and foreigners.

If elected, Trump says he would build a wall at the US-Mexico border to stop immigrants, and force Mexico to pay for it. He would ban Muslims to stop terrorism. What would he do with the 55 million Hispanics and 3.5 million Muslims, the third largest religious community already in the United States? Obama’s comment was: “A wall won’t stop that.”

Donald Trump has become the most prominent icon for Americans who feel angry and bitter because of globalization resulting in a massive number of jobs moving abroad, and the presence of immigrants at home. But he is not the only one to harness the widespread discontent of mainly white working-class Americans for his political ends.

Ex-governor of Alaska and the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, another icon of America’s ultraconservatives, is known for making bizarre statements. She has endorsed Donald Trump, and in a jibe against Spanish-speaking people in the United States, she insisted that all “immigrants” will have to be legal, and will have to speak “American 24/7 – the way it’s been for thousands of years”.

For those who care about facts, colonisation of America by English settlers began in 1585, when Walter Raleigh sailed with about a hundred men to the east coast of the continent, and named the settlement Virginia. Before the English arrived, Spanish influence had been prevalent from the Chesapeake Bay to the tip of South America, including countries now known as Mexico, Peru and Cuba.

On the European side of the Atlantic, a fierce debate on immigration is taking place in Britain and across the continent. The debate presents disturbing aspects of raw human instincts – sectarianism, xenophobia, economic and class rivalries. Hyperbole and falsehood dominate the European debate. In a bitterly fought presidential election in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, came within 0.3 per cent (31000 votes) of winning. Hofer’s manifesto was overtly anti-immigrant. Austria, once a Social Democratic bastion, is split down the middle, and the main parties fear that the far-right could win power in the 2019 general election.

Britain is in the midst of an acrimonious campaign before the upcoming referendum to decide whether the country should remain in the European Union, or leave. The issue has caused deep splits in the governing Conservative Party, and in the wider society. Supporters of remaining in the EU emphasise the balance of benefits, including the free movement of goods, services and people for British citizens, and many of the same rights they can enjoy throughout the 27 other countries of the European Union.

Those campaigning to leave have consistently been throwing up a figure of £350 million which they claim Britain pays every week for EU membership. In truth, Britain’s net contribution to the EU is less than half that. As the campaign has progressed, the focus of Leavers has shifted from the assertion of the British parliament’s absolute sovereignty to make all laws governing the country to immigration and firmer border controls.

The UK Statistics Authority, the official watchdog, first warned the Leavers against using the £350 million figure in their campaign literature, but the Leavers refused to heed the warning. So the official watchdog has advised the electorate not to trust the figure.

On the other hand, a parliamentary committee has accused both sides of misleading voters by exaggerating, embellishing, or inventing facts. The committee’s report says that a few grains of truth are buried under mountains of false claims which not only mislead the people, but impoverish the public debate.

Leading politicians on both sides appear overtly keen to demonstrate their mastery of history to support their argument. Some have not hesitated to invoke references to Hitler to claim, for example, that the EU’s agenda is to dominate Europe like Hitler. Others have asserted that if Britain leaves the association, the EU will be weakened and there will be another major war in Europe.

The tendency among leaders and commentators to insist on the supremacy of the past over science and facts is not only an American or European phenomenon. The drive in India, with official approval, to revert to religious scriptures thousands of years old to determine how people should live, and what children should be taught, is a case in point.

The inclusion of myths in science, and the rewriting of history, in pursuit of ideological goals is a slippery slope. When politicians at the highest level employ rhetorical questions like what did India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru achieve, or assertions such as the current government, having come to power just two years ago, has done more than its predecessors in sixty years since independence, the result is infectious, because many others follow.

Remember the Bhakra Nangal Dam Project (1948–1963); the Green Revolution (1960s); the India-Pakistan war that established India’s pre-eminence in South Asia (1971); and India’s first atomic test in the Rajasthan desert (1974)? Did those events mean nothing? Or they were important events which explain much about today’s India.

There are three main limitations of the postmodern world in the new century: crisis of leadership, fondness for instant answers, and supremacy of opinions over scientific methods and facts.

We should be careful, for when opinions are numerous, and the regard for facts scant, we live in an era of extremes.

[END]

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The United States, Britain and the European Union

CounterPunch 

On his farewell tour, President Barack Obama has stirred the pot ahead of the June referendum in Britain on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union or leave. His warning to leavers that Britain cannot expect a trade agreement with the United States any time soon if it withdraws from the EU has infuriated leaders of the Brexit campaign, and delighted those who want to remain, including Prime Minister David Cameron. Obama’s message to Britain was that it should remain in the EU, and that it was in America’s interest, too.

Some of the comments made by leading Brexit figures in the governing Conservative Party in retaliation to Obama’s intervention have been described as borderline racist.

In a particularly outspoken jibe, London mayor and a member of the British cabinet, Boris Johnson, accused the American president of interfering in British politics. Johnson went on to say that after entering the White House Obama had ordered the removal a bust of the British wartime leader, Winston Churchill, from the Oval Office. Furthermore, he suggested that this might be because of Obama’s “part Kenyan ancestral dislike of the British empire.”

Other leading Brexit campaigners expressed similar sentiments. Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, told the American president to “butt” out of intervening in Britain’s referendum on EU membership. Farage, too, asserted that Obama was influenced by his Kenyan family’s colonial view of Britain. The use of this type of language about an American president is unprecedented for the British political establishment – a country which claims a “special relationship” with the United States.

There are striking similarities between insinuations by American conservatives about Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage and his Muslim father, and comments heard in Britain. Some members of the Brexit lobby have privately expressed fears that such direct attacks on him will backfire, and help the pro-EU campaign in a tight race. Jingoism and xenophobia live on both sides of the Atlantic. There are people ready and willing to whip up such sentiments.

Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, a member of the British parliament and a supporter of remaining in the EU, has described Boris Johnson’s remarks as appalling, and said it was “inconceivable” that his grandfather would not have welcomed Obama’s views. It was, after all, Churchill who first suggested closer European unity in a famous speech in the Swiss city of Zurich in 1946.

From the ruins of the Second World War, Churchill spoke of his vision to recreate “the European family” with a structure under which it can “dwell in peace, in safety and freedom.” He described it as something like a United States of Europe. Today, his party is tearing itself apart over whether Britain should be part of that structure.

Why should President Obama have intervened so publicly in the EU debate during his visit to Britain? And why did opponents of the European Union react so furiously? These questions require understanding of how Britain’s relations with the United States and the rest of Europe, Germany in particular, have evolved in the last century.

The Second World War was a watershed which brought enormous global change. Hitler’s Nazi regime in Europe, and imperial Japan in Asia, were defeated. But Europe was quickly divided into rival blocs again – one dominated by America, the other by the Soviet Union.

At the same time, Europe’s colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, were so exhausted that they would have found it difficult to keep distant territories under their control. And the foremost superpower, the United States, was exerting pressure on the masters to let their colonies go. The Americans wanted to expand their markets worldwide, for which they were in competition with the Soviets.

Imperial Britain had to yield to imperial America – the coming inevitability which Churchill intensely disliked. There was, however, another option. Accept that the United States was paramount; stay close to Washington; and, whenever possible, use diplomacy to maneuver America in the direction in which Britain’s interests would be served.

The United States, too, was looking for close allies – in Europe, in the United Nations Security Council and other international organizations. Germany had been the main enemy in two world wars. France, at times, was too independent for Washington’s liking. Under President Charles de Gaulle’s leadership, France left NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966, asserting its independent nuclear deterrent and broader defense policy. Only in 2009 did President Sarkozy announce that France would rejoin the military structure of NATO once again.

In contrast, the United Kingdom has enjoyed the closest military and intelligence ties with the United States. “Special relationship” is a term often invoked in London. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the iron curtain, have paved the way for NATO and the European Union to expand. Today, both organizations perform similar functions, having incorporated countries that were once in the Soviet bloc. NATO and the EU both do the job of containing Russia, and of projecting American power beyond Europe. Brexit campaigners fail to get it.

[END]

Bush and Obama: Two Middle East Legacies

The Citizen

In January 2017, Barack Obama will be handing over the presidency to a successor after eight years in the White House. In the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic Magazine, President Obama speaks to Jeffrey Goldberg, and gives an overall view of his presidency. Goldberg’s article headlined “The Obama Doctrine” is based on a series of conversations in which the president explains, and to an extent justifies, the hardest decisions he took and why.

Alongside his own explanation, an independent and critical analysis of the Obama legacy, and comparison with that of his predecessor George W. Bush, is necessary.

Barack Obama’s victory in November 2008 was historic, not only because he was the first ever African-American to be elected president of the United States, but also because of its timing. After eight years of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Barack Obama’s victory over his hawkish Republican opponent John McCain promised change. Many millions in America and abroad felt that an era of peace was near.

The “war on terror” was primarily directed against Muslims, seen by Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and most of America’s military-intelligence complex as a threat. It defined the George W. Bush presidency, and sharply polarised the world. Nonetheless, it was a happy irony that the United States elected a president, a Christian, whose father was Muslim. The manner in which Obama’s victory was greeted made it appear like a possible antidote to treat the afflictions created under the Bush presidency.

Those afflictions were everywhere. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at the centre of war; the Greater Middle East, where abductions, hostage-taking, torture and extra-judicial killings were carried out in the name of “war on terror” without boundaries; sweeping depiction of Muslims and their religion as if they were the root cause of all evil. It shaped opinion in much of the non-Islamic world against Muslims. It also reinforced perceptions of the west in the Islamic world, widening the breach. George W. Bush’s presidency ended with the financial earthquake of 2008/2009.

In January 2009, Obama’s presidency began from a low point. Now that he approaches the conclusion of his eight years in office, the time is ripe for an appraisal of his journey through multiple crises in the Middle East. What kind of Middle East is it going to be when he leaves the White House in January 2017?

The high point of President Obama’s engagement with the region came soon after his inauguration. In his June 2009 address at al-Azhar University in Egypt, he struck the right tone. Praising a thousand-year-old al-Azhar as a beacon of Islamic learning, he said he carried with him the goodwill of the American people; he acknowledged that great tension existed between the United States and Muslims around the world; many Muslims were denied rights and opportunities by colonialism.

Muslim-majority countries, he said, were treated as proxies during the Cold war without regard to their own aspirations; sweeping changes by globalization and modernity led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam; remarkably for an American president, Obama cited the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world as “a major source of tension”, albeit making clear America’s strong bond with Israel.

Obama’s comment about the sufferings of Palestinians – Muslims and Christians – in the pursuit of a homeland, their pain and dislocation could not have gone down well with Israel’s political establishment, and many in Israel’s majority Jewish community. But that America will not turn its backs on “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own” was music to the ears of numerous people in the occupied Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world.

As President Obama prepares to complete his term, his record repeats the history of American presidency. It shows that even the world’s most powerful elected leader has his limits. The plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories that Obama so eloquently spoke of in 2009 continues, as changes to Israel’s citizenship laws narrow the space in which Arab citizens of Israel can exercise their rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel remains defiant of the Obama administration’s wishes, helped by the Israel lobby’s influence in the American Congress. Obama has given up on the Palestinian cause.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, his stance on the popular revolution against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was hesitant. The revolution did lead to Mubarak’s fall from power, and victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential and parliamentary elections. However, with the Mubarak era military and judiciary remaining opposed to the new order, and President Mohamed Morsi facing persistent rebellion at home, the short-lived elected order in Egypt was crushed by the military in July 2013, leading to the rise of the military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.

The military overthrow of Egypt’s elected government that President Obama still does not recognise as a coup was carried out under his administration’s watch, with the National Security Adviser Susan Rice being close to events. Obama also gave in to the sustained pressure from the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to intervene in the Libyan civil war to overthrow, after which Muammar Gaddafi was brutally assassinated. In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic Magazine, Obama lamented the intervention in Libya, and disastrous repercussions thereof in the Arab world and beyond – repercussions for which he pointed the finger at the British government.

It is true that the Obama administration has not used vitriolic language like the preceding administration against Muslims and Islam, though leading politicians continue to use such language in Congress and outside. However, those killed by drone attacks ordered by President Obama are overwhelmingly Muslim, and the total number of drone strikes is about ten times greater than those ordered by his predecessor. Among the killings ordered by Obama from the White House was that of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city, Abbottabad, in an American special forces’ operation in May 2011.

If George W. Bush left behind a vast amount of wreckage in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama is about to leave similar wreckage in Libya and Syria. Both legacies attest a historical record of the exercise of power with impunity. In one respect, though, Obama has forced a fundamental change in the Middle East. He has gone against Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s closest allies, to enable US rapprochement with Iran after 35 years. In doing so, he has moved the balance away from Sunni Islam towards Shia Islam. Whether he has made this important shift too late to be permanent, and it could revert again under a successor administration, remains to be seen.

[END]

How Does Today’s Middle East Threaten Obama’s Legacy?

History News Network

The season of festivities is over, and, once more, the year 2016 begins with warning signs. History is an unquestionable pattern of hope and disaster. Nowhere is it truer than in the Middle East.

In the midst of turmoil in the region, the nuclear deal, signed between Iran and six world powers in July 2015, was hailed as an historic success. In stages, it promised to end Iran’s long isolation since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which overthrew America’s close ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and brought to power a vehemently anti-US regime in Tehran. The 35-year freeze between Iran and the West, and sanctions against Iran, caused great hardship for Iranians.

For the United States and other powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), the likelihood of restoring normal ties with Iran brought prospects of relief. They too had paid a high price in lost opportunities for business, and difficulty in accessing Iranian oil. Sanctions on Iranian exports made oil supplies tight despite Saudi Arabia increasing its production from time to time. Sanctions on Iran’s Shia clerical regime were good for the House of Saud, and their oil-rich kingdom.

For President Barack Obama, the thaw in relations with Iran, despite strong opposition from Israel, the United States Congress, and the Saudi rulers, was one of two major foreign policy victories. The other was normalization with communist Cuba for the first time since Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in 1959. These successes abroad, along with his healthcare plan at home, are supposed to form Obama’s legacy at the end of his presidency in January 2017.

Throughout his White House years, Obama has encountered fierce resistance from conservatives in the Republican and Democratic parties alike. For him, the first African American to be elected president, a durable legacy is particularly important. However, achievements which make headlines is one thing, reality on the ground is another.

Less than a year after the nuclear agreement aimed at ensuring that Iran did not make the bomb, Obama’s main rationale, things between Washington and Tehran do not look all that promising, and recent events in the Middle East do not augur well.

Two developments in particular have caused a sharp deterioration with threatening consequences in the coming year. On December 30, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration was preparing to impose new sanctions against firms and individuals in Iran. The report followed Iran’s test of a medium-range missile which, according to UN monitors, is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran insists that the missile is conventional, and purely for defensive purposes. Tehran has long insisted that the country does not seek nuclear weapons; its nuclear program is peaceful.

Initially, Iran’s foreign ministry rejected any connection between its missile program and the nuclear agreement. President Hassan Rouhani further accused the United States of “illegal meddling” and instructed Iran’s defense minister to accelerate the country’s ballistic missile program in the face of new sanctions.

One cause of escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran was bad enough. Yet more serious events have since followed in the Middle East. On January 2, Saudi Arabia put to death 47 men in what Human Rights Watch described as the largest mass execution in the country since 1980. The number of those executed was shocking, among them a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a non-violent critic of the Saudi ruling establishment.

The cleric was accused of breaking allegiance with the ruler, inciting sectarian strife, and supporting rioting and destruction of public property during protests in Shia-majority towns in Saudi Arabia in 2011-2012. According to Human Rights Watch, local residents and family members insisted that al-Nimr supported only peaceful protests, and eschewed all forms of violent opposition to the government.

The executions in Saudi Arabia, and the fallout thereof, have raised the power struggle with Iran to a new level, and there is a real sense of crisis in the Middle East now. Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has described al-Nimr as a “martyr” and warned Saudi Arabia of “divine revenge.” Demonstrations against Saudi Arabia have taken place in Iran and other countries. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has expressed his “deep dismay” over the executions.

Angered by the international criticism, the Saudi authorities have broken off diplomatic relations with Iran. Sudan and Djibouti have followed Saudi Arabia by cutting off ties. Other Gulf states have either reduced the level of relations with Tehran, or recalled their ambassadors. For their part, the Iranian authorities have accused the Saudi air force of attacking Iran’s embassy in Yemen.

Motives behind these actions are worth considering. Questions must be asked: Is Iran being provoked into launching a direct attack on Saudi interests, and what may follow? If that happens, the anti-Iran sentiment in the American Congress and the Pentagon will be reinforced. There will be calls in Washington to act in support of Saudi Arabia. President Obama, in all likelihood, will resist such calls. Nevertheless, the Saudis and the Israel lobby will push him hard. There may well be pressure from the British, French, Turkish and other Sunni Arab states.

Will Obama be able to resist? Or will he succumb to the pressure?

The stakes are high. If Obama shows determination, and stands up to the pressure, criticisms of his foreign policy will increase. His detractors will accuse him of acting against America’s national interest. The final year of his presidency will be chaotic.

On the other hand, if he bows to the pressure, there is a risk of the United States being dragged into a new conflict with Iran. The consequences will be damaging on the ground and beyond. Obama’s carefully crafted strategy to chart a more equidistant course in the Middle East will be thwarted. And his presidential legacy, irreparably damaged, will pass on to his successor.

[END]

Mission Creep in Libya

Palestine Chronicle (April 23, 2011)  

Some commentators and politicians are describing it as mission creep – a slide into deeper military involvement in Libya, going beyond the original goal, and inviting unpredictable consequences. In simple terms, it is the decision by Britain, France and Italy to send military officers to organize the flagging rebel campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. These “advisers” are being deployed mainly in the rebel stronghold, the eastern port city of Benghazi, to train and counsel the anti-Gaddafi forces, who have thus far failed to make much headway against the Libyan army and have been beaten back in several places. Defense experts acknowledge that there will be more military personnel to protect these “advisers.”

How does a humanitarian operation turn into “mission creep?” A brief look at events in little more than a month provides an answer. Resolution 1973 approved by the United Nations Security Council on March 17, 2011 authorized “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas … while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” But any process of employing “all necessary measures” should begin with peaceful attempts. Otherwise, only military force has been employed. Indeed, the African Union put forward a plan including these steps: an immediate ceasefire; unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid; the protection of foreign nationals; a dialogue between the government and rebels on a political settlement; and the suspension of NATO air raids. Furthermore, Turkey, a NATO member, had already begun to mediate between the two sides in Libya. But the West and the rebels insist that Gaddafi must go first.

Since the US-led bombing of Libya started immediately after Resolution 1973, critics would be forgiven for concluding that the Security Council and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have become tools of Prime Minister Cameron of Britain and President Sarkozy of France, with President Obama apparently dragging his feet. Ban Ki-moon, looking for another term as UN Secretary General, is culpable in what amounts to a Western attempt to invoke a seemingly justifiable humanitarian principle when, in reality, the intention and preparation for a military assault were already in place. Any hope of a peaceful outcome stood no chance. Had the Obama administration, particularly his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, acted a little more decisively in friendly countries, Bahrain and Yemen, when the rulers there brutally suppressed civilian protesters, the Western powers would have enjoyed the benefit of credibility. Gaddafi may well have seen a determined and consistent humanitarian policy on the part of the West.

Unfortunately, Britain and France have preferred military intervention all along. Cameron and Sarkozy are weak and unpopular men struggling with strong currents of domestic opposition to a range of economic and social policies of their governments. Every beleaguered leader knows that a crisis abroad helps to shore up support at home. What other reason could there be behind such zeal for another military adventure in Libya after the disastrous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last decade?

In a boastful exclusive on April 20, 2011, the British newspaper Independent reported the deployment in Libya of “one of the most battle-hardened commanders in the British Army, with extensive experience in combat in Afghanistan.” The Defense Ministry’s message was “here comes Britain’s own Rambo, fresh from Helmand.” But those who have closely followed British military units in Basra in Iraq and Helmand in Afghanistan know that their achievements have been far from glorious. And the American military took over in both places. In the event of British, French or Italian casualties in the Libyan civil war, further escalation and deployment of troops is a real possibility.

Even members of Prime Minister Cameron’s own Conservative Party in Parliament are doubtful about the way the Libyan operation is evolving. The House of Commons backed Security Council Resolution 1973. But John Baron, a Conservative, is among a number of parliamentarians now strongly critical of the British Prime Minister, who wrote an article with President Obama and President Sarkozy, asserting that “Gaddafi must go, and go for good.” Recalling that Parliament had “only given its backing for a no-fly zone to protect civilians,” several MPs have accused the government of seeking “illegal” regime change in Libya.

Western claims that “Gaddafi is killing his own people” need an honest examination in a wider context. War is a crime whenever and wherever civilians are killed and wounded. When peaceful protesters are killed or suppressed, it is an offense against humanity. When Gaddafi’s troops kill civilians, it is a crime. Equally, when in Bahrain the ruling family’s foreign mercenaries, and Saudi forces who have recently moved in, kill peaceful protesters demanding their basic rights, those troops are committing a crime.

Violence against civilians in mosques and hospitals, denying treatment to the wounded and threatening doctors are among the worst of offenses. So is the violence against demonstrators by Yemeni government forces; killings by American drone attacks and death squads in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and the dreadful civilian casualties among the besieged Palestinian population in Israel’s war on Gaza. Above all, the United States kills people, including its own, based on flawed justice, hunch, suspicion or whim. Unleashing brutal and blind terror is as much in the nature of civilized governments as it is of outlaw regimes.

[END]

Obama the Counter-Revolutionary

CounterPunch (March 24, 2011)

In my book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan (Potomac Books, Inc., 2010), I described Barack Obama’s victory over his Republican opponent John McCain in the November 2008 presidential election as a revolutionary event. Tens of millions of Americans, men and women young and old, lined up patiently to cast their ballots, in the hope of overturning the excesses of the George W. Bush presidency, and bringing a nightmarish episode in American history to an end. The American people had had enough of George W. Bush, one of the most unpopular presidents in history as he left office. He was despised abroad, wreaking enormous damage to America’s moral and political leadership. An event by which the people constitutionally and peacefully voted to overturn the neoconservative Republican order under the Bush administration was nothing short of a “popular revolution.”

Ordinary Americans in extraordinary numbers attested to the term “popular revolution” by donating modest amounts of money – 10, 20, 50 dollars – to the Obama campaign. Among them were low-paid workers, trade unionists, teachers and students. It was their “audacity of hope” – not so much Obama’s – that gave them the belief that they could make the difference in a country tired of war and facing economic disaster. As Obama inched toward the Democratic nomination at the end of a bitter fight with Hillary Clinton, business magnates began to switch to the young pretender. Even then, support from the ordinary American accounted for more.

This widespread support at home, and goodwill abroad, was made possible due to Obama’s promises of disengagement from the Iraq war, which he described as the “wrong war,” (though the Afghan war was the “right war” for him), economic renaissance and setting aside “childish things.” These promises he reaffirmed at his inauguration speech, and promised to begin a dialogue with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” He devoted his celebrated, but now outdated, speech to mending the broken fences with the Muslim world in June 2009. In sum, Obama promised to transform the way in which his administration would work, and eventually a transformation of the United States of America.

However, I also observed in the same book that “I know of no revolution that has fulfilled all that it promised” in the long run. I mentioned the Soviet Union and China in the last century; Cuba is another example. Countries from the Soviet Central Asia to Central Europe were released from the shackles of Soviet domination as Soviet communism disintegrated. Two decades on, the situation in emerging states leaves a lot to be desired. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan are ruled with brute force by individuals or clans. Georgia, Poland, Romania are only slightly better. Other countries now firmly allied to the West have experienced racist authoritarian backlash.

Back to Obama’s historic victory and the “popular revolution” it was in November 2008. It was the people’s decisive response against George W. Bush’s wars – in Iraq, Afghanistan and the “war on terror” – that provoked resentment and violent opposition, opened up sectarian divisions and created Hobbesian conditions of war of all against all. The consequences were taking an exceptionally high toll in economic, human and political terms. The people’s mandate to Obama, the president, was to pull the United States out of the George W. Bush presidency’s toxic legacy. A year after taking over the presidency, Barack Obama was demonstrating the first signs that a counterrevolution was underway.

Two years on, Barack Obama, once preacher of change and hope, has become a counterrevolutionary. His administration has quickly adopted the imperialist “Project for the New American Century” of the Bush era, discredited, despised and dangerous. He has shamefully gone back on his promise of closing down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, hell on Earth made by torturers’ infamy during the Bush administration. Obama has lifted the suspension on military trials of the remaining detainees, most of them innocent or forced to confess under torture, confessions that reputable courts would not admit as evidence. Reasons given by Obama apologists that the prison camp was not closed because the U.S. Congress did not cooperate are simply not good enough. Scores of Democrats in both houses of Congress were elected on Obama’s coattail in November 2008, before the disaster struck the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. Where was his “Yes, we can!” rhetoric? Where was leadership? Guantanamo continues to be one of many blots on the United States of America. Compare Guantanamo to Castro’s regime today on the same island of Cuba. It is Washington’s shame.

Many more civilians, including women and children, continue to be massacred in Pakistan and Afghanistan in drone attacks that have escalated since Obama assumed the presidency. Unexplained killings of civilians and humiliation of night raids have proliferated. American death squads have massacred innocent civilians and kept their victims’ body parts as trophies. The latest pictures, just a few of many, published in Germany’s Der Spiegel are another bombshell. The Pentagon is once again “sorry.” These pictures threaten damage to the Obama administration like the Abu Ghraib photos damaged the Bush administration.

Obama’s promise of a dialogue with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect” has turned into an exercise in undisguised hypocrisy no different from George W. Bush’s. Obama’s response to the people’s nonviolent uprising in Egypt was slow. It was designed to ensure that, in the end, the Egyptian military remained in effective control, though Washington came to accept that it would have to abandon an old collaborator, President Hosni Mubarak. Even after the recent referendum, the situation in Egypt remains tenuous and prospects far from certain. Meanwhile the world’s attention has moved elsewhere.

Libya has become Obama’s first foreign military adventure, legal because it is based on a United Nations Security Council resolution but questionable in its legitimacy, as several scholars of international law have pointed out. But hypocrisy, double standards and callous disregard for human life and peoples’ aspirations for freedom in Bahrain and Yemen are there to see. Secretaries of state and defense, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, along with U.S. generals, have hijacked foreign policy, taking the lead before cameras. President Obama these days looks ill at ease, his once soaring rhetoric having abandoned him. He presides over a counterrevolution that is a travesty of promises he made en route to the White House.

[END]

The Meaning of the Egyptian People’s Revolution

History News Network (February 11, 2011)

Day seventeen of the Egyptian people’s uprising (February 10, 2011) brought a new dangerous twist to the crisis at the heart of the Middle East. Beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak gave a television address, but expectations that he would leave were once again thwarted. He patronized the people, calling them his children; he apologized for the state-sponsored violence of recent days; he attacked foreign powers, clearly meaning the United States, for trying to dictate to Egypt; he asserted, denying an obvious reality, that he would never turn the country into a satellite; he would devolve some of the presidential powers to the longstanding intelligence chief and now vice president Omar Suleiman; however, he would not resign and stay on until the end of his current term in September.

As he continued in this vein, determined to cling on to power, the popular mood of expectation turned into anger. People chanted “Go, Go, Go.” Shoes were seen flying in air. It reminded me of a speech of Romania’s dictator Nicolai Ceausescu in 1989. Before his fall, Ceausescu tried to address a crowd from the balcony of his palace. The people booed him in response. Imagine if Mubarak tried to face the Egyptian people instead of addressing them on state television? What is surely the final phase of Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship reminds us of the most tumultuous events in recent history. The fall of the pro-U.S. Shah of Iran in 1979, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolizing the end of the Soviet Empire and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

With popular rage sweeping the country, the pressure on the Mubarak regime, and uncertainty with it, were bound to increase. Friday would be another day of massive demonstrations. Already labor unions, government employees, judges and medical staff had been joining the protestors. The trend was likely to grow, but Mubarak had failed to judge the nation’s mood. Al Jazeera and Press TV reported about military officers at the Liberation Square in Cairo dropping their weapons and joining the demonstrators. The loyalties of Egypt’s most important institution, the armed forces, to Mubarak and his regime look less certain. The game seems to be up. What legacy would Mubarak leave when he finally departs? For we are witnessing a phenomenon that is irreversible.

Egyptians living under a suppressive regime have broken the fear barrier. The masses have realized their collective strength and resolved to end their long nightmare. People have lived through atrocities and pain, economic and political hardships without any obvious recourse, distrust of their rulers and pessimism about their future long enough. They have reflected on what they must endure if things remained unchanged, examined their own worth and concluded that the system cheats them in every way. Their rage has broken the threshold of tolerance. They have decided that the existence of permanent humiliation is not worthy of continuation. The point of inevitability has been reached in the people’s revolt in Egypt.

The inevitability of a revolution, once the dynamic has reached that point, is no longer in doubt. However, exact prophecy is trickier. Juan Cole warns against the temptation to compare Egypt’s popular uprising to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution (Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979, Informed Comment, February 2, 2011). A number of observers have made alarmist predictions that the Muslim Brotherhood (i.e. radical Islamists) would take over power if Egypt’s military-dominated regime is swept away by popular revolt. What a betrayal of eighty million people?

The Muslim Brotherhood is neither a dominant entity in Egyptian polity nor is the movement in collaboration with the radical movements like the Islamic Jihad. There are secular, left-wing and right-wing parties, religious forces and labor activists in considerable numbers. Contrary to national elections and referendums to extend military-led rule under President Hosni Mubarak over three decades, the outcome of a free and fair election, if it were held, cannot be predetermined. However, with more than twenty parties, the scenario of a radical Islamist seizer of power looks unlikely.

Anti-Americanism in Egypt, the heart of the Arab world, is a different matter. Political machinations by the ruling elites in and outside Egypt to keep the established character of regime in place will only serve to reinforce the anti-American feeling. Egypt’s uprising has both differences from, and parallels with, earlier civil revolts elsewhere. The local context of the events in Egypt is different. However, it is important to recognize what these events mean for the United States, Israel and their strategic designs in the Middle East. They mean something akin to what the Iranian Revolution meant back in 1978-79. Mubarak’s desperate attempts to cling on to power look similar to those of Iran’s dictator, the shah, in his final days before he left the country in January 1979.

In the early stages of the Iranian Revolution, a weak American president Jimmy Carter in a moment of fatal misjudgment, described Iran as a “free country” and an “oasis of peace and stability.” As the current Egyptian uprising started more than two weeks ago, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the regime in Cairo was “stable.” That only days after Clinton was moved to acknowledge the region being battered by a “perfect storm” demonstrated a crisis in Washington’s understanding of the Middle East similar to the one three decades before. America’s misjudgment and confusion about how to deal with the crisis does not stop there. The way ahead is littered with political landmines.

President Obama’s soaring rhetoric proved much stronger than his leadership in office. Today he looks like a weak president in the mold of Jimmy Carter. In July 2009, he embarked on his Middle East political journey in Cairo with a celebrated speech seeking “a new beginning” with Muslims based on mutual interests and mutual respect, justice and tolerance. That rhetorical promise now faces a severe test. Obama seems clueless while American policy is hijacked by hawkish secretaries of state and defense, with the uniformed military top brass openly meddling in Egypt’s affairs; and voices from the United States and Israel declare utter disrespect for the Egyptian people and the reasons for this uprising. Obama demands that a transition “must be quick, must be peaceful and must start now.” President Mubarak refuses to resign, promises to go in September 2011 at the end of his current term (thirty year in all) and offers instead committees to discuss reforms and bribes in the form of pay rises.

No matter what comes out of Egypt’s tumultuous events, the U.S. Empire is collapsing. The Camp David Treaty that bought Egypt to the American camp for billions of dollars is in crisis. Israel, which has used Mubarak to maintain the blockade of Gaza and divisions in the Arab world, has every reason to be extremely worried. Autocratic ruling elites of other countries in the region – Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the smaller Gulf emirates and beyond – must be nervous. The Egyptian people have all but ensured the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and the prospects of a Mubarak dynasty. However, this is only a partial victory. The real victory will be the establishment of democracy in Egypt as its people demand. However, machinations in Israel, the United States and its European allies continue, and real victory is not certain – yet. Is it to happen soon? Or the people’s will to be thwarted – again? Attempts to cheat them this time will leave a legacy of anger and bitterness that will have consequences far more serious and long term than the events in Iran in 1979.

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