Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Falling out with Obama

Even before Barack Obama takes office as the first African-American president, some American liberals and activists have expressed concern about the direction his administration might take. They point to his choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, the retention of Robert Gate as defence secretary and the selection of James Jones, a prominent hawk who supported John McCain for president, as Obama’s national security advisor.

Those who are disappointed include Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. Writing on the radical news site Alternet, Zunes points out that Clinton has “more often than not sided with the Bush administration against fellow Democrats on key issues regarding America’s international legal obligations, particularly international humanitarian law”.

And, of course, Obama’s rival for the Democratic Party’s nomination infamously supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Zunes reminds people that Clinton has a record of dismissing reports by human rights monitors that highlight large-scale attacks against civilians. For example, following systematic assaults against civilian targets in its April 2002 offensive in the West Bank, Clinton co-sponsored a resolution defending the Israeli actions.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the The Nation – roughly equivalent to the New Statesman – is also rapidly becoming disenchanted with Obama. Writing about the president-elect’s foreign policy team, she says: “This team makes it more difficult to seize the extraordinary opportunity Obama's election has offered to reengage the world and reset America's priorities. Maybe being right about the greatest foreign policy disaster in U.S. history doesn't mean much inside the Beltway [Washington’s orbital motorway] ? How else to explain that not a single top member of Obama's foreign policy/national security team opposed the war – or the dubious claims leading up to it?”

There is an element of hurt in both these articles, of being spurned by the man they backed for the White House. But they also express some deep illusions about a) Obama and b) the American political system. Obama is a populist politician who won the presidency on behalf of one of America’s two major capitalist parties, the Democrats. Major corporations provided at least half of his campaign funds. Nowhere has he indicated that he was preparing to challenge the military-industrial complex that has a grip on American political life, including its foreign policy.

Secondly, the American state – for all its separation of powers and written constitution – is a capitalist state. The institutions of rule at federal and state level exist to maintain the status quo of private property and to come to its rescue in times of crisis. That’s what the financial bail-outs are all about. In this respect, Obama is considered a safe pair of hands and his election has not exactly sent the American ruling classes into a panic. American foreign policy, as ever, will be dictated by the requirements of big business and finance.

The Obama administration will, of course, take power in the midst of the greatest economic and financial collapse in the history of the United States. Anger about having to carry the burden of the crisis through unemployment and repossessions is largely the reason that Obama won in the first place. He mobilised a new generation of voters in a highly effective way under the slogan “change we can believe in”. Delivering on that pledge in terms of jobs and ending the recession will be beyond his presidency. The political crisis that follows the dashing of people’s hopes will provide the conditions for moving American democracy and politics into a renewed, revolutionary period.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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