Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Stratfor: The World Looks at Obama After the U.S. Midterm Election

By George Friedman
November 04, 2010

The 2010 U.S. midterm elections were held, and the results were as expected: The Republicans took the House but did not take the Senate. The Democrats have such a small margin in the Senate, however, that they cannot impose cloture, which means the Republicans can block Obama administration initiatives in both houses of Congress. At the same time, the Republicans cannot override presidential vetoes alone, so they cannot legislate, either. The possible legislative outcomes are thus gridlock or significant compromises.

U.S. President Barack Obama hopes that the Republicans prove rigidly ideological. In 1994, after the Republicans won a similar victory over Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich attempted to use the speakership to craft national policy. Clinton ran for re-election in 1996 against Gingrich rather than the actual Republican candidate, Bob Dole; Clinton made Gingrich the issue, and he won. Obama hopes for the same opportunity to recoup. The new speaker, John Boehner, already has indicated that he does not intend to play Gingrich but rather is prepared to find compromises. Since Tea Party members are not close to forming a majority of the Republican Party in the House, Boehner is likely to get his way.

Another way to look at this is that the United States remains a predominantly right-of-center country. Obama won a substantial victory in 2008, but he did not change the architecture of American politics. Almost 48 percent of voters voted against him. Though he won a larger percentage than anyone since Ronald Reagan, he was not even close to the magnitude of Reagan’s victory. Reagan transformed the way American politics worked. Obama did not. In spite of his supporters’ excitement, his election did not signify a permanent national shift to the left. His attempt to govern from the left accordingly brought a predictable result: The public took away his ability to legislate on domestic affairs. Instead, they moved the country to a position where no one can legislate anything beyond the most carefully negotiated and neutral legislation.

Foreign Policy and Obama’s Campaign Position

That leaves foreign policy. Last week, I speculated on what Obama might do in foreign affairs, exploring his options with regard to Iran. This week, I’d like to consider the opposite side of the coin, namely, how foreign governments view Obama after this defeat. Let’s begin by considering how he positioned himself during his campaign.

The most important thing about his campaign was the difference between what he said he would do and what his supporters heard him saying he would do. There were several major elements to his foreign policy. First, he campaigned intensely against the Bush policy in Iraq, arguing that it was the wrong war in the wrong place. Second, he argued that the important war was in Afghanistan, where he pledged to switch his attention to face the real challenge of al Qaeda. Third, he argued against Bush administration policy on detention, military tribunals and torture, in his view symbolized by the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

In a fourth element, he argued that Bush had alienated the world by his unilateralism, by which he meant lack of consultation with allies — in particular the European allies who had been so important during the Cold War. Obama argued that global hostility toward the Bush administration arose from the Iraq war and the manner in which Bush waged the war on terror. He also made clear that the United States under Bush had an indifference to world opinion that cost it moral force. Obama wanted to change global perceptions of the United States as a unilateral global power to one that would participate as an equal partner with the rest of the world.

The Europeans were particularly jubilant at his election. They had in fact seen Bush as unwilling to take their counsel, and more to the point, as demanding that they participate in U.S. wars that they had no interest in participating in. The European view — or more precisely, the French and German view — was that allies should have a significant degree of control over what Americans do. Thus, the United States should not merely have consulted the Europeans, but should have shaped its policy with their wishes in mind. The Europeans saw Bush as bullying, unsophisticated and dangerous. Bush in turn saw allies’ unwillingness to share the burdens of a war as meaning they were not in fact allies. He considered so-called “Old Europe” as uncooperative and unwilling to repay past debts.

The European Misunderstanding of Obama

The Europeans’ pleasure in Obama’s election, however, represented a massive misunderstanding. Though they thought Obama would allow them a greater say in U.S. policy — and, above all, ask them for less — Obama in fact argued that the Europeans would be more likely to provide assistance to the United States if Washington was more collaborative with the Europeans.

Thus, in spite of the Nobel Peace Prize in the early days of the romance, the bloom wore off as the Europeans discovered that Obama was simply another U.S. president. More precisely, they learned that instead of being able to act according to his or her own wishes, circumstances constrain occupants of the U.S. presidency into acting like any other president would.

Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, Obama’s position on Iraq consisted of slightly changing Bush’s withdrawal timetable. In Afghanistan, his strategy was to increase troop levels beyond what Bush would consider. Toward Iran, his policy has been the same as Bush’s: sanctions with a hint of something later.

The Europeans quickly became disappointed in Obama, especially when he escalated the Afghan war and asked them to increase forces when they wanted to withdraw. Perhaps most telling was his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, where he tried to reach out to, and create a new relationship with, Muslims. The problem with this approach was that that in the speech, Obama warned that the United States would not abandon Israel — the same stance other U.S. presidents had adopted. It is hard to know what Obama was thinking. Perhaps he thought that by having reached out to the Muslim world, they should in turn understand the American commitment to Israel. Instead, Muslims understood the speech as saying that while Obama was prepared to adopt a different tone with Muslims, the basic structure of American policy in the region would not be different.

Why Obama Believed in a Reset Button

In both the European and Muslim case, the same question must be asked: Why did Obama believe that he was changing relations when in fact his policies were not significantly different from Bush’s policies? The answer is that Obama seemed to believe the essential U.S. problem with the world was rhetorical. The United States had not carefully explained itself, and in not explaining itself, the United States appeared arrogant.

Obama seemed to believe that the policies did not matter as much as the sensibility that surrounded the policies. It was not so much that he believed he could be charming — although he seemed to believe that with reason — but rather that foreign policy is personal, built around trust and familiarity rather than around interests. The idea that nations weren’t designed to trust or like one another, but rather pursued their interests with impersonal force, was alien to him. And so he thought he could explain the United States to the Muslims without changing U.S. policy and win the day.

U.S. policies in the Middle East remain intact, Guantanamo is still open, and most of the policies Obama opposed in his campaign are still there, offending the world much as they did under Bush. Moreover, the U.S. relationship with China has worsened, and while the U.S. relationship with Russia has appeared to improve, this is mostly atmospherics. This is not to criticize Obama, as these are reasonable policies for an American to pursue. Still, the substantial change in America’s place in the world that Europeans and his supporters entertained has not materialized. That it couldn’t may be true, but the gulf between what Obama said and what has happened is so deep that it shapes global perceptions.

Global Expectations and Obama’s Challenge

Having traveled a great deal in the last year and met a number of leaders and individuals with insight into the predominant thinking in their country, I can say with some confidence that the global perception of Obama today is as a leader given to rhetoric that doesn’t live up to its promise. It is not that anyone expected his rhetoric to live up to its promise, since no politician can pull that off, but that they see Obama as someone who thought rhetoric would change things. In that sense, he is seen as naive and, worse, as indecisive and unimaginative.

No one expected him to turn rhetoric into reality. But they did expect some significant shifts in foreign policy and a forceful presence in the world. Whatever the criticisms leveled against the United States, the expectation remains that the United States will remain at the center of events, acting decisively. This may be a contradiction in the global view of things, but it is the reality.

A foreign minister of a small — but not insignificant — country put it this way to me: Obama doesn’t seem to be there. By that he meant that Obama does not seem to occupy the American presidency and that the United States he governs does not seem like a force to be reckoned with. Decisions that other leaders wait for the United States to make don’t get made, the authority of U.S. emissaries is uncertain, the U.S. defense and state departments say different things, and serious issues are left unaddressed.

While it may seem an odd thing to say, it is true: The American president also presides over the world. U.S. power is such that there is an expectation that the president will attend to matters around the globe not out of charity, but because of American interest. The questions I have heard most often on many different issues are simple: What is the American position, what is the American interest, what will the Americans do? (As an American, I frequently find my hosts appointing me to be the representative of the United States.)

I have answered that the United States is off balance trying to place the U.S.-jihadist war in context, that it must be understood that the president is preoccupied but will attend to their region shortly. That is not a bad answer, since it is true. But the issue now is simple: Obama has spent two years on the trajectory in place when he was elected, having made few if any significant shifts. Inertia is not a bad thing in policy, as change for its own sake is dangerous. Yet a range of issues must be attended to, including China, Russia and the countries that border each of them.

Obama comes out of this election severely weakened domestically. If he continues his trajectory, the rest of the world will perceive him as a crippled president, something he needn’t be in foreign policy matters. Obama can no longer control Congress, but he still controls foreign policy. He could emerge from this defeat as a powerful foreign policy president, acting decisively in Afghanistan and beyond. It’s not a question of what he should do, but whether he will choose to act in a significant way at all.

This is Obama’s great test. Reagan accelerated his presence in the world after his defeat in 1982. It is an option, and the most important question is whether he takes it. We will know in a few months. If he doesn’t, global events will begin unfolding without recourse to the United States, and issues held in check will no longer remain quiet.


Friday, November 05, 2010

Fair Game**** Plame fame

The story of Valerie Plame comes alive on the screen. Naomi Watts gives an Oscar worthy performance, being vulnerable to being James Bond.

The movie tears apart the Niger myth, and the tubes myth, as entry to the Iraq War.

I thought the film made a good case for Valerie Plame. I don't believe the left should have been fighting against exposing CIA agents. Laws like that were written against the left.

Still go see it.


Monday, November 01, 2010

Where Is Labor's Voice in the 2010 Elections?

Written by CMPL
Friday, 29 October 2010 16:00

CMPL Statement on the Midterm Elections

(If you agree with the perspective outlined below, we urge you to join the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor and help us raise these ideas in our unions, workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods.)

The 2010 midterm elections are now less than a week away, and the media is ramping up its coverage of the candidates and the “issues.” There is plenty of coverage about the need to make “hard choices” when it comes to budget cuts and the deficit, the latest declarations of the Tea Party, or the debate over raising or lowering taxes on small businesses in order to create a handful of jobs. But little attention is paid to the real root of the problem facing American workers: an economy unable to generate the millions of jobs needed to replace those lost during the last few years and to keep up with the growing population. Nor do the media pundits state the obvious: the budget shortfalls which now require such drastic sacrifices on our part are the result of billions being spent on foreign wars, and even greater amounts handed out with few or no strings attached to bail out the banks, insurance, and mortgage giants.

And yet it is not these massive Wall Street corporations, responsible as they are for the crisis, that are being made to pay. It is the workers, who bear no responsibility for this mess, who are being made to shoulder the load, directly and indirectly. And yet, with so much at stake for the working majority of the country, in terms of who decides budget priorities at the federal, state, and local level, the voices of labor are few and far between. Where is labor's voice in the midterm elections?

The limits of third party campaigns

Although there are a handful of candidates across the country standing against the Democrats and Republicans and their well-oiled electoral machinery, the fact is that few if any of these candidates stand any chance at being elected, even to local offices. On top of the millions spent by the major party candidates and their campaigns, there has been a 367% increase in outside spending this electoral cycle, as compared to the 2006 midterms. It is a big money race, and only those with deep pockets or well-heeled friends in high places need apply. Without resources and a mass backing, third party candidates will almost always end up in third place, no matter how good their platform is. In most races, therefore, we are once again left with more of the same: a race between corporate-backed candidate #1 and corporate-backed candidate #2.

In light of this, some have compared the U.S. electoral process to a “work” in professional wrestling. In public, the wrestlers from opposing camps are mortal enemies, say the most outrageous things about each other, and even smash chairs on their opponents' heads in order to build up a rivalry that will attract interest from the fans. But backstage things are very different. They are all friends and part of the same show business production, partners in the business of filling seats and selling pay-per-views. The parallels with big business politics would almost be funny if it weren't so tragic for the working class. But it isn't at all funny when millions are losing their homes, their jobs, and their hope.

Hope for real change is a powerful motivator. Just two years ago, the deep-seated desire for change in this country was heavy in the air. Literally millions of Americans flocked to catch a glimpse of Obama on the campaign trail, many with tears of joy in their eyes. People saw in him what they wanted to see: jobs, health care, education, and an end to the wars. For a few months, they were willing to “wait and see” what he would do to make things better. Then a year passed. Then another. Now millions Americans are starting to realize what seemed unthinkable to them just two years ago: the real Obama is much like every other big business politician.

Obama continues in Bush's footsteps

The proof is in his policies, many of which echo Bush's down to the letter. There has been no significant help for families whose homes have been foreclosed; No Employee Free Choice Act (card check); No repeal of Taft-Hartley or other anti-union laws; No universal health care; No universal education; No massive program of useful public works to create millions of jobs and rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure.

On the contrary, it has been “business as usual” as corporate CEO pay has skyrocketed to even more absurd levels while the rest of us wonder whether we'll have a job or even a roof over or heads next month. No wonder the majority of American workers are unimpressed with the options before them in the midterms. No wonder the Democrats have to deal with an “enthusiasm gap.” No wonder it is seen by many as a referendum on Obama. And yet, after two years of near total inaction on issues of importance to labor, Obama is now desperately appealing to the unions to help keep the Democrats in power. And unfortunately, instead of calling him out as a defender of big business and proposing a concrete alternative, most union leaders are bending over backwards to oblige him.

All too often, American workers are compelled to vote “against” this or that, as opposed to “for” something they actually want. Instead of presenting a positive plan to not only save, but expand Social Security and Medicare in the face of Republican plans to privatize the system, raise the retirement age, and cut benefits, the labor leaders try to scare us into voting for the Democrats, who in reality only offer variations on the same policy. Instead of offering an optimistic vision of what is possible in the richest and most productive country on earth, we are told by the labor leaders merely to vote “against” the Tea Party. This is the result of their policy of economic and political partnership with the bosses. But pressure is mounting for them to change tack.

Thousands of union members are saying “enough is enough!” They instinctively understand that it's high time the American working class had its own political party, a mass party of labor based on the unions.

Changing mood

Already, there are signs of this changing mood. Under pressure from the rank and file, union contributions to Democratic Party candidates are down this electoral cycle. In North Carolina, the NC Families First Party, a state-wide labor party organized by SEIU has laid the groundwork for future campaigns against the Democrats and Republicans. In South Carolina, the Labor Party has been revived and is running a candidate for the SC House of Representatives. In Pittsburgh, the Steelworkers at least flirted with the idea of running one of their own against the incumbent Democrat in the midterms, although in the end they didn't run a candidate.

In addition, the modestly successful October 2nd mobilization for jobs in Washington, DC was the first significant stirring of the American workers since the crisis began. It was an indication that workers are willing to fight against the cuts and for jobs. Although many speakers tried to turn it into a pep rally for the Democrats, it wasn't so easy to do, as many of the tens of thousands of workers present weren't having it. Just two years ago, the union tops had no problem calling openly for a vote for the Democrats. Now they have to call for a vote “against” the Republicans.

Also under pressure from below, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has made increasingly militant statements in the run up to the elections. For example, he recently said that “Charting a new course for our economy requires that we understand the causes behind wage stagnation and growing inequality over the past 35 years. And prominent among those causes is the free market orthodoxy that has served the interests of our nation’s wealthiest families and most powerful institutions but left the vast majority of working families behind.”

Condemning “free market orthodoxy” for the crisis facing “the vast majority of working families” is a bold statement coming from the leader of millions of organized workers. Unfortunately, Trumka has also done his utmost to mobilize a disillusioned rank and file to get out the vote for the Democrats, who, like the Republicans, are defenders of that same “free market orthodoxy.” In a pre-election conference call with president Obama and thousands of union activists, Trumka outlined the support the unions have given the Democrats, which Obama has called the “backbone” of the electoral campaign: “For every dollar spent by corporate CEOs, you’ve knocked on one door, dialed one number, handed out one leaflet. One voter at a time, you’ve been erasing those millions of dollars to let our opponents know that democracy isn’t for sale. We’re not for sale.”

It's time for the labor leaders to draw the necessary conclusions from their statements. The solution to the problem facing workers is right there in Trumka's own words. The labor movement is strong enough to be the “backbone” of a national political campaign. But instead of mobilizing to elect candidates from the pro-corporate Democratic Party, it's time for our leadership to break with the parties of the corporations and build our own mass political party. It's time for them realize that there can be no meaningful “partnership” with parties that will never in a thousand years represent anyone but the rich. It's time to stop throwing good money and resources after bad. It's time to use the substantial resources of the labor movement to run independent labor candidates in 2012, and lay the foundation for a mass party of labor in the years ahead. Instead of making excuses for the Democrats' lack of action, it's time for labor to stand on its own two feet, both at the workplace and at the polls.

Even bigger attacks coming

Whichever corporate party gets control of Congress, the states, and local government, we can be sure of one thing: the working majority of this country will not have a real political voice to fight in our interests. A whole series of austerity measures and cuts are already in the pipeline, and without genuine political representation for the workers, the rank and file will pressure the labor leadership to fight back against these attacks. Trumka and the rest of the leadership should give a bold lead on this front as well, using the unions' structures and resources to mobile the organized as well as the unorganized in the workplace, in the schools and universities, and on the streets. The recent mass workers' and students' strikes and blockades against cuts in Social Security in France, where even fewer workers are unionized than in the U.S., shows that it is more than possible for unions in the U.S. to lead such struggles, provided the leadership does what they were elected to do: lead.

However, even the most successful fight back against this or that cut or closure will have a limited effect in the long term unless it is linked with a broader political struggle. Unless and until such militant actions in the workplace and on the streets are backed up with legislation and enforcement to protect the gains we achieve in these struggles, they will always be in danger of being rolled back. This is just another reason we need a labor party, to fight on the political plane in concert with mobilizations on the streets.

Winners and losers

It would be impossible, and frankly, not very productive to try to predict the exact results of these elections. We'll know the results soon enough. But we can predict that frustration with the two party system will likely be expressed in high abstentionism. Many people can't see the point of voting when no matter what, things seem to keep getting worse.

So the Democrats may well squeak out a “victory” for their party by retaining control of Congress. With the memory of Bush and co. fresh in their minds, just enough voters may hold their noses and go to the polls anyway, to try to keep the so-called “lesser evil” out of power. But it is also possible that the millions of demoralized Obama 2008 supporters will simply stay home in disgust, giving Congress over to the so-called “greater evil”.

Either way, the “will of the people” will be determined by just a fraction of the population, and in most cases, the only ones with any real chance at winning will be those with enough personal riches or wealthy backers to spend hundreds of thousands and even millions on their campaigns. So in the end, no matter who “wins,” we can predict the loser: the American workers. Because it's six of one or half a dozen of the other. Or as the great rock band The Who sang in their classic Won't Get Fooled Again: “Meet the new boss… Same as the old boss...”

But we don't need to keep losing elections. We don't need to keep voting for “boss #1” or “boss #2.” We don't need to keep getting “fooled again.” We don't need to limit ourselves to “third” parties and third place. There is another way forward. Since workers are the majority in this country, we should strive to be the “first” party, in first place. It all starts with the unions breaking with the bosses' parties and building a party of, by and for the working majority.

If you agree with this perspective, we urge you to join the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor and help us raise these ideas in our unions, workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods.

Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor

Renegade Eye