Saturday, October 31, 2009


Why all these meetings and deliberations about Afghanistan? I can't believe they are simply a charade that will end up with Obama giving McCrystal what the hawks demand.

I think Obama wants desperately to avoid being locked into a military escalation that spells quagmire for many years ahead. I think he hopes to open a window to a change of course that will provide more room for political and diplomatic maneuver and a possible escape route from commitment to endless war.

Of course the pressures are enormous, and he'll probably end up adding some troops and still trapped in a hopeless war. Nevertheless, the war in Afghanistan has finally come into question, with a majority of the public now opposed. The Obama Administration's own uncertainty, it's insistence on deliberation in defiance of demands from top generals and Republican hawks, underscores the growing anxiety and public counter-pressure for an end to the war.

As in the past, popular anger over the toll that a winless war exacts is what will prove decisive — sooner, let's hope, rather than disastrously later.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Obama and the Establishment

A remarkable thing about Obama's election is that he had support from all progressives and a big grass-roots majority, while at the same time he earned the favor of much of the rich and powerful establishment. He probably could not have won without substantial establishment support, and it's not hard to figure out why he received it. After eight years of Bush-Cheney, the ship of state was so deeply mired in trouble that Obama's call for reform reached eager ears even among the high and mighty. Obama was able to inspire a people desperate for change, while assuring establishment supporters that he would be "responsible" and not turn things upside down.

Thus began a historic presidency, electrifying in its shattering of shameful Jim Crow precedents, full of hope for a bright new day of progressive reform.

So why is Obama having such a hard time? Why are so many initiatives stymied or watered down by compromise?

An obvious reason is the depth of the economic crisis that defies a quick fix. The hypocrites of the defeated Right blame all the accumulated ills on Obama. They work for and bank on his failure as their way back to political control.

Another dynamic is at work that makes change so difficult. The general support Obama gets from much of the establishment fractures when it comes to any particular measure of significant reform. It breaks on the rocks of any perceived threat to corporate profits. The welfare of the health insurance industry comes before universal health care. Oil and coal profits pay off in congressional sabotage of efforts to deal with alternate energy and climate change. Wall Street wants no regulation to interfere with its unsavory no-holds-barred financial gambling.

The same dynamic operates with regard to foreign policy, matters of war and peace. Despite widespread recognition that the US position in the world can no longer be based on the discredited assumption that "we" are the all powerful superpower, even limited efforts to adjust to reality run up against the military-industrial complex and entrenched imperial interests. So the commitment to the disastrous war in Afghanistan remains, and the general goes outside the chain-of-command to pressure a wavering White House to dig in even deeper. When Obama joins Latin-American governments in denouncing the military coup in Honduras, that position is undercut in compromise with demands of cold war die-hards of Yankee Imperialism. Similar vested interests rail against modest efforts to rein in settlements aimed at making Israel's occupation of Palestine permanent.

When it comes to moving forward on the promise of change, the common sense and "enlightenment" of some in the establishment is countered by the norms of the system of greed, privilege and power for the few over the many.

Where does that leave Obama and the groundswell that put him in the White House? A determined push back from the bottom up is the only way to keep the promise of change from being squandered issue by issue. That's being played out now on health care as the demand grows to reject and reverse deals that would surrender the public interest to the tyranny of the health insurance conglomerates.

Reform may have some shaky support in high places, but the only assurance is in the fight put up by the people who must have it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Embarrassed by the extreme antics of ultra-Right inciters like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and Joe Wilson, intellectual conservatives and the mainstream media paint a mythical landscape of American politics. David Brooks, guest pundit on virtually every TV news panel, is master of the art: the extremists and crazies on the Right are a fringe element that doesn't represent the GOP; the Left is the equivalent extreme on the fringe of American politics; the great majority of Americans occupy the Center, leaning Right.

What's wrong with that picture?

First, when it comes to die-hard opposition to every single facet of change that Americans voted for in electing Obama, the GOP is as stubbornly united as any political party ever was. On policy and on determination to bring Obama down, there is no crack in the ranks from Rush Limbaugh, Sara Palin and Newt Gingrich to Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Tim DeMint.

Second, the big majority that elected Obama clearly rejected the GOP and endorsed the progressive change that was promised. Within that majority, there is a strong, though very diverse, Left — one that is neither extremist nor a marginalized fringe. It bears no resemblance to the dangerous vigilantism that has become the hallmark of the ultra-Right.

The Left in American politics is not confined or defined by a political party. Nor is there a self-conscious recognition of the Left by all its diverse constituencies. Given that left and right are relative terms, is there a reasonable description of the American Left?

I think there is. The picture is becoming clearer as the fight for progressive change encounters huge systemic resistance. The Left's common denominator is the recognition that progress — every single step forward in the public interest — has to be won in struggle against corporate wealth and power.

That conviction is not universal in the overall majority that constitutes the Obama coalition, nor is it the philosophy of President Obama and his Administration. Still in practice, Obama and the entire progressive majority are pressed into conflict with corporate power over even modest reforms in health care, job stimulus measures, climate and alternate energy policy. The broad American Left has to be the engine that pushes the struggle forward. That outlook is crucial not only on domestic issues, but in the pursuit of peace against powerful pressures for war and persistent ambitions of imperial dominance.

Measured by the standard of struggle for human needs in deliberate opposition to anti-democratic corporate power, who and what is the American Left? It is a political conglomeration with no single leading center and with many different voices. There is no messianic component that is wiser than all the rest. Its public intellectuals include economists like Krugman and Steiglitz, analysts and journalists from Noam Chomsky to Bob Herbert, Rachel Maddow, Bill Fletcher, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Moyers, Amy Goodman and many, many others. There are strong trade union voices, especially Richard Trumka. The most dynamic leaders are community organizers fighting injustice at ground level in areas devastated by joblessness and foreclosures. There are a multitude of Left organizations, movements and publications. There are legislators such as Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders, Barney Frank and like-minded members of Congress.

The diversity of the Left is a great strength, but it also makes for problems. Its place in the political landscape lacks definition, so it is readily misrepresented by those who seek to marginalize its influence. Also, particular organizations and individuals can be targeted for slander and frame-ups while others are silent and the entire Left is smeared. (Cases-in-point: the assault on Acorn and the forced resignation of White House Adviser Van Jones.)

It would be impossible to merge all of the Left into one formation, and foolish to try. But a developing strategy of unity and cooperation is essential, as is the defining theme: fighting for the public interest, for basic democratic reforms, against corporate greed and power.

The Left has an impressive place in our country's history. Its legacy is in anti-monopoly and farmer-labor coalitions; in every battle for progressive social legislation; in pioneering advances for trade unionism, for human, civil and immigrant rights, for racial and gender equality. A hallmark of the Left was its early consciousness of fascist danger and commitment to overcoming Jim Crow. Within the Left, advocates of socialism have been a significant presence, highlighted by the great popularity of Eugene V. Debs while imprisoned for opposing the First World War. The Left included, but never was limited to, socialists and communists of varying convictions, who contributed much though often diverted by ideological combat with each other.

Today the part of the American Left in various socialist and Marxist organizations is much smaller than in other times. That's another discussion, but it's a mistake — and demoralizing — to view the strength and impact of the Left through that narrow window. As the current severe crisis of Capitalism reminds us, Marxist analysis and socialist ideals have much to offer toward understanding and coping with the world we live in. But that's significant only in the context of openness to the total experience and thoughts of a broad and influential Left.