Obama, Afghanistan, and deja vu all over again

December 2, 2009 | By | 21 Replies More

First, some background:

  • May 1, 2003 President George W. Bush, while standing in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner, declares “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”
  • October 27, 2007 Presidential candidate Barack H. Obama, speaking on the Iraq War, declares “I will promise you this: that if we have not gotten our troops out by the time I am president, it is the first thing I will do.  I will get our troops home, we will bring an end to this war, you can take that to the bank.”
  • November 4, 2008 Candidate Obama is elected to the presidency.
  • January 20, 2009 Obama’s inauguration.
  • January 21, 2009  First full-day of Obama’s presidency passes with no sign that he intends to bring the troops home.
  • February 18, 2009 President Obama orders 17,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan.
  • February 27, 2009 President Obama declares “Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”  Ok, so it’s not the “first thing he will do”, but he will definitely do it.  Someday.  For sure, all the troops from Iraq will be out by 2011. It’s hard to tell though, the 2012 elections will be right around the corner by that point…
  • December 1, 2009 President Obama announces his plan to send an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan.  This brings the total US forces in the country to about 100,000.  Officially, it’s a NATO action, so including all the soldiers involved in the occupation brings the total to some 140,000— “the same level as the peak of Soviet forces during an eight-year war that ended in a humiliating defeat.”  Oddly enough, US forces have been there about 8 years also, as of October 2009.
  • December 10, 2009 Nine days after announcing a major increase in war-fighting strength in Afghanistan, President Obama will accept the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.   George Orwell will roll over in his grave, as “war” officially becomes “peace”.

This is exactly why there is such widespread voter apathy– because there are no real choices.   You may vote for candidate A or candidate B (but not C!).  Oddly enough, both candidates have remarkably similar stances on a narrow set of “issues”.  Other issues are not even open for discussion– issues such as election financing, whether globalization has been a boon or a disaster, and so on.  Obama was ostensibly the “peace candidate”, and promised to bring the troops home from Iraq, as the very first thing he did as president. Almost a year into his presidency, there are still 115,000-120,000 troops there.   How would McCain’s strategy have been any different?  If you, as a voter, want to elect someone who will bring the troops home, who do you vote for: the guy who says it’s irresponsible to bring them home prematurely, or the guy who says he’ll do it, if only you elect him?  Trick question– the truth is neither one will do it.   But don’t you feel a little bit worse by knowing you were suckered into voting for the guy who just told you what you wanted to hear?  “Hope, change” etc…  meaningless rhetoric.

Meanwhile, a plurality of Americans now think that America should “mind it’s own business internationally”.  Of course, 60% want a public health care option, but they won’t get that either.   Hell, calls into congressional offices were running 90-1 against the bailout, and we all know how that turned out (note also that both Candidate A and B supported it).

Numerous others have pointed out the contradictions in Obama’s strategy, but suffice it to say that you can read whatever you want to into it.  If you believe it’s important to win this war, Obama says that can be done in 18 months.  If you think the troops should come home, that will start to happen in 18 months (barring “unforeseen” developments on the ground).  Arthur Silber’s analysis is quite good:

…let me note that Obama made very clear that he purportedly intends to extricate us from Central Asia by involving us in increasingly complex ways in the affairs of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you think that is a glaringly obvious contradiction, you’re entirely correct. How exactly do you leave that region of the world more quickly by involving yourself in ever more complicated and numerous ways? The answer is that you don’t. But as my previous article stated, we aren’t leaving. Obama and the U.S. government are not unlike the dreaded house guest who insistently tells you he’s going home in just another week or two — honestly, he is, and how could you possibly not believe him? — even as he redecorates your extra bedroom at notable cost and takes over several of your closets for many of his most precious belongings. You hear his words, and you see what he does — and your heart sinks as you realize that a life of independence, a life that is yours, is gone.

Lastly, see Glenn Greenwald’s analysis which shows the striking similarities between Bush’s Iraq surge and Obama’s Afghanistan surge.  Nevermind the “similarities”, it’s the exact same language.


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Category: American Culture, Current Events, War

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (21)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I know that some are holding out hope that Obama knows more than we do and he has our best interests are heart. http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_d… For my part, I'm feeling a significant amount of new disappointment every week with regard to our eloquent President. I am disappointed in a dozen major ways. But I'm still glad that Obama beat McCain/Palin.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    One difficulty about Iraq is that our country is still holding the stick that we had thrust into that hornet's nest.

    Exactly what do you suppose the result would be of rapidly yanking said stick out?

    I'm all for a cautious withdrawal. Especially while neighboring countries are rife with hostiles who are just waiting to fill a power vacuum. The Taliban (or a similar fundamentalist theocracy) would likely win an election in that region.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Bill Moyers on President Obama's decision to escalate the American military presence in Afghanistan:

    A few days before President Obama's speech this week . . . I read a report based on military records which revealed that from 2003 to 2008 some 43,000 troops had been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan despite having been classified as "non-deployable" for medical reasons. In plain English, they weren't healthy enough to go, but were sent, anyway.

    So I listened uneasily to the President Tuesday night. He didn't say a word about the fact that the well is running dry. We are short on soldiers and he asked none of the rest of us to sacrifice, not even to pay for the war he says will defend us from terrorism here at home. Like George W. Bush before him, President Obama will fight this war with overworked soldiers under intolerable stress and he will pay for it on credit in an economy already stretched to the cracking point . . .

    Almost unilaterally – with only a fig-leaf of Congressional approval – Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, both Bushes, and now Barack Obama committed us to costly wars far removed from the rationale of self-defense set forth by those delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.


  4. Erich Vieth says:

    [E]ven if the surge works, why wouldn’t al-Qaida—or some like-minded group—simply set up shop in Somalia? Or in Yemen, another failing state? Or in some other wretched corner of the world where central government authority is weak and resentment of the West’s dominant power is high? Afghanistan happened to be Osama bin Laden’s choice for a headquarters, but he and his top aides were driven out of the country shortly after the U.S. invasion. Al-Qaida is believed to be based in Pakistan now . . .


  5. Erich,

    I'm inclined to part company here. So what if Al-Quida set up somewhere else? They probably would unless captured or killed.

    I happen to believe that groups like this ought to be eradicated. They're like a staph infection, they weaken the entire body by their presence, and if not expunged remain as a chronic infection. It may well be impossible to get rid of them entirely, but given the probable natural alliances with two states both potentially nuclear armed—Pakistan and Iran—I'm not sure this one isn't worth the expenditure of effort. While I never agreed with the invasion of Iraq (although Tony Blair did make a credible legal case for it—Hussein had been in violation of UN resolutions for years by waging low-level warfare with the blockade), after 9/11 I thought Afghanistan was justified. We fucked it up. We should have dumped 100K troops in there first and secured it before splitting our attention to a state that was already contained. Afghanistan had been left hanging by us after the Russians pulled out and were subsequently vulnerable to the Taliban, who are some of the nastiest pieces of human offal on the planet. Because we never recognized them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan does not excuse the fact that they pretty much declared war on us. Often. And flipped off not only us but the world by refusing to surrender Bin-Laden.

    But we fucked it up. We didn't do it quickly and efficiently. That doesn't mean it wouldn't be potentially an unmitigated disaster to just pull out. Afghanistan resides between Pakistan and Iran. Let's assume it falls to the Taliban again. Iran could easily shift it nuclear program there and hide it. Eventually a situation would emerge where a nuclear armed Iran with bases in Afghanistan could strong arm Pakistan into compromising arrangements that go against Western interests. If Pakistan, which still doesn't have the most stable of governments, signed an accord with Iran under those conditions, Iran then has a back door to NATO states.

    I could spin these scenarios all day. Point is, this is not something I believe is a viable condition to leave alone.

    And if Al-Quida moved to Somalia? Somalia has been at war with everyone for decades. Piracy in the Gulf alone, which is tacitly state-supported (inasmuch as there is a "state" to support it) is not something we (meaning the developed and the developing world) can permit to stand.

    What people do not remember about our involvement in Somalia is that we and our partners went in to break a famine and in most of the country we succeeded. But because all our media attention was in Mogadishu, we were embarrassed into leaving when we got our noses bloodied and all that work subsequently collapsed, leaving an ironic reversal of conditions now, with a putative "friendly" government in Mogadishu and the rest of the country in the hands of fundamentalists.

    These situations are like infections and they leach vitality out of regions and eventually others around those regions. We let them stand because we don't want to do anything unpopular, but that doesn't make a good argument to withdraw completely and let the situation devolve.

    If I were Obama I'd dump 200K troops in there and then make a deal with Pakistan to deploy NATO troops along their border with India to "stand in" for Pakistani troops (in their paranoid defensiveness) while the bulk of the Pakistani army marched into the territories and participated in a joint cross-border operation to destroy those Taliban and Al-Quida strongholds. Part of that deal would be a sizeable chunk of aid and favorable trade deals designed to rebuild those regions into something no one would wish to give up. We have forgotten the lessons of the Cold War in this because we don't want to spend the money, but the most effective weapon against the Soviets were West Berlin and Vienna. Show-cases for Western prosperity. Maybe there's a racial element about doing the same with the Middle East, but we should revisit it.

    Anyway, my two cents.

  6. Brynn Jacobs says:


    In what way had the Taliban in Afghanistan "pretty much declared war on us", prior to our invasion? Most of the reports I've read indicate we were threatening them with war in advance of the 9/11 attacks, and mostly over an oil pipeline. Salon reported:

    ..the Clinton and Bush administrations negotiated with the Taliban, both to get the repressive regime to widen its government as well as look favorably on U.S. companies' attempts to construct an oil pipeline. The Bush White House stepped up negotiations with the Taliban in 2001. When those talks stalled in July, a Bush administration representative threatened the Taliban with military reprisals if the government did not go along with American demands.

    And they didn't flip us off, nor the world, by refusing to hand over Bin-Laden. We were the ones who asserted that Bin-Laden was responsible for the attacks, while refusing to provide any proof whatsoever (note: proof remains lacking). The Taliban offered to turn him over to a third-party country for a trial, which we refused.

    Obama would have a difficult time deploying 200k troops to the area, when logistical problems already abound in deploying the latest surge. And unless he reinstitutes the draft, there simply aren't the soldiers available.

    It's also worth noting that less than 100 al-Qaida remain in Afghanistan, according to the Obama administration. So his plan to have 100,000 troops deployed in the area seems like a bit of overkill– one thousand trained American soldiers for each al-Qaida soldier remaining? And at a cost of $1 million per US soldier per year, that's a staggering expense.

    Lastly, if we accept that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by 19 hijackers armed with box-cutters, then future attacks like that could be planned anywhere. They don't require some kind of terrorist "safe haven" as we're asserting exists in Afghanistan, they could be planned at the local Denny's over a nice breakfast. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, etc… We do not have the strength nor the will to invade the whole world to completely eradicate these groups, as you advocate. Much better, I think, to use foreign aid and trade deals as carrots, as you mention in your last paragraph. That strategy also has the commendable benefits of stopping the slaughter of innocent civilians. Who knows, maybe that will reduce the amount of "blowback" directed our way?

    I just finished Colonel Andrew Bacevich's book, The Limits of Power.</a rel="nofollow"> In it, he argues that the military is fundamentally unable to "win" the sorts of imperial wars that we have been pursuing. I tend to agree, and I think there's much to recommend his solution: stop pretending like we are able to run the world like an empire, and adjust our foreign policy to reflect the need for negotiation, rather than demands.

  7. Brynn,

    The lack of proof article, since Bin Laden has been gleefully releasing gloating videos on the internet since the 9/11 attacks (which veer just shy, I admit, of his saying "I ordered it", in my opinion—in MY OPINION—is the equivalent of claiming that Hitler never actually signed the orders for the Final Solution. The people who planned it, who carried it out, etc, worked for him, were associated with him, and he never disclaimed it. His is at least the titular head of the organization that has been responsible for many such attacks including that one.

    Mea culpa on 200K—it was an exaggeration to get my point across.

    The Taliban assaulted American nationals (including torture) and thumbed their noses at international pressure on several issues (including the bombing of the Buddhas) and their "offer" to hand Bin Laden over to a third party country was beside the point—Al Quida attacked us, not a third party. If I recall correctly (and I admit I may be in error) they gave a list of so-called third party countries and all of them were just shy of being flagrantly anti American.

    I claimed in my response that we fucked up. Instead of treating the 9/11 perptrators as essentially Islamic mafia, we decided they had to be treated like a state, thereby giving ourselves permission to be fumbling bullies. By our own actions, I believe we've created a situation where we can't back up now. The issue is no longer Al-Quida so much as it is the Taliban, and they represent the potential conquest of Afghanistan and the likelihood of becoming part of an Iranian nuclear program. In either event, we already know that the average Afghani didn't like the Taliban but could do little or nothing about them. The only reason they were able to topple the Afghani government when they did was because we'd essentially left the Afghanis hanging after a Russian pull-out—another one of our wonderful "We'll back you up if you fight our enemies but we won't help you when you win" deals which have so endeared us to all the people who seem now to hate us.

    I don't advocate invading the whole world, but maybe just once when we go into an area that's not western and white we should go the distance with aid and support like we always claim is the best way to go about it. Then maybe many of these smaller countries might start to believe it's worth partnering with us instead of the Islamic nutjob who wants all their sons for jihad and all the women hidden and uneducated.

  8. Never mind:


    Nevertheless, this is pretty much our mess. We should clean it up.

  9. Brynn Jacobs says:


    If we grant that OBL was behind the attacks, then why haven't we made it a priority to get him? It seems the world has forgotten about him, and if he's such a criminal mastermind then it ought to be a priority to have him captured or killed. Unfortunately, we have no idea where he is, and apparently let him go free when we had him in our sights. So either we're inept or OBL is a red herring. Either one has troubling implications.

    As far as I can tell, the Taliban didn't demand any specific countries as a part of their offer to turn over OBL to a third-party. They were willing to negotiate which country would be satisfactory. In fact, they explicitly wanted a neutral country, one that would not "come under pressure from the United States". (source) How unreasonable!

    I'll grant you that the Taliban are nasty people, but that still doesn't respond to the main points of my argument. The world is full of nasty people, some of whom use violence (including torture) to solve problems. Unfortunately, WE are also some of those people. In any case, there will come a time when we literally cannot afford to send ever-increasing numbers of soldiers around the world in a bid to secure governments that are friendly to "western interests", as you termed them in your reply to Erich. And what an oddly imperial euphemism that is too-we certainly must secure <span style="font-style: italic;"><span style="font-weight: bold;">our </span></span>interests, the rest of the world's interests be damned. Perhaps the rest of the world would be interested in a much smaller role for the US military, at least when it came to occupying their lands, bombs raining from unseen drones in the sky, and other such imperial and arrogant actions? The Media Matters article you link to provides the context: the US has been meddling in the area since the late 70's, including our support (through the CIA) for the Taliban in the 90's which enabled them to become the "dominant" force in Afghanistan. It also speaks of a "brutal civil war manipulated by the two superpowers that drove 6 million people from their homes" and that the net result of "intervention" by the USA and USSR has been a "perpetual humanitarian catastrophe." Particularly telling is this passage:

    The fact is that both the US and USSR bear responsibility for having attempted to control Afghanistan, thereby shattering the country in the process; if these powers had merely attempted to aid the Afghan people to develop their country, rather than enforce hegemony over the country for their own self-interested strategic designs, there would obviously have been no such humanitarian crisis.

    And so you seem to be arguing that we ought to continue to "enforce hegemony over the country" for our own "self-interested strategic designs". I submit that we ought to "attempt to aid the Afghan people to develop their country", a solution which is necessarily mostly non-military. At a time when the net result of our actions in the area has been the rise of the admittedly brutal Taliban and a humanitarian catastrophe, we should be asking ourselves why we think we are qualified to help solve problems here at all? Clearly to date, everything we've touched has broken, leaving the people far worse off than before. Media Matters continues:

    Indeed, while sometimes condemning atrocious Taliban policies in rhetoric, the West turns a blind eye to the actions of its own regional clients, who are actively supporting these same policies, thereby effectively giving a ‘green light’ to the Taliban to pursue its policies. Barry Rubin of the CFR reports that the professed US policy of promoting peace in Afghanistan has “suffered from a variety of internal contradictions. US policy toward Iran conflicts with US stated policy toward Afghanistan and is one of the reasons that many in the region believe the US supports the Taliban.” Rubin notes: “If the US is in fact supporting the joint Pakistani-Saudi backing of the Taliban in some way, even if not materially, then it has in effect decided to make Afghanistan the victim of yet another proxy war – this time aimed at Iran rather than the USSR.”

    You appear to be advocating a continuation of that policy– that is, you wish to continue to fight in Afghanistan as a proxy war aimed at Iran. Our hypocrisy and aggression is plainly visible, and it's not winning us any friends. The fact that the real motivations for our intervention in the area are clear: (also from your Media Matters article)

    An article appearing in the prestigious German daily Frankfurter Rundschau, in early October 1996, reported that UNOCAL “has been given the go-ahead from the new holders of power in Kabul to build a pipeline from Turkmenstein via Afghanistan to Pakistan. It would lead from Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea to Karachi on the Indian Ocean coast.” The same article noted that UN diplomats in Geneva believe that the war in Afghanistan is the result of a struggle between Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and the United States, “to secure access to the rich oil and natural gas of the Caspian Sea.”[50] Other than UNOCAL, companies that are jubilantly interested in exploiting Caspian oil, apparently at any human expense, include AMOCO, BP, Chevron, EXXON, and Mobile.[51]

    It therefore comes as no surprise to see the Wall Street Journal reporting that <span style="font-weight: bold;">the main interests of American and other Western elites lie in making Afghanistan “a prime transhipment route for the export of Central Asia’s vast oil, gas and other natural resources”</span>

    The importance of the energy resources of the area cannot be understated in understanding our role in the region, a point which I made here and here.

    And you're right, we should have treated the 9/11 attacks as a law-enforcement action, rather than a military one. We fucked up, no doubt about it. But I am saying that we are continuing to fuck up, rather than fix what we can. Rather than add tens of thousands of soldiers and billions (trillions?) of dollars to the area, let's start finding out what the Afghan people want. I'm sure if given a chance, they will let us know how best we can support and aid them. In fact, they are already speaking, not that anyone's paying attention. Here's some quotes from a recent Wall Street Journal article:

    "<span style="font-weight: bold;">I don't think we will be able to solve our problems with military force</span>," said Muhammad Qasim, a tribal elder from the southern province of Kandahar. "We can solve them by providing jobs and development and by using local leaders to negotiate with the Taliban."

    "We should focus on building the Afghan security forces, not sending more troops," said Sebgatullah Sanjar, the chief policy adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

    "If new troops come and are stationed in civilian areas, <span style="font-weight: bold;">when they draw Taliban attacks civilians will end up being killed</span>," said Gulbadshah Majidi, a lawmaker and close associate of Mr. Karzai. "This will only increase the distance between Afghans and their government."

    "<span style="font-weight: bold;">If we get more troops, there will be more bloodshed</span>," said Noor Muhammad, a shopkeeper. "Only Afghans themselves can solve this problem."

    <span style="font-weight: bold;">Officials cite night raids, civilian casualties and lack of development as reasons why the standing of U.S. troops has lowered in some Afghans' eyes. When the U.S. forces enter an area, the levels of violence generally increase, causing anger and dissatisfaction among the local population.</span> Some officials point to previous troop increases, such as an injection of 21,000 troops in the spring, and say they have failed to quell the insurgency.

    That is, after all, the way in which the Taliban are gaining converts: by providing essential services and exploiting popular rage against the occupiers. So we are going to solve that problem….by increasing the occupation? By refusing to listen to the Afghan voices who are telling us that more soldiers are not the answer? We'll go on treating them as children who are incapable of making their own decisions, and then we will wonder where all these new terrorists are coming from. Why do they hate us again? Is it for our freedoms, or is it because of our arrogant and meddlesome foreign policy?

    Fundamentally, it comes down to this: we don't have the right to dictate the terms of a solution to the Afghanistani people. We should be negotiating a solution, not imposing one. I'm having problems reconciling your martial rhetoric with your insistence that we "go the distance with aid and support". I'm all for aid and support, but increasing the occupation will only increase the resistance, as recent history proves. Put yourself in the shoes of the Afghan people– after decades of imperial meddling which led to the rise of a brutal and repressive regime, followed by eight long years of war, and thousands of civilian casualties, why would they possibly support our goals now? I keep hearing things along the line of "we broke it, we should fix it". That presumes that we are <span style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;">able</span> to fix it, a conclusion which should be in doubt given our long history in the area. The truth is "we broke it, then we tried to fix it but we only made it worse, and now we're going to fix it for sure". Maybe we ought to just stop breaking things?

  10. Brynn wrote:—. "I submit that we ought to “attempt to aid the Afghan people to develop their country”, a solution which is necessarily mostly non-military."

    I agree entirely except for one little practical problem.

    It is difficult to say the least to rebuild or build new when someone is actively trying to destroy all your work, including killing you and any native people working with you. The Taliban are not going to look at the new roads, irrigation systems, schools, clinics and so forth and say "Oh, look! They're doing good things now. Let's stop killing them." All they'll say is "Americans and American aid! Destroy it!"

  11. Oh, and btw, regarding our seeming inability to capture Bin Laden…in my opinion (and I stress OPINION) Bush never wanted to. Bush, I believe, on advice, liked the idea of having An Enemy Out There.

    Just my feeling on that whole thing. But the cat and mouse taught Bin Laden how to hide and hide well and pissed enough people in the region off that they wouldn't help.

    I repeat, a mess.

  12. Brynn Jacobs says:

    I agree that Bush probably never really wanted Bin Laden. He is indeed useful as an "Enemy Out There". For the same reasons, Obama doesn't really want him either. In Gen. McChrystal's assessment and strategy for the war, he discusses the leadership of the insurgency, including their foreign ties. He talks about Mullah Omar and Gulbaddin Hekmatyar as key leaders. He talks about the sources of funding for the insurgency, including the narcotics trade and Gulf state networks. He talks about the role of al-Qaeda, at one point noting that the goal should be to "prevent their return to Afghanistan". He discusses all the potential actors in the region, including Russia and other Caspian states, Iran, Pakistan, India, etc…

    Osama bin-Laden is not mentioned once. I'm sure they just forgot to put him in there. A minor detail, surely.

    Incidentally, a story in the Daily Mail (UK) asserts that bin-Laden has been dead for some time and that there are credible reasons to believe that the individual that appeared on the tapes confessing to the 9/11 attacks was not bin-Laden. Also, the FBI most-wanted listing indicates he is wanted in connection with the Tanzania and Kenyan embassy bombings, and "other terrorist attacks around the world", but no mention of 9/11 attacks. In 2006, Rex Tomb, then the FBI's chief of investigative publicity, said "The reason why 9/11 is not mentioned on Usama Bin Laden's Most Wanted page is because the FBI has no hard evidence connecting Bin Laden to 9/11."

  13. I seem to recall early on in this nightmare some stories about Bin Laden requiring dialysis and an early report that after being run out of Afghanistan he was unable to obtain the needed medical care. Strong suggestions that he was dead, but again "no strong evidence" one way or the 'tother.

    It also may be the current assessments are based on a possibility that Bin Laden himself is no longer in charge—a figurehead.

    I dunno.

  14. Jeff says:

    Let me jump out of the policy debate to raise another point:

    Something seems to "happen" to our presidents when they get into office; or even before. Yes, they learn classified secrets they were not privy to before, but what I mean is there is something more "meta" happening, perhaps. Like, they are taken into a Masons meeting or something and told "this is the way it is" by…..DOD? CIA? I don't mean to sound like a loonie, really. It is just that a secret switch seems to get flipped and suddenly Obama is voting for the Patriot Act extension and not bringing the troops home. I can't help but wonder if all the policy justifications are just….well, justifications. For something larger we don;t know. Or have I just read too many LaCarre novels?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jeff: I wonder the same thing regarding that "switch" that was apparently flipped to re-program our new president who seemed to be so idealistic. I hate to even discuss my frustrations and fears because they probably makes me seem unjustifiably paranoid (though I have written about my "nightmare"). Why, indeed, did so much NOT change after Obama took the reins of power? The bottom line is that he isn't out there fighting his "A" game on many of the big issues–no, he's not Congress and he thus can't make laws directly. But he's not slamming people who have it coming from the bully pulpit. He's not going to bat for the average American.

      Maybe he's worrying too much about getting re-elected. Maybe he's enjoining spending way too much time with the rich and famous in Washington D.C. Maybe he's far too content to achieve form over substance, to claim that he passed "health care reform" that is literally worse than nothing. And consider this recent White House move to side with pharmaceutical company profits rather than with American taxpayers.

      Despite recent strong rhetoric, he has regrettably surrounded himself with economic advisers who engineered the biggest heist of taxpayer dollars ever. And it is clear that the military-industrial complex is alive and well, based on constant mushy promises of de-escalation in Iraq and Afghanistan–we are squandering hundreds of billions of dollars American doesn't even have to fight ghosts while America decays. I'd love to be the fly on the walls of the White House. Maybe I'd be relieved to hear that Obama is only functionally corrupt. None of this is to suggest that McCain/Palin would have been a better choice. Far from it. Obama has done many good things since gaining office, but he's stumbled on the biggest issues. He needs to go back and listen to his campaign promises.

  15. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Jeff, Erich:

    Another possible explanation, and one that I think is far more likely, is that candidate Obama knew which things to say in order to get elected, and had no intention (or very limited intention) to follow through on the campaign rhetoric. You can see that from day one, in his cabinet appointments (see this Matt Taibbi article).

    Much of that has to do with how modern campaigns are run (and financed). This Noam Chomsky interview with Chronis Polychroniou provides some of the context:

    Q6. There is a widespread belief at least among some well-known political strategists that issues do not define American elections–even if the rhetoric is that candidates need to understand public opinion in order to woo voters — and we do know of course that media provide a wealth of false information on critical issues (take the mass media's role before and during the launching of the Iraq war) or fail to provide any information at all (on labor issues, for example). Yet, there is strong evidence indicating that the American public is aware and cares about the great social, economic and foreign policy issues facing the country. For example, according to a recently released University of Minnesota research study, Americans ranked health care among the most important problems facing the country. We also know that the overwhelming majority of Americans are in support of unions. Or that they judged the war against terror to be a total failure. In the light of all of this, what's the best way to understand the relation between media, politics and the public in contemporary American society?

    A. It is well-established that electoral campaigns are designed so as to marginalize issues and focus on personalities, rhetorical style, body language, etc. And there are good reasons. Party managers read polls, and are well aware that on a host of major issues, both parties are well to the right of the population — not surprisingly; they are, after all, business parties. Polls show that a large majority of voters object, but those are the only choices offered to them in the business-managed electoral system, in which the most heavily funded candidate almost always wins — including Obama, with his powerful funding base in the financial industries, which much preferred him to McCain.

    Similarly, consumers might prefer decent mass transportation to a choice between two automobiles, but that option is not provided by advertisers — indeed, by markets. Ads on TV do not provide information about products; rather, they provide illusion and imagery. The same Public Relations firms that seek to undermine markets by ensuring that uninformed consumers will make irrational choices (contrary to abstract economic theories), seek to undermine democracy in the same way. And the managers are well aware of all of this. The main journal of the advertising industry, Advertising Age, gives an award every year for the best marketing campaign. For 2008, they gave the award to Obama, beating out Apple computers. Leading figures in the industry exulted in the business press that they have been marketing candidates like commodities ever since Reagan, and this is their greatest success yet, which they predict will provide a model for corporate executives and the marketing industry in the future.

    (see also this post and <a href="http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2009/12/14/war/index.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+salon%2Fgreenwald+%28Glenn+Greenwald%29&quot; rel="nofollow">Glenn Greenwald's recent article which echoes Chomsky's critique of the anti-democratic nature of modern politics.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I agree with Chomsky here, Brynn. Spin, personalities and rhetoric dominate the campaigns, but there were specific promises made too (e.g., to really fix the economic system that allows too-big-to-fail banks to gamble , keeping the profits when the scheme works and having the government run to the rescue when things blow up). It amazes me how distractible Americans are. I know a lot of smart people who are working really hard at their careers and to raise their kids, but the time they spend to really stay involved with the biggest issues of the day are minimal. They don't spend the time. If they want to maintain their lifestyles, they can't spend the time keeping after their elected officials. What would you rather do, spend the weekend playing catch with your kids, or would you rather sit indoors and read the health care proposals? The great majority of us are become passive observers of our governing process, not active participants, as set out in the Declaration. And instead of staying on top of proposed legislation, we allow the spin and the personality cults serve as proxies for substantive change, a tendency that is constantly reinforced by our sound-bite so-called journalism.

      I can see only one effective solution, and it's going to take becoming a hell of a lot more vigilant. It's going to take phone calls and letters, demands to speak to our leaders while armed with facts. It's going to take joining and supporting organizations with the expertise to monitor government and demand accountability. It's going to take lots of emails, and never-ceasing demands that our journalists cover real news instead of the private lives of Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods. It's going to take lot of self-sacrifice that most Americans aren't going to commit to, I'm afraid.

      I should be clear: this is not just a problem with Democrats. Note how so many Republicans swooned when Sarah Palin claimed we could solve our energy crisis by chanting "Drill Baby Drill"?

  16. Brynn Jacobs says:


    I agree, but the point is that the politicians are all aware by this point that they don't have to live up to specific promises anymore. The inattention that you point out on the part of the public has guaranteed that there is no penalty for breaking campaign promises anymore. When the "incumbency advantage" approaches 100%, you can be sure that the political class has set the system up for their own advantage and to ensure their grip on the levers of power.

    I say go play catch with your kids, forget about the politics. Unless everyone gets outraged, nothing will change. And there's so much on TV these days…

  17. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Matt Taibbi says much the same thing today:

    As a candidate, Barack Obama endorsed the idea of allowing consumers to import cheaper pharmaceuticals from other industrialized countries. In the Senate he co-sponsored a bill that pushed the idea.

    But now that he’s president and is taking money from the pharmaceutical lobby (PhRMA) to help get his bullshit health care bill passed, his administration is backtracking. His FDA chief Margaret Hamburg is pulling out the old safety canard. The CBO has estimated that a bill sponsored by Byron Dorgan to allow drug re-importation would save the government $19 billion over 10 years, and save consumers $80 billion.

    There’s no legitimate reason to bar re-importation, except one: to preserve a subsidy for the pharmaceutical industry and, by extension, preserve the flow of campaign contributions to the Democratic Party. That is why President Obama is now opposing the sensible measures he endorsed as a candidate. He is pursuing this year’s expedient goal of getting a campaign war chest now that he’s already achieved last year’s expedient goal of getting elected.

  18. Erich Vieth says:

    The recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize launched a missile attack on Yemen that has killed 49 civilians, among them 23 children and 17 women. http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald

    But you wouldn't know about all of those dead children if you only read U.S. corporate news. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34461720

    Glenn Greenwald comments: "all of the causes widely recognized as having led to 9/11 — excessive American interference in the Muslim world, our alliance with their most oppressive leaders, our responsibility for Israel's military conflicts with its Muslim neighbors, and our own military attacks on Muslims — seem stronger than ever."

  19. Erich Vieth says:

    Why don't our many botched military operations get nearly as much American media attention as our alleged successes? I'm asking this rhetorically.


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