I started this blog over a year ago to comment on the presidency of Barack Obama. See, I had followed Obama as a freshman US senator and I admired and diligently watched his candidacy in 2008 from the never-ending primaries against Hillary Clinton to the general election campain to that unforgettable night on November 4th 2008. I actually shed some tears when Wolf Blitzer at around 11 pm EST said: “CNN can now say Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States.” I still have goose bumps just writing this down. I had hoped, maybe mistakenly in hindsight that Obama would be a different president; different from the cautious watching-the-polls-worries-about-his-re-election  mold, somebody who would challenge the economic and military establishment, somebody who would present a different face of America to the world. He has done nothing of the sort. These are some of his accomplishments so far:

He has passed a healthcare bill that while viewed as revolutionary in the US, is laughable when compared to what is available in other industrialized countries. It’s greatest value to US citizens is that it now requires the transfer of taxpayers’ dollars to private health insurances companies while demanding nothing substantial of them. They can still make substantial profits from sick Americans while adding nothing of value to the healthcare chain.

He just passed a financial regulation bill that does not prevent too big to fail scenarios and thereby leaving the door opened for a potential repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.

He promised to close the Guantanamo Bay Prison but this will certainly not happen. Even if it did, other US foreign prisons such as Bagram in Afghanistan will remain open for business and renditions will continue. So will drone attacks in Pakistan and other foreign interventions in the name of “fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here.”

He has made no efforts to reduce the power of money in American elections, the undeniable “Elephant in the room” preventing any meaningful progress to be made on issues like healthcare and real financial regulation.

He has done nothing for the Peace Process or for the prospect of peace in the Middle East. In fact by continually reaffirming the US attachment to Israel, he has allowed settlement expansion to proceed unhindered thereby expanding “the facts on the ground” that would stand in the way of any potential future peace deal.

He has done nothing to reduce what some have called the “Fear Industrial complex“.

He has done nothing directly to improve the lives of impoverished minorities in the US

For an American president with African roots, he has done nothing of value for the African continent with respect to improving the terms of their commercial interactions with the West. So far he even fares less than George W. Bush

Contrary to his campaign rhetoric, he has done nothing different from his predecessors to improve US relations with Iran or Cuba or Venezuela

And more importantly, he has drawn down in Iraq slightly, only to escalate the Afghan War, committing more soldiers and money to a mission that many now regard as doomed in the way Vietnam was doomed.

So, after a year and half of this presidency, I am convinced that Barack Obama will not be a transformational president.

Things can change of course, but unless a cataclysm natural or otherwise forces him to change course, at best Obama will be as conventional a president as Harry Truman or maybe Bill Clinton was. And I am not interested in staying up late to read obscure articles, gleam facts from foreign journals and read footnotes and a gazillion of political blogs for the purpose of commenting on the actions of a conventional American president. It’s been done. It is being done and one more voice will not change the course of this presidency.

So sayonara friends…

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Happy New Year!

2010 is starting with a new country name added to our fear lexicon: Yemen.

Since the claim of responsibility from Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for the failed Christmas Day plot to bomb a Detroit-bound flight, various “security experts” have invaded CNN, FOX, MSNBC and other cable news outlets trying  to explain Yemen to us: Why did this bombing attempt have a Yemeni connection? What brand of Islam is practiced in Yemen? How should we deal with Yemen?

That last question was actually flashed on CNN on New Year’s Day as some of these “experts” debated the options.   I know it’s almost a cliche now, but I always find it fascinating that we in the West, only seem to become interested in some of these small countries in faraway continents as a result of a war or a security scare of some kind. And as soon as that security scare or war ends or at least victory has been declared by our generals, we retreat. Our interest drops. Our media’s too. But while we’re not looking, the power dynamics in those countries changes. New chiefs  take the reigns of power. And just when we have completely forgotten about them, some nutcase causes mayhem somewhere in one of our cities and we call in the “experts” to tell us why they did what they did and “why they hate us”.

I don’t know how “we should deal with Yemen”. However, I don’t think I need the CNN experts with their graphs and maps to know that the solution to this problem is not another invasion as some are already advocating. There are all kinds of logistical reasons why that cannot even happen. The most glaring being US troop overstretch.

But while we are attempting to find solutions, perhaps keeping our history and geography books open at all times might be a nice starting point. This woud help us all understand the world around us and better grasp why “they” do what they do and why some of “our” actions or the consequences of our actions create the problems that we later have to solve.  Afghanistan is a perfect example. The US armed the mujahedeens to help the Afghans overthow the Soviets. Then the US advisors left. So did the money. As Tom Hanks (playing Texas Congresman Charlie Wilson) in Charlie Wilson’s War said: “We leave. We always leave.”  Then those mujahedeens became allied with the Taliban and took over that country. We were too busy with the dot-com growth and later bubble to pay attention. Then 9-11 happened. We called in the experts. “Why do they hate us?” What should we do about Afghanistan?” The armies of The West have been in Afghanistan for over 8 years. Now US Senator Joe Lieberman or Joe Liberman quoting somebody else is saying: “Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.”

Please, No!

So as expected, Obama became the latest American War President this week. He was one already by virtue of being the Commander-In-Chief of an army engaged in two wars. But it was made official because of his embrace (however reluctant it appeared) of the battles he inherited.

So 30,000 more troops and 18 months to “finish the job” that 8 previous years have failed to put on dent on.

What was he thinking?

Well, politically the plan is masterful. Even brilliant. First he acquiessed to the demands of the Generals which endears him to the military brass. But it also allows him to blame them if it all goes haywire in 18 months.

Second the plan relies on a lot of moving parts Obama can only influence from far, but cannot directly control: The Afghan government, the Pakistanis, The NATO allies, the Taliban. And precisely because of that he can blame them anytime it becomes politically expedient, declare victory an leave.

Third the July 2011 timetable, almost a year and a half away from his re-election allows him to play to all political affiliations. To the Republicans he will say “I did not cut and run. I stayed the course and took the fight to the terrorists!”. Even if they complain about the very presence of an exit date (as they are currently doing), they will commend him for fighting on. To the hardcore anti-war Liberals he will say: “I have an exit date. I only decided to stay because we had to win this thing. I am ending it soon as promised and sending our boys home.” He could even order a few brigades home during the year of the election campaign as a show of sincerity.

Finally, he will remind Independents and all voters that he opposed the war in Iraq and is in the process of bringing it to a close along with the Afghan one. But he cannot run from the battle and that’s why, he will say, there are still some American troops occupying two Mid-East countries.

 After the election of course, if he is re-elected, he would then do whatever he wants written in the history books about the Obama Presidency . That’s politics. And for better but mostly for worse, Presidents are politicians first.

In the real world of war and occupation in Afghanistan, people will continue to die and the stupididty of Wednesday’s decision will ring true.

War is awful. Wars of choice are also awful but blatantly wasteful. Years from now, when the NATO armies have gone home and the Afghans are still grappling with their misery and the Al Qaeda terrorists are still terrorizing from some new cave in Namibia or Yemen or from a five-star hotel in a Western capital, we will wonder what all the dying was for. The idea of invading a single country and transforming it as a way of forever preventing a band of supposedly religious maniacs from ever commiting mischief anywhere else in the world was always silly. 30,000 more troops will not change that.

If you happen to have a few minutes, please follow the link below to watch PBS’s Bill Moyers Journal showcasing another President, Lyndon Baines Johnson grappling with the escalation of another war a few decades ago.

 The similarities are eerie.  

http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11202009/profile.html

Roger Cohen wrote today in the NY Times about an ordinary Israel, as opposed to an exceptional Israel.

I found this column significant in many ways. It captured something that had been the subtext of almost every international discussion of Israel and its actions beyond its legal borders in the last few years.

 As human beings, we usually have clearly defined perceptions of ourselves. In most cases, we are unaware or choose to be unaware of how we are perceived by the world around us. So unfortunately, we end up interacting with the world on the basis of how we see ourselves or how we wish to be seen. Nations do the same. They have national narratives that are sometimes manufactured for social cohesion, sometimes over-idealized versions of real events, sometimes just plain bogus. And unfortunately any external messages directed at them have to get through the thick fabricated glass windows.

Israel, Roger Cohen says in his piece “does not see itself as normal. Rather it lives in a perpetual state of exceptionalism”. So it can have nuclear weapons while demanding that the US help prevent Iran from getting them. It can refrain from signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while demanding that NPT signatories like Iran live up to their obligations. Basic notions such as fairness do not factor in these types of talks because there is the view of “we are rational, THEY are not!” and therefore it follows that “we can be allowed to do things THEY can never be forgiven for doing.”  Now, Israel unlike many other nations on this earth was born out of a tragedy. A great tragedy. But as Cohen rightfully observes, that does not mean it should refrain from  ”deal[ing] with the world as it is, however discomfiting, not the world of yesterday.”

As Cohen quotes in the piece, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has often said that the only way to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons is “for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened .” So what if the US as part of its Iran Strategy tried to convince Israel to go the way of South Africa and get rid of its nuclear weapons as a way of persuading the iranians that their security will not be compromised by not developing a bomb?

The Israelis would never agree to it, of course, but let’s imagine that they did for a second.
Because one important way and I believe the most important way to look at this Iran Nukes conundrum is through the lens of regional control and regional security. Israel has been the “Big Boy” of the Middle-East for the past forty years or so. Egypt reared its head for a bit in the days of Nasser and Sadat. But they were quickly smacked in the Six-Day War and in the Yom Kippur War. They then decided it was best to sign a peace treaty, get a Nobel Peace Prize for Sadat in the bargain and move on. Then Iraq rose slightly with a little help from the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations. They quickly lost their power when Saddam picked a fight with the Ayatollas to start the 8-year long Iran-Iraq war that drained them financially and otherwise. The American invasion of 2003 took care of whatever power was not erased by the UN sanctions that preceded it. The Gulf states (Bahrain, Koweit, Qatar, UAE, Oman) have as much military strength as five African bees.  Yet Israel with a lot of US financial and military help has remained strong.

So now the Iranians look to be on the rise again, paranoid and fearful. They do have valid reasons to be fearful. From Tehran, the Mullahs look to the east and they see NATO troops in Afghanistan (including nuclear armed nations like the US and the UK) and further east, they see Pakistanis with nukes. Indians with nukes. Further west, they see Israelis with nukes. In addition to being in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has a presence in the Gulf States. If you couple this with the constant threats of bombardments as enunciated by both US and Israeli officials, it is no wonder the Iranians want to get nuclear weapons as a way of preventing an externally-imposed regime change.

Some will argue that Iran is not governed by “rational leaders” and therefore cannot be held to the same standard as other nations. I disagree. And I am not alone in this view. Many decades of Iranian peaceful co-existence with its neighbours back me up on this. So does the NY Times’ Roger Cohen in the piece I quoted at the start of this post. “Iran makes rational decisions,” he writes. “Rather than invoking the Holocaust — a distraction — Israel should view Iran coolly [and] understand the hesitancy of Tehran’s nuclear brinksmanship.”

So in many ways, the road towards Obama’s nuclear-free world and therefrore a nuclear-free Middle-East, goes through Tehran as much as it goes through Tel Aviv.

In awarding the Peace Price, the Nobel Committee has gotten it blatantly wrong in the past. Sometimes it failed by omission. Many times it failed to research the complete body of work of the person being honored. Sometimes hope triumphed. And in some small instances, the Prize actually went to all too deserving individuals.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 to Barack Obama on Friday represented perhaps a combination of all these past failures. To understand this, one has to re-examine the body of work of President Obama so far, but also the history of the Prize itself and its past winners through the lens of peace and peace-making. 

In 1938, the Prize was awarded to the International Office for Refugees. However the short list for the following year included one Adolf Hitler. Now, while this seems bizarre today with over seventy years of hindsight, the German Fuhrer was greatly popular as an international figure in 1938. He was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938 and most of the horrendous crimes against humanity for which he is known today were yet to be committed. His desire for continental conquest was well known. So was his racism. Yet the Committee somehow saw him as a peace-loving man worthy of their shortlist.

In 1973, the Peace prize was given to both Henry Kissinger & Le Duc Tho for negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, a war they escalated into Cambodia through Operation Menu and that ended up taking the lives of over 2 million Vietnamese people. Earlier in 1971, the NY Times published the Pentagon Papers that detailed the deception campaign of the Nixon/Kissinger cabal to keep the public uninformed about their war machinations. Whether this history was considered when the Nobel Committee decided on the Prize is anybody’s guess. But as a double dose of irony, on September 11th 1973, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and the CIA would concoct a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected President of Chile: Salvador Allende. And the co-winner of the Prize, Le Duc Tho would refuse it because he did not believe the end of the war with the US meant peace for his country and continued fighting against the south vietnamese until 1975.

In 1960 the Prize went to Albert Lutuli, the ANC President.

In 1964 the Prize went to Martin Luther King, jr.

However Mahatma Gandhi was short-listed five times in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, 1948, but never won. Yet Yasser Arafat & Menachem Begin won The Prize.

In a final tidbit of historical WTF moments, George W. Bush & Tony Blair were both short-listed for The Prize in 2002. So was Hamid Karzai who the British-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali refers to (jokingly, I am sure) as “The Great Puppet of Kabul.”

So this is the history that gave us this year’s selection of Barack Obama.

The Committee said it was for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” But the obvious reply based on the facts of the last 8 months would be: “He has done nothing of the sort!” In a Q&A that followed the announcement, the choice was clarified as a way of nudging Obama to continue the work he started on nuclear non-proliferation and re-including the US in the community of nations.

 Right.

 If Obama is working so hard at worldwide peace-making, why was White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs waffling this week trying to explain why Obama did not seem to want to meet…of all people…The Dalai Lama. Amnesty USA even reported that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decided that China’s human rights record will not top her China agenda. Could all of this dillying and dallying have less to do with peace between China and Tibet and more to do with the $1 trillion dollars the US owes China or the commercial relations that need to be maintained there?

Many have pointed to the recent talks with Iran, the US decision to scrap a European Missile Defense system and the fact that Obama chaired a UN Security Council meeting on Nuclear Non-Proliferation. While those are worthy noises that are a breath of diplomatic fresh air when compared to the idiotic bombast of the previous occupant of the White House, they do not constitute anything worthy of an international prize. It is important to note that Iran has not stopped developing nuclear weapons as a result of anything Obama did or said. On the contrary, because of the recent threats and demands, Iran has actually developed new Uranium enrichment sites. There is also no indication that Russia has reduced its stockpiles of weapons or is prepared to do so because of any action Obama has undertaken either.

The record of the US itself under Obama is still dismal, if peace on earth is the goal. The United States is still occupying two sovereign countries: Iraq and Afghanistan. And one of the first orders Obama issued when his Afghanistan strategy was announced, was to order the deployment of 21,000 new US troops to Afghanistan. And if he is to act on General Stanley McChrystal’s recent request, many more thousands of US soldiers will be shipping out to Afghanistan in the coming weeks and months. Renditions are still taking place. Guantanamo is still open and may not close next year as Obama originally promised. But even if it does close, the Bagram prison in Afghanistan will remain open. And on the same day the Nobel Committee was rewarding Obama, it was announced that the US is preparing a $15 billion military buildup in the Pacific island of Guam.

Some have indicated that Obama’s overtures to the Muslim World have swayed the Nobel Committee. But while Obama has made two speeches in the capitals of two majority-Muslim countries (Turkey and Egypt), he has done nothing to act on any of what he spoke of in the speeches. Netanyahu is still expanding Israeli settlements into Palestinian territory without any fear of US repercussions. Women still can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, a strong US ally. Hamas is still being its violent self. And just as a way of extending more olive branches all around the Middle East, the US has used its position in the UN Human Rights Council to both undermine the Goldstone Commission Report on the Israeli assault on Gaza and force Mahmud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership to defer its adoption.

Finally, to those who say the Nobel Prize is a “down-payment on Obama”, one can just as well say: sometimes down payments can be for purchases that turn out to be worthless.

Maybe one day President Barack Obama will do enough to deserve this prize. We all hope so, given his power as the leader of the so-called Free World. But so far, the amazing promise that drove thousands to fill Grant Park in Chicago on November 4th last year, has only translated into Bush-Lite policies and in the words of one former presidential candidate, “lipstick on a pig.” The Nobel Committee should have spent more time examining the dirty spots on the pig’s back before falling in love with the lipstick.

There’s been a lot of talk about the role and size of government recently. Some of those opposed to Obama’s healthcare reform attempts do so because they do not believe that a “big government” is a good thing for them or for the country.

Obama himself in a recent 60 Minutes interview on CBS saw the arguments about the size of government as “what defines left and right” in the US. So the standard narrative goes something like this: Conservatives believe in small government, individual freedom and private enterprise. And Liberals believe in human rights and the maintenance of something called “the common good” that government is in charge of ensuring. Hence “big government” is a Liberal thing and small government ensures that the power of the “free market” is released. “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Ronald Reagan used to say.   

Well, after many decades of Reaganism and I would argue Reaganism taken further than Reagan himself took it, it has become self evident that some of these ideas that grew into maxims should be quietly retired.  

The 80s were the heady days of “greed is good.” Financial regulations tumbled. Unions were smashed. The social safety net that up to that point had been the accepted norm in most of the Industrialized West was being questioned and revamped in the US, Britain and then later in the decade, in Canada when the Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney came to power.

When the 90s rolled around and the Clintons came to Washington, again the question of the size of government came back on the table when Hillary attempted to reform the US health insurance system. For the remainder of the 1990s in much of the West (with the exception of the usual suspects in Europe, i.e. Sweden, France,etc…) however, it looked like Reaganism had triumphed. This was the era of Globalization and it was inevitable. Even supposedly Left-of-Centre leaders like Tony Blair accepted that definition.

“The temptation [today] is to use government to try to protect ourselves against the onslaught of globalization by shutting it out, to think we protect a workforce by regulation, a company by government subsidy, an industry by tariffs. It doesn’t work today, because the dam holding back the global economy burst years ago,” he wrote .

Well after the debacle of Enron, World Comm and more recently Lehmann Bros, Bear Stearns, AIG, Bank of America and others, after the non-action of the Bush Administration following Huricane Katrina, after 9/11, after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it is safe to say some amount of government intervention would have alleviated those crises early on and a significant amount of government involvement after the crises prevented an abject collapse. Government, it turned out was not the problem. Government actually ended up contributing significantly to the solution. Alan Greenspan that now somewhat disgraced Dean of American Finance recognized in his mea culpa in front of the US Congress that he was wrong in assuming that the self interest of the  banks would allow them to protect their own shareholders.

For individual citizens too, government plays a major role and those who deride it in effect minimize their own power to effect change in their society. After all, in democratic societies, working within the constitutions and charters that oversee our systems, we elect leaders to represent us and we are expected to keep them honest throughout their terms in office. We have that power and responsibility. If our societies were fully run by corporations as some in the Libertarian circles would have it, our power would not be dictated by the mere fact of our citizenship, but by the size of our wallet; i.e. how many widgets produced by a given corporation can we buy? how many voting shares do we have in a corporation that controls a given aspect of our existence?

So for the working stiff or even for the working rich, governments are not the enemy. And a society where they are rendered powerless makes most of the population equally powereless.

So there he was, concluding an almost perfect news conference where he made the case for Health Care Reform to the American people; the perfect steak was ready to be served to the media masses for public consumption. The apprentice cook, six months into his training looked to have mastered the recipe.  Then at the last minute, he decided to add a little sizzle, just to “jazz things up a bit”.

The next day the masses cried foul. The steak was too salty, too much pepper, too much coriander, not enough this, too much that. What was that sizzle? What colour was it? where did he get it from? Was the cook born in the US? Should he have held that salt-shaker like that? 

Nobody talked about the steak.

Obama, the “post-racial president”, walked right into the Henry Louis Gates minefield and subsequently killed the very headlines he was trying to create around health care reform. Irrespective of the circumstances of the Gates affair, he shouldn’t have waded into it at all. Not this time.

Race is an important subject in American politics. It has always been, since the creation of the union. But Healthcare is critical to America’s survival as an economic powerhouse. And any attempt to reform it should not be held back by the same tired arguments that have always held back important discussions in American politics. The ballooning individual and national healthcare costs, the growing number of uninsured Americans and the sheer shame for a country so rich, yet still reliant on groups like Remote Area Medical  should have prevented Obama from discussing anything but healthcare during that press conference. But he did and gave the 24-hour news channels 24 hours of nonsensical material to regurgitate back to the dumbed-down masses.

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr would have been fine. He was fine even before the news conference started. He went on the Gayle King Show, he would have gone on other shows to discuss the matter of his arrest and any ramifications or national discussions that were meant to be had. He didn’t need Obama’s help. Racial discussions are  a tricky affair, which is precisely why Obama avoided them for most the campaign until his former Pastor forced him to confront them. Why he chose to engage this time is anybody’s guess.

But in one sense the distraction was useful. It gave some of us time to read the fine prints and peruse the back pages to realize that although Obama discussed reforming the Health Care system, what both congress and the Senate are proposing does not amount to much reform because it does not eliminate the cancer at the heart of the system: the profit motive.

Nobody should be allowed  to make a profit when the health of human beings is involved. That is precisely why all industrialized nations either have a single payer public healthcare system or a heavily regulated private one where the profit motive has been neutralized.