"What's With Your 'Crazy' U.S Politics?"
"What's With Your 'Crazy' U.S Politics?"
Letter to European Friends
Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:
Finally some time to respond to your recent letter, where you asked me to explain the "crazy American political situation" and why "the U.S. is behaving so recklessly" with regard to Iran. Your terms are right on the mark.
First off, it's important to know that "the U.S." you refer to is mainly the Bush Administration. In poll after recent poll, Americans have indicated they regard his presidency as the worst ever in U.S. history. More than three-quarters of the citizenry, for example, now believe Bush's war in Iraq was a terrible mistake that has taken this country into a catastrophic quagmire, and nearly two-thirds want our troops to start withdrawing as soon as practicable.
In other words, though it took a few years to learn how to read (and ignore) the Bush-enabling corporate mass-media, the American citizenry overwhelming now "gets it." They understand that their reigning government is wildly off-track in terms of good governance and adherence to the Constitution, and, in important ways, is endangering U.S. national security in reckless misadventuring abroad. Americans also are mindful of the several trillion dollars that are being poured down the Iraq Occupation and "war on terror" ratholes, all to the detriment of our own infrastructure and social-program needs at home.
But, despite the tanking economy that is squeezing the middle class badly, and red-hot anger at the CheneyBush Administration for failing to deal with the issues most Americans care about (affordable health care, educational reform, good jobs, the Iraq disaster, college loans, sky-rocketing energy costs, etc.), the citizens tend to do little more than sign online petitions and occasionally send a donation to their preferred candidates.
The operating belief is that every four years, an election will resolve the situation so no need to get politically involved in a deep and consistent way. In addition, in this dismal economy a growing number of Americans are just squeezing by financially, if that, and feel they don't really have the time or energy to become active dissenters. Obama or Clinton, or maybe even John McCain, will take care of the situation in a few months anyway, many figure, so no need to do much.
All too often, these excuses demonstrate lazy thinking, of course, aided by the mass-media's concentrating on the electoral "horse race" and on distracting, trivial matters. But even if those citizen-expectations about the magic-bullet of elections were on the mark, there still would be problems. First, the voting and vote-tabulating systems are grossly deficient, provably corrupt and corruptible. Also, the three presidential hopefuls (all of whom are beholden, to a greater or lesser degree, to the usual elite political and corporate force$) leave much to be desired in terms of making significant changes, especially when it comes to American foreign/military policy.
John McCain, for example, is basically a Bush clone when it comes to foreign policy, with a scary lust for war. He's content for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq for 100 years or more, and he's indicated his willingness, indeed eagerness, to bomb Iran. For McCain, as it is for Bush, the world is either simple black or simple white, no shades of complexity on the horizon. Act tough, act rough, the rest of the world will get out of our way, and American hegemony will prevail across the globe.
McCain clearly is the most extreme of the three, with little operative understanding of economics and, surprisingly, foreign-policy matters. Whether it's his advanced age, or simple stubborn obtuseness, he comes across as a locked-in-the-past ideologue. Does he really believe what he's saying or are his positions what he feels he's required to assert in order to strengthen the GOP base and lure the old "Reagan Democrats" to his side for the general election?
One telling anecdote in this regard before moving on to the Democrats: McCain has been buddy-buddies with Jon Stewart for nearly a decade, and in his "maverick Republican" phase was invited often to appear on Stewart's "The Daily Show"; there the two of them would banter and yuck it up. But when McCain appeared on the show in 2006, as he was gearing up to run again for president, Stewart, clearly disappointed in his hero, asked McCain why he was sucking up to the right wing fundamentalists by going to kiss the rings, so to speak, of the very ultraconservative leaders he once had excoriated as "agents of intolerance" who shouldn't be "pandered" to by politicians. McCain danced around the question, trying not to answer. But his old friend Stewart was relentless and finally McCain, apparently forgetting that he was on national television, and in the presence of his joking buddy Stewart and an adoring audience, smiled ruefully and admitted, yes, he was indeed kowtowing to "the crazy base," doing what he had to do to win the presidency. (See the full transcript of the exchange here, and analysis here.
The astute Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has been following McCain for many years. Here's his explanation for McCain's current shameful behavior, including taking the lower-than-Clinton attack road against Obama:
"The truth is that [McCain] doesn't actually have any real convictions -- or to put it more precisely, no real consistent convictions. That's evidenced in part by the kind of campaign the guy's running now. And at least a few of his press admirers are starting to sense that. But where you really see it most clearly is in the policy agenda he embraces.
"Genuine political and ideological transformations are pretty rare in contemporary American politics. Two in a row in less than a decade is close to unprecedented. McCain went from conservative Republican, to embracing many core Democratic policy positions and actively discussing a possible party switch, to cycling back and re-embracing the same policies."
In short, the McCain that Stewart and many others admired for his "maverick" willingness to confront the Bush Administration on campaign-finance reform, torture as state policy, racial intolerance inside the GOP, etc., is no more. Now it's the old guy who knows he has one arrow left in his quiver and is going to stand with the fundies and extreme conservatives on all the major issues because he believes that's his only chance to wind up in the White House. To quote Stewart again: "Has John McCain's Straight Talk Express been re-routed through Bullshittown?" The answer is, sad to say, yes.
THE DEMOCRATIC DUO
One would like to believe that the two Democratic contenders are significantly different, especially on Iraq and Iran. But are they?
Clinton the other day said that if Iran launched an attack on Israel while she was President, she would order Iran "obliterated." (Her term.) There was not even a mention that Israel has demonstrated it's perfectly capable of defending itself. Or that committing genocide on the Iranian population would inflame the world and place America in the war-crimes dock in The Hague.
Obama similarly has rattled the sabers, saying he would keep the "military option" on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He's been accused of not being "forceful" enough, and, by assuming the macho stance, perhaps Obama hopes to defuse that accusation. Maybe that's why he's supporting the promotion of Gen. Petraeus, the architect of the "surge" in Iraq, to be head of Central Command.
But regardless of political or personal motivations here, in all three candidates what's clearly on exhibit is an unstated but underlying belief that America's superpower status entitles it -- nea, requires it -- to make decisions of peace and war for other countries and regions of the world.
That's the rationale the neo-cons used for attacking and occupying Iraq in the first place, which Bush bought into without hesitation, and it appears, sub rosa, to still be active in our strange political dance in 2008.
DIFFERENCES ON IRAQ OCCUPATION
On Iraq, the three candidates are a bit more distinct in their approaches. McCain focuses only on the military aspects of the "surge," which he sees as a great success even though the required and promised political-reconciliation component of the surge isn't happening. McCain seems determined to keep U.S. troops in that country for as long as it takes to fashion a strong, capable, American-friendly government and society.
If it takes decades, a hundred years, a thousand (yes, he threw that one in, too), that's OK with McCain. He keeps comparing the Iraq situation to Germany and South Korea, where the U.S. has maintained a troop presence for more than half a century, conveniently ignoring that there was and is no raging sectarian war in those countries and no nationalist insurgency trying to throw out an occupying American force.
In McCain's (and Bush's) view, America has a region to tame, after all, and that requires that U.S. troops be on hand to help shape the Greater Middle East to our specifications. Unspoken is another reason: Using Iraq as a staging area, American power can help "protect" and control the increasingly-valuable oil flowing in the region that is so desperately needed and desired by the West.
Clinton has said she would have her military advisors draw up plans for an orderly withdrawal of American combat troops and begin that re-deployment, brigade by brigade, within 60 days of her assuming office. Obama has said he aims to have all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months.
But both Clinton and Obama approve keeping an unspecified number of U.S. troops in Iraq for an unspecified time -- to help train the Iraqi police and army, to battle the forces of "al-Qaeda in Iraq," and to be right there in case the situation were to suddenly deteriorate. (And how could it not if U.S. military forces are still on the premises?) Again, these are arguments that demonstrate the underlying soft-imperialism desires undergirding American exceptionalism.
When you two wrote asking about our "crazy" politics, you made reference to the verbal boxing match between the two battling Democrats while the old warrior McCain is out there campaigning for the presidency.
My co-editor/colleague Ernest Partridge has summed up Senator Clinton's behavior better than I could in his essay "The Monkey Trap, and Hillary Clinton's Blind Rush to Defeat." Short version: Clinton has no chance to win the Democratic nomination by fighting fai rly; her only hope is to destroy Obama by whatever means necessary. Partridge writes:
"So if Clinton is to be nominated, she must overturn rules that she has agreed to, persuade most of the super-delegates to ignore the will of the voters and caucus participants, and to accomplish all this she must diminish Obama's stature through negative campaigning. Because such tactics also devastate the public opinion of her (not very high to begin with), those same tactics employed to gain the nomination will almost certainly deprive her of the presidency in the general election.
"In sum, this is Hillary's dilemma: Hold on to the bait, and both Clinton and the Democrats lose. Let go of the bait, and Obama wins. Hillary Clinton's victory in November is not an option."
A key House Democratic committee chairman the other day wondered aloud what I've heard voiced quietly elsewhere: If Hillary can't get the nomination in 2008, she'll so wound Obama that McCain might slip in. Or, even if Obama were to win the election, he'd be so damaged as to be unable to govern easily. In either case in 2012, Clinton, the only one left standing, figures she would be perfectly positioned to take the nomination.
Talk about "crazy"! Those reasons seems much too convoluted to be taken seriously, not the least because Clinton, in this scenario, would be universally recognized as the Dem spoiler who ruined the party's best shot for taking back the White House. She would be the Ralph Nader of 2008 who would never be forgiven by the very activist Democratic base she would need in a future run for the presidency.
TRAGIC FLAW: OVERWEENING AMBITION
I'm not sure Obama would be the greatest campaigner against McCain or would necessarily be a great or even better-than-average President. But he is intelligent and a quick-learner, who, I'd like to believe, might well rise to the occasion. What does seem clear is that he is on a virtually unstoppable course to win the Democratic nomination and if Clinton continues to take the low dirty road in her attempt to mortally wound him, any future career plans beyond the Senate for her are finished.
All politicians at this level are consumed by ambition, but they usually disguise it a bit. Clinton's is right out there for all to see. Will she, can she, rein in that aspect of her personality, especially if Obama winds up winning key states in the upcoming remaining primaries and more and more superdelegates endorse him? One would hope so for the good of the party, good of the country, good for her as an important Democratic leader. But the Clintons are notorious street-scrappers who will do or say anything to get what they want and, in any event, will not go gentle into that dark night. No wonder Rove is fixated on them, as they must remind him of aspects of himself.
That is crazy.
I know American politics don't make much sense to Europeans. Truth is, it barely makes sense to us here in the States. (On the other hand, I haven't asked you two to explain your own sketchy European pols such as Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Putin, et al.) But I hope I've supplied some insights that might be helpful. Write and let me know your further thoughts. -- Love to you and the kids, Bernie
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).