Saturday, February 14, 2009

Paradise by the dashboard light

Paradise not yet regained, but inferno is postponed
February 14, 2009

THE “revolution now” crowd is disappointed, but actually feels vindicated that Barack Obama has not immediately overthrown the hegemony of Wall Street and the Israel lobby and declared the end of poverty and the advent of universal healthcare. I admit to sharing their disappointment at his silence on Gaza, but as I predicted, Obama’s presidency is not the Second Coming. However, it is is the end of the reign of the Anti-Christ, if a born-again atheist might use such eschatological metaphors. He even included non-believers in his inaugural speech.

In comparison with what went before, it has been largely good news – apart from the blow to the arts of having a reincarnation of William McGonagall to read a poem at his inauguration. But perhaps I am unfair – McGonagall could rhyme, if not scan, and the chosen bard could do neither.

For those with more cautious expectations, Obama has over-fulfilled the plan. He could have pleaded preoccupation with the economic crisis, but immediately issued the order to close Guantanamo, stipulated that torture, as the rest of the civilised world understands it, be stopped and ended the military kangaroo courts. He scrapped the financial sanctions imposed on small countries refusing to sign exclusion clauses for American citizens from the International Criminal Court. He signed a bill that reinstated the poor children’s healthcare provisions vetoed by his predecessor. He overturned the bigoted restrictions on finance for international family planning and has made massive funds available to states to finance unemployment insurance. He appointed a committed pro-union activist to be Secretary of Labour and reversed several anti union decrees on organising and equal rights.

Gaza notwithstanding, the new President is signalling a change of direction in the Middle East. His inaugural speech put Muslims up there between Christians and Jews: his first interview was with Al-Arabiya television. His first phone call was to Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and he immediately appointed George Mitchell – half Arab and well respected in the region – as his special envoy. It seems that Obama did not even clear this with the Israelis first, which is a break from the pandering of the previous four presidential terms. This achievement is all the more remarkable, since his foreign policy team includes so many previously pro-Israeli figures.

In an oblique way, Israeli politicians have made it all easier for him. The bloody, vindictive and pointless shambles of Gaza lowered Israel’s prestige even in the United States, let alone the rest of the world, while giving a new lease of life to American Jewish peace lobby. Benjamin Netanyahu is the most intransigent, arrogant and most easily disownable Israeli leader in recent history. It would also help if European politicians such as Gordon Brown stopped giving Israel a free pass.

Similarly, Obama broke with tradition in denouncing the excesses of Wall Street and putting a ceiling on bank executive pay for recipients of federal handouts. It is true that the ceiling is more symbolic than real, but the symbolism is important. For decades, American policy has been sacrificed on the altar of mammon, and to suggest that greed may have limits is almost revolutionary. In his financial stimulus package, Obama put a large pinch of incense on the altar of consensus by including billions of dollars in tax cuts and cutting spending to get Republican consensus. Since they got their amendments and he did not get their votes, he is unlikely to be so indulgent next time. And with the popular support he has, and the sense of panic underlying the country, he can afford to be merciless with them in the coming months. Once again, he has armoured himself for political infighting by appointing establishment figures in the economic departments. If he is determined, with them as shield-bearers, he could get policies through Congress that would be otherwise untenable.

So far, he seems able to distinguish between political compromises necessary to implement his policies and Bill Clinton-style triangulation – adopting his opponents’ policies wholesale. Unlike Clinton, who took the unions’ money and then denounced them as “special interests”, Obama has unashamedly declared them to be “part of the solution”.

That does not mean we should merely genuflect and let him get on with it. During his campaign, he was asked what he would do about the Middle East. Astutely, he quoted Franklin D Roosevelt. When a black union leader asked what he would do about unionisation and desegregation, FDR said that he would do as much as the unions made him. Forceful but reasoned campaigns can give elected leaders the excuse and impetus to do what they would like to do. We can be sure the bankers, generals and the rest of the establishment will be bending the residential ear. During his election campaign, grassroots campaigners used the internet and social groupings such as the churches (black ones) to get votes and money. We can hope those campaigners will maintain the pressure in a supportively critical way. It may not be paradise yet, but we are up the rungs of the ladder with our feet out of the flames of inferno.

1 comment:

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