Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why there must be rich poker players in Chicago

In this political poker game, Barack Obama always folds
by Ian Williams
Saturday, December 18th, 2010

In the United States Senate last week, its sole avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, who I have occasionally interviewed for Tribune, showed that there is still reason to believe in evolution on Capitol Hill. There are still some vertebrates there. On Friday December 10, for eight hours, he actually did what the Republicans have threatened to do since Barack Obama was elected President. He filibustered.

His eight-hour oration was no time-consuming recital of the phone book but, rather, a concentrated point-by-point rundown of all the crimes committed by the wealthy against the American people, culminating in the current trade-off, sponsored by Obama, of the extension of unemployment benefits for millions thrown out of work by the crisis in exchange for continuing tax cuts to the billionaires who caused the crisis in the first place.

Essentially, Obama had inherited a previous compromise, whereby the Democrats agreed to George W Bush’s deficit-building package of tax cuts which were heavily loaded towards the rich. They expire at the end of this year, and Obama and the Democrats wanted to keep the cuts for the more modestly paid, but abolish them for the rich.

In the meantime, the emergency two-year extension of unemployment benefits for the millions made jobless by the plutocrat-induced crisis was also expiring. Obama’s administration has been wrestling with conservatives to extend that limit. However, in the full spirit of Christian Conservative charity, Republicans were happy to see the benefits expire just before Christmas and for everyone, no matter how poor, to pay more taxes if there aren’t breaks for billionaires.

Obama negotiated more out of them than many expected, but that is because expectations have been diminishing. The estate tax was retained – for 3,500 of the richest halfwits who can’t afford estate-planning attorneys, and the unemployment benefit was retained for 13 months – but the tax cuts stay for two years. Just in time for the next presidential election.

If the economy improves because of the rescue package Obama forced past the Republicans, they will take the credit. If it falters, they will blame “his” deficit spending, not their tax cuts.

I used to berate Bill Clinton for his signature “triangulation”, in which he rode to victory by stealing conservative policies while persuading his base he was really on their side.

Obama has it all base over apex. He is alienating his base while folding to Republican demands and actually leading his party to massive electoral defeat. Whether on the Middle East, healthcare or now tax cuts and unemployment, he starts the bidding low and then goes lower.

The whole American system is designed to make fudging, lobbying, backroom dealing and sordid compromise almost inevitable. It is a bit like American football, with lots of huddling and heaving and running around to gain a few yards.

Before going any further, let’s put on the record that I am happy it is Barack Obama and not Sarah Palin or John McCain in the White House, even though I never thought he was the paragon of progressiveness some of his more naive protagonists presumed he was.

Obama does have to appear as reasonable as possible for the sake of the millions of voters disenchanted with the bitter partisanship in Washington. But if he showed a fraction of the toughness to the Republicans that he has to his liberal backers, he would be much more successful.

The President is reputedly a keen poker player. His performance in Washington has led many to suppose that he made a lot of money for his fellow players back in Chicago. He has yet to call someone’s bluff. He always pushes the pot across to his opponents when they hang tough.

In the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu announces his intention to keep stealing land and houses in the occupied territories, and the American President offers billions of dollars and flights of free fighter aircraft, and the veto equivalent of a get-out-jail-free card in the United Nations in return for a temporary suspension of settlement building. It was a bit like bribing a rapist to take a breather.

In the Senate, the Republicans have threatened filibuster after filibuster to thwart the view of the majority. But they have not had to act on their threats once. On this occasion, they would have had to have stood there, in the run-up to Christmas, holding millions of unemployed to ransom so that the billionaires who trashed their jobs could keep tax breaks that were a major reason the deficit was running so high. Sanders filibustered. Obama folded.

Obama’s basic problem is his assumption of good will on the part of his opponents for which there is little or no evidence. Conservatives everywhere believe in sacrifice for the greater good – as long as it is poor and working people on the altar.

The Republicans’ main aim is control of the White House in two years’ time. And if they have to trash the economy even more to get it, they will. Their supporters contrived the biggest ever post-war recession – and made more money than ever before. Vultures thrive on casualties.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Richard Holbrooke: A Statesman's Statesman -- if You Take Your Diplomacy Straight up Without Principles as a Chaser

By Ian Williams, December 16, 2010

Richard HolbrookeNow that he’s dead, Richard Holbrooke takes up the halo that is the natural prerogative of deceased American public figures. However, there have been few less qualified than he for canonization. His most memorable achievement, the Dayton Agreement was an unprincipled surrender to confessional apartheid, which pandered to war criminals to whom it gave a veto over the future of a viable Bosnian state. It has been suggested that part of its price was an implicit pledge for NATO forces to be less than rigorous in their search for Ratko Mladic and other wanted war criminals.

That remains to be proven, but it is indisputable that in the cause of a quick exit for President Bill Clinton from the Balkan imbroglio, Dayton granted the ethnic cleansers of the Republika Srpska territory they had soaked in other people’s blood. It enshrined an unworkable, confessionally based, almost Apartheid-motivated Rube Goldberg state whose institutions made the Holy Roman Empire seem like a lean mean governmental machine.

Technically Holbrooke was indeed a superbly effective diplomat. There is a fuzzy sort of do-gooding diplomacy, especially prevalent around the UN, that thinks that as long as people are talking, all is well. Netanyahu and Milosevic are just outstanding examples of conjuror-style diplomacy in which, as long as you keep talking, no one notices what mayhem your hands commit.

Richard Holbrooke knew that. He was neither fuzzy, nor much in the way of a do-gooder. Nor was he one of those whose machinations would be exposed in WikiLeaks, since his deals were based on a firm handshake -- accompanied by a firmer grip around his opponent’s scrotum. He leaked to the press in a way that makes Julian Assange look like an bumbling amateur -- but was of course selective and self-glorifying in his selection of information.

He was a most undiplomatic diplomat, as shown with his relations with Afghan President Ahmed Karzai. It is not usually effective to treat heads of state whom your government is trying to boost as independent national leaders as if they were underlings to be bullied. We can be sure that whatever failings he ascribed to Karzai’s administration, it was no sense of abstract moral outrage that motivated him, rather the effect of such behavior on American war aims.

Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who tempered idealism with reality, famously said that foreign policy should have a “moral dimension.” He resigned over the Iraq War. Holbrooke showed an amoral enthusiasm for doing his government’s bidding.

The classic definition of a diplomat is someone who goes abroad to lie for his country and Holbrooke spent a vigorous career living down to the quip. He cut his teeth on the Vietnam War, and as State Department desk officer did Washington’s bidding in Indonesia during the the invasion and mass murders in East Timor. On the realpolitik front he could make Henry Kissinger seem like a hand-wringing Liberal.

To be fair, he was genuinely appalled by the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, but he unsentimentally never lost sight of the main aim -- which was to extricate his President, Bill Clinton, from a predicament in which he had promised Americans not to involve US troops but needed force to get a settlement.

In those days before the Internet took off, it is unlikely that even WikiLeaks would ever extract and publicize whatever deal Holbrooke cooked up with Milosevic, nor even unravel the choreography of Operation Storm in which with the Serbian President’s tacit complicity Bosnian and Croatian forces rolled over the Krajina and Bosnian Serbs.

When they were too successful -- and went past the agreed 51/49% division of spoils, reportedly NATO stopped enforcing the no-fly zone that had kept Serbia’s superior air force and helicopters out of play.

Milosevic was keen for Holbrooke to testify in his defense that many of these events were choreographed, but his lawyers would not have been able to find any paper trail to back up events. Certainly, some in the Balkans, like former Bosnian FM Muhamed Sacirbey, suspects that Holbrooke had winked at the fall of the enclaves, such as Srebrenica, although even Sacirbey does not think the subsequent massacre was part of the deal.

Later, when Sacirbey was held awaiting extradition under charges inspired and perpetuated by the US State Department and embassy in Sarajevo, I asked Holbrooke if he could help. It was somewhat tongue-in-cheek since there was more than a suspicion that his influence was behind the spurious charges, but he was adamant, “You‘ve heard what he said about me?” he said defensively. “Yes,” I said, “but what does that have to do with his innocence and imprisonment?” In fact, Sacirbey was also one of the most cogent critics of the Dayton deal that has now come back to haunt the Balkans.

Some people occasionally wondered what would happen if Hobrooke’s rebarbative talents were unleashed on the great prevaricators in the Middle East. In fact, Netanyahu would have been safe -- in a speech in Jerusalem Holbrooke made it plain that he considered UNSC resolution 242 as firstly, non-binding, despite most legal opinion that consequent resolution 338 made it so, and that it essentially allowed Israel to keep hold of territory.

Looking back, what is striking about Holbrooke’s career is how it illustrates the essential continuity of American foreign policy over every administration during his lifetime. He was more vigorous and unalloyed in his espousal of perceived American interests than most, and he certainly chafed at Bill Clinton’s refusal to let him wave a big stick -- and at European reluctance to be deployed as Sepoys to do the work the White House did not dare do itself for fear of GOP attacks.

His deathbed words on Afghanistan will be subject to exegesis for some time to come, but an invocation to get out of Afghanistan is certainly in line with his realistic assessment of American interests. Looking back, what is striking about Holbrooke’s career is how it illustrates the essential continuity of American foreign policy over every administration during his lifetime.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Leak on WikiLeaks

My op ed in Dvevni Avaz, Sarajevo, 11 December 2010

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were very astute in leaking to an international spread of newspapers. They released the US diplomatic cables to newspapers in France, Germany, Spain, the US and Britain. That countered the pressure on editors, particularly in the US, to appease their governments. Any newspaper that was too attentive to government wishes would risk their foreign rivals scooping them, and the internet would soon make that apparent to their own readership.

In the old days, spying was about photographing, microdots, and invisible ink to copy files spread over kilometers of filing cabinets that would take a lifetime to look over. Now a government’s entire archives can be carried out in a flash drive or two and mined for key words. Out of those milions of Americans we can assume that some will be sharing their access with Russians, Chinese, Israelis and other interested parties, quite apart from the statistically significant chance that out of those millions there are going to be some with principles or axes to grind.

With literally millions of American personnel permitted access to these documents, the lesson for the US government is the usual advice for anyone on Facebook. Privacy is illusory: if you put it on the net then it will be seen.

This huge horde of diplomatic cables almost certainly came from the same source as the original Pentagon documents on the Iraq Wars, which was apparently Sergeant Bradley Manning, who bragged "Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack." He is now in prison, but not yet charged.

But while the video of the helicopter attack that killed Reuters’ staff in Baghdad revealed prima facie evidence of a war crime, (which, incidentally, the Pentagon does not appear to be investigating), the latest leaks are amusing, but scarcely earthshaking. They expose the hypocrisy of politicians and diplomats and will perhaps make them more wary of substantiating the revelations with their public behaviour from now on.

For example, the revelation of complicity by the new head of the IAEA with the US over Iran will certainly bolster skepticism and resistance within his own organization about the campaign against Iran. The dismissive opinions about the Turkish government are likely to accentuate rather than blunt its independent line, while revelations that Arab governments, regardless of the views of their people, have been implicitly conniving with Israel to spur Washington into a military attack on Teheran might well inhibit such views. But all this is apparent to anyone who was observing the region. What WikiLeaks has done is to move such information from the opinion columns to the news pages.

That is important. It forces governments to justify their decisions in a field, foreign policy, where, even in democratic countries the public are often neither informed nor consulted.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks exposed the sordid secret diplomacy that had brought the world to war and that is why the League of Nations said that any treaty not registered with it was not binding. By 1945, Yalta, Potsdam and other agreements had tempered that and the UN Charter (Art 102) simply says such treaties cannot be invoked before any organ of the UN.

So, for example, if Richard Holbrooke had came to a personal deal with Milosevic, as the evidence of American reactions to Croat and Bosniak success in Operation Storm would suggest, the parties were clever enough to do it verbally, rather than in writing. But even it were in writing, it could not be invoked before the UN. Even both sides would want to keep the deal secret as they betrayed their respective proteges. It is the job of journalists to reveal such information, and the self-appointed task of governments to keep it secret. When governments are formulating or practicing policies in secret, they deserve exposure.

The media has responsibilities - to ensure that the innocent are not put at risk, for example - but protecting politicians and diplomats from embarrassment is not one of them. On the contrary, that is what real journalism is about