Sunday, May 22, 2011

Obama's Sound of Silence

Like many people, I expected little from Obama’s performance at AIPAC. He has to straddle parallel universes: the real one, in which most countries recognize Israel as tantamount to an international scofflaw, and the American domestic political universe in which Israel is always right. The US’s real allies and the rest of the world have long wearily resigned themselves to how, as with his speech at the State Department, the President has to pander to pro-Israeli organizations and the Congress members whose support he needs on domestic issues.

Obama congratulated himself, deservedly, for continuing to raise unpalatable issues with elections in the air, and while pandering in a traditionally nauseous way, but there was some reassurance from the sound of silence in his speech.

AIPAC’s conference is a mind-numbing experience. “My country right or wrong” is a rightly derided principle. But at AIPAC ten thousand people are assembled dedicated to the proposition that someone else’s country should be supported, right or wrong, even if it flouts every principle they support at home - and even if its civil laws on marriage and conversion deny the branches of Judaism to which most practicing American Jews adhere.

The organizations tend to be donor-driven rather than grass roots motivated. American Jews, true to their liberal roots, voted for Obama in higher proportions than any other ethnic group - even as a raucous minority of the community questioned Obama’s citizenship and Christianity. That minority is disproportionately represented in the counsels of AIPAC and many of the “official” organizations and tends to Republican, Likudnik hawkishness.

But they tend to think in slogans and catchphrases, without comparing them to reality, let alone with Robert Burn’s “giftie to see oursel’s as others see us.” They have been helped to remain in their parallel universe because Presidents and secretaries of state have pandered (with the notable exception of James Baker) for decades to AIPAC - and no one notices, As is customary, dogs are biting men.

The media attention to President Obama’s address is significant since for the first time in twenty years, there is visible crack showing between the White House and AIPAC - and Israel. It is going too far to say that Obama is biting the dog - but he is sinking his gums into the Lobby and Netanyahu. He is doing so to the background of an American Jewish community that is split more than ever before, and certainly more so than the “official” spokesmen and organizations reveal.

While admitting there are problems with a unity Palestinian government, “We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements,” he did not exclude negotiations, but in effect put conditions, which Hamas has, in reality, already gone a long way to meet and is on the way to go further.

One hopes that he realizes that the key phrases he used such as the need to accept Israel’s “right to exist” were introduced by Israeli leaders precisely because they were unacceptable to Palestinians. He might even have noticed how quickly Israel switched from refusing to negotiate because the authority was divided, to refusing because it is united! It is like demanding that American Indian tribes accept that their dispossession was right and goes beyond acceptance of the obvious fact of Israel’s existence and its now nearly universal acceptance as an established state.

Such phrases have traditionally been used to in the Levantine blame game in which the purpose of negotiations is not to reach a solution but to blame the other side for failure. But there is always a way to wiggle - a phrase that would irk some Israelis would be for the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s “right to exist under UN Decisions!”

One hopes that the President is now playing this game with Netanyahu. One also hopes he harbors grudges. For the world’s most benefitted welfare queen to publicly dress down the President of its benefactor at the White House should give most Americans some frisson of indignation.

While in the real world, Obama’s insistence on the 1967 boundaries as a basis for negotiation for land swaps has been generally accepted, Palestinians irate at this admitted denial of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force,” may have missed, along with nuance-free AIPACers his endorsement of a The Palestinian people’s “right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state,” which presumably implies that in return for giving up some of the settled area, the Palestinian state will have a land bridge between Gaza and the West Bank. One can see why he might not have chosen to spell that out for AIPAC!

While he stated a fact, “No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state,” he did not state a principle. He said, “The United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the UN or in any international forum. Because Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter for debate.” He did not say that the US would veto a UN acceptance of Palestine as a member state.

Indeed, he challenged the sloganeers with reality, “The number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This will make it harder and harder – without a peace deal – to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.” Secondly he pointed to how atavistic the old obsession with territory as security is since “technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace,” and finally, he pointed to the changes in Israel’s neighbours, so peace can no longer be bought with few local kleptocrats, “Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.”

If the US is retain influence in the region, it can no longer pay exclusive attention to Israeli public opinion while sending a few billion to local rulers. It, and Israel, have to show ordinary Arab citizens that they are serious about peace. Obama cannot regret the consequences to Palestinians of occupation while carrying on passing the ammunition to Israel.

It is unlikely that Netanyahu will voluntarily relinquish the not so secret Likud desire for an Arab-free state all the way to the Jordan. Obama has, perhaps deliberately and adroitly, maneuvered the Israeli Prime Minister into insulting the President of the US. He now has to follow up and show that their are consequences for Israel.

Obama baulked at his best opportunity, which was the UN resolution on the settlements. He should stop equivocating and come out plainly with a declaration that if Netanyahu continues to refuse to come to terms with reality in the region, then he cannot take a US veto in the Security Council against Palestinian membership for granted nor even a nay vote in the General Assembly against a declaration of statehood. Indeed, if he really wanted to play for high stakes, he could suggest that embattled US tax payers will no longer continue to pay for free Israeli health care and higher education when they cannot afford it at home for themselves. It would almost be worth it to watch the Tea Partiers squirm, but it would show Israeli voters that there are indeed consequences from their choices.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Catskills up High

7 pm Saturday 7 May, on WJFF’s Catskill Review of Books, on 90.5 FM and streaming this week Ian Williams talks to CNBC anchor Trish Regan about her book
Joint Ventures: Inside America’s Almost Legal Marijuana Industry.

Legalize it? Tax it? Could it put the Catskills and similar depressed areas on an economic high?

7 pm Saturday 14th May
Ian talks to the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach about his book
The Hole At the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, just over a year after the oil hit the Gulf.

7 pm Saturday 21 May Ian talks to Internationally acclaimed Italian author Sandro Veronesi about his novel.

Quiet Chaos newly translated into English

Ryan, Royal Rogaine, and the Republican birthright.

The importance of birth, from Ryan, Royals & Rogaine to Republicans.
Ian Williams
Tribune 6 May 2011

Okay: get over it. The Royal Wedding was an embarrassment, but it is nothing compared with the circus that passes for politics here in the Land of Free. On the whole, I’d rather tolerate a monarchy.

As the vows were exchanged, President Obama released his full birth certificate in an attempt to buy off the baying packs of conservatives, a majority of Republicans, who do not believe he was born in the US. Within hours, he predictable response was that the certificate was a forgery! Republican controlled states are busily introducing “Birther bills” purporting to ensure that presidential candidates produce full documentation of their births.

All of this is just commentary. The real issue is that the President is black, not to mention not Republican, and this is anathema for a significant minority. While it embarrasses some of the Republican leadership, it serves them because it reminds a significant minority of voters of the real issue: there’s a black man in the White House.

And all of those in the UK who look longingly at primary elections should note that the issue of Obama’s birthplace was originally raised by the Hillary Clinton campaign during the primary, with precisely the same cynical intention of raising the race issue.

It is not just a passing aberration, Donald Trump, whose name in older English appropriately means “fart” has led business after business into bankruptcy (he even managed to lose money with a casino!) is the favoured candidate of Republicans perhaps because he calls other countries, like those whose money bankrolls the US deficit, “Motherfuckers” and believes that the US should just go and take “our” oil from the Middle East. He was of course one of the leading “birthers,” and is now demanding Obama’s school records, hinting of course that the President, an ace scholar at Harvard only got in through positive discrimination.
But the Republican Party is inclusive in its lunacy. With wildfires sweeping across drought-stricken Texas, its Republican Governor declared three “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas,” while governors in several Republican states, who must have had nightmares about Thomas the Tank Engine when they were kids, have turned down billions of dollars to build high speed rail networks.

Crowning it all was the “budget” for 2012 moved by Republican congressman Paul Ryan. Faced with a huge budget deficit, the Republican majority voted for an alleged deficit reduction plan that reduced taxes - on the rich - maintained military spending, but does cut out the few traces of civilization the United States has maintained - public health care provision for the elderly.

Almost all its budget cuts come from programmes that helped the poor and elderly - in a country with an already far from generous safety net.

However, what is refreshing is that for once ideology has trumped political expediency. Reducing taxes on rich people who have just rewarded themselves with huge bonuses for masterminding a global financial crisis is, shall we say, brave. So is attacking Medicare, a very popular government programme for the section of the population most likely to vote. In the land of cognitive dissonance, Republicans actually attacked Obama’s healthcare plan for making savings in Medicare, leading to, in the land of cognitive dissonance,Tea Party demonstrators saying “Keep government hands off my Medicare.”

There are already signs of a backlash against the budget plans, just as in Wisconsin the governors anti-labour agenda provoked a long belated upsurge from the unions and workers with recall petitions against many of the Republicans who voted for it. And not so covert attacks on immigrants and minorities might not be the best strategy when the census shows that the “minorities” are becoming the majority!

However, sadly, Obama and the Democrats are so closely tied to the business donors that polls suggest that they are far to the right of voters on on many issues and are failing to articulate the policies that would allow them to break the Republican majority. It all makes pondering why there is no royal Rogaine for the balding princeling seem a productive exercise.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Will Osama's Going Allow Obama new life?

Ian Williams 3 May 2011

Will the death of Bin Laden allow Obama with a leap and bound to declare an end to the “War on Terror,” pull out of Afghanistan, save Medicare, and make friends in the Middle East. Well it could, but it probably won’t.

But apart from that cynical thought, let us be straight about one thing. Bin Laden was killed this Sunday, and it does offer serious possibilities.

Gullibility and skepticism seem joined at the hip. People who would take their umbrellas if the Obama administration told them it was sunny outside are quite willing to believe and quote any deranged website with a conspiracy theory. It is interesting to note the convergence of left and right - Osama’s death was faked, Obama’s birth certificate was forged.

Occam’s razor compels me think that neither is true. And by the way, I was living close to the World Trade Center, saw and heard the planes, and commented at the time on Rudi Giuliani’s spectacular incompetence at putting his emergency headquarters in Number 7 World Trade Center and stocking it with tanks containing thousands of gallons of fuel in defiance of his own city Fire Department regulations.

That consistent incompetence is a factor has fueled a thousand conspiracy theories. Going after Saddam Hussein and downplaying Afghanistan allowed Bin Laden to get away. Trusting the Pakistani ISI, former CIA surrogates in the region, allowed him to stay away. The war in Afghanistan was consistently under-resourced so the Bush White House could exorcise its own familial ghosts in Baghdad.

But strategic incompetence has not obviated flashes of tactical brilliance on the part of conservatives. As I said at the time, the perennial TV news backdrop of the triptych of the burning World Trade Center flanked by Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein helped provide the emotional strength for the war on Iraq, despite it having nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the 9-11 attack. It occurred to me that some of the exultation on those young faces in the flash mob with their unseemly celebration of Bin Laden’s death could have derived from subliminal childhood exposure to those images. It is also that image which has given some metaphysical substance to the absurdity of a war on an abstraction, the “War on Terror.”

Which comes back to the death of Bin Laden. It was a very risky move for Obama. “Liberals” and democrats are not allowed the luxury of spectacular failure. Jimmy Carter’s abortive attempt to rescue the hostages from Teheran haunted his career. A similar helicopter crash in Pakistan could have sealed the fate for the Obama White House.

Of course an assassination on the territory of a foreign and allegedly friendly state could also have caused problems. It is indeed illegal in a prima facie way, but Bin Laden’s presence in a major Pakistani metropolis certainly embarrasses the government there. It was in everybody’s interest not to inform the local authorities. The Pakistan government could disclaim knowledge, and the US could be certain that any information they passed on would go straight to warn Bin Laden. Indeed, such is the climate of rancor among American conservatives one would almost wonder if one of the worries in Washington was a risk of leaks or sabotage from insiders there. But internationally, while, say Beijing and Moscow might tut tut about it, the heirs of the KGB are hardly in a secure pulpit to sermonize, and their real feelings are more likely to be admiration than admonition.

Even the burial at sea is, shall we say, a red herring. Few of his victims got to choose their funeral rights, and the Sunni Wahabi tradition is spartan in the extreme.

In any case the action has given Obama a big boost domestically at a time that he needed it. It would be ironic if healthcare for elderly Americans were protected because the President has overseen the assassination of an elderly Saudi, but that’s politics!

Internationally, it will not necessarily have that much effect. Bin Laden was no Lenin overseeing an Islamist international. Al Qaeda was a state of mind more than an organized conspiracy. He was no Old Man of the Mountains sending out his assassins, but his example inspired the varying spontaneous degrees of psychopathology among the disaffected.

But his rallying cause for jihad still holds: US support for Israel is as strong now as ever. Obama would have had more beneficial international results taking out Netanyahu politically than eliminating Bin Laden physically, since it would address that genuine cause. Recent poll results from Iran and Egypt suggest that the US still provides plenty of room for suspicion in the region.

One possible consequence is that Obama might be tempted to declare victory and pull out of Afghanistan. He could even claim budget savings to protect Medicare! However, the Taliban were not controlled by Al Qaeda and his death is unlikely to affect their belligerence. His elimination at least allows the US to get over its prejudices and get into serious talks with the Pushtoon communities for a negotiated settlement of some kind.

Indeed the exorcism of the Bin Laden ghost could even provide political cover for talks with Hamas and Hizbollah. Of course anyone except Fox news pundits knows that Al Qaeda had nothing to do with them at all, but with his shade out of the way, an emboldened Obama could do it.

But it comes back to the same core problem. At the core of America’s fractious relationship with most of the world, and particularly the Middle East, is Washington’s relationship with Israel - and he is unlikely to get Netanyahu’s “permission,” for it. Would he go ahead anyway? How about being tough on terror - and on the excuses for terror as well? It is possible and desirable, but is it likely?