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Tomgram: David Bromwich, George W. Obama?

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

Those first acts of that first shining full day in the Oval Office are now so forgotten, but on January 21, 2009, among other things, Barack Obama promised to return America to "the high moral ground," and then signed a straightforward executive order "requiring that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility be closed within a year."  It was an open-and-shut case, so to speak, part of what CNN called "a clean break from the Bush administration."  On that same day, as part of that same break, the president signed an executive order and two presidential memoranda hailing a "new era of openness," of sunshine and transparency in government.  As the president put it, "Every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known."

Of course, nothing could have been more Bushian, if you were thinking about "clean breaks," than America's wars in the Greater Middle East. When it came to the Iraq War, at least, President Obama arrived in office with another goal and another promise that couldn't have been more open and shut (or so his supporters thought), not just drawing down Bush's disastrous war in Iraq, but "ending" it "responsibly."  (Admittedly, he was also muttering quietly about "residual forces" there, but who noticed?)

Two and a half years later, Guantanamo remains thrivingly open, while all discussion of ever closing it has long since ended; the administration has, in those same years, gained a fierce reputation as an enforcer of government secrecy and, while it has prosecuted neither torturers, nor financial titans, it has gone after government whistleblowers with a passion.  In the meantime, the Iraq War was indeed wound down "responsibly" (which turned out to mean incredibly slowly), but in recent months, as U.S. casualties again rose, the Obama administration and the U.S. military have visibly been in a desperate search for ways to keep sizeable numbers of American forces there as "trainers," while also militarizing a vast State Department mission in Baghdad and outfitting it for the long haul with more than 5,000 armed mercenaries as well as a mini-air force.

Promises? As Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman used to say: What? Me worry? As it happens, though, David Bromwich, TomDispatch regular (and essayist for the Huffington Post and the New York Review of Books) does worry. In today's ambitious post, he offers a new yardstick for measuring the promises, the acts, and the nature of the Obama administration -- as well as the nature of its "break" with the Bush era. Tom

Symptoms of the Bush-Obama Presidency
The Saved and the Sacked

By David Bromwich

Is it too soon to speak of the Bush-Obama presidency?

The record shows impressive continuities between the two administrations, and nowhere more than in the policy of "force projection" in the Arab world. With one war half-ended in Iraq, but another doubled in size and stretching across borders in Afghanistan; with an expanded program of drone killings and black-ops assassinations, the latter glorified in special ceremonies of thanksgiving (as they never were under Bush); with the number of prisoners at Guantanamo having decreased, but some now slated for permanent detention; with the repeated invocation of "state secrets" to protect the government from charges of war crimes; with the Patriot Act renewed and its most dubious provisions left intact -- the Bush-Obama presidency has sufficient self-coherence to be considered a historical entity with a life of its own.

The significance of this development has been veiled in recent mainstream coverage of the national security state and our larger and smaller wars. Back in 2005-2006, when the Iraqi insurgency refused to die down and what had been presented as "sectarian feuding" began to look like a war of national liberation against an occupying power, the American press exhibited an uncommon critical acuteness. But Washington's embrace of "the surge" in Iraq in 2007 took that war off the front page, and it -- along with the Afghan War -- has returned only occasionally in the four years since.

This disappearance suited the purposes of the long double-presidency. Keep the wars going but normalize them; make them normal by not talking about them much; by not talking about them imply that, while "victory" is not in sight, there is something else, an achievement more realistic and perhaps more grown-up, still available to the United States in the Greater Middle East. This other thing is never defined but has lately been given a name. They call it "success."

Meanwhile, back at home...

The usual turn from unsatisfying wars abroad to happier domestic conditions, however, no longer seems tenable. In these August days, Americans are rubbing their eyes, still wondering what has befallen us with the president's "debt deal" -- a shifting of tectonic plates beneath the economy of a sort Dick Cheney might have dreamed of, but which Barack Obama and the House Republicans together brought to fruition. A redistribution of wealth and power more than three decades in the making has now been carved into the system and given the stamp of permanence.

Only a Democratic president, and only one associated in the public mind (however wrongly) with the fortunes of the poor, could have accomplished such a reversal with such sickening completeness.

One of the last good times that President Obama enjoyed before the frenzy of debt negotiations began was a chuckle he shared with Jeff Immelt, former CEO of General Electric and now head of the president's outside panel of economic advisers.  At a June 13th meeting of the president's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a questioner said he assumed that President Obama knew about the difficulties caused by the drawn-out process of securing permits for construction jobs. Obama leaned into the microphone and offered a breezy ad-lib: "Shovel ready wasn't as, uh, shovel-ready as we expected" -- and Immelt got off a hearty laugh. An unguarded moment: the president of "hope and change" signifying his solidarity with the big managers whose worldly irony he had adopted.

A certain mystery surrounds Obama's perpetuation of Bush's economic policies, in the absence of the reactionary class loyalty that accompanied them, and his expansion of Bush's war policies in the absence of the crude idea of the enemy and the spirited love of war that drove Bush. But the puzzle has grown tiresome, and the effects of the continuity matter more than its sources.

Bush we knew the meaning of, and the need for resistance was clear. Obama makes resistance harder. During a deep crisis, such a nominal leader, by his contradictory words and conduct and the force of his example (or rather the lack of force in his example), becomes a subtle disaster for all those whose hopes once rested with him.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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