Sunday, February 1, 2009

An Open Letter to the Obama Maniacs

"An Open-Letter to My Pro-Obama Friends

Dear pro-Obama friends,

I got a call from one of you the day after the election. You were so happy. You had "not been so proud to be an American for... decades!" You're living overseas, and you told me about watching the results in a bar with other Americans and how you were all hugging and crying you were so happy. As I hung up the phone, I found that I felt happy for you too.

Most of you know that I supported neither McCain nor Obama, that I view them as equally opposed to peace and freedom and equally ignorant of sound economic principles. I wasn't going to be happy with the election results no matter who won, so I can at least be glad that some of my friends are happy, and I am. And after his first few days in office, even I have to admit that Obama has done some very good things for which he is receiving well-deserved praise. It is not my intention to dismiss these accomplishments, nor is it my intent to rain on anyone's parade. But I do want to ask you all a big favor.

I'm going to make some predictions about Obama's presidency. Essentially, I'm going to predict that four years from now, an Obama presidency will not look very different from the George W. Bush presidency, or from what I imagine a John McCain presidency would bring. If I'm wrong about this, then I promise that I will re-think my beliefs about our political system and about politics generally. But if I am right, then I'm asking you to do the same. I'm asking each of you to consider the seemingly bizarre proposition that there really is no significant difference between candidates offered up by the established party system; that Republican and Democrat are virtually indistinguishable; and that neither party has at heart the interests of you or me or "the American people." I'm asking you to consider the possibility that continuing to vote for these people just helps to perpetuate the very ills you seek to cure.

So here are my predictions. I'm going to leave aside areas such as the environment (I don't believe that government solutions to environmental problems will help anyone other than special interest groups — many of you probably don't agree with me) and wealth redistribution (I'm old fashioned and believe that theft is wrong even when the government does it) because we may not be on the same page on these issues. (However, on the issue of wealth redistribution, I will say this: Do you really believe that the same man who voted to bail out billionaire bankers at the expense of ordinary taxpayers is really going to help the poor stick it to the rich? Really?)

I'll stick to the areas where I think most of us agree: War and foreign policy; civil liberties; and the economy.

Let's start with war and foreign policy. Obama was not an anti-war candidate, and he is not an anti-war president. His opposition to the US occupation of Iraq was based not on a principled stance against pre-emptive invasion and occupation of a foreign country, but on his view that it had damaged the US's credibility and therefore its ability to engage in military interventions in the future. Senator Obama voted to continue funding the Iraq war and voted against a 2007 pullout in June of 2006. He does not plan to bring troops home from Iraq, but to redeploy them in Afghanistan, and he "support[s] plans to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 soldiers and the Marine Corps by 27,000 Marines." (from Obama's website,

In an article for Foreign Affairs last year, Obama said "I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests whenever we are attacked or imminently threatened." (Emphasis mine.) He has promised AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) that he will " everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything." Coming from the future leader of one of the most heavily nuclear-armed nations in the world, these are chilling words. Prior to his election, Obama also spoke of expanding the war on terror to Pakistan (indeed, by the end of his first week in office, he had already ordered air strikes on villages in Pakistan, killing at least 17 people including three children), and prior to his inauguration he remained silent as the Israeli government killed hundreds of civilians in Gaza with weapons provided by the US government.

The sad truth of the matter is that George W. Bush in 2000 ran on more of an anti-war platform than did Obama in 2008. Indeed, the danger inherent in a President Obama is that he will be perceived as being less bellicose than Bush or McCain. I believe that this will allow him to get away with even more than McCain might have, as he will face neither the public opposition nor opposition in Congress that a Republican president would have.

So, here are my foreign policy predictions:

At the end of Obama's first four-year term:

1. The US will still have an active military presence in Iraq.
2. The US will have attacked at least one more country that poses no direct threat to us. (I'm not even going to count his early air strikes on Pakistan.)
3. Military spending will have increased.
4. US citizens will be no safer from terrorist attacks. I say this because I believe the (sadly all-too-accurate) perception of the US as an imperialist warmongering nation will persist. I realize this one is open to interpretation. I would just ask you to honestly ask yourselves at the end of these four years whether this is the case.

My one caveat to this section is this: If the US government becomes financially unable to maintain its empire abroad, then Obama's military aspirations may be hampered by budget constraints. However I maintain (and Obama's own words support me here) that this will not be because of any lack of will on his part.

Moving on to civil liberties and human rights, I have to admit that this is the one area where Obama's presidency is already looking different from that of his predecessor. In his first few days in office, President Obama signed executive orders to 1) close Guantanamo within a year; 2) officially ban the use of torture in the military; 3) close the CIA-run secret prisons around the world; and 4) review detention policies and procedures and review individual detention cases. He has also suspended the military trials at Guantanamo for 120 days, and has acted to combat government secrecy. These are all good things and Obama is receiving well-deserved praise for them.

More important though, the fundamental problems facing civil liberties and human rights in this country do not stem from the operation of some detention centers. The damage inflicted has its roots in such things as the USA PATRIOT ACT (which Obama voted to re-authorize), drug law enforcement, and the repudiation of the very foundation of due process of law, habeas corpus. The big questions then, are: 1) whether Obama's administration will actually follow through on his executive orders and close Guantanamo, close the CIA prisons and truly end torture (there is also of course the question of what will then happen to the detainees); and 2) whether Obama will be able to tackle the more fundamental problems such as restoring habeas corpus and due process.

And there are some fundamental issues that Obama has not even taken on. While he is aware of the fact that more than one percent of American adults, and one out of every nine black men, are in prison, he does not tackle this issue head on. Nor does he really address the war on drugs in its entirety, nor the increasingly dangerous police state it has helped to spawn. To his credit, he has promised to end the illegal federal raids on medical marijuana clinics, and to eliminate the inherently racist sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. However these measures don't even come close to addressing the fundamental problem that is the drug war itself. And some of his moves so far do not inspire hope: His appointment of Eric Holder, formerly a big proponent of mandatory minimum sentencing is worrisome. Even more disturbing, Obama has pledged to strengthen two federal programs ("Community Oriented Policing Services" (COPS) and the Byrne grant program) that have actually contributed to increased militarization of local police forces.

My predictions, then, are a bit more muted than in the other sections. On some of the big questions I listed above, I do not have any predictions. I hope that he does do all of these things, and if he does I will give him credit for it, and even admit that he may be better than McCain in this one area after all (although remember McCain said he was against torture too). To me though, real change means more than simply reversing the most outrageous of measures put in place by the previous administration. However if under Obama habeas corpus and/or due process (including an end to warrant-less searches and seizures) are fully restored, then I will absolutely admit that there are significant differences between the two men, and I will reconsider my view that real change cannot come through the political process.

I am also very concerned about Obama's plans for what amounts to compulsory national service for young people. The idea is that schools receiving federal funds will be strong-armed into implementing "service" (for government-approved endeavors of course) as part of their graduation requirements. I am not going to include this in my predictions however as I really don't have a strong view on whether this will come to pass or not.

What I do predict is the following. By the end of Obama's first term in office:

1. More than 1% of US adults will still be in prison. This number will very likely be even higher than it is today, and the black and Hispanic portion of that population will not have decreased by any significant amount.
2. We will still suffer from the kind of police abuse that is becoming more and more common: military-style raids on unarmed civilians in their homes; the shooting and tasering of unarmed citizens; and police and judicial corruption leading to the jailing of many more innocent people than can be acceptable under any system. The militarization and aggressive behavior of police forces will probably become worse before they get any better. This is another one that is somewhat open to interpretation. I would ask you to rely on your own honest judgement regarding whether you believe things have really changed in this area.
3. "No-Fly" lists will still be in place, and there may even be more restrictions on travel.
4. There will be more restrictions on gun ownership and the right to self-defense.
5. The police tactics and suppression of dissent at the 2012 RNC and DNC conventions will be just as brutal as they were in 2008.
6. Government surveillance of US citizens will continue (remember that bill Obama voted for that gave immunity to the telecoms companies that assisted with this in the past?),

Now for the easy part: the economy.

It is true that President Obama has inherited a tremendous problem from the previous administration. Any president would be hard-pressed to come out of the next four years claiming victory in this area. In fact, the best that anyone could do would be to not make things any worse by allowing markets to function, overvalued assets to depreciate and poorly run companies to fail. Barack Obama is not going to do that.

With his support for the massive financial-industry bailouts, and his plans for stimulus packages to get the economy on track again, President Obama is doing all the wrong things. What got us into this mess was too much borrowing and spending, too much government involvement in markets, and now he wants to implement more of the same as the solution. I'm not even going to ask you all to agree with my assessment. Just watch what happens.

My prediction: By the end of Obama's first four years in office, the US economy will be in much, much worse shape than it is now. Specifically:

1. The US will have massive inflation. The dollar will lose at least 50% of its value against most goods and services, and certainly against the goods and services most people use every day. This is a very conservative estimate. It will probably be much worse.
2. Unemployment in the US will be worse than it is now. It will be at least in the double digits.

Maybe you all have a different concept of what "change" means than I do. If so, then fair enough. But for me, at a bare minimum, any real change cannot possibly include a continuation of the US government's interventionist and imperialist foreign policy. Nor can it include the maintenance of the police state that allows government agents to spy on US citizens, burst into their homes in the dead of night armed to the teeth, seize the property of people not even connected to crime s, shoot and taser non-violent citizens with impunity and incarcerate nearly 1% of the population — or incarcerate anyone for crimes that have no victims. I believe that these things will continue unabated under the Obama administration.

If you agree with me that the continuation of these problems would not constitute the kind of "change" you are looking for, then I'm asking you to accept my challenge: If, by the end of Obama's first term in office, these areas are not significantly different from how they are now — that is, if the US is as much an imperialist, warmongering state as it is today, if civil liberties at home are no more protected than they are today and if the economy is in significantly worse shape than it is today — then I will ask you to admit that you were wrong about Obama. More than that, I'm going to ask you to rethink your views on about the political process more broadly. And I promise to do the same.

For years, I have said that real progress towards peace, freedom and respect for individual rights cannot come from working within the very system that sustains itself through war and the expansion of state power over people's lives. If in fact the Obama administration does herald great and significant change in these areas that we agree upon, then I promise to rethink these beliefs.

Let me correct myself on one point. Up above I said that there was no discernible difference between the Republicans and Democrats, or between McCain and Obama. That's not quite true. Obama is smarter. He will pursue his ends in a more intelligent and a more publicly palatable way than John McCain would have, and he will very likely be more successful in attaining them because of it. But what remains the same are the ends themselves. Ultimately, both parties stand for upholding American empire overseas and expanding the scope of the state in people's lives and the economy at home. If I am wrong about this, then I promise to re-think everything. But if I am not, then I hope you will do the same. Let's talk again in four years.