'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, November 24, 2008

Enter Hawks, Stage Right (Part 2) 

The Daily Telegraph nails it:

Mr Obama has moved quickly in the last 48 hours to get his cabinet team in place, unveiling a raft of heavyweight appointments, in addition to Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

But his preference for General James Jones, a former Nato commander who backed John McCain, as his National Security Adviser and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a supporter of the war, to run the Homeland Security department has dismayed many of his earliest supporters.

The likelihood that Mr Obama will retain George W Bush's Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has reinforced the notion that he will not aggressively pursue the radical withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq over the next 16 months and engagement with rogue states that he has pledged.

By selecting such hawks, Obama is pushing antiwar supporters to the sidelines:

There is growing concern among a new generation of anti-war foreign policy analysts in Washington, many of whom stuck their necks out to support Mr Obama early in the White House race, that they will be frozen out of his administration.

Mrs Clinton is expected to appoint her own top team at the State Department, drawn from more conservative thinkers.

A Democratic foreign policy expert told one Washington website: "They were the ones courageous enough to stand up early against Iraq, which is why many supported Obama in the first place." Their fear, he added, is that they will not now secure the mid-level posts which will enable them to reach the top of the Washington career ladder in future.

Suspicion of Mr Obama's moves has been compounded, for some liberals, by the revelation that Mr Obama has for several months been taking advice from Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush.

His return to prominence in Washington represents a resurgence of the old school conservative realists, who were largely eclipsed during this Bush administration by the neoconservatives.

They place US national interests above the quest to defend human rights or to spread democracy. Progressives and liberals see Mr Scowcroft's hand in the move to retain Mr Gates, an old friend, at the Pentagon and also in the expected elevation of Gen. Jones.

The article, written by Tim Shipman, is a very good one that highlights the fundamental issues in play, despite recourse to some questionable characterizations of the participants. For example, the defense of human rights and the spread of democracy have often been a pretext for US imperial activity, as it was in Iraq, so advisors with such a background aren't necessarily superior to conservative realists. It all depends on the situation and the particular realist and human rights defender involved.

With this aside, the article points towards three important issues related to US democratic processes. First, Obama's abandonment of his antiwar advisors demonstrates how impervious the foreign policy establishment is towards even the most mildly dissenting view. US intervention in the Middle East has been historically bipartisan, and remains so. Regardless of any electoral result, representatives of the bipartisan consensus will remain in power, except that the means to achieve agreed upon objectives may change. Hence, US forces may soon find themselves predominately engaged in combat in Afghanistan, rather than the other way round in Iraq, but the goal of imperial dominance remains.

Second, there is the fact that the institutions of the military-industrial complex, as manifest in the Defense Department, Homeland Security, the Pentagon and, yes, even the State Department, possess accumulated institutional values that cannot be challenged within the electoral process. It is acceptable for ambitious people who intend to make careers in these institutions to make aggressive errors in support of US policy, recalling Barry Goldwater's famous line, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, but even the mildest criticism or public disclosure of internal decisionmaking processes is heresy.

Accordingly, that new generation of antiwar policy analysts in Washington has been taught a rather painful lesson. They won't make the mistake of publicly expressing their antiwar views again, if anything, they will err on the side of utterances of a markedly violent, unilateralist kind, and the generation behind them will be instructed to keep their mouths shut as well. We are not just experiencing a short term fight over patronage within the Obama administration, but one that will shape the contours of acceptable dissent within the foreign policy establishment for many years. It is a great tragedy that will cast a long shadow.

Finally, there is the even more frightening prospect as to whether the US electoral process itself is merely an entertainment spectacle for the purpose of inducing the public to believe that it has a power that it does not, in fact, have. Obama frequently relied upon his opposition to the war in Iraq to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton. He emphasized it as an indication that his election would result in meaningful change, a departure from the bipartisan practices of military aggression that characterized the Bush presidency. And, yet, now we discover that Hillary will be approving the appointments to the State Department, and that his appointments to military, foreign policy and intelligence positions are nearly uniformly in support of the war, as is his chief of staff.

One is tempted to call this a coup, but that would be a mistake, because we are merely observing the intended operation of the system. Predictably, local progressives counsel me to be patient, even as the right pushes on, full steam ahead. Has American liberalism, or progressivism, if you like, been reduced to a form of social symbolism, divorced from the material realities of the world around it? We will soon find out, because Obama has already expressed his intention to send 15,000 to 25,000 more troops to Afghanistan immediately upon taking office. Will they object?

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