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

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Obama's Speech: The Ghost of Carterism 

Earlier today, President Obama delivered a speech concerning US objectives in the Middle East and North Africa. Overall, As'ad Abukhalil probably has it right: It is not that it brought nothing new: It was not even novel or original rhetorically. I don't see any reason why he delivered it.

The tiresome centerpiece of this speech was this gem about Palestine:

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

What one hand giveth, the other hand taken away, as the purpose of any land swaps is, of course, to allow Israel to retain settlements illegally constructed in the occupied territories. Furthermore, Obama is well aware that there is a tremendous power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians, as most recently evidenced in the Palestine Papers, so the notion that these swaps would result from a mutual agreement is merely an effort to legitimize a coercive process.

Zlyad Clot, one of the people responsible for their release, put it succinctly:

The peace negotiations were a deceptive farce whereby biased terms were unilaterally imposed by Israel and systematically endorsed by the US and EU. Far from enabling a negotiated and fair end to the conflict, the pursuit of the Oslo process deepened Israeli segregationist policies and justified the tightening of the security control imposed on the Palestinian population, as well as its geographical fragmentation. Far from preserving the land on which to build a state, it has tolerated the intensification of the colonisation of the Palestinian territory. Far from maintaining a national cohesion, the process I participated in, albeit briefly, was instrumental in creating and aggravating divisions among Palestinians. In its most recent developments, it became a cruel enterprise from which the Palestinians of Gaza have suffered the most. Last but not least, these negotiations excluded for the most part the great majority of the Palestinian people: the seven million Palestinian refugees. My experience over those 11 months in Ramallah confirmed that the PLO, given its structure, was not in a position to represent all Palestinian rights and interests.

Today, Obama announced that this farce will continue. But there is something else embedded in his speech that deserves comment as well. Obama rhetorically aligns himself with the liberatory aspirations of the protest movements that have proliferated throughout North Afica and the Middle East, while retaining a close alliance with monarchies in the Persian Gulf, most importantly, the House of Saud. For those of you with long memories, it should sound familiar. Back in the late 1970s, President Carter, along with his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, and his United Nations Ambassador, Andrew Young, emphasized the importance of human rights as an objective of US foreign policy, while announcing that the Gulf states now fell underneath a protective US military umbrella.

Needless to say, this is a policy that has become increasingly threadbare, with events in Palestine and Bahrain exposing the cynical calculation behind it. Throwing money at the problem in an effort to corral the fractuous revolutionary movements within safe, neoliberal boundaries, is one patchwork solution, with Obama promising US assistance to the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, but this is consistent with the paradoxical naivete that so characterized Carter's presidency, as I noted back in 2007:

Carter, as later, with Clinton, consciously eschewed the trappings of the imperial presidency, and emphasized a religious inspiration for his life in politics quite different than the fundamentalist kind repeatedly described by Bush. He, with a charming naivete, has sought to live a life of humble Christian service, and, while President, believed that the public would respond to his example, and his attempts to educate them. It was a simpleminded idealism that might have been very effective in a communitarian society, but it was destined to fail in the crucible of the final stages of the Cold War, with the contours of the coming neoliberal order, designed to drain away the energy of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, already visible.

Accordingly, it was now the primary function of leaders to depoliticize the social life of their countries, not encourage it, and sadly, a lot of people were ready to acquiesce. Carter, unlike his successors, lacked a clear understanding of his role, and, hence, swung between social and economic policies that disempowered people, and attempts to motivate people through education, appeals to rationality and community involvement (and, if necessary, sacrifice, as with his national energy policy).

In other words, Carter actually believed that Americans, and, indeed, people everywhere, could be persuaded to endorse an increasingly deregulated, privatized world under the benign oversight of the US, and, curiously enough, he still seems to believe it today.

There is very little in this analysis that cannot be equally applied to Obama. Unfortunately, just as the neoconservatives have consistently warned, the consequences of such a paradoxical fusion of realpolitik and idealism are combustible, as Carter discovered with the revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua.

And, as I observed in 2007, the US is now confronting an even more politically charged situation than Carter did:

Now that it has become evident, after Iraq, that the world cannot be subjected to the demands of transnationals and finance capital through force, Carterism suggests a rosier outcome through dialogue, multilateralism and economic coercion. If adopted, it will fail again, even more so than in the 1970s, because it retains that enduring American perspective that it is our mission to modernize the world in our image, despite increasing opposition to such an endeavor.

Nothing reveals the poverty of US policy in North Africa and the Middle East more than the fact that, faced with one of the most important political uprisings in human history, the US can only respond by throwing more gasoline onto the fire.

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