Monthly Archives: September 2010

Change You Used to Believe In

I suppose it was naïve to have believed in Change, to have let oneself get caught up on Hope. But it had been a tough eight years, and it wasn’t hard to think that our excitement about the cosmetic regime change would also include some real substantive policy changes to follow.

In his final post as a Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine, Ken Silverstein does a great job of summarizing the huge disappointment that many of us have felt about the Obama presidency:

. . . I moved to Washington in 1993, when a young, new Democratic president replaced George Bush and promised to reform politics and be a transformative leader. Backed by huge majorities in Congress and with public opinion squarely in his corner, he had the opportunity to shake things up and change American politics. Instead, he and his party squandered their chance through timidity, weak leadership, a lack of any original ideas and their refusal to confront special interest groups.

Here we are seventeen years later and there’s a young, new Democratic president who replaced George Bush and promised to reform politics and be a transformative leader. Backed by huge majorities in Congress….

Well, by now you can probably guess where this is heading.

I had low expectations for Obama as I always viewed him as a fairly conventional insider. But by any measure, his presidency has been a huge disappointment. It’s true that Obama inherited a terrible economy, but his policies were timid — which is no surprise given that his economic team was composed almost entirely of the same bankers and Wall Street insiders who paved the way for and profited from our bubble economy. There are now 43.6 million Americans living in poverty and more than 15 million out of work; that’s a scandal, and when there’s a Democrat in the White House and the party has ample majorities in Congress, it’s not credible to blame everything on obstructionism by the Republicans.

Then there was the health care reform bill, that took more than a year to pass and whose primary beneficiaries were the lobbyists who got paid billions to water it down. The bill does almost nothing to control costs and left the insurance industry in charge of the system. And for that very reason, the industry will be able to contrive loopholes that minimize the impact of the few good measures left in the bill.

Joe Biden and Robert Gibbs have recently been attacking the “left” and saying that it doesn’t appreciate all the great things the administration has done. For my part, I have lived in Washington long enough to have realistic hopes; for example, given political realities, passing a single payer bill was not going to happen. But I also don’t think it’s my job, as a journalist or a citizen, to blindly repeat the mantra of the administration (and its supporters in the blogosphere), that we should “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Fine, but let’s also not treat the administration’s health care plan as a grand achievement. The bill is widely unpopular, and not only because of the hyperbolic attacks on it by Republicans and Fox News. It’s unpopular because it’s a terrible piece of legislation.

The current GOP is truly a scary party, but if not for that it would be impossible to care about the midterm elections. When you’re reduced to rooting for soulless hacks like the current Senate majority leader—and he’s typical of today’s Democrats—you’ve lost something fundamental at the core of your humanity.

Now it appears that the President is fighting back, but instead of fighting for the Change he told us to believe in, he is whining about those who are calling him out for not keeping good on his rhetoric. According to the President, voters shouldn’t judge him by his record but by how bad the alternative would be; aka, vote for me because the other guy is scary.

Unfortunately, Obama, who may speak more coherently than Bush, simply isn’t in a position to make that case. As Glenn Greenwald explains,

President Obama gave an interview to Rolling Stone and actually said this:

The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible. . . . .If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we’d better fight in this election.

This may be one of the most audaciously hilarious political statements I’ve read in quite some time . . . for Barack Obama to cite “civil liberties” as a reason why Democratic apathy is “just irresponsible,” and to claim with a straight face that this election will determine whether we’re “the kind of country that respects” them, is so detached from basic reality that I actually had to read this three or four times to make certain I hadn’t misunderstood it. To summarize Obama’s apparent claim:  the Republicans better not win in the midterm election, otherwise we’ll have due-process-free and even preventive detention, secret assassinations of U.S. citizens, vastly expanded government surveillance of the Internet, a continuation of Guantanamo, protection of Executive branch crimes through the use of radical secrecy doctrines, escalating punishment for whistleblowers, legal immunity for war crimes, and a massively escalated drone war in Pakistan.  That’s why, as the President inspirationally warns us:  “If we want the kind of country that respects civil liberties, we’d better fight in this election.”

. . . What is notable about it is what it reveals substantively.  The country is drowning in a severe and worsening unemployment crisis.  People are losing their homes by the millions.  Income inequality continues to explode while the last vestiges of middle class security continue to erode.  The Obama civil liberties record has been nothing short of a disgrace, usually equaling and sometimes surpassing the worst of the Bush/Cheney abuses.  We have to stand by and watch the Commander-in-Chief fire one gay service member after the next for their sexual orientation.  The major bills touted by Obama supporters were the by-product of the very corporatist/lobbyist dominance which Obama the candidate repeatedly railed against.  Rather than take responsibility for any of this, they instead dismiss criticisms and objections as petulant, childish, “irresponsible whining” — signaling rather clearly that they think they’re doing the right thing and that these criticisms are fundamentally unfair.

And in the meantime I am constantly getting emails from the Obama camp asking for something or another. I am still rooting for the guy, but he needs to start coming through on more than just the ability to speak in complete sentences.

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Filed under Essays, Obama 44

Beneath the Debris

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If you have been wondering about the relative quiet over here at Grave Error, well, there is an explanation.

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We are beneath the debris.

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Where are all the Violent Muslims?

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With so much unsubstantiated verbiage over the past decade – especially over the past few weeks – about Islam’s inherent incompatibility with world peace, one thing is almost always forgotten: not only has every major Muslim political and religious leader across the globe publicly denounced al Qaeda (an organization whose leaders lack any formal religious training), but more importantly, Muslims – in their vast, overwhelming majority — have rejected al Qaeda’s call for global Jihad. More than just the logistic and military dismantling of al Qaeda by the hands of the U.S., al Qaeda has suffered a devastating moral defeat by failing to rally the faithful.

Just consider the basic numbers. There are over 1.5 billion Muslims spread across the globe. If Islam really required militant Jihad – as Newt would have us to believe — we would be powerless in the face of the carnage. So where are the billions of suicide bombers? Where is violent Islam? The fact of the matter is that the world is not in dire need of “moderate” Muslims because it is already filled with them. While at the onset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. was concerned with how the Arab Street would react, the Arab Street never radicalized. It never even showed up. The European Street was more antagonized and vocal than anyone else. There were no mass uprisings in Casablanca, Cairo, Amman, Damascus or Jakarta.

Nevertheless, we love to point at the hordes of Muslims – arms raised and enraged – protesting a Danish cartoon or some other matter we believe they should “rise above” and get the joke. But these headlined few are no more representative of the masses than those Americans who show up to protest the Ground Zero Mosque or to burn the Koran. (Ironically, it looks like Muslims aren’t the only ones without a sense of humor: the French government asked for an apology from the Iranian government when an Iranian newspaper slurred Madame Sarkozy, and the Spanish opposition party, the Partido Popular, demanded that the Spanish government seek a similar apology from Morocco when a group of Moroccan citizens held up posters mocking female Spanish policy officers.  Should the Danish government have been required to apologize for the free speech of its citizens when they poked fun at Islam? Should the U.S. government apologize for South Park or for a radical Floridian?)

Of course, there is violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. That is not only expected in any war torn nation invaded and occupied by a foreign power, but it is what has always happened throughout history (you can imagine Americans, Second Amendment in hand, acting accordingly under similar circumstances). Just ask Dick Cheney in 1994 why Bush 41 decided against invading Iraq. As Graham Fuller explains, the tensions in the Middle East would persist even if Islam didn’t exist. For example, there is no history of suicide bombings in the Middle East prior to the Palestinian/Israel conflict, regardless of hundreds of years of Islam. Remember that one of the first Palestinian terrorists was a Christian, Arafat’s PLO was not a religious movement, and Hamas has emerged as other forms of violent Palestinian nationalism have failed.

But viewed from outer space, one may reasonably come up with the conclusion that Democracy – based solely on the actions of the United States over the past decade – is an inherently violent ideology. Consider that after a low tech terrorist attack by twenty fanatics mainly from Saudi Arabia – having received training in Europe, Florida, and Afghanistan – murdering over 4000 Americans, the United States – with its now heavily military dependent economy – disproportionately responded with the largest military expenditure in the history of mankind, spending more resources than it had during the Cold War against the nuclear armed Soviet Union, passed draconian legislation to curtail the rights of American citizens, built a Top Secret Security State, implemented an illegal rendition, detention and torture regime (above the law and beyond judicial review), attacked and occupied various Muslim countries (and in the case of Iraq on unquestionably false pretenses), directly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and displacing a few million more, and even after largely dismantling al Qaeda in the region in the early 200os, we continue to fight on in full force – all with the support, encouragement and cheerleading of the American people, politicians and press. And you have to wonder who is violent in this world?

Go to any European or Muslim country, turn on the TV, and there are no talking-heads, security experts, military officers, and politicians promoting air strikes, drones, surges, justifying torture, and rationalizing civilian casualties. In that we are unique and exceptional. We are the only ones who worship the warrior state, with our daily dose of pundits, politicians, and experts – none of whom actually go to battle themselves (not Cheney, W. Bush, Obama, David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Bill Kristol, etc) – advocating for more and more war. Just today, the news reported record levels of drone strikes in Pakistan – those would be the non-combatant, non-uniformed, non-military covert CIA drones.

As Glenn Greenwald explains:

There’s a particularly bitter irony here. The campaign against the Park51 community center in Lower Manhattan is being condemned, rightfully so, because it is driven by a desire to stigmatize all Muslims and even institute a generalized war against Islam as American policy.  But far from Ground Zero, having nothing whatsoever to do with the warped right-wing fanatics driving that campaign, we’re increasingly engaging in actions perceived — understandably so — to be exactly the War against Muslims which, with our pretty presidential words, we renounce.  Escalation in Afghanistan, a sustained bombing campaign in Pakistan, all sorts of increased covert actions in multiple Muslim countries, the ongoing imprisonment with no charges of Muslims around the world, bellicose threats to Iran, and now a proposed expansion of our drone campaign into Yemen:  we can insist all we want that we are not waging a War Against Muslims, but it’s going to look to a huge number of people as though we’re doing exactly that.

It goes without saying that it is counter-productive for Americans to be banning Mosques, threatening to burn the Koran, and attacking Islam when the key to al Qaeda’s demise over the past decade has been its inability to rally the world’s Muslims to violence. Why? This may seem counter-intuitive because we are constantly fed the opposite:  because Muslims simply are not violent. If the opposite were true, then wouldn’t our ongoing wars, occupations, air strikes, due process-free imprisonment and torture of Muslims only cause the 1.5 billion evil beasts to strike back in full battle armor? And that is not happening.

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My Spanish Decade

On September 8, 2000, I left Washington, DC and arrived in Madrid, Spain on the following morning. For the next five years or so, I would negotiate with myself, “one more year, one more”, and then later Madrid or Paris, until the next thing I knew, I had already spent an entire decade – all of the 2000s (or however we’ll call this decade in retrospect) – in Spain.

Somehow when I look in the mirror, I keep thinking that I will resemble that same guy who left home a decade ago. And yet so much has happened both in my life and back home. For example, I missed the entire Bush presidency and the post-9/11 years. In Y2000, I didn’t have a cell phone, iTunes, WiFi or a blog even. And during this period, I lost two grandfathers, two great uncles, a great aunt, and a couple of friends. But I gained a nephew, a niece, three first cousins, a goddaughter, and countless friends. And just last year, I was thrice married: each time to the same woman.

Whenever people ask me why I moved to Spain a decade ago, I always give the same answer: I can’t even begin to remember.

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Halloween in the Basque Country

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As I wrote a few years ago during a similar circumstance, there cannot possibly be anything as low budget, juvenile, and downright silly than these guys from ETA. It looks like someone let the elementary school kids make their own Halloween costumes and put on their own play this year.

When watching the news on Spanish TV, my mother — who is visiting me in Madrid this week — couldn’t believe that the ETA video was real and not a parody. Were I Basque, I don’t know what would be more embarrassing: having a terrorist group act in my name in the year 2010, or having this terrorist group?

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